I am neither a scientist nor an economist. I am not a scholar or author. I am simpleton trying to understand what’s happening around me and making some observations that I hope might provoke further questions from others who like me don’t quite buy what they are being fed through mainstream information sources.
Let’s start with some basic assumptions…
1. Capitalists believe that pursuit of private accumulation of monetary wealth (a.k.a. greed) is a positive force in our society that leads to efficiency, innovation, development, and overall increased financial prosperity for the majority of people. In other words, profit maximization and growth are necessarily the primary drivers of a capitalist system that benefits most people.
2. Profit is maximized and growth attained in two key ways:
o Increased sales
o Decreased costs
Since costs have a finite bottom (they can never be less than zero), continual growth and profit maximization will always ultimately rely on increased sales. Increased sales means more more resources exploited in order for more products to be produced, sold/purchased, consumed, and ultimately disposed of (a.k.a waste).
3. It is widely accepted amongst environmental scientists and activists that two key causes of the environmental/ecological crises we face are overexploitation of natural resources and excessive waste (both result in ecological devastation).
We can formulate this as a simple equation:
Capitalism = Profit + Growth = Natural Resource Exploitation + Waste = Ecological Devastation
However, modern-day "green" capitalists will have us believe that the very same system that necessitates ecological devastation in order to thrive, will spawn solutions for our growing crises and ultimately save our environment (i.e. the pursuit of private profit leads to technological innovation). It sounds counterintuitive to me. But maybe it’s similar to how snake venom is used to create an antidote to snake bites. In our case however, while the alleged antidote (capitalism) is being applied to the bite (environmental crisis) in order to heal it, the snake (capitalism) continues to inject its deadly venoms at an ever-increasing pace into the body of the victim (our planet). Imagine applying anti-venom to a small snake bite while at the same time being surrounded and attacked by thousands of other highly venomous snakes who also happen to reproduce faster than the anti-venom can be produced. In other words, we might be able to alleviate some problems (and we should), but we’re creating and multiplying them significantly faster than we can create the solution due to the fundamental principles of capitalism.
Another flaw lies in the fact that corporate profit is viewed on a short term basis. Most businesses must show a profitable bottom line annually, if not quarterly as with public corporations, or suffer potentially devastating consequences such as bankruptcy, layoffs, or CEO bonuses under $150 million. Meaning, long term considerations are, well, not really considered much when the bottom line dictates where one’s next paycheck is coming from. Compare this to Mother Nature, whose earnings reports require much more time to produce and evaluate, as environmental damage can be difficult to detect or understand. Not to mention that fixing existing and developing ecological problems, if they can even be fixed, could take many years.
Let’s throw into the mix the inevitable and already flourishing business of "greenwashing", described by the Center for Media and Democracy’s Sourcewatch.org as "the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy." According to green guru and environmental consultant Lee Schnaiberg, "Just as there are various shades of green, there are various lows to which a company and a PR firm can sink in the world of greenwashing – from the benign claims of ’all natural’ (with no substantiation) or the promoting of green-neutral products as green by new and overeager eco-entrepreneurs, to "carbon neutral" jet setting and the most insidious form, when dirty polluting people-killing companies receive accolades for a baby step that don’t even address their own manufacturing processes, greenwashing – which has existed as a word since 1986 and as an entity since the Crying Indian, is now ubiquitous. It’s as everpresent as carbon in the air."
Now let’s look at some obvious rebuttals to my argument…
The problem is industrialization and consumerism, not capitalism
What causes hunger? A lack of food you say? Some might even take it a step further and say that poverty is a leading cause of hunger. But neither is technically true. According to scientific research, hunger involves specific brain centers, especially in the hypothalamus, as well as chemicals. Those of you who have smoked marijuana before (shame on you!) know very well that lack of food is not necessarily the only cause of feeling hungry. And those who have fallen prey to certain diseases know that hunger does not always arise even when there is a lack of food.
One can claim that industrialization is the main problem (not capitalism). And that communist states such as the Soviet Union, were just as environmentally destructive, if not more, than the capitalist states, as a result of mass industry. While we can build a case for this position, it is impossible to disconnect capitalism from industrialization. And regardless of our opinions on socialism or communism and their manifestations in the 20th century, it is unreasonable to claim that their underlying philosophies and economic systems fundamentally call for personal greed and accumulation.
As for consumerism, as long as the dominant economic system calls for private accumulation of wealth, we can expect businesses and government to aggressively push a consumerist message. Perhaps it’s a lack of vision on my part but I cannot envision a green world with all the trappings of modern society (cell phones, commercial airplanes, exotic foods, U.S. military, etc.).
Capitalism is evolving
A friend of mine recently told me, "When sharing and caring are profitable, then capitalism will hold the answers to our environmental crisis". It’s an inspiring and I’m sure heartfelt belief. But when examined closely, it falls short. As we already know, capitalism thrives on personal greed, which is the opposite of sharing. Either I take something for myself, or I share it with others. You can’t have it both ways. Of course I can amass a fortune and then decide to share it with others. But by that point, the damage is already done. And as long as the same system is still in place, I might share a portion of my fortune, but others who haven’t amassed a fortune yet (as well as many who already have), will follow the rules of the game and continue to take rather than share. As I see it, when sharing is profitable, it is no longer capitalism.
TINA – There Is No Alternative
Margaret Thatcher, once prime minister of Britain, stated that "there is no alternative" to global free-market capitalism. Putting aside the extreme arrogance and ignorance of deciding what is or isn’t possible in a world of human relations so infinitely complex and unpredictable based on a relatively minute period of human history, this statement is patently false if one is willing to look beyond quotes and sound bytes. Undoubtedly feudal lords, slave owners and all kinds of tyrants claimed in their heyday that there was no alternative. Though we don’t now know for sure what the best alternative is, to say there aren’t any is absurd.
That is not to say that "there is no alternative" isn’t a reasonable concern given the state of our education and mass media. In my mind, it is an extremely important concern that those of us on the left should be willing to tackle with patience and open-mindedness. How would anyone know that there might be some viable alternatives if none are presented through popular sources? After all, none of us are born with ideas about alternative economic systems, and they certainly aren’t taught in Econ 101 or debated on CNN. The fact is that there are some very serious, well formulated, compelling and visionary proposals for alternative economic systems out there, such as Parecon (Michael Albert) and Social Ecology (Elisee Reclus, Murray Bookchin). But one must have the time, energy, and knowledge that they exist…none of which are trivial.
Wait a second, didn’t socialism fail? Aren’t humans too greedy and selfish for a cooperative economic system to work? Yes, socialism in the form of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian systems thankfully collapsed. We can also easily demonstrate that capitalism has miserably failed hundreds of millions of people in all corners of the planet. And if you believe that humans are truly inherently too greedy and selfish to live within a cooperative system, then why expect better results from a system that explicitly calls for individuals to act with utter greed and selfishness?
Isn’t green technology preferable? Look how much progress we’ve made already!
Of course if given the choice between truly "green" businesses, technology and consumer goods or the continuation of environmentally destructive industry, we obviously choose the former. But when we consider the seriousness and potentially dire consequences of our predicament, do we really want to leave it up to the invisible hand of the market to determine whether this planet is habitable in 100 years? Consider the magnitude of this ultimate gamble. And remember that this is the same magical market that caused the current housing, food and healthcare crises, not to mention innumerable other social ills (37 million Americans living in dire poverty according to the Census Bureau; that’s 12.3 percent of the richest nation in history).
When it comes to a matter as serious as our environment, I am baffled by the idea of gambling on a system that by its sheer definition (profit maximization & growth) is in direct conflict with the desired result (conservation and reclamation). Not to mention the same system whose volatility has proven disastrous in the past (e.g. stock market crashes).
Capitalists don’t necessarily care less about the environment (or other issues) than those who believe something better is possible. This is not a manichean battle between good people and bad people. We are all exposed to our own unique sources of information and set of experiences, each of which help shape our opinions, prejudices, ideologies and beliefs. But it’s time we all stop buying into the myth that capitalism is the end of the road, and open our eyes and ears to possibilities that lay outside our own limited sphere of knowledge.