Sample Essay on Capitalism and the Global Environment

Abstract

The modern world and society have seen recurrent practices that contribute or play a role in environmental degradation and interference, practices that have to some extent become part of human life. There is no doubt that capitalism and its supporters have played a role in the environmental problems witnessed today. As such, this paper examines whether embracing capitalism can help to successfully overcome environmental problems or not. The perspective of capitalism and how it has resulted in environmental destruction and degradation are discussed at length in the introductory section of the paper. There is an extensive analysis of the traditional and critical perspectives of capitalism and the global environment. This is supported by facts and arguments from the film This Changes Everything and other additional sources.

Capitalism and the Global Environment

Introduction

The modern world and society have seen recurrent practices that contribute or play a role in environmental degradation and interference, practices that have to some extent become part of human life. In fact, environmentalists and organizations pushing for the conservation of environment have found it hard to eradicate these practices. It comes as a surprise that humankind, who suffers because of environmental interference, has been at the forefront of environmental degradation without taking into consideration the consequences of involvement in the same. Human livelihood and existence in society today has been jeopardized and threatened by adverse effects of environmental degradation and other related disturbances. A perfect example of how human livelihoods have been affected by the already mentioned practices is the fall or demise of various kingdoms and nations such as Mesopotamia and the Maya, which are renowned ancient kingdoms. Common human practices that result in environmental disturbance include deforestation, over-cultivation, overgrazing, overfishing, poor agricultural practices, and most importantly, pollution of the environment. The latter is without a doubt one of the major challenges that the environment faces today, with several harmful and toxic substances being released recklessly into the natural environment. Rivers, soils, and the atmosphere have been intoxicated in recent years, and this, is as a result of the human release of industrial and domestic wastes inconsiderably into the environment (Anderson & Bows, 2011). The modern world and its self-proclaimed protectors have done little to ensure that the environment and the resources in it are protected and conserved. This has been worsened by the fact that new technological advancements are adopted every day, and these have resulted in even worse environmental destruction than before. Today, economic development capitalizes on the environment, and it is common for economic-minded individuals to achieve economic mileage without taking into consideration the perspective of environmental conservation.

Imperatively, the destruction and disturbance targeted at the environment have adverse effects not only on local and regional ecologies but have also contributed to the loss of biological diversification and the death of myriads of living organisms in the long run (Anderson & Bows, 2011). Several environmental problems have become evident in recent years, and these include but are not limited to global warming, melting of ice in the Oceans especially the Arctic Ocean in summer, a reduction in the number of mountain glaciers worldwide, and continuous deforestation that have gradually led to desertification. With the manifestation of these perspectives, environmentalists have come forward to give their opinions on the interventions and strategies that ought to be put in place to ensure sustenance and protection of the environment from destruction. There is a belief among few environmentalists that capitalism is the way forward and the perfect solution for the environmental challenges faced today. On the other hand, the idea of embracing capitalism with an eye on ending current environmental challenges has faced opposition from a clique of environmentalists, who believe that capitalists are selfish individuals who would rather concentrate on their profits than the sustainability of the environment. In the real sense, capitalism and its supporters are known for their appetite for profit maximization without satisfying or meeting the demands of society in general. That is to say; all capitalists can go to an extent of damaging the environment to meet their selfish interests. As such, leveraging on the concept of capitalism would not aid do away with the environmental problems at hand but would instead worsen them. The purpose of this paper is to discuss whether today’s most difficult environmental challenges can be successfully overcome through a capitalist global economic system.

The traditional perspective

Supporters and proponents of the traditional perspectives believe firmly that embracing capitalism is the only way out of the environmental problems faced in society today. Several authors support the opinion of embracing capitalism as a way of bringing the environmental issues to an end, and they include Garrett Hardin, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Homer-Dixon, and Werbach. First, in respect of the opinion that capitalism concentrates more on the accomplishment of individual goals and selfish interests than those of the community or environment, Hardin believes that with communalism and socialism, sharing of environmental resources would be the order of the day, and this means that exploitation of resources would be inevitable paving the way for damage or destruction of the environment itself. Hardin explains this perspective clearly by bringing forth the aspect of “tragedy of commons.” He believed that through making pasture open to Commons, competition for the same would be evident, and this would pave the way for the massive destruction of environmental resources.

According to Hardin’s “concept of commons,” a herdsman in a communal structure will be obsessed with increasing and expanding his herd, and this would be accompanied by a significant increase in the costs of grazing, reduction in food meant for the herd, depletion of available resources, and overgrazing that would result in soil erosion, which presumably, is one of the greatest environmental challenges in society today. In a social and communal structure, every person would focus more on the expansion of his investments and residences, and none would be left behind in this, an insinuation that the pressure that would be mounted on the environment would lead to problems that include but are not limited to overgrazing, overstocking, soil erosion, salinization of the soil, as well as deforestation, which have a close connection to environmental disturbance and degradation (Anderson & Bows, 2011).  Hardin thus gives a suggestion that the only way out of most environmental problems is embracing a capitalist structure, which would prohibit individuals from expanding their residences and investments. Hardin proceeds to mention that capitalism insists on private ownership of property, and this means that communal sharing of resources would have no place paving the way for conservation, protection, and sustainability of the environment (Anderson & Bows, 2011). According to Hardin, communalism and socialism out to be abandoned and instead people should shift focus to a capitalist structure that would play a crucial role in successfully overcoming present environmental problems or challenges.

On the same note, Thomas Homer-Dixon has an eye on what causes the environmental problems that have raised more questions than answers in the world today. He addresses this concern in his book known as “Environment, Scarcity, and Violence” where his primary argument is that in recent years, the population of humans has increased significantly, and this has been accompanied by a doubled increase in competition as well as demand for the available environmental resources. According to Homer-Dixon, the failure to address the continuous increase in human population will worsen the competition for the available resources, a perspective that would lead to consistent migration of people, inequality and violence, pollution of the environment, poor agricultural practices, and encroachment in forested areas (Sandberg & Sandberg, 2010). A socialist structure, as argued by Homer-Dixon, would champion for communal sharing of property, and the connection between communal sharing of property and destruction of the environment is irrefutable. In his book “Environment, Scarcity, and Violence” Homer-Dixon mentions Chiapas in Mexico, as one of the socialist and communist cultures, which witnessed a significant increase in human population leading to demand, and in turn, exploitation of available  environmental resources. He argues that most of the locals in Chiapas scrambled for the available resources as allowed by the socialist culture, and this left the environment exposed to problems such as soil depletion, overgrazing, deforestation, and others. In the book, Homer-Dixon is in agreement with the argument that embracing a capitalist structure would see individuals of a high socioeconomic class spearhead the management of scarce available resources, and this, in turn, would protect the environment from the already mentioned challenges. Therefore, from Homer-Dixon’s argument, it would be right to conclude that embracing a capitalist structure would help to successfully overcome environmental challenges and issues faced in the world today.

Stephen Hawking is also one of the authors who strongly support the traditional perspective, with the view that capitalism is the only way out of the environmental problems that society faces today. According to Hawking, the manner in which wealth or technology is distributed from one region of the world to another has an influence on environmental problems. Hawking argues that some of the technological advancements in the world today are machines used both within and outside industries, and these have resulted in both positive and negative impacts on the environment (Sandberg & Sandberg, 2010). Essentially, Hawking’s belief is that abandoning a capitalist structure for a socialist structure would mean that wealth and technology are shared among people. Nevertheless, the distribution of wealth and technological equipment from one region to another would result in environmental problems such as pollution, and this is why Hawking believes that the socialist structure should be abolished and instead the capitalist structure adopted. Hawking proceeds to argue that a capitalist structure would see the wealthy and individuals from the high socio-economic class take control of technological equipment and wealth, and this would, in turn, reduce the spread or distribution of the same (Sandberg & Sandberg, 2010).

As a result, myriads of environmental problems, especially pollution would have been kept at bay. In his proposal, Hawking champions and pushes for the embrace and underscores the same with the fact that it would play an integral role in the prevention of environmental degradation and pollution. In his view, although capitalism is renowned for pushing for profit maximization, the proponents of the same are at the same time concerned with the signing of climate-change agreements, as seen in capitalist countries such as the United States. Hawking gives an example of a situation where capitalists have concentrated more on climate-change agreements to help them achieve maximum profits through increased agricultural production. With the climate-change agreements signed by capitalist states, some of the environmental problems such as deforestation and desertification have been on the decline, and thus, the fact that a capitalist structure would help to successfully overcome environmental challenges is underscored.  Other than capitalism influencing climate-change agreements, Hawking is of the opinion that a capitalist structure would be mindful of the economic interests of the elites, and thus, would be accompanied by a significant increase in the prices of goods and services globally. As such, the use, consumption, or purchase of products such as oil and carbon would be on the decline, paving the way for a reduction in the emission of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Another key contributor to the traditional perspective is Werbach, who firmly believes that the increase in environmental problems such as pollution, global warming, drought, desertification, as well as depletion of resources are attributed to the embrace of communalism and socialist structures. Werbach opines that embracing a capitalist structure would pave the way for the conservative, preservative, and sustainable use of environmental resources, and these, in turn, would ensure that profits are maximized in every economic sector. In the opinion of Werbach, and as seen in the arguments of other authors discussed above, with the embrace of capitalism, only the elites would be in possession of available scarce resources, a move that would see a significant reduction in the competition for resources among members of society (Hursh et al, 2015). That is to say, practices such as overgrazing, overfishing, overstocking, and depletion of resources would have been eradicated, an insinuation that capitalism would help to successfully overcome environmental problems or challenges in the world today.

The critical perspective

On the contrary, supporters and proponents of the critical perspective believe strongly that having a capitalist structure would be detrimental to the strides made globally in terms of environmental conservation and sustainability. Some of the proponents and supporters of the critical perspective include Beder, Foster, Polychroniou, Magdoff, Williams, and Wallis. In fact, the mentioned authors attribute current environmental challenges to the fact that capitalists spearhead and enforce their selfish interests at the expense of the environment. They believe that by focusing more on profit maximization and failing to consider the impacts that their practices have on the environment, capitalists cannot be trusted with bringing solutions to the environmental problems faced in society today.

To start with, one of the already mentioned supporters of the critical perspective, Wallis, opines that for several years, capitalists have been at the forefront of pushing for the use of non-renewable sources of energy instead of the globally accepted alternative sources that include but are not limited to wind, solar, and wave energy. The use of nonrenewable energy sources such as oil and other fossil fuels is on the rise, and this is one of the factors that have contributed to global warming in recent times. Moreover, the use of nonrenewable energy sources such as wood has resulted in environmental pollution, which as mentioned earlier, is one of the greatest environmental challenges in society today (Hursh et al, 2015). The fact that capitalism spearheads the use of nonrenewable energy sources means that it must not be embraced as it contributes significantly to environmental challenges. Wallis articulates that capitalists are strongly against the use of renewable sources of energy, as they see it as a threat to their profit maximization through investment in nonrenewable energy sources. It is evident that capitalists are the masterminds of practices such as overexploitation of mineral resources such as oil as well as practices including over-cultivation and deforestation. For instance, on several occasions, capitalists together with their supporters have argued that nonrenewable sources of energy are readily affordable, and thus, should be used. However, the use of nonrenewable sources of energy, as championed for by capitalists, exposes the environment to myriads of environmental problems such as soil erosion (Hursh et al, 2015). As such, this means that embracing a capitalist structure would be less beneficial in successfully overcoming the environmental problems seen in the world today.

Foster also falls among authors that have no confidence or trust in capitalists in their bid to solve or address environmental challenges witnessed in the world today. According to Foster, most of the activities or operations, from which capitalists obtain huge amounts of profits, have adverse impacts on the environment in general. He highlights that several capitalists nations, the US being an example, are not involved in the fight against illegal practices such as overfishing, and this is because of the hidden motive and selfish interests. It is imperative to note that capitalist states and individuals focus or concentrate more on profit maximization, and that is why they would rather continue with practices such as overfishing while ignoring the impacts of the same on the environment (Hursh et al, 2015). From a biological perspective, overfishing interferes with the biological diversity, and this is a threat not only to the fish but also to other organisms that survive symbiotically in the same habitat. It should be noted that practices such as overfishing, according to Foster, would result in the depletion of natural resources, and this is an environmental threat that is unlikely to be addressed by embracing a capitalist structure.

Foster’s sentiments are shared by Beder, who believes that capitalism, being one of the dominant structures in the world today gives no freedom or opportunity to individuals to implement rather beneficial ideas and strategies such as using renewable energy sources such as wave, wind, and solar energy. Beder opines that instead, capitalists are always at the forefront in pushing for the use of energy sources such as coal and oil, given the benefits they get from the same. He gives an example of the US, a capitalist nation that spearheads decision-making processes of mining of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Beder believes that by masterminding the mining and use of fossil fuels, the US and other capitalist nations aim at satisfying their selfish profit maximization interests rather than conserving the environment for future generations (Benton & Redclift, 2013). In the real sense, as articulated by Beder, capitalist investments in sectors such as carbon-mining and burning are astonishing, given the high profits they expect in the long run. Therefore, from Beder’s arguments, it can be deduced that having a capitalist structure will not help to successfully overcome environmental problems faced in society today.

Further, Polychroniou, a strong supporter of the critical perspective, is of the opinion that states are frequently engaged in wars because of the scramble for natural resources such as oil and other minerals. There is no doubt that these wars among states are triggered by the need to satisfy individual or selfish interests, perspectives that are seen only among capitalist states. According to Polychroniou, capitalism focuses more on meeting the demands of the wealthy individuals rather than those of the poor.  As such, Polychroniou believes that with capitalism, the need or urge to extract profits is the driving factor, a perspective which is succeeded by inequality and overuse or overexploitation of available resources in the environment (Benton & Redclift, 2013. Essentially, continuous overuse leaves the environment impoverished and damaged exposing it to events such soil erosion. With these perspectives in mind, it does not come as a surprise that capitalism cannot help overcome environmental problems in society today.

Magdoff is also not left behind when it comes to discrediting the capability of a capitalist structure helping successfully address environmental problems in the world today. He articulates that global warming which presumably is the greatest environmental challenge is a product of poor industrial practices in capitalist nations. While defending his argument, Magdoff opines that despite several nations coming together at Kyoto to forge a way forward and to find a solution to climate change and global warming, some of the capitalist nations withdrew their support for the same. For instance, the US withdrew its support for the need to come up with long-term solutions to global warming and climate change. However, the US itself is at the forefront in global carbon emissions, as it accounts for approximately 25 percent of the world’s total of the same (Bryner, 2015). By pulling out of the Kyoto agreement, the selfish interests of capitalists states such as the US are underscored, an insinuation that capitalism has little or nothing to offer when it comes to successfully overcoming environmental problems. Williams shares similar sentiments, as he articulates that despite meeting at Kyoto to solve climate change and global warming, several nations have shown no commitment towards achieving the goals set at Kyoto. William also states firmly that throughout the world, laxity is exhibited by governments when it comes to coming up with legislations and policies aimed at conserving and protecting environmental resources. Another author Butler also gives an account of the Kyoto agreement, mentioning that its probability of solving global warming is minimal as there is no commitment towards the achievement of the same. He supports his stand by the fact that most of the interventions and strategies agreed upon at Kyoto are far from being implemented, and this means that capitalism has taken center-stage in the fight against environmental problems.

The film This Changes Everything stamps the fact that capitalism has a great influence on environmental problems faced in society today. The film’s primary focus is on the challenges caused by events such as climate change, which without a doubt, is as a result of capitalist practices that concentrate on the maximization of profits while ignoring the need to conserve the environment and its resources (Klein, 2015). The film presents various communities and groups of people that are firmly against capitalism and its practices that contribute significantly to environmental challenges. In the film, there is a military base that restricts people from accessing a region where an environmental disaster is in progress. Presumably, the military base was under the control of capitalists who focused more on their selfish interests than those of common individuals, and as such, the latter was denied access to an area an environmental disaster triggered by human activities was in progress. Moreover, in the film, there is fossil fuel extraction in Powder River Basin, which must have been under the control of capitalists. Fossil fuel extraction has numerous adverse effects on the environment, but as seen in the film, the profit obtained from the extraction was a catalyst, and thus capitalists could not abandon the practice. The capitalist practice triggers reactions from poor individuals, Mike and Alexis, who are up in arms against fossil fuel extraction, given its adverse effects on the environment. Instead, Mike and Alexis push for the use of alternative energy sources such as solar. The occurrences or events in the film are a clear illustration that capitalists mind their interests at the expense of conserving and protecting the environment for future generations (Klein, 2015). Further, in the film, it is evident that capitalists leverage on the issue of an economic crisis to proceed with their practices of mining and drilling, and these jeopardize the natural environmental features such as mountains, seas, and vegetation in the region. Capitalists in the film worsen the situation at hand by establishing a coal-fired power plant, which in the long run damages the nearby life-giving wetland, and this underlines the argument that capitalism cannot help overcome environmental challenges in society today.

The adverse effects of capitalist practices in the environment notwithstanding, capitalists have defended their actions based on the facts that the high human population coupled with the scarcity of resources in the environment imply that protection of the environment is unnecessary. Capitalists argue that the environment might be protected today, yet it will still be destroyed by human encroachment owing to the ever increasing population (Gupta et al, 2008). The fact that capitalists are less concerned with the conditions and well-being of the environment cannot be doubted, and thus, the only way forward for the common man is to embrace alternatives that would promote communal existence, which would champion for environmental sustainability and conservation.

In conclusion, with the perspectives discussed above, it should be noted that capitalism’s adverse effects are felt more than its positive effects. As such, it is irrefutable that human beings and the environment in entirety are unlikely to survive on a capitalist structure. As discussed above, capitalists are always at the forefront in pushing for the use of nonrenewable energy sources, which harmful to the environment. These sources such as coal and oil interfere with the ozone layer resulting in global warming, which remains the greatest threat to the environment today. The fact that capitalists push for the use of the mentioned energy sources implies that embracing a capitalist structure would be suicidal to the environment and the people or organisms in it. Other than pushing for the use of nonrenewable sources of energy, capitalism is strongly against the embrace of interventions that would help address environmental problems yet jeopardizing their profit maximization. For instance, the push for the formulation of legislations and policies to prevent the release of industrial wastes into the environment has been strongly opposed by capitalists, given that they control and own most of the industries contributing to the pollution of the environment. This is an insinuation that capitalists focus more on profit maximization than the sustainability and conservation of the environment. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, overfishing is a practice that is supported and spearheaded by capitalist nations, and they do not see the need of abandoning the same as it is profitable to them (Gupta et al, 2008). In essence, overfishing results in the exploitation of water resources and also results in the extinction of specific species, and thus, it should be abandoned. The latter is yet to be witnessed as capitalists control the global economic and political sectors making it hard for individuals from low socioeconomic classes to have their say in global matters. Agreeably, environmental problems cannot be overcome successfully within a capitalist structure, an implication that other viable alternatives such as global eco-socialism are necessary.

References

Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2011). Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20-44.

Benton, T., & Redclift, M. (2013). Social theory and the global environment. Routledge.

Bryner, G. C. (2015). Protecting the global environment. Routledge.

Gupta, K. R., Jankowska, M. A., & Maiti, P. (2008). Global environment: Problems and policies. New Delhi: Atlantic.

Hursh, D., Henderson, J., & Greenwood, D. (2015). Environmental education in a neoliberal climate. Environmental Education Research, 21(3), 299-318.

Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster.

Sandberg, L. A., & Sandberg, T. (2010). Climate Change: Who’s Carrying the Burden: The Chilly Climates of the Global Environment Dilemma (Vol. 3). Canadian Centre Policy Alternatives.