As the world attempts to recover from the current economic crisis and the first prospects for the future are being produced by economic forecasters and bank analysts, it is important not to forget the ecological dimension. As many people have explained before, including an article in this blog, the course our system of perpetual accumulation by means of competition has set is absolutely unsustainable from an ecological point of view. Not just the fact of the sheer consumption of the First World, so excessive that it would require several times the resources of our planet to provide to all, but also the fact that our modern historical period is considered by zoologists to be one of the world’s rare periods of mass extinction should make this clear. Even the most liberal capitalist-inclined politician is now aware of this, and such habitual profit-seekers as the Economist and the Chinese government are acknowledging the matter as serious. But there are still essentially two schools of thought on how the problem might be solved before the catastrophe predicted by most ecologists and climate experts is upon us.
The first school of thought puts its faith in technology and in the workings of capital itself. As economic growth continues, pressures on nonrenewable energy sources will increase and the high prices of oil and gas will make it ever more profitable for energy companies to develop technologies that will allow us to obtain the maximum of such resources the world has to offer. Moreover, over time it would also become particularly profitable to develop better technologies in terms of energy-saving and renewable energy for the consumers of energy such as industry and corporate offices as well as First World private consumers. No particular ‘greening’ from above would be necessary, since the profit system would guide companies toward the desirable goal anyway. Of course, it would require a means to make polluters pay, such as a cap-and-trade system or even, in the radical version, a carbon tax. The boundless capacity of capitalism to renew itself through technological change would guarantee our ability eventually to stave off the ecological crisis, provided the right incentives are set up.
A second school sees this differently. Many ecologists and climatologists already consider the global warming phenomenon to be irreversible, and the political options reduced to matters of degree of future impact. Further accumulation requires further use of non-renewable energy sources, which further contaminate the planet and worsen already existing trends. There is no a priori reason to believe that technology can solve these problems, or more importantly, solve them in time, and the interests of many countries and companies opposed to a change of course. Generally the overconsumption of the First World is matched by the explosive population growth of the Third, which puts tremendous pressure on the world’s carrying capacity from two different sides. Even though there is no reason to believe capitalism is moving towards a ‘convergence’ of the First and Third Worlds in terms of wealth and consumption, the re-intensification of globalization has “created the world in its own image”, and a numerically larger middle class exists now in many poor nations. These groups worldwide will strive for conspicuous consumption in the style of the First World if not to outdo them, which will further burden the global ecosystem. Technology is as likely to make this worse as it is to make it better, and capitalism has an atrocious track record in protecting natural commons from depredation and degradation as a result of accumulation, in particular in the early stages of the rise of a significant bourgeoisie. This school of thought then thinks that the prevention of total ecological catastrophe requires political and social reorganization. The examples of the Romans in North Africa and of the people of Easter Island prove that without such reorganization, there is nothing inherent in society that would prevent total disaster, nor will any divinity intervene if we are steering towards it.
These two schools imply very different attitudes towards economics, in particular the economics of growth. For the first school, a positive and robust growth is desirable, perhaps necessary. Only a booming market is likely to have the confidence to make structural investments in R&D and in infrastructural reorganization, while economic crisis tends to put ‘green’ issues on the back burner (as current politics shows). Since this school of thought counts on the success of capitalism to solve the problems of capitalism, the better the profits, the better the prospects. The second school, on the other hand, has the opposite view. More global growth means more consumption and in particular by those already wealthy, which further burdens the world with unsustainable consumption patterns and inequality of resource distribution. Proportionally more growth might be expected in the poorer nations, but since the richer nations and classes consume so much more extravagantly, even a small increase there represents a vast extra burden for the Atlas of our ecosystem to carry. Instead of more capitalism and more ‘growth’, what this school suggests is to reorganize society so that the reproduction of our way of life no longer depends on ever increasing accumulation at all costs. The profit mechanism is not the solution but the problem. If anything, an overall decrease in consumption paired with a much more equitable distribution of it would make the local and regional environmental impact much more acceptable, while also serving the political purpose of reversing the pattern of capitalist advance. Predatory ‘original’ accumulation of the last remaining forests and beaches can only be halted when the profit motive itself ends. With such a reorganization, the ‘good intentions’ of our businessmen and politicians would no longer pave the way to hell. Instead, the world’s ecosystem would have a chance to revive while at the same time the world’s ever increasing poor masses would finally have a chance at a decent and sustainable life.
The future will have to prove which way is the right one. One may rightly fear that by the time the answer is clear, it may be too late to change course. This makes it all the more essential that the two different ways of thought be clearly distinguished, and that all politics in the foreseeable future of this century be judged by these criteria.