Why capitalism can’t solve global warming


More from “Confronting the climate change crisis

There are three major barriers against capitalism achieving the goal of reducing co2 emissions.

Changing from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require massive spending.

Such spending will not increase profits and thus will be anathema to most businesses. They will only do it when forced to by conditions or governments.

The CO2 reductions must be global.

If the reductions aren’t global, mandated, and enforceable, then little progress will be made, as companies will just move to whatever country has the most lax rules. Shutting down a few coal-burning plants in the US will have little effect if China build 500 new ones.

The change must be all-encompassing.

This is the kicker. Huge restructuring will be needed. Entire industries will vanish, to be replaced by new ones. You think the coal industry will go away quietly? Not a chance.

The problem is rooted in the very nature of capitalist society, which is made up of thousands of corporations, all competing for investment and for profits. There is no “social interest” in capitalism — only thousands of separate interests that compete with each other.

That’s the real problem. Under the predatory nature of capitalism, cooperation doesn’t exist, and cooperation on a global scale is precisely what is needed to stop global warming.


  1. I think you missed one of “barriers”– the current level of energy use is unsustainable, requiring that industrialized countries use less and non-industrialized countries drop their targets.

    BTW, though these are called “barriers against capitalism achieving the goal of reducing co2 emissions,” they are in fact barriers challenging ANY system.

    Lastly, part of the problem is the math. That is, the math used by conventional economists, which is flawed and fails to describe reality in the post-modern world. See Beyond Growth by Herman Daly, which I consider a must-read. He explains how economics are so complex that pnly a few variables can be considered in order to simplify enough to make calculations. The variables considered naturally affect the outcome, which in term affect what people do.

    Conventional economics seeks to maximize growth, which not only leads to many of our problems, but is erroneous in the first place since it includes (and therefore encourages) waste. Yet this erroneous system of economic math us used by virtually every government on the planet, capitalist or otherwise.

  2. Like DJ, I have trouble seeing what the difference is between a socialist system (whatever that means) and a capitalist system (whatever form THAT may take: certainly European capitalism is FAR different from American capitalism, which itself is quite different from the almost feudal societies one finds strewn throughout Latin America) in this respect.

    All societies, regardless of the ownership of the capital assets, need energy to run their economies. To the extent that Western wealth has seduced the aspirations of other peoples, energy is needed to provide the “standard of life” that is expected. Unless you change expectation, it really doesn’t matter what kind of social system you have; it seems to me you’ll have the same demand for petroleum products and the same assault on natural resources.

    The only people I know who are relatively aware of these invironmental problems and who have taken action against them are the Japanese, who actually reversed deforestation several centuries ago. The Icelanders have adopted an extremely limited, non-growth mentality as well, to deal with their environmental limitations. I suspect we might find a few smallish nations like New Zealand which are relatively homogeneous (like….wow! Japan and Iceland!) who have succeeded, largely through concensus (always easier to achieve in a homogeneous society).

    I don’t expect there to be significant difference in energy usage and environmental disasters between a socialist or a capitalist society, given the pressures and demands of the population. If you were trying to convince me that some kind of religious awakening might turn things around, I could buy that. But merely changing from a capitalist to a socialist government–I don’t get the mechanism, unless you’re going to propose a Leninist elite who’s going to be extremely ruthless in the use of repression in instituting its environmental policies. Surely we’ve had enough of that in the past 100 years in various forms; surely we can do better.

  3. In a previous post I said a repressive rule would guarantee blowback and counter-violence, and even if an entity had the power to be so noxious (and no entity does) it would be counterproductive at best and probably a disaster.

    That socialist and communist governments of the 20th century could be as environmentally horrible as capitalist governments (remember when the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland caught on fire in 1969?) is certainly true.

    In socialism however there is a refreshing lack of emphasis on this quarter’s earning and the profit margin and is, at least in theory, much more focused on the good of all. And that’s what we need now.

  4. “If you were trying to convince me that some kind of religious awakening might turn things around, I could buy that.”

    That’s exactly what I think it will take (in coordination with economic and political strategies). The adjective “religious” may be overly divisive and limiting– I prefer the term “spiritual” and/or “ethical” awakening– but yes, wee need a comprehensive “awakening” to the consequences of our actions and the fact that we are all neighbors on an increasingly small planet. That’s not just education, it’s a fundamental shift in attitude.

  5. That’s a big question!

    Socialism strives for an economic system where every shares equally and a tiny class doesn’t get rich off the labor of everyone else. This implies social equality and a more equal standard of living. The state owns the means of production and the workers participate democratically in running them.

    Can it get screwed up in practice, sure? But that’s what it’s aiming for.

    I’ll try to answer this more fully later!

  6. The reason I ask is because whatever a system seeks to maximize, perhaps comparable to its raison d’etre (e.g. profits), tends to become more emphasized than all other outcomes. Thus Daly argues that social (compassionate) economics is inconsistent with green economics because they seek to maximize things that have opposite impacts.

    If socialism emphasizes an equal standard of living, is it thereby equally challenged in terms of addressing environmental issues? OTOH, would an economic system that seeks to maximize environmental health be acceptable to most people, even under duress? (It might, for example, argue for forced poverty and sterilization!)

    The more we discuss this, the more I believe the solution to global climate change is not dependent upon any single economic system, as both (or indeed all) are equally challenged. Thus we need to look beyond economic structures, to new theories (like Daly’s), new ways of thinking, and new ways of relating to the world and the people in it. That puts us well outside the realm of economics!

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