It’s been no secret that one of the great outliers when it comes to climate change has been corporatism specifically and capitalism generally. Every time something like this is stated – a frequent event – apologists list various examples of where business has made positive and productive progress in sustainability. Fair enough, but these are exceptions and not the rule.
When we speak of capitalism, there is an important distinction because it includes corporations and consumers – a huge difference. The capitalist culture is one that speaks to the penchant for business to overproduce and consumers to overconsume. Together, both of these have made the hopes of putting a serious curb in climate change a rather remote one.
Recently a group of scientists, put together by the UN Secretary General, delivered their report on capitalism’s role in destroying the natural order. They could have made a practice of pointing a collective finger at corporate responsibility, but instead they made a rather astounding claim: rather than ruin the environment, capitalism itself will be finished by the climate change phenomenon. This is a great reversal – one that clearly puts producers and consumers on the same joint vulnerable species list.
The scientists concluded that climate change, though the most important, is nevertheless only one of the great global problems created by the capitalist mindset. To it were added growing inequality, burgeoning debt levels, unemployment and underemployment, and slow economic growth.
We don’t know if the report was what the Secretary General expected but it definitely got people’s attention – not by outlining the problem but by naming the culprit and its possible demise. Almost immediately, corporate leaders and right-wing economists labelled it alarmist, unfounded, fake news, or even a lie. But the point had been made and the report’s conclusion that we are witnessing the end of capitalism vs. climate change debate takes things a step further.
Because of the built-in inefficiencies of our present fossil fuel-based economic models, and the unwillingness to change our present economic practices to reflect the environmental crisis, capitalism has run out of room to survive. Worse still, the global problems listed above – debt, inequality, etc. – are directly linked to capitalism’s poor performance regarding climate change. One of the statements in the report forms a stark warning:
“Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use.”
If a corporation permitted such a system in its own personal operations it would quickly be out of business – which is exactly what the scientists predicted for larger scale capitalism. And, so, the report reminds readers that the vast majority of global business practices “almost completely disregard” the threat, continuing on with their practice of business as usual.
In a troubling trend, the report concluded that more energy is being used than ever to acquire smaller and smaller supplies of fossil fuels – a dead-end game. Moreover, the strain on the environment grows ever greater with the use of the increased energy. Many would wish that reports of the climate change battle radically changing business practices were true, but, according to the report, we are still heading the wrong, way, except even faster.
This is what happens when a capitalist system actually increases it attention on short-term profit maximization that appears removed from social or economic good. The report is clear that no serious and viable alternatives are being considered by global corporate leaders today, therefore leaving the writers of the report with no alternative other than to say that there isn’t time enough left for capitalism to reverse its indulgent behaviour before the environment strikes back.
We have arrived at a period in time where commentators have been using terms such as “post-capitalist” or “post-democratic” with increased frequency. We’ve been warned about it, debated, denied, or mildly addressed it for decades, but it wasn’t enough – companies just kept making or refining stuff and we just kept on draining or purchasing it for decades. We have waited for corporate leaders to take the lead but they mostly kept with standard business practices. They are now about to hit a wall. We waited for governments to make the collective change necessary, but they never quite developed the courage to tackle citizens who wanted to lower taxes and increased consumption. That is a large part of the reason for wild election swings and for the new post-democratic language.
So, if the report has serious validity to it, we are about ready to watch capitalism itself go bankrupt – both of money and creativity. If you want to read the UN report, you can find it here. It’s doubtful that global economic leaders will take it seriously, or that governments or their citizens will radically alter their lifestyles to reflect the new realities. But we have been warned by a report that carries both alarm and great clarity. It would have done us well to hearken to Edward Abbey’s counsel when it was first uttered: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”