Sarah Thorne talked to Jeff Sparrow about his new book Crimes against nature: Capitalism and global heating, an indictment of capitalism’s role in the climate crisis
Your book looks at the history of human interaction with the environment. What does that tell us?
There’s a common sense understanding of environmentalism which sees it as a question of defending nature against humanity.
If you define environmentalism as defending wilderness that’s entirely untouched by humanity, we’re fighting a battle that we can’t win. Part of the point of the concept of the anthropocene is that there’s no longer a part of the planet isn’t affected by human beings.
Lead deposits were found deep below the permafrost [in Greenland], somewhere that in theory should have been one of the most pristine areas in the world.
The lead had actually come from the Roman Empire.
They used lead to manufacture their currency out of silver, which involves heating the metals intensely. That process led to particles of lead travelling thousands of miles where they ended up deep below the frozen ice.
It shows that even in the ancient world, the most pristine parts of the world were already being affected by human beings.
So this concept of a wilderness as something that’s untouched was already a myth.
The mines in Ancient Rome were worked by slaves.
So the people who were digging up lead and helping to smelt it were not doing so of their own choice, but were compelled.
Clearly the slaves are not morally responsible for this pollution. So this example opens up the question of which human beings were responsible. That has obvious political implications for today.
You also look at how capitalism and the system of wage labour alienated people from nature. Can you talk about this?
This is a really interesting point particularly for people living in Australia.
If you read the accounts of white settlers in the early invasion of the Australian continent, one of the points that they make about the Indigenous people that they encounter, is that they don’t want to work and they can’t be made to work.
Indigenous people had been living on the Australian continent 60,000 years or more. In that time, they had developed a sophisticated system for managing the flora and fauna of the Australian continent governed by systems of customary law and rituals.
Rather than destroying the plants and animals the effect of Indigenous presence was to actually enhance the ecosystems.
The complaints made by the white settlers reflected the fact that Indigenous people could provide themselves with the necessities they needed working far less than most Europeans did in the old world.
Because they were able to exercise a degree of control over how they interacted with nature, they found the work that they did hunting and gathering food intensely meaningful. This was bound up with their systems of religion and systems of morality.
When European settlers came to Australia they tried to set up capitalist social relations to create commodities, primarily agricultural products like wool, which would then be exported.
In order to do that they needed capitalist wage labour, people selling their labour power to an employer and the employer putting them to work.
Indigenous people simply couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to do this. They said, there’s a storehouse of food and game in the bush all around us. And this is a far better way to live.
The Europeans used techniques to inculcate Indigenous people into practices of wage labour based on education or physical violence to bring up young children, so that all they knew was the idea of wage labour. All of these techniques were developed based on techniques that had been implemented as they had tried to induct people into wage labour within England itself.
The destruction of an older way of life in England led to vast numbers of people being driven off the land where they were engaged in agricultural labour, and into the cities.
This reminds us that we don’t have to work in the way that we do today. That is not to say that we can return to the pre-1788 society, but that we don’t have to live according to the destructive practices of capitalism.
What does the history of car use in the US tell us about solving environmental problems?
The idea of car culture exemplifies that argument that ordinary people are innately greedy and selfish—that working-class Americans embrace this culture which is all about bigger and more polluting cars. It’s just that when you go back and look at the history of the American automobile, at every step along the way ordinary people protested about its destructive elements.
At the very early phases, the car was a luxury associated with wealthy ruling class figures. For it to function it needed to drive on roads that previously had been shared by everyone. Roads were places where children could play and it was the responsibility of the traveller to negotiate between all the people who were using the space.
As soon as we introduce the car all that goes out of the window, and there is a sudden and really dramatic increase in fatalities—cars are killing thousands and thousands of people each year.
Today we take that for granted, but when it first started to happen, people were appalled.
They just couldn’t believe that these selfish wealthy people were driving their cars at high speed along a road that previously had been shared by the whole community and were killing mostly children. There were campaigns to “Stamp out the Motorcar”.
One of the things I try to stress is the utter cynicism of big business in the attempts to normalise ecologically destructive industries.
With the automobile, they ran a campaign to blame pedestrians for being killed by cars.
The term jaywalking was developed by the automobile industry to suggest that the person who’s responsible when they get killed is, in fact, the pedestrian.
The corporations recognise that most people hate the environmental destruction they see all around them, and want to do something about it. So over and over again corporations try to find ways to derail this.
The most common way is to turn anger over systemic practices into a focus on individual choices.
Many people forget that the carbon footprint concept was actually part of a BP campaign, to get individuals worrying about how much carbon they were personally responsible for and their own carbon footprint.
Yet there’s a study by MIT which established that because fossil fuel use is built into the American economy, it really doesn’t matter what you do as an individual, your share of the fossil fuel expenditure won’t change much, even if you are homeless or a Buddhist monk.
In the early phases of the turn to single-use packaging, there was widespread outrage at how suddenly cans and other packaging were despoiling the countryside all around America.
The packaging companies came together to set up a group called “Keep America Beautiful”, which many people thought was an environmental group but was funded by the people who were despoiling America. It simultaneously pushed to encourage ordinary people to take responsibility for their own waste, and against any restrictions on the companies themselves.
The problem isn’t simply bad decisions or individual industrialists who aren’t concerned enough about environment, the problem is the dynamic of the capitalist system that must continue to grow irrespective of the consequences.
And until we address that the environmental crisis will continue to get worse and worse.
You leave us with reasons to hope and to continue organising. Why should we stay hopeful?
An argument I try to make throughout the book is that rather than ordinary people being enthusiastic perpetrators of the war against nature, people’s first reaction historically, in example after example, is to try to defend the natural world.
They intuitively grasp that there’s a connection between the way that people are treated and the way that nature is treated. That’s one reason for optimism.
Secondly, the increasing encroachment of the ecological crisis means that struggles around all sorts of issues are likely to become struggles around nature and the environment.
In struggles to organise in places like Amazon, one of the demands was around people working in these enormous warehouses that become tremendously hot. People are fainting increasingly during hot weather. The connections to issues around the environment start to become more and more apparent.
And most importantly we do have alternatives. In most of the issues that we’re addressing about climate change there’s no mystery as to what needs to be done.
We have the technology that could make solutions possible. What we don’t have is an economic system that allows us to implement these solutions.
One of the reasons why mainstream discourse about climate change is at such a dead end is it can’t imagine alternative to capitalism.
The socialist tradition and the notion of the democratically planned system, where we control what we do and how we do it is, I think, a tremendous asset.
Crimes against nature: Capitalism and global heating, by Jeff Sparrow, Scribe, $29.99.