What is capitalism?
Capitalism is a social and economic system where the processes of production are privately owned for the purpose of generating profit for private individuals. It assumes that the pursuit and accumulation of personal wealth is the most effective motivator. The majority of the world’s economies are functioning with at least some capitalistic elements.
At its best, capitalism expects that public interest will be fully served by the self-interested behaviour of individual producers and consumers. It encourages the development of a variety of goods and services, competitive pricing, continuous innovation, and economic growth.
At its worst, completely unregulated capitalism runs the risk of becoming extremely exploitive, leading to large income inequality gaps, and diminishing the democratic power of a large majority of the population. Money becomes power. The wealthy are free to strategically maneuver themselves the top of political and social systems, infiltrating government and lawmaking to assure that they can maintain a system that continues to support their wealth. Ultimately, a very small fraction of the population thrives at the expense of all others.
A major problem with capitalistic thinking is that the primary motivator for behaviour is making maximum profit, regardless of if it is hurting or helping anything else. All too often companies resort to manipulating consumer behaviour using marketing strategies and targeted advertising. They create false needs or target anxieties and insecurities in people and then profit from them. They pit working people against each other on the premise that the most desperate will accept the lowest wage. They unsustainably drain resources and contaminate natural spaces.
To be fair, the problems that arise from the worst kind of capitalism based economy are often a product of undesirable human character traits (like greed, selfishness, predation, or dishonesty) allowed to run rampant. Despite the positive attributes of a capitalism based economy, it’s hard to imagine how a system driven by individual greed could ever lead to a morally intact society that serves the best interest of all of its members.
Is capitalism destroying our climate?
Yes, and no. Unsustainable human activity is wreaking havoc on the natural world. It just so happens that much of current human economic activity is operating under a capitalism based system. If we were tearing through resources, waste-dumping, and burning oil at the same rate under any other system, we’d still be inflicting the same kind of damage. We are choosing to behave this way. The difficult thing about capitalism is the freedom and power it gives to business because it is exceptionally difficult to initiate a change that may require a sacrifice of profit. Even more challenging is establishing and enforcing consequences for those who refuse to cooperate. It’s not so much that capitalism is destroying the climate, but that it won’t let us stop doing it. Capitalists will fight to the death to keep their moneymaking freedoms untouched.
A well researched and persuasive book that discusses the conflict between capitalism and climate further is This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein. In it she passionately discusses the problems of free market capitalism, explores how it repeatedly slows or prevents action on climate change, and calls for a restructuring of the global economy. Among other things she argues that successful climate policy requires cooperation, but capitalism fundamentally encourages the opposite. She also argues that successful climate policy requires regulation from a government that is now largely controlled by an elite minority of wealthy capitalists, whose stranglehold on the government needs to be released.
Another growing capitalism-related problem is the fact that some poorer countries are making their move to rise out of poverty using capitalism based economies. Many of the poorest countries would gladly exchange some pollution for the benefits of economic growth. This could mean that the rate of destruction of the environment is set to accelerate in the very near future. Before we judge too harshly from our position of relative comfort and wealth, we must ask ourselves how this reasoning is any different from the reasoning that many of us use when we buy unethically made, poor quality items at big box stores to save a buck. It’s in our nature to ask: Why should I have to go without just because I am not currently one of the elite? This is the fastest way to get what I need, and I’m tired of being left behind. The rich have polluted to get where they are, why can’t I?
If not capitalism, then perhaps socialism?
The most often cited alternative to capitalism is socialism. Socialism is a social and economic system where the processes of production are owned or regulated by the whole of society. Various forms of socialism encompass a wide array of philosophies and a definitive description of socialism rarely covers every type.
At its best, socialism offers the freedom of a life unhindered by severe material and financial constraints. It encourages cooperation, a more balanced distribution of wealth, and production driven by need instead of profit.
At its worst, socialism reduces some of the incentives for enterprise and individual excellence. It slows technological advancement due to stifled competition. It is difficult to criticize socialism as a whole though, as each specific kind of socialism garners a very different collection of criticisms.
As expected, socialism is often vilified by the most enthusiastic capitalists. Conservative-types tend to be especially critical of any theory that refer to socialism because they associate the term with the most extreme form of communist-type socialism. They expect that any form of socialism would mean a denial or stunting of individual personal freedoms.
Countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, and Switzerland (to name a few) all are successfully running mixed economies with some socialist features and they consistently come out on top in world rankings of happiness and quality of life. The key to a more balanced socialist system seems to be including some capitalistic theories while maintaining a strong democratic component.
See HERE for more on the differences between capitalism and socialism.
What would environmentally friendly capitalism look like?
Is it unrealistic to expect almost everyone on earth to switch to a different economic system in the short amount of time that we have left to make a real difference? Perhaps. It would be a massive change and most people would be hesitant to jump into a drastically different system unless the situation were dire. Although I would argue that the situation is already dire, the majority of people don’t see it that way. From their perspective they are comfortable and relatively unthreatened.
So where do we focus our energy? If we are forced to maintain a capitalism based economy and to work within it’s confines, how can it be tweaked to consider a damaged and changing natural world? A capitalist would perhaps suggest funding for better technology. We could genetically modify our food to withstand the great extremes in climate that are to come. We could build better buildings to keep us safe from changing weather patterns. We can invent. Of course, we will need to increase military funding to fight off refugees, crusaders, the angry and hungry who will come after our resources when they are more scarce world wide. But that’s ok, because it’s good for the economy. We will use our brains to stay on top. One of the arguments often made in favor of capitalism is that it creates an environment for unending growth. We could just keep growing, right? Striving for unending growth within the closed and resource-limited system of earth doesn’t make logical sense though. Where does this eventually lead? To spaceships and an inevitable mass exodus from earth?
Unless we don’t mind using up this earth and then moving on, it makes the most sense to acknowledge the limitations of our natural system and reestablish a sustainable balance in our day-to-day living and business conduct.
A capitalist could then argue that we could use the power of consumers to influence the sustainability of a business. Consumers that cared enough about the environment would be expected to demand sustainable product, policy and practice from the businesses that serve them. Could all consumers manage this? Given that organic and sustainable products tend to be more expensive, even the most enthusiastic environmentalist would find this difficult to do if they were financially struggling. Realistically, many consumers are struggling. A question that also remains is if consumers are ever really in control of business practice or if businesses are ultimately in control, manipulating people into generating profit for them by both exploiting them as workers and misleading them into consuming their product.
Paul Tudor Jones II, an extremely wealthy, capitalism-loving, self-proclaimed philanthropist, believes he has a solution for how to better empower people to affect the behaviour of their society’s businesses. He has created a nonprofit organization called JUST Capital. The organizations primary goal is to rate and rank companies on how ‘just’ they are. Their definition of ‘just’ will be determined by the responses of 20,000 surveyed people from across the United States. The hope is that by measuring and publishing the Just Capital index results they will pressure corporations to function as more than profit generating machines. This attempts to do what a corporately bought democracy can no longer do: give power back to the people.
If the organization is run honestly, some of the keys to success will hinge on:
I’m not sure what is different about this approach than what the whole corporate social responsibility industry is trying to accomplish, but it will be interesting to watch how it progresses. On a personal note, I can only hope that respondents will list environmental responsibility as a primary concern and that companies will respond to this concern. The initial results are expected to be released fall 2015.
Watch Paul Tudor Jones II speaking about Just Capital HERE.
Running our own ship
We could bicker forever about the values of our preferred economic (and political and social) system. What we need right now, more than people who are sure they are right, are respectful discussions about what we want to achieve as a society and how we might get there. Most likely the answer lies not the extreme versions of either capitalism or socialism, but in a meeting place of all the best ideas from each individual camp of thought. We must also always strive to remove the ability of the wealthy to control major institutions and government, and demand that the power to control the direction of society rests democratically in the hands of the people. The most important question of all is is how can we best meet the needs of human beings and all life on the planet.
The most effective things that you can do right now is educate yourself, consider and discuss the issues that concern you, function on a day-to-day basis in a way that supports the kind of society that you believe in, support people that are speaking up for the kind of change you would like to see and communicate in a well informed and respectful manner to the people that have the power to make change (government members, business owners, institution leaders, respected members of society, etc.).
Capitalism itself is not the enemy of a healthy climate. Capitalism only creates an environment in which some of the darker components of human nature can fester. Perhaps it’s time that we are clear about the kind of behaviour that we will accept within the economic structure of our society. The more power that a person has to affect large components of our society with their decisions, the more imperative it is that the well being their fellow people, all living things, and the planet is at the core of their decision-making. Put simply, the real enemy of a healthy climate is any collection of human beings who don’t consider the health of their natural environment as an essential component of the choices that they make.