Cap­i­tal­ism can’t save the planet – it can only de­stroy it Ge­orge Mon­biot

The growth econ­omy and throw­away so­ci­ety are in­sep­a­ra­ble: the sys­tem re­lies on end­less waste

The Guardian - - JOURNAL -

There was “a flaw” in the the­ory: this is the fa­mous ad­mis­sion by Alan Greenspan, the for­mer chair of the Fed­eral Re­serve, to a con­gres­sional in­quiry into the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. His be­lief that the self-in­ter­est of the lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions would lead au­to­mat­i­cally to the cor­rec­tion of fi­nan­cial mar­kets had proved wrong. Now, in the midst of the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, we await a sim­i­lar ad­mis­sion. We may be wait­ing some time.

For, as in Greenspan’s the­ory of the fi­nan­cial sys­tem, there can­not be a prob­lem. The mar­ket is meant to be self-cor­rect­ing: that’s what the the­ory says. As Mil­ton Fried­man, one of the ar­chi­tects of ne­olib­eral ide­ol­ogy, put it: “Eco­log­i­cal val­ues can find their nat­u­ral space in the mar­ket, like any other con­sumer de­mand.” As long as en­vi­ron­men­tal goods are cor­rectly priced, nei­ther plan­ning nor reg­u­la­tion is re­quired. Any at­tempt by gov­ern­ments or cit­i­zens to change the likely course of events is un­war­ranted and mis­guided.

But there’s a flaw. Hur­ri­canes do not re­spond to mar­ket sig­nals. The plas­tic fi­bres in our oceans, food and drink­ing wa­ter do not re­spond to mar­ket sig­nals. Nor does the col­lapse of in­sect pop­u­la­tions, or co­ral reefs, or the ex­tir­pa­tion of orang­utans from Bor­neo.

The un­reg­u­lated mar­ket is as pow­er­less in the face of th­ese forces as the peo­ple in Florida who re­solved to fight Hur­ri­cane Irma by shoot­ing it. It is the wrong tool, the wrong ap­proach, the wrong sys­tem.

There are two in­her­ent prob­lems with the pric­ing of the liv­ing world and its de­struc­tion. The first is that it de­pends on at­tach­ing a fi­nan­cial value to items – such as hu­man life, species and ecosys­tems – that can­not be re­deemed for money. The sec­ond is that it seeks to quan­tify events and pro­cesses that can­not be re­li­ably pre­dicted.

En­vi­ron­men­tal col­lapse does not progress by neat in­cre­ments. You can es­ti­mate the money you might make from build­ing an air­port: this is likely to be lin­ear and fairly pre­dictable. But you can­not rea­son­ably es­ti­mate the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost the air­port might in­cur. Cli­mate break­down will be­have like a tec­tonic plate in an earth­quake zone: pe­ri­ods of com­par­a­tive sta­sis fol­lowed by sud­den jolts. Any at­tempt to com­pare eco­nomic ben­e­fit with eco­nomic cost in such cases is an ex­er­cise in false pre­ci­sion.

Even to dis­cuss such flaws is a kind of blas­phemy, be­cause the the­ory al­lows no role for po­lit­i­cal thought or for ac­tion. The sys­tem is sup­posed to op­er­ate not through de­lib­er­ate hu­man agency, but through the au­to­matic writ­ing of the in­vis­i­ble hand. Our choice is con­fined to de­cid­ing which goods and ser­vices to buy.

But even this is il­lu­sory. A sys­tem that de­pends on growth can sur­vive only if we pro­gres­sively lose our abil­ity to make rea­soned de­ci­sions. Af­ter our needs, then strong de­sires, then faint de­sires have been met, we must keep buy­ing goods and ser­vices we nei­ther need nor want, in­duced by mar­ket­ing to aban­don our dis­crim­i­nat­ing fac­ul­ties, and to suc­cumb in­stead to im­pulse.

You can now buy a selfie toaster, that burns an im­age of your own face on to your bread – the Turin Shroud of toast. You can buy beer for dogs and wine for cats; a toi­let roll holder that sends a mes­sage to your phone when the paper is run­ning out; a $30 branded brick; a hair­brush that in­forms you whether or not you are brush­ing your hair cor­rectly. Pana­sonic in­tends to pro­duce a mo­bile fridge that, in re­sponse to a voice com­mand, will de­liver beers to your chair.

Urge, splurge, purge: we are sucked into a cy­cle of com­pul­sion fol­lowed by con­sump­tion, fol­lowed by the pe­ri­odic detox­ing of our­selves or our homes, like Ro­mans mak­ing them­selves sick af­ter eat­ing, so that we can cram more in.

Con­tin­ued eco­nomic growth de­pends on con­tin­ued dis­posal: un­less we rapidly junk the goods we buy, it fails. The growth econ­omy and the throw­away so­ci­ety can­not be sep­a­rated. En­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion is not a byprod­uct of this sys­tem: it is a nec­es­sary el­e­ment.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is an in­evitable re­sult not just of ne­olib­er­al­ism – the most ex­treme va­ri­ety of cap­i­tal­ism – but of cap­i­tal­ism it­self. Even the so­cial demo­cratic (Key­ne­sian) kind de­pends on per­pet­ual growth on a fi­nite planet: a for­mula for even­tual col­lapse. But the pe­cu­liar con­tri­bu­tion of ne­olib­er­al­ism is to deny that ac­tion is nec­es­sary: to in­sist that the sys­tem, like Greenspan’s fi­nan­cial mar­kets, is in­her­ently self-reg­u­lat­ing. The myth of the self-reg­u­lat­ing mar­ket ac­cel­er­ates the de­struc­tion of the self-reg­u­lat­ing Earth.

What can­not be ad­mit­ted must be de­nied. Ten years ago this week, Matt Ri­d­ley – as chair of North­ern Rock – helped to cause the first run on a Bri­tish bank since 1878. This trig­gered the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in the UK. Now, in his new in­car­na­tion as a Times colum­nist, he con­tin­ues to demon­strate his unerring abil­ity to as­sess risk, by in­sist­ing that we needn’t worry about hur­ri­canes: as long as there’s enough money to keep bail­ing us out, we’ll be fine.

Ri­d­ley, who helped de­stroy the hopes of mil­lions, is one of the faces of the New Op­ti­mism that claims life is be­com­ing in­ex­orably bet­ter. This vi­sion re­lies on down­play­ing or dis­miss­ing the pre­dic­tions of en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists. We can­not buy our way out of a process that could, through heat stress, arid­ity, sea level rise and crop fail­ure, ren­der large parts of the in­hab­ited world hos­tile to hu­man life; and which, through sud­den jolts, could trans­late en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis into fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

In April Bloomberg News, draw­ing on a re­port by the US fed­eral mort­gage cor­po­ra­tion Fred­die Mac, in­ves­ti­gated the pos­si­bil­ity that cli­mate break­down could cause a col­lapse in real es­tate prices in Florida. It looked only at the im­pact of sea-level rise – hur­ri­canes were not con­sid­ered. It warned that a burst­ing of the coastal prop­erty bub­ble “could spread through banks, in­sur­ers and other in­dus­tries. And, un­like the re­ces­sion, there’s no hope of a bounce back in prop­erty val­ues.” The sigh of re­lief from in­sur­ers and fi­nanciers when Hur­ri­cane Irma, whose in­ten­sity is likely to have been en­hanced by global heat­ing, changed course at the last minute could be heard around the world.

This year, for the first time, three of the five global risks with the great­est po­ten­tial im­pact listed by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum were en­vi­ron­men­tal; a fourth (wa­ter crises) has a strong en­vi­ron­men­tal com­po­nent. If an eco­nomic cri­sis is caused by the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, it will be the sec­ond crash in which Ri­d­ley will have played a part.

They bailed out the banks. But as the storms keep rolling in, you’ll have to bail out your own flooded home. There is no en­vi­ron­men­tal res­cue plan: to ad­mit the need for one would be to ad­mit that the eco­nomic sys­tem is based on a se­ries of delu­sions. The en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis de­mands a new ethics, pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. A few of us are grop­ing to­wards it, but it can­not be left to the scat­tered ef­forts of in­de­pen­dent thinkers – this should be hu­man­ity’s cen­tral project. At least the first step is clear: to recog­nise that the cur­rent sys­tem is flawed.

Il­lus­tra­tion by Sébastien Thibault

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.