Things that won’t save us from global warming: (4) Capitalism

Two economists were stuck down a well. One says, “We’re doomed! This is it!” The other says, “I think I have a plan.” “Okay, what is it?” “First, assume we have a ladder…”

An old one but a, if not good, at least apt one. For many of us the idea that an ideology built on the idea that “greed is good” could be our solution is so absurd it is not even worth considering. To make it even vaguely plausible we have to invent a whole raft of assumptions that bear no relation to how capitalism has actually worked through history. Yet at a Dhamma talk I gave recently on this topic, one fellow was quite adamant that capitalism would save us. People will stop using fossil fuels and the change in demand will drive the company away from coal towards renewables. I didn’t argue with him, it’s not seemly at a Dhamma talk!

There’s a couple of points I’d like to make here. First, check this out: the list of greatest annual corporate profits of all time. Inspiring, right? Number one: ExxonMobil. Number two, ExxonMobil. Number three, ExxonMobil. Number four… I think you’re getting the point. In fact 37 out of the 64 greatest annual profits were by fossil fuel companies. Many of the rest were by companies closely related, like automotive or banking, while all of these companies absolutely depend on the power, transport, and other goods provided by fossil fuels.

So there’s lots of money in fossil fuels. Lots and lots and lots of money. Yummy, yummy money. And this is not theoretical money, which could be made by potential renewables industries at some hypothetical point in the future. This is real money that you can use right now to buy watches, yachts, and governments.

Kittens and money!

And kittens, I guess.

So where do these profits come from? Supply and demand, right? We all need energy. But hang on: we all need lots of things, more than we need fossil fuels. Food, houses, medicine, clothes: these things are much more basic human needs. How come they’re not so profitable?

Okay, so here’s the basic equation: revenue – cost = profit. Something like that, anyway. We’ll keep it simple here: I’m reaching back into my high school economics! So the company makes a product, sells it for a certain amount, deducts costs like wages and capital, and there you have it.

Except for one little thing, which is mentioned in passing in basic economics, but you hardly hear mentioned elsewhere: externalities. Remember them? The costs of economic activity that are borne involuntarily. So, as typical example goes, if a company pollutes a stream, the cost of that is not borne by the company. Unless, of course, the Government taxes them to clean it up. So usually this is seen as a fairly minor, easily managed, consequence of a few bad companies.

But in the case of the fossil fuel industry, it’s much more than that. Their entire industry is based on the idea of using up the energy accumulated by the earth, by nature herself, over millions of years and concentrated in the form of oil and coal. They don’t make anything, they extract: taking what is not given. Then the true costs of their economic activity are effectively shunted anywhere outside of the company: the air, the sea, the land, our lungs, our future.

And when someone, like the Australian Government last year, introduces a tax to recover a tiny percentage of that cost, cost which is created by that industry and which is the very basis of their obscene profits, all hell breaks loose.

And that is why the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable rort ever devised. Of all industries, it has most successfully externalized its costs, so that in the end, the very future of civilization becomes an externality. And this is why they have fought, and will continue to fight, against any realistic response to climate change, using any means fair or foul, as long as they draw breath.

But the problem is deeper than that. Fossil fuels are not just another industry that capitalism happens to do. They are the very foundation of industrial production. They power the capital that gives capitalism its name. Modern capitalism, and the environmental disasters that follow it, was made possible by the industrial application of fossil fuels.

Industrial pollution, 19th century England

So no, capitalism isn’t going to save us.

But what about all the wonderful environmental startups and initiatives. Aren’t they great? So many fresh ideas and wonderful promises!

Sure. But look around you, what do you see? What is the overwhelming, undeniable force that drives virtually all capitalist activity?

Consume. Consume more. Consume until you are sick. Consume until it kills you. Then consume some more.

Even so-called green products are just about getting you to consume, only it’s something that is, hopefully, a little less damaging to the environment.

Greed isn’t good. Greed is bad. It will kill us all.

You know what’s good? No greed. That’s good. And that is also the end of capitalism.

34 thoughts on “Things that won’t save us from global warming: (4) Capitalism

  1. Bhante, Capitalism is and will be the driving force behind the extinction of Homo Sapiens. Well Capitalism in its present form which based on inequality, greed and unlimited consumption.

    Hopefully we as a species get some smarts before its all over, but I cant see it. Its not just global warming, its the mass extinction of other species. I find it difficult to comprehend that we have nearly fished our oceans empty, but certain nations continue to pursue Tuna for example as though they come from a font that will never end. The proliferation of Sushi and Sashimi outlets in Australia makes me feel slightly sick. We can add to the list Fracking, Pollution of the Oceans and waterways, deforestation…. the list is endless.

    Capitalism is devoid of feeling and emotion, it does not value anything other than in monetary units. A tree is viewed not as something for shade and beauty, but it value as lumber or paper. A great painting is valued not for its art but its investment value. Humans are valued only because they are 1. Consumers and 2. Because they are needed to produce goods and services for 1.

    Our planet is not seen as what it is a fragile ecosphere in the middle of nothing, that is our only home. No it is just a place to create wealth and get rich.

    Capitalism is creating nihilistic world, whose only meaning if there is one is consumption and conspicuous wealth and my fellow seem humans lap it up.

    Where is the Maitreya :)

  2. Governments could act to regulate the flow of capital, to regulate pollutants, and to tax windfall profits of corporations and redistribute the money for health, education, food. But they don’t, at least not in the US, because our government is effectively not a democracy, but an oligarchy, controlled by wealthy corporations. Our national politicians (many of them ignorant, coarse people, by the way) almost concede the idea that their first priority is getting re-elected; money drives elections. Our US Supreme Court has ruled in recent years that corporations have the same constitutional legal standing as people, and that money in politics is a form of protected speech. Essentially, what our corrupted courts have done is give free reign to these large corporations to control policy and law. Capitalism won’t save us; governments won’t save us. We have to work together to save ourselves and the planet, but it’s touch being a “David” in a land of not one, but many, Goliaths, and you can’t find a stone for your slingshot.

  3. Bhante, your naivete is touching. It’s either Ayn Rand or Chairman Mao. There is no other alternative!

    • Aaargh, where is the High Snark emoticon when I need it?! What I was attempting (and obviously failing) to do was to encapsulate the argument that the vulture capitalists make: the only choice is between the Invisible Hand of the Free Market or The Gulag. (I actually agree with just about everything you have written in this series of blog posts.)

  4. Esteemed colleague- I’m going to go out on a limb here and respond to recent posts in your blog… compassion rises for the suffering expressed in recent posts especially concerning global warming. Witness the anger particularly in the last paragraph rejecting other points of view, creating the duality that leads to more despair. We love you very much and as noble friends reach out with that love to comfort and to let you know we care.

    I get scared too but want to remind us all that this magnificent and amazing world is not what it seems, the possibilities are limitless if one allows them. We should never let what we have learned get in the way of what we know. The roots of all suffering are greed anger and delusion and the roots of happiness are generosity compassion and wisdom. Do you recall the ripple effect? Start by cultivating generosity compassion and wisdom in your self and you change the world, gradually then more and more. It is not given to us to see the ripples only to make them.

    Attachment to fear, frustration and wanting things to be different is resistance, apply newtonian physics and resistance makes heat, this is the heat of global warming. Substitute generosity compassion and wisdom and see the cooling take place, make it a practice and watch the ripple effect heal the world, that is applying principles of quantum physics.

    It does no good to rant against corporations and governments, against short sighted and careless people. But compassion cultivation in meditation is powerfully transformative, we cannot even imagine the possibilities out there but we can open the door to them safely by basing our intention in generosity compassion and wisdom. This is so simple, but doing so can be impossible when our greatest enemy is our own self, perfectly matched in every attribute, so our noble friends become utterly essential.

    Everything has the potential to be either good or bad, just a matter of perspective. Am I indulging in magical thinking? Absolutely, but I call it “the way things really are.” Complacency and stagnation are ills we have to overcome to repair the damage done to the planet and other species and each other, but what can motivate us to overcome them? Perhaps survival is the only thing that will. No good can come of being afraid or angry or wanting something outside of ourselves to change. We can’t change others but we can change ourselves.

    No outcome can be predicted unless the intention behind the choice rests securely in generosity compassion and wisdom. That is what we need to be practicing and demonstrating. If this seems naive and too simple, I remind us that there are all kinds of ways to put this down and avoid actually doing it, in my experience that is what most of us like to do, just talk about it. The practice has all kinds of pitfalls and hazards, some very sneaky, all cloaked in our own opinions and beliefs. That’s why it is so important to hang together and not get too caught up in intellectual scientific facts but really get vulnerable in practice and be present in the moment and respond to the world from the place that does have leverage, the place that has nothing to grasp. I’m with you brother, we can do this. This is not conventional activism, not blahblah, this is radical change.

  5. Bhante writes:

    Consume. Consume more. Consume until you are sick. Consume until it kills you. Then consume some more.

    Evidence that capitalists believe in rebirth?

    No consumer left behind.

  6. Yet at a Dhamma talk I gave recently on this topic, one fellow was quite adamant that capitalism would save us. People will stop using fossil fuels and the change in demand will drive the company away from coal towards renewables.

    This fellow seems to have believed that consumers drive demand and that producers rush to fill that demand. But the capitalists over the last couple of centuries have perfected the system of convincing consumers that they want this and need that and providing consumers what they’re told to want or think that they need.

    Another possibility is that this fellow believed that capitalists will step up to make profit off of the things that consumers will need when the feces hits the fan. The only problem there is that they seem to have decided to follow the climate change denial lie until the bitter end, and then it’ll be too late.

    What we need is leadership from our overlords who think that they’re the smartest guys in any room. Until they act like real and responsible leaders, the politicians who do their bidding can’t regulate much of anything.

  7. I found this on my 11 year old daughter’s iPod. She is doing some sort of project for school with her friends. Don’t know the full context so rather that change any of it, I’ll just post exactly what was written.

    Global warming
    Black screen- white words fade up saying
    “Do you love your kids?”
    Fade out
    Fade in
    “Save them now”
    Crumbling out
    ⚫We don’t have to explode
    Don’t have to explode
    Don’t have to explo-ode, baby- song “You got something I need”
    ⚫Work at home- stop driving- walk, ride, run
    ⚫You don’t have to do it, but at least try, we’re encouraging you to
    ⚫Save the younger children, because when your gone. It. Will. Have. STARTED.
    ⚫That’s why kids have to make you aware, look at china for instance, there is so much traffic and lots of cars. How much carbon gas is that emitting? EVERY DAY.
    ⚫Every time you turn your engine on, it creates carbon emission
    ⚫Pollution forms a blanket, which contributes to global warming
    ⚫Global warming will melt the north and south poles
    ⚫Sea levels will rise and small islands like fiji will disappear and will have to move inland
    ⚫More natural disasters-long droughts
    ⚫People living on the coast will have to move inland
    ⚫Food will be harder to get
    ⚫Kids have to be the ones doing something because this will happen in about 50-70 years when the adults will be gone. Tony Abbott isn’t doing anything because he’ll be gone. It’s not his problem apparently.
    ⚫Our world could end sooner than we think
    ⚫Earth doesn’t have to explode to end
    ⚫Civilization could crack
    ⚫Water and food shortages, lines will be longer
    ⚫Could be more crowded from island and coast people moving inland
    ⚫Already torn two holes in ozone later top and bottom

    • Hi Stu,

      I can say with some confidence that your daughter has a better grasp of the problem, its causes, and its solution than any of politicians I met in Canberra. Can she be Prime Minister?

    • I feel for her. I asked her if she was scared for her future and, in such a matter-of-fact way, she said yes. What is a parent supposed to say to that? “It’s ok. It will be all right.” ??? Not really. If only she could be PM; re-birth aside, kids have a greater stake in this planet than we do.

  8. the antithesis of spirituality and materialism goes back a long way – it reaches an apex in science and secularism that try to say that matter is all there is – not taking into account nebulous realities auch as the mind / consciousness / dreams and near death experiences – we spend 8 hours of the day in an “un” conscious state – matter and materiality are “not” everything – no matter how hard capitalists and advertisers try to convince us – no matter how much statisticians try to treat us like numbers – there “is” a transcendent reality out there unexplained by science…..

  9. One big thing Bhante is that we are serving a Beast called “the system” or Big Government which really is shown by the super powers and their militaries – the beast gets bigger and more all consuming….if it was just for the people things would be different – ie run on truly sustainable grounds – look up steady state economic theory for example – takes into account the limits of a thermodynamic system……the limits to Growth…..

  10. here’s a better description – there is a percieved materialistic prison and the suffering within it – and then there is the promise of spirituality – a release from it…..you are either lucky enough to be extremely rich – or you have something more longlasting – the wisdom that transcends it in longevity – spiritual freedom – ie wisdom and contemplation – materialists don’t have any hope for the future – they think it all ends here in this life….

    • Hi baba. Yes. I concur. My daughter is scared of the future. I can’t tell her not to worry about it. So what other words of hope can I offer her except some sort of spiritual release from this suffering that is climate change?

    • i am actually -hopeful….i can see a “renormalization” in the future- waht economists call a “correction” – but on a vast scale – spiritual as well as material – we begin to live within our means aware of our limits and become more of a community – as we did for millenia prior to industrialization – but we will have technology and science on our side –
      that is the difference – things of conscience and spririt will have more primacy……

    • That’s the dream, right? And the thing is, it’s not that hard. Just a bit less emphasis on material prosperity, and more on emotional, relational, and spiritual prosperity, and we’re good. It’s not rocket science.

    • No, Bhante, it’s not a rocket science. Unfortunately, I don’t share your optimism. I’m surrounded by a re-enforced old generation as well as a new generation of devoted consumerists. On a personal experience, it has hurt a great deal to see your own blood relation of 15 years of age trying hard to get a latest smart phone of over 400 dollars. Both she and her mother have all the ‘perfect’ arguments for the purchase.

      “Spirituality? What is it?” they would ask.

  11. I’m wondering if there is something that has changed with the coding for your blog. Ever since you started blogging again on Apr 22, my rss reader has been downloading every blog entry you’ve made, even though I’ve marked them as read. I’m not having this problem with any other site. Has anyone else noticed this?

    • Hi Phil,

      Umm, I can’t see how anything I’ve done would affect this. The only thing I’ve changed is the settings for sharing via Twitter. Also, WordPress itself was updated around that time, so perhaps its something to do with the new WordPress version?

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