Capitalism, Socialism, and the Environment

Many have criticised capitalism, due to its proposed role in global environmental destruction. But is it really to blame for the culmination of the Anthropocene?

Text: Victor Mauring, History B.A. (Hons.) from King’s College London, currently studying Political Science at the University of Oslo. Associate of King’s College.

Why the Anthropocene?

With the growing danger to society by climate change and other human-caused damage to the environment, humanity’s industrialised society has come under scrutiny. The rise in average global temperatures will have immensely destructive effects on the environment and us by extension. In recent decades, the spectre of climate change has loomed over humanity as a shared ‘Sword of Damocles’. Human society has become increasingly conscious of its dependence on the environment and the unsustainable path it is still on. Because of this consciousness, many voices have blamed the global economic system, particularly capitalism, a prominent public voice being George Monibot of The Guardian, publishing the article “Capitalism is killing the planet” last autumn. But how much of the problems caused by industrialisation can be blamed on particular forms of economic systems and ideology, rather than industrialisation itself?

People have affected nature on an astronomical scale. It is now commonplace to refer to the current period as its own geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

In order to find solutions to the environmental predicament, humanity has to analyse how and why it created this unsustainable reality. To blame capitalism or other economic ideologies and systems used by societies today is a simplistic argument. It does not uncover the core motivation behind humanity’s industrialised push to the edge of Earth’s carrying capacity.

To summarise the historical context of the modern economy, the industrial revolution and the earlier transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies have significantly impacted the Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere. Ever since humans made the first step of settling down and becoming sedentary, agrarian societies, they have left a mark on the surrounding environment. Humanity’s influence over nature has increased since the beginning of agriculture, intensifying during the industrial revolution until today. People have affected nature on an astronomical scale. It is now commonplace to refer to the current period as its own geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

This new epoch has brought its own challenges; ecological destruction, extinctions of animal species, and global temperature rises that are on course to put immense strain on many regions of the Earth, such as the current heatwaves on the Indian subcontinent where over 1,5 billion people live. Despite these difficulties, current and future, the material conditions of the average human have never been better. Since 1990, the number of people in extreme poverty has declined from 1.9 billion to 650 million, as of 2018, despite the growing population. In 1800, when the industrial revolution had begun to take hold in Europe, no country had an average life expectancy above 40. By 2015, the global average life expectancy had climbed to 72 years. The comforts of modern life: cars, aeroplanes, food shipped from across the world, electricity, and consumer culture, necessitate the extraction and consumption of resources that degrades biodiversity and emits greenhouse gases. The economic growth from the first and second industrial revolution was driven by increased energy consumption, of which 80% were derived from fossil fuels, such as firewood, coal, oil, and gas. Keeping in mind this context to the global economy is necessary to evaluate how capitalist and socialist societies have interacted with the natural environment, and if either of them have a meaningful difference in this context.


At its core, capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production. The term means of production encompasses machines, land, tools, materials (raw and manufactured), etc., which all can be considered capital. Capitalism differs from socialism in that the ownership of the means of production and capital is in private hands. It employs the use of the market, in which private individuals or enterprises use their capital to compete with one another to accumulate more capital, for example by investing in more efficient manufacturing methods to cut costs. The rights of individuals to choose what goods or services they want to buy and own property are paramount. Capitalism itself originated in the last few hundred years, replacing the feudal system in Europe, rejecting the extremely centralised control by the aristocracy and guilds, which in many countries decided who was allowed to produce goods. Capitalism, in contrast does this process passively through market forces. The one who produces the desired goods for the lowest prices will usually get most of the market share, based on the choices of individuals. A strong point of the capitalist system is therefore its competitive structure, companies must be innovative and make better deals for the customers than other companies if they want someone to choose their product instead of another’s. In the last couple centuries, the shift to capitalism has led to immense economic growth and an increase in standards of living, as outlined above. However, the ecological costs have been immense. Western capitalist countries have accounted for nearly 47% of all industrially driven carbon emissions in history, and put on a timeline, humanities carbon emissions divided by region looks like this:

Photo: Our World in Data

In addition, a famous study, the Carbon Majors Report, claimed that 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global emissions, which has become part of the rhetoric of anti-capitalist environmentalists. The reasons for why capitalist countries have emitted so much, it is argued, have to do with the constant quest to increase profits and sell more products in combination with a lack of responsibility felt towards the environment. People have property rights over nature and its products, while only other people can advocate for and defend nature. Events such as the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984, in which thousands were killed by a toxic chemical leak or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, which caused immense environmental damage, demonstrate the potentially devastating consequences of negligent cost-cutting.

Photo: Flickr, Kris Krüg, 2010.

The built-in competition to deliver goods at the lowest price is weak against what economists refer to as externalities. Companies, traditionally, have not paid for the external effects of their carbon emissions or for dumping industrial waste into rivers (among other environmental damage). However, there is a strong argument to be made that governments have taken large steps to fix this challenge by implementing regulation and taxes to deter environmental destruction. Tax incentives such as subsidies for renewable energy and taxes on carbon emissions are tools governments can use to incentivise the market actors into selecting more eco-friendly production methods. Certain products, like CFC chemicals have been banned globally, with success in halting the growth of holes in the ozone layer. Additionally, because people are more aware today of the danger the environment is in, environmental sustainability has become a selling point for companies. Car companies have already started producing electric cars and have plans to phase out fossil fuels, in a combination of adapting to societal shifts and government regulation. It is for these reason that despite the history of capitalism, many also believe that it is possible to reconcile it with a green society. Nonetheless, the innovation and creation of new green technologies can be costly. Greenwashing is a problem as well, wherein companies use marketing and misleading information to make their product seem more eco-friendly than it actually is. Some would do that because of a desire to booster their image and the higher cost of being truly green. But is it futile to try to adapt capitalism to an environmentally friendly future? Does history demonstrate that socialism necessarily is a better alternative for the environment?


In contrast to capitalism, socialism is the public ownership of the means of production. Emphasis is placed on the work of the collective, rather than the individual, and a guiding principle is that workers who contribute to a product are entitled to a share in it. At its core, socialism (and communism) is a modern ideology and economic system, arising from the inequalities present within the capitalist system, particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s. Because the profit motive of capitalism is often cited as a cause of the increase in carbon emissions, some look to socialism as an alternative, because of the idea that it eschews the profit motive. But how have socialist governments actually fared with regard to the environment? The most famous of the socialist regimes was the Soviet Union, which existed as a state from 1922 to 1991 and its various allies, including the Warsaw Pact states (in practice controlled by the Soviet Union). The 70-year rule of the USSR and the post-WWII domination of Eastern Europe was not an ecological workers’ paradise. While the government had total control over national industry, aided by the authoritarian government control, in practice the Soviet Union still committed immense ecological destruction. Part of the mission to achieve socialism in the USSR was making the transition from a mostly agrarian society into an industrial society. Soviet authoritarianism was explained as a need for a “revolutionary vanguard” to create the conditions necessary for socialism, i.e., industrialisation, worker (in theory) control of the state and control of the industrial means of production. This control would more importantly, according to Vladimir Lenin, help to get rid of “false consciousness” and give way to class consciousness, necessary to achieving socialism and, later, communism. In comparison to its fellow states in Europe, the Soviet Union (represented by Russia on the graph below, due to the data including pre- and post-Soviet Russia) and its allies, by the later period of their existence, achieved similar, sometimes higher per capita emissions than their peers, despite having less GDP per capita. Some would argue that the lack of a free political discourse and a critical civil society would erode the checks and balances needed to effectively question political and economic decisions by governments that impact negatively on the environment. This phenomenon would be particularly visible in authoritarian socialist states as can be seen in the examples to follow.

Photo: Our world in data

The Soviet Union had its own share of ecological disasters, most famously the destruction of the Aral Sea by diverting rivers that irrigated it, in order to foster agriculture in arid regions south of it. The damage over time is shown in this image, and indeed has a magnitude of scale visible from space.

Photo: Flickr, Philippe Rekacewicz, 2006

Despite the ecological damage caused by the profit motive, a capitalist country would likely not have made the same choice to drain the Aral Sea. In the first place, the Soviet Union went through with this decision in part because it desired agricultural self-sufficiency in cotton, which is a water intensive product. The drainage itself suffered inefficiencies due to large amounts of water evaporating before getting to the fields. In comparison, capitalist countries simply forgo trying to be self-sufficient in everything in favour of buying from areas which have natural advantages in producing cotton, such as an existing natural water supply. Additionally, the drainage destroyed opportunities to fish from the sea for surrounding communities, which would normally provide reason for governments to second-guess this decision due to the economic and social effects alone. Any opposition that could have been made by local communities was stunted by the government’s control over speech and the accompanying lack of freedom to advocate against government policy.

History demonstrates that the environment has taken the back seat in the drive to improve living standards.

While the destruction of the Aral Sea and its fishing industry was beginning, the Soviet Union also embarked on excessive whaling in the world’s oceans, including off the coast of Antarctica. In the 1959/60 season alone, over 13,000 whales were killed, most of the whales going to waste, the slaughter motivated more by fulfilling quotas and filling jobs. Ironically in this case, because of the immense waste, it could be stated that the Soviets went above and beyond the profit incentive by excessive production of goods the public had a low demand for, despite the ecological damage. In non-socialist countries, such as here in Norway today, left-wing parties, whether far left or social democrats, are still hesitant to call for a quick/instant halt to the oil industry. Instead, they tend to call for a controlled downscaling of the industry, and more nationalisation, to minimise jobs lost. Norway’s Rødt, in their own party programme, call for nationalising the oil industry, emphasising that it is the common property of the people, though also calling for a halt to future expansion. Afterall, closing down the oil industry or other polluting industries would pose a threat to the livelihoods of the workers, many of which are traditionally left-of-centre oriented. The economic interests (at least short-term) of the proletariat and the environment can often be unaligned, making environmental policy a hard choice, even for left-wing parties.

Modernity over the environment

Juxtaposing capitalism and socialism provide an opportunity to observe one of the core reasons behind human-driven destruction of the environment. Rather than trying to enrich a few, human actions are more complicated in motivation. The “modern lifestyle” in wealthy countries is desired by most people regardless of culture, as shown by the reluctance of countries like China to agree on timelines for decarbonising their economies. Simply put, people would like to live longer lives, they would like to have better food, phones, toys, and cars. Most do not envy the conditions people lived under in the past. In practice socialist and capitalist governments, at least historically with regard to the environment, have differed more in their methods, rather than their end goals, those being the uplifting of their citizens from poverty into a comfortable living standard. The Soviets too wanted heated apartment buildings, cars, and aeroplanes, because it was not capitalism or communism that motivated this desire, but the desire for the comforts of modernity. Part of the Cold War between East and West, socialist states against capitalist states, was an unstated competition to prove which was best at improving living standards for all, a necessary part of legitimising the place of the ideologies in their societies. Climate action today, if ideological choices were involved, is a choice between adapting modernity to be more environmentally sustainable or getting people to give up many of their modern comforts in the name of the environment, as proposed by degrowth proponents. Capitalism or socialism, it depends on the willingness of society to make hard choices for policy options that fosters green technological innovation and the incentives (including costs) to consumers on making better choices. History demonstrates that the environment has taken the back seat in the drive to improve living standards. State ownership combined with authoritarian political practices has produced “white elephants” and ecological disasters.

For reformers, the successful solving of the ozone layer problem through multilateral agreements and cooperation demonstrates that solutions can be found. Humanity is on this planet together, but history puts the blame on the uncontrolled quest to increase living-standards as a culprit rather than the economic system.

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