Alternatives to Capitalism, Part 1: Perpetual growth on finite planet delusional

A recent writer questioned the widely-held belief that free-market capitalism, based on infinite growth and supported by relatively cheap fossil-fuel energy, was sustainable (Our Ubiquitous Deadly Addiction — commentary, July 22). Freda Davies suggested we look at other economic models.

So what’s wrong with free-market capitalism?

The Cochabamba Summit: Documents of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (Bolivia, April 2010) is helpful: “Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet.”

In its purest form, capitalism negates the value of culture and nature, and cites acquisition of wealth as the ultimate human goal.

Fred Hirsch, in Social Limits to Growth, claims “capitalism only works well when most people live according to pre-capitalist norms of honesty, restraint, trust, truthfulness and self-sacrifice.” Hardly the case today.

Take restraint, for instance. CBC Massey Lecturer Wade Davis, in The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, cites the fact that the 400 most prosperous Americans control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest 81 nations with whom they share the planet.

Our own Stephen Lewis says capitalist countries like Canada and the U.S.A., which indeed have the means to pull the world’s poor out of poverty, show little interest in doing so because we have “a compulsive adoration of capitalism.”

Davis documents the fact that numerous ancient cultures, as well as modern-day so-called “primitive” societies such as isolated tribes of the Amazon, sustained themselves for thousands of years by getting to know their environments intimately, and carefully nurturing, as opposed to maximizing and capitalizing short-term on their use of limited resources.

With respect to the capitalist growth paradigm, Davis suggests that “to define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide. To deny or exclude… the costs of violating the biological support systems of life is the logic of delusion.”

Davis argues that so-called modernity, globalization and free-market capitalism have not brought integration and harmony throughout the world (as advertised by the Milton Friedman School of Economics), but rather “a firestorm of change that has swept away languages and cultures, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”

Peter Victor, in Managing Without Growth, argues that developed economies such as ours have already entered an era of uneconomic growth because they have failed to account for such vital economic and social ecosystem services as pollination (worldwide bee colony collapse), flood damage, (recent floods in Thunder Bay, Toronto, Calgary) photosynthesis (global deforestation) and water purification.

Victor suggests that we have already overshot the capacity of the biosphere to assimilate our waste (toxic algae blooms, ocean acidification). Such destructive economic drivers as mountaintop mining, tarsands operations, industrial pollution, resulting in the loss of habitat and biodiversity (the sixth mass extinction?) are all environmentally, and ultimately economically costly, and leave us with no guarantee that our grandkids will inherit breathable air, drinkable water and non-toxic food.

Does the capitalist goal of “having more” translate into happiness?

It’s relevant to note that Americans, the wealthiest people on the planet, consume two-thirds of the world’s production of anti-depressant drugs. In The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Wilkinson and Picket document the cross-cultural phenomenon that once basic needs such as food, warmth, shelter and love are taken care of, increased wealth does not translate into increased happiness. And we are increasingly aware that a surfeit of consumables and creature-comforts is leading to a plethora of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness.

Is there an alternative to free-market capitalism? A further article will expand upon the idea of degrowth, an economic option some feel is the only way to save humanity from itself.

Scott Harris

Published in The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, September 3, 2013