The Roots of Our Planetary Crisis

We are facing several scenarios of the imminent destruction of humanity or even of life on Earth, including extreme climate change, the accelerating extinction of species, the heightened…

We are facing several scenarios of the imminent destruction of humanity or even of life on Earth, including extreme climate change, the accelerating extinction of species, the heightened threat of nuclear war, and the potential emergence of much more severe pandemics than COVID-19. 

To avoid our ultimate annihilation, we must understand the system that formed five hundred years ago in Europe.

Hoping that a new administration will save us from this is missing the point. It is not a particular administration but a whole civilization that has brought us to the brink of the abyss. 

To avoid collapse, we must transform this civilization. Without looking at the deeper structures that led us into these existential crises, we will end up in a delusion. The German poet Ingeborg Bachmann once said: “People can be expected to bear the truth.” And the truth is that we are part of the most dangerous social system humankind has ever created. 

Since the first structures of domination emerged in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, many brutal and destructive civilizations have followed one another. But none of them has reached anywhere near such a potential for annihilation as ours.  

Yet it is precisely Western civilization that is usually regarded as the crown of human history. According to this interpretation, it is to her that we owe the Enlightenment, democracy, and prosperity. In this narrative, the destructive forces that threaten the future of life on Earth came about more or less by accident.

To understand the roots of the ongoing destruction, however, we must move beyond the myths of the West and of modernity. It is true that Western expansion has brought enormous wealth to a part of the world’s population. But this story has been at the same time, and from its beginning, a story of a series of genocides. 

For the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, for example, the arrival of the European colonizers was, literally, the beginning of the end of the world. In Europe itself, since the sixteenth century, wars, state terror against the poor and dissidents, torture, witch hunts, and the inquisition have turned the continent into a bloody theater. These phenomena did not reach their climax in the Middle Ages, as the myth of modernity suggests, but in modern times, with the emergence of the capitalist system.


For a very large part of the world’s population, the worst has already happened. For the rest of humanity and the planet, the worst is imminent. Imminent, however, does not necessarily mean inevitable.

We need an ecological and social transition program which not only replaces fossil fuels with renewable energies, but which transforms the basis of our civilization.

To avoid our ultimate annihilation, we must understand the system that formed five hundred years ago in Europe. It is known by different names: the “modern world-system,” “capitalism,” or the “megamachine,” a term coined by Lewis Mumford more than fifty years ago. 

The fundamental principle of the megamachine is the endless accumulation of capital. In other words, it’s about an eternal cycle of profit and reinvestment. This principle is embedded at the heart of the world’s most powerful economic institutions: the large joint-stock companies, the first of which were created four hundred years ago. 

Today, the world’s 500 largest corporations control 40 percent of global GDP and two-thirds of trade. These institutions have only one goal: to multiply the money of the shareholders. At any cost, even the annihilation of life on Earth. Their products—cars or drugs, pacifiers or machine guns, fodder or electricity—are interchangeable. Once the demand for certain products is satisfied, new demands must be created. So citizens have to be made into consumers. This is the engine of the aggressive expansion and permanent growth that the system needs to exist. 

The modern state has developed in a co-evolutionary manner with capital. In early modern times, the state was an almost purely military institution. To buy guns and armies of mercenaries, rulers got into debt with merchants and bankers. Credits were given so that sovereigns could invade and sack other countries; the spoils of these lootings were used for the return on investment of the creditors. This has been the driving force behind the increasingly cataclysmic wars that raged in Europe and the genocidal colonization elsewhere. The modern state and the accumulation of capital were inseparable from the start.

Today, most of the world’s 500 largest corporations could not survive without huge subsidies. The International Monetary Fund has calculated that states subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of five trillion dollars each year. Taxpayers are financing the destruction of the planet, to maintain the profits of the fossil fuel industry. The same goes for the automotive industry, aviation, big banks, and industrial agriculture.

To avoid the worst, we must dismantle the pillars of the megamachine and replace them with other economic institutions that serve the common good. This requires transforming the state and dissociating it from capital, so it can help orchestrate the transition. 

In practice, this means that we need an ecological and social transition program which not only replaces fossil fuels with renewable energies, but which transforms the basis of our civilization. 

Such a program seems, at first, unrealistic. But the system that brought humankind to the brink of the abyss is increasingly unstable. Crises will continue to multiply—financial crises, pandemics, failing states, ecological catastrophes—and each crisis will force us to make choices. 

When old institutions break down, when political and economic leaders are in disarray, engaged citizens can exert tremendous influence over decisions, especially when they are well-organized, well-prepared, and able to forge strong alliances.

The chaotic phase that awaits us may lead us to complete collapse or it may lead to a more just society that learns to cooperate with nature instead of destroying it.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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