You know that ex you keep running back to, even though you know you shouldn’t? The one you want to fix all your problems, even though they were the ones who caused the problem in the first place? Well, that’s capitalism. I started reading Jason Hickel’s book Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World and it felt like when Neo discovered the Matrix. I had no idea how intrinsically linked capitalism and climate change were. Instinctively I had to go and tell everyone to let them know what was happening but, to my surprise, many people already knew.
I had always wondered why we didn’t seem to be making much progress in reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially when an EPA report found that 85% of Irish people are worried about climate change. In fact, GHG emissions in Ireland had actually increased by 4.7% from 2020 to 2021! Something must be preventing us from making that transition to action. This is where capitalism comes in.
The concept of capitalism is centred around the growth of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually. In fact, a country’s GDP has to grow by 2-3% annually or else it is considered to be in recession. This means that the amount of goods and services produced has to double every 23 years. The problem with this is that GDP is not a comprehensive measurement. It does not consider things like access to services, health, and well-being. In fact, the man who invented GDP, Simon Kuznets, warned that it should not be used in isolation to measure the state of a country.
It is impossible for our economy to grow exponentially and, by our governments attempting to do so, we are destroying our ecosystems. Planetary boundaries are a concept created by Johan Rockstrom and a team of 28 internationally renowned scientists to quantify nine systems that humanity needed to stay within the boundaries of in order to sustain generations to come. We have crossed five out of the nine planetary boundaries.
If the majority of people believe that capitalism is unfair, why are our governments still pursuing GDP growth?
In 2019, 11000 scientists across the world came together to tell the world’s governments to stop pursuing GDP growth and to protect our ecosystems instead. Increases in GHG emissions have been positively correlated with GDP growth. In 2015 a YouGov poll found that 64% of British people believed that capitalism is unfair and in India the numbers were even higher. A staggering 74% of people there thought capitalism was unfair. If the majority of people believe that capitalism is unfair, why are our governments still pursuing GDP growth? Are they not supposed to be representative of the nation’s wishes? We must ask who GDP growth really benefits.
The industry that time and again seems to benefit from not taking climate action and maintaining a quest for exponential economic growth is the fossil fuel industry. This industry relies on capitalism because without our desire for growth we would have long stopped burning fossil fuels when we saw the destruction they unleashed on our environment. Documents uncovered by journals and activists have shown that the industry has been sewing misinformation for decades and has been covering up any evidence of harm to the environment. The reason our governments allow them to do that is because we are seeking the growth of GDP to the detriment of our planet.
We have become victims of consumerism and are so blinded by the shininess of the next “new” thing that we have forgotten that we need to take action to stop overproducing and overconsuming.
Capitalism is extremely difficult to combat because it is so heavily ingrained in our societies and mindsets. Marketers have teams of researchers designed to trick us into thinking we need all of this stuff, to prey on our desire to fit in and our quest for happiness. If we really needed their products or if they really would give us lasting fulfillment, would all of that scheming be necessary? People have become so focused on keeping up with the latest trend or buying the newest iPhone that we forget the environmental cost of those products. The average person is ambushed with between 4,000-10,000 advertisements a day. We have become victims of consumerism and are so blinded by the shininess of the next “new” thing that we have forgotten that we need to take action to stop overproducing and overconsuming.
Capitalism has even tried to piggy-back off the Green Revolution. This is a phenomenon called “Greenwashing”. It reminds me of when you break up with your ex and they say things like: “Give me one more chance. I promise I’ve changed!”. They don’t change and neither does capitalism. Greenwashing occurs when a company claims to be more environmentally sustainable than they actually are. One example of this is when McDonald’s in 2019 put forward a campaign to replace all plastic straws with recyclable paper straws. A great idea, except that the paper straws were not recyclable. Volkswagen got caught faking its emissions reports on several lines of diesel vehicles in 2015. The cars were thought to be amongst the lowest emitters in the market until the US Environmental Protection Agency found that the cars produced up to 40 times more emissions than advertised.
The solution to this climate crisis is not going to be found in capitalism, in creating more reusable or recycled products, and definitely not by compromising with the fossil fuel companies, allowing them to lead us into the future. Our market is saturated with goods and services – we have everything we could ever want. We do not need more. What we need to do is scale back our production to preserve our planet. It’s time to break up with capitalism, stop answering their calls and stop believing their excuses!