We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

Eight weeks ago, I wrote about the delusions of “green capitalism,” that there is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. That led to a vigorous discussion, and I thank all of you who contributed to it.

This week, I’d like to return to this theme, in the form of discussing an interesting paper that I could then only quote briefly. The paper, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, packs a powerful argument into its 33 pages. The paper was published in issue No. 56 (March 2011) of Real-World Economics Review. (That a publication for non-orthodox practitioners needs to take such a name speaks volumes of the field as a whole.) The author’s basic theses are:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets the limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would force out of business the coal industry or any other because the result would be recession and mass unemployment. Without carbon or other “green” taxes, the “entire green capitalist project collapses.”
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” Such a thing is not possible in capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide to agree to this and nobody would promise jobs to those displaced; this could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labor to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness, and some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith wrote:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.” [page 119]

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ” [page 120]

A part of Moofushi's bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.  (Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

A part of Moofushi’s bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.
(Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they be made “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

More efficiency leads to move consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies wrung out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The “god that failed” paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.” [page 128]

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances traveled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them, Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production off all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.” [page 131]

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fueled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.” [page 133]

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behavior lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we can not shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing overconsumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on overconsumption for its day-to-day survival.” [pages 141-142]

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Richard Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

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26 comments on “We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

  1. tubularsock says:

    Tubularsock feels that the best the human capitalist society can accomplish at this point in time is to buy until we drop ………… maybe a fire or flood damage sale. The level of life changes that would have to take place to shift this is far too vast to even consider.

    A case in point, look at how difficult it is for one to shift just one habit, just one! And we have an entire world to shift ……… not happening.

  2. nicciattfield says:

    I think the system creates a destruction of all that is natural, both in the outer world, and in the inner world. We are taught shame and taught that what we ‘need’ is what we are told we should have. But our real needs are deeper, I think, and about connection with ourselves, each other and the natural world. Without this, there is pain. But the system creates frustrated need, asks us to keep trying to get it right within ourselves, and creates consumers.

    It would only be when we recognize the life in ourselves and in nature, soul, and live with this, that we realize how little we do need, from an economic perspective, and capitalism will hold less power. Or that’s how I see it. I don’t think the crisis can be averted though green wash, shopping differently, or maintaining a capitalistic and inhumane system.

    • Although systemic change is what is needed, we indeed need to look at ourselves and ask ourselves what we can do to help effect change. But it will need a great many of us to help bring about that change, as those who benefit from the world’s vast inequalities are not going to change themselves, no matter how much those with a social conscious do.

      • nicciattfield says:

        I remember Joseph Edozien from SANE explaining that capitalism is a system where very many are forced to put in work for the profits of the very few. He also explained that people who work outside of the immediate benefit system will be open to change. I hope the critical mass of everyday people will be able and empathic enough to make a difference, allowed the opportunity to go through the crisis of acknowledging that the world as it currently exists is unsustainable.

        I hope this can happen.

    • Alcuin says:

      Paul Kingsnorth has an interesting take on the topic under discussion. This is the last paragraph of his article:

      “‘All that we are,’ explained the Buddha 2,500 years ago, ‘is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.’ We can see what our civilization is becoming, and where it is going too. What delusions brought you here – and how do you begin to strip them away?

      • nicciattfield says:

        I love that quote. How do we engage and interact, and how can we bring what feels like a radical conversation into the mainstream, so that it can eventually become normal? How can we change our values and the way we see ourselves and each other, in order to work through a system which keeps us believing we need to prove ourselves via manufacturing anxiety and inadequacy?

        • Alcuin says:

          With great difficulty, as SD knows all too well. Upton Sinclair’s words come to mind:

          “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

          An economic reversal opens the door to change, but doesn’t guarantee it.

  3. “We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not”

    In the words of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign chant, “Yes, We Can!” And don’t forget, “an environmental crisis is a crisis we can believe in!” Because…uh…we’re recycling stuff. We’re buying ‘organic’. We turned the thermostat down. We started buying in bulk to cut down on our trips in the SUV to the store. Now, what more do you want? Tell those corporate bigwigs to stop making stuff and telling us about it via commercials during our favorite shows and then we won’t get the subliminal messages from our favorite TV shows to go out and buy a whopper while waiting on the paper work to get completed on our brand new Ford Fusion.<——Heavy on the sarcasm!

    Just watch the videos of the previous Black Friday stampedes, mauling, fistfights and tramples to purchase huge 60" HD TVs and everything else we need to "go green, green with envy over what our neighbors have!" Oh, yeah, we're gonna shop our way out of every crisis because when I'm having a crisis, I'm going shopping, that'll show the earth!

    But seriously, we are toast! How many corporations are going to commit bottom line suicide by ceasing oil production, ceasing the manufacturing and global distribution of their products? Americans are NOT going to stop their habits of consume, consume and consume some more. And capitalism has spread worldwide. Even developing countries are now victims of capitalism.

    The sheer volume of stuff that gets thrown out each year is mindboggling and yet each year, we go right out and get a brand new version of something that we just threw out simply because we want an update. If we have an iPhone and it is working, we'll throw that one out as soon as a new one comes down the pike.

    Yes, we are ALL complicit in what we are doing to this planet and many people are under the mistaken assumption that if they buy organic, recycle and buy in bulk, that they are doing their part in 'going green'. We, each of us are connected to the grid or we couldn't be typing this comment and so we are all culpable in destroying this earth. And how many of us are willing to endure winters with no heat and summers without AC? We have been made soft by all of our creature comforts and even if deep sea drilling was ceased, all fossil fuel pipelines were closed, the screeching and wailing and resulting chaos would demand that we hop to it again.

    So, yeah! We are done for!

    Excellent post, once again!

    • “How many corporations are going to commit bottom line suicide by ceasing oil production, ceasing the manufacturing and global distribution of their products?”

      “Yes, we are ALL complicit in what we are doing to this planet and many people are under the mistaken assumption that if they buy organic, recycle and buy in bulk, that they are doing their part in ‘going green.’ “

      Shelby, you’ve hit the problem on the head. Corporations are not going to commit suicide, nor or their employees who would otherwise be out of work going to support a suicide. And, on the consumer side of the equation, are people in the West really ready to cut down on consumption? People like to recycle because it’s easy. The other two Rs, reduce and reuse, are harder (especially the “reduce.”)

      Are we done for? If humanity stays on its current path, yes. The limits of our environment will force reductions on us if we don’t do it ourselves, in much more painful ways.

  4. My personal view is that green capitalism was primarily designed to assuage liberal guilt. The lifestyle it advocates is way beyond the means of minimum wage workers (who make up an ever growing proportion of the workforce) and the unemployed.

    • I think you are right. I would add that, additionally, it is also a way for the beneficiaries of the system (skilled as they are at co-opting everything) to provide the illusion that we can keep it all going and for them to profit off the environmental movement and consumers who are environmentally conscious. We should eat organic, and I do. But you are completely correct in pointing out that doing so is beyond the financial means of so many people.

      That’s another side of what you bring up — people are willing to pay a premium to buy organic (I am guilty here) and so that premium is charged, with the profits going straight to corporate bottom lines. I therefore am contributing to the problem of healthy food being priced out the range of more and more people. Capitalism is a system that absorbs everything and even those of critical of it are too caught in its web to not be enforcing its relentless rule.

  5. waterwoman1 says:

    I suggest that “Green Capitalism” as we see it today, is doomed but not for the reasons stated.
    This has been only the first stage of a necessary sequence of events which could change mankind in general and Anglo-Western Civilisation in particular.

    Advertising and sales-marketing logic and techniques are being used now, and some (but not all) science is being used to back up a particular direction. Some (but not all) scientists are being muzzled, blackmailed into silence.
    It is very difficult to draw attention to different points of view because Governments are being pursued for their power over and influence on markets.
    This means that no product is being promoted, but public pressure is being put on Government as a result of a mix of measures designed by a conglomerate of global players.
    Their object is short and medium term profit. The survival of their markets is their concern,not the “Survival of the Planet”. Although they are the loudest pleaders for “The Environment”.

    They are concerned to divert attention anywhere except to examine the damage being done to people and the environment by their products.
    The whole “Global Warming”, “Climate Change” scenario has a particular direction. Considered from any scientific direction, it lacks complexity so it is easy to repeat and “sell” to the media.
    This lack of complexity leads to a “You are either for us or against us” position which must be
    either adopted by Government or discarded by Government. Neither position matters in the long term.
    The positive contribution made by this ingenious and relentless set of campaigns is to engage the whole world, business, government and private in concern for the environment.
    That is now being done.

  6. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Um, Whole Foods would beg to differ. Next you’ll tell me that ‘organic’ is another buzzword for a legitimate, grassroots movement that was co-opted and commoditized by the forces of industry. Are there no sacred (cornfed) cows?

  7. Alcuin says:

    Here is a very lengthy and thoughtful article by Paul Kingsnorth, which appeared in Orion Magazine, in which he addresses the same ideas that you are wrestling with in your post, SD. I’ve read Paul before – he strikes me as a very astute observer of the predicament that we are in and I am very much attracted to his thoughts about withdrawal:

    “Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.”

    I’m going to go get my scythe and mow some grass… When I finish, I’ll meditate on his idea of “progress traps.”

    • Well worth the time it took to read Paul Kingsnorth’s article. I don’t necessarily agree with him at all points, but much to think about. In particular, his concept of “progress traps” and his discussion of who he calls “neo-environmentalists” — the “environmental” equivalent of neoliberals, with whom he makes a direct comparison. I do believe he has the near-term future correct when he writes:

      “The neo-environmentalists have a great advantage over the old greens, with their threatening talk about limits to growth, behavior change, and other such against-the-grain stuff: they are telling this civilization what it wants to hear. What it wants to hear is that the progress trap in which our civilization is caught can be escaped from by inflating a green tech bubble on which we can sail merrily into the future, happy as gods and equally in control.

      In the short term, the future belongs to the neo-environmentalists, and it is going to be painful to watch. In the long term, though, I’d guess they will fail.”

      Reagan and Thatcher were masters at telling people what they wanted to hear, and a large price has been paid for that. The “neo-environmentalists” are indeed telling people what they want to hear: There are no limits and we can consume and use up the Earth’s resources forever. Such is the world we are living in today. It won’t be in the future.

  8. Alcuin says:

    Craig Dilworth wrote a book on the subject of “progress traps”, but he called them the result of what he terms the “vicious circle principle”. This article is a review of his book, Too Smart For Our Own Good. I’d venture to say that it was inevitable that capitalism would arise at a certain stage of the growth of technology. Grasping the concept of the vicious circle principle has enabled me to place capitalism in a larger context – capitalism is the result of the will to live of homo sapiens sapiens and that will differs from that of other life forms only in its expression through human creativity and adaptability, which has led us to our present predicament. How do we get out? Is it possible? Are we all Easter Islanders?

  9. Alcuin says:

    George Mobus has some very interesting thoughts on “green capitalism”, though he never uses that phrase. Instead, he backs up for a much longer view of humanity, based in systems science. He is the author of a forthcoming college text book on systems science, The Principles of Systems Science, available in 2015. He has also been on the Web since 2007 with a blog entitled Question Everything, which should be of interest to most of the readers of this blog. As I perused his posts, one struck me as being very pertinent to the subject of SD’s latest post. Entitled Refocusing the Purpose of QE, it delves into why humanity, faced with overwhelming evidence that we are heading in the wrong direction, continues on its present course. It doesn’t get into the hysteria of peak oil doomers and collapsarians, but it does present some rather interesting, to put it mildly, ideas as to why we are in the situation we are in. As SD says, no, we can’t shop our way out of our environmental crisis. Mobus agrees and shows why we continue to think that we can. Read it – I think you’ll find it enlightening.

  10. Alcuin says:

    Is George Mobus a pessimist or a realist? You decide.

  11. Alcuin says:

    This is an incredibly funny and satirical video about Green Capitalism. Watch it but don’t try to drink anything while doing so!

  12. prkralex says:

    France now it plans for more than that, which will create nuclear dominance. So how does France expect to lower its dependence and what will this mean for nuclear power globally?

  13. Ice Captain says:

    I want to take your thinking and reframe it for a rightwing populist audience

    • There are plenty of conservatives out there who care about the environment and the ongoing economic challenges surely concern most people. If you ask a conservative if he or she wants to leave a world not ruined by pollution for their sons and daughters, the answer is generally “yes.”

      People are seeking answers to gigantic questions and are feeling scared and helpless. Talking to people in these positions as intelligent humans is the starting point.

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