RWER issue 56: Richard Smith
Green capitalism: the god that failed
Richard Smith [Institute for Policy Research & Development, London]
In rejecting the antigrowth approach of the first wave of environmentalists in the 1970s, pro-growth “green capitalism” theorists of the 1980s-90s like Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, and Francis Cairncross argued that green technology, green taxes, eco-conscious shopping and the like could “align” profit-seeking with environmental goals, even “invert many fundamentals” of business practice such that “restoring the environment and making money become one and the same process.” This strategy has clearly failed. I claim first, that the project of sustainable capitalism was misconceived and doomed from the start because maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism so long as this increases profits. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns: For example, the science says that to save the humans, we have to drastically cut fossil fuel consumption, even close down industries like coal, and massively retrench production across a broad range of unnecessary, resource-hogging and polluting industries. But no corporate board can sacrifice earnings to save the humans because to do so would be to risk shareholder flight or worse. I claim that profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and sets the limits to ecological reform — and not the other way around as green capitalism theorists supposed.
Secondly, I contend that given capitalism, workers and governments have little choice but to support “their own” corporations’ drive for growth because this is not socialism: No one is promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil-drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, junk food producers, plastic bag makers, advertisers, credit card vendors and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be shut down or retrenched to save the humans — and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers, and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows in order to hold onto their jobs today, because, if they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse. We can’t “cut back” to save the planet because capitalism can’t solve the unemployment crisis any more than it can solve the ecological crisis. We’re all onboard the TGV of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. But as our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOS, capitalist economists, politicians and labor leaders, is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that, so long as the global economy is based on capitalist private/corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to collective social suicide and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse. We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require national and international economic planning to re-organize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. I conclude, therefore, that if humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically-planned socialist economy.
I. Saving the earth for fun and profit
You may download the whole paper at: http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue56/Smith56.pdf