|Capitalism to Destroy Human Habitat?
By Carlos Petroni
With Abel Mouton, Caty Powell, Gene Pepi and Jesse Powell
Illustrations by Gaby Felten
The final struggle over the survival of planet Earth, as the habitat for
life, is fast approaching.
The main obstacle to saving the planet is the existence of the worldwide
capitalist/imperialist system, a juggernaut oblivious to the fate of
billions of people.
It is obvious that stress caused by the geometrical growth of the world
population in the last two centuries has caused a number of the present-day
problems of our environment.
However the existence of capitalism as a system based on profits has
compounded all of the problems. The control and withholding of technology in
response to the laws of the market and the need to preserve imperialism has
prolonged the use of outdated, polluting industrial facilities and methods
that continue impacting the environment as they did in the 18th century,
The use of coal and petroleum products to keep steam and internal combustion
engines from being replaced, which would cut into profits, releases
polluting gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and
depletion of the ozone layer.
Currently deregulation fever is allowing capitalists to exploit raw
materials without limit and extract minerals and fossils without measure,
causing scarcity and over exploitation of the land.
The absence of worldwide planning to balance production against both the
needs of the population and need for environmental preservation is creating
over-production in some regions, depletion of resources in others, and
ruining productive capacity in still others.
Instead of facing up to the problems, our capitalist leaders remain fully
committed to the anarchistic nature of the system, to free markets, periodic
trade and armed wars and fierce competition. Thus every reasonable solution
to the world's environmental problems is impossible. Capitalism has
multiplied the effects of natural destructive forces, accelerated the
impending catastrophe and added peculiar forms of environmental destruction
that would not exist save for the existence of the present system.
The factors: global warming, floods, droughts, spread of diseases, waste,
Global warming (heat waves, rising seas, melting of mountain glaciers),
depletion of the ozone layer, brown clouds, planet-wide drought, the
pressure of population and the catalytic effect of these 'causes' (called
fingerprints by scientists) contribute to the transforming of "natural"
disasters into unnatural catastrophes. The result is exceptional flooding,
drought, famine, spread of disease-bearing insects and other carriers, and
the destruction of coral reefs (what scientists call harbingers).
Poverty, and industrial and technological backwardness maintained in order
to perpetuate profits that otherwise would be spent on conversion of
industries only worsen the vicious cycle of earth decay. To all that you can
add wars waged for domination and control (or simply out of frustration or
ideology) and the existence of massive polluters, including the arms
industry with its nuclear arsenal and nuclear plants, with all the problems
of disposal of toxics and nuclear waste.
Events such as the deadly stretch of hot days that killed 669 people in the
Midwest during the summer of 1995 and 250 in the Eastern United States in
July 1999 (considered until recently žfreakÓ occurrences) now regularly cost
thousands of lives worldwide.
The recent round of floods in Europe, Asia and Latin America, now in full
swing and expected to last a few weeks to several months, have already cost
an estimated 10,000 lives and the displacement of more than 6 million
people. An additional 30 million are threatened with the loss of their homes
and other property damage.
Typhoons and hurricanes are much more frequent lately and have more
devastating effects, like those in South Korea and other countries that
recently killed and wounded thousands. Increase in infectious disease is
another threat posed by global warming.
As temperatures rise, disease-carrying mosquitoes and rodents migrate into
new areas, infecting people in their wake. Scientists at the Harvard Medical
School have linked recent US outbreaks of dengue ("breakbone") fever,
malaria, hantavirus and other diseases to climate change. A much graver
situation is now developing in the economically underdeveloped continents of
Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Mexico alone, almost 10,000 people were
infected with dengue in the last two months.
It is estimated that the infectious rate of malaria will increase 250% -
causing hundreds of millions of new cases in the next few years (it
presently affects around 300 million people). Even the United States is
starting to be afflicted with this and other diseases at increasingly
dangerous levels. Scientists estimate that 60% of the total population of
the globe will be exposed to these diseases in the next three decades. New
York experienced an outbreak of West Nile virus in 1999. Now the virus has
expanded to 20 other states and is reaching the West Coast. Dengue is
experiencing the same degree of expansion (starting in Texas in 1995).
According to a satellite check of planetary health, concentrations of
microscopic plants that comprise the foundation of the ocean's food supply
have fallen during the past 20 years by as much as 30 percent in northern
oceans. Besides fueling the food chain, phytoplankton accounts for 50
percent of the transfer of carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas, from
the atmosphere back into the biosphere through photosynthesis, the process
by which plants absorb carbon dioxide gas to grow.1 (CNN, 8-14_02)
The Poisoning of Air in Mega-cities
"Over the last century, Tokyo temperatures have increased five times as fast
as global warming," said Takehiro Mikami, a professor of climatology at
Tokyo Metropolitan University. While the world's average mean temperature
has increased by one degree Fahrenheit since 1900, Tokyo's has increased by
Increasingly, modern Tokyo is viewed as a huge, multifaceted radiator.
During the day the sun's heat is absorbed by acres of black asphalt, car
bodies, tar rooftops and buildings made of concrete, rather than the older,
less absorptive materials of wood and brick. At night all these materials
discharge heat, preventing the city from cooling.
At the same time, new earthquake mitigation techniques are allowing Tokyo to
grow vertically, with new high-rise buildings blocking cooling sea breezes.
As temperatures rise, residents respond by turning on the air conditioner,
expelling even more hot air into the atmosphere. Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Los
Angeles, Shanghai, Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, Karachi, Dhaka and 100 other
mega-cities, with an estimated total population of up to 600 million people
including metropolitan areas, are in the same or a worse situation.
Thermal photographs from satellites show these mega-cities as big red
blotches. Global warming generally appears to be caused by the release of
heat-trapping gases - a consequence of industrialization and the continuance
of backward industrial technology - that are enveloping the planet.
Eventually these gases will surround the planet. The entire earth will
approach the situation of present-day mega-cities. Just imagine the
catastrophe that awaits the planet as this process approaches critical mass.
A 3-KM (2-mile) thick cloud of pollution shrouding southern Asia is
threatening the lives of millions of people in the region and could have a
wider impact according to a United Nations-sponsored study. This study said
that the cloud, a toxic cocktail of ash, acids, aerosols and other
particles, was damaging agriculture and changing rainfall patterns across
the region from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. "There are also global
implications not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretches
3km high, can travel half way round the globe in a week" said the experts.
The report calculated that the cloud - 80 per cent of which was man-made,
utilizing technology already obsolete given present day discoveries and
industrial advances - could cut rainfall over northwest Pakistan,
Afghanistan, western China and western central Asia by up to 40 per cent.2
In recent years, a report notes, "There have been two consecutive droughts
in 1999 and 2000 in Pakistan and the northwestern parts of India"
accompanied by "increased flooding in the high rainfall areas of Bangladesh,
Nepal and the northeastern states of India. In Bangladesh, there have been
severe floods at intervals of seven to 10 years, most recently in 1988 and
1998. During the 1998 floods, as much as two-thirds of the land area was
inundated and nearly 1.6 million hectares, or nearly 4 million acres of
cropland, was damaged."
The report likened the Asian pollution to the infamous London smogs of the
past, caused by coal burning during the industrial revolution in the 1800s,
and the petrochemical smogs of Los Angeles, caused by the unregulated
irresponsibility of the capitalists of the 20th Century.
The human costs: death, food scarcity, increased poverty of countries and
Studies indicate that the number of fatalities is rising along with the
levels of pollution.
Results from seven cities in India alone, including Ahmedabad, Kolkata,
Delhi and Mumbai, estimate that air pollution was annually responsible for
24,000 deaths in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s pollution resulted in an
estimated 37,000 premature fatalities.3
Scientists are finding that the number and intensity of extreme weather
events are increasing.
The thinning off the earth's ozone layer has caused much publicity about the
big hole over Antarctica, but the phenomenon is also spreading over most of
the surface of the earth. So far (1999) losses over the Arctic are in the
5-10% range, compared with 50 - 66% losses over Antarctica, with total
losses there at some elevations.
This phenomenon has allowed more skin-burning UV radiation from the sun to
reach the earth. Increased exposure to UV has been shown to harm human
health (skin cancer, weakening of the immune system and other forms of
diseases), damage freshwater and marine ecosystems, affect forests and
reduce crop yields (over 100 varieties of crops, including barley, oats and
others have shown decreased growth).
The effects of UV on fresh water lakes and marine ecosystems are complex and
poorly understood. Scientists are finding that northern lakes already
suffering the effects of acid rain and climate change are now further
stressed by UV levels. In marine ecosystems, concerns have been raised over
the effects on fisheries, particularly of Atlantic cod.
The Planet Running Dry
In 1995, World Bank vice president Ismail Seragaldin made a much quoted
prediction for the new millenium: "If the wars of this century were fought
over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water." Two years
into the 21st century, the global water wars are upon us.4 The National
Intelligence Council, an advisory group to the CIA stated in a 2001 report
that, "As countries press against the limits of available water between now
and 2015, the possibility of conflict will increase."5
In the year 2000, at a World Water Forum in the Hague, a triumvirate of
international water companies backed by the World Trade Organization (WTO)
successfully strong-armed the United Nations into defining water as a human
need (which can be sold for profit by private companies) instead of a human
right (which means people are ensured equal access on a nonprofit basis).6
In a matter of a few years, the revenue projections for water companies rose
from an estimated 800 billion to trillions per year. Over 70% of the water
resources in big cities in 100 countries are now controlled mainly by two
French firms, Vivendi and Suez, with strong competition from San
Francisco-based Bechtel-United Utilities Corp., the German RWE-Thames and a
dozen other smaller companies. These multinationals, who now only share 7%
of the international market, are projected to control 60% by 2025.
The planet now has essentially the same water that it had when it was
geologically formed millions of years ago. In fact it is the same water that
has been recycled over and over again through rains, ice melting, rivers
flowing from land to the oceans, evaporating once again... With population
growth, however, those finite water sources are now used by over 6,000 times
more people. Civilization not only has not created new sources of fresh
water to drink and use for agricultural and industrial purposes, it has
diminished the reserves by poisoning rivers and lakes with industrial waste,
war and super-exploitation of underground and surface water sources.
According to the latest official calculations, there are only 8.6 million
cubic miles of fresh water left on earth, a mere 2.6 percent of the 330
million cubic miles of total water. At its recent forum in Johannesburg, the
United Nations asserted that half of the population on earth is now living
in regions of water scarcity and that in a couple of decades this proportion
will climb to 2/3 of the world population, including people living in
regions considered water-rich , like the US.
Four of the worlds greatest river basins (the Ganges, Yellow River, Nile and
Colorado) routinely dry up before reaching the ocean, and water that
normally would penetrate the earth and feed aquifers runs off pavements and
rooftops into sewers, eventually ending up (usually carrying pesticides and
toxins) in the ocean, but without moisturizing forests and marshlands on the
way.7 Global warming, overuse, massive dam construction, extensive
industrial farming and relentless human consumption produces what is now
called, ominously, the Ogallala factor.
The Ogallala aquifer, which comprises vast regions of the US from the Texas
Panhandle to South Dakota, once contained 4 trillion tons of pristine water.
Its now mined continuously by over 200,000 groundwater wells, pulling 13
million gallons per minute, 14 times faster than natures replenishing rate.
Since 1991 the year that the studies started the water level has dropped
three feet. It is estimated that half of the total water is now gone. A
similar process is developing in California8 and other regions of the
country. If no new sources of water are found, the Golden State will have,
within two decades, a water deficit equivalent to the present-day
consumption of all its cities and towns.
A recent study from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed by
the Bush administration indicated that over 500 wetlands and marshlands, as
well as other humid areas of the country, will completely dry up in a
relatively short time, many transforming themselves into desert or
semi-desert arid regions.
All studies confirm that big malls, mega-cities, urban sprawl, industrial
pollution and poisoning, the geometric increase in big dams (5,000 worldwide
in the 1950s to more than 45,000 at present), massive industrial farming and
replacement of native farming products and seeds with water-demanding
varieties, as well as global warming, fossil burning and industrial and
military waste account for the fast diminishing water reserves in the world.
The World Water Wars
Half of the worlds wetlands have disappeared during the last century, while
estimates suggest that water use will rise by 50% in the next 30 years. In
the Middle East and North Africa, only Morocco has unexploited water
resources. The rest have exceeded environmental limits and many are mining
aquifers bodies of water-bearing rock.9 Tens of millions of people in Africa
are now threatened once again with famine because of the ever longer periods
of seasonal drought and the critical scarcity of water.
According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP)10 millions would
not survive in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Rwanda,
Burundi, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia,
Zimbabwe... the reasons: drought, water scarcity and poisoning and war and
Irrigation is crucial for the worlds food supplies. Libya and Saudi Arabia
are already using more water for irrigation than their annual renewable
resources. In large areas of India and China, ground water levels are
falling by 1 to 3 meters per year.11 Northern China is already drying up and
this area of China produces more than half of its wheat and a third of its
corn - while South and Central China are threatened by rising waters and
floods, both of which destroy vast areas of rural farming.
This Chinese region has experienced growing peasant and working class unrest
in recent years, with some peasant rebellions and union organizing reported
as a result of the water crisis and food production decline. Little known
reports tell the story of the Chinese army attempting to quell a these
The Punjab region, that plays a vital agricultural role for India, is in the
same quagmire. This is at the root of the increasingly unstable political
situation in the area, with frequent clashes between farmers and others with
Indian troops and police.
Water sources and minerals are the main issues behind the nuclear stalemate
between India and Pakistan over occupied Kashmir.
A similar situation exists in parts of Latin America and other continents,
including areas of the US mentioned above. It is estimated that over 50
million people are at risk of dying from hunger in the immediate future and
that the number will rise geometrically in the next few decades. We can
expect old water conflicts to continue and new water wars to arise.
Water is one of the flashpoints for conflict in the Middle East. Israel's
control of the water resources in the Golan Heights and the West Bank is at
the heart of Sharons sustained policies against Palestinian
self-determination. Egypt warned Sudanese factions involved in peace
negotiations that it would protect its monopoly of the Nile waters "at all
costs" including military intervention. "Any Egyptian government, regardless
of its ideological inclinations, has to safeguard two things: national unity
and the unhindered supply of the Nile water."12
Egypt is also heading toward a conflict with Ethiopia because of the
decision of the latter to take morewater from the Nile.
Turkey, Syria and Iraq are engulfed in a bitter dispute that could erupt in
open conflict over the utilization of the dwindling waters of the Euphrates.
Two separate plans drawn up by the three countries, taken together, would
consume one and a half time more water than the river holds. All three
countries have said that combining their national irrigation projects is
Bangladesh, which depends heavily on rivers that originate in India, is
adamantly protesting the diversion of water sources by the construction of
giant dams. The relations between Namibia and Botswana are strained to the
point of open conflict by the Namibian decision to construct a pipeline to
divert water from the shared Okavango River.
The US, or rather Texas, is now blackmailing and strong-arming Mexico, to
make up for the water deficit in the Ogallala aquafier, by demanding that
Mexico deliver a minimum of 432 million cubic meters of water a year from
Mexican watersheds in accordance with the "1944 Treaty of Waters," which
regulated the occupation and annexation of Mexican lands in the previous
century. This may create extraordinary problems for Northern Mexic's
agricultural and urban consumption of water, already stressed by a
progressive drying up of the region.
This is at the heart of the worsening of relations between Bush and right
wing President Fox, close allies a couple of years back.
The water crisis is growing so fast that even developed countries are
swigging from each other. There have been talks from the Bush administration
about using the existing oil-pipeline infrastructure in the Northern
Provinces to run Canadian water to the American Midwest, forcing Canada to
accept such a deal based on obscure clauses of NAFTA.
Capitalist response: privatizations and increased profits
To this multitude of conflicts of national states over water source control,
add a second tier of conflicts arising from the multinationals battling
worldwide to privatize the newly defined "commodity." In some parts of the
world, water commands the same price as oil.13 Fortune magazine called the
global water market an investment "that promises steady consistent returns
well into the next century."
"Private companies have had a green light to approach cities and states
around the globe (usually cash-strapped ones) and offer to lease, buy or
enter into consortium agreements for the existing municipal water systems.
After privatization is complete, the companies make a profit by charging
residents every time they turn on a tap or flush a toilet. Many of these
companies get profit guarantees. If residents use less water than predicted,
companies can raise rates so profits dont fall below expectations.14
Most governments of powerful countries like the US, Canada and the European
Union (EU) want the United Nations to "solve" the worlds resource crisis by
implementing "voluntary partnerships" with private companies to take over
government-run industries devoted to public health, clean air and water. The
idea behind this move is theoretically to conserve resources by making them
more costly to consumers. Capitalist enterprises, of course, would add
additional profits to their portfolios.
Relentless exploitation of natural resources by multinationals and private
commercial enterprises; massive deforestation; consolidation of giant
agro-business corporations; the monopolization of technology by a handful of
countries, condemning less developed countries to produce with polluting and
obsolete resources; and the refusal to convert as in the US from polluting
productive systems to greenhouse-clean systems continue under the modern
guise of 'globalization.'
US, and other Western powers, are seeking basically to monopolize
agricultural production and industrial output, highly dependent on water, in
the economically underdeveloped world, as well as in their own countries.
More nooses tied by the superpowers around the necks of underdeveloped
nations to ensure the continuation of their poverty-stricken status and the
further regression of even their most antiquated forms of economic
development. They will no longer provide agricultural and other basic
products, but will be dependent consumers of the production of the
Experts Agreed: 2015-2030, the crisis transforming into a cataclysm
All projections estimate that the environmental problems, sharpened by the
competitive, anarchistic and profit-driven system, will come to a head
between the year 2015 and 2030.
Between 2015 and 2025, the World Bank estimates than as much as half of the
world population will face 'severe water shortages' with ś of the entire
population 'experiencing significant problems' with water supplies. A
similar picture emerges from the globes salt water regions. Three quarters
of the worlds population may be living within 70 miles of the sea in 2025
and half in the main river basins, putting unbearable stress on the latter
and endangering the eco-system of the former. One third of fisheries are
already exploited at or beyond their sustainable limits, and half the worlds
coral reefs may perish.15 As much as 30% of humankind is at risk of dying
from hunger and disease.
This study, however, does not incorporate the effects of additional global
warming, greenhouse effects, the increase in polluting industrialization
with obsolete methods, the geometrical increase in fossil fuels and the
concomitant devastation of fertile lands, the tremendous increase in
infectious diseases and collapse of mega-cities sustainability. Nor does it
realistically deal with the conservative projections of population growth
from 6 billion (1999) to 8 billion (2025).16
Under capitalism, the population has increased from 1 billion to a projected
8 billion in 2025. Just in case the reader didnt get the exact figures, we
are discussing the possibility of 2.4 billion people starving to death, 4
billion without water and 6 billion with scarce resources between 2015 and
Confronted with the end of civilization as we know it, the ruling class is
planning to cash in on the spectacle. If they could, they would even sell
tickets to watch.
1 Shanghai Star, 8/12/02
4 Village Voice, Aug. 21, 2002
5 NY Times, Aug. 25, 2002
6 Village Voice, Aug. 21, 2002
8 California Department of Water Resources Report
9 All Africa, Aug. 23, 2002
10 All Africa, Aug. 22, 2002
11 "World Agriculture: towards 2015/2030", FAO, UN, 2002
12 AbuTaleb, Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
13 Global Water Intelligence journal
14 Village Voice, Aug. 21, 2002
15 All Africa, Aug. 23, 2002
16 UN, Dpt. For Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis