Capitalist eco-sustainability is a contradiction in terms

”Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”, wrote Henry Thoreau in Walden in 1854. What he could not possible have known back then was that these hindrances were to become an actual threat to the ecological sustainability of the planet itself.

Modern economics of practically every persuasion prescribe continuous growth as a necessity for a thriving economy, but the assumed productivity advantage of capitalism is linked to its lack of sustainability. The problem with this view is that it depends on our planet having an infinite amount of resources and capacity to absorb pollution. But the assumption that our consumption can continue to grow while our CO2 emissions fall is highly improbable to say the least. Especially when capitalism has so clearly not been able to regulate itself to become more eco-friendly and sustainable. As leading climatologist Mark Maslin puts it,  “global warming is one of the few scientific theories that makes us examine the whole basis of modern society.”

So why don’t we own up to these facts and devise a more suitable system to this age of global warming? Maybe because our individual political systems are geared towards the individual person or nation and therefore cannot act for the common good of mankind as a whole. Or maybe because we react to overwhelming and terrifying dangers, such as the potential environmentally disastrous effects of global warming, with a mental and political paralysis that makes us inactive instead of empowering us to act. In doing so, we are foolishly acting more as annual plants, that usually germinate, flower, and die in a single year or season, and tend to produce many more seeds per plant since they will die at the end of the growing season, than perennial ones, that live for two years or more and are therefore not under the same pressure to produce large numbers of seeds every year as they can produce their seeds over a number of years.

Incidentally, the ”we” used in the previous paragraph is only meant for those living in the rich nations of the world. Many in the Southern, poor nations have owned up to the fact that the ecological crisis that is underway is caused primarily by the rich nations’ negligent and wasteful consumption and the subsequent CO2-pollution, and will, at least initially, affect the poor nations the most. And according to the UNDP’s Human Development Report from 2007-08, the environmental crisis will be the single-most important factor for the development of developing countries, or lack hereof, in the coming decades. Global warming caused by the wealthy nations therefore risks severely undermining the international efforts to eradicate poverty.

According to a publication released by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all countries are not to reduce their CO2 levels equally to avoid an unsustainable increase in global warming. “According to the UN, Denmark and other rich nations need to reduce their CO2 levels by 80-95% by the year 2050, whilst the developing nations initially only need to reduce the increase in their levels … The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reached these numbers by calculating which countries have the greatest economic capacity and the greatest responsibility for the CO2-emissions that have already occurred. But they have also taken into account the more moral argument that each and every one of us should be allowed to emit the same level of CO2 … And how much does this amount to in 2050? A little over two tons – one fifth of what each Dane emits today.” Perhaps the ministries should be forced to read their own publications…

Many so-called green capitalists are trying to salvage the status quo of growth-infused consumption by claiming that capitalist eco-sustainability is still viable or can be reformed. The problem is that capitalist eco-sustainability is a contradiction in terms and that corporate competition is the main cause of the present ecological crisis. As Australian activist Jim Green puts it, “Corporations that use the cheapest – usually the dirtiest – production processes are at a competitive advantage and can increase profits and/or market share.” These corporations have no moral “conscience”, as the small proprietorships of Adam Smith’s day had, and therefore lack any ethical regulative restraints.

And since green capitalists seemed to form a majority at COP 15 in Copenhagen and COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, both subsequently proved unsuccessful in ensuring any significant progress in reducing CO2 emissions worldwide. COP stands for Conference of the Parties and is a yearly meeting between countries that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that has been signed by 194 countries, including the USA, since 1992. It is an attempt to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses to avoid climate change, but has no binding obligations.

According to Naomi Klein, amongst many other commentators, COP 16 did little to further the aims of the Convention on Climate Change. “The Cancun Accord fails to establish binding commitments, it empowers the World Bank by opening up the possibility for more privatization, indebtedness and conditionalities, it establishes insufficient funds for responding to the impacts of global warming and taking up the task of adaptation, and it puts humanity at risk by threatening a rise in average temperature of greater than 2 degrees Celsius.”

According to Patrick Bond, climate capitalism therefore won ay Cancun and everybody else lost. “Most specialists agree that even if the unambitious Copenhagen and Cancun promises are kept (a big if), the result will be a cataclysmic 4-5°C rise in temperature over this century, and if they are not, 7°C is likely. Even with a rise of 2°C, scientists generally agree, small islands will sink, Andean and Himalayan glaciers will melt, coastal areas such as much of Bangladesh and many port cities will drown, and Africa will dry out – or in some places flood – so much that nine out of ten peasants will not survive.” One must thus conclude that COP 15 and 16 have done more harm than good, and that a collapse of COP 16 would have been preferable to the non-binding agreement that was its result, as they have failed to replace the binding obligations of the Kyoto protocol, that expires in 2012, with any new binding agreements or with anything resembling what is necessary to hold of an ecological disaster.

The fundamental belief in the selfishness of mankind in much of Western culture and society has brought about consumerist capitalism and its need for continuous growth – and this continuous growth is on its way to bringing about an ecological disaster. The trouble is that mankind is not inherently selfish, as many of the Western world’s revered thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith would have us believe.

Mankind is inherently sociable. Mankind has survived and prospered because of its sociability and mutual aid. The world need therefore not be driven by the belief that only self-interest and self-indulgency can drive society forward. To break the present greed-infused downward spiral, however, we need a change in mentality, consciousness and clarity that ensures that we act on this sociability. We need to act upon the inherent human solidarity and realize that now, more than ever; our own happiness depends on, and is interconnected with, everyone else’s.

One Response to Capitalist eco-sustainability is a contradiction in terms

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