George Monbiot gives us the latest cool kids reason why capitalism has to be done away with – the environment can’t take it. This being entirely at odds with the actual science here of course, even the science coming from the IPCC. However, it’s worse than that as it’s conceptually wrong as well.
As to the science bit we do indeed have all those International Panel on Climate Change reports. All of which are based on economic models, the best collection of which is still the SRES. In which we find that not-global capitalism with fossil fuels (A2, B1 and B2) is a bad outcome, global capitalism with fossil fuels (A1FI) is a bad outcome and global capitalism without fossil fuels is just stonkingly great (A1T). And yes, they do look at all those other resources we might need to use to keep the juggernaut on the road and it’s only that ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2-e without boiling us all that is a problem. Not-fossil fuels solves that, globalised free trade capitalism is, among the fossil fuel free options, the best outcome for enfabuloso human utility.
But as I say, there’s a conceptual problem here too:
So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben.
As fine a collection of economic ignorants as you’re likely to see mentioned in one place.
Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.
No. That’s made up of whole cloth. There is no requirement in capitalism to have economic growth. We can have private property, profit, even if this is your definition of the system, worker exploitation and expropriation, in a system with positive economic growth, none, or negative.
What is true though is that capitalism is pretty damn good at producing economic growth. In fact, it’s the only system anyone has ever discovered which produces enough of it to pull us out of the Malthusian trap. Growth happens faster than generationally, thus fast enough to limit fertility patterns.
At which point we might say, as with Monbiot, that the planet cannot afford the growth therefore we’ve got to do away with this system that creates it. Except, we don’t desire the capitalism therefore we have growth. Rather, we desire the growth therefore we have capitalism. People like getting richer. Peeps like the idea that life for their children will be better than it is for them. It’s one of the defining points about our species in fact.
We don’t have capitalism because it’s some morally just and righteous system – even though I’d argue it is. We have capitalism because it delivers what the vast majority of human beings desire, rising living standards. Which does leave a certain problem for those who insist that we cannot or should not have capitalism. In order not to have what people desire, that growth, you’ve got to do one of two things. Either deny people what they want – and how liberal and democratic of you – or provide some other method of gaining that same growth.
That second there running into two further problems. We don’t know of any other way of producing that economic growth. You’ve any decent ideas then please, do let us all know. The second of our second set of problems being that if we’re to adopt some other method of gaining that growth then we can’t be using the necessary absence of growth as our justification for the overthrow of capitalism.
Seriously, it’s not capitalism which is the problem here. It’s human desire.