Columns

Katzevich ’16: Climate change: End capitalism or end the world

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 10, 2014

On Sept. 21, almost 400,000 people, from suburban families to college students to hardened eco-warriors, took to the streets of New York to protest the continued destruction of the earth’s precious ecosystems through anthropogenic climate change before a United Nations meeting to discuss next year’s climate summit in Paris. One does not, however, have to be particularly pessimistic to expect the predictable: Just like the Kyoto Protocols and all subsequent U.N. climate summits, the one in Paris will include much talk, many promises and no results of significance.

Perhaps it may be a touch defeatist to criticize what was, after all, the largest climate march in human history — but tough love demands it. Walking obediently along the route provided by the New York Police Department, never coming close to the U.N. building and without a list of demands or prepared speeches, the People’s Climate March appeared as little more than a mildly political parade and will certainly be treated as such by those who hold the power to shape the future of the earth.

One aim of the march was simply to raise awareness of the issue. The other, more significant purpose was to appeal to the political class, lawmakers and politicians to take action on the one issue that, apart from touching every facet of social justice, affects the very survival of not only our species but all life on Earth.

The active inaction of a neutered citizenry, with its inability to critically analyze the true causes of the apocalypse we are collectively sleepwalking into, is deeply troubling. The march’s failure to make the unprecedented strength of its magnitude count raises serious questions about our potential to avert the impending crises prophesied by the increasingly alarmed outcries of climate scientists.

To beg for salvation from those who write our laws is a fool’s errand of the most egregious degree. It is to believe that we can alter the form by stepping on its shadow, to have the tail wag the dog.

As keenly demonstrated by President Obama’s sanctioning and glorification of the fracking industry, politicians, while certainly complicit in the ecocide unfolding before us, are but the handmaidens of the true criminals, courtiers and sanctifiers of those unleashing death and destitution on unimaginable scales.

The real culprit, against whom we must focus the full force of our wrath, energy and ire, is a capitalist system that produces cancerous growth for its own sake, destroying the natural world and creating unimaginable waste in the process.

Capitalism, by its very nature and logic, is incompatible with sustainable life on this planet. Capitalism acts merely to maximize profit at every level, with all other consequences, both good and bad, as unintended side effects. By placing a dollar sign on everything, capitalism allows nothing to go untouched and unexploited. No tree is seen beyond its potential to be paper or planks. No mineral is left unmined. No holy forest is left uncleared to build housing developments. Capitalism leaves nothing sacred.

On the one hand, defenders of this system of natural exploitation contend that the growth it produced has greatly improved human well-being. Certainly, in some senses, they are correct. The combination of capitalism and the scientific revolution has caused rapid technological progress and an unprecedented jump in human life expectancy.

Conversely, it has also produced deprivation on untold levels, as multinational corporations and the governments at their behest systematically rob people of their access to land. Two billion people survive on less than two dollars a day, and one in every eight people suffers from hunger and malnutrition — not from a lack of food, but from the inability to afford it.

Moreover, the costs of capitalist growth are destruction and waste on untold levels. In order to “make more land available for housing and urbanization, timber, large scale cash crops such as soy and palm oil, and cattle ranching,” as a 2013 LiveScience article describes, about 78 percent of the world’s indigenous forests have been cleared, including 90 percent in the continental United States.

This clearing of forests is one of the prime drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, and the destruction of natural habitats has created one of the greatest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Already over half of all wildlife populations have perished, and countless more are set to join them in the abyss.

Further, capitalism invariably produces enormous amounts of waste. Although we are most familiar with consumer waste — phones, cars and almost everything else disposed of and replaced every few years — it is estimated that for every pound of garbage discarded by households, industries such as mining, manufacturing, agriculture and petrochemicals produce 70 pounds of waste.

This waste is far from harmless, as electronic waste produces toxic chemicals damaging to human health, especially in the developing world, and plastic waste disposed of in the ocean has horrific effects on aquatic wildlife.

While capitalist growth depends upon the destruction of the natural world and the purposeful production of egregious amounts of waste, it is the character of its growth that is most troubling. Capitalist growth is based not on prudent thought or decades-long plans, but rather on the immediate, short-term creation of profit. Capitalism plans by quarter, sometimes by year, but rarely anything beyond that.

On a macro level, this same thoughtlessness is again exemplified, as the logic is to grow GDP, the sum of all national production, without much care as to how. In this sense, capitalism shares the ideology of the cancer cell: growth for the sake of growth.

Thus, as environmentalists, as those who care for life on this planet and respect the sanctity of the natural world, what can we do? The first step is to drop the delusion of the climate march and much of modern environmentalism ­— the belief that we can in any way appeal to political leaders.

Politicians, who regardless of party, are at the behest of corporations, depend upon massive corporate contributions to get elected, and place corporate leaders in key administrative positions of power are in no way the solution to our problems. Our political class is morally and intellectually bankrupt as well as practically impotent, and our pleas to them fall upon deaf ears, only serving as diversions from the malfeasance of the corporate state.

Instead, we must engage in acts of civil disobedience against the banks, energy companies and corporations that wield the true levers of power.

We must defy the authority of the state, the safeguarders and bailiffs of capital, potentially at the risk of our freedom and lives, to put so many wrenches in the wheels and disturbances in the machine that they no longer have the choice to ignore us.

We must occupy, we must strike, we must persevere, we must raise hell.

We must demand a rationally governed society that produces for human needs rather than corporate greed, that holds the natural world as sacrosanct and places its rights above the dictates of production and profit. And, if and when the armed corporate state strikes back with the full capacity of its vengeance, we must leave nothing off the table.

Our lives depend on it. Our children depend on it. Our species depends on it. The earth depends on it.

 

David Katzevich ’16 believes the earth is too important to be left in the hands of those who do not care for it, much less love it. He can be reached at david_katzevich@brown.edu.

 

A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that over half of the world’s wildlife species have already perished. In fact, over half of the world’s wildlife populations have already perished. The column also previously misstated the relative size of the ongoing extinction: It is one of the greatest mass extinctions in world history, not the greatest. The Herald regrets the errors.

  • Anon

    You won’t end capitalism. You can’t. Every country that has tried has ultimately either starved or survived on black markets before switching back. Capitalism is why so many people have been lifted out of poverty – lack of it is why they’re still there. People are more capitalist than they are racist, sexist, or anything else – from South Africa to North Korea to good old USA, you just can’t beat the dollar.

    Your calls to action make you sound like a radical nut bag – nobody who isn’t already crazy is going to listen to you. There’s no precedent for your method succeeding in doing anything but screwing things up more efficiently. Be smarter – how can we exploit capitalism to fight climate change? Consider that Elon Musk is doing way more to help than the UN or ridiculous comrades like you.

    • Anon says:“Your calls to action make you sound like a radical nut bag – nobody who isn’t already crazy is going to listen to you.”

      This sort of knee-jerk, vitriolic response is typical of those unable to think outside the mindset that is leading us all toward a catastrophic end. Business Insider just published an article describing the future that capitalism is bringing us, converting a living planet into dead commodities:

      25 Devastating Effects Of Climate Change

      Capitalism is inherently unsustainable and destined for collapse because its pursuit of profit rests on the rampant and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and workers. To compete against their rivals, corporations are pushed to externalize any costs they can to increase profitability, and these costs show up as harmful environmental and social effects. A 2010 study pegged externalized costs to the environment by the world’s top 3000 corporations at $2.2-trillion, equal to 1/3rd of corporate profits. I’m sure that if another study was done today that price tag would be much higher considering the irreparable damage that climate change and biodiversity loss has wrought.

      Elon Musk is a techno-utopian capitalist who thinks that humans need to colonize Mars to avoid extinction…hardly someone whom I would invoke as a person grounded in reality or sanity.

      • Anon

        You completely missed the point of my post. The point is not that capitalism doesn’t cause climate change, or that people aren’t profiting off of negative externalities. The point is that the suggested “alternative” is incredibly ignorant and “knee-jerk,” and that there are far better solutions.

        The proposed anti-capitalism argument is, as the saying goes, not even wrong – it’s like saying that because people die in cars without seat belts, we should all ride motorcycles. No, you should fix the real issue and install seat belts and make people wear them, never mind the fact that motorcycles are even more dangerous than cars. Hollering that by riding motorcycles, “automobile” accidents will be reduced is a fantastic, visible-from-space facepalm argument.

        Elon Musk is indeed a pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Except unlike anti-capitalist radicals, his ideas work. You want to talk reality? PayPal is reality. So is Tesla. He’s got way more reality going for him than socialists and communists who are just boggled by the concept of empiricism. You get to be weird when your stuff works.

        Oh, and if readers would like to navigate to xraymike79’s blog page from his Disqus bio, they will indeed find that he is already crazy, as predicted.

        • Please enlighten us as to the solutions for capitalism’s inherent flaws:

          infinite growth on a finite planet
          externalization of social and environmental costs
          corporatism & regulatory capture as a natural outcome of capitalism
          corporate-controlled government (lobbying dollars just keep increasing)
          gross wealth disparity as a natural outcome of capitalism
          capitalism and the profiteering from war
          capitalism’s worship of material wealth
          corporate-controlled media
          corporate welfare (one of the lowest effective corporate tax rates in the developed world and subsidies for the giant transnational corporations costing the average American family $6,000 or more per year)
          healthcare for profit (The U.S. Has The Most Expensive And Least Effective Health Care In The Developed World)
          Higher education for profit

          Instead of resorting to childish name-calling by referring to people as “crazy”, why not tell us how you would reform a system that is irreparable.

          • Anon

            – Infinite growth: Common misconception. Growth is a product of demand. When (e.g.) oil runs low, prices soar, alternative energy becomes desirable. Economically, the “finite” problem is solved.

            – Externalization: Quite a problem! Luckily we’ve had torts (like nuisance) for centuries. Do need to address this more.

            – Regulatory capture. Funny you mention this. Companies have too much state control, therefore the solution (not being capitalism) is to give the state full control. Makes total sense that the solution to the problem is just doing more of the problem. The real solution is not having regulations to be captured in the first place.

            – Same as previous bullet

            – Wealth disparity: In a capitalist society, everyone gets wealthier over time. States that focus on equality see their economies stagnate (many European countries, e.g.), whereas in capitalist societies, everyone gets richer over time. That some get more rich than others is a problem is not a problem. True equality only exists in abject poverty. Just ask India, China, or any number of other nations that insisted on equality before economic freedom. Would they turn the clock back 4 decades? No sir.

            – Worship of material wealth: You’re joking if you think this is specific to capitalism. This is a baseless judgment call – even Milton Friedman would ridicule you or anyone for thinking life is just about money.

            – Would you rather have state run media? Fox and CNN are terrible, but they don’t have monopolies.

            – Get rid of corporate welfare. There’s a difference between capitalism and corporatism or crony-capitalism. The tax rate is actually one of the highest compared to other industrialized nations, and raising it will just hurt us as companies move elsewhere (as they’re doing and have been doing for years).

            – Healthcare & education for profit: You grossly misunderstand profits. Food is for profit. Clothes are for profit. Housing is for profit (except where rent-control deteriorates neighborhoods). The problem in the healthcare and education industries seems to be lack of profit-incentives, or overburdening of regulation protecting the extant companies.

            Capitalism isn’t without issues, but like I said, the alternatives have consistent, reliable track records for failure in a far shorter amount of time. There are important regulations to be had, but tossing out capitalism is a fool’s errand.

            If you want a thorough explanation of capitalism, I suggest you take a class or read some books on the topic of economics. You’d be able to answer these questions yourself.

          • Your answers are laughably cartoonish and the stereotypical responses of a neoconservative “free market” fundamentalist.

            You know nothing about peak fossil fuels or the severe limitations of “alternative energy”.

            You think that the solution to regulatory capture is to have no regulations in the first place. Ha, ha! Let’s trash the planet and poison ourselves even faster that we are presently doing.

            You think that “in a capitalist society, everyone gets wealthier over time.” Ha, ha! You haven’t explained why the middle class in America has been destroyed even though I provided you with some link to read. Actually, you have read none of the links I have provided because all of your responses are rubbish.

            Paul Farrell at MarketWatch has it right on the insanity of capitalists looking to capitalism for solutions:

            …Yes, capitalism itself will eventually self-destruct, because competition for new markets and ever-scarcer resources, accelerating global warming and climate disasters will ultimately kill off much of the human race.

            And it’s not just that the deniers like Big Oil who resist solely because they know carbon emissions regulations and taxes will upset their economic model. Nor because the capitalist brain is hard-wired on short-term profits and is incapable of balancing today’s profits against a longer-range future, discounting future costs to nothing, leaving problems for future generations to figure out and expense. All that’s ancillary.

            The real reason? Capitalists honestly believe capitalism is not the problem. They believe capitalism is the solution. To everything. That belief means their brains can’t grasp Albert Einstein’s warning, that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

            So capitalists and their capitalist solutions will just keep making matters worse for everyone this century. Until a catastrophe self-destructs capitalism … and the rest of us.

          • Gettin’ tired of this

            These aren’t radical ideas – they’re things you’ll learn in an economics 101 class at any university – even the AP exam covers a lot of this. If you aren’t up for a textbook, I recommend “Basic Economics” by Sowell – it doesn’t have math.

            And congrats, you can quote a pundit. That’s some hard research – I bet you find nobody that disagrees with you. Unlike you, I go to professors and Nobel laureates. I would take the time to answer your latest installment, but by now it’s clear you aren’t interested in engaging any thoughts other than your own.

            You raise objections, but when addressed, you simply move on to other objections. You claim I didn’t address an issue you didn’t raise. You have continued to fail to produce any sort of well-substantiated, empirical evidence behind your idea, resorting instead to simply declaring yourself correct as if that’s some sort of argument, or citing news articles (which, if you were savvy enough to see, are written so that people like you will read them).

            Parting note: Basic economic principles apply in capitalist and socialist societies alike. They’re largely inevitable. The difference is in how these systems cope with these principles, if at all, and this can and has meant the difference between prosperity, subsistence, and death.

          • Anon,
            I can see you are ignoring my links to real world facts. Here’s another for you to ignore:

            Nate Hagens: What if the Future is Real?

            Professor Richard Wolff lectured at Brown University a few years ago. You might learn something by watching it:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZU3wfjtIJY

  • bhulihan

    Defying the authority of the state is a correct assessment but the author is lying to himself and others. He wants to change the behavior of the ruling class and will have to give the state more authority every step of the way. Those who claim they are defiant will be used. The only ones with a real claim to defying the state are the capitalists, and they have to be removed. He has nowhere to turn but the state. He should not pretend he is something he is not, and maybe consider that criticizing the neutered citizenry as ignorant is a declaration of his own superiority. Hard to establish that when you are still in college.

  • ’15

    the destruction of natural habitats has created the greatest mass extinction in the planet’s history

    Already over half of all wildlife species have perished

    This is embarrassing by the standards of the Herald opinions page. Half of all species already extinct? The largest in Earth’s history? If you’re going cite science you should at least learn some.

  • Nothing should be ended. Only pollution of all kinds must be ended!

  • PaulR

    This guy is training to be a high-priest in the marxist-ecological doomsday cult religion.

    Pass the sacramental Kool-Aid.

  • Interesting, Katzevich. The past 30 years has seen

    – nearly half the world’s population lifted out of poverty and starvation

    – unprecedented economic growth in many developing countries

    – significant improvements in the environment around the world: air quality, water quality, etc.

    – a significant increase in education–particularly women’s education-in which women attend school 7 years on average, and men 8 years (women used to be 5 years)

    – a decline in birth rates around the world, with the exception of some African countries.

    – fewer deaths due to war and pestilence than any other previous 50-year period of human existence

    – much stronger ties between people, as 4 billion now have cell phones (and Google and Facebook will supply internet to the remaining 3.7 billion soon)

    All the while seeing a doubling of the total amount of knowledge in the world every 10 years.

    There was a book issued by the Club of Rome in 1972, called Limits to Growth. The book foresaw that “that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of the limited availability of natural resources,” Of course the Club of Rome was completely wrong in their picture of the world–since 1972 we’ve seen the greatest increase in human welfare than any period in man’s history.

    Every generation sees scaremongers who declare that the world is coming to an end. Some are on the religious right–predicting the Apocalypse–and some on the left–predicting that unless we upend capitalism, the world will run off a precipice.

    Katzevich, you’re the product of a privileged upbringing, and you know very little about the rest of the world. You simply need to spend some time in Seoul, Shanghai, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, and other fast-growing and dynamic societies. At the same time, you should also spend some time in some socialist countries: North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. I’ve spent time in the communist countries of Hungary, Poland (socialist), Russia, etc. I’ve even written a (fictional) book on Russia and the danger of Russian hegemony (see: http://www.john-lonergan.com).

    Your views need only to be tempered by reality and experience.

  • M2000

    Okay if you want to end Capitalism, give us all of your smart phones back, you know, the ones that you like to take photos of yourselves during your anti-Capitalist rallies, those? Or how about those tablets that you’re now using?

    Yea, Capitalism is so “evil”.