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We Must Reckon With the Most Dangerous System of Extinction Humans Ever Created

Capitalism, especially U.S. militarized capitalism, is a structural extinction force we need to confront foremost.

Military personnel take part in the Defense Shield 23 multinational battle group military exercises as U.S. national flag is seen in Novo Selo, Bulgaria, on May 29, 2023.

Capitalism is killing us. That’s the unequivocal message of a new book, Dying for Capitalism: How Big Money Fuels Extinction and What We Can Do About It by Charles Derber and Suren Moodliar. The authors draw critical links between capitalism, militarism and environmental destruction to show how nothing short of radical change is required to shift the deadly course humanity as a whole is now on. The book blends historical and contemporary analysis with a concluding interview from 2062 based on speculative fiction.

Derber and Moodliar call for a “new abolitionism” that draws wisdom and inspiration from the movement to abolish slavery and for a deep understanding of how our most critical problems are intertwined.

Derber, a professor of sociology at Boston College, has written 26 books — on politics, democracy, fascism, corporations, war, capitalism, climate change, the culture wars and social change. Some of his other recent books include Welcome to the Revolution, Moving Beyond Fear, and Capitalism: Should You Buy It? In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Derber discusses how the myth of American exceptionalism undermines the solutions to the existential threats we face today, why “green capitalism” is an oxymoron, and the need to confront a “triangle of extinction.”

Peter Handel: In your new book, Dying for Capitalism, you write “a ‘triangle of extinction’ that connects capitalism, environmental death and war creates an emergency that humanity-as-a-whole has never faced before.” How are these things interlinked?

Charles Derber: Americans are normalizing what is truly the greatest emergency ever faced by humanity — one threatening to doom all life species. In an earlier 2010 book, Greed to Green, I argued that President Obama should declare a national emergency to stop impending climate extinction and wake up Americans. Obama did not declare the emergency, and millions of Americans didn’t wake up.

Dying for Capitalism shows the existential threat has grown faster than I had imagined. This is not simply because of the acceleration of climate tipping points but the escalating risk of nuclear war arising from an increasingly unstable and militarized international and American world order. Witness not just Ukraine after U.S.-driven NATO expansion to the Russian border but the bipartisan new Cold War with China and today’s erupting wars in the Middle East.

Many U.S. wars have been fought to secure more oil. Protecting the U.S. right to create climate change is thus fueling “forever” wars.

As people are dying for capitalism in the sense that they want ever more of it, they are also literally dying for the consequences of craving a literal death system. The “triangle of extinction” exposes what many on the left have suspected but never fully understood. U.S. capitalism fuels both climate change and militarism for five core reasons: 1) elevating profit over all other aims; 2) commitment to unfettered economic growth; 3) expanding to control markets and resources domestically and internationally; 4) producing commodities for sale on the market rather than public goods; and 5) concentrating political power among corporate elites, notably the military-industrial complex and the carbon-industrial complex. All of these forces lead capitalist elites and the market to ignore the existential risks and treat them as what economists call “externalities” — which include the ultimate costs externalized from producers and paid by the general public.

How climate and military threats fuel each other is a major neglected subject. Ironically, the Pentagon itself annually reports that climate change is the biggest national security threat, with environmental disasters and sea rise driving people from endangered residences toward inhabitable land. Such migrations — along with intensifying floods, droughts and extreme temperatures — set up violent competition among people desperate for land and resources. Moreover, many U.S. wars have been fought to secure more oil. Protecting the U.S. right to create climate change is thus fueling “forever” wars.

The Pentagon also does not tell us that it is the world’s biggest institutional creator of carbon emissions. While climate change drives war, militarism drives climate change. This is not just about the obvious environmental destruction wrought by war. The modern military is a monster carbon producer, with massive carbon burned every day in training and wartime military flights; in fueling huge naval carriers, submarines and tanks; in producing planes and munitions; and in running more than a thousand military bases.

Most of us realize that the fossil fuel industry makes massive amounts of money while destroying the environment, but you show how the development of the fossil fuel industry is inextricable from the advent of modern capitalism. Tell us about this.

While fossil fuels were central to capitalist development, it didn’t have to be that way. Early industrial capitalism could have developed without fossil fuels. Indeed, 19th century British factories initially used water-powered steam engines but shifted away toward coal and oil.

Tank warfare and the new importance of planes in World War I was a major catalyst for the 20th century shift toward oil. World War II sealed the deal.

This had less to do with technological efficiency than social and political factors. Owners were worried that water would be viewed as part of the commons and subject to public controls or appropriation, threatening profits. Coal and oil were less likely to be viewed as part of the commons, since they were not as historically central to public use and well-being as water.

The long historical shift from coal toward oil was also driven by social and political interests rather than technological advantages. Coal miners were rebellious at an early stage, mobilized by communities formed working under adverse and dangerous conditions. Fear of unions helped shift industrial capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries toward oil.

Oil became the central energy source of U.S. 20th century capitalism largely because of wars, especially World War I and World War II. Tank warfare and the new importance of planes in World War I was a major catalyst for the 20th century shift toward oil. World War II sealed the deal. Enormous amounts of oil were needed to power the planes and produce the arms to win this huge conflagration. And U.S. interests in both securing and selling oil in Asia were a major factor fueling U.S. interest in war in the Pacific.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. Why has the risk of nuclear catastrophe become so heightened?

The Bulletin issued a statement saying the change was “largely but not exclusively” due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They also now connect nuclear doomsday with environmental doomsday, noting that climate change and other environmental-linked threats such as COVID-19 played a role in resetting the clock. They are pulling the curtain back to reveal some of the “triangle of extinction.”

The Doomsday Clock is an important symbol, recognized around the world as a crucial indicator of potential imminent extinction. Founded in Chicago after the U.S. development of the nuclear bomb — a subject popularized in the film Oppenheimer — the Bulletin’s scientists, despite their major contributions, have their own limitations. They are not political economists or social theorists, and their U.S. roots have shaped their thinking. This may explain why they have not portrayed the full “triangle of extinction,” nor focused on the unique U.S. role in supercharging the race to extinction.

This goes beyond their relative lack of attention to the historical role of the U.S. and NATO in leading up to the Ukraine war. They have not offered a strong critique of the extinction risks inherent in building U.S. hegemony throughout the nuclear era. Nor have they highlighted the U.S. role in catalyzing Middle Eastern wars for oil and now heating up the new Cold War with both Russia and China, as well as playing a role in the current Israel-Hamas-Iran-U.S. military crisis, all intensifying extinction perils.

The building of a world economy around U.S.-dominated oil and arms is the heart of today’s “extinction triangle.” [But] instead of seeing extinction, many in the U.S. see a chosen people’s defense of liberty.

Nor does the Bulletin highlight how capitalist economies, and especially U.S. militarized capitalism, are crucial structural extinction forces. We hope that the Bulletin’s scientists will read Dying for Capitalism. If the nuclear scientists were to discuss the need to transform U.S. militarized capitalism, it would expose more of the “triangle of extinction,” and help mobilize both scientists and the public.

While you are focused mostly on the disastrous impact of capitalism, you also take on elements of American culture in Dying for Capitalism. In particular, you discuss the myth of American exceptionalism. How did this idea come to be so ingrained in American culture and how does it undermine solutions to the dire problems we face today?

American exceptionalism — the idea that the U.S. is the only nation equipped to manage world affairs and preserve freedom and democracy — goes back to the foundation of the nation. The Puritans defined their settlement in America as a blessed “city on the hill.” George Washington stated that the U.S. was destined to become a great empire. The Monroe Doctrine confirmed that empire would begin in the Americas itself.

Soon thereafter, the U.S. embraced the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, perhaps the most seductive military and moral doctrine of American exceptionalism, legitimating military expansion into the Pacific, including the murderous colonization of the Philippines. Teddy Roosevelt’s idealization of himself as a “rough rider” was part of the new 20th century U.S. drive to global empire; Roosevelt’s idealization of war, tied to his close relation to robber baron capitalists, such as the Morgan and Rockefeller financial and oil interests, helped fuel the long drive to a U.S.-led global fossil fuel, militarized capitalism.

Empires need what I have called “immoral morality,” the use of lofty moral ideals to legitimate evil behavior. U.S. exceptionalism cloaked the rise of U.S. fossil fuel-based, militarist global empire as a crusade for democracy. The building of a world economy around U.S.-dominated oil and arms is the heart of today’s “extinction triangle,” shrouded in immoral morality. Instead of seeing extinction, many in the U.S. see a chosen people’s defense of liberty.

You write that “green capitalism is an oxymoron.” Why?

Americans have long been taught that technology is the solution to everything. Green capitalism exploits this seductive approach, which tells Americans not to worry: our technological prowess will solve climate change. Instead of helping Americans see capitalism as a leading cause of climate change, it flips the equation and says that capitalism is the solution, since only capitalism can create the technological innovations — whether electric cars, carbon capture, geo-engineering or cheap wind and solar energy — that will save the planet.

Without changes in capitalist appetites for insatiable profit, growth, consumerism, expansion and war, the system will continue to place an infinite burden on a finite planet.

Technology is obviously important in dealing with climate change. But even if capitalism delivers many green technologies, it will not prevent climate disaster. Our book explains why “green capitalism” is a dangerous illusion. Without changes in capitalist appetites for insatiable profit, growth, consumerism, expansion and war, the system will continue to place an infinite burden on a finite planet.

This awareness is beginning to surface. People note that electric cars require scarce lithium that can generate militarized competition; moreover, building all the other parts of the car and the roads they depend on will continue to deplete the planet. It makes far more sense to build walkable cities than a new interstate highway system connecting suburbs with big lawns. The oxymoron derives from the reality that capitalism is designed for accumulating wealth and living big on a small planet, the perfect recipe for environmental death.

You call for a “new abolitionism” that draws inspiration and wisdom from the first abolitionist movement. Talk about this.

Our book ends with a conversation between a reporter and a climate and peace activist in 2060, describing how activists discovered in the 2020s the “slender path” to survival of life. They faced enormous skepticism about transforming large systems such as capitalism. But they found a path forward partly by looking backward.

The 2020 activists were aware that pre-Civil War abolitionists were told they could never end slavery; it was an eternal system in human history and the U.S. We show that 2020s activists took from the abolitionists the refusal to lose hope and unexpected ways to challenge large systems regarded as unchangeable.

There is no simple abolitionist formula; in fact, part of the slender path was rejecting the idea of a single orthodoxy. The abolitionists grew from a tiny group because they found ways of building links and solidarity with so many different movements and change agents. Radical socialists like William Lloyd Garrison welcomed moderate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Formerly enslaved people such as Frederick Douglass found common cause with white suffragettes. Reformers became part of the same larger struggle as militants like John Brown.

Abolitionists often melded a mix of economic, political and cultural strategies into their own individual work. Douglass is a good example. He worked closely with Lincoln and foreign global leaders on the politics of emancipation, globalizing the struggle. At the same time, he helped lead the U.S. underground railroad and was an economic activist against the capitalist profitability of the slave trade. Douglass became the most widely photographed American of the 19th century, recognizing the role of culture in ending the slave system.

We show how abolitionists of fossil fuels, war and yes, capitalism itself, find themselves in similar quandaries, and often despair, as did their abolitionist ancestors. But we highlight how a new abolitionism is already finding earlier abolitionist lessons for universalizing resistance — and protecting the commons and a new economy of public goods from what is surely the most dangerous system of extinction that humans have ever created.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.