Capitalism and Climate Change, Why We Cannot Keep Calm and Carry On
A few weeks ago biophysicists from the BIOS Research Institute in Finland released a paper to the U.N. Global Sustainable Development Report that said in no uncertain terms that the dominant economic models practiced today are not capable of averting or handling the coming crises of Global Warming. Here is a link to the report directly and here is an overview of the article by BigThink. The quickest summary would be this: modern models and theories of economics are built around available cheap oil, and so can’t handle a world that needs to move to renewable but less efficient energy sources. No current economic theories revolve around this, so they recommend a careful transition in the difficult years ahead while we find one.
It’s not comforting to look at the world you live in and go “this isn’t working.” But that doesn’t mean that everything is hopeless. Hopelessness is the belief that nothing is going to change, and change comes from understanding what’s wrong well enough to break it down, so lets look at the problem head on in all of it’s uncomfortable implications.
One of the biggest causes of carbon emissions is the shipping industry. We can make it more clean through green innovations of course, but no amount of ecotech and cutting emissions will ever be as green as not shipping a commodity halfway around the globe. Obviously we can’t just immediately end the global nature of the world economy, but one of the most important steps in developing a greener future is transitioning away from complete interdependence to more independant economies. Shop local and (especially) eat local need to be the slogans of entire nations. Not everything can or should be made locally of course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things we can transition away from that global model. The argument against this is usually that it’s bad for the economy. The first issue with that argument is that self-sufficiency mean creating jobs. But the other issue brings up the next point.
When you examine the large scale initiatives on climate change, you can see both the genius of the work and the limited vision holding it back. One of the biggest ideas to combat climate change are Emission Trading Schemes, a main push of The Kyoto Protocol. The idea behind them are to set up some standard of tradable credits for carbon emissions, so that market forces can find the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions without stopping the growth of the economy. While brilliant and elegant, the last part is the important part, because at some point we need to start asking if growing the economy should be the goal. This isn’t denying that free market capitalism is efficient. This isn’t saying that there should be no growth, as there are plenty of places around the world that need large scale economic growth and development. But when the richest 10% of the population make half of all carbon emissions it’s clear that we need to stop saying economic growth is good universally. Unlimited growth on a world of limited resources is inherently not sustainable. We all know this. In well developed areas of the world we need to transition away from unlimited growth and expansion, and instead work on figuring out how to stabilize the world. If we continue to define success for the economy as the most efficient way of growing the GDP, we’re never going to really solve global warming.
Right now, H&M is the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton products. Now, we at Rust & Fray aren’t against organic cotton, we think it’s a great idea. But if H&M is still designing around planned obsolescence models, then throwing out mass amounts of fast fashion disposable clothing every year is not much better when that waste was consciously grown. “Doing better” is no longer an option. We cannot focus on making are disposability culture less harmful, we need to shift away from the concept of disposability altogether. We need long lasting products. We need upcycling, to turn waste into new products. We need to design products to maximize their potential for reuse. We need to work towards building a circular economy. Green options for various products are growing in popularity, especially with millennial audiences, but “green as an option” isn’t good enough. We need to get past the mentality that eco-friendly is a good, optional feature and transition to an economy where “eco-friendly” is just the way products are made.
When people think green technology, one of the first things many people think of are electric cars. Whether it’s news on Telsa vs GM about who will build the first truly electric mass-market car, or it’s talking about the success of hybrids like the Prius, electric cars are slick, shiny, and ecologically friendly. But you want to know what’s more eco friendly? Public Transportation. This doesn't necessarily mean a super eco-friendly solar powered version of public transportation, it just means more of it. Trains, busses, and subway systems are way less sexy to talk about than super solar trains, but we need to get out of the mindset that “eco-friendly” has to be a specific sci-fi sounding technology.
This principle applies to more than just infrastructure of course. We don’t need to breed an eco-friendly superfood, we just need more locally grown produce, and to stop wasting so much of what we already grow. We don’t need a miracle biodegradable disposable plastic, we need to use less plastic. Recently, China just announced an initiative to mobilize 60,000 soldiers to plant trees. No matter who you are, what you believe in, or where you’re from, that type of work needs to be applauded. Of course, green technologies are fantastic and we need to continue to develop them, but we also need to look at what we can do right now to make the world more ecologically friendly. We can’t simply wait around for green technology to solve climate change for us, we need to also include the practical, tangible solutions that can be implemented right now.
One final thing to consider is how intertwined movements for the earth are with women empowerment. Because women in certain parts of the world have limited access to education, they often end up being the ones who need to take on the lower paying, more hazardous factory work and therefore end up taking the brunt of the effects of toxic chemicals in the work environments. In other areas, women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce and so find themselves the most exposed to toxic chemicals from mono-cropping. Work cultures that favor men for positions of power add to the cycle of dependency on lower wage, hazardous work. Finally, women who do not have power over their own reproductive choices end up with more mouths to feed, making the need for work more desperate, while also contributing to an overpopulation crisis. But when you start empowering women, and building structures to continue to empower women, all of these problems no longer feed into each other and spiral downward. There is a reason “ecofeminism” is a movement. We can’t live in a “sustainable” world where half the population is systematically disempowered. The future is female, for Mother Earth as well as humanity.
There is Still Hope, but We Need to Act
We’ll end with a clip from David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef program. The section “the Future of the Reef” talks about an experiment which shows that the reef is in a lot of danger if we don’t act. But it also shows that if we do act, the Great Barrier Reef seems to have an incredible ability to recover from that damage, and while there is still damage, much of it manages to bounce back. We are currently at a tipping point with Climate Change. We are already experiencing stronger, more erratic weather. The refugee crisis in Europe is in part fueled by droughts caused by Global Warming, and as the world gets hotter, more and more areas will experience this. We are in the middle of the Holocene Extinction event, which deforestation and climate change is heavily exacerbating. There is no longer a future where the world is unscathed by Climate Change. But the Great Barrier Reef shows us that while we can’t save everything, Mother Nature has an incredible ability to survive and adapt. If we act now. If we go beyond carbon reductions and plans for better technologies, and instead treat global warming as a problem we need to fight against right now, we do still have time to make it out of this. But in order to do that, we need a paradigm shift, away from the society that brought us here and towards a new, green future.