Capitalism is Killing Us

Capitalism is Killing us banner
Capitalism is Killing us banner

Share this post:

Death is upon us. The death of glaciers and ice sheets plummeting into the sea, the death of great swaths of forests engulfed by flames, the death of coral reefs bleaching pasty white, and the death of people killed by natural disasters, austerity, or the state. As I pondered on the reasons for our descent into climate chaos, I came to an unsettling, yet sobering conclusion: the driving force behind the severity of our climate crisis is none other than capitalism, a system at the very centre of our lives.

For the last 30 years or so, capitalism as a concept has flourished in the public consciousness. Our imagination begins and ends with capitalism, and it increasingly appears to be the only viable economic and political system. With no coherent alternative in sight, perhaps, as Francis Fukuyama cites, we have reached the “end of history” with regards to ideology. Bearing this in mind, I find it pertinent to delve into the evolution of capitalism, its relation to individuals and corporations, and how it is the source behind our burgeoning climate crisis.

Capitalism as we know it

Since its inception into the urban landscape of England, industrial capitalism has been a juggernaut of waste, driving plunder and the production of needless commodities. Indeed, the relentless desire for productivity and increased growth by early English capitalists is the reason for our deadly reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, with their dense energy makeup, allowed capitalism to flourish through large-scale production of goods, transportation systems and efficient distribution networks of products and services. The core imperative of capitalism is to grow, an imperative that is in stark contrast to living in balance with the natural world. And because of this production, 1.5 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gases have been pumped into the environment since 1751. This figure only continues to grow.

Modern Capitalism

Today, we see that the global capitalist economy has reached its final form. Perhaps the industrialists were the first to kickstart this process, but we as consumers are not entirely blameless either. Capitalism has become so intertwined with our everyday lives that we are mindless participants in this vicious cycle – think of the last time you purchased something. Was it during the Black Friday, or the 12/12 sales? And did you really need whatever you purchased? By buying more and more, we are complicit in sustaining capitalism, and destroying our earth.

Of course, firms and large corporations are not any less guilty. Their engagement in invasive advertising tactics bombard consumers at any given moment, making it that much harder for us to turn away from consumerism. From the moment one steps out of the house, it is almost impossible to avoid advertisements. Be it at the bus stop, the train station, or mounted high above on billboards, advertising is ubiquitous. The tactic neuromarketing further enables companies to combine neuroscience and behavioural psychology in producing advertisements that resonate with consumers.

It seems that capitalism (along with consumerism and overconsumption) is now an inescapable way of life, and one that we must contend with.

Fixing Capitalism: Attempting Corporate Social Responsibility

Amidst the fanaticism of capitalism, it becomes clear to me which party has to be held most accountable. The speed at which corporations and industries are extracting raw materials have reached near-extinction levels. Amidst all this, climate change represents the final nail in the coffin. Since 1988, a mere 100 companies have caused 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, revealing the simple truth that corporate giants are driving climate disaster. With this knowledge, multinational corporations (more so than the individual) are tasked with the heavy burden of fixing and undoing the damage done before it reaches a point of no return.

One certification system that has emerged to help assess how socially, environmentally, and ethically responsible corporations are is the B-Corporation (hereafter B-Corp). Certified B-Corps are enterprises that meet the voluntary and private requirements initiated by B Lab, a US-based non-profit organisation. Some of these requirements include the company’s policies, practices, and outputs in areas like customers, workers, the environment, and the products sold. A famed example of a B-Corp certified firm is Fiji Water: Marketed as a ‘Taste of Paradise’, it has gained enormous international success as an ostensibly clean and green product. Celebrity endorsements – reaching as high as previous US President Barack Obama – have abounded, driven in part by the belief that the corporation is both environmentally and socially responsible.

Since then, there have been five controversies surrounding the brand: the environment, advertising, tax recall, supporting a dictatorship and local ethical concerns – but we will give greater focus to uncovering their environmental mismanagement. Production of bottled water can hardly be called sustainable since it is similar to mass production of any other product and it has a significant negative impact on the environment. From the extraction, production, to the exporting process, the amount of damage is unthinkable. For starters, the bottles are made of PET plastics, which are non-biodegradable and either end up as part of the 46,000 plastics in the ocean, or the 38 million bottles in landfills. Fiji Water’s extraction has been rumoured to be 55 million litres annually, an amount argued to be unsustainable, unethical, and environmentally degrading.

Epitomising the B-Corp certification as an ethical code, as illustrated, has proven to be a rather flimsy metric of assessing how responsible companies are. Perhaps, we cannot hope for ethics and environmental consciousness to come before the profit motive, now or ever.

We Must Act Now

Below the glitz and glamour of ‘ethical consumption’ and ‘ethical firms’ is a dark side waiting to be uncovered. Fiji Water is one of countless corporations that represent the self-destructive insanity of consumer culture. It also reveals an ugly truth surrounding businesses: ethics are a luxury and profits are the bottom line. Such is the foundational basis of capitalism. We cannot wait and hope for collective action to come from these corporations; thus, we must take action now.

Capitalist supporters might claim that current efforts incorporating environmentalism into capitalism are sufficient in reversing climate change. But scientists have known and warned about climate change for nearly 200 years, yet we continue towards an apocalyptic rise in global temperatures. From the Kyoto Protocol, Bali Action Plan, to COP 15, most of these agreements have been heavily guided by climate politics. In fact, many countries were unhappy over the stipulated 2°C target in the negotiations in Copenhagen. If the framework of targets is based on power, as well as the questions of whose interest 2°C is acceptable, are climate targets even possible within capitalism?

In my opinion, a strategy of degrowth seems to be the best way forward. Degrowth is 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. This puts an impetus on high-income nations to actively slow down the pace of material production and consumption. This overall reduction also makes it easier to accomplish a rapid transition to renewables. To add, the approach is ecologically coherent: reducing material throughput not only helps us to address climate change, but also removes pressure on other natural systems. In a world where individuals and firms are fanatically obsessed with capitalism, the idea of growth as secondary to the environment might seem inconceivable, but it is an end goal we should strive towards regardless.

Above all else, remember this

Our lives are entirely dependent on complex natural systems – if we push these systems past their breaking points, we must be prepared to face the consequences. But these consequences might be so dire and unimaginable that mankind cannot even begin to grapple with it. Granted, there is no one solution to this catastrophe, but we must be driven towards a post-capitalist, post-climate crisis reality. If we must remember one thing, let it be this – capitalism cannot solve the problems it creates.