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Why capitalism is not the answer

By Liz Ross - posted Wednesday, 3 December 2008

If I were to sum up this contribution, a quote from the American environmental scientist Robert Newman perhaps fits the bill: “You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.”

But we have to then ask - and answer - the question: how do we get to have a habitable planet?

That we face an environmental crisis is beyond question. Whether it’s global warming, pollution, plundering the forests and oceans, just to mention a few issues, the earth is in a dire state. And things are only getting worse. As the damning IPCC report out in November 2007 suggested and every environmental report since, it’s coming sooner - much sooner - than previously predicted.


And our rulers - to paraphrase a famous saying, “fiddle while the planet burns”. Australia’s environmental performance, despite all the hype that Wong, Garrett and Rudd mouth, is now ranked as third worst on environmental issues of the world’s 21 richest nations.

What about all those companies which are “going green” or those new firms producing renewable energy equipment, water tanks, or environment-friendly household products?

Doesn’t all this mean that capitalism is capable of fundamentally reforming itself? After all it’s not hard to see that this society is one of history’s most innovative and productive systems ever.

As British socialist Chris Harman recently pointed out, governments and businesses do have a genuine interest in stopping climate change. Not in our interests certainly but, as he adds “just as their predecessors a century and a half ago had a genuine interest in dealing with typhoid and cholera in slum working class districts in order to stop the diseases affecting upper class districts as well”. He continues “What is at stake for them - the people running governments and business - now is greater. Not just their lives are threatened, but the stability of global capitalism.”

And while concern for their own survival is no doubt important to today’s ruling class, it’s the continuation of their system - global capitalism - that is the critical factor for them.

For example Henry Ford's great-grandson Bill, apparently a "passionate environmentalist", sees his mission in life as getting rid of the internal combustion engine that powers today’s cars. But again it’s the survival of business that matters. As he explains: “There is a rising tide of environmental awareness. Smart companies will get ahead of the wave. Those that don't will be wiped out.”


But isn’t that just the way the system works? For some companies there are profits, while others will go to the wall, but overall, so the argument goes, the system survives and we’ve seen a massive improvement in the quality of life for so many people - healthier and longer lives coupled with higher standard of living.

We can even point to the fact that capitalism has overseen the greatest productive bonanza the world has ever seen, making it possible for the first time in human history to feed, clothe, house and provide education, leisure time and the like for every single person on the planet. It’s also made it possible to devise the technology to clean up the planet, stop the global warming threat, use renewable energy, and so on.

So why do we argue that capitalism - more than any other human social system - not only cannot solve the environmental problems of today, but also, in and of itself, is the cause of the world’s ecological nightmares? Nightmares that we can only awake from by replacing capitalism itself.

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See the Socialist Alternative pamphlet How capitalism is costing us the Earth. Also Mick Armstrong From Little things, big things grow. Order from

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About the Author

Liz Ross is an activist and member of Socialist Alternative.

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Reforming capitalism - On Line Opinion

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