‘Selling Nature to Save It’? The Story of Environmental Change

Everywhere we look today, we are inundated with facts about how the world is facing environmental catastrophe.  Climate change, rising sea levels, deforestation, desertification, drought; the statistics are staggering.  These troubling realizations have led to the creation of large international bodies: international organizations, environmental summits like Copenhagen and Rio+20, and a number of protocols and agreements (like Kyoto) to try to mitigate the destruction of the planet.  But why are these seemingly well-intentioned attempts at solving environmental problems not working?  Why is it that no one can agree on a plan to significantly address global issues before we reach the 2ºC temperature increase that is supposed to make climate change a runaway train?

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The reason lies in the fact that the very basic causes – the “driving forces” of global environmental change – are rarely, if ever, confronted in mainstream media or at the government or international levels.  If we truly want to understand what is happening to the environment, we have to understand the origins, development, structure and dynamics of the capitalist system that we take for granted today.

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When did climate change begin?  To understand this, we have to begin our story with an understanding of what was going on during the Industrial Revolution.  In the early stages of capitalism, labour was freed up by enclosing and kicking peasants off of parcels of land (where they used to produce for subsistence and feudal lords, not surplus capital).  New private property rights meant that all of the landless peasants needed to sell their labour to survive, allowing the early capitalists to accumulate surplus money by paying workers to turn natural resources into products for sale.  Beyond exploiting nature for production, competition and growth were essential in this system, so the capitalist class had to develop technology to keep their businesses alive.  In other words, the energy-intensive, mechanized, resource-eating, polluting industrial economy that developed in the nineteenth century came from competition among capitalists, and among capitalist economies, as with Britain, Germany and the United States. Capitalists had to mechanize in order to survive, and mechanization meant energy-intensification.” (Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, & Michael Watts, Global Political Ecology)

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The post World War II development boom in the US continued that trend.  “US emissions of carbon dioxide, that were already at the level of 500 million tons of carbon a year in 1940, more than doubled to 1980 when 1300 million tons were emitted”(CDIAC, 2009).

Under ‘free market’ conditions that are less and less regulated by governments (a popular US ideology), any individual/company produces products at prices that are regulated by competition. This process will inevitably force even the most environmentally and socially concerned person or company to produce at the lowest cost, regardless of the social or environmental consequences (which are nearly always rotten).  The social consequences of this ‘free market’ model stem from the upward movement of capital, increasing inequalities between the ‘99%’ and the ‘1%’ around the world.  (When trying to address poverty in Third World countries, organizations and charities try to throw money at the problem after the fact, rather than looking seriously at the system of deregulation, dispossession, capital accumulation and exploitation that causes poverty in the first place).

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Contradictory as free market logic may be, nations have to support financial institutions and corporations to keep their economies going and competitive with one another.

Basically, environmental pollution is an economic necessity under capitalism. Within this global economic system, reducing pollution can only occur through economic recession.  Between 2008 and 2009, there was a 5.9% decline in CO2 emissions, which was only brought about by a 2.5% decline in global GDP, a 11.5% decline in manufacturing production and 40% decline in raw steel production (EIA, 2009).  In the way we currently organize the global markets, it would be political suicide for governments to suggest that the necessary price for ending the destruction of the environment is social/economic crisis.

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So, instead of admitting that environmental salvation requires a re-thinking of the economic system, and a more equitable dispersal of power and capital to all classes of society, the ‘market solutions’ step in.  As we have seen, market prices do not represent social and environmental costs or long-term consequences whatsoever.   The necessity of profits in the short-term makes long-term thinking nearly impossible, and the power of the wealthier classes to continue to reproduce this economic system is quite strong.  Trying to create markets for environmental services and commodify nature only serves to deepen the system and exploit nature and workers in new ways. Our “market systems are environmentally destructive and socially irresponsible. Yet, the most sophisticated, liberal political economists see carbon trading as the most compelling solution to climate warming – as though pricing and commodifying carbon can solve what commodity markets created in the first place.” (Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, & Michael Watts, Global Political Ecology)

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In the end, what we truly need are frameworks for us in the Western countries, and also around the world, to change our whole way of life and the way we think about freedom.  This means freedom for the collective versus freedom of the individual to own, compete and consume.  This doesn’t mean going back to some primitive Stone Age existence, either, because not even that would be sustainable or desirable (not enough land space; cities are part of a sustainable future).  It means that tinkering around the edges of capitalism won’t work to make any significant difference.  Social transformation must happen, within our lifetime, which is intimidating in its urgency, but completely possible through greater understanding and collaboration among people.

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3 Comments on “‘Selling Nature to Save It’? The Story of Environmental Change”

  1. Melisa January 17, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    It’s scary what people are willing to overlook. Great Post

  2. andhastings January 17, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    Extremely interesting. I think the most discouraging thing about all of this is that people are being raised to consume, and view their increasing capacity to consume (as their wealth increases) something to brag about.

    As long as people want more, more, more, companies will continue to churn it out for profit at the expense of the environment.

    How do we change their minds?

    • utopiandreaming January 18, 2013 at 12:09 am #

      True. The individual consumption issue is addressed a bit in the ‘Sharing Economy’ post (http://utopiandreaming.com/2013/01/11/love-is-simple-the-sharing-economy/); basically we need to re-think our ideas of what’s ‘comfortable’ versus what is excess. Traveling to places around the world that don’t subscribe to this model, or where people are comfortable and happy consuming only a fraction of what the West consumes, is really important. Alternative media and education are other necessities… the more people can come to understand the political-economic reasons for global issues (and reasons powerful actors are committed to keeping everyone on board with this economic model), the more they can start to re-think their own consumption, and the more they can collaborate to rein in ‘free market’ ideology.

      Yes, big challenge. But knowledge is the first step.

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