The battle for ‘sustainable’

September 14, 2010 at 6:02 am 4 comments

Thankfully, no lives were lost in the September 5 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. But it has caused vast damage, up to half the buildings in the region need repairing.

As I watched the evening news report about the disaster, I was struck by a comment a local resident made to reporters. Half jokingly, he said the good news was that the rebuilding effort would help pull New Zealand out of recession.

Without realising, he pointed to a key feature of the present economic system. Capitalism thrives on crisis and destruction. Half of Christchurch is wrecked, but that translates into more jobs, more economic activity and, most of all, more growth.

It reminded me of something the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said about the way capitalism works.

He said it made more sense to employ people to dig holes then cover them up again than to allow economic growth to stagnate.

The point is that capitalist growth does not have to serve any social need or useful purpose. Capital must expand. Profits must rise. That’s all that matters.

And if the growth machine falters, it’s thrown into crisis — a recession.

Capitalism’s growth drive is what makes it so radically unsustainable. To survive, it needs ever-higher resource use. It needs an obedient workforce, on the lowest wages it can get away with. And it needs those same workers to be high consumers. It has to convince us to buy more and more stuff.

A healthy, expanding capitalist system is unhealthy for people and the planet. The ecological crisis shows us that.

Indeed, the climate emergency has reached truly dire proportions. A 2008 paper by climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows predicted the planet was headed for a minimum 4°C of warming this century, even if sizeable emissions cuts were made. If temperatures do reach this high it would trigger runaway global warming.

The growth economy is also a waste economy: it has to treat the Earth as a giant trash can.

Just one example: a study by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation estimated there was about six times more plastic waste, by mass, in the Pacific Ocean than zooplankton.

A floating rubbish heap, roughly twice the size of Texas, spans an area of the north Pacific.

It’s not that most people don’t care. They do. Concern about these issues has probably never been higher.

But corporate interests exploit and distort this concern. They try to convince us we can consume our way to a sustainable world.

Sustainability is repackaged and sold back to us as merchandise. Most of us are aware that companies use greenwashing to sell their products. But the reason they keep doing it is because it works. Being “green” is a good marketing strategy.

We are in a struggle over the very meaning of “sustainable”. It’s been co-opted. Green capitalism allows industry to give the impression it is changing, even as it continues with business as usual.

At the same time, a relentless cultural message has been hammered home, telling us high individual consumption is the real problem.

So we are left with two ideas, which sum up the philosophy of green capitalism. Bad consumer choices are supposed to be the source of the crisis, while good consumer choices are said to be the path to salvation.

To an extent, this message has tainted the mainstream environment movement. We can see this with events such as Earth Hour, which suggest businesses and individuals have an equal responsibility to ride bicycles more often, have shorter showers and recycle milk cartons.

Now don’t get me wrong. We should try to reduce our personal waste and impact where we can. In this sense, we should “practice what we preach”.

But alone, it won’t solve even 1% of our environmental problems. We can’t treat the ecological crisis as independent from the economic system that gave rise to it.

The idea that consumers cause environmental problems obscures the fact that production is dominated by huge corporations. They are the ones pushing unsustainable growth. Collectively, they spend billions on advertising to create new consumer “needs”. They are the vested interests standing in the way of real sustainable change.

The free market won’t allow us to buy the things we really need. We need solar thermal power stations and wind farms. We need a redesign of our entire food system. But the system will not deliver these things in the short time we have left.

And capitalism doesn’t allow most of the world’s people to fulfil their basic needs at all. It excludes them. It leaves 1 billion people without enough food simply because it’s not profitable to have them eat.

To return to the New Zealand earthquake, another remarkable thing is it was slightly stronger than the earthquake that hit Haiti in January. But in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest nations, at least 230,000 people died.

The difference between the two earthquakes is the difference between a natural disaster and an unnatural disaster.

Capitalism is a system of unnatural disasters. It was never sustainable in the first place. It will be even less so in the future.

[Based on a speech delivered at the Green Left Weekly Sustainability Dinner, Sydney, September 11.]

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Entry filed under: greenwashing.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David  |  September 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

    As a Christchurch resident, I think the claim that “up to half the buildings in the region need repairing”, which I dare say you got from the mainstream media, is an exaggeration. I’m not sure what the percentage would be, probably less than a quarter. Although some buildings will have to be completely rebuilt, it looks to me as though most of the damage is minor, e.g. repairing damaged brick chimneys.

    However, this doesn’t detract from your central message about capitalism.

    Reply
  • […] Published September 15, 2010 Uncategorized Leave a Comment Simon Butler on Climate Change, Social Change Thankfully, no lives were lost in the September 5 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, New […]

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  • 3. Anonymous  |  October 9, 2010 at 3:04 am

    […] The battle for ‘sustainable’ Simon Butler – Climate Change Social Change “We are in a struggle over the very meaning of  ’sustainable.’ It’s been co-opted. Green capitalism allows industry to give the impression it is changing, even as it continues with business as usual. At the same time, a relentless cultural message has been hammered home, telling us high individual consumption is the real problem.” […]

    Reply
  • […] The battle for ‘sustainable’ Simon Butler – Climate Change Social Change […]

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