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Capitalism or the Environment


If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism may be the best system ever. But if you want to save the planet from environmental catastrophe our current economic system is a dead end.

I remember in my socialist youth often being told: “Your ideas sound good but that’s just not how things work in real life.”

In my socialist sixties these same words seem appropriate as an analysis of mainstream environmentalism today.

Here is the harsh reality:

The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff?

All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period capitalism goes into a crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.

Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines are explicit about this and in fact go even further. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex as telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”

If we continue with capitalism they are correct.

Yet some so-called environmentalists look to capitalism for solutions. That’s like asking the fox to fix the henhouse. You can’t be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.

Now that the human population has passed seven billion, it should be obvious that we inhabit a planet of finite resources. But population growth is not the problem. Human energy remains our most precious and underutilized resource. Once basic material needs for food, clothing, housing and healthcare have been met, human wellbeing depends less on consumption than on opportunities for education, employment, social participation and social recognition.

Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human life as we know it depends.

Despite the weight of evidence and the urgency of the problem, capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.

Around the planet trillions of dollars are being spent to develop massive deposits of shale oil and gas. In Canada capitalist investment is focused on expanding oil production from tar sands. The promoters claim that these developments will create jobs. But the funds required to develop and transport that fuel will create far fewer jobs than would be produced if equivalent amounts were spent on the development of solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced with investments in domestic employment for domestic markets, in the production and distribution of local agriculture, clothing, shoes and communications products. More jobs would be created by investments in childcare, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green infrastructure.

But capitalism prefers investments in fossil fuels because corporate profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be made meeting actual human needs.

So, we have some important choices to make: Support capitalism or support the environment. Build a different sort of economic system that can prosper in harmony with the environment or fiddle with capitalism as our planet burns.

Gary Engler, a longtime Vancouver journalist and union activist, is a co-author of the New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite. More information at The Vancouver book launch will be Thursday Nov. 7, 7 p.m. at the Public Library, main branch.

Gary Engler is a Canadian journalist, novelist (The Year We Became Us) and co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite (  He is currently working on the first great hockey novel tentatively titled Puck Hog.

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