Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Common Alternatives

Creating Futures Beyond Capital and Carbon

Rethinking Capitalism: From Ineffective to Effective ‘Alternative’ Solutions to Climate Crisis

14 min read

Reviewed Essay by: Elizabeth Murphy-May (University of Newcastle, Australia)

Accepted on 4 May 2017

The intensification of the global economy, such as neoliberal capitalism, has caused a severe climate crisis in which the world faces today. More specifically, the foundations and values of what capitalism is built from have caused a destructive ecological trajectory, therefore limiting the sustainability of capitalism. As a result, not only has the adverse impacts of the environment been affected, but also contribute to the growing social, political and economic inequalities faced by some of the world’s poorest communities in both majority and minority worlds. In this connection, these ecological changes are directly associated with, if not, then a mutual relationship, with the neoliberal globalization and has therefore affected the capacity for those most affected by these changes to have sustainable economic development. However, alternatives to capitalism are existent and aim to rectify the climate crisis through different means that will be addressed. Significantly, alternatives to capitalism that aim to reduce the high levels of human induced ecological changes are either supportive of a capitalist reform that favors the existence of capitalism but mandating it to be more ecologically friendly, whilst others are more radical which advocate for a structural change against capitalism. In order to demonstrate this, this essay will briefly address and discuss the relationship between globalization and capitalism, and how this is affiliated with ecological matters. Secondly, this essay will analyze how the evolution of capitalism came to be through identifying the core values such as the inevitable ‘growth’ factor deriving from an anthropocentric foundation, both of which contradict the protection and management of the environment. Thirdly, this essay will then demonstrate examples in which wealth and power between the ‘global North’ and the ‘global South’ is dichotomized and has demonstrated the inequalities of the ability for the global South to inhibit resilience towards the climate crisis. Finally, this essay will compare and contrast the differences in the two alternative systems indicated above, arguing that a structural change is most beneficial in order to effectively, directly and efficiently attend to the climate crisis we face today.

How the globalization of capitalist relations is connected to the eco-devastation of the 21st century

The relationship between globalization and capitalist relations within the 21st century is defined as the global expansion of a neoliberal capitalist economy (Baylis et al., 2011; Malady, 2003a; Kovel, 2007). More specifically, the transition into a neoliberal capitalist economy derives from global leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, who strived for Neoliberalism as the only means to advance economic growth, whereby the only means to do this by sacrificing ecological integrity (Kovel, 2007; Leech, 2002; Magdoff and Foster, 2010). In addition, not only did neoliberal strategies aim to provide economic growth, but the nature of Neoliberalism claims that if wealth is achieved at the top, then the prosperity accumulated from economic growth can later provide funds towards the environmental protection (Hochstetler, 2013). However, Hamilton (2012) and Li (2011) argue that if this were the case, then the world would see a declination of eco-devastation, rather than an inclination. Nonetheless, through this economic transition, came along the transition in global power, from governments deregulating and into the hands of private corporations, whereby corporations had the power to exchange natural resources for money (Kovel, 2007). Having established that, the following section will analyze how (neoliberal) capitalism contradicts ecological suitability through identifying the core values imbedded into the construction.

The anthropocentric view of economic growth

Put simply, anthropocentrism refers to the social construction created by humans to separate the existence of humans separated from nonhumans (Keller, 2010). More specifically, the “Great Chain of Being” (Keller, 2010: 59), also known as the global hierarchy accepts humans above all other nonhuman beings, extenuating the ability for humans to reason with their mind as a powerful attribute. In addition, the impact which anthropocentric views of the world had onto economic activity had allowed human extraction of natural resources to be of a positive impact to the social progression of human (Hamilton, 2012; Steffen et al., 2011). This was evident through the introduction in the Industrial Revolution which was led by the West, whereby the accumulation of material objects were symbolized as a powerful possession which represented human intellectuality (Keller, 2010; Hamilton, 2012). In essence, the ability to create something out of a natural resource was understood as a form of domination, whereby power was asserted to those who had the economic ability to do so (Keller, 2010). Anthropocentric views on the on the environment had therefore led to global opportunities for countries to compete against each other in the race for economic growth and prosperity (Hamilton, 2012; Newell, 2013). Consequently, the outcome of this view evidently became the back bone to capitalist economic growth, and therefore re-affirmed the dualism between humans and the environment (Keller, 2010; Hamilton, 2012; Steffen et al., 2011).

The underlying causes of ecological devastation are linked to the foundations of human desire for “drive for growth” (Hochstetler, 2013: 628). More specifically, the fixation on exponential growth on a contemporary global scale is identified as the catalyst for such environmental failure (Newell, 2013; Li, 2009). Evidently, the transition of economic activity from local levels into a global scale has impacted the ways in which natural resource consumption has affected relationship between people and their environment (Li, 2011). Newell (2013) argues that this is caused by the imbalances of power between the global North and the global South, whereby the global North have the ability to use power over the global South for the extraction of natural resources in exchange for profit. As a result, populations in the global South fail to protest against such destruction because of their need to compete against the global North for economic growth (Newell, 2013; Hochstetler, 2013).

Evidently, even Marx argued that the foundations of capitalism derive from self-interested schemes, through the exceeding ability to grow deriving from two factors, “the soil and the labourer” (Marx, 1974: 475 in Newell, 2013: 3). In this connection, the attempt for the global economy to stabilize the rapid climate crisis is contradicted by the desire to accumulate profit and capital endlessly (Li, 2011). Furthermore, because the climate crisis is dealt through a capitalist lens, global leaders and global summits that adhere to the ecological changes advocate for a balance between growth and ecological conservation (Li, 2011). Consequently, global leaders turn to ‘sustainability’ in reference to in attempt to ‘sustain’ the environment in capitalism in order for the longevity of economic growth through natural resources exploitation (Dawson, 2010). For Dawson (2010), the inability to directly confront the connection between economic growth and the climate crisis is the major flaw as to why outcomes of the crisis are rising, rather than falling. Moreover, within the last 60 years, the global emissions of greenhouse gases rapidly rose from a result from the economic impact of World War II (Lawrence et al., 2013). According to Li (2011), economic responses to this was administered by global leaders to use taxing schemes which would benefit the economy, for example, the carbon tax and carbon offsetting. In short, rather than directly affiliating with the debate on growth, global leaders were able to shift the ecological responsibility onto semi-periphery countries whilst core countries increased capital (Dawson, 2010; Li, 2011).

For Newell (2013), the relationship between globalization and the environment is stemmed from the imbalances of power through politics, a process in which allowed such an imbalance through the transition from local scale into a global scale. As a result, the failure to adhere to the environmental damage is caused by the growing social, political and economic inequalities in which the global South experiences as a result from the imbalance of power and decision-making administered by the global North (Newell, 2013; Hochstetler, 2013; Dawson, 2010). Combined with the introduction to Neoliberalism (whereby the regulation performed by governance of global trade, production and finance is dismantled, providing exceeding economic growth and prosperity to corporate sectors at any means), the imbalance of power is illuminated through the ability for wealthy corporate sectors to protect their rights against disturbances to economic growth (Hochstetler, 2013b).

Therefore, because the production, trade and finance of capitalism is accumulated on a global scale between the within the global North is conducted on a global scale, the ecological impacts of such processes are mostly experienced by those in the global South (Newell, 2013; Hochstetler, 2013).

The experiences of social, economic and environmental inequalities through a capitalist lens

The complexities of power relations between the global North and the global South are tied with the globalization of capitalist relations (Baylis et al., 2011; Malady, 2003a). Moreover, the unequal distributions of power between the global North and the global South has been rectified through the impacts of the climate crisis (Kovel, 2007). Evidently, the self-interested greed for wealthy countries to protect their interests and rights through the exploration of natural resource extraction and exploitation in poorer countries demonstrates the power imbalances in which global capitalism inhibits (Hamilton, 2010). The opposing impacts of such processes are illustrated significantly in the definition of capitalism as a global economy (Malady, 2003a). For instance, Transnational Corporations (TNCs) who have accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth through the exploitation of labor in global Southern countries advocate globalization as the catalyst for a global “shared space” through the increased interconnectedness of trade (Baylis et al., 2011). On the other hand, communities most affected by the complex processes of globalization identify it as the “new colonialism” (Malady, 2003a: 7-8), whereby power is used as a tool to extract and exploit resources from the global South and the “colonizers” use natural resources in the exchange for money (Kovel, 2007). Evidently, Kovel (2007) illuminates the ways in which the globalization of capitalist relations demonstrates exploitative means through the significance of power imbalances between the Indonesian government and the corporate Bretton Woods powerhouses, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The fact that Indonesia suffers from large amounts of debt is only exceeded through ecological debt as the IMF and World Bank allow Indonesian land to be extracted for palm oil investments in exchange for lowering debt (Kovel, 2007). Significantly, as Indonesia depend on this industry as the financial driver for the growth of their economy, global pressures of palm oil reduction come at a contradiction to the Indonesian economy (Austin et al., 2015). Strikingly, Indonesia face difficulties in the autonomy and decision making over their land because of the ownership taken place by wealthy corporations in the global North (Austin et al., 2015). Moreover, although palm oil industries aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a twenty-year goal, the industry is the fourth highest global greenhouse gas emitters through this production (Austin et al., 2015). In essence, although the reduction is deemed as necessity and improvement in order to sustain the environment for long-term investment, contradictions rest between the aimed reductions of an industry that accounts to 50% of the world’s vegetable oil demand, whilst accommodating a growing global population (Austin et al., 2015).

The first ALTERNATIVE, the attempt to green-wash capitalism

Put simply, an alternative to capitalism that advocates for political reform through making capitalism more ‘green’ is an alternative that does not consult with the major structural flaw which capitalism inhibits. Instead, it is an alternative which “seeks to profit from the environment crisis” (Dawson, 2010: 314), through the production and consumption of more green-effective materials, known as the commodity culture (Prothero and Fitchett, 2000). Moreover, the attempts in which capitalism can be reformed to give priority to ecology over the economy contradicts the foundation of what capitalism is built, such as the human desire to prosper through exploitation of the environment and the labourer (Newell, 2003; Dawson, 2010). Significantly, despite these alternatives being less radical than the latter, structural adjustments to capitalism are claimed to be required in order to sustain both the economy and the ecology  such as less consumerism or also known as “sustainable consumption” (Prothero and Fitchett, 2000: 51). Nonetheless, this transition has been adopted onto a global scale, whereby global leaders who make the decisions to reduce carbon emissions are often also the leaders who create the carbon emissions through neoliberal carbon trading schemes (Li, 2011; Dawson, 2010). However, through this process comes the “one size fits all” ideology for all economies to transition into a green economy and as a result, further strains the survival for the global Southern economies who began to see economic growth through large extractions of the natural resources (Hochstetler, 2012).

In essence, the need to sustain the environment to protect capitalism’s right to grow clearly demonstrates the value in the economy over the ecology (Dawson, 2010; Li, 2011; Barry, 2011). However, Prothero and Fitchett (2010) advocate that reforms within capitalism which serve both the economy and ecology is possible because the sociological, cultural and environmental roles of capitalism which is claimed to be misunderstood. Significantly, Dawson (2010) highlights that these roles to capitalism are only rendered out through the outcomes of social, cultural, economic and environmental inequalities between the global North and the global South. Consequently, the attempt to green-wash capitalism through the restructuring of its core values is proven ineffective, as the global consensus of capitalism reinforces a economy / ecology dualism.

The second alternative, a structural change to our society

There is a growing global consensus for the need of a societal structural change, one which advocates for the priority of ecology, not over, but as well as the economy, equally. More specifically, pockets of communities around the world are beginning to understand the societal construction of economic growth which capitalism has reproduced and therefore turning towards movements that advocate for the human development to coincide with ecological priority (Dawson, 2010; Merchant, 1980; Warren, 2010). Moreover, the distinction made my Kovel (2007) of capitalism as a social construction rather than a natural phenomenon is of importance when understanding alternative systems. Whilst Prothero and Fitchett (2010) claim that a global structural change to capitalism is too large and problematic of an issue to put forward, Warren (2010) recognizes that because capitalism is a social construction, there is possibility to format and construct more ecologically conscious alternative. Eco-socialism requires a structural change through questioning the existing global power relations of production and capital accumulation (Kovel, 2007; Lowy, 2005). Furthermore, eco-socialism can be identified as a response to the failure of capitalism, whereby the failure to adhere to the climate crisis is the result of the endless need for production (Kovel, 2014). Although eco-socialism faces obstacles due to the direct confrontation of opposing and rejecting the domination of capitalism, pockets of communities in the western world are beginning to adopt eco-socialist forms of systems (Lowy, 2005). For example, the take off of eco-socialist movements in Latin American countries such as the “ecology of the poor” are beginning to reject the economic transaction imploded through capitalism, which consist of pollution and destructions of their natural resources at the expense of economic growth (Lowy, 2005).

Similarly, the consideration of a de-growth society aims to promote fair distribution of resources through slowed production (D’Alisa, Demaria & Cattaneo 2013). This is most evident in local initiatives in western countries, whereby the process of production is cut short by the re-introduction to local farming practices engaging with their communities (D’Alisa, Demaria & Cattaneo 2013; Lawrence et al., 2013). This approach is much more feasible as productivist/growthist schemes are occurring today in rural and regional parts of the countryside in eastern Australia (Lawrence et al., 2013). Moreover, the emphasis on the countryside stewardship demonstrates a priority of ecology with economy (Lawrence et al., 2013).

In summation, this essay has demonstrated that the globalization of capitalist relations has not promoted ecological suitability. Furthermore, different systems of alternatives were investigated to provide a critical analysis on the differences between a reformed capitalism and a structural change. This has been demonstrated through introducing the relationship between the globalization of capitalist relations and the environment, identifying that the acceleration of accumulating economic profit on a global scale has been at the expense of the environment. Next, this essay unpacked foundations and intrinsic values of capitalism such as exponential growth as well as the construction of a human/nature dualism in order to identify the myth capitalism could be nature friendly. Thirdly, this essay demonstrated how capitalism has limited the ability for the global South to endure the outcomes of the climate crisis through exploring the wealth and power inequalities between the global North and the global South. Finally, this essay outlined two objectives for alternatives, which both aim to prioritize ecology over economy however; this essay argued that only a structural change is possible. Ultimately, whether we take shorter showers or remember to recycle our cardboard boxes, there will always been an underlying factor of social, economic and environmental inequalities experienced within a capitalist system. In the simplest sense, capitalism is built from a winner and a loser, the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the laborer, and the global North, and the global South. Without addressing the core social, economic and environmental inequalities which capitalism reproduces, and without addressing the climate crisis effectively, the existence of the environment will cease to exist.


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