May 25, 2011

Capitalism And The Growing Ecological Dilemma

What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves

We are currently experiencing human-caused ecological stress like never before. We have been largely denying the damage we have been causing, even though the destruction has been monumental. Some scientists even believe there is enough evidence to show we have entered the Age of Anthropocene, where humanity's effects on the planet threaten the natural systems we all rely on.

For over 40 years environmentalism has not been able to slow the economic juggernaut that is driving this house wrecker. Why does capitalism blind us to the realization that a healthy environment is of primary importance, and without out it nothing else matters?

We have to look at our cultural ethic to find the causes of our reliance on extreme forms of capitalism and our growing ecological dilemma. Professor Donald Worster describes the capitalist approach in "jarringly stark terms".

Worster writes, "The land in this culture, as in any other, is perceived and used in certain, approved ways; there are, in other words, ecological values taught by the capitalist ethos. We may sum them up in three maxims:

  1. Nature must be seen as capital. It is a set of economic assets that can become a source of profit or advantage, a means to make more wealth. Trees, wildlife, minerals, water, and the soil are all commodities that can either be developed or carried as they are to the marketplace. A business culture attaches no other values to nature than this; the non-human world is desanctified and demystified as a consequence. Its functional interdependencies are also discounted.
  2. Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement. Capitalism is an intensely maximizing culture, always seeking to get more out of the natural resources out of the world than it did yesterday. The highest economic rewards go to those who have done the most to extract from nature all it can yield. Private acquisitiveness and accumulation are unlimited ideals, impossible to satisfy once and for all.
  3. The social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth. It should free individuals (and corporations as collective individuals) from encumbrances on their aggressive use of nature, teach young people the proper behavior, and protect the successful from losing what they have gained. In pure capitalism, the self as an economic being is not only all-important, but autonomous and irresponsible. The community exists to help individuals get ahead and absorb the environmental costs."
Surely not all capitalists strictly adhere to Worster's maxims. However, much of the current environmental desecration stems from the misapplication of the spirit of capitalism that he describes. Environmental costs of the harsh, self-indulgent aspects of our capitalistic system are quickly degrading and destroying the world's natural systems.

Pure capitalists cannot hide what has been done to the world's forests, for example. But trouble is also showing up in other areas such as water, atmospheric conditions, and soil depletion. Climate change threatens us with catastrophic weather events - the suffering people of Joplin, Missouri are currently experiencing these effects, but they are not the only ones to notice scary changes on the horizon.

Short term economic expediency dictates a narrow, irresponsible use of our collective natural gifts. Nature is over-simplified, the destruction is denied, and environmental problems are left for our kids to solve. We currently do not have any viable solutions to any of our pressing challenges. No provisions are being made to reinvest any of the great wealth generated by capitalism in the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem to safeguard options for the future.

Getting over our materialist mania will help us weed out the worst of the capitalists by withholding our dollars from their overflowing vaults. I am not buying anything they are trying to sell me. Ecological imperatives dictate that we simplify our lives, go forward with compassion, and create local, self-sustaining communities based on a free and fair exchange of goods and services.

Along the way, we will take our freedom back, heal our planet, and realize better, more balanced ways of living.


    1. AnonymousMay 26, 2011

      Hi, I really like your blog but am too lazy to sign up for a proper profile to comment. This is an excellent post, I am starting to realize lately how cheap everything is in this culture and how we are taught to consume as much as we can possibly afford. I don't think most of us question this and we need to!

      I have become so much more mindful lately about how much advertising does to our brains and how we don't even know why we want the things we do. I have been trying to sell my house and the first problem people have with the place is the countertop is not granite. I want to know why everyone thinks they need granite countertops?! Watching too much HGTV perhaps?

      Anyway, your blog is thought-provoking and I am sure my kids are going to find my new positions on consumerism quite annoying. :)


    2. Jen,

      Thank you for leaving a comment and sharing your insights. I love questions, and you are asking some hard ones. Asking questions is the first step toward uncovering the truth.

      I read somewhere on the net that the world spends more money on advertising and marketing than it spends on education. You can see where our priorities really are, despite the lip service paid to education by all politicians.

      It is hard to swim against the tidal wave of consumer craziness, and the kinds of issues we are discussing are not popular in the mainstream population.

      But the times are changing, and people are increasingly seeing the need for reducing consumption and the amount of work that must be done to support it.

      Your kids may be annoyed, but you will be preparing them for a future that is likely to be quite different from the luxury of the past few decades. They will thank you later.

      Hope to hear from you again to find out how it is all going.


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