Capitalism vs environment: Time to take sides

In The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, environmentalist Gus Speth makes fundamental connections between capitalism and environmental destruction. He writes:

Most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism we have today and … long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism.

The shock that Speth generates in making such a statement is not so much in what he says: many others have said much the same. The shock is felt more because of who says it. Very, very few mainstream environmentalist leaders in the developed world are willing to discuss capitalism, let alone question its relationship with the natural world, challenge its core assumptions or acknowledge the need for transformative changes to our economic system.

It’s time many more environmentalists followed Speth’s lead. Capitalism is the elephant sitting unacknowledged in the environmentalist’s living room.

Speth admits that he reached his conclusions about capitalism only “after much searching and with considerable reluctance.” After all, former White House advisors, UN senior bureaucrats and deans of Ivy League universities are not exactly renowned for their radical critiques of capitalism. So, in his book, Speth shows very carefully how he weighed the evidence. He takes a considerable amount of time exploring the key features of capitalism – markets, growth, consumption, and the corporation – and he comes up with six propositions:

Proposition 1: that today’s system of political economy, referred to here as modern capitalism, is destructive of the environment, and not in a minor way but in a way that profoundly threatens the planet; people will therefore demand solutions, and the current system will not be able to accommodate them; so the system will be forced to change, perhaps in the unfortunate context of some time of environmental crisis or breakdown.

Proposition 2: that the affluent societies have reached or soon will have reached the point where, as Keynes put it, the economic problem has been solved; the long era of ceaseless striving to overcome hardship and deprivation can soon be over; there is enough to go around.

Proposition 3: that in the more affluent societies, modern capitalism is no longer enhancing human well-being, either objective or subjective well-being, and is instead producing a stressed and ultimately unsatisfactory social reality; people are increasingly dissatisfied and looking for something more meaningful; this dissatisfaction will grow and force change.

Proposition 4: that the international social movement for change – which refers to itself as “the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism” – is stronger than many imagine and will grow stronger; there is a coalescing of forces: peace, social justice, community, ecology, feminism – a movement of movements; meanwhile, … weakened democracy and failed environmental politics [in America and elsewhere] are themselves ripe for transformation.

Proposition 5: that people and groups are busily planting the seeds of change through a host of alternative arrangements, and still other attractive directions for upgrading to a new operating system have been identified; these innovations can transform the current system, and they will grow.

Proposition 6: that the end of the Cold War and the West’s long struggle against communism opens the door – creates the political space – for the questioning of today’s capitalism.

Speth ends his book by outlining two essential precursors of the necessary transformation of capitalism:

— a new consciousness, and

— a new politics.

In describing the environmental crisis as a crisis of the spirit, Speth quotes Vaclav Havel: “we must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth … new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet.” While I agree entirely, I have to say that I find myself wondering just how this new consciousness can ever come about.

Moving on to the possibilities for a new politics, Speth writes with clarity about how “environmental politics cannot succeed with only a narrowly defined environmental constituency.” As Speth is an environmentalist leader of some standing in the US (he co-founded the NRDC), such a comment carries considerable weight. It is also, perhaps, a practical prescription for action – maybe the crucial next step, in fact.

What it means is that environmentalists must reach out to diverse communities and support their causes “not just to build the case for reciprocal support, and not just because the objectives are worthy, but also because environmental goals will not be realized unless these other causes succeed.”

These other causes are the causes of “union members, working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate.” They are the causes of people working on “domestic political reforms, the liberal social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.”

This, in short, is a self-aware green social movement that knows another world is possible.

And I wonder whether the new consciousness that Speth and Havel rightly say we so desperately need will perhaps flower in and through this movement, its community and its communities, its values and its hope. I sincerely trust that it will – for I suspect such a movement would not get very far without it.

(Note: I have written previously about Gus Speth and his 2008 New Scientist interview here.)

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