If we pay even the most casual attention to what is happening around us, we observe enormous ecological destruction. Recent events in the ‘100% pure’ ‘clean and green’ tourist paradise of Aotearoa New Zealand reveal industrial pollution dumped on marginalised urban communities, wetlands drained and forests logged to make way for dairy farming, rare species killed by introduced predators, rural river courses reduced to stinking drains by dairy farming run-off, and well-advanced plans for remote valleys to be mined for coal or dammed for hydropower … I could go on.
Should we consider each one of these incidents in isolation? They are very often treated this way, both in their reporting and in the responses to them – isolated and independent events that vividly demonstrate the ignorance, greed and stupidity of certain individuals or corporations. However, much of the writing on wellsharp has aimed to move beyond this sort of interpretation, to show that individual acts of ecological destruction are far from disconnected. They are intimately connected through an underlying systemic cause – capitalism and its pathological growth obsession.
But how is one to prove this? Getting a handle on the relationship between environmental performance and capitalism as a system is far from easy, but doing so in a way that moves beyond theorising is essential if the argument is to convince a wider audience. Ilgu Ozler and Brian Obach of the State University of New York at have taken up this challenge.
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.
To make progress on sustainability, greens, environmentalists, conservationists, nature lovers, and outdoor recreationists must recognise that simply espousing and advocating sustainable development is not nearly enough to bring it about in any meaningful way.
It is necessary to understand the logic of the existing economic system, its political and social institutions, and what drives this system relentlessly to exploit, degrade and ultimately destroy the natural world. Only with this understanding are we are fully empowered to challenge it head-on, in order to make sustainability its primary goal.
Allan Schnaiberg, in association with Kenneth Gould, David Pellow and others, has developed a theory that attempts to provide the required insight and understanding. This theory names the economic system the treadmill of production. Calling on the distinctly negative image of a treadmill – like the prison treadmill that broke Oscar Wilde – makes it clear that, by this analysis, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our economy functions.