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Capitalism and Sustainability are Incompatible

NOTE: This was my final paper for my class on Plastics and Sustainability in my Spring 2023 semester at college. I will link a pastebin to the bibliography at the end if you want to read more. I got an A :)

The climate crisis is a dilemma that nearly everybody on the planet has come face-to-face with at one point or another. There are a multitude of causes- carbon emissions, water pollution, litter, and corporate negligence are just a few of the reasons that scientists say the world’s climate is becoming more and more erratic. There have been many proposed solutions, backed by many different billionaires, corporations, and governments. Why, then, has there been minimal improvement? It may very well be because the economic system that most of the world relies on- capitalism- is incompatible with environmental justice and sustainability. And by further relying on it, the planet cannot meaningfully heal. There is not a lack of hope, however, and it is so important to know of meaningful work that people worldwide are doing in anti-capitalist communities such as solarpunk.

The Earth is dying. This has been the cry of essentially every journalist, political theorist, and environmental scientist for at least fifty years. Decreasing biodiversity, misallocation of resources for an increasing population, and extreme weather patterns are just some of the obvious effects of this in day-to-day life. Initiatives to slow this process by governments worldwide have been spotty at best. They often do not quite meet their environmental goals,
Salas 2023- Temperature Anomalies 1880-2020, in Degrees Celsius
and even if they do many scientists say those goals are not high enough (Bradshaw et. al, 2021). In the future, it is highly possible that the Earth will see melted ice caps, increased ocean levels, and longer summers worldwide (, 2018). The current model for which the world handles sustainability and environmentalism is, ironically, unsustainable. At the current rate, things will only continue to get worse, and current pushes to improve just seem to be slowing down the inevitable. Luckily, many companies are pushing initiatives to become more environmentally friendly, more “green.” But, aside from the fact that many companies lie about or exaggerate their progress on this matter (Jani-Friend & Dewan, 2022), it is possible that relying on corporations to save the Earth- relying on capitalism in this time of crisis- is a pointless endeavor, because the economic system that is most prevalent on this planet is also one that is incompatible with sustainability and environmentalism at its very core.
There are a lot of solutions to climate change that have been proposed by scientists over the past few decades. Solar power is a well-known alternative to fossil fuels, but it is not very widespread on a global scale. While many point to inefficiency and cloudy days as the cause, those issues can be circumvented thanks to improving technology and powerful batteries. The actual primary reason for this is cost- There is a high upfront cost to solar panels, which bars many low-income households and small businesses. And even though solar power has a high return on investment, the high initial cost dissuades many people with higher incomes, as well as prevents companies from wanting to invest in solar farms (Alrawas, 2020).
Another way to cut down on emissions is investment in public transportation. Riding in a bus lowers carbon emissions by 30% per mile on average, compared to driving alone in a gas-powered car (Shen, 2022). Trains are even better for the environment,
Popovich & Lu 2019- Grenhouse Gas Emissions for Transportation
and of course walking or using a bike produces no emissions at all. Public transportation also leads to more efficient city planning, because in order to get the most out of these systems, cities must be organized in ways that can best utilize them. Using trains or buses is often cheaper for the average consumer, as well. The majority of the carbon emissions in the United States are due to passenger vehicles (Popovich & Lu, 2019)- why, then, is there not more widespread, efficient public transportation? After all, more American tax dollars go to public transit than any other country, and Canada is a country with similarly sprawling landscapes but significantly better transportation. Once again, the main concern is cost. Even though more tax dollars go towards transit, many government officials see investment in it as welfare; a service done for poor people who simply cannot afford cars. This means that they try to keep costs to use transit low, but that leads to struggling profits for transit companies (Stromberg, 2015). But a public service that would improve the climate and the wellbeing of the people should not require a profit in order to keep going. When the alternative is climate disaster, why can the world not let go of profit and expand the reach of public transportation and solar panels?
Time and time again, it becomes clear that countries and companies alike allow profit to take precedence over the continuation of the Earth. In 2022, the UK government repealed a temporary ban on fracking, despite outcry from citizens and public knowledge of the harm it does to the environment. Why? Securing on-shore energy has the potential to lower energy costs (Edwards, 2022). When torn between the will and health of the people and the increase in profits, many companies choose profit over people. While it is possible that some day, corporations may decide that it is in their best interest to switch to solar power or increase funding into recycling plants, that does not absolve them of the main issue at hand. Overproduction is a key part of capitalism, as it often leads to overconsumption- that is, more people buying products means more money goes to those selling them. It is a documented fact that reusing materials and products and fixing them for long-term use is a great way that the average person can be more environmentally friendly (Romano, 2021).
Tighe 2022- Consumers who Feel the Cost of Living Prevents them from Living Sutainably in 2022, per Country
When companies create products with the intention of making as much profit as possible, they are incentivized to create those products in such a way that they will need to be replaced, not reused. Planned obsolescence is an issue with capitalism, not a default state of affairs. Without monetary incentive to make products break down after a few years, there would be no reason to do such a thing. There is also the fact that, due to the need for profit, products of a better quality (that is, products that last longer) are often more expensive. With the rapidly rising global cost of living, the average consumer simply does not have the money to commit to a product that will last them a lifetime, or to make notable choices that will help the environment (Tighe, 2022)- so they end up with cheaper products that cannot be reused or repaired, thus contributing more waste to the ecosystem.
There is hope to be had. It is important to discuss capitalism, in plain terms, with friends and family. The distribution of resources (or lack thereof), the profit motive taking precedence over wellbeing, and the overproduction of products are all issues that threaten the Earth, and it is vital to be aware of this. It is sometimes easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, but one must keep striving to imagine a world without this system for there to be any chance of hope. Spreading the word, however, is slow, and the planet is dying rapidly. Direct action is needed- direct action that exists outside of and despite the capitalist system.
There are many organizations committed to protesting and occupying sites of significant climate injustice, such as logging sites, gas power plants, and more (Warwick, 2018). These actions frequently bring about material change, such as when Ende Gelände, a German movement committed to disrupting and stalling coal mines, halted coal production for days and pressured officials to promise to phase the process out entirely by 2038. While twenty years is a long time to wait for justice, the action spawned more change around Europe, and in 2019 there were dozens of similar camps around the continent (Malm, 2021). Food Not Bombs is a decentralized organization that provides free food to people in need, which is becoming a rising concern as climate change spells food insecurity for many around the globe. Even when direct action is not directly rewarded, the spectacle of large protest and fury puts these issues in the public eye, and achieves something else very important- discussion in the mainstream. There is also “solarpunk”, a movement dedicated to imagining and actively working towards a better future, utilizing techniques such as guerilla gardening, which involves planting native plants in unused urban spaces, such as medians with dead grass and empty concrete blocks, without permission (Steinkopf-Frank, 2021). This helps revitalize local ecosystems, as well as in potentially providing food for free.
The Earth is dying. But it does not have to be. Capitalism is not a default state of affairs, and a world without it is possible. Scientists, backed by large corporations, do everything they can to help heal the planet- but, due to the economic system that runs it, their innovations cannot gain foothold without being able to generate meaningful profit. It is because of this that capitalism is not what is best for the world. Climate catastrophe is looming, and if those in power cannot overlook the profit motive for even a moment it will hit. Sustainability is incompatible with capitalism, but capitalism is not the only way to live.

♥ Jay(click to go back!)