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Writing in the Guardian last week, Robert Newman argues that capitalism, as we know it, is unsustainable in a world threatened with peak oil and massive climate change.

Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.

In other words the self-interest and greed of corporations must work against those solutions that can mitigate the effects of climate change and peak oil. This is proven, so far as it goes, by the actions of Bushco and his corporate cronies.

Much discussion of energy, with never a word about power, leads to the fallacy of a low-impact, green capitalism somehow put at the service of environmentalism. In reality, power concentrates around wealth. Private ownership of trade and industry means that the decisive political force in the world is private power. The corporation will outflank every puny law and regulation that seeks to constrain its profitability. It therefore stands in the way of the functioning democracy needed to tackle climate change. Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it under social control will we be able to overcome the global environmental crisis.

Rhetoric occasionally gets in the way of logic. The problem is not with capitalism per-say, but with the over-concentration of power. People selling produce is good, but supermarkets are bad:

The very model of the supermarket is unsustainable, what with the packaging, food miles and destruction of British farming. Small, independent suppliers, processors and retailers or community-owned shops selling locally produced food provide a social glue and reduce carbon emissions.

Of course what Newman says will never be seriously considered, much less accepted, At least not in those countries devoted to the Anglo-Saxon economic model.

Many career environmentalists fear that an anti-capitalist position is what's alienating the mainstream from their irresistible arguments. But is it not more likely that people are stunned into inaction by the bizarre discrepancy between how extreme the crisis described and how insipid the solutions proposed?

Exactly. As I wrote yesterday: "It is obvious to anyone who has kept up with energy news that in the post peak-oil era there is no single or even combination of alternative technologies that can give us the amount of energy that we now get from oil. Oil sands, coal based oil, bio-fuels, wind power, wave, more nuclear plants, and who knows what else will come on line. But even the combination of all those things will not provide us with the same amount of energy as we now get from oil. This is the one monumental fact about peak-oil that most people still don't want to grasp."

Hybrid cars and florescent light bulbs are great, but not the solution. The massive discrepancy between the energy available today and that available in a post oil economy has not been grasped by the vast majority.

It will take, argues peak-oil expert Richard Heinberg, a second world war effort if many of us are to come through this epoch. Not least because modern agribusiness puts hundreds of calories of fossil-fuel energy into the fields for each calorie of food energy produced.

Catch-22, of course, is that the very worst fate that could befall our species is the discovery of huge new reserves of oil, or even the burning into the sky of all the oil that's already known about, because the climate chaos that would unleash would make the mere collapse of industrial society a sideshow bagatelle. Therefore, since we've got to make the switch from oil anyway, why not do it now?

Does anyone doubt that if another elephant field were found, a reserve as large as the Saudi fields, alternative energy research would slow to a trickle.

If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming - and all of us still are - there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never will again be consumption like we have known. The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that they never went away. You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.

Of course Newman is far from the first to suggest this. There are groups who have been working to promote ideas like this for ages. The most vocal of them may be AdBusters, which promotes an anti-consumerist, anti-corporate, and pro-environmental agenda. But they have little traction and get little respect among the mainstream media. In the US, at least, there is a huge disconnect between the common good and public. We worship at the altar of short-term profits, and I fear this is too engrained in the national psyche. You might as well be a Mormon missionary in Mecca.

So there you have it comrades. What Marx, Mao, Lenin, and Trotsky failed to do might be accomplished be peak oil and climate change. Or it might not, and that may the larger danger.

What do you think? Is capitalism, or corporatism, compatible with a post-oil world threatened by massive climate change? Or will we, like the proverbial (and mythical) boiled frog, sit passively until it is too late?

Originally posted to Chris Kulczycki on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 03:44 AM PST.


Is capitalism as we know it, in fact, compatible with a habitable planet?

23%23 votes
76%76 votes

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Comment Preferences

  •  Front paged at (4.00)
    European Tribune. If you're interested in this subject the discussion at ET is well worth reading. I am often blown away by the quality of the comments over there.

    Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
    Czeslaw Milosz

    by Chris Kulczycki on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 03:47:30 AM PST

    •  The problem is Capitalism. (4.00)
      This is a good diary, but even the diarist is afraid  of the analysis and backs away from it, suggesting that the problem isn't "capitalism per se" but rather the concentration of power. This misses what is distinctive about capitalism: the inexorable logic of growth regardless of social (and ecological) costs. A couple years ago I had to read all of Vol. 1 of Capital by Marx for a class. The first thing that I learned was that 95% of what people say about Marx is grossly uninformed. It is a devastating critique of how capitalism MUST function in spite of the efforts to tweak it and make it more accountable or reasonable or humane.

      "Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories" -- Amilcar Cabral

      by Christopher Day on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:37:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Corporatism simply isn't compatible (4.00)
    with sustainability, period. It requires endless growth and generates endless waste in every form, including human. Look at how it transforms the planet. We are up against the wall. I believe your most excellent diary dovetails nicely with my own of this morning. While I didn't spell it out one syllable at a time, the message ultimately is the same. Comment, CK?
    •  Melivin, It is your diary that is excellent and (none)
      everyone should read it ( It puts Newman's point into stark perspective.

      Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
      Czeslaw Milosz

      by Chris Kulczycki on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:13:05 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think you're 100% correct (none)
      Capitalism is a great way to exploit abundant resources as quickly as possible.  It's not so great for a steady-state or shrinking economy, where resources are limited.  

      Herman Daly wrote about possibility of a zero-growth economy:

      "Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable."

      He didn't think growth is a good thing.

      "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." - Kenneth Boulding, economist

      by randym77 on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 02:18:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  In theory, yes (4.00)
    I think you could have both, but only if it is a rewarding adaptation to undertake based on its current value system.

    Thus far, it largely doesn't merit much of a thought. I fear that this unwillingness to adapt will ensure that there isn't large-scale adaptation until the system experiences increasingly prevalent shocks and strains. Only then will change become a priority. The question is how much strain will the system be allowed to undergo and how much irreparable damage will be caused from inaction.

    'You can't begin to imagine how effective the Big Lie is.' N. Mailer 'TNatD'

    by jorndorff on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:12:36 AM PST

  •  Capitalism defined (none)
    Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.
    --John Maynard Keynes

    It is sad that so many Americans think capitalism and democracy are the same thing.

    Capitalism doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. It just needs to be checked by the power of a government that has the best interests of the people and the planet at heart. Certainly not the situation we have now, eh?

    •  there are other power sources besides oil (4.00)
      And you need a large federal government if it is going to powerful enough to handle large corporations.  

      But American's have been fed this soup that a large federal government and it's regulations are somehow a "bad" thing.

      Now we have oil corporations making billions in profit and we know damn well they aren't putting any of that into research for new power sources, it is all going into their private pockets.

      A sane economy would be stimulating competition for the oil market. THAT is the real basis of a successful free market...competition.  But over the decades there is only one kind of engine out there on the highway...and it burns gasoline and gaoline only.  Now WHY is that?  

      Personally, I am looking forward to the day when the damn oil runs out.  Thank you, God, for making a limited supply of it.  Amen

      The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. Thomas Jefferson

      by Thea VA on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 06:22:54 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  flawed analysis and framework (none)
    After living in England for 2 + years and reading the Guardian regularly, I learnt that the paper has a good side and a bad side.  The good side is that it does not shy away from critical reporting and analyses.  The bad side is that gets carried away and encourages analytical slobber with PC drippings.  This article is an example of the latter.  

    The part that drives me crazy is that the author has presuppositions that are arrogant and imperialistic.   What do people in China, India, and the rest of the developing world have to say about this issue for starters.  

    •  I miss your point. (none)
      Do the people in India or China want cars and houses just like Americans have? Will they not be harmed by climate change and peak-oil? Are they not as ignorant, about these issues, as the average American?

      Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
      Czeslaw Milosz

      by Chris Kulczycki on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:25:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  One could argue that the 'one child' policy (none)
        shows the ability of the Chinese to foresee the limit of resources.

        The quote that scared me came from Former Commerce Secretary Don Evans on Hardball (diaried here):
        "... there is not enough supply of oil in the world to grow our economy or the global economy at its full potential."

        Oy vey! How, I'd like to know, does Mr. Evans (and the rest of the bozos in charge) define 'full potential' if not by the basic sine qua non: energy? (Which for them, he implies, only exists in the form of oil.)

        Thanks for keeping up with this topic Chris. More and more I find myself losing interest in conventional politics and thinking about how I can help my (rural) community start planning for mutual survival post-oil, a la the Amish.

  •  This one's tough for me (4.00)
    I believe in capitalism:

    cap·i·tal·ism (k?p'?-tl-?z'?m)
    An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.

    There's nothing inherently dangerous about capitalism, it can and should be a vital economic and social engine for sustainability, progress, and profit.

    I don't know. I just can't line up behind organizations that are misidentifying problems for the sake of expediency.

    The real problem is that most corporations are not practicing capitalism and they most certainly are not functioning in a free market environment. They are using a horribly bastardized greed ethic, bribery and antitrust practices to promote feudalism.

    Until we can start identifying these issues correctly in every press release and in every debate, our economy, our environment, our health, etc. will continue to suffer because the people that have the power to change tack will remain justifiably defensive and resist change.

    So, in answer to your question, yes; capitalism and corporations are vital to our survival in a pre- and post-oil world threatened by massive climate change. But the greed-is-good crowd, the monopolies they created, their habit of using bribery and strong arm anti-trust practices are going to have to be dealt with before healthy corporations and capitalism can make good on their potential.

    The soul that is within me no man can degrade. - Frederick Douglass

    by Kimberley on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:25:16 AM PST

  •  I vote that capitalism is incompatible... (4.00)

    And exactly for the reason you cite - capitalism (perhaps corporatism is a better word) has this constant mindless need for growth, but we live in a finite world.

    The problem is that it isn't at all clear what type of economic system would be suitable to replace it.  Or for that matter what you do politically to encourage sustainable growth and discourage more of the same-old short-term profit based thinking.

    In reality, Western-style capitalism won't be replaced until it has failed.  In the eyes of most people, that hasn't happened, so for now we get more of the status quo.  The last time around, it took something like the Great Depression to get people to consider radical changes to the systems of government.

  •  And the proposed alternative to Capitalism is...? (none)

    What matters most is what lasts longest.

    by Sargon on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 04:48:28 AM PST

    •  something that works would be nice (none)
      If whacking oneself on the side of the head doesn't get rid of headaches, one doesn't need to invent aspirin to reasonably point out that whacking onself on the side of the head probably isn't a good idea.

      Alternatives to corporatism -- including an real and honest free market -- have been proposed.  Some folks are trying some of those ideas, inasmuch as is possible in a global economic environment so fucked-up by the current dominant economic faith.  

      Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

      by Bearpaw on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 07:26:17 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  a more democratic economy might be nice (none)
      Read some of this:

      The idea of Participatory Economics, or Parecon, looks really good.  

      "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free." - Eugene Debs

      by matthewc on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 07:28:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  What we call "capitalism" (none)
      is actually "corporatism" or what some others term "mature capitalism"...we need to define what we are talking about in order to have a serious discussion about these matters.  In other words, all forms of "capitalism" are not equal.
  •  Capitalism will kill us all (none)
    Capitalism may enjoy another heyday eventually once we are able to leave this planet and exploit the resources of space, but it will kill us long before we attain that ability.
  •  Red herring (4.00)
    Capitalism isn't the problem. Capitalism is a subset of the many ideologies that don't want to believe that short term decisions have important long term consequences.

    The one common thread throughout history is that whatever the ideology, there's always a ruling class that benefits the most in terms of resource use, and a drone class that's considered expendable.

    How you dress up these classes doesn't matter. Because you won't find a culture that isn't based on this dynamic, and it's the dynamic that's the problem, and the fact that its appearance is absolutely reliable in all human political systems.

    But cultures die. This one is on its way out. Arguing about whether it's capitalism that killed it is like arguing about which way the furniture should be arranged when you're the one who keeps setting your own house on fire.

    "Be kind" - is that a religion?

    by ThatBritGuy on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 05:22:16 AM PST

  •  I'm guessing that this concept.. (4.00)
    isn't new. I remember reading from Barry Commoner's "The Politics of Energy", in which he made the point that capitalism and environmentalism are mutually exclusive, that capitalism by its very nature will destroy the planet. Therefore, it must be harnessed, it must be regulated.

    Commoner wrote those ideas in the late 1970s. He ran for political office in 1980. He lost. Few would listen.

    Now, here we are. We chose the path of Reagan instead. Reagan obliterated and ran past the environmental movement, and even Clinton couldn't stem the tide.

    Now we're on the brink of making the planet virtually unrecognizable from the globe that it was even a hundred years ago.

    In the late 1960s, Buckminster Fuller wrote a book titled, "Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity." The title virtually says it all. His premise was that, with 99% of all known species in the history of the planet having gone extinct, the human species is no different. We're likely to go the same way as nearly all other species, and soon, if we don't get hold of ourselves and live on the planet as if it were our home, our "spaceship". In that book, he mapped out exactly how this could be done.

    Fuller's gone now, but perhaps he left behind the only ideas that could keep our species, and our place on the planet, functioning and thriving.

  •  newman is mistaken (4.00)
    the actual problem is that the rewards structure that allows capitalism to work was not set up with the environment in mind.  specifically, we do not have a way to adequetly reward companies that are environmentally friendly or to punish companies that are not environmentally friendly.  

    in fact, the current system rewards fucking over the environment:  companies that fuck up the environment tend to make more money.  it costs less to buy favorable legislation, ignore rules, take the law to court & endless appeals, &, if convicted, pay minor fines & run a feel good ad campaign than it does to actually put pro-environmental practices into place.

    my point here is this:  when looked at it in this light, the solution, at least in theory is a lot simpler than nixing the economic system that powers the industrialized world:  basically, we need to set up controls that align environmental concern with profitability (the reward structure that powers capitalism).  

    that requires setting up a significant reward system for companies that are environmentally friendly (positive reinforcement).  this also requires setting up a negative reinforcement system that would further help to discourage lobbying against the environment or breaking environmental laws in the first place.  & finally the punishment for breaking these laws needs to affect not only the corporations but also the individuals in the management as well as the shareholders.

    if that helps.  s.

    the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity --w.b.yeats the second coming

    by synth on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 05:51:51 AM PST

    •  sue the oil companies for damages to the environme (none)
      One way to set up those controls would be to make an industry pay ALL the costs of their product.  This would include the disposal/landfill costs for non-biodegradable products.  Oil companies should have to set aside HUGE funds for the pollution their product causes to our planet.

      The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. Thomas Jefferson

      by Thea VA on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 06:32:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  True cost economics (4.00)
      is an idea that would go a long ways toward accomplishing this.

      Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
      Czeslaw Milosz

      by Chris Kulczycki on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 06:35:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  agreed (none)
        the main issue at this point is that corporations don't have to pay for environmental costs since these are spread out over the whole population.

        great quote in your sig, btw.  s.

        the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity --w.b.yeats the second coming

        by synth on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 07:24:55 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Evolution is bad for the environment. (none)
    The environment was just fine when there were only plants using energy exclusively from the Sun to break down elements in the air and soil to live - then dying and having those stored elements recycled by bacteria and whatnot into elements that plants could then use again.  But Evolution had to screw things up by creating humans who, in turn, created Capitalism which is solely responsible for extracting resources faster than the planet can replenish them.  And the result is environmental destruction!

    Damn you, Evolution!


    Progressives encourage dissent to improve society through constructive engagement. Conservatives encourage dissent to identify and silence the traitors.

    by sxwarren on Fri Feb 10, 2006 at 06:40:09 AM PST

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