Home > The Economy and the Planet, WEA Books > Capitalism, green or otherwise, is ”Ecological Suicide”

Capitalism, green or otherwise, is ”Ecological Suicide”

Green Capitalism: The God that Failed is essential reading for
anyone opposed to planetary suicide.”

from Truthout and David Klein

Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, by Richard Smith,
World Economics Association eBooks

The climate crisis is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. At the current rate of global greenhouse gas Industrial pollutionemissions, warming of the planet will shoot past two degrees Celsius by mid-century and reach 4°C to 6°C beyond pre-industrial averages by 2100. The magnitude of the impending catastrophe was eloquently described by Hans Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, when he said, “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization …” Adding to that, the biosphere faces massive pollution, resource depletion, species extinctions, ocean acidification, among other looming dangers.

But can we save ourselves? In his new book, Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, Richard Smith argues compellingly that “sustainable production is certainly possible but not under capitalism” and even more forcefully, “capitalism and saving the planet are fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds.” To this central question, Smith brings an impressive command of economics and an engaging conversational style of writing. He explains and illustrates with devastating clarity the key mechanisms of capitalism that force it to grow unendingly, and these explanations are supported with a broad array of examples of corporate and national economic practices from around the world.  read more

  1. graccibros
    July 22, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks David, that’s a fair review, and I’m delinquent in my own. However, I’ve been busy commenting on the Greek drama, and I’ll share a few thoughts linking the two.

    I think on the whole, Richard Smith’s logic is correct, that there are many core features of capitalism that prevent it from facing this great crisis of climate and ecology. And let’s not forget, as we are seeing in the periphery of Europe, esp. Greece, but now in China, the globalized economy under neoliberalism is not by any means out of the “woods” yet, and trouble in China may be the tipping point factor that leads to another world wide crisis.

    In my mind, the great question is: can the capitalism we see before us today, especially in the West, reform itself? If not, why not? Smith’s answer is that by its very core mechanisms, growth, efficiency, consumerism…it cannot throttle back…and that pits it against nature in inescapable ways. At a time when we must come up with greater co-operative mechanisms, economic and political, at both the national (US) but transnational level too, neoliberalism (and even in a China which should have more operating room) cannot seem to deliver.

    Interestingly enough, William D. Nordhaus (whom I assume this audience needs no introduction to) addressed many of the same issues as Smith in his June 4th NY Review of Books article “A New Solution: The Climate Club,” a review and more of a new book, “Climate Shock” by two economic and ecological “moderates,” Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman. I have to chuckle just a bit at what Nordhaus comes up with after dodging around the question of whether capitalism can be reformed, and what exactly has prevented it from facing climate change effectively. (Free-riding is his answer.) So we need a gentlemen’s club (ladies I guess, if sufficiently moderate and polite, admitted too, certainly not Ms. Klein.) to set up tariff barriers against those who won’t tax carbon sufficiently. We can’t alter capitalism too greatly, along the lines Smith suggest, or we would kill the golden goose. It’s almost a lament, Nordhaus’ “solution,” for the appearance of someone like J.P. Morgan to bang reluctant business heads together to co-operate before the whole thing collapses, only this would be a economic-technocratic solution administered via sympatico governments, and I do detect more than a whiff of Davos…in the mechanism and “manners.”

    I think there are a lot of evasions in Nordhaus’ analysis, not the least of which is that a system that stresses competition, invention, absolute freedom for entrepreneurs and efficiency above all else, now finds it can’t come up with solutions that depend upon human co-operation at many levels. This despite the fact that neoliberal globalization has knit the world together through many chains of production and supply and transportation – and surely that requires a type of co-operation – but let’s not kid ourselves – that’s the subordinate key to power still centralized in firms, despite the apparent delegation and initiative.

    So if readers want a clear eyed, no-illusions look at how even the best of green capitalists haven’t been able to pull off the needed transformations, Smith’s book is it. No one deconstructs ostensibly green businesses better than he does, because he looks at the ecological impacts from the entire chain of resource mining, production and transportation, not just the end use of the supposedly green(er) product. He’s convincing: just ask Ikea.

    And yet, even as his logic seems to me to be excellent on where we have to go…democratic socialism and participatory planning, with a lot of decentralization….in his own words: “Contraction and convergence, and eco-socialism based on planning, democracy, equality and sharing are, I think, the only path to a sustainable economy and society”… I look at the political economy around me in the US, the Clinton campaign and its economic sources, Summers and Stiglitz long background documents…and I look at the European Union and Greek crisis…and I say, we’re no where close to getting to where Smith arrives…

    After all, the Clinton campaign can’t even summon up FDR’s CCC and public works, much less his Second Bill of Rights (which would need some ecological amendments by now)…and despite the logic of detail planning called for by the Greek economic predicament, I can’t find even a game plan to get it off its 99% outside dependence on fossil fuels for its energy needs, and this in a land of sunshine, mountains and ocean islands…an alternative energy opportunity if I’ve ever seen one…but we know now that the Greeks had no Plan B…and if you can’t see the chance to merge Smith’s views with those of Gus Speth and Gar Alperovitz, the two prominent ecological/economic decentralizers out there, into the Greek dilemmas…well, that’s how far we are from the solutions Smith drives us towards, despite his very good analysis on why capitalism can’t reform itself. (And do I detect more than a hint of shyness on the part of professional economists, even dissenters, from wading into those old historical questions – recall how Piketty danced with them in his book – about the nature of capitalism itself, its driving mechanisms…I expected David Harvey’s name to surface in Smith’s book but I didn’t see it…

    Now, having noted all this, and also taking into account the Pope’s excellent social democratic/ecological document, I remain a green new New Dealer, and reserve the right to move further to the left as circumstances and shifts in citizen feeling emerge. If you are following the debate inside the Greek left and failures of Syriza as closely as I am, reading everything that Yanis Varoufakis is pushing out…you know that there is no guarantee that things move left, they could just as well move right, and far right…and I still think, after reading Nordhaus, Summers (Shared Prospertiy) and Stiglitz (Re-Writing the Rules) and far too much of Krugman, that Smith has his finger on the great difficulty of fully integrating ecological thinking with economic thought…he has his finger on all the major textbooks’ failings, as well as the closer but still failed “green capitalist” thinkers like Hawkens, Lovins, Daly…who have tried…

    And I still think Greece presents a great opportunity, built out of necessity, to try a new path, but I have to admit, it doesn’t sound like Syriza or the broader society realizes either the scope or the direction open to them…which will have enormous costs, painful ones…no illusions on that score.

    Thanks.

  2. Rhonda Kovac
    July 23, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    It seems we must go pretty deep here. Climate reality means that economies overall cannot depend on growth; the people in them must be able to prosper even when production and consumption slow down. It probably means as well that economic agents cannot be fundamentally profit driven, since profit correlates with making and selling more goods. It seems, too, that economies should not be regulated by demand, where demand is the carte blanche honoring of what people want (as opposed to what they objectively need). As well, people will have to own less and share more.

    What’s happening is that ecological reality is forcing us to change the fundamental drive of economies, away from the production of goods (even though that’s what economics is about) towards non-material gratification. And it’s hard to imagine this being accomplished with most existing economic institutions in place.

    When you think about it, this notion isn’t as radical as it may sound. Much, if not most, of the heterodox criticism of neoclassicism is related to that theory’s failure to accommodate human realities, many of them psychological. Well-being, the true end of economics, is only partly material. After one rises above survival and other high-material-need situations, the relation between goods and happiness is quite loose. Not to mention that most of the ‘great sages’ of history have favored a pared-down lifestyle as the key to reward in life. Keep in mind as well that we haven’t yet even begun to explore, at the societal level, how well people can do on very little, how much of what they now own for themselves they can share, and how they can be effectively motivated by non-material reward.

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