Is Capitalism Driving Our Environmental Problems?

November 8, 2021 by Joshua
in Models, Nature

I see a strong sentiment, especially among youth, of capitalism being the source of our environmental problems. I’m not sure if everyone agrees on what capitalism means. On the scale of the myriad ways thousands of human cultures have lived over hundreds of thousands of years, communism and socialism are pretty close to capitalism, compared to say, how hunting and gathering societies lived.

I think most Americans can’t imagine an alternative. I don’t think the people criticizing it know of many alternatives. The more I read about other cultures, especially outside written history, the more alternatives I see.

Adam Smith The Wealth Of Nations

I view capitalism or any other economic set of ideologies like a technology. I don’t see technologies as good or bad. They augment the values of the people wielding them. People have values. More technology raises the stakes, especially when people’s values conflict.

I tend to think of the values people use capitalism to augment being

  • Material growth
  • Extraction
  • Efficiency
  • Comfort and convenience
  • Externalizing costs

When and where did the values that created and used capitalism begin? I’m no historian or anthropologist, but I’m coming to see these values as arising with agriculture in the fertile crescent. They don’t seem to work before agriculture, which seemed the first time one’s labor resulted in personal benefit they could store. People then acquired stuff they could bequeath to their kids. Working land and acquiring stuff motivated people to stay in place. They’d want to protect what was theirs. Farms sound nice, but they led to armies and conquering. Violence existed before agriculture, but not combined with growth and empires.

Inevitable, Unceasing Growth

Once the agricultural process started and people started keeping their surplus, the practice would keep growing. It seems inevitable to keep growing until it took over humanity. As far as I know, alternatives exist only in places like the Kalahari desert or upper reaches of the Amazon, where farms haven’t reached and therefore nor have those values. I understand other cultures don’t look at ours and wish they could be like us. They could join us, but they don’t. I believe they see how we live as worse. We don’t know any better or different. We’re stuck and blinded to alternatives. Meanwhile, our agricultural culture keeps taking over more and more other cultures. We seem not to know or care about them since they aren’t in history books. Only ours is. They’re just all indigenous.

Once those cultural values took root on the order of ten thousand years in the Fertile Crescent, they happened to move to Europe. People today talk about Europeans conquering and subjugating, as if their Europeanness caused their behavior. But they were practicing values originating from the Fertile Crescent. Arabia conquered too, spreading similar values. These values expanded from Europe, but they seem intrinsic to agricultural systems in general, not Europeans in particular.

The results of those values, such as empires, slavery, and subjugation appeared everywhere they could, including Asia and the Americas before Europeans influenced them.

Based in Capitalism or in Religion?

These values seem to have manifested in the cultures that emerged from that region, specifically the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Are they what transmit these values through the ages: being fruitful and multiplying (in the old sense of having lots of children), having dominion over wildlife, tons of stories of taking over places, and so on?

A month ago was Columbus Day, now also Indigenous Peoples Day. People often attack Christopher Columbus and the Europeans backing him as exemplifying Europeans conquering, pillaging, and exploiting. Why attack his European-ness and not his religion, which seems to promote his strategy of empire and dominance? I wonder how much people don’t attack their religion because they belong to it also. How much does our culture today, including the people condemning its practices from generations back, still promote and practice the values we think we condemn, but don’t see the results because we think of the stories, not the results?

This line of questioning is probably uncomfortable for people who have accepted and celebrate the stories behind their culture. The stories sound so nice, especially for Americans as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. Well, I grew up learning those stories and practicing the values and behaviors they taught. Ouch, I think of the results I propagated.

How much are the global battles between Christian cultures and nations, Islamic cultures and nations, Jewish cultures and nations, as well as within them, result from slightly different stories told in small region as it struggled to settle on how to live in agriculture, a different context than we evolved in? The struggles with the stories from Asia and elsewhere, I’ll have to look at later. People today talk about how different today’s world is from what we evolved in, but that change happened when we settled into agriculture. We crossed another chasm we hadn’t evolved to handle when we learned to use fossil fuels, partly because it gave us so much physical power, but I would say more because it enabled us to pollute and poison the world at first unknowingly until we were addicted and so far haven’t been able to stop. Another huge chasm hit when the cultural adaptations that enabled today’s dominant cultures to dominate—material and population growth—hit Earth’s being finite. We keep expanding despite lacking space for it.

Consider a solar electrification project of some poor nation in Africa. Doesn’t it sound great? We have resources, they don’t. Aren’t we helping them, even leapfrogging our fossil fuel middle step? If we forget about systems, each case of bringing solar may make sense. But systemically, isn’t a culture that is destroying the world encroaching more into territory where people lived maybe for hundreds of thousands of years before this encroaching culture existed? We’re tempted to say, “but they aren’t now living like they did then. They’re suffering today and we want to help them.” Shouldn’t we change ourselves and our culture to be more sustainable? Don’t we see that solar power doesn’t change our culture and its results, it just makes it more efficient?

Where Do the Patterns End?

Once people started dividing the land and creating property, where would the process end? They couldn’t have foreseen it, but it would seem to grow until the world was divided up with nothing remained to divide. After only enough remained per person to live, then population growth would further divide resources until there was too little for some to live.

Our stories driving us don’t incorporate pollution and running out of planet. I believe I understand why people attack capitalism, but I think they misplaced their ire. The stories and culture prompting the values prompting the behavior creating the results they dislike predate capitalism. The problems didn’t show up until we found fossil fuels and ran out of planet to escape our waste and destruction. I don’t think they realize that as long as they maintain the stories and culture at the root, they’re continuing the patterns they condemn.

We don’t have to keep accepting this system or its values. We can choose our values and behavior. It seems we need new stories that cultures embrace as much as we embrace the Bronze Age myths currently driving most of the world. In the meantime, the self-righteousness they promote will keep us feeling good about expanding and growing.

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