Capitalism may save the planet

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Throughout UVic and society at large, a powerful and persistent myth has taken hold: capitalist economics and business practices are fundamentally incompatible with the natural environment—environmental destruction is somehow an inevitable outcome of the free market, and overhauling our political, economic, and social systems ensures the preservation of nature. This mentality is well intended, but categorically wrong.

Market-based government policy instruments can, and should, be used; they’re a tool, and right now we have neither the luxury of being choosy nor the wherewithal to enact radical environmental philosophies. Desperation demands creativity and working with what we have available to us—not rejecting it. Perhaps we ought to reconsider the notion that taking care of the natural environment equates to collective governance, and an abrupt shift in social and ethical values.

We need to be greener—no question. Despite laudable intentions, we haven’t done enough: concentrations of atmospheric carbon have blown past 400 parts per million, and continue to increase; the ocean is becoming less basic, and marine organisms are suffering as a result; and, in 2010, Arctic Sea ice measured at a historic minimum.

However, broad engagement with business-minded individuals on their terms will be crucial to creating and maintaining an economy that is receptive to the limits of the natural environment we are situated in.

Should we fall back on reframing the issue, on reconstituting the language of the issue, on simply “trying to get them to understand”? Surely creating opportunities for those involved in wealth generation to engage with problems in the ways that they know best would be more effective. Business-minded individuals are as creative and innovative as they are competitive—they respond to opportunities and challenges, probably more so than to abstract ethical imperatives or scientific cautioning.

According to Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, “WWF [World Wildlife Fund] and CDP [Carbon Disclosure Project] showed that if businesses cut carbon emissions by an average of three per cent annually, they’d save up to $190 billion in 2020 alone, or $780 billion over 10 years. McKinsey [a major American management consulting firm] agrees, but puts the number to be saved eliminating carbon waste at $2.9 trillion annually.”

Obviously, examples in which capitalism has destroyed the environment are numerous—look no further than Alberta’s tarsands. However, environmental destruction isn’t an error of any particular economic system; lack of foresight, rejection of scientific information, and stubborn adherence to tradition shouldn’t be ascribed to any one particular economic or political system more than another. The destruction of the Aral Sea, for example, occurred under the supervision of a government predicated on socialism. Abandoning property rights doesn’t necessarily equate to environmental integrity or technologies that reduce pollution.

The environmental movement is important; the inertia it gained over the 20th century is a testament to the enduring importance of its concerns. Moreover, serious environmental changes are coming—the science has been clear on that for quite some time. However, capitalism, and more specifically how we engage with it, can be part of the solution, even if it’s been part of the problem.

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