Why does this blog plan to bring capitalism into the picture? For the same reason that, were we living under a feudal regime or in a slave society or under the old Soviet regime, That is, one of the worst mistakes you can make about the environment or peak oil is to imagine that it is a purely natural phenomenon. The reason why these are problems – why they are such huge problems for our kind of society, why these problems arose in the first place and whether they have solutions – is directly connected to the kind of society we live in. Peak oil and the environment are problems only because of the kind of society we live in.
In many respects capitalism is the most impressive society humanity has ever created. It is fantastically productive – if we felt like it we could raise new pyramids every day. It has raised the global levels of knowledge and education (not least through environmental science) to a level where our children routinely learn things at school that would have astonished Aristotle or even Newton. It has made possible levels of health, education, welfare and security that are completely unprecedented.
But capitalism hasn’t done all this without exacting a price. Its ideas of health, education, welfare and security are very specific. Its over-inflated self-image and propaganda notwithstanding, it isn’t much concerned with markets or the free flow of capital, resources, goods and services. If it were it would still be a huge problem, but freedoms of that kind are purely secondary. Basically, whatever it does has to turn a profit. That means that capitalist corporations (and the governments that accept capitalism’s vision of society) will only invest to make a profit and will only deal with those from whom it can extract a profit.
For example, there is no food shortage in the world and there seldom, if ever, has been. But increasingly food production and distribution are controlled by the globalisation of the search for profit. For decades now small farmers have been forced off the land or reduced to tenants or sharecroppers as corporations and bank-funded agricultural policies have progressively undercut and then bought out local producers, replacing them with outsider managers, genetically manipulated crops, high-tech fertiliser and expensive machines.
This has created a food production system that relies on very expensive and high-tech inputs that local farmers could never have afforded, and means that, although the volume of food produced often rises, it does so at a price local people can no longer afford. So there is no shortage of food as such, but only a shortage of food increasingly many of the world people cannot afford. Plus the massive increase in ‘food miles’ as even basic staples are shipped around to the other side of the planet instead of down the road to the local market, so worsening the environmental price to be paid. Plus the growth of urban slums and poverty as farmers and agricultural labourers and their families are pushed off the land.
This is a radically embedded systems of relationships. In the contemporary world there is no realistic alternative to capitalism. As a result, political responses to its crises are necessarily temporary unless one is serious about opting out of capitalism. Right now whole countries are sealing off their exports of rice, which is a rational political response to disastrous local conditions created by global profit-seeking. But in the medium to long term, they will be back, not only because capitalism is the only global source of the funds needed for investment but also because the governments of rich countries will force then back in. After all, how else are we going to make sure there is cheap, plentiful food on the table?
Food crisis? What food crisis?