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happy earth day

April 22, 2014

Today is Lenin’s birthday as well as Earth Day; and the coincidence is a fitting one I think. While the idea of reducing, reusing, and recycling as consumers may be good for the environment and make us feel good, we need to get real: we need to also rethink capitalism since the present economic structure threatens our very survival as a species. An economic system that depends on continued and uninterrupted expansion (i.e., indefinite growth) isn’t an environmentally sustainable system, particularly when the drive for profit is the bottom line.

Let’s be honest, things aren’t looking so copasetic, from the state of our oceans due to decades of pollution and over-fishing, to the growing accumulation of atmospheric CO2 that’s likely the dominant cause of a rising global temperature, which could have a number of negative consequences for us in a matter of decades, from rising ocean levels that can devastate coastlines and islands to changing weather patterns that can seriously impact food production via increased/more serious droughts, etc.

What does this have to do with economics? Well, for one, on a basic, fundamental level, capital only functions as capital when it grows and reproduces itself (i.e., creates surplus value and profit) in a process that arguably requires continually amplifying consumption and increasing overall output, particularly to overcome the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and a shrinkage in the absolute mass of profit created via commodity production. When growth declines, the system falters (along with employment) and things tend to go sideways. And further exacerbating the problem is the fact that, within the context of this system, negative externalities can actually contribute to economic growth.

Moreover, if we truly want to change our collective behaviour in more environmentally sound ways, on an individual level as well as on the broader level of global production and distribution, we need to critically assess and rethink the economic system and social relations that currently underlie our material reproduction and which ultimately coerce both our productive and consumptive behaviour.

Simply recycling and reusing clothes on an individual level, for example, isn’t going to reduce our CO2 admissions from 400ppm to 350ppm since most of the pollution is produced by large industries, industrial farming, the military, the harvesting and processing of fossil fuels, etc., not to mention the fact that less consumption by consumers means a slowing and even collapsing capitalist economy (especially in the US, where consumption expenditures account for nearly 70% of GDP).

This, I think, also ties into the problem of conflicts between various industries and public interest when it comes to combating things like pollution and environmental degradation. For one, more environmentally sound policies would potentially make things more expensive, and could also cut into profits and restrict growth; and the companies we’re trying to ‘persuade’ to further limit pollution have powerful lobbying power and put pressure on politicians (if they don’t just outright buy them), and attempting to regulate them via legislation often results in inadequate compromises (e.g., weak cap and trade laws that are easily circumvented).

So the solution can’t just be shifting to more individual ‘green’ activities, nor can it solely be through political reforms and regulations, although both can be useful tools; it has to include a fundamental shift in the way we approach production, distribution, and even consumption. Of course it’s difficult to imagine things being any other way (TINA is the ideological law of the neoliberal land); but if there isn’t a radical shift in human consciousness and/or a socio-economic revolution on an epic scale soon, we might be up shit creek without a paddle.


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