Emissions continue to rise. Governments are failing us. A ‘global tipping point’ could be activated in as little as five years. Why aren’t we doing more to solve the greatest threat humanity has ever faced?
Capitalism is the root cause of our ecological crisis and the key barrier to solving it. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because capitalism cannot exist without economic growth, and economic growth is the main reason why our emissions have been increasing over the last 30 years and further growth will make it impossible to decarbonise in time to avoid activating tipping points. Secondly, because our minds have been shaped by capitalism and it is stopping us from seeing both the role capitalism plays in the cause of climate change and the full scope of solutions available to address the crisis. Social psychologist, Professor Harald Welzer, sums this up well, describing economic growth of industrial societies as “enshrined in business and politics, but also in the psychological structure of the people who grow up in such societies.”
There are six key ways in which capitalism shapes our minds. Under capitalism we, collectively, believe:
- Nature is nothing more than a ‘resource’ to be exploited
- Our power lies in our consumption habits
- Success lies in evermore material items and novel experiences
- People are a ‘resource’ and must earn their living
- Money is scarce and the government must make choices
- We must compete with others
This ‘capitalisation’ of our minds creates a barrier to solving the climate crisis in many ways, including:
- denial that the crisis exists because the solutions don’t fit one’s capitalistic ideology;
- disinterest and disengagement with the crisis because nature is for others to focus on;
- unconscious of how our minds are shaped by capitalism, we:
Unsurprisingly, the mindset we need to address the climate crisis is the exact opposite of the mindset described above.
We are entirely dependent on nature
Across the planet, from rainforests and indigenous lands to oceans and mountaintops, we view nature as existing for us to plunder, dominate, and use to fuel our economic growth. Nature is myopically viewed as nothing more than a resource that those with enough money can ‘own’ and exploit for gain, excluding all others from the use of those resources. Furthermore, in a desperate attempt to not address the root cause of the climate crisis, we are betting the planet’s ability to sustain life on technology that does not yet exist, exacerbating other ecological crises in the process. This is not rational behaviour. This is delusional and symptomatic of a collective mindset that believes technology rules over all else and that nature can be tamed.
We need to cherish nature for without it we cannot exist. We are a part of nature, not separate from it, and we are entirely dependent on it for humanity’s survival. Rather than selling off our natural environment to create private wealth we should be holding it in trust for future generations. Because we think we are separate to nature, we often ‘other’ people who care about the environment as ‘greenies’ or ‘environmentalists’ and dismiss their concerns as ‘passions’ which allows us to mentally compartmentalise them as someone with different beliefs and priorities to us when what we really should be doing is listening, questioning, learning and ultimately joining them.
System change is the only solution
It’s highly likely, if you are at all concerned about the climate crisis, you’ve had the thought “what can I do?” and concluded something along the lines of reducing your energy needs, switching to renewable energy, driving & flying less, buying an electric vehicle and eating less meat: actions that relate to how you, individually, spend your money. This is perhaps one of capitalism’s greatest achievements because it has rendered us unlikely to actually change capitalism itself. By reducing people to ‘consumers’ that believe they have little power beyond that of their consumption habits, the inertia to come together as citizens and communities of like-minded people to take collective action is significant. This is how capitalism likes it. Fittingly, it was a PR company engaged by BP that devised the personal carbon footprint concept, precisely to put the focus back on individuals and distract from the huge emissions generated by their business and their responsibility to address it.
Whilst individual actions are well-intended and an important ‘entry-point’, we are now so late in the game that acting as consumers won’t cut it. We need to use our collective power as citizens to influence as many people as we can and ensure we vote in leaders who will change the economic system to one that is focused not on growth, but on the wellbeing of people and the planet. We need to adopt a war-like mindset and work together, finding strength in numbers. Otherwise, the enduring legacy of our lifetimes will be the collapse of human civilisation.
We need less, not more
Capitalism needs growth to survive. To ensure this continuous growth capitalism doesn’t want us to be content. It needs us to want more, to feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied. To desire more material items and more novel experiences. For many people the acquisition and accumulation of both becomes their life’s work, a symbol of ‘success’. Shareholder primacy and the single-minded pursuit of profit gave birth to an advertising industry that would exploit some of our innermost emotional needs: our need for status and our need to fit in. Today, we are assaulted by up to 10,000 advertisements each day encouraging us to buy things we probably don’t really need, or even want, and next year they will need us to buy even more again. All of this ‘stuff’ isn’t improving our wellbeing, but it is putting us on the brink of ecological collapse.
Economic growth (measured by growth in GDP) is linked with material footprint, including energy, and cannot be decoupled at all, but certainly not in time to avoid catastrophic warming. Therefore, we need to use less resources to ensure we can decarbonise in line with the science-based targets. This will mean that GDP will also decrease. Under capitalism this would be unthinkable, it would mean recession, high unemployment and increasing poverty. To avoid this, we need to change the system and adopt a degrowth economy. Research has shown that through efficiencies and deployment of technology we can adopt the lifestyles of western nations in the 1960s and remain within our carbon budgets: we can live happy, healthy, and meaningful lives with less. Indeed, we may begin to see the beauty in having ‘enough’; we could be richer for it. Our planet, and therefore our futures, most certainly will be.
We are all so much more than our ability to create value for capital
We need to “dethrone work as the highest purpose of existence”, and acknowledge it for the capitalist imperative that it is: we work, often in ‘bullshit jobs’, because we need to in order to survive. There is no freedom in a society where we are coerced into employment; where we need to ‘earn’ our right to live. Instead, we should value people simply because they are human, with the right to a life of dignity - healthcare, housing, education, food, clothing - regardless of one’s ability or inclination to increase the value of capital. One policy that would overwrite the capitalist imperative to work is a universal basic income (UBI): a payment provided to everyone to cover their basic needs. Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that people become more productive under a UBI. Importantly, they are productive pursuing things that are meaningful to them: caring for loved ones, for community, for nature - the very work that often isn’t recognised by GDP. For many, this is the work they want to do. It is certainly the work we should be doing.
If we continue with the current model, where most jobs are provided by the private sector and therefore reliant on extracting value from nature and labour for profit - regardless of the environmental impacts - we will most certainly transgress 2C of warming. Being ‘idle’ is frowned upon in a capitalist society, but if we are to address the climate crisis it is desirable for humans to be doing less, certainly of the work that is typical of today’s job market. We might even open our minds up to the possibility that, although the exact opposite of the much revered ‘hard work’, there is nothing wrong with being ‘idle’. Labour economist, Professor Guy Standing, highlights that “being idle is the most vital activity because it re-energises you, it gives you a different perspective, it nurtures the creative side and the political side of deliberation”, all things the world very much needs right now.
The deficit is a myth, scarcity is created
Currency-issuing governments are not like households and do not need to ‘balance a budget’. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown - and the global financial crisis prior, and most military budgets - money can be easily made available when the political will exists. This is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT): currency-issuing governments do not need to borrow to create money (and can always repay their debts if they do borrow), and do not need to collect taxes in order to fund government spending. The myth of scarcity of money is used to justify not spending in socially beneficial ways, including addressing the climate crisis.
Once we acknowledge that money is not scarce and can be made available for anything, a whole world of possibility emerges. We can fund the infrastructure we need to ensure the wellbeing of people as we scale back our material footprint: high quality public transport, healthcare, education, social housing, a jobs guarantee for those who want to work and a universal basic income for all. We can also roll-out renewable energy with speed, the only resource restriction being the productive capacity of each nation. Under MMT money is “something we use, rather than something we own”, and measures are put in place to ensure that inflation is managed and wealth is not concentrated in the hands of too few. MMT is the perfect antidote to capitalism, “which cannot survive under conditions of abundance.”
We are supposed to care about others
Capitalism relies on free-market competition and scarcity (both real and artificial) to survive. It requires us to think that we can only have more if others have less. Because of this, capitalism affects the ability of those who are benefiting from the system to empathise and show compassion for others. Gary Olson explores this in depth in his book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain where he recounts stories of students who are aware of global injustice and inequality but rationalise it away because they “want a Mercedes 450SL someday”, or that if their “government didn’t do terrible things” the “good life” might not be there for them; that the end justifies the means. We can feel pity for others, but not empathise with them: we don’t think that we could ever end up in their situation. This is supported by research showing that there is an inverse relationship between wealth and empathy.
Collectively, we have lost our humanity and it shows. The people who will be first and most affected by climate change will be those in developing nations – indeed, many are already suffering. Yet, instead of doing everything within our power to reduce our emissions, we prefer to enact stronger border policies to ensure that climate refugees are significantly deterred from entering our shores, or experience life-threatening risks to do so. In contrast to the popular belief in ‘survival of the fittest’, empathy and caring about others is hard-wired into us via evolutionary selection: we survived because we showed concern for the greater good, not because of self-interest and individualism. It should be of little surprise that a collective lack of empathy is leading us towards extinction.
The path forward
Ultimately, we have much to learn from Indigenous cultures, who, across the globe, survived for tens of thousands of years without putting the planet on the brink of ecological collapse. Today Indigenous peoples account for around 6% of the global population but are protecting 80% of remaining biodiversity. This is because Indigenous cultures respect and cherish nature, working with it, not against it. They make decisions with many generations in mind, not simply the next election cycle. They live simple, unmaterialistic lives. They care for each other, respect each other and work together towards a common good.
Changing your position based on new information is not a weakness, on the contrary, it is the essence of learning. Nonetheless, there will be people – usually those benefiting from the status quo – who prefer to hold onto their ideology rather than recognise indisputable facts such as ‘it is not possible to grow infinitely on a finite planet’. Instead of pandering to these people and talking about climate action as being “good for jobs and growth”, which genuine climate action will not be, we need to mobilise the billions of people who will be better off under a new economic model, where people and the planet are at the heart of the system rather than planet-destroying economic growth.
All paths forward come back to the fact that democracy is not a spectator sport. The worst – but unfortunately not all – of the climate crisis is avoidable, but doing so will require system change with urgency. We need to work together to elect new leaders who are prepared to put people and the planet at the centre of decision making because the current establishment have shown over the last thirty years that they are incapable of doing so. A societal wide ‘decapitalising’ of our minds is a big challenge, there is no escaping that, but by doing so we can start to embrace a suite of policy measures that will not only begin to restore nature, and therefore improve humanity’s chances of survival, but will also improve the wellbeing of the vast majority of the world’s population. Quite simply, the alternative is catastrophic: a planet that can no longer sustain life. We need to decide what we want our legacy to be.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.