CATABOLIC CAPITALISM is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it. As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another. - Craig Collins Ph.D.
By Craig Collins Ph.D.
What is Catabolic Capitalism?
The Age of Fossil Fuels has reached its summit. The rapacious flight to the top was powered by the Earth's shrinking hydrocarbon reserves. From these lofty heights, the drastic drop-off ahead appears perilous. Already, energy depletion, ecological disaster, debilitating debt, and economic inequity are suffocating globalization and stifling growth. In the years ahead, as fossil fuel extraction fails to meet global demand, economic contraction and downward mobility will become the new normal and growth will fade into memory.
In a profit-driven economy, growth in the form of increasing production and trade is important because it tends to improve the bottom line. And ultimately, capitalism may not last without it. But those who profit from this economic system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. Crises, recessions, warfare, hoarding, corruption, pandemics, and environmental disasters can all be extremely profitable for those who know where and when to invest.
Capitalism is a profit-maximizing economic machine. In a growth-less, contracting economy, the profit motive can have a devastating catabolic impact on a society. The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself. Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it. As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.
In the previous era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the predatory speculators; the illicit arms, drugs, and sex traffickers; the loan sharks, debt collectors, and repo-men; the smugglers, pirates, poachers, black market merchants, and pawnbrokers; the illegal waste dumpers, shady sweatshop operators, and unregulated mining, fishing, and timber operations.
As the energy-starved productive sector of the economy contracts, this self-destructive catabolic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly. It thrives off conflict, crime, and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation.
Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down, and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.
Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington.
As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with militaristic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling foreigners while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity, fear, and the need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.
What is Green Resistance?
Wouldn't a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe? Isn't there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings, and communities? Couldn't capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online?
For capitalists, there are two big problems with a Green New Deal. First, a massive transfer of wealth from the financial sector and the petro-military-industrial complex would be essential to build a renewable energy infrastructure. This would require cutting the military budget and replacing all tax breaks and subsidies to these sectors with stiff taxation and regulation.
Second, the net energy this renewable alternative can generate will not be sufficient to produce relentless economic growth. Incessant growth is a thing of the past. It required the rich, abundant energy of easily extracted fossil fuels to sustain it. That period of history is over. So capitalists are faced with two options, make short-term windfall profits by feasting on conflict, crisis, and disaster or sacrificing profit to build a renewable energy infrastructure that is ecologically sustainable, but cannot support relentless growth.
Ultimately, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one. Truly Green policies, programs, and projects contradict capitalism's primary directive—profit before all else! This doesn't mean there aren't profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism's overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.
While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking nature for profit.
To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, Green activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem and organizing grassroots resilience and relief.
But this is only half the battle. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all. People and the planet will continue to suffer as long as catabolic profiteers, fossil fuel extractors, and nationalist demagogues remain in power.
Green resisters must help people mount a political insurrection that can replace the power of profit with the democratic power of people to re-direct society’s remaining resources toward a Green transition.