The earth is in crisis. So are all those who inhabit it. The nature of the crisis and the rapidity with which it is engulfing the planet is caused in large part by the self-defined success of capitalist economics. Although many of the wealthy who profit from an economic system designed to help them believe they are immune, they can only isolate themselves from that system’s deadly mechanisms they aren’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
This is the essence of a recent work from authors Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen titled The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism. Published originally in German, the text is an accessible and deep examination of imperialism’s historical and present construction of a global economy designed to not only dominate the peoples and nations outside the capitalist core, but also to keep that economy’s ecological destructiveness in those nations, too. This means that the consequences of that destructiveness were also intended primarily for those on the so-called periphery, as well.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that capitalist class responds to the crises created by capitalism “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” This phrase from the Communist Manifesto could easily be the catalyst for this book. Indeed, the text is infused with descriptions of such crises manifested over the years. Going beyond the crises of labor and international relations which are part and parcel of capitalism and its invasion of all that exists on earth, The Imperial Mode of Living details the crisis of the environment capitalist practice depends on to survive.
I remember the first Earth Day in April 1970. I also remember thinking that it was an establishment attempt to turn young people’s concerns away from the US war on Vietnam and the Black liberation movement at home. While the corporate support for Earth Day and the budding environmental movement was nothing compared to that of later years, it was precisely that support that made my anti-imperialist friends and I less than enthusiastic. Sure, I helped pick up trash and began recycling (as much as was possible in 1970). The underground paper at my high school wrote some perceptive articles about ecology and the profit motive. However, the US invasion of Cambodia and the insurrection that followed soon thereafter was proof enough for me that the war machine was the greater enemy. The antiwar protests certainly didn’t get corporate support.
Of course, as the years have proven, the connection between profit-driven destruction of the earth and US imperial wars was deeper and more complex than we understood in 1970. This understanding would rapidly deepen. The Weather Underground commented on the ecological crisis in their mid-decade publication Prairie Fire: Towards a Revolutionary Anti-imperialism, pointing out that the US military was the largest user of fossil fuels on the planet and noting the ecological devastation caused by US capitalism in Puerto Rico, Vietnam and in North American indigenous communities. In the case of the latter, the group linked the devastation directly to resource extraction. It was also understood by Weather that capitalism must go if the earth was to have a chance of survival. Other organizations on the Left debated the issues involved and searched for an appropriate response, as well. Meanwhile, radical environmentalists formed their own units (like Earth First!) and began a campaign of attacks against timber giants and other enterprises that depended on destruction of the environment for their income.
Now, in 2021, with the nature of the crisis obvious all around us, it is understood by virtually all of the Left around the world that capitalism and imperialism are dependent on the destruction of the very planet all of earth’s creatures depend on. It is further understood that the current efforts to slow down the destruction are not enough. Some of the more radical elements of the new environmental movement understand this and are trying to extend this awareness to the greater public. However, it is a sad truth that the majority of earth’s residents are all too willing to go along with lukewarm efforts that hope to continue the pursuit of profit while preventing the final reckoning. This is despite evidence the two are incompatible.
This is the essence of Ulrich and Wissen’s text. To end the destructiveness of the imperial mode of living, we must end that way of living. To do that we must change the imperial way of thinking. The idea that the lifestyle of the Global North is sustainable and worthy of emulation must end. Continuing expansion of the global capitalist marketplace is nothing less than a planetary death wish. The time when it was possible for the monopoly capitalists of the United States, Britain and elsewhere to export their pollution and excess consumer products overseas is past. The chickens are coming home to roost. Inequality that was once relegated to the outposts of imperialism is now par for the course in what were once known as the mother countries. Neither the neoliberal capitalist fantasies of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change or the reactionary denials of movements like the Trumpist phenomenon in the Unites States can provide a long-term solution to this dilemma.
The solution is revolution: in thought, in approach and in the near future.