Richard White’s stunning essay is a long read, but well worth the effort. Although nominally a critique of the Steady State Economy proposals put forth by Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and NEF, it stands on its own as an impeccable critique of the Capitalist mode of production and its basic incapability to stop the ongoing social and environmental degradation of our time.
I find that the mere mention of the word “capitalism” can easily trigger defensive reactions which hamper any possible dialogue. In lieu of shared definition, I strongly recommend reading White’s full easy with an open mind and analyse whether his fits the bill. The critical aspect of the essay is handled with exemplary respectfulness towards Daly, et al.
“Daly says, quite rightly, that we need to reduce growth and consumption to save the humans. The way to do this, he says, is to limit the scale of “resource throughput.” But what is “throughput?” Throughput, he tells us “is the flow beginning with raw materials inputs, followed by their conversion into commodities and finally into waste outputs” OK, but which resources and commodities? Do we need to limit production of meat, coal, oil, synthetic chemicals? How about Starbucks’ Frappacinos, or SUVs, Flat screen TVs? Ikea kitchens, Caribbean vacations, 12,000-square-foot homes? Daly doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to specify cuts in resource use or consumption because he believes the market is the best mechanism to make these micro decisions: “Once the level of resource throughput is reduced to a sustainable level, the pattern of consumption will automatically adapt, thanks to the market. Let the market determine efficient allocation.” Daly does see a role for government – to make the macro-decisions. He says that the government or “some democratically elected body” should set “controls” or “quotas” on consumption of particular resources. And the quotas, he says, “must be low enough to prevent excessive pollution and ecological costs that fall on the present as on the future.” But how could this work under capitalism?
First of all, those quotas would have to be awfully low for some industries like, say, fishing, tropical logging, even lower for the most polluting industries like coal, and virtually zero for many chemicals – if we seriously want to protect present and future human generations, not to mention other species. But how could any capitalist government deliberately reduce overall consumption to a “sustainable level” or impose steep cuts on particular industries? Reducing consumption means reducing production. And under capitalism, as we just noted, that just means recession, unemployment, falling revenues or worse. So right now, no capitalist government on the planet is looking to do anything but restore and accelerate growth. That’s why Congress killed the cap-and-trade bill, weak as it was. That’s why at Copenhagen, no capitalist government was willing to sacrifice growth to save the environment. But even during the recent long economic boom, no government would accept binding limits on emissions. So Copenhagen is only the latest in a long sorry string of failures: Bali, Nairobi, Rio, and all the way back to Kyoto in 1997. It would appear, therefore, that the chances of any capitalist government “reducing consumption to sustainable levels” are nonexistent.
Secondly, the ecological crisis we face is not only caused by the overall scale of production and consumption, it is just as much caused by the specific irrational, inefficient, wasteful, and destructive nature of the capitalist market’s “allocation of resources” – and equally, the by market’s failure to allocate resources to things we do need. The problem is what we produce, what we consume, what we dump, what we destroy. So for example, Hansen says “coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty.” “My argument is that new coal-fired power plants must be stopped as a first step toward phasing out coal emissions” and phasing out our dependence on all fossil fuels: “Yes, most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That is the explicit message that the science provides.” If we don’t, we won’t be able to contain global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, and if we fail to do that, our goose is cooked.”
After global warming, global pollution, especially toxic chemical pollution, is probably the next-greatest environmental threat we face. Scientists since Rachel Carson have warned that human survival, and the survival of many other species, is increasingly at risk because of the growing assault on our bodies and the environment from the tens of thousands of different kinds of toxic chemicals pumped, dumped, leached, sprayed, vented into the environment every year by the chemical industry, polluting factories and farms, power plants and so forth. Except for lead, PCBs, DDT and a few substances that have been banned or partially banned, toxic chemical pollution of all kinds has worsened dramatically in recent decades, all over the world – especially because of the flood of new synthetic chemicals in pesticides, plastics, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, cleaners, cosmetics, etc. – thus into our food, water and the air we breathe. The average American apple or strawberry is laced with pesticides, some of which did not exist in Rachael Carson’s day. America’s favorite seafood, shrimp, “is a health and environmental nightmare.” Chemicals used in rocket fuel and dry cleaning turn up regularly in baby formula. In the United States, the increasing contamination of public water supplies all over the country has become a scandal and raised alarm. Everywhere we turn, we’re exposed to more and more toxins. Today, some 80,000 chemicals are in use in the United States, barely 200 of which have even been tested for toxicity to humans and only a handful actually banned. They’re in our homes. They’re in our bodies. And many are known to cause or are associated with birth defects, cancers, chronic illnesses and physical disorders, neurological disorders in children, hyperactivity and deficits in attention, developmental and reproductive problems in humans and animals – and these are on the rise around the world.
Given that we can’t anticipate all the potential risks of new synthetic chemicals and given the scale of the problem when hundreds of new chemicals are introduced every year and many released into the environment in huge quantities – even millions of pounds – scientists like Theo Colburn and her colleagues argue that “humans as a global community” need to reconsider the convenience of endocrine-disrupting plastics, pesticides and other products, “against the risk they entail” and consider a drastic reduction or even a phase-out:
Phasing out hormone-disrupting chemicals should be just be the first step, in our view. We must then move to slow down the larger experiment with synthetic chemicals. This means first curtailing the introduction of thousands of new synthetic chemicals each year. It also means reducing the use of pesticides as much as possible. … They confront us with the unavoidable question of whether to stop manufacturing and releasing synthetic chemicals altogether. There is no glib answer, no pat recommendation to offer. The time has come, however, to pause and finally ask the ethical questions that have been overlooked in the headlong rush of the twentieth century. Is it right to change Earth’s atmosphere? Is it right to alter the chemical environment in the womb of every unborn child. It is imperative that humans as a global community give serious consideration to this question and begin a broad discussion that reaches far beyond the usual participants?
Our best scientists are telling us that to save the humans, for a start, we need to virtually shut down the coal industry, drastically reduce production of fossil fuels and phase out many toxic chemicals as quickly as possible. But, how can we do this under capitalism? Peabody Coal, Chevron Oil, Monsanto – these are huge companies that have sunk all their capital and trained thousands of skilled personnel to produce what they produce. Rich as they are, they can’t just write all that off and start over. So how can they accept quotas that would force them to drastically reduce production, depress profits or even close down? How could they do this and be responsible to their shareholders? As Milton Friedman said, “corporations are in business to make money, not save the world.” Yet if corporations carry on with business as usual, we’re doomed. So what to do?
If we’re going to save the world, I would suggest that humanity is going to have to begin that “broad discussion” Theo Colborn proposed, with people across the whole of society to figure out how to redesign the economy. This could be the starting point of an ecological economic democracy. For my part, I would suggest that an agenda for that discussion ought to include at least the following points:
1) We’re going to have to find ways to put the brakes on out-of-control growth, even if it means drastically retrenching or shutting down coal companies, oil companies, chemical companies, auto companies, even whole economic sectors dedicated 100 percent to waste production like the disposable products industries.
2) We’re going to have to radically restructure production to impose sharp limits on the production, use and consumption of all sorts of specific resources like coal, oil, gas, lumber, fish, oil, water, minerals, toxic chemicals, and many products made from them. Some products, like coal-fired power plants, toxic pesticides, diesel fuel, bottled water probably should be banned altogether.
3) At the same time, we’re going to have to sharply increase investments in things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transit, public water systems, public health, quality schools for our children and many other currently underfunded social and environmental needs.
4) We’re going to have to do away with production that is geared to needless repetitive consumption and the industries that support them. Too many choices and too short a lifespan for products have socially and environmentally unbearable costs. We live on a small planet with limited resources. Others need those resources too, so we can’t afford waste.
5) If we have to shut down polluting or wasteful industries, society is going to have to provide equivalent jobs, not just retraining or the unemployment line, for those displaced workers because, if we don’t, there will be no social support for the drastic changes we need to make to ensure our survival.
Now all this might sound like Daly’s hobgoblin of economic “planning” and indeed such a democratic economy would be incompatible with capitalism, but what other choice do we have given that rational capitalist corporations can’t save the humans?
Of course, the minute we start talking about shutting down the coal industry or pesticide producers, or forcing them to change, and directing resources into new industries, then we’re talking about violating capitalist freedom to produce and sell whatever they like, and consumer choice to buy whatever we want and can afford. We would be screwing up the market. That’s right. But that is exactly what we have to do because the rational efficient market is very efficiently liquidating every resource on the planet and wiping us out in the process. If we want to save the humans and many other species, then we have to give up the freedom of capitalists to produce and sell as they please and consumers to buy whatever they like and can afford – to win the greater freedom for humanity to breathe clean air, to have safe water to drink, to have safe food to eat, to live long and healthy lives free of toxins-induced diseases, to restore a forested, clean, safe, habitable planet we can pass on to our children.”