Environment vs. Capitalism.
When I first began my journey into environmentalism and sustainability, I didn’t immediately make the connection between the demise of our home and the exploitative system under which we all live. It was only when I began discussions with like minded friends, and was faced with acknowledging my own privilege as a white person living in a white supremacist society, that I began to piece together the links. Issues such as hunger and poverty, imperial wars, unequal wealth/income, unequal opportunities and environmental degradation are all linked to our current economic/political/social system.
‘The fundamental problem is brutally simple: our world system is based on the premise of perpetual growth in consumption, which puts it on a collision course with the natural world.’ (Source: Lent, 2018)
The society we live in is a capitalist one and to put it simply; capitalism and sustainability cannot coexist. Capitalism is a monster who’s growth is only limited by the resources it requires, which are quickly running out. These resources, both non renewable and renewable are being used at a rate that far exceeds the rate at which they can be replenished. Environmental destruction is embedded within the very DNA of this capitalist monster and the larger the population of humans on the planet, the bigger the monster, the greater the appetite, the more resources it requires, the greater the damage it inflicts upon the environment and the more waste it produces as a result. We, the people, are being exploited and are seemingly trapped within this cycle, which benefits the few but will eventually kill the many. Ultimately, whether we run out of finite resources, we lead ourselves into complete destruction of the natural world and our own species or we completely restructure our current system, we will see the end of capitalism as we currently know it. So why not come to terms with the fact that these ponzi scheme, anglo-saxon capitalist societies, that have driven huge divides between the people as well as our connection to the natural world, will have to end at some point. So let it be for the survival of the Earth and all of it’s inhabitants.
‘It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of the capitalist economic system is not to provide the basic needs for all people, not to provide jobs for everyone that wants to work, not to protect the environment. As ecologist Richard Levins has put it: “Agriculture is not about producing food but about profit. Food is a side effect. . . . Health service is a commodity, health a byproduct.”’ (Source: Magdoff, 2011)
The majority of us live ignorant to our contribution to feeding the capitalist monster, and unknowingly do so as a result of being sucked into the vortex that is consumerism. Everything in the society we know is driven towards making a profit, with most humans- if they are lucky enough to be employed, spending the majority of their existence stuck in the cycle of working for larger, privately owned corporations in order to make the next purchase (also from large, privately owned corporations). We rely on these purchases to bring a fleeting moment of happiness, or in some cases just to pay bills (an example of the financial divide as a result of capitalism) or put food on the table (alas, the global issue with food I will look at in another post). We are bombarded with advertisements, and fed the ideas that we need the latest X,Y and Z in order to be happy. For the majority of us who are lucky enough to have a disposable income, happiness is always the next purchase away. But what if we could use our role in the supply and demand equation to collectively make huge changes in regards to consumerism and capitalism?
We are consistently distracted by the media (owned by the corporations who profit from our excessive purchasing habits) and are continuously fed advertisements, petty political feuds, or mind numbing celebrity spats (if you think about it, our accelerating trajectory towards extinction should be plastered on the front page of every newspaper, seen on every news channel and heard on every radio news update, yet we hardly hear about it at all). Additionally, politicians generally only pay attention to the climate crisis when everything else, particularly the economy, seems in order.
However, we can change this! As the wise Emma Watson once pointed out- We have so much power as consumers. By setting aside our egos and placing careful consideration into what we buy, or more importantly what we don't buy, we can make a substantial difference to the fate of our home. In order to avert catastrophe, the economic system needs radical restructuring. For this to happen, us- the people, can start with abandoning the consumer values that mainstream media force upon us daily. We must find other sources of meaning in our lives and learn to find happiness in the present, prioritise the quality of experiences over the latest purchase, reconnect with nature and build up our communities.
With our collective power as consumers, we can change the world- quite literally.
We need to see past the ‘greenwashing’ of companies and know when to not make the purchase. Borrowing from friends, shopping second hand, choosing a plant based diet utilising seasonal, locally grown foods (maybe even grown yourself) and prioritising repair over replace should be the new norm. If it does come down to finding the necessity in making a new purchase, place your money into a truly sustainable company, who prioritise people and the rest of the planet over profit. Replace any disposable items that have reached the end of their life with reusable items that last you a lifetime, so you never have to make that purchase again. Choose minimal waste in all areas of living and choose natural over toxic, synthetic ingredients every time.
I want to point out that the above is easier said than done for many families as a result of the wealth gaps created in our capitalist climate. This movement is about doing what you can within your financial and practical limits. It’s not about one person doing this perfectly, it’s about the many doing it imperfectly. That’s when we will see change. Those of us with the financial means to be putting our money into companies should absolutely be striving to make sure they are ethical and sustainable. By creating more demand for those kinds of products, prices will need to be dropped in order to beat competitors, which will allow people with lower incomes to also place their money into such companies. But remember, the most sustainable thing we can do is to not buy anything else new but use what we already own. That way, we can all collectively not put our money into the hands of the huge corporations who only see the short term profit, not the long term future of our planet.
I should also note, there are some positive sides of capitalism, most notably, when it is combined with elements of socialism resulting in publicly beneficial services such as the emergency services and most notably here in the UK, the NHS. Unfortunately, as is the nature of capitalism, many other industries are privatised and so only benefit a few, whilst lining the pockets of the private owner at the top. Take Amazon for example, CEO Jeff Bezo, whose net worth is £183.3 billion USD. He has been able to obtain an inconceivable amount of wealth through exploiting many people (workers can be fired just for taking bathroom breaks), in addition to not paying a tax amount which reflects his income (Source: Forbes World Billionaire list). You can also just imagine how much many pies such people have their fingers (and toes) in, and how many people (particularly the ones in power) the Jeff Bezo's of the world are able to influence. Another positive characteristic of capitalism is the rapid rate at which new developments are created. If we are careful and use our money wisely, we can demand the development of planet friendly alternatives in regards to technologies and fuel sources, ensuring ethical treatment and equal opportunities for all. But again, we need to stop directly funding the companies who have power, gained through exploitation, over the media, governments and the future of the planet. Why is it that profits are privatised but losses are nationalised, with companies being bailed out by governments, using the public's money?
So next time you need to spend your money, take a moment to consider these questions and the consequential effect your purchase will have on the future of our home and the home of the people you love because every purchase, no matter how insignificant it may appear, has far reaching consequences.
1) Do you truly need this or is it to only give a fleeting moment of self satisfaction?
2) If you do need it, will this last you a lifetime?
3) Can you use what you already have?
4) Can you borrow what you need from someone?
5) Can you make a swap with someone instead?
6) Can this item be bought second hand?
7) If not, what kind of company are you essentially funding by purchasing this item?
8) Was anyone exploited (not just other humans) during the manufacture of this product?
9) What kind of packaging does this product come in? How much waste in created in the process?
10) How far is this item being transported to get to you?
11) Can you buy this item from an ethical and sustainable small business?
12) If you have reached number 12 and are still looking at buying this item new, from an unsustainable, unethical, mass polluting corporation, ask yourself if this purchase is REALLY truly worth it?
Elliott, L., 2018 Capitalism can crack climate change. But only if it takes risks. The Guardian
Lent, J., 2018. Commentary: What Will It Really Take To Avoid Collapse?
Magdoff, F., 2011. Why Capitalism Is Toxic To The Environment.