Don’t Let Environmentalism Turn into Anti-Capitalism (or Worse)

It’s evident that we have a problem with climate change and pollution. The world is heating up, we’re losing species, and plastics plague our oceans. These expansive problems are not easily solved, though we’ve been making significant strides towards alternative energy development, emission reduction and species conservation in recent years. Unfortunately, environmentalism is often used as a hammer by those who’d like to see our economic system radically changed. If only we could overthrow capitalism, the reasoning often goes, we’d stop exploiting our Earth for profits! Sometimes, these arguments are ostensibly pragmatic: radical problems require radical solutions. At other times, they are moralistic calls to rectify what some see as a terrible transgression against the Earth. This is wrongheaded. Free-market capitalism is the solution, rather than the problem. Although environmentalism is a laudable and necessary movement, it would be a dire mistake to let it turn anti-capitalist—or, worse, anti-human.

Capitalism contributes to pollution insofar as human development does. As free markets raise developing nations out of poverty, pollution increases dramatically. Factories are built and coal is burnt. This leads people to believe that capitalist business practices are responsible for damage to the environment. While this is partially true, it’s blinkered to argue that we’d be better off without capitalism. Pollution is a side effect of development, an inevitable consequence of the progress of man. That doesn’t mean nothing should be done about it—but impoverished people do not have the luxury of caring about pollution when they have barely enough food to eat. But as these nations become developed and prosperous through free markets, the pollution spike that accompanies development first peaks and then starts to decline. This is partly a result of market demands. Consumers, now wealthy enough to have their basic needs reliably met, can turn their attention to larger concerns like pollution. They don’t want to patronize companies that make their neighborhood smell like soot. They can afford not to. Environmentalism is a privilege of the prosperous.

This restating of Maslow’s hierarchy often prompts accusations of environmental classism, since pollution disproportionately affects the impoverished. That is certainly true, but increased smog and depleted ozone are problems that pale when compared to the catastrophe of absolute poverty. The earth does not matter to you when your baby is starving—and environmentalism will do nothing to feed that child right now. Pollution is not the core problem. Poverty is the problem. By alleviating poverty, people are given the freedom to influence their environment. The idea that we should abrogate the best system for bringing people out of absolute poverty is short-sighted at best.

Of course, in a developed country, pollution will not drop below the levels present in its previously undeveloped and less populated state. This is where the anti-capitalist sentiment often turns anti-human. Yes, we would have less climate change if we all lived in pre-industrial, undeveloped squalor. If you didn’t have the luxuries of capitalism—no car, no electricity, no indoor heating and no plastics—you would pollute very little. This unreasonable fantasy should be treated with caution. We would pollute even less, the logic follows, if we were all dead.

Here’s a genocidal hypothetical: imagine that the entire populations of the United States, China and India were wiped out tomorrow. By eliminating the world’s three most egregious environmental transgressors, we would cut global emissions by less than half. Even this, by many estimates, is not enough to sufficiently attenuate climate change. Civilization would continue its supposed death march to oblivion—at the cost of three billion lives.

So where do we go from here? Individual responsibility plays a role. We should recycle, take public transportation, use refillable water bottles and buy pomade instead of hairspray. We shouldn’t burn tires or shop at businesses whose environmental practices are reprehensible. But these measures can only go so far, especially when much of the world is too impoverished to care. The primary solution is innovation. Solar technology, for example, is developed by private companies in competition with each other, each innovating to create better and more affordable products. This is the same process that creates new smartphones and pioneering medical treatments. It’s the capitalist economic system that rewards entrepreneurs for solving problems and fulfilling market demands. The only reason people drive electric cars in America is because a capitalist called Elon Musk produced an excellent product. This would not have been possible without the freedom to profit-seek and compete. However, Tesla has received significant subsidies from the US federal government, for which even a libertarian like myself can hardly fault Elon. He’s playing within the rules we’ve set. So what rules should we set?

There is a perfectly reasonable justification for the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA should be responsible for regulating practices that create negative environmental externalities (things that affect neither the company nor the consumer directly), such as those created by a factory building cars for Los Angeles and dumping chemicals into Lake Michigan. Such an agency is likely necessary to protect the environment. We must find a balance, however, since any regulation that dampens the free market will dampen innovation and negatively impact the development of new technologies and products. If we simply attempt to regulate our industries into carbon neutrality, we’ll forgo the development of future technologies born of capitalism, which will undoubtedly fix the problem more effectively. Tomorrow’s equivalents of the electric car may be fully biodegradable plastics and atmospheric engineering.

It would be a catastrophic mistake to turn environmentalism over to the anti-capitalists. Under their guidance, the world would not only be less prosperous, but we would be completely kneecapped in the fight against climate change. You want the capitalists on your side. We could eliminate pollution by eliminating people, but we cannot—and should not—do that. Neither can we simply regulate the world into a carbon-neutral state. It’s in our best interests to unleash human potential by loosening the restraints on the free market, so we can watch as new technologies emerge that will improve the lives of all the species on this planet. Free market capitalism drives innovation—and innovation will save the world.

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  1. “It’s in our best interests to unleash human potential by loosening the restraints on the free market, so we can watch as new technologies emerge that will improve the lives of all the species on this planet. Free market capitalism drives innovation—and innovation will save the world.”

    So, basically what you’re saying is we should:
    – carry on consuming and maintaining our unsustainable lifestyles to boost the economy
    – solve the poverty problem by eliminating control over both redistribution of resources and growth of the population.
    – eliminate any shred of restraint and control over the actions of companies, entrepreneurs and institutions that are currently responsible for slowly destroying the only planet we have.
    – hope that these same companies, entrepreneurs and institutions, whilst carrying on the pursuit of profit and power at all costs, will suddenly change gears and magically come up with undefined “innovations” that will save the environment whilst enabling a perpetual growth capitalist utopia.
    All of that before the environmental collapse that is just around the corner, in a couple of decades’ time.

    Yeah… good luck with that.

    Whenever I read these sort of “don’t-worry-it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end” manifestos, I am reminded of why I have decided to not have any children.

  2. All it takes is someone showing how to make large amounts of money by cleaning up the environment. Surely someone can figure out how to do that, right?

  3. “Civilization would continue its supposed death march to oblivion—at the cost of three billion lives.”

    I don’t buy the supposed death march part. It’s unclear to me how civilization is supposed to die from climate change and air pollution. We could lose over 6.5 billion people, 99.9% of world GDP and we’d still have a civilization. It’s not really a risk on that level, and even if it were, as long as it’s slow enough for us present people to enjoy the spoils of our economy, the ultimate end of civilization would be an acceptable price.

    We don’t owe future generations anything, because they don’t exist yet, they won’t exist at all unless we bring them into existence, which is entirely optional for us, and because they never did anything for us.

    What’s more, if civilization were to collapse, space colonization would be prevented, which would prevent the spread of Evil throughout the cosmos. Most star systems are dead, which means that no Evil exists in them. If humanity or post-humanity colonizes the universe, it will become filled with Evil, just like Earth is. Maybe something to consider for those who call that “altruism”.

  4. ”It’s evident that we have a problem with climate change and pollution. ”

    Not to me. Why do you say that?

  5. Maybe we can find a room where the Libertarians and the ‘We must destroy capitalism’ brigade can each play with their unicorns (or get their unicorns to fight) and leave the rest of us to grapple with the complexities of the real world.

  6. While outward signs of pollution decrease with affluence, one’s carbon footprint does not. Carbon increases with income. The most wealthy pollute the most, hundreds of times what is sustainable. I don’t see many ways of changing that. I agree with you that it’s not capitalism per se that is the problem, and I certainly like all the people I’ve met around the world. But we do need to do something about our carbon footprint and I have bad news for Libertarians. We need to tax the wholly bejesus out of big houses, all transportation, anything you buy including electric cars which cost a lot of carbon to manufacture, we need to stop bringing goods and services long distances, we need to consume a heck of a lot less. A flight from NY to CA needs to cost twenty or thirty thousand dollars. Imported orchids and fruit similarly. Vacations to the tropics need to cost about what a college education does. No cars. no private aircraft, or boats. Oh we can still buy and sell stuff for money, but we need to put severe controls on stuff.

    1. More than half of my life I have lived in a communist country. Communists didn´t care about environment at all. We were polluting more than so called capitalist countries. I agree with Shaun. Only people in free and prosperous capitalist country can solve climate problem. I personally think that we already have a solution – nuclear power, the safest and most environmentally friendly kind of energy. For noe fission and in some future fusion. And that without any sacrifice. I think all people deserve a high sťandard of living.

      1. Anton I too have lived in 2 communist countries, for years, countries that are still communist, and they seemed to be more capitalist than western democracies. You can literally buy and sell anything. There is no government control that can’t be had for a price. You can buy and sell entire villages, entire watersheds.

        China is currently the world’s largest polluter, double the CO2 of the USA. I’d say environmental concerns are about the same amongst populations worldwide. Oh we can carry organic tote bags made from hemp, but suggesting we curtail tropical vacations gets me seven down votes, and aircraft can’t fly on nuclear power. A comfortable life can be had without carbon fiber bicycle frames to ride to the “farmers” market. We don’t need 20 pair of shoes and 15 backpacks, or cars able to go 200 kmh.

        As long as we are free to pollute, we will. A high standard of living doesn’t include living life as a pig.

        1. I think the kernel of truth in your message is that we need to curb excessive consumerism. The problem is that your vision of this curbing is also way too excessive.

        2. The problem is that it is mystification to call the countries “communist” when they are nothing of the sort You said it yourself – “you can literally buy and sell anything” . How does this square with the “communistic abolition of buying and selling” referred to in the Communist Manifesto. Why not call a spade a spade. These are and always were capitalist countries based on a variant of capitalism called state capitalism.

          If you dont understand what is meant by capitalism you will never fully grasp the process by which capitalism systemically generates negative externalities and despoils our environment to the point at which environmental catastrophe now beckons

    2. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen enthusiasm for limiting the choices of others displayed in such a naked fashion. But more importantly, where’s the evidence that taxing things to such an extent will not directly led to corruption? Are we to expect that the ruling class will have superior morals than the populace that elected them in this delightfully totalitarian scenario that you’ve dreamt up?

      Have you ever lived amongst those without electricity and it’s corresponding benefits? Those people whom you claim to like that you’ve met wouldn’t care to be deprived of them.

  7. Thank you, Shaun! The first blog on this site I fully agree with. Not because of “Glory, glory capitalism!” but because of common sense (although very few here will agree with the annoying fact that at least five billion people on this planet owe their existence to capitalism and Americans).

    And let me especially thank you for not using the word «epistemology» – it’s like a breath of fresh air.


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