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  • Writer's pictureKeneisha Charles

An Introduction to Eating the Rich for Environmentalists

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Black person holding up a sign that reads “YOU CAN’T HAVE CAPITALISM WITHOUT RACISM” at a protest.

Source: Peter James Hudson on “The African Origins of Racial Capitalism.”

Amazon emits a small country’s worth of carbon annually while workers suffer injuries and have to pee in bottles to keep their jobs.

Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla fund huge mines carved into the Congo to provide cobalt for the latest tech while Congolese people (especially children) risk their lives and safety to mine it for $2 a day.

Nestlé extracts millions of litres of water from Indigenous lands in Canada without compensation while the community lacks drinking water.

The story remains the same: multinational corporations profit while the environment and people suffer.

And at the heart of each of these violent injustices is one common denominator: capitalism.

So here’s an introductory guide on why we say eat the rich.

What is Capitalism?

For all us non-economists, let’s start with a basic definition of what capitalism really is.

Capitalism is an economic system. It’s a way of organizing society and how we share (or don’t share) resources.

Every economic system has a different way of organizing what is called the “means of production”. The means of production are all the elements needed to produce goods and services. This includes land, labour, and capital (meaning resources like raw materials, facilities, machinery, and tools).

Under capitalism, the means of production are privately owned.

Businesses or individual people control the land and capital—including the factories, tools, and machinery. And they use this to sell products or services and make money. For the rest of us, we only own our labour. And so we sell our labour to businesses (i.e. get a job) to make our money.

In the purest form of capitalism, these private businesses or individuals have all the power. It’s called free market or laissez-faire capitalism and basically, there are no rules. Businesses decide what they want to make or offer. They decide how they want to make it. And they decide how much they sell it for. There are no regulations, policies, or other boundaries but the ones an individual company makes for itself.

Most countries aren’t fully free market. They’re more mixed and have some controls in place—like “minimum wage” for example. This is true for Canada and the United States.

But no matter the form of capitalism, its bottom line is always money—and hoarding lots of it—with violent repercussions for both the planet and people.

The Violent Life Cycle of Capitalism & Consumerism

Two key factors motivate capitalism: competition and wealth accumulation.

Businesses are constantly competing with each other to provide “better” goods and services so that more people buy them and they can get more money. “Better” can mean faster or cheaper (think Amazon), or it can mean more stylish and “cutting-edge” (think Apple).

Either way, the pursuit of profit almost always comes at the expense of the well-being of people and the environment—both now and in the future.

Capitalism relies on a violent life cycle of consumption.

This life cycle (called the materials economy) has five stages—extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

Infographic showing the stages of the Materials Economy titled “Our Broken Materials Economy a.k.a “The story of Stuff” The earth represents the first stage Extraction. Machinery represents the second stage, Production. A Grocery store represents the third stage Distribution. A house represents the fourth stage Consumption. And a box of junk represents the final stage, disposal.

Extraction is when raw materials—like wood and metal—are taken from the land to be used for products. Under capitalism, resources are constantly mass-extracted from land to feed into the profit of large corporations. Mass mining, deforestation, and oil extraction create massive scars on the Earth and on people by removing animals and communities from land, depleting natural resources, and polluting air and water.

Production is how these raw materials are turned into products to be sold. During this stage, we see even more pollution as items are mass-produced in factories. Toxins are not only pumped into our waterways and air, but into people and animals too.

During distribution, the process of selling these products, we also see pollution through transportation and social inequities as businesses try to make the highest profit by cutting corners to reduce costs. As businesses expand to new countries to access more wealth—become globalized—we see even more pollution.

Finally, we get to consumption—where products actually get to the hands of people. For corporations to get the highest profit, they rely on people to keep buying and buying and buying. Capitalism has shifted our social values to feed into this goal—think of “retail therapy” or all of the holidays throughout the year that lead us to shopping malls (e.g. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween). The mass advertising we’re faced with is hugely linked to the constant pressure to shop, shop, shop.

Capitalism doesn’t just encourage us to consume though—they increasingly make it necessary.

An example is planned obsolescence. It’s a strategy of designing products to be practically useless after a certain period of time. Think of how your smartphone slows down and is not eligible for some apps or software updates after a few years. Or how newer models of iPhones no longer have headphone jacks—meaning users’ old headphones are now incompatible and they have to buy new wireless ones or an inconvenient dongle attachment.

This leads us into the next phase of this system—disposal. All of these products we consume eventually end up in the trash. Massive landfills and incineration lead to further land dispossession and pollution. These impacts aren’t equal though—waste from countries like Canada and the US is often shipped overseas to “developing” countries, polluting their lands instead of ours.

Running as a motivator to this entire unsustainable system—from extraction to disposal—is capitalism. But as much as capitalism impacts the planet, it impacts the people as well.

Colonization, Slavery, & Anti-Black Racism

Capitalism relies on a pyramid hierarchy. At the top, we have the smallest group—the capitalists that own the corporations. And at the bottom, you have those whose labour is exploited in order to provide wealth for those at the top.

Those at the top are also known as “the 1%”. They’re the elites—and in Canada, this group holds a quarter of all the wealth in the country. These millionaires and billionaires did not and do not earn their wealth. It all comes from the exploitation of workers—especially Black and Indigenous peoples.

If you made $147,000 a year—which is triple the average Canadian income—it would still take you 6,803 years to become a billionaire. The 1% do not amass their wealth because they work harder or are smarter than the rest of us.

As British politician Lloyd Russell-Moyle eloquently explained, “People only become billionaires because successive governments have organized our economic system, from taxes to property law to rights at work, to benefit the rich—often at the expense of the poor.”

This system of economic organization is capitalism.

But there’s more at play here than money. The members of the 1% are almost exclusively middle-aged white men.

This is not by accident.

Capitalism is not just an issue of classism—it’s a system rooted in anti-Blackness and settler colonialism.

Capitalism is what led Columbus and other colonizers to leave their homes in Europe, seeking riches in the “New World”—then named North, Central, and South America. Sometimes these colonizers settled and made their own “little Britain” or “little France”. Other times, they created colonies of exploitation in which the sole purpose was to extract as much wealth as possible from the land and the people there.

Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from the land through attempted genocide, assimilation, and even enslavement in some places (like the Caribbean). Entire diverse ecosystems were replaced with huge plantations full of single crops like sugar, tobacco, or cotton that depleted the soil.

Capitalism, ever invested in accumulating as much wealth as possible, quickly sought a way to acquire more and cheaper labour. And thus, the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and anti-Black racism were born from capitalism.

Capitalism, slavery, and anti-Black racism are intrinsically linked.

Historian and former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Eric Williams even wrote an entire book on this connection entitled Capitalism and Slavery. Dr. Williams writes:

“The reason [for slavery] was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor... He [the colonizer] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon.”

In an even more concise statement by Dr. Williams:

“Slavery was not born of racism: rather racism was the consequence of slavery.”

Slavery was followed directly by capitalism—almost the same system except for this time, people sell their labour to capitalists instead of being owned by capitalists.

Many of the modern capitalist strategies we use today can even be traced directly back to plantations. Before we had huge Amazon facilities with rows upon rows of workers being pushed to maximum production, we had enslaved peoples working in the rows of sprawling plantations. Manager hierarchies, meticulous spreadsheets, asset depreciation, data analysis, and other strategies were all founded on the plantation.

Capitalism continues to be a brutal system that dispossesses Indigenous peoples of their ancestral lands and brutalizes Black peoples, as well as other racialized communities.

The standards of productivity that capitalism sets also contribute to the devaluation of other communities, perpetuating ableism and sanism.

From its foundations to its present, capitalism is deeply rooted in a violent system of power.

Reimagining Our World Beyond Capitalism

This all begs the question: what now?

For most of us, capitalism is all we’ve known and we don’t have a choice but to participate in it. We need to live too, so we have to work for corporations and shop from multinational companies like Amazon because most of us don’t have the means to be able to choose otherwise.

But capitalism does not have to be an inevitable reality.

This is where it’s gonna take imagination.

Can you dream of a world without millionaires? A world where we all have enough because abundance is shared, not hoarded? A world in which we live in mutuality, both with each other and with the land?

When we can collectively imagine more, we can create more.

What would it look like to replace our linear system that results in mass waste with a sustainable circular economy? What would it look like if resource sharing within communities was the norm through mutual aid networks?

Infographic of 3 different types of economy. The first linear economy includes the stages take, make, use, waste. And is accompanied by a picture of smelly garbage. The 2nd Recycling economy shows the stages take, make use, recycle (which leads back to make), the waste. And is accompanied by an image of garbage. The third circular economy includes the stages take, make, reuse, return, recycle and repair, And it is accompanied by an image of an empty garbage can.

How can we further transform our ways of being?

There isn’t a single answer—it’s going to take fundamentally reimagining how we organize ourselves and our communities. This uncertainty can feel daunting.

However, one thing is clear: for the sake of our planet and our people, we must envision and co-create a world beyond capitalism.

So y’all hungry?


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About the Author

Keneisha wears rectangular glasses, a blue cardigan with a yellow top underneath. They wear gold hoops, a necklace with a cowrie pendant and their hair up in a yellow headwrap.

Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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