Crimes against nature
Crimes against nature

If you’re among those who, understandably, feel a growing sense of despair and hopelessness in the face of accelerating ecological breakdown—when every day seemingly brings word of new catastrophes—then Jeff Sparrow’s book Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating, published last year by Scribe, is for you. At the book’s core is a message famously conveyed by fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings”.

There are a number of main themes that Sparrow returns to again and again, all in the service of the overarching argument that it’s not only necessary, but also possible, for ordinary people to overturn capitalism and build a better world in its place. The first theme centres on the fact that the environmental and climate crisis hasn’t been driven by any supposed flaws in human nature or by impersonal forces beyond our control. In the book’s opening passage, Sparrow quotes labour organiser and folk singer Utah Phillips, who pointed to the fact that “the earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”.

In chapter one, Sparrow explains that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the emergence of a fossil fuel-powered car culture in the US and elsewhere was driven from the top down, against often stubborn resistance by working-class communities. “The car culture we take for granted”, he writes, “was formed only after a huge struggle by the auto industry, both against other less-destructive transport options and against the environmental consciousness of the public”.

The remainder of the book provides numerous examples along the same lines. There was the choice made by industrialists in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain to reject cleaner and more reliable water power for their cotton spinning factories in favour of the steam-powered “dark Satanic mills” fuelled by coal. There was the campaign by the tobacco industry to get people hooked on smoking, and somehow, via clever PR and misinformation, get even more people hooked even after evidence had emerged of the cancer risk. And there were the later campaigns which, building on the tobacco industry’s success, allowed plastics and food and beverage giants to overcome public resistance to disposable packaging and lay the basis for the explosion of plastic waste in the second half of the twentieth century.

Finally, in what may be the greatest of all corporate “crimes against nature”, there was the highly successful effort of the global fossil fuel giants, from the late 1980s on, to stall action on climate change by spending tens of millions creating doubt about climate science, despite themselves having commissioned research in the 1970s and early ’80s that made the catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel-driven warming clear. “The fossil-fuel lobby”, Sparrow writes, “understood full well what business as usual would mean—and deployed all their resources to make sure it happened”.

The second major theme of Crimes Against Nature is the flip side of the first: if it’s big corporations and the rich who are to blame for the environmental and climate crisis, then the mass of ordinary people are off the hook. This argument runs counter to what has unfortunately proven to be a rather stubborn strain within environmental thinking: that, either through their sheer numbers, or through their demands for ever more products to consume, it’s the millions, not the millionaires, who are at fault.

Sparrow takes on Malthusianism and its heirs in the populationist currents of the modern environment movement directly, and very effectively, in chapter ten. On the question of ordinary people driving environmental destruction by their supposedly insatiable desire to consume, he lets the historical record speak for itself. In case after case discussed in the book, from the push for the private car to displace public transport, to the rise of a culture of disposability (of e.g. food and drink packaging) and planned obsolescence, it was big businesses and their PR consultants who had to fight to impose new, more environmentally harmful patterns of consumption on unwilling populations. Sparrow quotes US marketing consultant Victor Lebow, who wrote in the mid-1950s that, for the sake of the economy, “we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate”.

The campaigns waged by the Victor Lebows of the world were successful. As well as having their desired culture of consumption entrenched, they managed, as in the case of recycling or of the notion of the “carbon footprint”—invented in the early 2000s by a PR firm working for global oil and gas giant BP—to make people believe that the environmental damage caused by that culture was their own fault. This, in turn, has functioned to channel concern about environmental destruction towards ideas of “ethical consumption” and other such modes of individual action that are completely ineffectual and draw attention away from the people and institutions that are actually responsible for it.

The book’s third major theme builds on, and provides a twist to, themes one and two. The twist relates to why the powerful people whose decisions, at various points through history, have created the environmental and climate crisis of today, and on the other side the people who’ve resisted those decisions, have acted as they have. According to Sparrow, it’s not because the powerful are somehow just evil, and those who’ve resisted them are good. On both sides of the equation, the explanation for people’s actions lies in the nature of capitalism and of the class struggle at its core.

Capitalism severs humanity’s connection with nature, for bosses and workers alike. For the rich and powerful, those who own and run the businesses that are, in myriad ways, despoiling the Earth, the only thing that matters is profit. This isn’t so much a choice as a compulsion. If capitalist A loses sight of that goal and allows their costs to increase and their profits decline (perhaps, for example, because they want to limit the damage they’re doing to their workers or to the environment), then they face the risk that capitalist B, who is more ruthless, and whose profits are higher, will drive them out of business. This competitive dynamic, when combined with the fact that the rich can use their wealth and power to protect themselves from the worst environmental consequences of their actions, militates against any attempt to change the system by convincing capitalists that they should be more environmentally responsible.

On the other side, too, the struggle for bare existence that capitalism forces on workers and the poor precludes them, in most cases, taking up environmental or other issues out of a concern to be “good”. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there has been no involvement by workers in such campaigns. But as Sparrow shows, in many cases this resistance is grounded in a thoroughly material desire to protect lives and livelihoods, rather than any more abstract idea of fighting for a better world. And where there are exceptions to this, such as the case of the Builders Labourers’ Federation’s (BLF) green bans in the 1970s, discussed by Sparrow in chapter twelve, it has been in circumstances where the strength of workers’ organisation has provided a degree of material security that has given people the confidence to take up issues beyond immediately economic ones.

One of the main lessons from the book is that it’s not very helpful for radicals to present climate action merely as an ethical imperative that all “good people” should support. And it’s particularly unhelpful to counterpose, as some in the environment movement tend to, the material interests of workers and the poor and the need to do something about the climate and other environmental issues. The movement has had its biggest wins, historically, precisely at those moments (like Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, or the 1970s industrial upsurge in Australia) when those at the bottom of society have been fighting hardest for their interests, whether or not those fights had anything much to do, in an immediate sense, with the environment. Climate and environmental activists should have an eye, then, to strengthening workers’ side in the class struggle, thus laying the basis for them to lend their industrial power to the fight.

The fourth, and final, major theme of the book is hope. There are two aspects to this. The first, which is particularly clear in the chapters dealing with the violent capitalist conquest and destruction of pre-capitalist social formations (whether in the case of Indigenous societies in Australia or North America, or of more collective and environmentally sustainable peasant cultures in feudal England), centres on the fact that capitalism is very far from being the natural state of human society its defenders claim it to be.

In the broad sweep of history, capitalism has existed for only the blink of an eye. To the extent that we can talk about any particular form of society being “natural” for humans, the more collective, egalitarian and environmentally sustainable societies it displaced have the greater claim. “For the vast bulk of human history”, Sparrow writes, “production has taken place within a web of social relations, dominated by principles such as reciprocity, redistribution, and use”. In less than two centuries, capitalism has conquered and completely transformed the world. But just as it has risen with such terrifying and destructive force, so too can it be overthrown, dismantled and replaced with something else. As Sparrow illustrates in chapter thirteen with reference to William Morris’s work of utopian socialist fiction News From Nowhere, there’s no shortage of visions (and in some cases practical examples) of what the alternative might look like. 

The second aspect of the hope that Sparrow wishes to engender in his readers centres on the potential for resistance. This also is woven through many chapters in the book. Again and again, in the period of capitalism’s relentless march to global dominance over the past 300 years, ordinary people have stood up and fought back against its trampling of human lives and livelihoods, and of the relationship with the natural world that sustains them. In the book’s closing passage, he points to the fact that, despite the seemingly insurmountable extent of their wealth and power, “the smooth, grim people destroying our planet remain a tiny minority”, and asks if it’s really beyond our power to defeat them. The answer, of course, is no.

Finally, it will be clear to anyone with even a basic familiarity with Marx’s ideas that Sparrow’s book is informed, from beginning to end, by Marxism and the politics of revolutionary socialism. Marx’s work, however, is barely mentioned directly (his name appears a total of three times in the book, in just two separate passages), and Sparrow seems content to make his arguments without ever foregrounding the Marxist and revolutionary world view they’re based on.

The place where Marxism’s absence is most notable, and most problematic, is when it comes to the list of “basic principles for what lies ahead” in the book’s final chapter. Sparrow encourages his readers, among other things, to “learn to argue”, “find collective projects to join and support”, “organise at work ... [or] wherever else you might be”, and “make connections”. Taken together, the principles may add up to something close to a Marxist perspective for winning radical change. There is, however, a lot of room for interpretation, and given the dominance of various shades of small ‘l’ liberal ideas within the environment movement today—ideas which, over the past few decades, have contributed to the movement’s failure to win anything even close to the change we need—the risk is that readers will only feel affirmed in whatever existing actions they are taking, whether or not those actions are likely to be very effective.

If we’re to have any hope of averting climate catastrophe, we don’t just need more people prepared to attend a protest once in a while, to sign petitions or volunteer with environmental NGOs. We need more people like BLF leader Jack Mundey and William Morris: Marxists and revolutionaries whose hatred of capitalism, vision of a better, socialist world and understanding of how to get there provided both the motivation for them to devote their lives to the struggle and the means by which they could inspire others to do the same.

Crimes Against Nature, then, is a wonderful and informative read. It’s highly recommended for anyone looking to understand what’s driving the climate and environmental crisis, and what ordinary people can do about it. The one caveat, however, is don’t stop there. Start with Sparrow’s Marxist arguments, continue on to the Marxism that underlies them and then, as the book stipulates, get involved—not just with any old activists or organisations, but with the ranks of the revolutionaries.

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