On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 NASA probe, having flown more than
6 billion kilometres, turned around and photographed our solar system.
Against the vastness of space, a pale blue dot could just be seen:
“Look again at that dot”, wrote astronomer Carl Sagan. “That’s
here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you
know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived
out their lives.”
“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is
nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could
migrate … Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make
But our species, for all our intelligence, may be extinct far sooner than we once expected, and by our own hand.
Humanity has changed the face of the Earth, exhausting the soil,
felling the forests, damming and draining the rivers, annihilating our
fellow species and altering the very chemistry of our air and oceans.
Nuclear war may be the only nightmare comparable to the holocaust that
our economic practices bring us closer to day by day.
Our species is not marching blindly towards the abyss; our eyes are
wide open. We know we live in a closed system, yet excel at turning
natural “resources” into “waste” to be dumped. We know that our species
depends upon a complex web of other species for our own survival, yet
seem determined to sever even the last slender thread of life.
“At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature
like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside
of nature, but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature,
and exist in its midst”, wrote 19th century socialist Frederick Engels.
Yet today, a deep rift between the world’s economy and ecology exists.
The capitalist economy is based upon the principle of private
ownership of the Earth, of competition between its owners, with profit
as the prize. Failure to make a profit from one economic cycle makes it
harder to compete in the next one, and ultimately leads to a loss of
ownership to more ruthless competitors.
The intersection between economics and ecology is found where
labour is applied to nature to “create” all the wealth of our society —
or more accurately, where we convert the wealth of nature for our own
uses. Under capitalism, this connection between nature and human
society is governed by the pursuit of short-term and short-sighted
profit, rather than for meeting human needs. The end result will
ultimately be fatal.
The profit system led the British Empire to annex and mine tiny
islands and atolls around the world to fertilise the over-exploited
farmlands of Europe. It led the Spanish Empire to replace the
mountainside forests of Cuba with coffee plantations, only to see the
soil wash away in the rain after only a few harvests.
It is this system that keeps our society addicted to fossil fuels today.
Having an economic system detached from its ecological base is
profoundly stupid, but the vested interests that profit from it are
not. They have successfully convinced many people that capitalism is
the “natural” economic system of our species.
However, at some point — and soon — we need to recognise that
capitalism has, in fact, alienated our species from nature. Otherwise,
our own ignorance will be our downfal.