Capitalism and the Global Environment
Environmental interference and degradation are not new phenomena in the world today given that they have occurred throughout history. Humankind remains a key player in environmental degradation and interference, a perspective that ought to change. There is no doubt that environmental degradation and related harm to the environment has profound adverse effects on the existence and livelihoods of human beings. The collapse of most ancient civilizations such as the Maya and Mesopotamia can be attributed to ecological interference, which was facilitated by humans themselves (Newell, 2013). Today, when it comes to environmental degradation, the focus shifts to problems such as soil erosion, deforestation, salinization of irrigated soils, and environmental pollution. The modern era has done little towards protecting and conserving the environment and its resources, and this is highlighted by the fact that more people inhabit more of the earth. Besides, the modern era has seen the inception of technologies that cause greater and faster damage of the environment as compared to the ancient times (Newell, 2013). Most importantly, the modern-day economic system knows no bounds and would go an extra mile to ensure that economic development and progress is achieved, whether through conservation of the environment or not. It is important to note that the damage being done to the environment is so widespread that it not only affects regional and local ecologies, but it also affects the environment in entirety jeopardizing the existence of various species, humankind included (Magdoff & Foster, 2011).
In recent years, there has been a manifestation of problems that are as a result of environmental degradation and interference. One of these problems is the melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean during the summer season, which in turn results in the reduction of sunlight reflection paving the way for the enhancement of global warming. Another problem that has been manifested in recent years is the significant decrease of the world’s mountain glaciers, which has been influenced by continuous greenhouse gas emissions. Various views, perceptions, and opinions have been given on how the global environment can be sustained and protected from the current interferences. A few environmentalists have come up with the proposal that embracing capitalism would play a crucial role in the helping curb the continuous destructions and interferences that the environment faces. However, this has been opposed by other individuals who have raised more questions than answers on how a capitalist structure would help curb the environmental challenges at hand (Speth, 2008). Essentially, the role of the capitalist enterprise and structure has been to ensure maximization of profits without meeting societal and social demands or needs. In fact, all capitalists focus more on the maximization of individual profits rather than communal or societal profits, and this means that they can go to an extent of destroying the environment to maximize individual profits (Bryner, 2015). In the real sense, embracing capitalism would worsen rather than solve environmental issues at hand. As such, this paper discusses whether today’s most difficult environmental challenges can be successfully overcome as long as the global economic system remains capitalist.
The traditional perspective
According to the traditional perspective, environmental problems and challenges can be successfully addressed within a capitalist structure. One of the authors who championed for the embrace of capitalism with the intention of addressing the environmental challenges faced today is Garrett Hardin. As mentioned earlier, capitalism focuses on the achievement of individual rather than communal interests and goals (Speth, 2008). Hardin believed that abandoning capitalism for communalism would see communities share resources, and this would, in turn, pave the way for the destruction of the community together with its resources. While referring to the concept of “tragedy of commons,” Hardin opined that Commons would have a pasture open to all of them, and this would lead to competition among them resulting in the destruction of the environment in the long run. For instance, Hardin believed that with the communal structure, an individual, in this case, a herdsman, would focus on expanding his herd, an insinuation that an additional cost of grazing would be incurred. The expansion of individual herds in a communal structure would be accompanied by reduced food for animals and rapid soil erosion and depletion, which are some of the crucial environmental challenges faced in the world today (Speth, 2008). Essentially, every person in a communal society would find it necessary to expand their residence and investment, a perspective that would be embraced by every rational individual in such a community paving the way for menaces such as overstocking and overgrazing, which contribute to environmental degradation and interference. As such, Hardin believes that the only way out of environmental problems and challenges is embracing a capitalist structure. According to Hardin, a capitalist structure emphasizes on the satisfaction of individual interests and private ownership of property, and the latter would do a better job of ensuring that the environment is cared for and preserved. Hardin insists that the commons system must be abandoned for the capitalist system, which in turn, would play a crucial role in successfully addressing environmental problems faced in society today.
Stephen Hawking also supports the fact that embracing a capitalist structure would play a key role in successfully addressing environmental problems or challenges faced in society today. Hawking attributes most of the environmental problems such as pollution and global warming to the spread or distribution of wealth and technology in society (Newell & Paterson, 2010). Hawking’s main argument is that if machines were to produce everything needed by human beings, the outcome of the same on the environment, whether positive or negative, would depend on the how technology or wealth is distributed in the world. Hawking believes that with a socialist structure or system, technology and wealth would be shared among humans, and this would ensure that everyone enjoys a luxurious life. However, the distribution of wealth and technology in society would expose the environment to various threats such as pollution or degradation, and hence the need to abolish the socialist structure. With the capitalist structure, Hawking believes that machine-owners or individuals owning various technological facilities would lobby against the distribution of wealth and technology, and this would minimize or eradicate possible environmental problems that would be caused by the spread of wealth and technology in society (Bryner, 2015). Hawking’s main proposal is that a capitalist structure ought to be embraced, as it would prevent the spread of technology and wealth, which in the long run contribute to environmental problems such as pollution and degradation. Hawking adds that as much as capitalists focus on maximization of profits, they are always at the forefront in pushing for the signing of climate-change agreements. For instance, capitalists have in recent times pushed for climate-change agreements with the aim of ensuring higher agricultural productivity and increased incomes for themselves (Newell & Paterson, 2010). It should be noted that with such agreements, environmental problems have been addressed, and this is highlighted by the fact that the capitalist-influenced climate change agreements have seen a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and greater climate resilience.
By pushing for the embrace of a capitalist structure, Hawking believes that this would see an increase in prices of commodities such as carbon, which would see a decreased usage of the same. Hawking is of the opinion that increasing the price of carbon and related products as emphasized by the capitalist structure would serve as a way of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and lowering of climate risks (Newell & Paterson, 2010). With these perspectives in mind, it is agreeable that environmental problems can be successfully addressed within a capitalist structure.
Another author, Thomas Homer-Dixon, in the book “Environment, Scarcity, and Violence,” focuses on the factors and events that have resulted in the environmental problems witnessed in society today. Homer-Dixon’s main argument is that the rapid growth in human population over the years has seen an increase in the demand and competition for available natural resources such as water, food, and land. He continues to give a prediction that the world will face a significant growth in scarcities of resources such as cropland, forests, and fresh water (Lovins, 2013). In essence, the competition for the available resources can be attributed to the socialist structure, which emphasizes on the need for human beings to share the available resources. Homer-Dixon argues that the competition for the scarce resources in the world as a result of the socialist structure has not only led to environmental problems such as degradation and pollution, but has also caused violence, inequality, and migration of people from one part of the world to another. Homer-Dixon also believes that the socialist structure, which stresses the communal sharing and ownership of property, has resulted in ecological marginalization, which in turn, has led to environmental problems, especially when the ecological marginalization occurs in combination with the capture of resources (Lovins, 2013). Homer-Dixon gives an example of Chiapas, in Mexico, which was a result of the socialist culture, the population of indigenous people as well as field workers increased significantly, triggering an increase in the demand for the available resources such as agricultural land. Several locals claimed that the available land exposed the environment to challenges such as overstocking, overgrazing, and soil depletion. As such, Homer-Dixon believes that competition for scarce resources can be prevented by a capitalist structure, which ensures that only a few elites are in control of the available resources such as land, and thus, preventing their depletion and exposure to several other threats. From this perspective, a deduction can be made that most of the environmental problems or challenges seen in the world today can be successfully addressed within a capitalist rather than a socialist structure.
Werbach being a traditionalist also supports the argument that global environmental problems or issues such global warming, environmental pollution, depletion of resources, and several others can be successfully addressed through embracing a capitalist structure, which dominates the universe today. According to Werbach, there is likelihood that with the capitalist structure, the human population will be motivated and encouraged to utilize the environment in a conservative manner, which in the long run would contribute to the maximization of profits (Liodakis, 2010). Werbach believes that a capitalist structure would see a few individuals control the available resources, and as much as this would help in the sustenance of profits earned from the environment, it would also reduce competition and demand for the scarce resources. In the real sense, a capitalist structure, although opposed by a significant percentage of the human population, would be beneficial in eradicating or preventing environmental problems, which would otherwise be influenced by the socialist structure (Bryner, 2015).
The critical perspective
The critical perspective opposes the traditionalists in that the former argues that the capitalist structure is the catalyst of environmental problems and issues seen in the world today. Several authors including Beder, Magdoff, Polychroniou, Foster, Butler, Williams, and Wallis, argue that environmental problems cannot be solved successfully within a capitalist system or structure. As supporters of the critical perspective, the mentioned authors argue that the collapse or death of the environment can be attributed to the selfish interest and motives of capitalists. As mentioned earlier, capitalists focus more on the maximization of individual profits without considering the impacts of the same on the environment (Liodakis, 2010), and this is one of the factors that underscore the impossibility of solving environmental problems using the capitalist structure.
One of the supporters of the critical perspective, Wallis, argues that capitalists focus more on the use of non-renewable rather than renewable energy sources such as wave and wind energy. In the real sense, the use of nonrenewable energy sources result in environmental problems such as pollution, and thus, capitalism has a hand in the environmental problems seen in the world today. Wallis points out that, capitalists cannot and have never thought of maximizing their individual profits by investing in the use of renewable energy sources such as wave and the wind. Instead, they give preference to the destruction of the environment through practices such as deforestation and over-exploitation of mineral resources such as coal while aiming at satisfying their selfish interests (Carton, 2009). Evidently, capitalists argue that cutting down trees for use as sources of energy is more profitable than using wind or wave energy, and this exposes the environment to threats such as depletion and soil erosion (Magdoff & Foster, 2011). In fact, by concentrating more on non-renewable than renewable energy sources, capitalists are not keen with the conservation and sustenance of the environment for current and future generations, and thus, the argument that environmental problems cannot be solved successfully within a capitalist structure is underscored.
Beder also supports the critical perspective as he argues that capitalism, which dominates the world today, cannot allow common individuals to implement ideas such as using renewable energy sources rather than non-renewable energy sources. Capitalists have vested interests in the push for the use of non-renewable energy sources. In the White House, for instance, decision-making processes are dominated by hydrocarbon capitalists, who focus on maximization of profits through burning of hydrocarbons without taking into consideration their adverse effects on the environment (Magdoff & Foster, 2011). There is no doubt that a significant percentage of the global capitalist population has invested a lot in carbon-burning activities due to their high profits recorded in the long run. With Beder’s argument in mind, the fact that environmental problems cannot be solved successfully within a capitalist structure is strongly supported.
Similarly, Foster is a strong supporter of the critical perspective as he believes that almost all capitalist states are captives to capitalist individuals with vested interests. He believes that capitalist nations value profits obtained from activities or operations, which have negative impacts on the environment. For instance, most capitalist nations, value profits obtained from fish more than the environment, and this is why such countries have not come out to champion for the abandonment of practices such as overfishing (Magdoff & Foster, 2011). The practice of overfishing has adverse impacts in that it alters what the human population eats and the world in entirety. Such a practice is evident in Asia and Africa, where illegal fishing nets are used to scoop all fish together with other organisms from water sources. A continuation of such practices results in depletion of available resources, and this is one of the major environmental issues in society today (Carton, 2009).
Polychroniou believes that capitalist countries are in constant fight and war over the scarce resources that are available, and this is triggered by the selfish interests of capitalist nations. Polychroniou stresses that the capitalistic structure is neither democratic nor egalitarian, and this is because it is destined to meet the needs of the wealthy individuals at the expense of the poor individuals (Carton, 2009). He continues to argue that capitalism is one of the most advanced forms of commodity production, in which profit extraction is the key driving force, and this is accompanied by overexploitation of natural resources and inequality. It should be noted that overexploitation of resources paves the way for environmental problems such as global warming, soil erosion, and others (Bryner, 2015). As such, the fact that exploitation of resources, which triggers multiple environmental problems, is masterminded by capitalist individuals and states implies that the capitalist structure cannot successfully help address environmental problems and issues seen in the world today.
Another author, Magdoff, believes that capitalism plays a significant role in the environmental problems witnessed in the world today. He argues that one of the biggest environmental problems today, global warming, is an attribute of negligence on the side of capitalist states. Magdoff claims that capitalist nations came together at Kyoto, with the intention of coming up with a solution to global warming, which remains one of the biggest environmental problems today. Madgdoff goes ahead to explain that one of the leading capitalist nations, the US, pulled out of the conference, despite being one of the countries that contribute to global warming. It should be noted that the US alone accounts for approximately 5 percent of global population and almost 25 percent of global carbon emissions (Carton, 2009). With these facts and figures in mind, the move by the US to opt out of the Kyoto agreement can be seen as way of opposing the proposal to come up with a solution to global warming, an insinuation that the US is one of the several capitalist nations with vested interests (Magdoff & Foster, 2011). A similar opinion is shared by Williams, who argues that several countries, which met in Kyoto, and agreed to curb global warming have made no commitment towards the achievement of the same. Williams goes ahead to mention that capitalist states exhibit laxity when it comes to controlling activities and operations of capitalist companies that contribute to environmental problems such as emission of carbon gases. On the same note, Butler gives an argument that the Kyoto agreement, which was formed by capitalist nations, is unlikely to solve global warming, which remains one of the greatest environmental problems or issues in the world today. Butler also argues that most of the interventions agreed upon by the capitalist nations when they met in Kyoto are yet to be implemented, underscoring the fact that environmental problems cannot be solved successfully within a capitalist structure.
The idea that capitalists show little or no commitment towards solving or addressing environmental problems can be seen in the film This Changes Everything. The film focuses on the re-imagination of the vast challenge of climate change, which to some extent is influenced by capitalist practices, which focus more on the maximization of profits rather than conservation and sustenance of the environment (Klein, 2015). In the film, there is a presentation of communities that are against capitalist practices that result in environmental problems. It is evident that capitalists are more concerned with maximization of profits than the protection of the environment in the restriction of access to a military base where an environmental disaster is in progress. Moreover, in the film, capitalists are the masterminds of fossil fuel extraction in Powder River Basin, and they focus more on profits obtained than the potential consequences of oil spillage on the environment. It takes the intervention of a couple, Mike and Alexis, who organize protests against fossil fuel extraction and form a new alliance that pushed for the embrace of solar energy, to solve the environmental problem that resulted from irresponsible fossil fuel extraction masterminded by capitalists. This is an illustration that capitalists have selfish interests, which cannot help to address environmental problems successfully (Klein, 2015).
Furthermore, in the film, it is seen that capitalists use the issue of an economic crisis to justify their actions of mining and drilling, which have adverse effects on the region’s mountains, seas, as well as vegetation. It can be deduced that capitalists focus more on profit maximization and satisfaction of selfish interest notwithstanding the effects of actions such as mining and drilling (Klein, 2015). Also, in the film, it is seen that capitalists are behind the establishment of a coal-fired power plant, which in the long run destroys the nearby life-giving wetland. In the real sense, environmental problems in the movie This Changes Everything, are influenced or triggered by capitalist practices and actions, and thus, embracing a capitalist structure would not help to successfully solve environmental problems witnessed in society today.
Apart from the authors and the film discussed above, there are several other explanations or facts that highlight the neglect, which results in a continuous deterioration of the environment in the hands of capitalists. It is important to note that capitalists while aiming at maximizing profits have leveraged on improved cultivation techniques to increase productivity and profitability in the end. However, these techniques have adverse effects on the environment as they cause over-cultivation and leave the land in desert-like condition, as is the case of Mesopotamia and Persia (Klein, 2015). In such cases, capitalists have no planning or concern when it comes to matters related to the environment, and push for the implementation of their capitalist practices instead (Klein, 2015).
Capitalists have gone ahead to defend their decisions of showing less concern and attention to the environment with two facts: that the earth is overcrowded and that resources are limited to satisfy the needs of the human population. One of the capitalists, Thomas Malthus argued that initially the world was destined for greater things when it comes to environmental sustainability although this was jeopardized by overpopulation. Several capitalists argue that the universe itself is under immense pressure, and because of this, it is not capable of supporting the human population and other resources in it (Newell & Paterson, 2010). These ideas were incepted by Malthus when the population of the earth was less than 10 million people, highlighting the level of selfishness among capitalists. The global population has increased drastically over the years, and the same idea of overcrowding and limitation of resources is still used by capitalists to justify their reluctance to support practices that would help enhance environmental sustainability. There is no doubt that capitalists are not concerned with the environment and the poor people that live in the same environment, and as such, abandoning the much-hyped capitalist culture remains the only option for those with the aim of conserving the environment for future generations (Bryner, 2015).
In a nutshell, based on the perspectives discussed above, the critical perspectives tend to overshadow the traditional perspectives, and this implies that humanity and the environment, in general, will not survive on capitalism. First, capitalists tend to focus more on the use of non-renewable rather than renewable energy sources such as wave and wind energy. In the real sense, the use of nonrenewable energy sources result in environmental problems such as pollution, and thus, capitalism has a hand in the environmental problems seen in the world today and cannot help in the solution of the same (Newell & Paterson, 2010). Second, it should be noted that the capitalist culture, which dominates the world today, cannot allow common individuals to implement ideas such as using renewable energy sources. Instead, the capitalist culture stresses on the use of non-renewable energy sources such as coal and carbon because of the profits obtained. However, the non-renewable energy sources have adverse effects on the environment over the long term. Third, capitalist nations value profits obtained from activities or operations, which have negative impacts on the environment. For instance, most capitalist nations, value profits obtained from fish more than the environment itself, and this is why such countries have not come out to champion for the abandonment of practices such as overfishing. Overfishing is a practice that not only results in the exploitation of fish but also other vital resources found in water, and a continuation of such practices would leave compromise environmental sustainability. Fourth, capitalism is one of the most advanced forms of commodity production, in which profit extraction is the key driving force, and this is accompanied by overexploitation of natural resources and inequality, which pave the way for environmental problems such as global warming, soil erosion, and others (Newell & Paterson, 2010). Fifth, and most important, is the fact that most capitalist nations such as the US are not involved or show no commitment towards curbing environmental problems such as global warming, deforestation, soil erosion, overfishing, and others. Most of these countries, the US being a perfect example have vested interests, and thus focus more on the interests than the environment. They show no concern for the conservation of the environment, and with these perspectives, it is agreeable that environmental problems cannot be solved successfully within a capitalist structure, and thus a viable alternative would be global eco-socialism.
Bryner, G. C. (2015). Protecting the global environment. Routledge. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.ke/books?hl=en&lr=&id=KmLvCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Bryner,+G.+C.+%282015%29.+Protecting+the+global+environment.+Routledge.&ots=fQuPr0ea7y&sig=hgZYrQ-VHpphBIVuSqGVNKs_2rg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Carton, W. (2009). Nature and the Myth of a Sustainable Capitalism (Doctoral dissertation, Master thesis. Aalborg University).
Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster. Retrieved from http://www.felj.org/sites/default/files/docs/elj361/21-147-Blakeway-Final-4.27.pdf
Liodakis, G. (2010). Political economy, capitalism and sustainable development. Sustainability, 2(8), 2601-2616.
Lovins, L. H. (2013). Climate capitalism (Vol. 2). Island Press.
Magdoff, F., & Foster, J. B. (2011). What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism: A citizen’s guide to capitalism and the environment. New York: Monthly Review Press. Retrieved from http://links.org.au/files/WEENTKACchp3.pdf
Newell, P. (2013). Globalization and the Environment: Capitalism, Ecology and Power. Oxford: Wiley.
Newell, P., & Paterson, M. (2010). Climate capitalism: Global warming and the transformation of the global economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Speth, J. G. (2008). The bridge at the edge of the world: Capitalism, the environment, and crossing from crisis to sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press.