Green Capitalism

May 7, 2018 at 11:37 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 2 Comments
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The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the May issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the United States Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965.

 

Green Capitalism: The God that Failed. By Richard Smith. (UK: The World Economics Association, 2016). 172 pp. $20.98 https://www.worleconomicsassociation.org/library/green-capitalism-the-god-that-failed/

Richard Smith is an eco-socialist scholar who has worked as a sailboat-rigger and carpenter as well as a university lecturer. Green Capitalism is a collection of his articles published previously in journals. Smith spoke once at a course I was taking; he was impressive. He also has amazing hair:

In Green Capitalism, Smith argues that capitalism is the root of the environmental crisis that we are confronting because capitalism is fundamentally committed to growth, whereas the planet is fundamentally finite. If the economy keeps growing, as capitalism says it must, we will exhaust the planet.

The book’s first chapter traces the problem back to the origins of capitalist thinking at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, production was aimed at use; people made and grew what they needed, for the most part. But beginning in the 18thcentury, economists began speaking enthusiastically about the “invisible hand” that was guiding the market, the profit motive, that determined what owners would manufacture, what price to charge, what to pay workers, etc. Well-being, the common good, was no longer part of the equation. But the economists assured us that the “invisible hand” would take care of everything.

In chapter 2, Smith discusses contemporary economists who argue that “steady-state” capitalism—a capitalism that does not grow—will solve the environmental crisis. Smith shows, however, that “grow or die” is the law of capitalist survival. Without growth, for example, there’s no increase in jobs. Politicians who support changes that are crucial to planetary survival, like shutting down the coal industry or massively cutting back the production of consumer goods, get defeated in the next election; so they’re never going to support such a thing.  “Steady-state capitalism” is a fairy tale.

Chapter 3 is a critique of the thinking of “green capitalists” such as Paul Hawken and Francis Cairncross(GHG) who argue that green technology like buying electric cars, eating organic food, or passing carbon taxes is going to solve the climate crisis. The problem is that massive parts of the economy can’t be “greened” because so many of our commodities are made from fossil fuels or otherwise harm the environment. Sixty percent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) given off by automobiles are given off during the manufacturing and disposal processes, and at present, a great deal of the electricity used by electric cars is generated by coal or methane gas. The fibers in our clothes, the fertilizers in our fields, our phones, computers and televisions, all are predicated on a non-green economy. We have to change the system.

The fourth chapter expands Smith’s discussion of the jobs versus the environment conundrum introduced in chapter 2. Smith lays out the sobering links between China’s recent 8 percent economic growth and massive resource extraction there, but he does not overlook recent obscene US resource over-exploitation as well: surging home size, sales of SUVs and light trucks, flat-screen TVs and air-conditioning. Ultimately, to achieve the 90 percent GHG emissions essential to saving the planet, we have to shut down all the fossil-fuel related industries, not just reform energy production. This is so because 75 percent of GHG emissions come from industry, transportation, agriculture, and deforestation. The solution is to shift the economy from production of non-essential commodities to “caring industries”––local agriculture, universal health care, education, environmental remediation, restoring existing housing, reforestation.

Finally, in chapter 6, Smith consolidates his previous arguments into “Six Theses for Saving the Humans”:

  1. Capitalism is driving our ecological crisis.
  2. The solutions to the crisis are obvious but capitalism blinds us to them.
  3. The essential alternative is to shift to an economy that is planned globally, regionally and locally.
  4. This means people have to come together at all levels and vote on the needed changes.
  5. Such a democracy can work only if it is based on social and economic equality—food, health care, housing, education. There is already enough wealth in the world to do this
  6. These are crazy, utopian, unachievable ideas. But what is the alternative?

The trouble with Green Capitalism is that it says the same thing, over and over: capitalism is the problem. But this is also its greatest strength: by the end, we really get it: capitalism, the only economic system the Chinese communists, never mind liberal Westerners like us, live by, guarantees the destruction of the humans and most of the rest of God’s creation.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

 

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