Profits, drought and landclearing: Capitalism is destroying the land and affecting the weather

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Huge protests in Hong Kong, July 1, 2003. Photo from

Every year, it returns to the Geelong region. The battle to stop logging in the unique, cool temperate, old growth rainforests of the Otways and Gunnerook. To big business, a tree is only a commodity, an item, from which a few dollars of profit can be made. Left standing, it’s “wasted.” Similarly, water that flows to the sea, undammed, undiverted and unpolluted, is also wasted. The fact that these forests are vital water catchments for many communities, that they provide habitat for many threatened species, and that they are a thing of beauty in themselves doesn’t add a cent to the share price of the timber corporations.

The attitude that the natural environment is simply there for human exploitation is an ancient one. That doesn’t make it correct. But it has provided capitalism with a rationale for what the profit motive is doing to our planet. Capitalist globalisation is destroying the earth. We live under the reign of a class willing to jeopardise our lives and those of future generations for a quick buck. Capitalism destroys habitat and renders species extinct, yet the survival of animal and plant life is essential for human progress and should not be counterposed to so-called “development.”

Water mismanagement. The Otways acts as the water catchment for Geelong, whose residents benefit from the trees staying exactly where they are, rather than ending up as toilet paper and matchsticks. The technology used to tear down the forests could be used to manage them. But governments and business have a very bad record when it comes to water use in this country.

Despite the recent rain, Victoria is still afflicted by a severe drought, although conditions have eased in some parts of the country. And once again we hear ignorant commentators, such as the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, calling for more dams, for turning the rivers inland etc etc. As for dams, well, since there is not enough rain to fill the current ones, what use is that? And turning the rivers inland is just another version of the “wasted water” attitude. The Snowy Mountains scheme did just that, and all that’s resulted is the near death of both the Snowy River itself and the Murray-Darling System.

Besides, although the Murray and its tributaries need more water for environmental flows, the land around the river system needs much less. It’s a desert, under which lies millions of tonnes of salt. Out-of-control irrigation has lifted the water table and released the salt. Now all of the farming in the region is under threat. In trying to “drought-proof” southeastern Australia, they’ve caused a crisis which will take hundreds of years to fix.

Meanwhile it’s taken years for governments to crack down on the land clearing in Queensland that has put even more pressure on the Murray System. 

Irresponsible landholders have been uprooting more trees than anywhere else on the planet, just to get it done before the law was changed to stop it. Queensland’s farmers’ federation, bizarrely called “Agforce,” was spreading the line that if the government signed the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, farmers would be “ruined” by tough land clearing rules.

Well, the government didn’t sign the Kyoto document, for all the wrong reasons. But it was forced to look at greenhouse gas production. Land clearing had to be curtailed, but the Queensland and Federal governments haggled over who was to pay compensation to the farmers. Meanwhile these people, most of whom lease public land, bulldozed hundreds of thousands of hectares of mulga and mallee woodland. We already know that it is exactly such clearing which has made the salt problem worse in southern states. Despite this, these so-called “friends of the land” are busily ensuring that there will be no land worth farming in a few decades!

This would be funny if it wasn’t such a criminal waste. But it’s a perfect example of how capitalism interacts with the environment. It takes all the goodness from the earth and leaves barren waste, which future generations will have to repair before they can do anything with it.

Turning up the heat. The Kyoto agreement was never going to achieve its stated purpose, which was to reduce the emission of the gases that contribute to the warming of the atmosphere. The reason for this is simple. The main source of greenhouse gas production is the burning of fossil fuel, mostly oil. Capitalism is addicted to oil, which is cheap and temporarily abundant. It’s almost the perfect product. Money is made at every stage of its production and it’s only useful if you burn it (only a tiny fraction is used for other purposes). Once burnt, it needs to be immediately replaced, or the machinery stops. The profits from this cycle are just too good for capitalists to voluntarily change it.

So when George Bush and John Howard refused to sign up, on the grounds that it would adversely affect the economies of the U.S. and Australia, they were being honest, for a change. Capitalism and sustainable energy use are incompatible. That doesn’t mean that the science behind the Kyoto treaty is incorrect. The decade 1990 to 2000 was the warmest in 2,000 years. The north pole’s ice cap melted last (northern) summer, and the West Antarctic ice sheet has collapsed, leading to the accelerated melting of the glaciers on Antarctica itself and, onimously, a measurable, continuing rise in the sea level.

Bush claims that there is no “proof” of global warming. Perhaps he should move to Australia. Although Europeans have occupied the continent for a little over 200 years, it now seems clear that weather patterns have changed. The current drought is the worst on record. Sydney is experiencing regular, violent storms, as was predicted by computer models some years ago. Bushfires have become more severe and widespread, although mismanagement of the forests and woodlands may be a factor. Dispossession of Indigenous nations has meant that places regularly burnt in a managed fashion now erupt into uncontrollable wildfires. The predicted rise in average temperatures threaten the Great Barrier Reef and up to 90% of species in the tropical rainforests in Queensland.

If Bush — and his “deputy sheriff” Howard — continue to peddle the line that global warming doesn’t happen, then the insurance industry must be deluding itself. Concerned about the effect of severe weather, experts are now reworking the risk analysis tables, having decided that climate change is a real threat to their bottom line.

For island nations of the Pacific, it’s not just their bottom line. Several expect to lose all their territory in the next few decades. Tens of millions of Bangladeshi citizens will become homeless as the delta of the Ganges River turns into a bay of the Indian Ocean.  Closer to home, even the minimum predicted rise of 1.4 metres will mean that Australia will lose land equivalent to a 1km strip around the entire coastline. Apart from the effects on ecosystems, the cost of lost and damaged buildings and infrastructure will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Claiming back the future. There is no easy way to repair the environment in the short term. We are facing a number of disastrous changes to the climate and to the landscape which can’t be averted, even if capitalism disappeared tomorrow.  Solving the problems will require all of our collective knowledge and effort. This means that personal solutions, like recycling and minimising domestic water use, while commendable, are not enough. It means that simply reforming the law, as the Greens party argues, will not do the trick either. In this area, like so many others, capitalism is beyond reforms.

We need to force governments to immediately start programs to reverse the destruction of our environment. Here are some ideas:

  • Immediately end logging in old growth forests; end landclearing for agriculture — evict pastoral leaseholders found illegally clearing and hand the land back to Indigenous owners.
  • Commence a comprehensive environmental restoration and employment program, fully funded by a tax on corporate bank transactions; including full training and award wages for all workers; preference to be given to displaced timber and agriculture workers, rural unemployed, Indigenous communities and displaced small farmers.
  • Reduce water use by steeply increasing prices to big companies; mandate the use of recycled water for all industrial purposes.

Capitalism and sustainability are mutually exclusive concepts. Only socialism is sustainable. But it is necessary to stop the destruction of our world now, as a matter of urgency.

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