6 04 2008

And it ain’t even my radical ass doing the accusing….it’s the Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies….

The problem with capitalism

The principal approaches to date for controlling the economy’s impacts on the natural world can be thought of as today’s environmentalism. This arena is where I have worked throughout my professional career. Now, near the end of my career, I find it impossible to be happy with the results. Important gains have been made, of course, including progress on local environmental problems like air and water pollution. But, all in all, today’s environmentalism has not been succeeding. We have been winning battles, including some critical ones, but losing the planet.

The escalating processes of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification that continue despite decades of warnings and earnest effort constitute a severe indictment, but an indictment of what exactly?

We know that environmental deterioration is driven by the economic activity of human beings.


With increasingly few exceptions, modern capitalism is the operating system of the world economy. I use “modern capitalism” here in a very broad sense as an actual, existing system of political economy, not as an idealized model. Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concept of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principal institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state actively promoting economic strength and growth for a wide variety of reasons.

Inherent in the dynamics of capitalism is a powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates, with the result that the capitalist era has in fact been characterized by a remarkable exponential expansion of the world economy. The capitalist operating system, whatever its shortcomings, is very good at generating growth.

The ever-growing world economy is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain life.





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