Capital blight: Overshooting the message

On or around August 13, 2015, many news sources, including especially mainstream environmental news sources announced with great foreboding that “Earth Overshoot Day” occurred at its earliest point during the calendar year in recorded history. In case one is not familiar with Earth Overshoot Day, there is a wesbite devoted to it, which explains the concept in simple, concise, and stark terms:

Global overshoot occurs when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year. Overshoot means we are drawing down the planet’s principal rather than living off its annual interest. This overshoot leads to a depletion of Earth’s life-supporting natural capital and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The concept of Earth Overshoot Day was first conceived by Andrew Simms of the UK think tank New Economics Foundation, which partnered with Global Footprint Network in 2006 to launch the first global Earth Overshoot Day campaign. At that time, Earth Overshoot Day fell in October. WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, has participated in Earth Overshoot Day since 2007.

This narrative sounds ominous, and indeed it is, because it’s true, at least in general, and it demonstrates just how precariously close to the brink of destruction humanity (and perhaps life on Earth itself) currently stands. There is no shortage of dire reports being released daily about just how serious global warming’s effects are being currently felt, how the Earth is already locked into rising sea levels, how those trends are accelerating and are going to continue to accelerate, and how the planet is perhaps on the brink of the 6th Mass Extinction in its biological history. The time in which humanity has to prevent disaster seems to have already passed. At present, our choices seem limited to survival or annihilation. Earth Overshoot is yet one additional grisly reminder of our peril.

Yet, the narrative offered by the Earth Overshoot folks is nevertheless deeply flawed, because it fails to identify the cause and provide the solution to ending “overshoot”, and that’s capitalism.  You see, dear reader, the reason why the demands of “humanity” are exceeding what Earth’s annual “resource” output is because it is locked into an economic system that is based on the internal logic of “growth for growth’s sake,” an ideology that Ed Abbey once identified as the “ideology of a cancer cell”.  Now at the risk of beating a dead horse, I won’t repeat all of the arguments that clearly demonstrate how capitalism is inherently irreconcilable with ecological sustainability, nor am I going to rehash the rebuttals to Malthusian pseudo-scientific dogma which has been thoroughly debunked (other than to encourage you–for the sake of brevity–to follow the links to the rich corpus of work on both subjects we have preserved on ecology.iww.org).

However, I do feel compelled to point out that it does no good to constantly browbeat the 99%, like a broken record (or a skipping .mp3 file for those of you who are too young to remember what “a broken record” means), that “we need to radically change our ‘overconsumptive ways’ lest the Earth rise up a smite us (granted that this will happen if we don’t, of course, but that’s not the point).  The problem is that under capitalism, the ability of the 99% to make any meaningful change is severely limited, if capitalism is allowed to continue.  As Ragina Johnson and Michael Ware point out in an article written after last year’s Earth Overshoot Day, Whose Consumption is Killing the Planet?, for the 99%, the vast majority of our consumption patterns are beyond our capability to alter.

According to environmental writer Fred Pearce, the poorest 3 billion people are responsible for only 7 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases, while the richest 7 percent produce half of all emissions.

Clearly, the world’s poor are not driving climate change. Food shortages have more to do with the price of food, not its availability.

Many in the environmental justice movement are rejecting the racist arguments about “overpopulation.” But mainstream environmental organizations still typically accept the idea that “buying” is at least a major source of the ecological crisis. The belief is that consumer choices and individual lifestyles, especially in the wealthiest countries, drive the unsustainable devouring of resources around the globe.

The persistent stereotype is that average Americans, especially working class whites, just love gas-guzzling pickups, junk food, plastic, God, the Republicans and shopping at Walmart. Of course, people like this do exist, but they are not as universal as the stereotype suggests–and moreover, they are more of a symptom of the world we live in than a cause of it.

The plain truth is that most of us, even though we live in the country most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction, are powerless to shape the economic system–and have had no say in the creation and maintenance of a fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure.

The fact of higher emissions in the Global North is often presented using per-capita consumption statistics–which suggest we are all equally to blame. As a PBS television special noted, for example, “The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India.”

The trite conclusion is that we should all just consume less and recycle more. But all this directs our attention away from primary driver of environmental destruction–namely capitalism, a political, economic and social system run undemocratically by elites at the expense of the planet and ordinary people.

The folks at Earth Overshoot Day don’t address this fact at all. This may have everything to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of its partners resemble a virtual rogues gallery of the environmental movement’s equivalent of labor fakirdom. Some of the worst offenders include the Malthusian oriented Global Population Speakout–whose lavishly illustrated hardbound coffee-table book retails for $50 (no consumption here, folks!), the Natural Capital Foundation–whose partners include (but are not limited to) Dow Chemical, Shell, and the World Bank (with “green” friends like these, who needs enemies?) and the World Wildlife Fund–who’s well known for cutting deals with capitalist fossil fuel interests in order to preserve small chunks of wilderness, rather than addressing the systemic processes of capitalism which imperil those threatened wilderness areas in the first place! The conflict of interest couldn’t be more stark.

That’s not to suggest that all of the partners of this endeavor are equally problematic. Indeed, many of them are well-intentioned, but in all likelihood misguided or ignorant of the problem. Lest anyone think that this represents a case of capitalist cooptation of something that was once noble and good, like, for example, Earth Day (which has long been compromised by capitulating to corporate sponsorship), I caution them to examine the likely root of Earth Overshoot Day, and that is William Catton’s deeply flawed–but often referenced–catastrophist book, Overshoot, The Ecological Basis for Revolutionary Change (which is anything but revolutionary).

Written in 1982, Overshoot posited that “our tremendous appetite for energy, natural resources, and consumer goods” had already “overshot the Earth’s capacity to support so huge a load,” and argued that renewable energy would not solve the problem. Catton was an early adherent to the “Peak Oil” alarmist crowd. His solution: “we should all just consume less and recycle more” (sound familiar)? The book is packed with data, graphs, statistics and the like that showed that the then current trends of energy consumption (which he argued to be fairly inelastic) proved his point.

What Catton failed to show (or chose not to illustrate) was the same stark chasm between the consumption patterns of the 99% and the 1%. Instead, Catton analyzed the sum total of energy consumption, usually by nation-state, and based per-capita use on a division of the whole. Doing so represents inherently flawed methodology, because it counts capitalist activity as personal activity. Anyone with even a rudiamentary understanding of capitalism knows that there is a great deal of waste built into the system, including, for example:

  • the globalization of production (in the quest for cheap labor and lax regulation);
  • the production of cheap and disposable consumer products, as opposed to durable high quality goods;
  • the use of capital intensive, non-renewable, energy sources, which facilitates the monopolization of them;
  • autocentric urban planning as opposed to pedestrian and public-transit oriented landscapes;
  • the destruction of “surplus” commodities–such as food–to create artificial scarcity and the like.

Not once did Catton conduct an analysis of these economic realities (no doubt if he did, he would have had to question capitalism itself).

Earth Overshoot Day makes the same glaring omissions. The solution to the growing problems we face will indeed force us to collectively question the rate of consumption, but we must always be mindful of who the biggest consumers are.  It’s no accident that a mere 90 corporations and businesses (some of the partners of the partners of Earth Overshoot Day, no less) are responsible for 67% of global warming. It goes without saying that they’re similarly responsible for the lion’s share of the consumption.  Simply pointing out that Earth’s resources are being depleted is not enough. Unless the 99%, which is comprised primarily of working people, rises up and overthrows the ecocidal menace that capitalism is, we stand no hope of survival. 

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission