A quick online search for ‘capitalism and the environment’ instantly returns pages upon pages of articles, many written from the point of view that capitalism is the reason we are facing the environmental issues we see today. Many suggest alternatives, such as A Defence of Marxism: Capitalism and the Environment, while others like Consumerism and Capitalism and Destroying the Earth, simply offer a damning critique of the economic system that has governed our lives from the moment we were born.
This article, however, while not entirely supporting the capitalist system, will aim to persuade environmentalists and capitalists alike that the adversarial rhetoric being deployed by both sides is neither productive nor sustainable. Cooperation between these two seemingly opposing points of view is the only realistic way we can expect to create meaningful progress.
Of course, capitalism as we know it is by no means environmentally friendly. The unrestrained desire for progress, expansion, efficiency, and profits has created a society that thinks short-term and acts selfishly – an attitude most obviously apparent in the USA, the centre of the capitalist world where a population of around 325 million people consumes over 30% of the world’s resources. Capitalist industrialisation throughout the 19th and 20th century, as well as current growth within developing countries such as China and India, have resulted in an exploitation and overuse of fossil fuels so serious that as of 2015, we are projected to run out entirely within the next century. Our throw-away, single use, consumerist societies continue to use more than one trillion plastic bags and around half as many plastic cups every year. So how can a world order that is so obviously hell-bent on destroying the planet be in any way useful in our efforts to save the planet?
Before we address the question of how, we must first consider why capitalists and environmentalists should be cooperating. This is most obviously answered by the simple fact that capitalism quite literally runs the world.
‘Everything from the price of a Freddo to exchange rates of cotton production is controlled and maintained by a world system based on free markets and individualism.’
Some ecologists such as Murray Bookchin have called for an overthrow of this system in favour of communism, anarchism, and a host of other ideologies. However, this desire is not only unrealistic (how are we supposed to just change the way the world works overnight?), but also divisive. To advocate the overthrow of capitalism is to tell the majority of the world that they are wrong and we are right – no compromise, no discussion. This is not helpful in the slightest. Creating ‘us and them’ divisions within society is never productive, whether they be divisions of race, gender, sexuality, or politics. And of course, people never like to be told when they are wrong – especially people in power.
Not only can capitalism and ecologism cooperate, in some cases the principles of free market economics could even be beneficial to the ecologist cause. Capitalism in the digital and financial age is driven by the same motivations as capitalism during 19th century industrialisation, but its methods are different, and the political arena has changed greatly over the last 200 years. Today capitalism is truly global and affects every country on the planet – even if a state isn’t capitalist in itself. Therefore, if ecologist messages and policies can be aligned with capitalist principles, they would be reaching an enormous global audience. By aligning capitalist interests with those of environmentalism, we can utilise its international reach to promote green politics to an audience that is yet to understand its importance and urgency.
In order to achieve this, we must show it to be in capitalism’s interest to promote the ideals of ecologism. One of the capitalist principles that has survived the political and economical changes over the centuries is a belief in individualism and individual progress. Capitalism progresses and expands due to the efforts of individuals to better themselves and the market(s) they are part of, and until now environmentalism and sustainability movements have largely been seen as obstacles to this progress. Supermarkets cannot better themselves by spending more money to reduce plastic packaging, restaurants cannot increase profits by spending more on reusable straws as opposed to plastic ones, and oil companies will struggle to maintain themselves if they are not allowed to frack newly discovered sites. However, if we can present sustainable living as something that is not only in the interests of the planet and environment, but also the economy, then we could see a significant change in the ways that corporations and financially-driven individuals see ecologism and its policies.
Green politics is seen as anti-capitalist because current policy essentially is anti-capitalist. There is very little discussion around how free-market economics can be used positively. But there should be because, at the end of the day, capitalism has no interest in destroying the planet. Its growth and success depends on a steady and abundant supply of resources, as well as strong, consistent consumer demand. Short-term thinking, although it may appear to be in the interests of the market now, is not sustainable in the long run. Businesses will have to find new ways to make products as current manufacturing methods become inefficient, profits for non-environmentally friendly corporations will drop as the public become more ecologically aware and cautious about who receives their money, and energy companies will have to invest in new technologies as the old ways become redundant.
So let’s not wait for the system to collapse and make life more difficult for all of us. Instead, let’s encourage the capitalist world to see that their long-term interests are the same as ours; let’s make a conscious effort to choose sustainable products over the others in order to force the others to change; let’s support governments that reward companies for making those positive changes; let’s show businesses that we want them to succeed and grow for many decades to come; and let’s work together to save the planet – because after all, we all live here.
About the Author: Jack Harris is 20 years old and is currently studying Politics and International Relations BA at the University of York. In his spare time he loves to cook, travel, and sail.