The Earth is Not a Commodity: How Capitalism Perpetuates Global Warming

by Jovel Queirolo, ’14

Capitalism is designed to promote competition and social inequality (Parjis, 1995) which cannot accommodate a climate change movement meant to benefit the entire earth and its inhabitants with an even distribution. As an international leader, the United States government along with its citizens must shift from a mindset of social and economic capitalism toward a political framework that encourages collective equality. In the U.S., capitalism privileges wealthy, upper-class, white individuals who hold positions of power (Keister and Moller, 2000) over the rest of the country’s diverse constituency. This constituency must be invited into the climate change movement, and granted equal access to technology and research geared towards addressing dangerous levels of human-induced climate change.

Capitalism as an economic and social theory, as popularized by the United Sates, will not work as a tool for organizing the climate change movement because the environment is not a commodity, nor is the environment a human construct. Karl Marx seemed to foresee the dilemma American proponents of capitalism are facing in his writings about the origins of labor. He explained how labor is essentially human interaction with nature through the exchange and conversion of organic materials (Koch, 2012). Through these interactions, humans can explore and even confront natural conditions and processes. Marx also writes that even though humans have socially constructed definitions of money and trade, humans cannot use money or trade to control the earth’s natural and physical processes. Money and trade operate under the human understanding of economic patterns. The earth operates under human understanding of scientific patterns. Money and trade were not designed to conform to nature’s laws and standards and vice versa.

An example of environmentally harmful capitalism at work is the formation of our nation’s fossil energy regime. In his book Capitalism and Climate Change, Professor and environmentalist Max Koch (2012) retells the story of how the birth of Fordism sent the country into an era of producing and driving cars that required huge amounts of crude oil – which was abundant early in the 20th century. Because crude oil in the United States was so readily available and cars were such a convenience, the U.S. single-handedly drove the world to an unhealthy addiction to cars and fossil fuels. The U.S. introduced the world to cars and sold the fuel to boot. The framework of U.S. capitalism encouraged a pressure on the economy to increase output of such a desirable product to meet the car and fuel demands of the country and of an increasingly capitalist world market. Not much thought was given to the consequences of treating a natural resource as a commodity. We now know that the majority of greenhouse gases making the planet dangerously warm come from burning fossil fuels (EPA). It will take a complete reversal of this capitalism-fueled economic addiction to fossil fuels and cars that run on fossil fuels to move toward reverse the harms.

Capitalism not only interrupts natural and physical patterns in nature. It has historically alienated racial minorities as a result of capitalism’s tendency to promote social stratification. History and economics professor Hugh Stretton (1976) argues that a climate change movement will be unsuccessful under a capitalist system because an unequal distribution of wealth and education parallels an unequal distribution of ownership over the direction of the climate change movement. Stretton stresses the dangers of alienation when trying to create national or global climate change movements. He advocates an evenly-distributed sense of ownership across a movement in order for it to be successful.

While research at elite institutions and international policy around climate change are impressive and important steps towards slowing harmful climate chance, these actions are not inclusive. The environmental movement in the U.S. must apply pressure at the Federal level to change the rhetoric of our economy away from competition and production towards redistribution of wealth and institutionalized environmental education that can draw clear connections between liberating the earth from capitalism and the liberation of people who are oppressed by capitalism.

Liberating people from a historically cruel and oppressive capitalist system carries a strong parallel to liberating the earth from the same system. The earth has been abused, colonized, enslaved, sold, poisoned, and forced to conform to the human construction of capitalism. So have people (Love, 2010). Removing or rethinking capitalist economic frameworks will not only allow us to move away from abusing the earth as a commodity, but it will also require individuals to consider the earth as the earth and its citizens as citizens of a collective. I would argue that the biggest setback to the climate change movement is an inability for scientists, politicians, citizens, and just about everyone else to communicate and agree on what to do. Even if there is overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change and technologies that could ameliorate our dangerous situation, no progress can be made until we, as a country, can fully acknowledge how our economic system – the system on which we are currently surviving – is also killing us and the land we live on.

Capitalism is neither sustainable nor renewable.


Jovel Queirolo is a junior from the San Francisco Bay Area majoring in Biology. She is interested in the intersections of the sciences and the humanities, particularly the patterns and themes that emerge in both. She’s really into ants.

Environmental Protection Agency. (2012). Climate Change Basics. Retrieved from
Keister, L.A., Moller, S. (2000). Wealth Inequality in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 63-81.
Love, D. (2010, August 28). Capitalism is Killing Us. The Huffington Post.
Koch, M. (2012). Capitalism and Climate Change: Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development, and Policy   Responses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Parijs, P. V. (1995). Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stretton, H. (1976). Capitalism, Socialism, and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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6 thoughts on “The Earth is Not a Commodity: How Capitalism Perpetuates Global Warming

  1. stgx says:

    Good points. I wish your thesis were widely accepted as common sense, because its quite a logical and straightforward argument.

    But the technocapitalist ads running below the piece were a little strange. And the article’s references weren’t tied in very smoothly (nit-picking).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Actually…the world is a commodity, by definition. A commodity is something that can be bought or sold that satisfies someone’s wants or needs. I think the general misunderstanding about capitalism and economics (ideal economics should account for externalities such as pollution) that makes this piece so inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t already buy your agenda.

    I buy your agenda, to be clear. But that’s because I already did. Certainly not because of these tenuous arguments.

    • Actually... says:

      A commodity is defined as something that is PRODUCED to be bought or sold and satisfy someone’s wants or needs. Polanyi defined the world as a “fictive commodity” precisely because it is not produced for the market. The world was not produced at all, and yet the destruction entailed by its forced entry into the market endangers all production.

  3. ahhh! but we must not confuse the connotation of “Capitalism” with its denotation, “capitalism.” a “Capitalist” can be a greedy corporate owner and pundit of the military-industrial complex….or a “capitalist” can be an entrepreneur developing and marketing green inventions, then become an investor in other sustainable start-ups…

    Oh, I ain’t no communist,
    I ain’t makin’ no Iron Fist
    And no I ain’t no capitalist
    I ain’t twistin’ no one’s wrist

    I am a healthy hybrid.
    I am not on one side
    On both sides is where I reside
    I am here not to divide
    But to reunite
    Two Wrong ways
    Into One Right

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actually, capitalism in its idealistic sense should make pollution and environmental harm expensive, due to its negative externalities on 3rd parties, and non-optimal. However, that idealistic capitalism is not implemented in the US. Even famous capitalist Milton Friedman supported government taxing pollution as an essential measure to control this externality and move closer to “true” capitalism. Although Friedman probably would not have supported California’s cap-and-trade solution, I have hope that this capitalist-like approach will spur green ingenuity.

  5. Cole Manley says:

    Thank you for expressing something that is always brooding in the back of my mind when I hear friends talk about solutions to climate change. I hear myself saying at these times–what about capitalism? With the system you have just so neatly laid out, the profit motive of capitalism will continue to override environmental concerns unless we radically reshape our understanding of the capitalist system. Capitalism is not sustainable with the profit motive and the more specific examples you referenced. One more example of how capitalism perpetuates global warming that wasn’t mentioned: the links between the military-industrial complex and environmental degradation. With each war we fight for oil and to establish American hegemony, we are destroying the land and the people who harvest it.

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