18 October 2011
Something has to be done about a world rapidly filling up with the (often poisonous) rubbish that capitalism produces in vast abundance. Rubbish that will be with us for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Even the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is carpeted with the stuff, mostly plastic waste of all kinds. Even the remotest corners of our once, largely pristine planet are now poisoned with the excreta of capitalism’s insane and so far, unstoppable and largely arbitrary productive capacity.
The entire thing was predicted back in the 1950s in the classic Frederic Pohl moral tale about two Empires that slug it out endlessly, half-destroying the planet in the process. They automate and bury their factories and give the robot factories the ability to tunnel for raw materials and to defend themselves against attack. Eventually the War ends but the robot factories keep on spewing out products in an endless stream that can’t now be turned off. All attempts fail until some saboteurs penetrate the robot’s defences and manage to block its source of raw materials. But deprived of its raw materials the robot factory figures out how to make things out of pure energy and out rolls an endless stream of consumer products now made from pure and indestructible energy.
The controversy over climate change illustrates the fundamental dilemma that capitalism has when it comes to facing up to the end-product of production purely for the sake of profit. Small-time it’s toxic but tolerable. Global it spells almost certain disaster for us as a species along with countless thousands of others.
Nevertheless, the political elites are only too aware of the dangers inherent in runaway production, especially when it blows back and hits the metropolitan centres (in part, our indigenous, mostly middle class environmental movement hastened the relocation of production to far-off and unregulated climes, once the necessary information infrastructure was in place with which to manage a far-flung industrial empire).
Faced with the reality that something had to be done, who was to pay for even a modest, if ineffective intervention and secondly, and even more importantly, how to justify endless increases in production/consumption of everything including debt, whilst knowing that boom and bust economics is fundamental to the system, only now it’s gone global and busted the world.
Take the humble ‘air freshener’, a disposable item that used to be a stick of something smelly stuck in a plastic tube that is now battery operated with timers built in, some even have tiny fans. So now computer chips are inside air-fresheners, along with yet more chemicals. There now exists an entire universe of air-fresheners, all made out of oil of course. Each ‘innovation’ done because the original product – a simple smell in a tube- was maxed out profit-wise. New ways of ‘adding value’ ie, marking up the price by adding some complexity to the product is the only way capitalist economics can work. It’s literally ‘innovate’ or die. Who cares if the oceans of the planet fill up with indestructible plastic tubes?
Sony for example, produces thousands of ‘new’ products every year. 99% die a quick death but it illustrates the dilemma if the only way a corporation can survive is by gobbling up the planet’s resources in order to stay viable as a (capitalist) business. Sustainability and capitalism is a physical impossibility. It’s matter meets anti-matter.
So, for example, the theory of ‘peak oil’ fits the bill for promoting so-called green energy sources such as wind power or photovoltaics as an alternative to oil and gas. The issue of reducing overall energy consumption by reducing the plethora of energy-consuming products is sidestepped by getting the consumer to turn them off more often or use better house insulation. But what they are made of or even whether we need an endless stream of consumer crap is not on the agenda for discussion.
In return, the energy corporations can justify vast increases in energy costs to the consumer by claiming that it’s needed in order pay for ‘green energy’ and the alleged increase in the cost of oil and gas recovery. So even if consumers are using less energy (debatable), they are paying more for it (see the soaring energy corporations profits). So it’s not how much oil gets consumed that’s important but how much money can be made from selling it. But the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis neatly sidesteps the issue by getting us to focus not on the nature of capitalist production but the dangers of allegedly ‘running out of oil’, eg so-called resource wars (like we haven’t been waging wars for five centuries over other peoples’ resources?!).
What is not asked is whether or not society should have a say over what and how we organize production and use our resources, both natural and man-made. For to do so, would challenge the assumption that any kind of innovation is not only acceptable but inevitable. They call it the ‘free market’.
One end-product of this approach is that over 30,000 untested and novel chemicals have been added to the biosphere in the millions of products we manufacture. Their combined impact on Nature is essentially unknown, even unknowable. But it is now clear from research that the phenomenal rise in Asthma in the UK is the result of the synergistic effect of multiple new chemicals polluting our environment, combining in all kinds of permutations with catastrophic effect (some 20% the UK’s population now suffer from Asthma, the cost of which must run into the billions as well as radically affecting the lives of millions). A cost not borne by the manufacturers of all these untested chemicals but by the National Health Service. In other words: us. We pay capitalism to make us sick and then we pay again to get well. What a scam!
Everywhere we look in capitalist production, we find a complete absence of accountability for the nature of production and its impact, except to the accountants. Sophisticated and sometimes even ‘beautiful’ products hide behind their slick facades environmental catastrophes, mostly in other peoples’ lands. Bhopal comes to mind, as do the computer chip plants in the maquiladoras of Mexico.
What has to be borne in mind here is the sheer scale of corporate production made possible through buy-outs and acquisitions, driven by the same imperative: invest profits buying other corporations; reduce the workforce; sell off/shut down the ‘unprofitable’ companies and pocket the profits. These corporations are now so large they have GDPs larger than most countries.
Commensurately, the ‘shareholders’ of these five hundred or so, giant corporations are not even people anymore but banks, pension funds, insurance corporations and private equity funds, to which we must add computer trading programs that are having a profound effect on the way the financial markets function. Deregulation just opened up more ways of creating phony money through the use of fiendishly complicated new financial ‘instruments’ only made possible by the computer.
Expecting these institutions to change themselves is another impossibility. They only exist as corporations in order to serve the interests of the shareholders and are now so large and inter-connected to the state that their destinies are shared. It’s called the corporate state and dates back to the days of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.
Shifting the blame
In the UK there is an ongoing campaign in the media and by the state to transfer the responsibility of getting rid of rubbish on to the consumer, as if we have any control over the kinds of packaging that we buy or what it’s made of.
Thus consumers now have a variety of containers for all the different kinds of rubbish. Failure to sort it correctly can result in a criminal conviction in some locations.
And the state/media duo has been very successful in transferring the blame/guilt to consumers thus far. To unpack why this has happened we have to look at the very nature of capitalist production, where the cost to Nature of production of any kind is not being factored into the equation.
For around one hundred years, say 1850-1950, although industrial capitalism’s productive capacity was virtually exponential, it’s impact on the biosphere was still localized. But from 1950 on, so great has been the cumulative impact of unrestrained production the effects are now global in nature, even extending up into outer space (space junk).
The nature of the retail business dominated by a literal handful of highly centralized corporations that move millions of products every day to supermarkets and malls across the land. Packing everything in plastic boxes, bar codes, yet more computer chips, makes it easier (and cheaper) for the distribution system, not for us. The cost of this sophisticated packaging/distribution/tracking system is passed on to the consumer.
The domination of the plastics industry, which is in fact just another facet of the oil and gas sector as the hundreds of types of plastic used are all made from oil or gas.
In the old days, before centralized retail distribution, food, especially fresh food was loose on the shelf, supplied by a national network of local markets that specialized in meat or fish, vegetables or whatever. Customers selected what they needed and the shopkeeper used paper bags that are easy to recycle. Virtually all other packaging was paper-based except for glass or steel, both fully recyclable but not profitable for a packaging industry now so large that it has its own vested interests to protect.
And then we have the so-called consumer culture that ties it all together, with millions of people literally addicted to buying whatever can be sold to them. A trip to watch your local football team (now unaffordable by most) has been replaced by trips to the mall to spend, spend, spend… (on credit of course).
Standardizing and/or recycling packaging materials is technically quite feasible and to make it work, all the government need to do is pass laws mandating what packaging is made of. Why is this such a difficult task to undertake?
The answer to this question is the same one we are asking about the economic crisis whose effects have been, just like all the rubbish, dumped on the public. It really is garbage in and garbage out.
With the bulk of production and distribution now controlled by a handful of corporations, short of breaking them up, there is nothing we can do as citizens when we have governments now openly collaborating with the corporations in enforcing their rule, whether this be the banks, the media, energy corporations, big pharma, supermarkets or the arms manufacturers.
The Occupy The World (OTW) movement now gaining spectacular ground and no doubt catalyzed by events in North Africa and the Middle East is an illustration of our political impotence vis-a-vis our governments. Unaccountable to anyone except to their corporate masters, they have literally forced people out on to the streets. The question now is: Which way is up?
But what should by now be clear to everyone is that imperial wars abroad and the erupting class wars at home are intimately and directly connected just as the nature of capitalist production is the bedrock upon which the Empire thrives and seeks to maintain. It’s a stark choice…