The finitude and temporality of life are facts unwelcome in the modern world. We fear the gradual creasing of our skin, puckering and discolouring under the strain of extended existence — the slow decay of our organs, the ceasing of our life processes, the blurring of our vision and muffling of our hearing. The thought of our blood-drained lifeless corpses terrorises us, induces us to consider, in a momentary lapse of our modern immortality, the limits of our humanity. A humanity which we expend thousands of hours trying to disguise through the progress of modern medicine, cosmetics, and religion.
Death pronounces in dreadful explications: ‘you are nothing but a natural process.’ Concrete structures crumble, litter rots on the pavement, roads are pocked and marked — daily are we exposed to the toll of natural processes on human constructions. Perhaps ‘death’ is the greatest of these natural processes, for we only recognise the collapse of our own human construction: that of the self, when it ceases to exist.
We recognise and complain about the declining quality of our human environment: we find it intolerable that a hole in the road has been unfilled for months. A glance in a mirror exposes the lines of blackheads, spots, deformities, which must be purged from the skin by creams and the manipulation of flesh; exposes the thin form which must be bulked out with special diets and hours spent in the gym: we must conform with the constructed image of ‘perfect man.’ But beyond these constructions, both physical and mental, we are passive to the apocalyptic pot-hole we have inflicted on nature.
Information on climate change is not new, and is not controversial — we know that we face an ‘existential threat’ from increasing global temperatures and the rising sea levels this will induce. We know that biodiversity is decreasing and that extreme weather events are becoming increasingly frequent. It is common knowledge that those people who live in the poorest parts of the world are, by some cruel twist of fate, most likely to be affected by these changes. But there persist some, a very small group of people, who have absented themselves from the realms of empirical evidence and sanity, who argue that all of this is fiction, an evil scheme. Yet even this small band of extremists cannot deny that the foundation of our energy supply, oil, is running out: it is a finite entity, and thus has a limit.
Ecosocialists (such as Löwy) often argue that the most significant contradiction of capitalism is that it destroys the source of its capital — the urge to accumulate wealth is destroying the environment from which that wealth is derived.
Marx, however, has found the logical limit of capitalism, as expressed in the third volume of Capital: ‘the limit of capital is capital itself, i.e. the capitalist mode of production’. Under this logic, the forces of production (the means of production & organisation of production) of a society must change in response to the capitalist tendency to continuously accumulate capital, causing conflict with the relations of production. Žižek suggests in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) that this conflict between forces and relations occurs at every stage of the capitalist process: there is a ‘contradiction between the social mode of production and the individual, private mode of appropriation.’ It is this contradiction of capitalism, this internal limitation, which drives capitalist expansion and reproduction.
Unlike nature, whose boundaries are found in the external limits of space and biology, the limits of capital are found in its internal contradictions. This is disguised by the universalisation of the accumulative tendency of the capitalist class: an image is constructed of the ‘ideal hard-working and successful’ man as a possessor of private wealth — an idea perpetuated by the ruling class to cement their own position and disguise the destructive contradiction of capitalism.
This grand art of deception is maintained through the suppression of fears about climate change. We satisfy our guilt about the degradation of the environment by sorting out the tins from the paper from the glass bottles into boxes and bins and bags. The promise of a small boy in that famous toilet paper advert that ‘for every tree we use, we plant two more’ excuses the deforestation of rainforests and woodlands — besides, we like to wipe our shit in comfort. But we know, deep down, that this is not enough. Climate change conferences can only go so far: does anybody really believe that these world leaders can solve our climate problems?
We have become obsessed with capitalist ‘progress’. Vast spires of glass push upwards in our cities smogged in fumes of mass transit; homes are warm and cosy, upholstered with fabrics and woods and technology, the cost of which totals the tens of thousands. Some people, supposedly the ‘lucky ones’, pay to go to school, and receive what is regarded (we might remark somewhat sceptically) as the best education in the world. This is ‘progess’ in the capitalist sense. But a simple calculation exposes that the average fees paid by a parent for 14 years of private education in the UK is £286,000. We can divide the total amount of ‘real’ money in the world by the total population of the world: $80.9 trillion / 7.4 billion = $10,932, and convert that into pound sterling: £7676.97. On this rather primitive and basic calculation (perhaps even economically unsound), we can put this sort of expenditure into some kind of perspective: if we equally distributed all of the real money in the world, the family who has privately educated their child for 14 years has spent more money than the lifetime collected wealth of 37 people on their single child. In reality, where there has been no such redistribution of money, we might assume that this family has spent more money than the collected wealth of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.
With this sort of measure of wealth, the urge to produce, to progress, to acquire goods and property is put into stark perspective. While you are choosing whether to buy a ‘citrus surprise’ or ‘woodland musk’ scented candle for your swish designer apartment, somebody else is deciding whether to buy the citrus fruit that forms the basis for the only meal of the day, or the wood for the fire to warm their shelter. While some choose between the luxury of a holiday in the Canary Islands or a subscription to Netflix, others are choosing between the necessities of food or shelter. It is here that we can see the insufficiency of our economic model: a model that cannot provide for the many, but maintains a privileged elite in extraordinary comfort.
Western Socialists & Leftists, the writer included, inhabit this elite space. Even the poorest in our society are part of the elite, as they are assured of the very basics for life through our welfare system. But we should not allow Socialist concern for equality of treatment and a basic standard of living to morph into the acceptance of the excesses of modern Western life and the drive for ‘progress’ that capitalism perpetuates.
We must acknowledge and accept the limits of our environment, and build an economic system that is purely sustainable within it, providing for the basic needs of all people in a way that does not destroy its very foundations. The inherent contradiction in capitalism which drives environmental destruction disqualifies it from being this economic system. Rather, we must accept that our contemporary way of life must change to provide all people with the basic and sustainable amenities of life. Unpopular as it may sound, we must impoverish ourselves, take only what we need to survive, and engage in a form of secular asceticism — free ourselves from the ideologically constructed image of the successful man as the wealthy man, and instead construct an image of mankind as successful when it lives in harmony with itself and its environment.
Asceticism is voluntary but necessary. The impending environmental calamity is a reality that cannot be prevented without the rejection of capitalism and it’s ideology. But we should note, the impoverishment of mankind is inevitable, whether we volunteer and submit to it in a controlled and less damaging way, or reject the truth of environmental change, and have poverty forced upon us by our dying world.