Ecocide and capitalism: foes, or friends?

Polly Higgins is charismatic, but before discussing her Ecocide campaign, we must look at the obstacles. I am a Citizens’ Basic Income maniac. Whatever you say will remind me of the CBI, and that will figure in my reply. Having only recently read ‘The Origin of Capitalism’ by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002, Verso), I am already suffering from the same syndrome in relation to her thesis.

There is a debate within the Green movement as to how best to stem ecological destruction as a result of expanding economic activity. On the one hand Alison Marshall takes the view that many ‘ecological services’ must be assigned a value, otherwise externalities will continue to be treated as free: the atmosphere, woodland generally, including rainforest, pollination. Wetlands, natural forms of carbon capture, dumping of toxic material including nuclear waste . . . the list is endless.

On the other hand Rupert Read and Molly Scott Cato have produced a paper passionately arguing that to put a price on Nature is capitulating to the mind set of the vested interests who are the core of the problem. Compromises such as ‘price ecological services to begin with’ (50 years has been mentioned) are the top of a slippery slope: crises will ensure that ‘to begin with’ never expires.

Until recently my only problem with the Read/Scott Cato view was how far removed it was from any debate the general public could relate to, as they must. This is where my, er, illness leads me to see the Citizens’ Basic Income as at least bringing that discussion nearer. Unfortunately, Ellen Wood’s thesis sends me back to Alison Marshall’s concern. Wood explains that capitalism is a major consequence of an earlier development in mediaeval England: the monetization of what were formerly contributions in kind. This opened up novel opportunities, and facilitated innovations which led first to the agricultural revolution, and in due course to the industrial revolution, with capital accumulation a natural part. Markets and the profit motive had always existed, but they, especially the latter became dominant in a way they never had been before.

The crucial point Wood makes is that this new dominance of profit above all else created imperatives. These are still with us, and they apply to everyone, not just the few capitalists making the most profit. The principle that, for example shale gas should remain underground should be seen as an obvious ecological necessity. Instead, it is subject to the imperative that if Cuadrilla does not take advantage of the opportunity, someone else will.

Alison Marshall makes a different point, again valid at first sight. In contrast to the ‘Positive money’ view, she points out that economic growth does not depend solely on the money supply. Growth is money supply times the velocity of circulation. Velocity slows in a recession, and accelerates in a boom. But the whole case for ‘debt free’ money creation, not just Alison’s criticism, becomes irrelevant in the light of Wood’s imperatives, which ensure that growth – indiscriminate growth – will be driven ever onwards and upwards, interrupted only by the accidents and overshoots inevitable with profit as the supreme driver. Most capitalists are enthusiastic profiteers, but they could not escape even if, like the Club of Rome 45 years ago, some of them wondered if they should try. The dynamics of the Tragedy of the Commons as explained by Garrett Hardin, and exemplified by Easter Island are formidable enough, but the untrammelled profit motive firmly locks the world in.

So how do we escape? Rupert Read suggests that religious and spiritual ideas have a part to play. Some small tribal societies which had achieved sustainability without technology had taboos we could usefully adopt, but this might be difficult without the belief system, and most wider religions were tied to expanding societies, for example the appalling Biblical notion of dominion over Nature.

Feudal society was bearable only for the privileged few, but it was at least indefinitely sustainable. One theory which has occurred to me, which someone younger and better qualified might take up, is that feudalism and the Indian caste system were responses to a Tragedy of the Commons slow enough not to create an outright crisis. Those in power created arrangements which gave them comfort whist allowing the rest to survive in conditions not bad enough to revolt against en masse. If an ecological collapse is avoided, there are clues that those in a position to dictate events are already aiming for something similar globally.

The Citizens, Basic Income could play a part in this, but with two important ameliorating features lacking in India or Mediaeval Europe. The technology and resources which capitalism has given us will allow a much more comfortable standard of living for the general population, whilst still allowing considerable differentials, and unlike the caste system or Feudalism, with the Citizens’ income, no one is trapped at the bottom. Log cabin to White House, slum to CEO will be perfectly feasible for anyone. Some will insist on something closer to socialism, but that debate, or conflict must wait. The urgent need is to get those in a position change the course of history, but currently trapped in insane imperatives, to co-operate in saving the ecosphere.

The Citizens’ Basic Income is a game changer. Purely as an idea, it starts the cultural change essential for sustainability.  And so does Ecocide – the principle that damage to the ecosphere is a crime. It can challenge the dominance of the price mechanism. Polly Higgins is not against capitalism, or profits, only the  damage they do. She points out that not one of the businesses which said they would collapse without slaves went out of business. In exactly the same way, capitalists will at first regard ecocide as a foe to be got rid of. But they are not stupid. They will come to realize that it offers them a release from the imperatives, and is their only hope of avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons, which will not be in their interests. Once the Citizens’ Income allows a recession on ecological grounds to be feasible for the general population, ecocide can be introduced to bring economic activity within sustainable bounds. Over to you, Polly Higgins.

7 responses to “Ecocide and capitalism: foes, or friends?

  1. You write: “Alison Marshall takes the view that everything possible must be assigned a value, otherwise externalities will continue to be treated as free.”

    No, I don’t take that view. It was some other people, who Rupert R. and Molly S.C. disagreed with, who thought that.

    I wrote that some externalities, such as residential land and fossil fuels, should be taxed, but others, such as ancient woodland and wetlands, shouldn’t.

    I am in favour of defining interference with ancient woodland etc. as ecocide, and therefore taboo.

    • Apologies. I hope all readers read the comment stream. My statement was based on your original reply to Rupert. I should have taken account of your subsequent comment.

  2. Your statement: ‘Growth is money supply times the velocity of circulation, which Positive Money advocates acknowledge, but don’t seem to incorporate’ indicates your failure to understand the vital difference between what we have now – a debt-based money supply – and what I and Positive Money advocate: a money supply which enters circulation through government spending, so not having any debt created in the process. In our proposed system, an independent, accountable public body would be charged with maintaining the total volume of money in circulation at the level needed by society to meet its needs. If the velocity of circulation changed significantly, the total circulating could be easily and quickly adjusted, up or down as needed, to compensate.
    This basic change is needed to allow the funding of an adequate size of CBI, and to develop a far lower level of inequality, since the ‘1%’ would lose the main source of their obscene levels of wealth.
    Another source is private ownership of land. We need to introduce LVT as well as other taxes on the privatised ‘gifts of nature’. This should eventually replace income tax.
    The government would gain the seigniorage on all the new money needed to be spent into circulation as the debts created by this system were being paid off, to maintain the total needed by society.
    Once all the debts created by the present system were cancelled, little change in the size of money supply should be expected, and we need to end the insane efforts to pursue ‘economic growth’ (based on ‘planned obsolescence’ and the armaments/war industry) and ‘full employment’ (i.e. wage-slavery), so we should expect a reducing level of money use, with a growing ‘gift economy’. This could easily be adjusted by the money authority.

    • Positive Money could work as you explain, in theory. However, I am about to edit the original post to include the following:
      Ellen Meiksins Wood’s insight as to the sheer power of the imperative created by an unfettered profit motive does not just render Alison Marshall’s point about velocity of circulation superfluous, it engulfs the entire discussion of how to manage the creation or volume of money. Growth will occur regardless of all sanity, inhibited only by the repeated accidental collapses inherent in the growth dynamic. Positive money is an attempt to address symptoms. Velocity of circulation slumps during a recession because confidence is lacking. Supplying more money would not of itself restore confidence, any more than Quantitive Easing does. Once confidence returns, trying to inhibit the money supply, if successful, will enrage those who think their legitimate aspirations are being inhibited.
      Please do not think me rude if I do not reply to your probable reply. I have listened to the arguments on both sides for upwards of 20 years. About half way through that time I came to the conclusion that monetary reform, as it was then called, was shooting the messenger. Ellen Meiksins Wood confirms my view. If you can get hold of a copy of ‘The Origin of Capitalism’, please read it.

  3. As an advocate of CBI, you should appreciate the difference it should make in the power-relations between employers and workers, as well as the option to either stop seeking paid work to devote your time and efforts to something more worthwhile, even if it earns no money (it would probably earn appreciation), or to become ‘self-employed’ or to form or join a cooperative business.
    You write “Growth will occur regardless of all sanity, inhibited only by the repeated accidental collapses inherent in the growth dynamic.”
    What you seem not to appreciate, even after the recent near-collapse of the system through the rapid growth of debts due to its dependence on debt-based money, and the consequent rapid growth of the total of debt, due to the charging of interest by the private banks which create the money.
    Lack of CBI makes wage-slaves of nearly all of us; meanwhile, application of automation to production makes more of us redundant. To keep corporations profitable, they have to compete furiously to cut costs and keep selling, using ‘planned obsolescence’, persuasive advertising, moving production to cheap-labour, low tax locations, etc. even if not being also part of the military/industrial complex promoting arms sales and wars for profit.
    Given free choice, which adequate CBI would give, few people would choose to be in paid work for the hours now amounting to ‘a full working week’, or even to accept many of the ‘jobs’ they are now doing.
    These conflicts of interest are fundamentally due to reliance on banks the ‘lend’ to us at interest money they do not have. This amounts to counterfeiting our money supply! It is the prime cause of the fast-growing inequality of incomes, with the top 10%, and especially the top 0.001%, getting richer fst, while the rest of us stagnate or get worse off.
    If this counterfeiting were prohibited, and money entered circulation by being spent by the government, giving it the seigniorage, for the benefit of society, and not creating any debt in the process, once created, such money would circulate permanently as medium of exchange (unless deliberately withdrawn in part, by the monetary authority, if/when change of circumstances indicated there was too much in circulation).
    You are old enough, as I am (more so!) to recall how life was far less stressed for most people in the past, when the ‘standard of living’ was much lower, counted in material possessions, but being in debt to any extent was rare (and most people were quite happy to live in rented accommodation; the pressure to own, by going into the long-term debt called a mortgage, was deliberately promoted to keep the debt-money system going, just as the other things I have already listed above).
    We do not need the ever-growing volume of possessions to be happy. Serious studies confirm that places with greater equality, even if far poorer, as long as basic needs are met, are far happier and less stressed than those with huge and growing inequality. To preserve the future, we need to end the waste involved in ‘planned obsolescence’ and warfare, etc., end use of fossil fuels, produce high quatity, durable, repairable, recyclable goods; grow our food locally, organically: etc.Given BOTH monetary reform and CBI, as well as several related changes, this would be achievable.

    • I am not clear on what you think I do not appreciate. My statement that the ‘imperatives’ which created capitalism and are still driving economic activity renders the debt free money debate neither here nor there is made on the basis of debt free money being the only change, i.e. it presupposes that the Cits BI has not also been introduced at the same time. Yes of course the Cits BI will have the consequences you describe, but the debate of the last 25 years or so will be continued until the end of time: I maintain that debt is driven by the growth imperative, not the other way round, though it could be argued that both views are correct: effectively cure either end and you solve the other. As I have stated, my problem with that is if you stifle borrowing at a time of high or rising expectations, all you will do is incur wrath. Once the cultural change the CBI facilitates takes effect, debt and interest will subside, and not be able to drive growth.

  4. The debt-free money replacing debt-based money as this is repaid and cancelled out of existence will not ‘stifle borrowing’; it will make it far, far less needed!
    CBI without MR will not solve the unsustainable growth of debt which is driving the present system to destruction.

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