In the second of two extracts from her new book Marx and the Climate Crisis, Elaine Graham-Leigh explains why climate destruction is a structural feature of capitalism

Read the first extract here: Fighting the climate crisis

Marx and the Climate Crisis, Elaine Graham-Leigh, Counterfire 2020

Capitalism is not ‘obsessed with’ growth because particular capitalists believe that continual growth is essential, any more than we are dependent on oil as a result of individuals’ continued car ownership. Growth is part of the structure of capitalism; indeed, without continued expansion, capitalism does not work at all. Capitalism is not a static but a dynamic system, which works only on the basis of ever-increasing profits. Competition between capitalist businesses impels each to seek expansion to outdo their competitors – the drive to greater and greater accumulation – but the profits generated by this are effectively dead capital if they cannot themselves be invested in a way that will get the capitalist a compound return on their investment. It is this underlying dynamic in capitalism which drives the cycles of boom and bust, expansion and depression which have become familiar. These aren’t a malfunction of capitalism but simply a result of how the system works.

Because the need for growth arises from the need for competitive advantage, an explicit belief or not in the value of growth within the system will not change it: even chief executives who talk the talk on green issues are still looking for ways to become more profitable than the other businesses in their industries, and to beat them to new areas into which to expand. Industrialisation comes in here because mechanised production initially allows those capitalists who adopt it to produce larger quantities of products more cheaply than their competitors, although it also contains the seeds of the next cyclical ‘bust’ by causing the rate of profit to decline. Marx showed how this happens as companies invest their profits, i.e. the surplus value produced by the labour of their workforces, in machinery which replaces labour. This therefore reduces the only factor which produces new value. As the rate of profit falls, this produces a crisis which destroys many capitals and enables a rise in profitability, and so a new round of expansion. This then lasts until the next cycle when many businesses in a sector collapse, and their surviving rivals improve their rates of profit by eating the corpses.

This underlying dynamic means that growth cannot be edited out of the capitalist system, which can only survive through finding continual opportunities to expand. For resource extraction this can be expansion into literal new areas, thus providing a motor for imperialism, or changes to the nature of production to allow capitalist market relations to enter previous uncommodified sectors. An example of the latter is the Green Revolution, a development programme for higher-yield crops in the 1960s – 1990s, which effectively marketized what was previously subsistence agriculture.[49] Without these possibilities for expansion, capitalism is in trouble. In the agricultural sector, they enable capitalist agricultural production to overcome the declining rate of profit and the effects of the metabolic rift, as Marx and Engels were well aware. Engels for example remarked in 1865 that it was the possibility of expansion to the West which was coming to the rescue of US agricultural production. ‘If all these regions have been ploughed up and after that shortage sets in, then will be the time to say caveat consules.’ (trans: Let the consuls, [rulers of the Roman republic] beware.)[50]

That the environmental damage caused by capitalism is structural, not a result of consumer demand or individual views on growth, is also demonstrated by the timing of the most significant increases in greenhouse-gas emissions. As Ian Angus has recently pointed out, while greenhouse-gas emissions have been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution, there was a significant increase not just in emissions themselves but also in species and forest loss, acidification, biosphere degradation and so on from the mid-twentieth century on.[51] This intensification of environmental destructiveness therefore came about directly after the end of the Second World War. This was not a coincidence. The US victory in the Second World War created the conditions for the enrichment of US capitalists and for the current climate crisis: ‘a powerful industrial base in the United States, concentrated in a few hundred giant corporations and dominated by the petroleum/ automotive sector; a large and growing military budget; a disciplined and financially secure labor force, purged of militants and militancy; and a seemingly infinite supply of cheap energy.’[52]

The lesson of the Second World War was of the centrality of control of oil supplies to success in modern warfare. The Allies may not have won had they not been able to cut off German access to oil and to maintain it for themselves. This made oil a central military priority, and also cemented the dominant position of the petroleum/automotive sector in The question of green growth 31 the US. These were preconditions for a system dependent on greenhouse-gas emitting technologies for military and domestic production. Modern imperialist wars are therefore both a result of the need to maintain a hegemony which is inherently environmentally destructive and a source in themselves of ecological damage.

The US military admits to getting through 395,000 barrels of oil every day, including jet-fuel consumption which makes it the single largest consumer in the world. This is an astonishing figure which is nevertheless likely to be a considerable underestimate. Once all the oil use from military contractors, weapons manufacturing and all those secret bases and operations that get missed out of the official figures are factored in, the real daily usage is likely to be closer to a million barrels.[53] The US military emits around 5% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions from its infrastructure; more when it is engaged in combat. The Iraq War is estimated to have produced around 141 million metric tonnes of CO2 between 2003 and 2007.[54]

The damage capitalism causes to the environment is therefore at a structural level, not at the level of consumer choice. If growth cannot be made immaterial, nor edited out of capitalism by changing people’s minds, this then emphasises that capitalism is inherently ecologically destructive. The mechanisms by which it damages the environment are inbuilt; while they can be overcome temporarily, or for specific environmental problems, the tendency to destruction cannot be edited out. This is not however the end of the debate. The destructiveness of activities within the capitalist mode of production might not, in some views, be capitalism’s fault. How can we be sure that a different economic structure would not produce the same effects?

You can buy the book, published in the Counterfire book series, here 

Elaine Graham-Leigh will be launching her book on Saturday; sign up to join the event on Zoom here


[49] Frederick Engels, ‘Letter to Lange’, 29th March 1865, printed in Ronald L Meek, Marx and Engels on Malthus, (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1953), p.82.

[50] Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene. Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System, (Monthly Review Press, New York 2016).

[51] Ibid., p.152.

[54] J Rockström et al, ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Ecology and Society 14 (2), (2009), p.32.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.