Why the Corporate Rich Oppose Environmentalism
by Michael Parenti

In 1876, Marx's collaborator, Frederich Engels, offered a prophetic caveat: "Let us not . . . flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. . . . At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature--but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst. . . ."

With its never-ending emphasis on production and profit, and its indifference to environment, transnational corporate capitalism appears determined to stand outside nature. The driving goal of the giant investment firms is to convert natural materials into commodities and commodities into profits, transforming living nature into vast accumulations of dead capital.

This capital accumulation process treats the planet's life-sustaining resources (arable land, groundwater, wetlands, forests, fisheries, ocean beds, rivers, air quality) as dispensable ingredients of limitless supply, to be consumed or toxified at will. Consequently, the support systems of the entire ecosphere--the Earth's thin skin of fresh air, water, and top soil--are at risk, threatened by global warming, massive erosion, and ozone depletion. An ever-expanding capitalism and a fragile finite ecology are on a calamitous collision course.

It is not true that the ruling politico-economic interests are in a state of denial about this. Far worse than denial, they have shown utter antagonism toward those who think the planet is more important than corporate profits. So they defame environmentalists as "eco-terrorists," "EPA gestapo," "Earth Day alarmists," "tree huggers," and purveyors of "Green hysteria" and "liberal claptrap."

The plutocracy’s position was summed up by that dangerous fool, erstwhile Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho), who once said that if he had to choose between capitalism and ecology, he would choose capitalism. Symms seemed not to grasp that, absent a viable ecology, there will be no capitalism or any other ism.

In July 2005, President Bush finally muttered a grudging acknowledgment: “I recognize that the surface of the Earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem.” But this belated admission of a “problem” hardly makes up for Bush’s many attacks against the environment.

In recent years, Bushite reactionaries within the White House and Congress, fueled by corporate lobbyists, have supported measures to:

  1. allow unregulated toxic fill into lakes and harbors,
  2. eliminate most of the wetland acreage that was to be set aside for a reserve,
  3. completely deregulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that deplete the ozone layer,
  4. eviscerate clean water and clean air standards,
  5. open the unspoiled Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling,
  6. defund efforts to keep raw sewage out of rivers and away from beaches,
  7. privatize and open national parks to commercial development,
  8. give the remaining ancient forests over to unrestrained logging,
  9. repeal the Endangered Species Act,
  10. and allow mountain-top removal in mining that has transformed thousands of miles of streams and vast amounts of natural acreage into toxic wastelands.

Why do rich and powerful interests take this seemingly suicidal anti-environmental route? We can understand why they might want to destroy public housing, public education, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They and their children will not thereby be deprived of a thing, having more than sufficient private means to procure whatever services they need for themselves.

But the environment is a different story. Do not wealthy reactionaries and their corporate lobbyists inhabit the same polluted planet as everyone else, eat the same chemicalized food, and breathe the same toxified air?

In fact, they do not live exactly as everyone else. They experience a different class reality, often residing in places where the air is somewhat better than in low and middle income areas. They have access to food that is organically raised and specially prepared. The nation's toxic dumps and freeways usually are not situated in or near their swanky neighborhoods. The pesticide sprays are not poured over their trees and gardens. Clearcutting does not desolate their ranches, estates, and vacation spots.

The geographer and author Grey Brechin tells me of a talk he gave a few years ago to a well heeled group at St. Francis Yacht Club. His appearance was at the invitation of a scion of two great California-South African mining fortunes. After Brechin discussed the ecological damage done in California by developers and industrialists, one of the socialites blurted out: "If things are so bad, why haven't we noticed?"

They haven’t noticed because they are so comfortably insulated from the ecological devastation caused by their very own enterprises. Brechin was taken aback. He realized that like most other people, the questioner did not have “the memory to make a comparison with what once was here. All I could do was to point out the window at the empty sky and ask where the birds went, and to say that if we could see under the water, we would note a similar absence of what was once a teeming aquatic ecosystem.”

Even when the corporate rich or their children succumb to a dread disease like cancer, they do not link the tragedy to environmental factors---though scientists now believe that present-day cancer epidemics stem largely from human-made causes. The plutocrats deny there is a serious problem because they themselves have created that problem and owe so much of their wealth to it.

But how can they deny the threat of an ecological apocalypse brought on by ozone depletion, global warming, disappearing top soil, and dying oceans? Do the corporate plutocrats want to see life on Earth---including their own lives---destroyed?

In the long run they indeed will be sealing their own doom, along with everyone else’s. However, like us all, they live not in the long run but in the here and now. What is at stake for them is something more immediate and than global ecology. It is global capital accumulation. The fate of the biosphere seems a far-off abstraction compared to the fate of one’s immediate investments.

Furthermore, pollution pays, while ecology costs. Every dollar a company spends on environmental protections is one less dollar in earnings. It is more profitable to treat the environment like a septic tank, to externalize corporate diseconomies by dumping raw industrial effluent into the atmosphere, rivers, and bays, turning waterways into open sewers.

Moving away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind, and tidal energy could help avert ecological disaster, but six of the world's ten top industrial corporations are involved primarily in the production of oil, gasoline, and motor vehicles. Fossil fuel pollution means billions in profits. Ecologically sustainable forms of production directly threaten those profits.

Immense and imminent gain for oneself is a far more compelling consideration than a diffuse loss shared by the general public. The social cost of turning a forest into a wasteland weighs little against the personal profit that comes from harvesting the timber.

This conflict between immediate personal gain on the one hand and seemingly remote public benefit on the other operates even at the individual consumer level. Thus, it is in one's long term interest not to operate an automobile that contributes more to environmental devastation than any other single consumer item (even if it’s a hybrid). But again, we don’t live in the long run, we live in the here and now, and we have an immediate everyday need for transportation, so most of us have no choice except to own and use automobiles.

Mind you, we did not choose this “car culture.” Ecologically efficient and less costly mass transit systems and rail systems were deliberately bought out, privatized and torn up, beginning in the 1930s in campaigns waged across the country by the automotive, oil, and tire industries. These industries put "America on wheels," in order to maximize profits for themselves, and to hell with the environment.

Sober business heads refuse to get caught up in doomsayer "hysteria" about ecology. Besides, there can always be found a few stray experts who will obligingly argue that the jury is still out, that there is no conclusive proof to support the alarmists. Conclusive proof in this case would come only when the eco-apocalypse is upon us.

Ecology is profoundly subversive of capitalism. It needs planned, environmentally sustainable production rather than the rapacious unregulated free-market kind. It requires economical consumption rather than an artificially stimulated, ever-expanding, wasteful consumerism. It calls for natural, relatively clean and low cost energy systems rather than high cost, high profit, polluting ones. Ecology's implications for capitalism are too challenging for the capitalist to contemplate.

The plutocrats are more wedded to their wealth than to the Earth upon which they live, more concerned with the fate of their fortunes than with the fate of humanity.

The struggle over environmentalism is part of the class struggle itself, a fact that seems to have escaped many environmentalists. The present ecological crisis has been created by the few at the expense of the many. This time the plutocratic drive to “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate” may take all of us down, once and forever.

Michael Parenti's recent books include Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), both available in paperback. For more information, visit his website: www.michaelparenti.org.