Andreas Späth

Can capitalism be green?

2010-08-11 07:42

To make a 700-word story short: no, I don’t believe it can. It’s possible to make it green-er, yes, but I don’t think that capitalism is consistent with sustainable, long-term human existence on this planet.

I know that many of you will disagree with me on this one, so let’s take a step back to begin with. I would think that the majority of us can agree that we’re facing a growing environmental crisis. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pollution and deforestation on a massive scale – the list of environmental woes is frightening. Most of us would further concede that human activities are predominantly to blame for this situation. If you don’t think so, don’t bother reading any further.

If you ask people what the causes of our environmental predicament are, they typically come up with one or several of the following:

- human greed and selfishness,

- corporate greed and selfishness,

- a materialistic consumer culture,

- aggressive rivalry over natural resources among individuals, companies and countries,

- a philosophy that values financial profits over people and planet, and

- a preoccupation with competition rather than co-operation.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these some of the defining characteristics of capitalism? Then why don’t we identify capitalism as the culprit? The fact that capitalism, as a dominant mode of organising our human interactions, might be at the root of the dilemma is entirely absent from the mainstream discourse in the media and elsewhere.

It’s as though capitalism is the new über-expletive. The C-word that can’t be mentioned in polite society.

Capitalism is predicated on continuous and expanding growth accomplished by the exploitation of human labour and the natural world, which are converted into commodities to be turned into profit and capital. Everything – air, soil, ore, plants, oil, genetic blueprints, indigenous knowledge – has a price and if it doesn’t, it’s of no value and can be trashed with gay abandon. Nature is seen simply as a repository of raw materials. On a local and global level, capitalism depends on deep inequalities between wealthy elites and a working multitude, between resource-extracting humans and resource-yielding nature and on market mechanisms that have proved to be too slow and unresponsive to environmental crises.

It doesn’t take a brainiac to realise that on a finite planet a system like that can only have one final destination: collapse.

Corporate flirtations with so-called green capitalism have amounted to little more than greenwash in which the much-vaunted triple bottom line equates not to economic, social and environmental benefits, but simply to profits, profits and more profits. BP’s disgraceful tumble from the PR rhetoric of “Beyond Petroleum” to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe serves as the most recent example.

That’s not to say that attempts to make industries and businesses more eco-friendly are completely useless. They’ll buy us a bit of time, but ultimately they’ll amount to little more than a rearranging of the deck chairs on a sinking ship. Our problems are deeper and more fundamental. What’s needed is a systemic change in the way we organise our entire civilisation and since capitalism is the dominant force, it needs to go.

So what’s the alternative? Don’t look at me! I have some ideas and suggestion, but no ready-made solution. Those of us on the political left have precious little to point to when it comes to ecological success stories. Most definitely not in countries that were or are supposedly run along socialist lines. There certainly isn’t anything that’s inherently environmentally sustainable in socialism the way it’s been defined traditionally.

At the very least, it seems to me, we need to make a fundamental shift in the way we relate to nature – as part of it, rather than apart from it. Furthermore, we need to recognise the intimate links between our environmental and social problems. There can be no social justice without environmental justice and vice versa.

For now, I’d be happy if we simply managed to get what has to be one of the most important environmental debates of the 21st Century on the public agenda. We need to collectively answer the question: what is to come after capitalism?

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

Send your comments to Andreas Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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