Is capitalism destroying the earth?

Is Capitalism destroying the earth

Here is a short answer to this question.

Yes, capitalism is doing a great deal to destroy the earth. The basic problem is that capitalism needs constant growth and the earth is a finite place, so sooner or later the earth gets to a point where it can no longer handle any more growth. Especially since capitalisms currently comes with so many nasty by-products such as CO2, chemical toxins, slurry ponds, fertilizers, automobiles and all the rest .

It is pretty clear that if we go on as we are now, capitalism will end up destroying the earth and us along with it.

But bear with me, there is a longer answer that is more hopeful.

In the first place, capitalism and science and technology are all tied together. You really don’t get one without the other.

The complete answer to my question begins with the fact that we need capitalism for lots of things. Capitalism, and its sisters, science and technology, has had all kinds of benefits for humans. For example, capitalism has given us medical technology. The next time your kid has a 105 degree temperature and the doctor gives him an antibiotic shot and saves his live instantly, ask yourself, “Would I want to give up medical technology.” That fever happened to one of my kids long ago and I have never forgotten how glad I was that the doctor had a powerful tool to use.

For another example of how this powerful combo of capitalism and science and technology has saved humanity again and again, think about poverty. Would you really want to go back to the bad old days of never having enough to eat, starving children, dying of old age at 40 and no real way to get warm in the winter? This was the human condition not all that long ago. Much of this was true even in the West not much longer than 100 years ago. And it’s still true in much of the third world.

Bottom line, science, technology and capitalism have combined to give us prosperity and a life that has the potential to give everyone on earth a good life. Granted, that is not happening right now, not even close. But the possibility is there.

So, here is another short answer to my question: capitalism is doing it’s share to destroy the earth right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Capitalism can be fixed. We can keep the good parts and junk the bad parts. And this is happening right now in some parts of the world.

Rock detail in a New Mexico arroyo

There are actually dozens of different kinds of capitalism ranging from pretty decent capitalism in places like Scandinavia in Europe and there are also some pretty awful kinds of capitalism, like the kind we have in the US.

Not long ago the New York Times printed a series of articles called the 1619 Project. The main point of these articles is that 2019 is the 400 year anniversary of the birth of slavery in the US. They made the very accurate point, in my estimation anyway, that over 200 years of slavery in the early years of America influenced many, perhaps most of America’s institutions. And one of the institutions most influenced was capitalism.

This series, the 1619 Project, pointed out that of the many kinds of capitalism all over the world, some beneficial and some very destructive, the US has by far the worst, the most brutal form of capitalism. And this came about because American capitalism begin with slavery. In the US we have what is often called “Low Road Capitalism.”

According to the Times article, “In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns and poverty spreads. In the United States, the richest 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the country’s wealth, while a larger share of working-age people (18-65) live in poverty than in any other nation belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.).”

Old barn in Teton National Park in Wyoming

As a result workers rights in the US are the very worst in the world. Below is another quote from the 1619 Project that a points this out very clearly.

“Consider worker rights in different capitalist nations. In Iceland, 90 percent of wage and salaried workers belong to trade unions authorized to fight for living wages and fair working conditions. Thirty-four percent of Italian workers are unionized, as are 26 percent of Canadian workers. Only 10 percent of American wage and salaried workers carry union cards. The O.E.C.D. scores nations along a number of indicators, such as how countries regulate temporary work arrangements. Scores run from 5 (“very strict”) to 1 (“very loose”). Brazil scores 4.1 and Thailand, 3.7, signaling toothy regulations on temp work. Further down the list are Norway (3.4), India (2.5) and Japan (1.3). The United States scored 0.3, tied for second to last place with Malaysia. How easy is it to fire workers? Countries like Indonesia (4.1) and Portugal (3) have strong rules about severance pay and reasons for dismissal. Those rules relax somewhat in places like Denmark (2.1) and Mexico (1.9). They virtually disappear in the United States, ranked dead last out of 71 nations with a score of 0.5.”

And since all of this is related, there is the same kind of gulf between American and European attitudes toward environment and climate. The European attitude, for the most part, is wildly pro-environment while the attitudes of many Americans is often angrily, wildly angrily, anti-environment.

This, of course is not a really fair comparison; I’m comparing the attitudes of one sector of the European public, the Greens, to the conservation sector of the American public and to the current US government. I am well aware that there are actually something like 60% of Americans who feel something needs to be done about climate change, but still, there is a big difference between European and American attitudes.

For example, not long ago the fact that a large percentage of honey bees world-wide were dying and close to extinction was the subject of many articles in Europe. When Greenpeace published the fact that bee colonies per hectare had decreased by 90%, many, many Europeans were horrified.

Mount Rainier and Indian Paintbrush

In the German state of Bavaria, the Green Party decided that something needed to be done. Suddenly “there were placards everywhere urging people to sign a petition calling for a referendum in support of environmental protection. The petition required signatures from about one million people: the equivalent of 10 percent of eligible voters in order to be submitted to the Bavarian legislature. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 13 this year, it got 1.8 million, stunningly overachieving.”

The article went on to comment that “Environmental concerns across Germany have given the Green Party a level of prominence unimaginable in the United States. “

And so, getting back to my original question: Is capitalism destroying the earth. Yes, in many ways and in many places it is, but it can be fixed. It won’t be easy, but capitalism can be fixed to help with both economic and environmental problems, specifically climate change. In my opinion and in that of many others, capitalism needs to be kept and fixed so that we can reap its benefits, not its horrors. There is no profit in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as they say.

Ponderosa country and red rocks in New Mexico.

After rereading this blog I thought I needed to add a final thought.

If capitalism is not destroying the earth, what is? One thing that is doing pretty extreme damage is corporate greed. While this sounds like capitalism, it is not.

You can have capitalism without corporate greed.

A good example of this is the period of equality in the US between 1945 and about 1965. In this period the US was a very prosperous country but it was shared mostly equally. This was the period in US history when many returning veterans of World War Two went to college for free on the GI Bill. This meant good educations and good jobs for many men. Many, many Americans could afford to buy their own homes and live a prosperous life in general.

This was one of the times in America when everyone expected their children to lead more prosperous lives than their own. And they did.

And this great equality was not an accident. US government deliberately created institutions to make sure it happened.

Snag and sunset I New Mexico

However, I’m afraid that the main thing driving the destruction of the earth is all of us. I’m afraid that all of us in the first world have gotten very used to lot of conveniences and comforts that we don’t want to live without. We all love our gas guzzling cars, our air conditioners, our air flights all over the world and our wonderful produce and meat. Not to mention our computers, iPhones, and the wonderful internet.

Not many people realize it, but the internet is hugely expensive. Some say that it will very shortly cost more than anything else in our modern world.

Things were not always this way though. Before humans discovered the great wealth in fossil fuels we lived far, far more frugally. With the discovery of coal and oil, humans embarked on a massive party that still has not come to an end. And I certainly include myself in this.

If we want to save our earth and ourselves along with it, we are going to have to somehow curtail this great party. And that is not going to be easy.


More to read on this subject:

One of the references below, We Need a New Capitalism, is written by a very successful American capitalist who says we need to change capitalism and who presents some pretty convincing ideas about how this might be done. There are actually a lot of American capitalists who agree with him. Progress is being made.

Opinion | Without Bees, We Are in Trouble

American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.

Opinion | Marc Benioff: We Need a New Capitalism

Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the many, not the few

Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the origins of inequality

Near Silverthorne Colorado
Ladd Peak in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. This is the headwaters of the Green River. You can jump across it at this point.

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