It is a weapon pointed at the living world. We
urgently need to develop a new system.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th
For most of my adult life, I’ve railed against
“corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took
me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective, but the noun.
While some people have rejected capitalism gladly and swiftly,
I’ve done so slowly and reluctantly. Part of the reason was that I could see no
clear alternative: unlike some anti-capitalists, I have never been an
enthusiast for state communism. I was also inhibited by its religious status.
To say “capitalism is failing” in the 21st century is like saying
“God is dead” in the 19th. It is secular blasphemy. It requires a
degree of self-confidence I did not possess.
I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the
system, rather than any variant of the system, which drives us inexorably
towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive
alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right.
But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.
failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual
growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate
capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual
growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.
defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services,
economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week, a paper in the
journal New Political Economy by Jason Hickel
and Giorgos Kallis examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the
20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly
as economic growth), in the 21st there has been a re-coupling:
rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic
growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a
reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears
impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.
based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and
externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials
are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in
the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases,
until capitalism affects everything from the atmosphere to the deep ocean
floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery
of the profit-making machine.
drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of
imagining it. The threatened collapse of our life support systems is bigger by
far than war, famine, pestilence or economic crisis, though it is likely to
incorporate all four. Societies can recover from these apocalyptic events, but
not from the loss of soil, an abundant biosphere and a habitable
defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as
great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three
further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of
non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative
truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people
by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the
translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential
resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them.
In the New York Times on Sunday, the Nobel
economist Joseph Stiglitz sought to distinguish between good capitalism, that he called
“wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, that he called “wealth
grabbing” (extracting rent). I understand his distinction, but from the
environmental point of view, wealth creation is wealth grabbing. Economic
growth, intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, means
seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations.
to such problems is to invite a barrage of accusations, many of which are based
on this premise: capitalism has rescued hundreds of millions of people from
poverty – now you want to impoverish them again. It is true that capitalism, and the economic
growth it drives, has radically improved the prosperity of vast numbers of
people, while simultaneously destroying the prosperity of many others: those
whose land, labour and resources were seized to fuel growth elsewhere. Much of
the wealth of the rich nations was – and is – built on slavery and colonial expropriation.
capitalism has brought many benefits. But, like coal, it now causes more harm
than good. Just as we have found means of generating useful energy that are
better and less damaging than coal, so we need to find means of generating
human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism.
no going back: the alternative to capitalism is neither feudalism nor state
communism. Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system
would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth. Both are willing to inflict astonishing
levels of harm in pursuit of this and other ends. Both promised a future in
which we would need to work for only a few hours a week, but instead demand
endless, brutal labour. Both are dehumanising. Both are absolutist, insisting
that theirs and theirs alone is the one true God.
does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t
believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part
of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age.
Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi
Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a
new conception of justice, based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere shall have an
equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.
our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and
shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an
economic system, but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many
minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural,
social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of
organising ourselves, that meets our needs without destroying our home.
comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop
capitalism to allow life to continue?