Why the path of 'Capitalism' cannot cure climate change?

Fri, 18/02/2022 - 10:20

The science has spoken! As per the recently released report “The physical science basis” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is irrefutable evidence that humans are responsible for the current climate crisis we find ourselves in. Greenhouse gas emissions are choking the planet and the billions of people living in every nook and corner of the world, threatening their very existence. Transformational actions at an unprecedented scale in every aspect of our society is not just a choice anymore but an expeditious necessity. 

So how have we dug ourselves into this state of planetary emergency? With a little bit of analysis, it is evident that capitalism is driving this descent to climate chaos. Since the inception of industrialization, capitalism with its relentless drive for increased productivity and growth has been responsible for pumping billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. This is when fossil fuels with their energy-dense makeup allowed capitalism to flourish by fuelling machines at the expense of the environment. It is only obvious that if a system demands greater profits and infinite growth, we are bound to encounter serious problems when we find ourselves in a world of finite resources. Capitalism has been converting the natural world into raw materials at a rate far greater than these resources can replenish themselves. Our planet is running into an ecological overshoot. It now takes the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate the natural resources that we use in a year. This insatiable greed for profit maximization especially by multinational corporations and companies has led them to seek new territories across the globe to plunder nature, thereby exploiting the earth and endangering its flora and fauna. The waste and emissions they create are often offloaded back to the environment which in turn alters the earth's geology and ecosystems. This has ushered in a new era namely “Anthropocene” wherein such nature harming practices have led to significant impacts on the planet's ecosystems and climate, pushing us to the current state of climate emergency. What more, there is clear evidence that this kind of ecological plunder has a major role to play even in the COVID-19 pandemic which has and is still wreaking havoc in the lives of millions of people worldwide.

climate change

According to The Carbon Majors Database, a report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), since 1998, a mere 100 companies in the world have been responsible for 71% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. It is no surprise that the mix of companies in this list is mainly dominated by the fossil fuel industry. With capitalism’s insatiable greed for profit-making, reckless production of needless commodities has been infiltrating the market for decades. This has led to rampant consumerism.

Consumerism is one of the collateral damages of capitalism. The capitalist economy has become synonymous with consumers buying more and more stuff may it be for status, acceptance, desire or addiction, all of which is ingrained in our concept of success.  A barrage of advertisements that we encounter every day adds fuel to this fire. These advertisements more often than not make new and useless products seem fresh and exciting. The result is that the world is literally drowning in stuff which we do not actually want but buy anyway. The excess waste generated is also responsible for our reckless greenhouse gas emissions that are being spewed into the atmosphere exacerbating climate change. 

In fact, across its life cycle, the average product results in carbon emissions of 6.3 times its own weight, according to a study done by research scientists at the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management. Moreover, as per United Nations Environment Programme projects (UNEP), by 2050 we will need almost three planets to sustain our ways of living if we do not rethink the way we produce and consume. The irony is that more consumption and more income does not necessarily equate to more happiness. This concept is called “the Easterlin Paradox”. According to this theory, once our basic material needs are met, any additional consumption does little to improve our happiness or mental health. 

To add to this, capitalists have used every trick in the book to defy climate science for their personal gains. This may be in the form of either climate denialism or even greenwashing the products to make it sound more eco-friendly. Under climate denialism, they try to plant the idea that the science of climate change is not settled. Deniers suggest that climate change is just a part of the natural cycle. According to them, the climate models are unreliable and too sensitive to carbon dioxide. On the other hand, greenwashing tactics deceptively employ altruism as a facade to enhance their own perception in the public as an eco-conscious entity. They brainwash the consumers by using misleading jargon to project their products as environmentally friendly and sustainable in order to pacify public discontent. What more: the term "carbon footprint'' was wily coined by the industry to shift the blame on the consumers for their rampant consumerism. The question then arises - why do economies actually run in a capitalistic model?

The answer is simple. Economists and investors primarily consider GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as one of the most common indicators to assess the health of a nation's economy. These economists have played a major part in misguiding the policy makers by portraying that the economic impact of global warming is miniscule. They just take into consideration the measurable hard facts. But the impact of climate change, as we know it, is anything but quantifiable. The unknown and unmeasurable factors add up to 25 percent of climate change related damages. This kind of misrepresentation by economists is one of the factors that has literally led the world to walk blindfolded into the current existential crisis we find ourselves in. 

Shifting the focus to the GDP of a country, which increases when the value of goods and services produced over a specific time period within a country also increases,  basically requires more and more production and consumption. This in turn leads to excess energy requirements. Moreover, as per “Our World in Data”, the global energy mix is still dominated by fossil fuels. They account for more than 80% of energy consumption. The catch here is, an increase in energy production and consumption leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions which is not healthy for the environment. Therefore, it is clear that the quest for infinite growth under a capitalist economy that is driven by consumerism is what has pushed us to this climate crisis.

The silver lining here is that the world is finally waking up to this climate emergency. Economies are realizing the fact that a capitalist growth/profit model cannot exist alongside an environmentally ethical zero-carbon economy. Nations are consciously making an aggressive shift towards clean and renewable energy.  Under the pressure of climate harming capitalism and consumerism, people have started gasping for a release valve, may it be in the form of minimalism, zero-waste or slow living.

While individual actions play a considerable role in averting the effects of climate change, the primary focus should be on systemic changes. This calls for a radical and rapid societal transformation on a scale never seen before. Decoupling of the economy, which fundamentally means that the growth of an economy should be possible without corresponding increases in environmental pressure, is vital. This can be achieved by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.  But mere transition to renewable energy alone will not suffice. We need to rethink the way we produce and consume, if we plan to curtail global warming to the stipulated 1.5 degree Celsius to 2 degree Celsius. Business as usual is a recipe for environmental destruction which in turn will exacerbate the already underway path to  massive extinction of species. Hence, this is where scientists and ecological economists are increasingly calling for a shift to ‘degrowth’ strategies. Degrowth primarily means a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being. Under the degrowth model, the economy will be decoupled from the GDP fetish and focus on a transition towards a planned, coherent policy to reduce ecological impact, thereby providing a liveable environment especially for the poor and marginalized. The smaller our global needs, the easier the transition will be.

Unless drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions along with a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption is achieved, the future of our planet is at grave risk. Putting an end to the capitalist-driven rampant consumerism and crafting a more just and ethical way of sustainable living by implementing a degrowth model should be our priority if we want our planet to survive.