Is capitalism compatible with true environmental protection?

Por: MA. Clara Franco Yáñez
Master en Asuntos Internacionales, por el Instituto de Posgrados en Estudios Internacionales y del Desarrollo en Ginebra, Suiza

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Everywhere we look, environmental disaster seems to be a daily occurrence, reported not only when it entails a loss of human life but also of biodiversity: record temperatures everywhere, glaciers and the Amazon burning, countless species on the verge of extinction, agricultural crisis due to mass bee deaths and the possibility of more plastic than fish in the ocean in the near future. Meanwhile, natural disasters that do cause direct and measurable loss of human life seem to become more and more frequent: floods, tornadoes, tropical storms, etc. Is our planet truly in an environmental crisis, or are we rather becoming more aware of smaller events affecting nature, man-made and otherwise?...

It’s both, according to scientific consensus. Among respectable scientists everywhere, there is no doubt that human activity – irresponsible, to say the least, on so many environmental fronts – is rapidly making Earth uninhabitable for us and for almost every species through pollution, habitat destruction and climate-change-inducing carbon emissions. There may be some debate about the extent of human influence, whether this situation is reversible and how to do it; but the consensus on the fact that we are causing a disaster is very clear.

Funnily enough, we all seem to delight in engaging with one or another “micro-solution”: I recycle a couple of things sometimes, use a bike, stopped using plastic straws and now plant my own tiny tomatoes; which is all great. The problem is that, considering the sum of our whole lives’ ecological footprint (in the form of total trash production and resource consumption) such micro-solutions are likely only making a tiny dent. Moreover, a second problem with these micro-solutions is that they very often go against the basic capitalist tenets of our time. Throughout most of the world, we have put in place an entire economic – and political – system based on the premises of more: more consumption, buying more, needing more, and desiring more. My commendable effort to not use plastic straws anymore pales in comparison to – and is totally cancelled out by –, say, having bought a new car, more clothes and flying on a plane once a year, and still using lots of plastic bags and wrappers anyway. Straws are likely less than 1% of my total ecological footprint (I focus on straws as an exercise in self-reflection and self-criticism, as I’m proud of not using them anymore but often wonder whether this is meaningful at all).

In fact, previously-poor people being able to raise their standard of living and consuming more things is taken as a basic measure of “development”. And of course, they have every right to develop and to access a better life. But at what cost?... One can only wonder whether our current form of capitalism is truly compatible with the long-term survival of ecosystems and, of course, our very selves.

This, of course, isn’t to say that capitalism doesn’t work as an economic system, nor that in our search for solutions it should be thrown away altogether. Some creative new industries are quickly emerging as potential solutions, such as sharing-based industries (Uber, of course, comes to mind). However, I ask myself if a true environmental protection would require an entire re-shaping of our political economies. As much as the public can be full of good intentions and engaging in at least one micro-solution each, for most people their reality is still a limited income, which they spend on whatever is most beneficial to them at the lowest cost, not on the most environmentally friendly choices. As of now, only some fringe voices suggest “de-growth” as a solution (mostly in Economics academia, and in some decidedly hippie-ish movements). De-growth would mean a considerable effort to live with less: less consumption, smaller houses, less cars, less clothes, more focus on repairing and relocating rather than buying new, subsistence agriculture, etc. Yet, it seems unlikely that the public would adopt such choices soon. More ideas are urgent if we are to survive long-term and in good health.