Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Healthy capitalism has led to a very sick planet.

“We are clearly the last generation that can change the course of climate change, but we are also the first generation with its consequences.” Kristalina Georgieva, the CEO of the World Bank. 

Capitalism dominates the globe. Owners of capital control the means of production and their goal is to build profits. Many argue that market is the way to combat climate change and push for carbon taxing and trading and geo-engineering technical fixes.  By its very nature, capitalism seeks only to grow and accumulate – an idea that is diametrically opposed to a sustainable existence. A stationary state would mean certain disaster for a capitalist economy. Growth is simply essential for its survival. Spurred on by competition, capitalism seeks to constantly re-invest surplus into more capital; a system of self-expansion seeking only greater accumulation. The concept of stationary capitalism is an oxymoron. Not only does capitalism need to expand its resource production and consumption, but it also must seek out new markets in which to establish itself. The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means the expansion of production. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

The structural necessity of continual expansion is expressed in the mandate of corporations with stock traded on exchanges to maximise profits on behalf of their shareholders above all other considerations. There are well-meaning people who criticise the excess profits of corporate plunder and seek a remedy through restraint. One need only observe how swiftly institutional investors and stock-holders at AGMs punish director boards that fail to meet expectations. “Enhancing shareholder value” is a corporation’s reason for existence.

Joel Bakan recounted in his book, ‘The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power’ of his interview with Milton Friedman at the time when John Browne, then the CEO of BP, had launched a public-relations offensive claiming that environmental stewardship would now be a primary goal for BP. Bakan writes:
“ When I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions...‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

Richard Smith, in a paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, describes another problem with “green capitalism”:

“The problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption...Under capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption...There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those ...whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed...Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”

 “Green” enterprises are not exempt. They, too, are pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Smith writes:
“Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.”

Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances.

Many are touting a mythical new "green economy" they say will solve all our climate challenges. Under the rhetoric of “green economy”, capitalists are actually attempting to use nature as capital, proposing unconvincingly that the only way to preserve natural elements such as water and forests is through capitalist investment. For capitalists, nature is mainly an object to possess, exploit, transform and especially to profit from. This will open the door to the development of a new speculative market. This will allow some banks, corporations, brokers, and intermediaries to make a lot of profit for a number of years until their financial bubble explodes, as can be seen with past speculative markets. While still ill-defined, they're generally referring to a model of economic growth based on massive private investment in clean energy, climate-resistant agriculture, and ecosystem services - like the ability of a wetland to filter water. Under this new concept, Wall Street gets to reap profits from a whole new line of business, and governments get to spend less protecting the environment. 

Nature cannot be submitted to the will of the market. Putting a price on things like water or biodiversity as a way of managing their use turn them into commodities and risk having basic needs and services fall victim to speculators who make money off volatile prices. Does it make sense to put the future of our remaining common resources - forests, genes, the atmosphere, food - into the hands of people who treated our economy like a casino? Powerful transnational corporations and international businesses councils have successfully pressed for the ‘marketisation’ which will amount to a dramatic expansion of the commercialisation and commodification of the natural environment and its life services. In effect, genuine sustainable development has therefore been denuded of meaning and is not supported by concrete measures to move away from the logic of capitalist growth that destroys irreplaceable ecological resources.

 Capitalism, a system based on the drive to accumulate more and more (endless and unlimited growth) – is at the root of these crises. Capitalism cannot be green.

Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business, as usual, is leading humanity. Putting the environment first in a capitalist economy is not realistic, and doing so anyway would be very costly due to capitalist dynamics. The fundamental issue is that it can’t imagine a world without capitalism. It has much company in that. But a future in which we live in harmony with nature, rather than destroying nature for profit, can only be a very different world.  However, there is much truth in Frederic Jameson's claim then that it is easier for many people to "imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism"

Hope appears increasingly to have fallen prey to predatory global capitalism and its engulfing insecurity that have reduced human life to the task of merely striving to survive. Never have we required more urgency for a new political imagination to transform the world for the better. A good society of the future, one with a sustainable economy, must be a socialist society. 

1 comment:

Tim Hart said...

Another great article! Capitalism is destroying our planet and the joint stock company - manifest nowadays in huge transnational corporations - is at the vanguard of this pathological juggernaut. To expect such corporations to abandon the essence of their function, as the engines of capitalism through the pursuit profit and growth, is like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. We don't have the time to wander down yet another blind alley of 'green' market solutions. Those pulling the strings know that this won't work. Yet they continue the pretense that the market is the answer because...........Why? They are going to burn like the rest of us unless they have already booked their place on Elon Musk's spaceship to Mars.