Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Warming

The Morrison government’s new enthusiasm for electric vehicles will plunder the earth for lithium, copper and nickel like never before – and destroy any incentive to invest in public transport. But in Crimes against nature, Jeff Sparrow skillfully shows that capitalism never attaches itself to environmental causes except where it sees the opportunity for new markets. For the same reasons the auto industry applauded the collapse of Philadelphia’s Electric Vehicle Company in 1899, it is now embracing this very technology.

In this series of interconnected essays, Sparrow repeatedly exposes received wisdom as a PR scam. When the auto giants faced the fury of the road dead, they invented the “jaywalker”. When the American people denounced the waste of disposable cups, the industry designed the “litterbug”. When global warming became a public concern, BP asked citizens to consider their own “carbon footprint”. In each case, vested interests have shifted responsibility onto the individual, giving companies carte blanche to expand their destructive activities.

Sparrow tells these stories with the lucidity and animation of a true detective podcast. He dissects reactionary nature to pit humanity against nature: not only does this erase millennia of indigenous peoples’ relative harmony with the natural world, but seeks to preserve nature for the privileged few by destroying it for all others. He is also fearless in his criticism of progressives who qualify their fellow citizens as indifference and complicity in global warming. The fact that companies invest in such sophisticated public relations campaigns shows that they “understand something about ordinary people that eludes many environmentalists”: that ordinary people are not “inherently greedy or selfish”.

However, if capital holds the power and will always act to enrich itself, how to turn the tide on the existential threat hanging over the planet? Sparrow contemptuously combines valid collective actions – such as voting and protesting – with individual actions such as retraining, but he is a strong advocate for workplace organization to be a force for social good. Its prime example is the “green bans” launched by grassroots construction workers in the early 1970s, which protected Sydney from wealthy developers. They demonstrated that the classroom is not just “a way to talk about injustice” but “provides a basis on which a response to this injustice could be organized.”

Sparrow is weaker on the more distant social dynamics of the New World. He views the destruction of the environment by the Soviets as a Stalinist counterrevolution, without stopping to consider Russia’s pressing need to industrialize for its political survival – itself a product of capitalist encirclement. He also romanticized the feudal relations of pre-capitalist British society.

But even these oscillations flow from his unassailable faith in human nature. Amid the pessimism of so much contemporary environmentalism, this deserves applause.

Conrad Landin

Scribe, 240pp, $ 29.99

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 under the title “Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating, Jeff Sparrow”.

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