Credit: Jason Leung via Unsplash

Capitalism is crushing the climate

By Joe Evans

David Attenborough has claimed that capitalism must be curbed to restore the natural world. Joe Evans goes one step further, claiming it must be rejected to save our planet.

Sir David Attenborough has stated on the BBC environmental podcast “What Planet Are We On?” that the excesses of western countries and the capitalist system should be curbed to restore the natural world. The theme of capitalism being incompatible with a functioning and thriving planet has been a key part of Extinction Rebellion (XR) statements and driving motivation behind their actions for a while, and now with Attenborough giving vocal and public support to the idea, it will be slightly harder for sceptics in Britain’s right-wing press to dismiss. 

That is not to say that the propaganda organs of Britain’s elite aren’t now desperately churning out takedowns of Attenborough’s statement, though the tone of their response has altered slightly. Whereas XR activists are “smelly wannabe hippies”, The Telegraph (admittedly a little more high-brow than any Murdoch operation) opted for a more gentle, “factual” rebuttal of Sir David’s arguments, with much the same tone as you would use with an elderly friend who has gotten sadly confused about how their laptop works. The condescending style that verges on the infantilisation of an esteemed and intelligent commentator aside, the article’s bad arguments, flagrant lies presented as truth and wilful misrepresentation of “the data” is emblematic of the ways the beneficiaries of neo-liberal capitalism have sought to defend the system that enriches them. So, let’s look at the facts then:

Capitalism is a system of organising society economically, based on the accumulation and transfer of wealth. The more you contribute to the economy through productivity and innovation, the more wealth you gain and the more deserving you are of the power this wealth brings. This strong individualist system of the societal structure has driven globalisation since the end of the Cold War. The dismantling of capitalism does not require the abolition of currency, or the end of government, or forced collectivisation, à la Stalin. Monetary means of exchange existed long before capitalism and it is the veneration of wealth – which creates the desire to be wealthy and to grow that wealth – that is responsible for climate injustice, social inequality ,and the systemic exploitation of our planet, not the coins in your pocket.

Inequality is fundamental to capitalism, which means that exploitation is as well. Organising society based on the wealth of its members entrenches and exacerbates the difference in purchasing power that comes from having more wealth and justifies the power imbalance by asserting that the poor are in their position through their fault – they are too lazy to work, have too many children, aren’t intelligent enough etc. This, in turn, justifies the exploitation of these people for the benefit of their betters, all cloaked by the rhetoric of “meritocracy” and “social mobility”, which at face value promise a kind of fairness where the deserving are rewarded, but more insidiously imply that those in power cannot be reproached for their actions, since they are by this definition deserving of that power. Very few people get to climb the ladder of social mobility, because the mobility in question is not for people, it is for wealth and power. Meritocracy is not a ladder for us to climb but a conveyor-belt for our wealth and kept moving by our exertions, sending the benefits to the top and draining those at the bottom, and to keep up a show of fairness someone occasionally gets caught by the belt and dragged along with it for a while. We need to address this inequality because it shapes how a capitalist system responds to crisis. The most vulnerable people are also the least valued, while the least vulnerable have the most protections.

The extreme concentration of power and wealth brings a concentration of responsibility for the climate crisis, which capitalists ignore out of self-preservation. Just 100 companies were found to be responsible for 71% of global emissions in 2017, which means that no matter how much individuals and countries reduce their carbon footprints, they can at most cut global emissions by 29%. Green alternatives to the industry are only viable in wealthy countries with a high level of funding to develop research and expertise in their development and use because they are extremely expensive compared to traditional high-pollution methods. However, the search for wider profit margins means that corporations avoid such “restrictions” like the plague, moving their operations to developing countries where they can cause as much environmental damage as they want. The preferred methods of action from these rich corporations are Carbon Exchange, which just moves the problem overseas for profit, or research into Carbon Capture technology, which is presented by the UK Government among others as an ideal solution even though we aren’t even sure if it works. If you aren’t yet convinced that a culture that idolises the increase of wealth at all costs is a bad thing for the planet, look into the oil and fossil fuel industries and their attempts to obfuscate and cover up the facts about climate change in the 1970s, causing humanity to lose out on nearly 30 years of research and application of technology to help mitigate the climate emergency. 

The other argument used by apologists for capitalist exploitation of the climate is the claim that the easiest way to end the crisis is to allow free-market entrepreneurship to increase the living standards of the whole world until they meet those of Western Europe and North America, where declining birth-rate and GDP spent on climate research can help alleviate the problem. Cruising past the fact that free-market thinking was what drove the colonial exploitation that impoverished these nations in the first place, Cambridge University Professor of Economics Ha-Joon Chang has spent the majority of his academic and published careers exposing the myths and lies that underpin the assumption that capitalism is the solution to everything. From his 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism:

“[It] is not [author’s emphasis] true that almost all rich countries became rich through free-market policies. The truth is more or less the opposite. With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries… have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that today they advise developing countries not to adopt. Free-market policies have made few countries rich so far and will make few rich in the future.”

There’s an adage about nails and coffins that feels appropriate round about here.I do not like capitalism – this is pretty obvious – and I would go further than David Attenborough and say that capitalism does not need to be merely trimmed of its excesses but thoroughly discredited and rejected as a means of ordering human civilisation. You may be tempted, if you made it this far, to dismiss it all as just my opinion, or to think that my conclusions are too clouded by bias to be worth considering – though both of these points still leave me being more objective than the reporters of The Telegraph and The Sun, and for that matter most lobbyists and Tory politicians. So regardless of whether you agree or not, for the climate, for racial justice, for gender equality, for the good of the billions of people in the developing countries of the “global south”, how those in power justify the gross inequality and exploitation of people and the planet needs to be removed from sane discourse like a tumour.


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