Opinion – ‘Green Capitalism’ Alternatives

By: Chris Burke

During my, increasingly limited, spare time I’ve taken to reading What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff.  The book is a critique of the ideas of “green capitalism” that have emerged over the past two decades or so.  “Green capitalists” promote the use of technology, market mechanisms, regulation, and changes in consumer behaviour to ensure that the impacts of climate change are reduced, while, and this is key, continuing to grow and prosper under a capitalist system.  Some have taken to promoting a “zero growth” economy, shifting focus to developing the goods and services we need rather than growth for its own sake.  This is where the notion of “green capitalism” starts to run into a problem.


There’s little question that the rapid growth happening in the capitalist world is consuming resources at an alarming pace, pumping out more greenhouse gases than the planet can handle, and causing a general deterioration of environmental conditions across the globe.  What is debated, however, is whether a capitalist economy could survive a transformation to zero growth.  After all, there’s a word for a capitalist economy in a state of zero growth.  It’s called a “crisis”.  As North America crawls its way out of a recent crisis, and Europe descends further into it, there isn’t a huge need here to elaborate on why we want to avoid a crisis.  Those in the upper class will continue to consolidate their wealth and power (think the DOW reaching a record high while unemployment rates remain high and the fact that companies that have improved since the recession haven’t been hiring), while the rest of us are left to struggle in the mess that’s been created.

Capitalism needs growth.  It needs to expand.  This is a fact that puts the capitalist economy in direct contradiction with the needs of the environment.  The environment, one of limited resources, cannot survive the unlimited growth needs of capitalism.  Green capitalists, for all their good intents, are fighting an uphill battle against forces that cannot be defeated.

In their book, Foster and Magdoff provide a breakdown of the main strategies green capitalists have been promoting and reasons why these strategies are likely to fall short in addressing the climate change problem.  For me, this section of the book is of particular interest because the ideas critiqued are ones that I’ve been taught about throughout my undergrad, and am likely to continue studying during my Masters.  My studies have provided opportunities to critique the main strategies but never outside the framework of the capitalist system.  To me, this represents a frustrating, though not surprising, limitation to the conversation we should be having about the future of the planet.

There’s very little love for critiques of capitalism itself and the promotion of an alternative (e.g. socialism) within green capitalism.  What these capitalists are after are solutions that will allow them to grow the bottom line while protecting the environment.  However, at the point in which efforts to abate the climate change impacts of their activities end up costing more than the benefit of the abatements then those efforts are deemed inefficient.  This is regardless of whether or not the abatement has been sufficient enough to reduce greenhouse gases down to acceptable levels.  We are likely to overshoot the 420 parts per million (ppm) of carbon that the UN says the atmosphere can safely handle, and we are well past the 350ppm that scientists, like Bill McKibben and James Hansen, say is acceptable.

Yet the green capitalist conversation, while admitting that the overshoot is likely, still revolves around technologies that may or may not work (clean coal carbon capture); market solutions that are failing (cap-and-trade – the system is collapsing in the EU); market solutions that have little support among political leaders (carbon taxes); approaches that could have negative side effects (geoengineering); and ones that miss the primary source of carbon emissions (urging consumers to change their shopping behaviours even though the average consumer’s carbon output is nothing compared to the very rich or the industries that actually produce the products).

Following their critique of green capitalism, Foster and Magdoff write about the urge for a socialist transformation of our society.  One where goods and services are produced for human needs instead of the growth and profit needs of capitalists.  The authors are fully aware that such a transformation will not happen overnight, and will require a lot of work and struggle.  In the interim they provide a list of short-term reforms that would help to buy us time in slowing down climate change’s impacts.  Of interest to Canadians would be the immediate end to tar sands production.  Given the support for the tar sands across all the major political parties, I’m doubtful that this scenario would play out prior to a transformation of our society.  This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take part in efforts to oppose tar sands development, but I wouldn’t count on the changes being made without changes to the society as a whole

I want to end this post by bringing it back to a discussion.  The discussion I feel is missing from the green capitalist circles.  Our society is full of debate around issues such as cap-and-trade, renewable energy, tar sands, and growth vs. zero growth economies.  What’s missing is a discussion about capitalism itself.  My opinion is that the capitalist system must be done away with.  A transformation towards a socialist society that puts ecological values ahead of profit is needed.  These ideas put me at odds with people in my own program, professors, and business leaders.  I’ve been hesitant to bring them up in a classroom setting as a result.  (In this case I’m committing a sin of liberalism, but that’s for another article.)  1837, however, offers a forum for this conversation.  So let’s hear your thoughts.

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