Sacred Ecology and Capitalism
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when
it tends otherwise.”
“To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic
self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and
thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land
community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we
know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely,
I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will
function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to
government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or
too widely dispersed to be performed by government.
By Charles Sullivan
Any economic system based upon greed rather than the public good
and the ruthless exploitation of nature is not only wrong, it is
a prescription for disaster. Capitalism not only embodies this
self destructive ideology, it depends upon endless growth (the
ideology of the cancer cell) for its continuation. Endless
growth, regardless how well it is managed, is an ecological
impossibility on a finite planet. Thus the perceived success of
capitalism is short-lived at best. Because it is based upon a
cycle of voracious consumption and waste, capitalism will
inevitably collapse. This is not idle speculation or wishful
thinking on my part; it is a mathematical certainty based upon
the most elementary precepts of ecological science.
Meanwhile, the ecological consequences of unbridled capitalism
will be dire. The collapse of the world’s great ecosystems,
driven by capital’s insatiable lust for material wealth, is
already well under way and is almost certainly irreversible. To
continue down this path will surely make things orders of
magnitudes worse than if we change direction and begin to live
responsibly and sustainably.
Combined with a human population explosion, the growth of highly
industrialized cultures driven by capitalism’s ceaseless quest
for raw materials, new markets, cheap labor and higher profits,
we are witnessing the systematic and wanton destruction of the
biosphere in exchange for capital.
Free trade is not what the name would seem to imply. Free trade
has nothing to do with freedom for people or the promotion of
democracy. It is in fact the capacity for multinational
corporations to do business without restrictions of any kind.
Capitalists come in all sizes and shapes, some of them
Republican, some Democrats; some conservative, some liberal.
Future generations, whether human beings or polar bears, means
nothing to them. They cannot see the world in its
incomprehensible biological complexity, but only in terms of
dollars and cents and profit margins.
The world’s largest financial institutions are run by gluttonous
robber barons that have hijacked most of the world’s governments
and set us on an irreversible course of self-destruction. They
are literally consuming the earth, exploiting the world’s poor
and altering complex ecological processes that provide habitat,
a livable climate, clean air, potable water and abundant food
for perhaps 30 million or more species. These are processes that
have evolved over eons of time. They are a gift, a right of
birth that belongs equally to all beings, not just to those who
can convert them into private wealth.
Only the most maniacal and perverted thinkers could conceive of
the idea of private ownership of the earth’s life processes.
Monsanto and DuPont do not have a legitimate claim to the
world’s genetic library. Any economic system that adversely
affects the planet’s ability to sustain life is not only wrong;
it is criminally insane and must be subverted at all cost.
Imagine having to pay a fee to breathe the air that is the
birthright of every living organism. Several large corporations,
including the Nestle’ company, is even now in the process of
privatizing the world’s drinking water and doling it out for
corporate profit. Nestle’ did nothing to create or manufacture
water; it was already here in abundance through most of the
earth’s 4.5 billion year history. It is absurd for the Nestle’
company to claim that they own the world’s drinking water. One
cannot own what one cannot create.
Contrary to popular belief, the world does not operate on
economic capital; it functions on biological capital. The
ecological health of the planet is the underpinning of all of
the world’s economic systems. When human activities such as
industrialization, mining, logging, over-fishing and war disrupt
the world’s ecosystems, they diminish the earth’s ability to
self repair and to sustain life. The combination of over
population and the denigration and loss of habitat lead to a
condition known as overshoot. And that is where we are today:
overshooting the planet’s ability to sustain life with the
capacity for self renewal.
Never satisfied that enough is enough, capitalism’s appetite for
wealth is truly insatiable. Its stated goal is to own the world
and to put it under private ownership. Those who command the
capital, the wealthiest one quarter of one percent of the global
population, can thus force the rest of the world to pay for the
privilege of breathing clean air and drinking potable water.
Clean water and pure air are not the result of industrial
production; they are the result of complex ecological processes
that no man can duplicate, much less create. To privatize them
is to hold the world’s people hostage to the wealthiest
individuals and the corporate state. This is what happens when
corporations such as Monsanto deliberately destroy the world’s
genetic plant diversity and force growers to buy genetically
altered seeds that produce sterile offspring.
As a result of human overpopulation, and capitalism’s inherent
greed, virtually all of the world’s great ecosystems are in
decline or collapse. The earth’s ability to replenish herself
and to sustain her immense biological diversity (biological
capital) is being diminished. So we are living in the midst of
one of the planet’s great extinction episodes and it is human
Every plant and animal that exists has an impact on the planet.
It is therefore imperative that we live gently and with minimal
environmental impact, lest we impair the earth’s ability to
sustain life. The concept of the private ownership of nature
simply does not produce a sound and responsible land ethic.
Unbridled greed, like that driving virtually all of our
governmental policies, has no place in a sustainable culture.
Enriching the world’s wealthiest people at the expense of the
biosphere is the worst kind of insanity imaginable. And that is
exactly what we are doing.
It may come as surprise to most people but human beings, like
all of the other animals that inhabit the earth, cannot produce
food. We are totally and utterly dependent upon plants to
photosynthesize and produce the world’s food supply. That is why
plants are called primary producers by ecologists. With every
forest or prairie we destroy we diminish the earth’s ability to
produce food and to sustain life. Every parking lot and shopping
mall that is built, every housing development, takes more land
out of production and diminishes the earth’s ability to sustain
The fantastic rise of the human population and industrial
production is driving global warming, which has so altered the
atmospheric chemistry that traditional weather patterns, oceanic
currents and trade winds no longer behave as they have
traditionally. These oceanic and wind currents have a profound
impact on the global climate. Altering them has consequences
that are not well understood. However, one predicted result is
more intense hurricanes and typhoons, which we are already
witnessing. The number of hurricanes and typhoons appears to
remain fairly constant at about eighty per year. It is their
intensity that has changed.
Another prediction of global warming is the worldwide melting of
glaciers, accompanied by a rise in sea waters. We are also
seeing this phenomenon. These effects exert a profound impact on
global climate and hence every living being. Ignoring the
consequences of our actions will have dire consequences that
will probably result in the death of billions of human beings,
and untold numbers of other species, all of which contribute to
the ecological health of the planet.
As these phenomena worsen the American consumer continues to
expend enormous quantities of fossilized energy in order to
drive inefficient, polluting, petrol guzzling hulks of steel,
oblivious to the harm they are doing to the biosphere. Because
so many Americans lack ecological literacy and social
conscience, they do not have a clue. They have been thoroughly
indoctrinated in the advertisements of Madison Avenue to consume
and waste, as if the earth was infinite and their actions were
without consequences. But there is no cause without its
attendant effect. Superfluous consumption in one place creates
want and impoverishment in another. That is what happens when
the world’s wealth is not equitably distributed.
We are a materially wealthy but spiritually impoverished people
lacking a land ethic because we lack a spiritual connection to
Those who are running rough shod over the global economy do not
care if they destroy the earth. They view the earth is a
resource to be exploited for private gain at public expense.
They have no spiritual connection to the earth or the processes
that create life. Their industrial strength religion has taught
them that the earth is an imperfect and vile place that must be
subdued and conquered. For them wilderness is evil and unruly.
By the time they succeed at annihilating the earth they will be
dead, rising into the clouds with harp strumming angels in a
beautiful harmonic convergence on the last day, gently flapping
white feathered wings of their own. It certainly would be
beautiful to be rid of them.
The indigenous cultures that once populated this earth of
majesty viewed the world with a deep sense of reverential awe
and respect. They knew the earth was endowed with a living
spirit that made their own existence possible. The world view of
the American Indian, for example, prior to being Christianized,
was far more sophisticated and appropriate than the modern
industrial view wrought from capitalism and industrialized
religion. The Indian understood the world in terms of
interconnectedness and interdependence. All things are
connected. Destroying the webs of interdependence that bond the
world together is to obliterate the sacred relationship that
exists between all beings, both animate and inanimate. It is the
path to self-annihilation. Who but a fool or an idiot would
choose to take that path?
Among the Indians, consensus decisions were made based upon how
the proposed actions would affect the next seven generations.
That is the kind of visionary thinking that is wholly absent
from corporate board rooms.
With the rise of capitalism as a dominant paradigm the sense of
the sacred is nearly lost. Nature was commodified and placed
under the private ownership of multinational corporations. The
world’s indigenous cultures were systematically obliterated and
a great cancer was unleashed upon the world that would consume
everything in its path like a cloud of locusts. Because
capitalism requires new markets and an inexhaustible supply of
raw materials the world lost much of its biological and cultural
diversity to corporate plunder. In biological systems diversity
is the key to long term stability. Left to continue its
destructive course, capitalism will reduce the world to a nearly
sterile monoculture—a monument to gluttonous depravity and
Whereas the Indian saw the great Appalachian forest as a complex
web of relationships that were the source of life, the
capitalist saw the forest as mere commodities measured in board
feet, free for the taking. The Appalachian forest was clear-cut
and hauled to the lumber mills, making the mountains bald before
their time. The forest was put on short cutting rotations, like
a crop of corn that provided the robber barons with enormous
wealth, all of it stolen. Today they are managed for multiple
abuse by industrial foresters trained at our finest
Eventually the mountains themselves would be blown apart when
the mining companies sought cheaper and faster ways to mine
coal. The process is known as mountain top removal and it is in
vogue in West Virginia and other regions where the great Central
Appalachian forests once flourished. Ecologically and
economically devastated communities are left behind, while the
timber and mining companies move on to greener pastures to
repeat the process over and over. These destructive practices
spread across Turtle Island like a cancer, destroying world
class biodiversity and leaving only a few fragmented,
ecologically impaired islands behind. The same destructive
forces have been set loose upon every part of the word. This is
socialized cost and privatized wealth in the most extreme,
subsidized by our tax dollars.
Wherever the extractive industries have gone they have left
polluted waters and depauperate landscapes, and exhausted and
impoverished workers in their wake. The company owners get rich
while the workers continue to live in abject poverty and are
still dying in the mines. This is the legacy of capitalism, as
witnessed by a historical record that is beyond dispute. It is
there for the entire world to see, as if etched in granite. You
can see it in the face of the miners and the impoverished
remnant forest, in the toxic waste left behind in Butte,
Montana, where the water in the aftermath of copper mining has
the acidity of battery acid.
It makes no moral, ecological or economic sense whatsoever for
us to continue down this path of self-deception and
self-annihilation. As we have seen, capitalism produces only a
few winners, and leaves death and devastation in its wake.
Either we rebel or die. Think about the kind of world we are
leaving future generations. How can they ever forgive us this
Imagine, if you can, living in a world based upon mutual aide
and cooperation, rather than cut-throat competition; a world
where people cared for the earth and for one another, and the
world’s wealth was equitably shared among all beings.
Charles Sullivan is a photographer, free lance writer and social
activist living in the hinterland of West Virginia. He welcomes
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