The world has 7 years, 101 days, 17 hours, 29 minutes and 22 seconds to prevent its carbon budget from being depleted. This is the warning which the new Climate Clock designed by artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd has given out to the world. It’s no news to anybody out there that the Earth is crumbling from the exorbitant pressures put over its resources from the activities of Man and that the end of the world as we know it might not be as far as we think it is, all due to climate change.
With more than 180 countries coming together under the Paris Agreement to pledge that with stringent regulations and policies, their claims of striving to stop the global temperatures from rising by 1.5-degree celsius and successfully preventing the human species from being victims of mass wildfires, droughts, extreme heat waves, ocean acidification and all the other things you could imagine seem good on paper, however, I think it’s time to admit there’s a much bigger problem here.
Carbon taxes, corporate social responsibility, green initiatives, plastic-free transactions and various other regulations have been put in place by governments in nearly every part of the country and it’s no wonder why the world is still dealing with the imminent danger of a climate change crisis. Had these strict regulations been put in place say, 30 years ago, I would not be here writing this piece, because things wouldn’t have been so bad.
They would have been significantly under control and we would still have many years before the question of depleting resources and global warming would have arisen. However, you and I both know that our current situation is not so rosy and hence, we need to talk about the fundamental and structural cause of climate change here.
This is where capitalism enters. The whole structure of capitalism was never sustainable to begin with. When the whole objective and idea behind the working of a market economy is accumulation of capital, which inevitably translates to the accumulation of profits, things will never ever work out in the favour of Mother Nature. To give a little bit of a background, one of the roots out of which capitalism emerged out of was the Industrial Revolution in England.
When people realised the inherent ability of coal to contribute to the productivity levels better than any other resource like wood for instance, the extraction of coal increased to extraordinary levels. The extraction of resources is not limited to capitalism per se but the emergence of a capitalist economy in England took off not only because of coal use but also due to the presence of a large economy and centralised state power.
So when the latter took away the power from landowners to employ direct coercion and shifted them to influence through market means, it gave a push to the idea of making maximum output and profits with the least cost. This is how a capitalist economy slowly took shape, with workers increasingly being made to provide larger outputs and falling into what is called the “productivity trap”. The environment and the economy are inextricably linked and it’s important to wonder why because when it’s revealed that since 1988, 100 corporations are responsible for contributing to 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions, you can’t be fooling yourself and still blame the poor and the unemployed.
Picking up from where we left about the history of capitalism, with markets expanding to gargantuan levels, the need for worker classes who are extremely specialised to increase productivity increased and with a limited number of employed people working at MNCs and other corporations in modern-day times, materialist lifestyles also started to emerge.
Besides the problem of ever-increasing unemployment, again thanks to capitalism, we really need to talk about consumer capitalism as well. Billions of dollars are spent by global corporations to make us, the consumers, buy goods which we don’t really need or use. Many argue that capitalism has given birth to the false notion of always consuming futile stuff rather than find a shared community and more meaningful ways of living. As psychologist Philip Cushman says, the dominant present configuration of the “self” is as an empty vessel that requires filling up with consumer goods.
This is a classic debate amongst many environmentalists and economists- which one is to blame? Production or consumption? Jason Moore, an environmental historian and sociologist at Binghamton University says that we’re living in a Capitalocene. He adds that, “Capitalocene is a kind of critical provocation to this sensibility of the Anthropocene, which is: We have met the enemy and he is us. So, the idea that we’re all going to cover our footprints, we’re going to be more sustainable consumers, we’re going to pay attention to population, are really consequences of a highly unequal system of power and wealth.” Many agree with this view and urge others to question why the entire blame of the environmental crisis has been shifted on to the customers and the poor communities.
Defenders of capitalism will argue that well, capitalism has led to massive development in all fields. If we consider how GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is calculated, we’ll find that none of the social and environmental costs, otherwise known as externalities, are included and so our measurement of true development is flawed. You can’t categorize an economy as “developing and prospering” if its GDP is growing tremendously after extracting barrels of oils and depleting the world of such crucial resources.
In order to truly fight climate change, we must bring about a structural shift. Regulations and taxes are powerless to truly overpower the profit motive which drives these corporations to exploit more and more resources every day. We need to break the cycle of expansion and productivity which act as the key factors behind the working of owners of production means.
A lot of people argue that even socialism won’t be able to save us (since extraction of resources is indeed a feature of a socialist economy as well) but I believe that a state-based production system with re-alignment of goods based on social needs rather than materialism can aid us. A fight against climate change can’t be won without a fight against the political and legal system and thus, mass public pressure is the need of the hour because the top 1% can afford to colonize Mars and get out of here before it’s too late; the rest of us cannot.
Read other articles in this Economics series: