Fighting for the planet

There are no technological solutions to environmental destruction under capitalism, argues Eddie Ford

The spreading stench of oil, money and destruction off Louisiana acts as a grim testament to the destructive nature of capitalism. Tens of millions of gallons of crude oil have so far being discharged into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig suffered a catastrophic blow-out on April 20, instantly killing 11 workers and injuring many others. The resulting oil slick covers a surface area of at least 2,500 square miles - its exact size and location fluctuating from day to day, depending on weather conditions. Alarmingly, scientists have also reported immense underwater plumes of oil not visible on the surface.

There is no immediate end in sight to the unfolding environmental destruction. According to the latest estimate of the United States government’s Flow Rate Technical Group, the BP wellhead situated 5,000 feet below the ocean surface is currently ‘leaking’ between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day into the Gulf - a far cry from the initial estimates of about 5,000 barrels claimed by both BP and the US authorities. Indeed, it is not impossible that we are facing the company’s “worst-case scenario” of near 100,000 barrels.

BP has tried everything it knows to stem the oil flow, but to date it has all proved to be hopelessly inadequate compared to the huge problem that confronts it. Even if things go to plan it will take until at least August to curtail the flow, not necessarily block it altogether. Obviously, the BP oil spill endangers fisheries, tourism and the habitat of hundreds of bird species. Notwithstanding the as yet unknown financial cost in terms of the ongoing clean-up operations, litigation, insurance recovery and so on. Without doubt, it is the biggest environmental disaster in US history and ranks as one of largest offshore oil leaks the world has ever seen.

Reportage of the Deepwater Horizon explosion nearly always refers to it as the “BP” oil spill - as I have done in this article. But, of course, that is not an accurate description. In fact, the actual rig - a miracle of technology with ‘e-drill’ monitoring system which allows technicians based in Houston, Texas, to receive real-time drilling data and transmit maintenance and troubleshooting information - was planned, constructed, operated and supplied by a large number of different companies.

The original designers were R&B Falcon, who were eventually taken over by the Swiss company, Transocean. The rig itself was built between 1998 and 2001 by Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea and is actually registered in Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands - a typical flag of convenience for companies out to ‘reduce operating costs’ (ie recruit and exploit cheap labour), dodge paying tax and avoid any possible government regulations with regards to health and safety. Then in 2008 Transocean leased Deepwater Horizon to BP plc until 2013.

Furthermore, other companies besides BP are involved in the operation - mainly American, of course. Most notably, and perhaps notoriously, Halliburton - whose chairman between 1995 and 2000 was former US vice-president Dick Cheney. Halliburton had been hired by BP to handle the cementing process on the doomed rig. Indeed, it had been Halliburton workers - just prior to the explosion - who had being pumping cement into the 18,000-foot well around the oil pipe. To put it in more human terms, none of the 11 workers killed on April 20 were actual BP employees. Nine were hired by Transocean and two by M-I SWACO, a huge drilling company which operates in over 70 countries.

In other words, the Deepwater Horizon operation was not being carried out by just one company - ie, BP. Rather it was the combined effort of various businesses based in a number of countries. All of them desperately “chasing the last drops of oil”, to use the words of Charlie Kronick, senior climate advisor for Greenpeace.


Understandably, there has been a wave of intense anger directed against BP - particularly its British chief executive, Tony Hayward, unenviably finding himself as the “most hated” man in America. Naturally, communists are no friends of Mr Hayward or the BP board. Yes, of course, BP is grossly culpable and communists are the first to say that they should pay the price for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But we also have to point out that to single out BP for the entire blame - even scapegoat its CEO - is politically misguided. Not only does it divert attention  from all the other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster: it lets capitalism as a system off the hook.

This, of course, was precisely the instinctive, and quite predictable, approach taken by Barack Obama. In angry outbursts, Obama declared that he would sack Hayward if he could and pointedly talked about BP being “British” Petroleum. Despite the fact that the company has not being called that since 1998, when it merged with Amoco - formerly Standard Oil of Indiana - to become BP Amoco plc and then renamed itself again in 2001 to become just BP plc. Obama was fully aware of all this, but for reasons of political expediency was giving vent to nationalist ‘Brit-bashing’, hoping that such populist rhetoric would take the heat off the US administration and exculpate it for its own role in the disaster. In its insatiable drive for oil the US government encouraged BP to start drilling in deep water. And it was supposed to ensure rigorous health and safety supervision of the whole operation.

Unsurprisingly, Obama’s grandstanding drew a furious reaction from sections of the Conservative Party and the UK rightwing press. Boris Johnson, the Tory London mayor, patriotically defended the “great British” company and went on to accuse the US president of “beating up” poor old BP, which for Johnson was a “matter of national concern”, given the considerable quantity of UK pension funds invested in it. Lord Norman Tebbit was particularly strident, denouncing Obama’s attitude as “despicable” and writing on his Telegraph blog: “The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill - so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance?”[1]

The anger of people like Johnson and Tebbit must also be directed against their leader, David Cameron - why has he not stood up for his country and BP against the bullying Yanks? But far from pleasing the likes of Johnson and Tebbit by cutting the US president down to size, Cameron’s high-profile weekend phone call to Obama was a naked attempt to soothe trans-Atlantic tensions. Thus during their “warm and constructive” 30-minute conversation, Cameron expressed his sympathy for Obama’s position - whilst the latter was naturally keen to deny the charge of being “anti-British”. Cameron stressed BP’s economic importance not just to Britain, but also to the US and other countries as well. In a revealing statement about the talk between the two leaders, Downing Street stated: “President Obama said to the prime minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity. The prime minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the UK, US and other countries. The president made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP’s value” (my emphasis).

Here we have two different views of BP - one as a great “British” company, the other as a great global “multinational” company. Which is right? Quite clearly it is the former. Its headquarters are in St James’s, City of Westminster, London, and it has a British COE and seven other British board members (out of a total of 14). Though 39% of its shares are owned in the US and it has four US board members and a Swedish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP - the third largest energy company and the fourth largest company in the world - relies on and is defended by the British state. And, of course, the company goes to considerable lengths to cultivate close relationships with those at the top of the bureaucracy and politics: expensive wining and dining, corporate boxes at big sporting events, nights out at the opera, pop concerts, high-class parties and other such lavish entertainment. So it comes as no surprise that BP can get David Cameron pleading its case to the US president.

Jevon’s paradox

Deepwater Horizon has shown the true nature of capitalism. Accumulate, accumulate - the alpha and omega of capitalism. The need to constantly expand “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe”, wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist manifesto. Nowadays, the same need sends it drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico, when that very same substance is virtually oozing out of the ground in countries like Saudi Arabia - a profit can be made, so damn the consequences: environmental and  human. Irrationality reigns.

Due to this logic - from which its personifications can never escape - capitalism can never preserve the environment in the long term. It is pre-programmed to inflict ecological degradation. No matter how incredible the scientific advances under capitalism, whatever ‘green’ technology it might develop and deploy, we will still see the same monstrous waste of resources. The same assault on planet Earth and despoliation of nature. Indeed, paradoxically, technological innovation - ‘green’ or otherwise - under capitalism can actually lead to an increase in pollution and general environmental destruction. This paradox - named after a 19th century contemporary of Marx, William Stanley Jevons - lies at the very heart of capitalism.

In his 1865 book, The coal question. Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Watt’s innovation made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons argued that further efficiency gains would tend not to save coal, but increase its use. Hence, the rate at which England’s deposits of coal were being depleted would accelerate.

The Jevons paradox is obviously relevant to the exploitation of oil. For example, car engines are becoming progressively more efficient. In that narrow sense the triumphant propaganda produced by BP and co is true - capitalism can respond to environmental concerns. But this is very contradictory. Because of capital’s constant need for expansion - production for production’s sake - it has to sell us more and more cars, thus the energy-saving efficiency gains that result from technology innovation are negated and thrown into destructive reverse. Bluntly, 300 million ‘green’ cars cause more environmental damage than 30 million gas-guzzlers - and they burn away more of our planet’s precious and ultimately finite natural oil reserves.

Self-evidently, the present human relationship with nature is unsupportable. The most developed capitalist countries have the largest per capita ‘ecological footprints’, demonstrating that the entire course of world capitalist development represents a dead end. To the extent that the capitalist class has any strategy or answer at all, it is to rely on revolutionising the forces of production - ie, technical tinkering, while keeping the existing system of social relations intact. As Marx and Engels observed, the “constant revolutionising of production” is a distinguishing feature of capitalist society - radically unlike all other previous societies. Today’s vested capitalist interests and various business elites are banking on this built-in, ‘automatic’ process of technological change, coupled with the supposed magic of the market - the invisible hand - to ‘solve’ all environmental problems.

In reality, the competitive struggle drives each capital or individual firm to constantly expand and hence reinvest in order to survive - somewhere, somehow. Such a system by its very nature tends towards growth punctuated by crises or temporary interruptions to the accumulation process. Inevitably, this places a never-ending pressure upon the natural environment. Consequently, during the last half-century the world economy has grown more than seven-fold, while the biosphere’s capacity to support such expansion has diminished due to human - or, more accurately, capitalist - ecological depredations.

Communists support a revolutionary new conception, as first articulated by Marx himself: “From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”[2]

We must fight for the sustainable use of nature’s resources because it is necessary for our common human survival. The struggles for universal human liberation and the struggle to protect the environment are one and the same.


  1. blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/author/normantebbit
  2. K Marx Capital Vol 3, p911.