Although the sociopolitical effects of COVID-19 have become increasingly clear, the pandemic’s political and economic causes have largely been ignored. Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace explains that what’s really striking about the recent outbreaks, like COVID-19, is the “expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident.” This pandemic is “closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations.” He explains how capital-led agriculture has created the need for large swaths of open land, which results in deforestation and the destruction of natural barriers against pathogens. This is not the first time exploitation of the environment has led to world-wide crises, nor the first time eco-fascism has been the response. As the marginalized continue to face the brunt, while the rich can hide away in the Hamptons and receive the first doses of the vaccine, it’s increasingly clear that humans are not the virus, capitalism is.
We cannot decouple economic growth and the climate crisis.
It’s useful to trace the history of capitalism and colonialism to understand the root of our current ecological problems. Modern capitalism was developed during an era of colonialist resource extraction that persists to this day. In fact, our economy is built off of the same motive for infinite economic growth and expansion that created the conditions for slavery, a legacy that still endures in our food, prison and banking systems, continuing to exploit labor in all sectors of the economy. This same logic of growth justifying the means also led to the extraction of natural resources, expansion of power and domination of land, committing atrocities against people of color and the environment they relied on to survive. We saw this strategy at work when American buffalo were hunted to extinction in order to power a market while pushing Native Americans off of their land. We still see to this day the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. History has shown that the environment is also a battleground used by colonizing powers to expand profit and exploit populations.
For the US and its fellow imperialist powers, their ill-begotten wealth is based off of the same model of colonization that continues to dominate and exploit resources and labor -- and it’s the same system that’s degrading the environment and polluting the Earth. This isn’t just a bumbling Empire that disregards the consequences of its growth, but rather an efficient, and often insidious, machine that is operating just as it was engineered to.
What’s really dangerous about capitalism and imperialism is the way they promise to solve the problem they create. A good case study can be seen with Bolivia in 2019, where the nationalization of the lithium industry threatened the profit margins for “green-tech” companies based on lithium-battery tech, a vital part of electric vehicles. In the Global North, EVs are often touted as the solution to transportation-caused carbon emissions, but this technology comes at the expense of the Global South. The nationalization of lithium was not only in direct opposition to that, but represented a move against unregulated exploitation of resources. A few months later, the president of Bolivia was ousted in a U.S.-supported military coup (one of many throughout history). The new right-wing, anti-Indigenous regime, in the resulting protests, killed many Indigenous protestors. Any purported solution that claims to solve environmental issues using the same systems that perpetuates them is doomed to cause rather than resolve harm.
Green capitalism generally represents a co-optation of the environmental justice movement and obscures the central fact that (once again) one cannot decouple economic growth from the climate crisis. Neoliberal reforms like the Green New Deal don’t get to the core of the issue, which is that economic growth, often at the expense of the Global South, drives environmental damage, which results in climate refugees and environmental racism. It’s more than a watering down of what could be a crucial intervention; it’s a diversion and co-optation by imperialism.
Many suffer from the unrealistic belief that new technology can save us from the circumstances that we have created. That solar energy, electric vehicles and even space exploration will lead us to a cleaner planet for one more chance at making the right decisions this time around. Green tech seems like the best of both worlds, environmentally conscious while still generating a profit for energy companies. Buying into green tech allows us to continue living in a fantasy where we can enjoy the conveniences that we have come to expect and somehow avert ecological catastrophe. But the reality of the matter is that, once again, we cannot decouple economic growth and the climate crisis. Rather than buying into supposed reforms that reinforce the same systems, we must embrace degrowth.
Degrowth is a politics and a practice that questions the need for economic growth and seeks to build new structures and sustainable communities that resist profit-motives and expansionist resource extraction. It stems from the understanding that infinite growth (i.e. endless resource extraction) on a finite planet, as is necessary under capitalism, is not possible. When capitalism (inevitably) fails, what will be our back-up plan?
In this all-too-possible-future, we have two options.
One response to environmentally driven disasters is eco-fascism, which hoards resources for the few while failing to support those who suffer. It’s the same reasoning that fuels population growth narratives that believe that the quantity of resources is the problem, rather than their distribution. If we believe that the number of humans is the problem, it becomes all too easy to justify their deaths. This response is the type of behavior that our neoliberal logics motivate.
Fighting against structures of extraction—capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy—is the most effective way to fight for the climate. The US military “produces more greenhouse gas emissions than up to 140 countries”, yet even so-called GND supporters vote for the expansion of the military budget year after year. It destroys whole communities and ecosystems by occupying and destroying land, driving the way for multinational corporations to extract resources and exploit countries within the Global South, as we’ve seen in all of the conflicts that the US has involved itself in the Gulf.
Alternatively, work is being done by Black ecologists, Indigenous communities, ecofeminists, ecosocialists and more that provide solutions to disaster capitalism in ways that are truly liberatory. As a response to the GND, Indigenous organizers wrote The Red Deal, a revolutionary document that calls for decolonization of the Americas and ending the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people. Supporting movements that stop the construction of pipelines, military bases and power plants is also supporting movements toward decolonization, anti-imperialism, and socialism. Fighting for farmworker movements, fighting against imperialism and fighting for Indigenous movements allow us to get to the root of the issue while centering those that should be centered in the climate debate.
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While this pandemic does seem to be coming to an end, similar crises will continue to sweep across the world. Rather than characterizing them as isolated incidents, we can fight against their root causes and build structures to help each other when the neoliberal government inevitably fails us. As the Global South continues to suffer and each new pandemic and natural disaster hits closer to the imperial core, we can and must choose degrowth.
Rachita Gowdu is a Trinity sophomore. Celine Wei is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "a spectre is haunting Duke," usually runs on alternate Fridays.