Anti-capitalist environmentalism

2016-11-04

in Economics, Politics, Psychology, The environment

I have generally been skeptical of anti-capitalist environmentalism for two main reasons: the added difficulty involved in changing our economic system and the possibility that an alternative economic system might not be more sustainable.

We have a tough enough fight on our hands, trying to create a sustainable world, even if we aren’t also trying to overcome the obsession of politicians and the public with endless economic growth and ever-increasing personal consumption. Indeed, criticism of either is so far outside the political mainstream that it raises questions of what kind of political program could succeed.

Furthermore, among 20th and 21st century political and economic systems, I don’t see non-capitalist economic systems that are clearly more sustainable than consumer capitalism. The clearest alternative – communism as practiced in Russia, China, and elsewhere – seems similarly ecologically destructive: maybe less capable of producing consumer goods, but even more cavalier about environmental contamination by heavy industry.

Reading Peter Dauvergne’s Environmentalism of the Poor has been another reminder of the plausible argument that the root of our environmental problems is unsustainable consumption, and only societal reforms that somehow counter that can succeed in keeping us from destroying the Earth and ourselves. If that’s true, we really have a lot of difficult political work ahead. The odds of success seem to depend on how humanity as a whole deals with the rising stress that will accompany trends like climate change and nuclear proliferation. If a growing recognition of crisis opens up political discourse and lets us challenge things like the assumption that economic growth is good, we may have a chance. If people respond instead by focusing ever-more on their own personal material interests, with less and less consideration for others, we may be on a trajectory to destruction with no means of course correction.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

There are myriad huge psychological barriers to overcoming consumerism:

1) People are status obsessed. They care more about how what they have compares to what others have than about what they have in absolute terms.

2) People don’t just compare themselves to their peers, but also to celebrities. The media encourages and facilitates this.

3) People quickly become entitled and feel like they deserve to keep doing anything they have become used to forever (traveling by car and plane, eating imported food, new consumer goods all the time).

4) People fight desperately to avoid having things they feel entitled to taken away (look at some of the hostile rhetoric around climate policies and “ways of life” which are not negotiable).

alena November 4, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Naomi Klein would argue that neo-liberalism is hugely responsible for the consumerism that is rampant. She, and people who are like-minded believe that it is an essential part of the unregulated economic system that we live in. People will not change until this system is replaced with a more inclusive and cooperative one. However, people like Ms. Klein are perhaps already not big consumers.

. December 22, 2016 at 7:30 pm

Finally, sustainable economic growth requires addressing climate change. Over the past five years, the notion of a trade-off between increasing growth and reducing emissions has been put to rest. America has cut energy-sector emissions by 6%, even as our economy has grown by 11%. Progress in America also helped catalyse the historic Paris climate agreement, which presents the best opportunity to save the planet for future generations.

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