Written by Noah Van Hooser.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
More than ever, we as consumers are sold the fantasy of ecologically-conscious consumerism, which allows us to envision hope of a recovering environment. We’re encouraged to make careful selections of where we dispose of our trash; the sheer number of bins offered to us (compost, recycle, individuated spaces for metal, glass, etc.) seems to proliferate on a regular basis as we fall further down the eco-conscious rabbit-hole. An expanding space is opening up for “progressive” politicians offering a “Green New Deal” that will invest in green businesses, as well as prioritize green research. What’s missing in all of this? Although the aforementioned efforts are not dismissible in themselves, such actions are caught in a vicious paradox: they produce in us a sense of hope that we can produce authentic change by participating in the system, when the system actually reproduces the very issues we oppose. What ought to be considered is an authentic negation of the status quo, a new environmental consciousness.
The umbrella of global capitalism reduces us to impotent observers. In a sense, the belief that our purchases or behaviors can upset the powers-that-be is akin to the impassioned sports fan, yelling at their television as if it will influence the outcome of a game.
As actors on the global capitalist stage, perhaps we feel guilty in our complicity with global capitalism’s destruction of the environment. Consequently, we exclusively buy organic foods, we assure that our trash falls in the appropriate receptacle, and so on. The hope is that we will be satisfied— satisfied with the thought of doing our part, of making a positive contribution. One of the main points here is that the purchases we make are often not as simple as we think. A purchase is a meaningful action; a purchase does not only orient itself around a product, but it also demonstrates some capacity for awareness on the part of the purchaser. The message is not to totally discredit the conscious, ecological approach to purchasing. It is not the case that an action like buying organic foods is totally pointless, rather, such actions miss a larger point and obfuscate the real issues at hand.
According to a study by the United Nations, if companies were held financially accountable for the cost of pollution and other environmental damage, more than one-third of profits would be wiped out.
The natural profit incentive built into capitalism is indifferent to the environment; if pollution or improper disposal of waste saves money and increases profit, businesses will take no issue with it.
Possibly the most devastating impact comes from the greenhouse gases that can largely be blamed for climate change, among other costs such as local air pollution and the damage caused by over-use and pollution of freshwater. In terms of the decisions that business executives are tasked with making, environmental sustainability is just one item of many to consider. Most will only go as far as their own customers ask, or only make the proper environmental decision if it itself can reduce costs.
The overarching idea of the above suggestions is that capitalism is simply incompatible with environmentalism. If this is the economic system we desire, if there is truly no alternative, we ought to abandon the ecological dream. For example, consider the recent Songdo project in South Korea. The project is billed as the world’s “smartest city,” promising the typical eco-friendly conveniences of efficient trash systems and an abundance of parks. The concept-city is laden with sensors and is the quintessential 21st-century urban space. What appears as an environmentally conscious, industrialized, benevolent city-space is, in actuality, devastating the local environment. The green master plan required filling Songdo Tidal Flat, a vital habitat for many migratory birds. Similarly, many environmental nongovernmental organizations strongly opposed the establishment of tidal power plants, a “green” alternative to non-renewable energy sources, on the grounds of deep harm being caused to tidal flat ecosystems, fisheries, culture, and landscape. Such antagonisms are not surprising, as Korea has simply attempted to have their cake and eat it too. They’ve routinely sought to achieve the ultimate impossibility: the synthesis of market relations without state control with “progressive” environmental and health measures.
When faced with ensuing catastrophe, we have to ask ourselves the question: is this the ultimate horizon? Although what may lie beyond the horizon is unclear, it seems that only the dissolution of global capitalism and its contents would provide an authentically radical change. Only then, it seems, could much of global destitution be absolved. A new environmental consciousness must emerge; a sincere environmentalism requires a fundamental change to the very system we are a part of.