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Environmentalism and the free market
April 29, 2007 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Orion Magazine hosts a two-part essay on the environmentalism movement's attempts to fit within free market capitalism, and the problems therein. Part one, The Idols of Environmentalism, focuses on the cross purposes of capitalism and environmentalism, and the apparent impossibility of the two working together. In part two, The Ecology of Work, the focus is on the human impact of the work and consumption culture.
posted by knave (27 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
As long as it's more profitable to rape the earth than to preserve it, the rape will continue.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2007


From the article:

I AM INEVITABLY ASKED AT THIS POINT in my argument just what exactly it is that I am proposing that people do. What would I put in capitalism’s place? In reply, I am always tempted to quote Voltaire’s response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. “What!” he said, “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!” Unlike Voltaire, I would also suggest that what has the best chance of defeating the “beast” is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual. This is the unfortunate legacy of science’s two-century-old confrontation with what it has always called “religious dogma and superstition.” But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid. Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live.


Three problems: Voltaire didn't solve Christianity (nor did the Enlightenment,) so his failure to come up with a solution is probably a bad example in this context.

Individual 'spirituality' can never solve systemic problems so long as we avoid 'magical thinking,' like the belief that we can all 'pray the environment better.'

8 billion people could never share any common language, let alone an as-yet undeveloped language of 'care.' The only thing we seem able to translate is money and moral indignation: thus we all speak the lingua francas of global capitalism and human rights/humanitarianism.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:31 PM on April 29, 2007


The second article is essentially Rousseau, man in his natural state is pristine, it is civilization (capitalism etc..) which is evil.

But it's a logical fallacy to compare environmental destruction with capitalism. We all need to eat, we all need to survive. The Middle East used to be a garden of eden and after a few millenia of too many people living in too fragile an environment it is largely a salted and dry wasteland (compared to what it used to be). The problem is really simple: population. Nature will take care of that one way or another.
posted by stbalbach at 1:36 PM on April 29, 2007


Short-term gain vs. long-term gain. Too many people want everything now.
posted by pracowity at 1:55 PM on April 29, 2007


Its ultimately the result of our meta-culture. I'll argue that virtually all human society has, so far, existed in one of two categories [1] based on the general societal idea of the world, its purpose, and the place of humans in the world.

The first cagegory, which I call A Type society, is mostly extinct now, it was the societal category into which the earliest human societies fit, and into which most tribal type societies fit. It is characterized by the idea that the world simply exists, not for any particular purpose, and that humans are not essentially different from other animal species. Mythology of this type of culture typically includes animals talking to people, the creation myths typically do not involve a single, active, figure, etc.

Then we get B Type societies, you're living in one right now. They are characterized by mythology that states that the world is made for man [2], and man was made to rule the world. Look at Genesis for an example.

From the B Type perspective trying to protect the environment is foolish. The world is made for man, that means its job is to take our pollutants and make them better. To a person who does not question the Type B culture at all efforts to protect the environment from pollution are as silly as trying to protect a vacuum cleaner from dirt, its *job* is to take in the pollutants.

The radical right enshrines people who express an unquestioning B Type viewpoint. Limbaugh, Coulter, et al have often criticized environmentalism on religious (ie: cultural) grounds.
"My views on the environment are rooted in my belief in Creation. I refuse to believe that people, who are themselves the result of Creation, can destroy the most magnificent creation of the entire universe." -- Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought to Be, pp153
"The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man's dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it's yours." -- Ann Coulter, October 12 article.
My point is that there is not an inherent conflict between capitalism and environmentalism. Capitolists, for example, don't shit in their dining rooms. The problem is that our meta-culture tells people that dumping pollutants into a lake is good. Once the "world is made for man and man is made to rule the world" idea finally dies out, dumping pollutants into the air, the water, the soil, etc will be as unthinkable as shitting in the dining room is.

And the B Type culture is being questioned, I'll argue that the increasingly visible failure of the B Type culture to do its job (that is, to give our lives meaning, to answer the big questions, etc) is inevitable, and eventually the B Type culture will wither away just like the A Type culture did, and we'll see a new meta-culture evolve.

Of course, until then we need laws to keep industry from shitting in the dining room.



[1] BROAD categories, like "mammal" and "reptile". Both the US and China are part of the same category, just as antelopes and mice are part of the same category, but no one will claim that the two are identical.

[2] Note the sexist term, B Type socities all involve an inherent sexism, some B Type socities today are trying to change that.
posted by sotonohito at 2:18 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


sotonohito, I think a key to allowing your type B culture to persist is the disconnect he mentions between workers and the consequences of their work. Somehow we are able to mentally separate what we do every day from its effects on the larger world. I think your suggestion that most of us have a "dominion of earth" mindset is not true, and not necessary to result in the behavior we're seeing today. All that is needed is the continued application of selective ignorance.
posted by knave at 2:30 PM on April 29, 2007


Capitalism and Environmentalism are not at odds. The problem is that environmental concerns are "externalities" i.e. things that other people have to pay for, not the companies themselves. Spam email would be one example of a business with externalities. other people pay to rout and process the Spam, and spammers get all the profit. Computer security is another: Microsoft and other companies don't pay for security breaches caused by their products, so they don't care.

If a company makes money burning coal and polluting the air, then the cost society pays for that pollution is an externalities for the coal burner.

The appropriate way to fix this is to account for externalities, and force people to pay for any they produce.
posted by delmoi at 2:39 PM on April 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


Then we get B Type societies, you're living in one right now. They are characterized by mythology that states that the world is made for man [2], and man was made to rule the world. Look at Genesis for an example.

That's preposterous. Pretty much all modern philosophy and science is based on non-specialness of human beings compared to other animals. Ethical systems might say that human beings are responsible for each other as part of a social contract, but not that "the earth was made for man". Some people might think that the Earth was made for no one, so we might as well take it. Anyway both "a type" and "b type" views exist in many different people to day, including in the same societies.
posted by delmoi at 2:44 PM on April 29, 2007


Besides delmoi's cost model, there's another way in which capitalism and environmentalism are not at odds: environmentalism is a value. Getting corporations to behave in environmentally conscious manners is like getting them to respect human rights, etc.: In sum, capitalism is a very, very flexible system. It can adapt to all sorts of things. So capitalism vs. environmentalism [other-value-system] is a false dichotomy.
posted by Firas at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


kanve I may have misspoken myself. I didn't mean to imply that a "dominion of the Earth" mindset is really at the forefront of most people. But it is part of the background. No one ever had to call a board meeting to try and figure out what to do with pollutants, the answer comes right from the cultural matrix that we all have: dump 'em.

I think that most people, today, are quite well aware of the fact that the dominion of the Earth part of our meta-culture is BS, but a) when most of the decisions re: pollutants were first made it was quite accepted, and b) whether or not we agree with the idea doesn't mean that it isn't part of our culture.

I quoted Limbaugh and Coulter to illustrate that the attitude still holds sway in conservative circles (which makes sense: conservative == resistant to change, and the dominion of the Earth bit has been part of our culture for at least 5,000 years). Honestly I think that its becoming pretty obvious, even to conservatives, that the B Type culture simply isn't working anymore, but they don't like that idea and thus celebrate people who speak a pure and unquestioning version of the B Type culture.

The disconnect you mention is, I think, part of the B Type culture. If we thought, at a gut level, of pollution as being a form of shitting in the kitchen, no one would do it and laws against pollution would be unnecssary. Instead we know intellectually that its a bad idea, but emotionally a lot of people just don't see it as a problem, so people can worry about pollution in a generalized sense, and simultaniously ignore the pollution they cause.

It isn't that Joe Worker is thinking "God gave me dominion over the Earth, so let's pollute", its simply that the meta-culture so permieates our mindset that it takes an effort of will to even *think* about pollution rationally. He doesn't pollute because he thinks dominionist thoughts, he pollutes because his very thought process is informed by dominionism.

Let me take cannabilism as a counterexample. No one ever has to tell children "now, it isn't nice to eat other people" in our culture, anymore than they tell their children "its good to pollute because God gave use the Earth", both attitudes are present so subtily in our cultural conditioning that they are become absorbed at such a deep level as to be nearly instinctive. So much so that we develop disconnects between our actions and their consiquences.
posted by sotonohito at 2:51 PM on April 29, 2007


In sum, capitalism is a very, very flexible system.

I actually tend to agree with this, despite being a goddamn tree hugging pinko commie. Capitalism is resilient - despite what the capitalists would have you believe... Businesses, the market, despise regulation, claim it will destroy them, but even in the most regulated systems, guess what, folks are still making money. Regulations, if I may borrow an ecological paradigm, tend to create "niches" - allowing for competition and a diversity of enterprise, and new markets and opportunities.

Of course individual businesses and industries claim that regulation will kill them - what they really mean is that it will prevent them obtaining a monopoly.

I tend to believe that the "ecological footprints" model is the simplest way to understand the practical, physical limits to human production and population growth, and it ain't looking that great at the moment.
posted by Jimbob at 2:52 PM on April 29, 2007


Capitalism isn't compatible with the anti-slavery movement either if you think of people as private property. Fortunately for everyone, it is generally agreed that human beings are not the private property of anyone. If you also think of the atmosphere and the oceans as not the private property of anyone, then capitalism will not be at odds with their interests. Unfortunately for everyone, this is not yet generally agreed.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:55 PM on April 29, 2007


sotonohito, the whole "let's pwnz0r nature" thing was pretty normative in western society until the 1800s or so. So you're right that there's societally shaped images at play.

Tangent:

I think we are at a pretty advanced stage these days when it comes to fusing commerce with humanistic values. Socially responsible corporate behavior is a pretty mainstream movement. There are investment banks that only do green investing, there are architectural firms that do green architecture, there are whole businesses whose raison d'etre is to be good social citizens yet turn a profit.

Consumer behavior is the missing link of course. As long as we as consumers keep going for the lowest prices rather than doing more 'ethical shopping', there's going to be a problem at hand.

My point is that this isn't some sort of fringe goal that requires a radical rethinking of human organization and a need to dust out Noble Savage models. It's more of a rear-guard action that's already in effect.
posted by Firas at 2:55 PM on April 29, 2007


I am always bemused by the hard-left environmentalists that blame the ills of environmental degradation on the inherent evils of capitalism. Never mind that the worst modern environmental disasters have been largely in non-capitalist countries, like China and Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe. Indeed, American industry, for all its shortcomings, tends to be dramatically more conscious of environmental consequences than its second- and third-world counterparts. Compare the pollution produced by a Nigerian oil refinery to the refineries here in the US, for example.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 3:45 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


As Jimbob says, when businesses say "capitalism and environmentalism are incompatible", what they really mean is "My current business model is incompatible with environmentalism." I think it's risible to suggest that capitalism as a system is threatened by what is essentially a different cost structure.

If the real costs of using non-renewable resources and polluting common resources were reflected in the immediate economic cost of commodities, it would certainly bring a much more environmental bent to capitalism. The obvious way to do this is a through taxation. This is the kind of thing that government is supposed to be for - to prevent private concerns appropriating and spoiling common resources. But if the current trend of government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations continues, I wouldn't hold my breath.
posted by Jakey at 3:48 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


I am always bemused by the hard-left environmentalists that blame the ills of environmental degradation on the inherent evils of capitalism. Never mind that the worst modern environmental disasters have been largely in non-capitalist countries, like China and Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe.

The only difference between American-style capitalism and Russo-Sino-style capitalism is who owns the capital. I know it feels good to call the USSR and China "communist", and I know all the evasions about "Well, they claimed to be communist!", but wishing very, very hard won't make it so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:09 PM on April 29, 2007


Well, Communism isn't anti-Industrial. So I'm not sure that people blaming pollution etc. on capitalism are in effect suggesting that communism is the solution (they're probably more into more localized commerce structures.)
posted by Firas at 5:15 PM on April 29, 2007


I am always bemused by the hard-left environmentalists that blame the ills of environmental degradation on the inherent evils of capitalism. Never mind that the worst modern environmental disasters have been largely in non-capitalist countries, like China and Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe. Indeed, American industry, for all its shortcomings, tends to be dramatically more conscious of environmental consequences than its second- and third-world counterparts. Compare the pollution produced by a Nigerian oil refinery to the refineries here in the US, for example.
Your bemusement may stem from your mischaracterisation of the actual debate both now and historically. Your apparent ignorance of the process of industrialisation in the "non-capitalist" Soviet Union and China doesn't help either.
Their models for industrialisation sought to condense Marx's primitive accumulation into a shorter time period than in the West, with predictably disastrous results, but otherwise subscribed to very similar ideas about growth and capital. (On preview, I see Pope Guilty makes largely the same point).
Other than that, where they really differed from the democracies was that as totalitarian and later authoritarian states, they were largely able to suppress the "hard-left environmentalists" who through their activism played such a major role in curtailing the excesses of American and other industry through legislation and their impact on public opinion.
posted by Abiezer at 5:32 PM on April 29, 2007


Compare the pollution produced by a Nigerian oil refinery to the refineries here in the US, for example.

And who designs, builds, runs and owns those refineries do you think? The Nigerian Government? Its people? Or capitalist Americans?
posted by wilful at 5:39 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. I'm not advocating their position, because I really haven't thought it through enough to decide if it's lunacy or not, but mefites may find it of interest.
posted by Jimbob at 5:47 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Was that series of articles an example of a post-structuralist masturbatory rant? Because that is what it seemed like to me. If someone has no idea what system would be better than capitalism, how can they judge it as an environmental failure? I mean, at least take a stab at it man.

My thinking is more along the lines of Jimbob's CASSE link. Population drives consumption and ecological footprint. No system, no matter how nature loving can conserve its way out of disaster as long as the consumers are breeding at an almost geometric rate. The only thing to save you from a Malthusian endgame at that point is technology, which pretty much requires capitalism and work. The author's premise of living in a pre-war agrarian society ignores the fact that we were much closer to starvation then, and would be starving now under that kind of system, except for the affluent.

As Jakey points out, taxes (specifically pigovian taxes) are the way to capture market externalities in capitalist systems. Unfortunately, the ability to accurately model environmental consequences always lags behind need to regulate activity.

Sotonohito, there is a culture of Christian environmental stewardship.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:22 AM on April 30, 2007


If the real costs of using non-renewable resources and polluting common resources were reflected in the immediate economic cost of commodities, it would certainly bring a much more environmental bent to capitalism. The obvious way to do this is a through taxation

Isn't the other problem of capitalism, other than inherently inefficient markets based on a consistent lack of information, the fact that it promotes power differentials that make such taxes impossible to pass in the government? Pigovian taxes have been recommended for years and years. Please supply me some example of their being passed in the captalist system.

The war in Iraq, the massive extermination of human life proscecuted by and for the military contractors, is evidence of the kind of power inbalance capitalism creates.

Another example: in the aftermath of hurricane katrina, thousands of people were detained in Orleans Parish, at the convention center, and denied the ability to walk across the bridge. Why were people detained in the deadly heat? to protect the Oakwood mall.

I don't see how you can separate capitalism and corporate rule. if not corporations, capitalism--the hierarchical system of owners, bosses, and workers below--would produce some other entity to rule a government of the people.
posted by eustatic at 5:32 AM on April 30, 2007


Pope Guilty wrote: The only difference between American-style capitalism and Russo-Sino-style capitalism is who owns the capital. I know it feels good to call the USSR and China "communist", and I know all the evasions about "Well, they claimed to be communist!", but wishing very, very hard won't make it so.

Abiezer wrote: Your bemusement may stem from your mischaracterisation of the actual debate both now and historically. Your apparent ignorance of the process of industrialisation in the "non-capitalist" Soviet Union and China doesn't help either. Their models for industrialisation sought to condense Marx's primitive accumulation into a shorter time period than in the West, with predictably disastrous results, but otherwise subscribed to very similar ideas about growth and capital. (On preview, I see Pope Guilty makes largely the same point). Other than that, where they really differed from the democracies was that as totalitarian and later authoritarian states, they were largely able to suppress the "hard-left environmentalists" who through their activism played such a major role in curtailing the excesses of American and other industry through legislation and their impact on public opinion.

Perhaps my comment was not clear; I never claimed that the environmental degradation occasioned by the Chinese and Russians was the result of Communism per se. Indeed, my point was precisely the point Abiezer makes. Industrialization, regardless of who holds the capital and their political views, necessarily results in pollution and the environmental damage we see in both the East and the West. To suggest that I was trying to make some sort of "better dead than red" is a willful misreading of my comment.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:36 AM on April 30, 2007


What in the world could possibly replace capitalism?

*imbalance
posted by eustatic at 5:38 AM on April 30, 2007


Eustatic, gasoline tax and tobacco tax are Pigovian taxes, but perhaps not in the sense that you mean?
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:16 PM on April 30, 2007


I dunno, man, the Onion just isn't as funny as it used to be.
posted by kcds at 4:48 AM on May 1, 2007


Eustatic, that link was nuts.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:30 PM on May 21, 2007


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