Why Capitalism Isn’t to Blame

The Aral Sea: poster child for a capitalism-free economy

There’s a glib oft-repeated meme that climate change and all the other ills that assail us are the fault of capitalism.

No one throwing this assertion around actually knows what capitalism is, but that’s OK. Capitalism is like gluten or carbohydrates: just plain bad. We know it’s bad because we read it somewhere, probably in an online blog or a glossy magazine. There’s no need to do any research, no need to do any thinking, no need to understand anything. We can have a nice warm feeling by protesting against it while we sip our designer lattes while wearing our global trade jeans while stroking our global supply chain smartphones.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not actually capitalism that’s harming the planet.

It’s us. It’s the hardwired instincts evolution has given us. It’s the tiny human brain with its near-total incapacity for rational coherent fact-based reasoning and adequate foresight.

That’s why we humans have always been destroying our environment. It’s lovely to harbor dreams of peaceful hunter-gatherers living in harmony with nature but the historical record reveals something very different. Everywhere people appear, the ecosystem suffers. This has been true for many thousands of years.

In Europe ten thousand years ago we slaughtered the woolly mammoths, driving them to extinction within an amazingly short period of time. In the Americas the arrival of early humans resulted in the extinction of nearly every large animal in both North and South America. Early agriculturalists regularly ruined soils by over-cultivation. In Africa the emergence of the Sahara desert, once the granary of the Roman Empire, was less a consequence of climate change and more the result of over-grazing by early pastoralists.

None of these huge negative environmental impacts was due to capitalism for the very simple reason that capitalism didn’t exist until a few hundred years ago.

Meanwhile we can look at the one major alternative to capitalism that’s been tried since capitalism came into existence: the planned economy. The most obvious example of a planned economy was the Soviet Union. For those who don’t read history or go looking for facts, we shall consider a few that may be of interest.

The Soviet Union’s peaceful non-capitalist economy took the world’s fourth-largest inland lake (the Aral sea) and turned it into a bleak desert within fifty years. The Soviet Union’s politically correct non-capitalist economy built factories so polluting there are forests in Eastern Europe that are still utterly lifeless even thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet system. All these environmental catastrophes and many more happened despite the fact the Soviet planned economy was incapable of producing what people needed.

Life in the Soviet Union for ordinary people was a life of endless queuing in the hope that there might be something worth buying. Something like a roll of waxed toilet paper, or foul-tasting toothpaste, or perhaps a pair of shoes of the same size for each foot. The Soviets were uniquely able to create massive environmental harm while simultaneously failing to deliver even bread or clothing to the people. I’m not entirely sure that’s something the average pampered Westerner would prefer in place of the evil capitalism we’re all so agitated about.

There have been other examples of command economies intended to avoid the exploitation of capitalism. Venezuela is a latter-day notable success story: a place where hyperinflation means no one has any money but that’s OK because the shops don’t have anything in them to buy. Sure, people are starving and dying because there are no medicines, but that’s a small price to pay for the absence of capitalism, right? And let’s not forget the planned economy of North Korea, in which mass starvation is an almost annual event and where the people are stunted and brain-damaged because of decades of malnutrition. But stunted and brain-damaged will be a small price for our children to pay if we free them from the horrors of a capitalist society in which abundant food and modern medicines are available to nearly everyone, right?

Instead of glibly blaming capitalism in much the same manner as people used to blame “the Jews” or “the Freemasons” or today blame “the Patriarchy” we really ought to take a proper look at why we so reliably screw up the planet we depend on. And when we do, we have to look very hard indeed at our fundamental human nature.

This is the reason we blame capitalism or the patriarchy or whatever: it enables us to avoid looking at the real problem, which is ourselves. We can feel warm and fuzzy when we’re protesting against an abstraction, especially when we’re pretty confident our protests won’t actually change anything and thus strip us of our designer lattes and trendy jeans and shiny smartphones. But feeling warm and fuzzy ought not to be the objective. If we’re even vaguely serious about turning things around we need to identify the real problem because until we do our childish notions about how to go about “saving the planet” won’t get us anywhere.

Maybe you doubt this. If so, ask yourself a question: now that we’re all happily blaming capitalism for climate change etc. are we making concrete changes at the scale necessary to turn things around? Or are you still driving that car, stroking that smartphone, heating your home, shopping at the supermarket, using medicines to cure ailments, wearing clothes, and watching entertainments? Because every single one of these things and everything else we do in our lives is actually part of what is causing our current global climate situation. Some can pretend that cosmetic Instagram-friendly posing is a “solution” and some can delude themselves that electric cars and planes are a “solution” but this is all make-believe.

For example, as calculated by the IEEE, the total environmental impact of a Prius or a Tesla is actually greater than the total environmental impact of a conventional petrol car. This is because (i) mining and smelting and purifying all that lithium for the batteries and then shipping it around the globe is incredibly energy-intensive and hugely polluting, and (ii) with the Prius the added weight of the electrical system on top of the weight of the conventional petrol engine means more total energy is required to move it around than for an equivalent vehicle with just a petrol engine. That’s why small Euro cars get better mile-per-gallon numbers than any Prius ever will, and finally (iii) for pure electric cars like the Tesla range, the electricity they use is generated in no small part by coal-fired power stations which are, yes, very polluting.

Even manufacturing solar panels and batteries to store electricity for use during the hours of darkness creates a lot of pollution and uses a lot of energy. Real life doesn’t hand us glib easy solutions.

Our human brains and therefore all our fundamental behaviors are the consequence of eons of selection pressures exerted by the external environment. For nearly all of our evolutionary history we were a marginal species, living on the edge, few in number and with little technology beyond flints and fire-hardened spears. We needed no concept of conservation. We could do immensely stupid things and the total ecological impact was negligible because there were so few of us.

As our technologies slowly improved we grew in numbers. We began cutting down trees — a lot of trees. It wasn’t capitalism that stripped much of Europe of its forests thousands of years ago, it was basic human nature. It wasn’t capitalism that turned the Sahara into a vast desert, it was basic human nature. Human nature stripped Easter Island of its trees and did the same to the Greek islands. We don’t have the innate instinct to conserve anything because there was never any selection pressure during our evolution to acquire any such trait.

We destroy the environment around us not because of some recent economic system but because our core behaviors preclude the kind of reasoning and foresight necessary to offset our urge for useful resources. Our little ape brains are still anxious about having a robust enough shelter, warm enough body-coverings, enough wood to keep the fire burning through the cold wet night, and enough food to eat in the morning. The fact that our recent technological marvels have rendered these concerns irrelevant isn’t something that our ape brains properly register. So we can never get enough fish from the oceans, never get enough clothing to keep us warm, never feel we have quite enough of anything to be properly safe from potential harm.

It’s not capitalism that drives our acquisitions, although capitalist organizations leverage our desire for more and more. It’s our fundamental nature.

Until we address the real root cause of our problems instead of blithely pretending someone else, some abstraction, is to blame, we are unlikely to arrive at realistic solutions. Until we accept that each one of us holds within us instincts that are now deeply harmful, we’re not going to find ways to mitigate these deep instincts with any chance of success.

So please, let’s stop pretending capitalism is to blame. Let’s own up to the fact the problem is deep inside of every single one of us. When we do that, we can begin to see that the solutions must also therefore be deep inside every single one of us. But until we stop blaming external abstractions we’ll continue to perform pleasing mental masturbation that gets us precisely nowhere.

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