Selfish capitalism vs the planet

While climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation are decimating the planet at an alarming rate, one of the underlying purveyors of all this strife is rarely discussed – the economy and our capitalist system that promotes never-ending growth in the use of resources and energy.

andrew martin oneness idealog capitalism sustainabilityOliver James coined the expression 'The Selfish Capitalist' in his 2008 book of the same name. James outlines how selfish capitalism has spread throughout most parts of the Western world, New Zealand included.  With all the benefits capitalism has brought over the last century, we must examine if it has been worth it or if we are in fact worse off under such a system.

Since the 1970s the West has been increasingly focused on materialism and producing more and more goods and services, which in reality end up making us unhappy. Until recently this form of material consumption was largely isolated to the West. Over recent decades however, the Asian nations have been indoctrinated to the consumption rich model.

China in particular has been seduced by all the goodies of the West. Take for example this alarming statistic: China is now putting more new cars on the road than the car loving US, with an estimated 20 million new vehicles hitting the streets each year in China alone.

What are we working for?

Numerous studies have shown that overall levels of happiness have declined as the rate of wealth in each nation increases. People are working harder and longer in a futile attempt to find happiness through more and more stuff. In short, people have been conned by marketers and powerful business groups that have vested interests at hand. The masses have been seduced by various strategies and ideologies to believe that consumption and materialism bring happiness. As long as one’s basic survival needs are met it doesn’t matter how much more stuff you have – it won’t increase your chances of becoming happier. Some of the happiest nations on earth are those with the least amount of material possessions and wealth. James' research found that Nigeria had significantly lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression than New Zealand, which has significantly more material wealth per capita.

The basis for determining whether a country has been indoctrinated with selfish capitalism is straightforward. A society that rewards short-termism (i.e. the success of business is based on the short-term share price at the expense of longer-term investment), where there is a strong drive to privatise collective goods (i.e. utilities) and there is minimal regulation in the labour markets and financial services sector. There is also the assumption that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost every kind.

Having worked in the financial markets for over a decade, it was interesting to see first-hand how ruthless corporations and management can be in making decisions that aren’t always in the best interests of the stakeholders, customers and the environment. Many corporations today are great at getting products to market in the most efficient and the cheapest way possible, however the externalities that go with this production are not factored into the equation. Deforestation, pollution, toxicity, carbon emissions and the overall wellbeing and happiness of a society play second fiddle to the industrial machine that bows to the gods of growth, consumption and the ‘profit at all costs’ mentality.

As we sit perched upon a climate cliff catastrophe we must question if all this stuff is really worth it. Is GDP growth more important than the survival of countless species (us included) and ecosystems? As Dr Ted Trainer from the University of New South Wales has said, “There is a widespread assumption that a consumer-capitalist society, based on the determination to increase production, sales, trade investment, living standards and the GDP as fast as possible and indefinitely, can be run on renewable energy… But if this assumption is wrong, we are in for catastrophic problems in the very near future and we should be exploring radical social alternatives urgently.”

Positive, sustainable alternatives

While the die-hards will keep pushing the same barrow hoping to get a different result, there are now alternatives to our current system of take-make-waste on the horizon. Under the rubble of the global financial crisis, looming energy constraints and climate change there are numerous grassroots organisations taking shape that will pave the way forward to a more altruistic, equitable and sustainable model of business and economy. 

Take for example the New Economics Party of New Zealand, whose focus is about solutions that tackle resource depletion, climate change, environmental damage, unemployment and poverty, while at the same time unleashing the human creativity and entrepreneurial spirit required to meet the big challenges ahead. They believe the current interest-bearing debt money system that drives the world-devouring engine of perpetual growth leads to the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and causes growing debt, instability and environmental harm. At the moment the New Economics Party is pushing for a Parliament enquiry into ensuring the stability of the banking sector so that bank bailouts do not occur here as they have done in North America and Europe.

Then there is the New Economy Network based in the US, which examines reforms that address the current failures of the global economy to provide full employment, healthy communities, and stable markets that help protect the planet. Another example is the CASSE organisation (Centre for the Advancement of Steady State Economy), who believe perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Growth, especially in wealthy nations, is already causing more problems than it solves. The positive, sustainable alternative is a steady state economy that provides the means for present and future generations to achieve a high quality of life.

The Transition Towns network is another initiative that has spread to thousands of communities, towns and cities across the globe. Set up by Rob Hopkins in the UK, the Transition Towns model is a vibrant grassroots movement that brings people together to explore how communities can respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges arising from climate change, resource depletion and an economy based on growth.

Change is happening and people are looking towards the future with a new perspective. Hopefully our selfish capitalist system will evolve into something more attuned to providing benefits to society and the planet that isn’t simply about maximising profits at all cost. If however, selfish capitalism prevails, then we are in for a very bleak future indeed.

Andrew Martin is author of One - A Survival Guide for the Future and publisher of a sustainability blog that covers topical stories from around the world in relation to trends and sustainability. See onenesspublishing.com