Capitalism’s Effect on Climate Change

Image from WWF Gifts

Image from WWF Gifts

Elin Boyce, Writer

Capitalism and climate change: both are perceived by many as extremely relevant, yet completely contradictory. But are they mutually exclusive? Both sides of this argument have the potential to be proven correct.

Capitalism by definition is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods and by prices, production, and distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.The root words of “capitalism” are “capitale” or “caput”, which derives from “head,” and “-ism” is “a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.”

Capitalism is often recognized as emerging from the post industrialization era, but it is first visibly relevant in the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s. Around this time period, many diverged from the Catholic Church due to belief that the influence the Catholic Church had over the community was too strong or obstruction in many of its practices. For hundreds of years, capitalism has dominated modern Western societal trends. Capitalism encourages innovation by capitalizing on the profit motive. 

Capitalism enabled the Industrial Revolution by providing the opportunity of profit. Human labor was replaced with industrial labor, so many producers no longer had to bear the expense of human labor. Capitalism’s appeal to society was based on a profit motive: machines were more efficient, meaning they created more in an allotted time period than any human could (e.g. a 100 horsepower engine is less expensive than 100 horses). This would enable people and corporations to focus on priorities formerly unachievable by human and animal labor such as owning a ranch or inventing a mechanism for substantial wealth.

Human potential became extremely prevalent during the industrial revolution as the need for labor decreased significantly. One example is the number of total farm jobs in the U.S. alone dropped from 90% to 2.6% in the century after the industrial revolution. Previously, a ten hour day for the former laborer would now take no time. This is due to advancements in machinery and medicine, and a myriad of developments in the 20th century. Innovation became fuel for profit and automation was on the rise. 

Capitalism focuses on short term gains. Investors need to see their money grow, and old institutions (such as banks) had a difficult time competing with the short-term profits of more risky ventures. This led to the collapse of the farming industry during the Dust Bowl where human labor was seen as a means of production and measured accordingly. 

There’s overtime and bonus opportunities galore

The young men like their money and they all come back for more

But soon you’re knockin’ on and you look older than you should

For every bob made on the job, you pay with flesh and blood.”

(Process Man written by Great Big Sea, 1964)

This 1964 protest song provides insight on the hardships faced by chemical factory workers; the world of ‘good and evil’ was entirely replaced by the world of ‘profitable and unprofitable.’ The collapse of the farming industry was due to new means of production. In order to create a successful farm, one needs land, tractors, seeds, equipment, etc.; In a capitalist society, everything is privately held, meaning that all of the resources needed in order to begin and preserve said farm would be more expensive. Around the downfall of the farming industry, primarily between 1950 and 1970, there was a significant increase in factory work. With every one in four people being American workers in the factory industry, manufacturing was booming. A great example of a privately owned company that flourished is Ford. It’s rise in the 1920’s was significant enough that still you or I can recognize the name and logo with ease. 

Before there was capitalism, there was feudalism. Feudalism is a system in which people work for nobles and knights and in return get protection and the use of land. In a feudal society, it’s nearly impossible to reach power if one begins as a plebian. It’s plausible that capitalism is the reason why the United States quickly became such a powerful country; with the opportunity for innovation and people capitalizing on it, it’s recognized as one of the most prosperous countries internationally. Capitalism where industries are viewed as people (citizens united) does not allow for true capitalism because they control their own profit motives by keeping the liability of destroying the planet at a minimum. Just like how long-term institutions go out of business (banks) due to short-term profits, the Fossil Fuel Industry will keep itself profitable by incurring larger costs on non-fossil fuel entities. 

The increased use of fossil fuels, specifically burning, has surged the concentration of atmospheric carbon emissions. “The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to about 417 parts per million in the last 151 years.” Carbon dioxide is considered to be the most relevant driving force of climate change. The Industrial Revolution played an extreme factor in this increase of carbon dioxide emissions. This revolution was man-made and driven by innovation.

 Climate change directly affects not only humans but also the entire Earth. Temperatures in the last century have risen 1.8 degrees fahrenheit. This has been the direct cause of melting glaciers, rising sea level, and countless other side effects of climate change. The stuffed polar bear you had in your room when you were 8 is a direct factor of the rapidly decreasing polar bear population. Irony is an interesting paradox. One may argue that turning to communism, socialism, or even fascism is the answer. The problem with this is that in communism one does not have a prominent voice in the system, in socialism powerful unions can cause labour market antagonism, and fascism is basically a tyranny

To preserve the environment, industries must turn wholly to renewable resources. According to Intelligence Squared, turning fully to renewable resources in 2020 would cost 4.5 trillion dollars. This seems like an immense amount of money. However, it’s about risk vs. reward. This is only about 5.1% of the global economy, which is also quite a large percentage. In the grand scheme of things, sacrificing a mere 5% of the economy in order to quite literally save the world is the difference between survival, death, and the continuation of life itself. The world could possibly be desolate in your grandchild’s lifetime. Scientists estimate that climate collapse will take place in 2050, and a freshman’s graduation this year is only 5 years away from the time global emissions must recede.

There was a push for change in the 70’s, and an even bigger push in the 90’s. The time is not now. The time was 50 years ago. Change is still possible. Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, and emerges ahead of his accomplishments.” (Grapes of Wrath, 1939), but this is more than just politics. This is the Holocene Extinction upon humankind. This is survival.

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