by Gary Engler / October 4th, 2013
If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism may be the
best system ever. But if you want to save the planet from environmental
catastrophe our current economic system is a dead end.
I remember in my socialist youth often being told: “Your ideas sound good but that’s just not how things work in real life.”
In my socialist sixties these same words seem appropriate as an analysis of mainstream environmentalism today.
Here is the harsh reality:
The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing
of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at
the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of
livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs
of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other
Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs
more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make
investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human
footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live
with much less stuff?
All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with
declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period
capitalism goes into a crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars
are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.
Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and
choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this
amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having
a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines
are explicit about this and, in fact, go even further. The business
pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial
complex as telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic
prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have
If we continue with capitalism, they are correct.
so-called environmentalists look to capitalism for
solutions. That’s like asking the fox to fix the hen house. You can’t be
a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable
economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more
Now that the human population has passed seven billion, it should be
obvious that we inhabit a planet of finite resources. But population
growth is not the problem. Human energy remains our most precious and
underutilized resource. Once basic material needs for food, clothing,
housing and health care have been met, human well-being depends less on
consumption than on opportunities for education, employment, social
participation and social recognition.
Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently
known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon
dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global
temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human
life as we know it depends.
Despite the weight of evidence and the urgency of the problem,
capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.
Around the planet trillions of dollars are being spent to develop
massive deposits of shale oil and gas. In Canada capitalist investment
is focused on expanding oil production from tar sands. The promoters
claim that these developments will create jobs. But the funds required
to develop and transport that fuel will create far fewer jobs than would
be produced if equivalent amounts were spent on the development of
solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced with
investments in domestic employment for domestic markets, in the
production and distribution of local agriculture, clothing, shoes and
communications products. More jobs would be created by investments in
child care, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green
But capitalism prefers investments in fossil fuels because corporate
profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be
made meeting actual human needs.
So, we have some important choices to make: Support capitalism or
support the environment. Build a different sort of economic system that
can prosper in harmony with the environment or fiddle with capitalism as
our planet burns.
This article was posted on Friday, October 4th, 2013 at 8:00am and is filed under Capitalism
, Climate Change
, Oil, Gas, Coal, Pipelines