Capitalism is running wild because capitalists have hobbled democracy, the author of a recently released book claims. We have in our grasp the ability to improve the human condition while also treading more lightly on the world — to consume fewer resources, use less cropland, reduce pollution, and bring back species we’ve pushed to the brink of extinction. To do so, Andrew McAfee, the author of More from Less, argues that we need a new kind of capitalism.
The foundation of McAfee’s premise is that capitalism and tech progress actually don’t solve all of our environmental problems. While the computer and other digital technologies have opened up many ways to save money by reducing resource use — allowing us “to tread more lightly on the earth instead of stripping it bare” — they don’t deal well with pollution. They also don’t spare endangered animals. Those are the negative side effects of a lot of economic activity.
So the author says that we need another pair of forces: public awareness and responsive government.
Optimism In Times of Environmental Crisis
McAfee is a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on digital transformation. He says that today’s environmental degradation and growing inequality, which were originally grounded in colonialism, can be held in check by what he calls the “four horsemen of the optimist,” namely:
- technological progress
- public awareness
- responsive government
He says we can’t let one of these “horsemen” overpower the others. If it is in capitalism’s nature to increase inequality, then a responsive government should reign in that excess. If capitalists have incentives to shape regulations to maximize their profits, the government should legislate in ways that ensure equity for all.
Environmental Devastation & Capitalism’s Potential
Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, which is a climate menace. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity and produces 39% of global carbon dioxide emissions; it’s destructive to people and the environment from the moment it is mined. Fracking and water pollution wreak havoc on entire communities. Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades.
It’s that last concept of decrease over recent decades to which McAfee clings. He describes how conventional wisdom would have us believe that our insatiable needs and desires require more and more resources and material goods. Instead of focusing on today’s heightened awareness of environmental degradation, though, McAfee states that the US has actually become more in sync with the natural world. The US is using resources more efficiently, consuming less energy, causing less pollution, and cleaning up the pollution of the past, he says, adding that re-foresting the earth and protecting other species is a positive force for the environment.
McAfee explains that, starting with Earth Day in 1970, the US has generally used less metal, fertilizer, water, paper, timber, and energy year after year even as output grows. According to this line of thinking, we are experiencing a dematerialization of the economy, a great decoupling from industrial production. McAfee borrows from Lincoln’s praise of the patent system, describing that when the “fuel of interest” is joined with the “fire of genius”— or motivation and facility combine—amazing results can occur.
Those results, he says, can have positive effects on the environment.
How Rosy Are Your Glasses? Debunking A New Kind of Capitalism
Accelerating the shift globally will require us not to overhaul the capitalist system — but rather to double down on it, he contends. Ultimately, McAfee describes that the system we have today shouldn’t be replaced, but that it can be made better. Overcoming those challenges is going to require rethinking capitalism in ways that doesn’t start over with something new but does address how quickly the world needs to cut emissions.
Climate scientists and activists find McAfee’s assumptions and faith in market solutions a bit, shall we say, too rosy.
The oceans are filling with plastic, wildfires roar across huge swatches of the US west, and around the world countries are pushing an ever-growing number of animals toward extinction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report warned that we must keep warming to 1.5 degrees above historical averages through immediately eliminating carbon-dioxide emissions.
The New York Times points out that most zero-emissions plans propose some combination of the following elements: carbon taxes, effectual international treaties, increased subsidization of renewable energy, decreased subsidization of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, reforestation, land-use reform and investments in energy efficiency, energy storage, and carbon-capture technology.
At a United Nations climate-change summit last year, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg declared, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
“The faster we produce and consume goods, the more we damage the environment,” Giorgos Kallis, an ecological economist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, writes in Degrowth. “There is no way to both have your cake and eat it, here. If humanity is not to destroy the planet’s life support systems, the global economy should slow down.”
In Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, Vaclav Smil, a Czech-Canadian environmental scientist, complains that economists haven’t grasped “the synergistic functioning of civilization and the biosphere,” yet they “maintain a monopoly on supplying their physically impossible narratives of continuing growth that guide decisions made by national governments and companies.”
The Guardian calls for a fundamental re-evaluation of our relationship to ownership, work, and capital. “Failing to put that effort in sees the world crossing more severe temperature barriers that would lead to outcomes like ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal cities being flooded into inhabitability,” says economic and social policy analyst, Phil McDuff.
McAfee’s Forecast For Continued Lessening Of Consumption
The author of More from Less delineates 2 urgent priorities:
- to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which are a form of air pollution)
- to work to reverse the disconnection and declines in social capital we’re seeing in many communities.
He acknowledges that our planet is getting hotter, and we humans are getting colder. “Governments, companies, philanthropies and other nonprofits, and families and individuals all have roles to play in these areas.” he says, “and in simultaneously improving both our prosperity and our planet.”
It’s nice that the world is learning to use technology to reign in the devastating consequences that capitalism has had on the planet, as McAfee suggests. However, as Yes! magazine examines, the common goal of both the private and public sectors is rapid, sustained GDP growth, so the only climate actions that companies or governments are willing to take are those that will not risk slowing wealth accumulation.
Capitalism continues to be responsible for most environmental impacts and is central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. Commercial agriculture, timber extraction, and infrastructure development are causing habitat loss, and our reliance on fossil fuels is suffocating the atmosphere. Any transition towards real and lasting sustainability can only be effective if economies and responsive governments enforce and reward the structural imperatives for growth in competitive markets for renewable energy and reduced consumption.
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