Our economic system must evolve in the face of environmental devastation

Climate change won’t be averted as long as profit remains the ultimate goal of our economic model.

Shreya Kalra
11 June 2019, 8.35am
Image: Henning Kaiser/DPA/PA Images

Climate change is the greatest risk and challenge of our time. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 415 parts per million – the highest in almost three million years. And the past five years have been the warmest on record since the 1880s.

The British scientist Brian Cox says that politicians “often make the mistake of viewing society as a series of groups competing for finite resources”. But this mistake is the very premise of most of the world’s free market economy, that has different stakeholders compete with each other to make the biggest profit with complete disregard for any negative externalities.

Now this amoral competition has brought us to a tipping point, where the Earth is gradually experiencing devastation. Impacts include the acidification of oceans, rising sea levels and, among others, displacement of people. According to a study by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, an estimated 60 million people were affected by extreme weather conditions in 2018. Through this devastation, nature is forcing us to mend our ways.

Climate change, however, is no longer only about the earth getting warmer. It is also about the obliteration of other equally important life on the planet, and the depletion of its limited resources. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that almost one million plant and animal species face extinction due to hyper-intensive human activity.

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Our present economic system has created the mechanisms for us to produce and consume incessantly and mindlessly. In many of her talks, the author and activist Naomi Klein has castigated capitalism as a stupid system that lacks any morals. Contrary to the natural world which follows the pattern of birth, growth, maturation and death, nations working within the paradigm of capitalism crave perpetual upward growth, as this is what constitutes success. In his book, Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson writes that “for the last five decades the pursuit of growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world”.

Gross domestic product (GDP) measures in monetary terms how many goods and services a country produces within a set period of time. For decades, GDP has been the sole measurement of a country’s economic success, while other development factors such as literacy and health, along with well-being and happiness levels, have been ignored. So while GDP may give a lot of information on the state of an economy, it provides an incomplete picture.

The global achievements of capitalism cannot be dismissed. Since the industrial revolution, the world has realised immense potential – space travel, the internet and the smartphone revolution to name a few. These achievements were unimaginable even just a few decades ago. However, economic growth has been fuelled by a dependence on fossil fuels, which has resulted in the planet steadily getting warmer. As Barnabe Geis, Director of Climate Ventures, an incubator for climate entrepreneurs, innovators and advocates, says: “we cannot always look to the past for lessons on the future.”

This insidious disaster has resulted from the paradigm of capitalism and its craving for endless profits. The model must be revised and evolved to suit the need of the hour. According to Geis, automation and technology are changing the nature of labour and our economy anyway, and climate change will only fast forward this transition:

“The jobs of today won’t be the jobs of tomorrow. That’s going to force us to look at other ways of running our society. The system can no longer function as it is and as it crumbles, there will be a certain level of chaos. What we do over the next dozen years will determine whether and how that chaos stabilises. The disruption is going to be so big that we will have to re-design our economic and social orders.”

Evolution of the model is the key phrase here. According to Eduardo Souza-Rodrigues, Assistant Professor at The University of Toronto’s Department of Economics, the system needs to be beaten by its own rules:

“Complaining about capitalism is not the solution,” he says. “We need to make clean activities profitable and dirty ones not. We need to disincentivise whatever is causing harm. Then we can leave the economy to function on its own” he says.

But a recent working paper by the International Monetary Fund revealed that governments offered the fossil fuel industry an alarming $5.2 trillion dollars in subsidies in 2017, despite the year on year warnings of catastrophic effects of fossil fuels on climate change – effects that we are experiencing already.

Another recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that the cost of generating power from onshore wind dropped by 22% between 2010 and 2017, and that of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity fell by 73%. They predicted that the cost of producing renewable energy will be in the same price range as fossil fuels by 2020.

Reducing the dependence of economies globally on fossil fuels must be the priority to mitigate climate change while we are within the paradigm of capitalism. One way to do so is to incentivise sustainable solutions through policy changes by governments.

Transformational change, however, will occur at the intersection of policy, markets and behaviour change. As Geis adds: “Our economy is based on extraction, so in terms of the consumption patterns of individuals we can’t just be talking about replacing things that are made with the burning of fossils to the ones made with renewable energy because the planet simply doesn’t have enough natural resources for us to keep consuming the way that we have.”

The focus on GDP promotes consumerism, and as a result we live in a world where the idea of single-use, throw and replace have become embedded in our culture. But if people start changing their consumption patterns, then not only will this aid in curbing further environmental damage, it will also send a strong message to producers that consumers are no longer willing to invest in unsustainable products.

According to Eduardo, getting people enraged can actually create a bigger impetus for governments to act more swiftly. Since most countries function as a democracy, large numbers of people rallying behind a cause can be a powerful motivator for governments to take solid action. Behavioural changes can even be as simple as using colder water in the washing machine, air drying clothes, buying fewer clothes, eating less meat, using water and electricity more efficiently.

“When it comes to climate change, there’s no one single silver bullet,” says Souza-Rodrigues. “It’s the hardest economic issue to solve because it requires cooperation.

“Realistically, solutions that ignore how the economy operates will fail. And any radical change in how the economy operates is not going to happen. We need to look at the system to see what works for us and take advantage of it.”

Environmental degradation, warming of the climate, and loss of plant and animal species is no longer imminent. All of these catastrophic changes are happening now.

It is a complex combination of factors that have led to this moment, but an economic model with profit as the ultimate goal has been central. So it is imperative that leaders around the world take a moral stance and act for the greater good, rather than to maintain their power and status quo. And for the greater good to unfold, privileged players will have to relinquish control. This may not sound like a realistic approach, but utopian ideas can foster desirable changes.

Climate change is a risk to everyone, no matter which angle you look at it from – financially, politically, socially, and even geopolitically. Without concerted cooperation at all levels – by citizens, corporations and governments – capitalism will continue to wreak havoc on the only planet we know of that can sustain life. As a transitional measure, working within the system to beat the system is the realistic way to curb the rapid, real-time environmental damage being unfurled. However, in the long run, the culture of a profit-led society needs to be dissolved and rebuilt. And for that, we will have to re-examine the concepts of purpose, work and productivity.

Change is another characteristic of the natural order of the world, so whether we like it or not transformation will continue to happen. But according to Geis, the question is whether we are going to choose between the “most rapid and wide-ranging deliberate transformation humanity has ever undergone, or the most rapid and wide-ranging unintentional and destructive one”.

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