News & Media Opinion Pieces Supercapitalism and Demise of the Environment; book reviews

Supercapitalism and Demise of the Environment; book reviews

By David Shearman

In medical discipline, we analyse disease to seek the precise cause of the problem. In the emerging world crisis involving climate change, food shortage and escalating costs, peak oil, and overpopulation, all factors already eating into the health and wellbeing of humanity, we need to hone down onto the common denominator of our predicament. This article, a personal view, will examine the increasing role of capitalism in causing the crisis. It is fair to say that there is increasing disquiet in the minds of many commentators and public thinkers. Perhaps this has been accentuated by the sub-prime scam whereby billions have been lost by so called reputable banks which are now so indispensible to the system that they are baled out by government funds and thus by the taxpayer. Billions of dollars that could be used to alleviate many social and environmental problems were lost because of unacceptable practices.

I will portray the problem in the words of three disparate writers and we will then look at the environmental and health implications.

Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California. He was Secretary for labor under President Clinton. In his book “Supercapitalism. The transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life”  Reich indicates that in capitalism there was a stable relationship between the production of goods and services and the distribution of the benefits of growth. Since the 1970’s this has gradually changed to supercapitalism.

 “In this transformation, we in our capacities as consumers and investors have done significantly better. In our capacities as citizens seeking the common good, however, we have lost ground. The shift began when technologies developed by government to find the Cold War were incorporated into new products and services. This created possibilities for new competitors, beginning in transportation, communications, manufacturing, and finance. These cracked open the stable production system and, starting in the late 1970’s and escalating thereafter, forced all companies to compete more intensively for customers and investors. Consumer power became aggravated and enlarged by mass retailers like Wal-Mart that used the collective bargaining clout of millions of consumers to get great deals from suppliers. Investor power became aggravated and enlarged by large pension funds and mutual funds, which pushed companies to generate higher returns.

As a result, consumers and investors had access to more choices and better deals. But the institutions that had negotiated to spread the wealth and protect what citizens valued in common began to disappear. Giant firms that dominated entire industries retreated and labor unions shrank. Regulatory agencies faded. CEOs could no longer be corporate statesmen. And as the intensifying competition among companies spilled over into politics, elected officials became less concerned about the Main Streets and communities in their districts and more concerned about attracting money for their campaigns. Lobbyists swarmed over Washington and other capital cities seeking laws and rules that would give them a competitive advantage (or avoid competitive disadvantage) relative to their rivals, wielding greater and greater influence over decision making. Thus did supercapitalism replace democratic capitalism.

Then Reich explains how almost the entire business of the House of Representatives and the Senate has been consumed by business lobbying for advantage by stripping regulations that protected social and communal values. Washington has thousands of powerful lobbyists. But the role of business is to make profits. The failure rests with the ‘corrupted’, the governments we elect to share out the cake. Although Reich’s orientation to economics does not allow him to mention the environment except in passing, it follows that environmental regulation and law will continue to suffer most from the attention of market forces. There are no affluent companies to lobby on behalf of the retention of ecological services, in effect the life support services of humanity, or to lobby on behalf of the urgent action to curtail greenhouse emissions which have an increasingly visible impact on the earth’s physical and biological systems, or to make representations that capitalism must not extend its exploitation of natural resources to use capital as well as interest. These representations are made by dint of the small donations of concerned citizens and are rarely heard. All these happenings occur increasingly in Western democracies as multinational companies increase their hold on governments.

My second chosen author to write on this situation is Tony Judt, British historian. In “Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ” he analyses the 20th century words of thinkers and politicians (not necessarily a non-sequitor) to determine how we have arrived at our present parlous position.

“… in the wake of September 11, 2001 I was struck more than once by this contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wise heads of earlier decades; on actively seeking to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every occasion”

As a learned historian, having concluded his analysis, it seems he suddenly has a flash of revelation into the ideological causation of our present situation.

“For much of the second half of the twentieth century, it was widely accepted that the modern state could – and therefore should – perform the providential role; ideally, without intruding excessively upon the liberties of its subjects, but where intrusion was unavoidable, then in exchange for social benefits that could not otherwise be made universally available. In the course of the last third of the century, however, it became increasingly commonplace to treat the state not as the natural benefactor of first resort but as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens’ affairs whenever possible. ————- As a consequence, when now we speak of economic “reform” or the need to render social services more “efficient”, we mean that the state’s part in the affair should be reduced.”

“….And so we describe our collective purposes in exclusively economic terms – prosperity, growth, GDP, efficiency, output, interest rates and stock market performances – as though these were not just means to some collectively sought social or political ends but were necessary and sufficient ends in themselves.”

“Nothing is more ideological, after all, than the proposition that all affairs and policies, private and public, turn upon the globalising economy, its unavoidable laws, and its insatiable demands. Indeed this worship of economic necessity and its iron laws was also a core premise of Marxism. In transiting from the twentieth century to the twenty-first have we not just abandoned one nineteenth-century belief system and substituted another in its place?

My third author is environmental writer Naomi Klein, in “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, she argues that the preferred method of reshaping the world in the interest of multinational corporations is to systematically exploit the state of fear and disorientation that accompanies moments of great shock and crisis. With the globe being rocked by multiple shocks, this seems like a good time to see how and where the strategy is being applied. In an article “Disaster Capitalism; State of Extortion”, in “The Nation”, July 3 2008, she summarises the impacts many of which are environmental.

For example agribusiness has suddenly making huge inroads into government opinion on GM foods with the emergence of the food crisis. “You cannot today feed the world without genetically modified organisms,” Peter Brabeck, chairman of Nestle, told the Financial Times recently. Furthermore in recent months Monsanto and Syngenta have been frenetically buying up patents on so-called “climate ready” seeds — plants that can grow in earth parched from drought and salinated from flooding.

The intense oil company lobbying on an important environment issue is also bearing fruit. “The Bush Administration is busily using a related crisis–the soaring price of fuel–to revive its dream of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and of drilling offshore – and in the rock- solid shale of the Green River Basin. “Congress must face a hard reality,” said George W. Bush on June 18. “Unless members are willing to accept gas prices at today’s painful levels–or even higher–our nation must produce more oil.” It is also of grave concern that Canadians have gone along with the massive exploitation of the oil shale of Alberta, the ultimate in greenhouse pollution. In all these examples according to Klein, shock doctrine strategy–the oil crisis has created the conditions in which it is possible to sell a previously unsellable (but highly profitable) policy.


These three very different writers are increasingly representative of the concern expressed by intellectuals about the human predicament in general and about the course of capitalism in particular. What conclusions can we draw from their thoughts? We cannot hope for any immediate impact for it has become politically fashionable for thinkers to be dismissed as elitist, impractical, not living in the real world etc. by politicians who regards themselves as pragmatic. But we must remember that 20 years ago the climate change scientists were classified as elitist doom-mongers. Times have changed—somewhat!

Our immediate concern is to be able to counter the environmental and therefore health impacts of the present ideological system. Over many years, I have learned two golden rules of environmentalism. Firstly, wherever your endeavours begin, perhaps with trying to save the hairy nosed wombat or a strand of forest, you eventually reach the conclusion that “the system” has to be changed. Secondly, whatever battle is won, it will have to be fought again; this is a fact of life enunciated from Thoreau onwards, and not part of my pessimism! The demands of capitalism are insatiable. A forest is saved, circumstances change, demands are made and a compromise is arbitrated by government—more forest is lost. The results of these demands on a national scale are most visible in the USA where in the past six years, 400 environmental protection laws have been rolled back The chainsaw has been wielded by individuals from the oil, gas and logging industries who have been invited through the revolving door into government. Of course the operation of capitalism is less overt in other Western countries but it is effective nevertheless. It is inevitable that the operation of supercapitalism will keep the environment in subjugation.

We cannot blame capitalism, any more than we can blame the tiger for being a carnivore; that is the nature of the beast. Its task is to make profits. It is the role of governments to control capitalism, to divide up the kill and to ensure true sustainability. They have failed. It is easier for them to accept the camouflage of green-wash than make hard decisions. There are many green Kormarants sailing in the ocean of public affairs. Possible solutions are being floated by many and in several texts elsewhere, I have argued for the splitting of the fusion between liberal democracy and capitalism in the same way that effective governance became possible with the historical separation of State and Church,

Of what relevance is this discussion to DEA? Science tells us that we are sliding into an unstable world with pressure on water, food, and soil. A thousand bad decisions are being made in response to crises, e.g. forest cut down for bio-fuel crops – and such decisions are seemingly beyond the control of governments. Our role is not to be waving the banners; others have more skill and verve to do this. Not that this should be decried, for the gathering of clouds would be even worse without this pressure.

We have special skills to influence opinion of those who make decisions. Those of you who have visited your representatives relate surprise at their lack of scientific understanding and the need to explain how human health and wellbeing must be the common thread in political decision making. We have the skills, access and respect to do this. During these visits you will find it possible to be heard not only on climate change, water etc but on some of the more fundamental issues raised in this article. I would like us to extend this initiative to as many members of DEA as possible and I will work hard to help you. I believe we have a responsibility as doctors to include this work as part of our commitment to humanity.