Green Capitalism: Can we shop our way to sustainability?



Organic farming, whole foods, eco-certification, fair trade and eco-tourism. These are all hallmarks of ‘Green Capitalism’. But what is Green Capitalism? Can it really save us from global ecological collapse, the greatest threat to human survival in our history?

The idea of Green Capitalism arose in the 80’s and 90’s as environmentalists in the U.S turned to market-based solutions for ecological problems. Environmentally-aware entrepreneurs like Paul Hawken argued that initiatives like green technology, eco-conscious shopping and green labelling could align the profit-seeking goals of business with environmental goals, such that “restoring the environment and making money become one and the same process.” In essence, Green Capitalism proposes the idea that since all wealth depends on so-called ‘natural capital’ (the world’s stocks of natural assets), market-based government policies should be used to resolve environmental problems. It would appear, on the face of it, to be the perfect solution. If we can solve the global environmental crisis, and maintain strong economic growth, then we should all jump on the locomotive of Green Capitalism and ride it towards our bright future.

30 years later, however, as we continue this journey, it is becoming all too clear that we missed our station long ago. According to the UN, 2016 is set to be “the hottest year on record.” Peat fires engulfing Indonesia, cyclones decimating the Pacific Islands, torrential floods and, alternately, extended drought are becoming the norm. Seas are rising and ice is melting faster than scientists imagined possible. Tropical forests continue to moan with the buzz of chainsaws. Glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate across the world. Rivers are drying up, soils are depleting and water tables are falling relentlessly with catastrophic consequences for agriculture from India to China, California to Peru. Ocean fisheries are collapsing right and left. Coral reefs, scientists now think, could be all but destroyed by mid-century.

This staggering (but far from exhaustive) list shows us that, in short, green business practices have changed little, or that what they have changed is having little effect. From Kyoto to Paris, governments will not accept binding agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions; they will not sacrifice economic growth today to save the planet tomorrow. What few carbon taxes and ‘cap and trade’ initiatives imposed by governments have entirely failed to stem emissions and slow the rate of ecological collapse. Green capitalism, in other words, has failed us.

Paul Hawken was right when he said we need a “restorative economy”. An economy that exists within nature’s limits and eliminates waste from production. His failure was in believing such a thing could ever occur under capitalism.

The problem is that Green Capitalism is inherently oxymoronic and was doomed to fail from its very inception. Firstly, the ‘iron rule’ of capitalism is the maximisation of profit, yet this is entirely conflicting with saving the planet. Corporate CEOs are not responsible to society, but to shareholders, and so cannot subordinate profit to environmental protection.

Secondly, governments are unable to impose green policies to drive damaging industries (such as coal or oil) out of business, or even suppress production as this would, given capitalism, invoke economic recession and mass unemployment.

Thirdly, proponents of green capitalism are severely underestimating the gravity, scope and speed of the ecological collapse we are facing and so imagine that growth can continue indefinitely with a few tweaks and penalties. Unfortunately, endless growth at this point is entirely eco-suicidal, and no amount of green taxes will alter that trajectory quickly enough.

Finally, consumerism and overconsumption aren’t ‘cultural problems’. They cannot be disposed with in a capitalist system reliant on an endless cycle of perpetually increasing consumption to maintain profits, growth and tax revenues in a competitive market.

Corporations aren’t evil. They simply can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they are supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Unfortunately, this means, in a global economy fuelled by corporate and private property, and competitive production for the market, we are doomed to socio-ecological suicide.

We can’t shop our way to sustainability. Individual, tokenistic choices in the marketplace are insufficient to generate real shifts in the economic paradigm. The development of a democratic (with the presupposition of rough economic equality), bottom-up control over the economy is needed to prioritise the needs of society and the environment. To conclude, therefore, to save humanity from ourselves, we have no choice but to do away with capitalism and replace it with a democratic, eco-socialist economy.


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Written by Ryan Plumridge – Conservation Biology and Ecology Student – University of Exeter


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