Making the links between global warming and capitalism

Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse makes a convincing case that multiple civilizations have collapsed because they exploited and mismanaged resources, then when outside forces turned against the culture or the climate changed, their entire way of life disintegrated. Examples include the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Island, and Viking settlements, all of which predate capitalism. They generally had a ruling class that kept most everything for themselves, something which exacerbated the collapse when it finally came because they weren’t paying attention to the environmental degradation they’d caused until it was too late.

For example, Easter Island collapsed in part because they cut down all the trees to use for themselves and finally had no more large trees with which to make seagoing canoes. Many of the trees were used to move the huge stone monuments that the different tribes built to compete with each other and to glorify their ruling class.

These examples were localized. Now the environmental damage is planet-wide and the a short-sighted ruling class exploiting resources for personal gain is certainly a factor here.

So go read Climate and Capitalism, a new blog, They say “EcoSocialism or Barbarism: There is no third way.” Really folks, if we want to stop global warming, new economic systems are needed.


  1. Jared Diamond isn’t a very good reference, Bob, for the argument you are advancing. The guy is a determined apologist for corporate solutions to the environment as the rather nauseating profiles of his pet projects in his books indicate. As for his take on Haiti versus Santo Domingo … !

    But the key example he employs with the most verve is that of Easter Island. But it appears that there he may be dead wrong.

    No doubt past civilisations ran awry of their environment but they were just as much victims of meta climate changes like we are experiencing now. Climate is very important. Take Mike Davis’ exploration of El Nino — but it isn’t climate alone so much as how the society is constrained in its response –as perhaps the REAL story of Easter Island suggests.

    Here in Australia there has been a major debate on the role of fire in the Australian landscape and how much it was used by the indigenous population to hunt . The question is was the major impact of fire due to accidental causes or was there a major strategy by aborignes to sculpt the landscape and its flora by using fire to such a degree that it became a major, human initiated, environmental

  2. Yes, Jared Diamond maddeningly says several times in the book that the capitalist profit motive appears to be a major factor in environmental degradation, but then says, well, that’s what capitalism does, and thus defends it.

  3. The record of precapitalist economies is no better than that of capitalism, and is often worse. The socialist record on the environment is an unmitigated disaster, as eastern Europe, the former USSR, and China painfully demonstrate (and I include China in the years before 1977). As humans, we aren’t very good at seeing the long term problems, despite Diamond offering several cases where people DID adapt to their environments. Put another way, the social system may be considerably less important than you might otherwise think.

    One thing to remember about “Collapse” is that the cases studies Diamond makes are of environmentally fragile areas: Montana, the Pacific Islands, Greenland, the Mayan part of Central America, the American Southwest. He does not write about, for example, Connecticutt, which has a surplus of rain, decent and renewable soil, and rogue senators. Whether they translate well to richer areas of the world is an appropriate question to ask, although his analysis of the combination of deforestation and erosion should scare anybody.

    His argument for working with large corporations is considerably more subtle and sophisticated than you’re giving him credit for. From a sociological perspective, the approach of a large corporation should not necessarily be a whole lot different from approaching a socialist bureaucracy. The painfully bad cases of socialist environmental disasters should dissuade anyone from the thought that simply replacing capitalism with soicalism will automatically produce a different result; that’s the same kind of logic that Douglas Fieth used in Iraq (replace Saddam with Chalabi and everything will go swimmingly). Environmental problems are among the most complex the human race faces, and simple “socialism good, capitalism bad” is reductive thinking unlikely to produce workable results.

  4. I meant socialism as it should be, not imperfect implementations of it. Because, in socialism, there’s more state planning and less profit motive. And until we get past the short-term profit motive as the primary driver of the economy, then stopping climate change will be problematic.

    It’s a worldwide problem, it needs a worldwide solution.

    Sure, lots of large corporations genuinely get it now about global warming, and are working on fixes. Others don’t and will fight all the way. They need to be forced to get it. Only governments can do that.

  5. The general problem with centralized political systems is that they obey Lord Acton’s dictum about the corruptability of the human species by power. Until you figure out a way around that, all implementations of socialism will be imperfect, and the larger the state role in the life of the country, the nastier things will be if you DON’T find a solution.

    There’s a reason that pride was one of the seven deadly sins. The current avatar of the socialist left, Hugo Chávez, is a prime example of the problems that occur when a leader succumbs to the temptations of power. Inflation is raging out of control and price controls have driven many commodities onto the black market. For anyone who’s ever looked at the world, this is no big surprise, and we have case histories throughout the ages showing the distorting effects, even within nominally socialist countries, when an arbitrary price set by the government wreaks havoc when set too low. Yet Hugo professes to be shocked that his orders on prices aren’t being obeyed. Again, this is old stuff; remember the new Chinese man that Mao tried to construct until the Chinese peasant reemerged, as predicted by those who actually knew something about the history and culture of China? Unless you can come up with a new approach to socialism that institutionally avoids the problems connected with the temptation of power, you’re effectively arguing that men need to be purer in their hearts. To such an argument, James Madison remarked that if men were angels, no government is necessary; otherwise, people need appropriate checks and balances against their lesser nature. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to find plenty of examples supporting Madison, and arguments for the “new man” usually fall flat.

  6. Your comments, Joe remind me of a poem by Bertolt Brecht:

    But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission
    Rather with that of not submitting, and putting forward
    Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
    to shake off
    Their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
    Who in face of the approaching bomber squadrons of Capital
    go on asking too long
    How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that
    And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers
    after a revolution

    We have nothing much to say.

  7. Ah, well, Brecht didn’t have a clue about how to avoid the problems, either!

    When I was very young, I read Calderón de la Barca’s “La vida es sueño” (Life is a dream–philosphically speaking, not like old R&B hit Life can be a dream). After the hero king gets rescued from his unjust imprisonment, his first act is to imprison the rebel who freed him. Why? Because he now knows how to topple a regime. I was horrified when I read it, but eventually realized that Calderón had a keen political insight into the way that revolutions really work.

    Until THAT problem and the more generic problem of power get solved, all the organizing and slogans in the world don’t help, and history will repeat itself like a bad re-run.

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