omnibus omnia

The Real Root of Environmental Evils

In Capitalism, Distributism, Economics, Economy, Environment, Ethics, Opinion, Politics, Population, Science, Society on June 19, 2015 at 12:37

…what is the real source of the problem? It is the unsustainable and immoderate (…) consumption and production patterns engendered by contemporary industrial capitalism….

In solidarity with the EncyclicalLaudato Siof Pope Francis, we are re-posting our 29 March 2009 post “In criticism of Earth Hour“, which was earlier re-posted on 26 March 2011 as “Why Earth Hour is Bad for the Earth“.

Today, many around the world mark Earth Hour, a commemoration championed by environmentalist groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In sum, to highlight the need to solve ecological problems, Earth Hour would be marked by a voluntary reduction of electrical consumption for 60 minutes and by speeches and performances on environmental issues. In the Philippines, the main venue of the celebrations was the SM Mall of Asia, attended by various dignitaries and performers (albeit the number of the latter there was diminished for unfortunately political reasons), with satellite celebrations like those at malls like SM Fairview, in which performed such singers as activist-artist Noel Cabangon.

Therefore we also turned off all lights and equipment such as the computer on which we type this post now. However, despite these gestures of symbolic solidarity, we could not altogether ignore how little effect Earth Hour really had, in material as well as non-material (or ideological and symbolic) terms, to ecological issues. In fact, we submit that it was harmful to the goals of environmentalism, because it diverted people’s attention towards a symbolic non-solution and away from the real source of, and the real solution to, the ecological problems faced by humanity at large and by peoples in particular. We do not say this to detract from the real achievements of the movements for environmental reform, nor to deny the undoubted good faith of its proponents and organizers, but to warn against the dangers posed by false directions for activism.

And what is the real source of the problem? It is the unsustainable and immoderate (and some believe, catastrophically immoderate) consumption and production patterns engendered by contemporary industrial capitalism. To explain:

The Real Problem: Capitalist Consumption

The ecological problem, in sum, lies in the negative effects of the physical, chemical, and biological transformations in the non-human environment caused by human material activity, whether through subtraction (e.g., of O3 from the atmosphere and mining products from the earth), addition (such as of CO2 to the atmosphere and industrial byproducts to water systems), or qualitative alteration (like open-pit mining and, in rivers and other fresh water bodies, eutrophication). Without entering the controversies on certain cases–for example, of the actual relation of CO2 emission to rising atmospheric temperatures–, we think that we may validly acknowledge the negative effects that some of these transformations pose to human beings and their environment.

That said, we must reiterate that the real cause of these transformations–which, it may be added, are not uniformly negative–is material activity with its attendant byproducts. Therefore, whatever contributes to the increase in such material activity would also contribute to the increase in the kinds and the rates of environmental transformation. If we look at this transformative material activity on a per capita (or per individual) basis, then we will see that the most important factor to its increase in modern times has been the immoderate material consumption and production patterns that prevail in modern industrial capitalist societies.

This is by no means a unique or novel idea, and it may be seen even in our experiences as consuming individuals, families, and other groups such as societies. For instance, with surplus income we buy a new computer, mobile phone, or other electronic product, or a new car, appliance, or other ware, even though our legitimate duties as parents, merchants, employees, etc. do not actually require the new product or the increased speed and number of features it promises. Hence, if we objectively look at how we consume in industrial capitalist societies, we will see that our material-use patterns have the following general characteristics:

  1. The presumptive willingness to purchase newer products, without regard for their objective value or their real contribution to material and non-material betterment;

  2. The presumptive willingness to discard older products, without regard for their remaining utility (“Nah, it’s old; get rid of it”);

  3. The uncritical desire to accumulate material products, without regard for their objective necessity, and limited only by our capacity to purchase them and to store them (“Can I afford it? “Where will I put it?”);

  4. The uncritical use, as standards for such purchasing and discarding, of increased amount (such as the use of aggregate and per capita GDP as the index of an economy’s “health”), speed, short-term pleasure, “convenience”;

  5. The uncritical obedience to social and technological trends in material consumption, without examining them based on a standard other than the trend itself;

  6. The general willingness, only sometimes critical, to listen to biased sources like advertising and corporate-backed media for product information; and, perhaps worst of all,

  7. The avoidance of social uses of surplus income–such as whether it would be better used when given to an impoverished family, to desperately ill persons, or to an organization or effort that would help them.

In sum, we see either the absence of objective limiting standards other than capacity, or the prevalence of subjective and self-directed standards that have no real relation to the material health, psychological happiness, and spiritual growth of individuals, families, and other groups. This means the absence of any self-limitation: material consumption and production have no barrier to constant increase. Is in any wonder, then, that the United States has 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions with only 5% of its population, considering how American media is massively polluted by advertising and other marketing strategies that often use emotional, sexual, or social pressure–in a word, propaganda–to manufacture the feeling of need for things that have no qualitative benefit; that is, which do not actually make us healthier, happier or better in ourselves, or help us to help other people?

If we might so add, we also submit that we will see a continued global per capita increase in material consumption and production in the long term. Capitalist societies will not renounce capitalism in the foreseeable future (notwithstanding the present financial crisis, which will end in a return to former material-use patterns when money becomes less tight); new countries are adopting American-style capitalism and its patterns of material consumption and production; and Western marketing strategies have been adopted worldwide. In light of these trends, we would also see a continued increase in quantitative environmental transformations (especially macro-ecological ones like CO2 concentrations), though recycling and other byproduct-processing methods might cause a reduction in the rate of qualitative (especially micro-ecological) transformations.

The Real Solution

Hence, if our per capita consumption and production pattern is the primary cause of increased quantitative and, especially, macro-ecological environmental transformations with their attendant problems, then what is the real solution? The solution is a sustained global and local effort to moderate consumption and production patterns in capitalist countries; to propagate objective limiting standards for the purchase of products and their use; and, more fundamentally, to combat the ideologies that set up material activity and accumulation, or “success”, as the primary standard of human value–in a word, to promote a general change in thought and behavior relative to material action and use.

Any other solution is bound to be useless. This includes tree planting (which has little effect on CO2 reduction, which is more dependent on marine plankton activity) and turning off lights for an hour, if we do not also tell ourselves not to buy a new Nokia, a new iPod, a flashy new Toyota or Chrysler SUV, or a new amplifier unless we objectively need it for our legitimate responsibilities. Every such product has a carbon footprint, which is especially large in highly technical goods because of the sheer amount of energy and wastage involved in making them. Has anyone computed how many joules or BTUs it takes to manufacture a single dual core microprocessor from raw silica? And what about telling people to stop driving cars or to drive less if they have alternative transport? Unless we actually change our buying and using behavior, any other solution is, in fact, worse than useless, because it diverts our energies while achieving nothing of any objective value.

This includes even population control; for considering that 5% of the world’s people produce 25% of its Greenhouse gases, we see that how we influence the environment depends less on our number than on our behavior. If we go on buying more and newer at the same rate, and in an increasing number of countries, then even with a population one tenth of today we will still have anthropogenic global warming. However, if we limit our consumption to what we need, use our surplus money to benefit the destitute, and re-adopt non-materialistic ideologies that deny the primacy of wealth and social standing as values, then even with a population ten times of today we will have sustainable patterns of material use. On this score, the 60’s social movements like hippie culture was better than some modern environmentalism: the 60’s emphasized behavior and ideology, but modern ecologism ignores them, and therefore misses the point.

So why aren’t we pursuing the real solution? Why do we resort to useless gestures like Earth Hour and tree planting and diversionary issues like population? Simply, we do not want to change our thinking or our behavior. We are willing to demand that the government or other people make hard choices, or to follow the ruling orthodoxy that the poor should have fewer children; but heaven help anyone who tells us to change our ways! For we want to continue on our merry way, buying and consuming whatever we want, and we expect the environment to be righted without our making any sacrifices ourselves; yet how, for instance, would the targets in the Kyoto Protocol be achieved without people opting en masse for public transport and rejecting private cars, or simply saying ‘no’ when Steve Jobs, his successor, or his competitor proposes to further expand our iLife?

To conclude: Environmentalism will achieve no reform of ecological transformation (we say reform and not termination, because–unless we adopt fundamentalist ecologism–we will see that not all transformation is necessarily evil) unless we stop worshiping more and newer and embracing bigger and more “advanced”, and instead see material things as an aid to being better and loving more rather than as a primary value in themselves. In the end, then, we can save the world of matter only if we reach beyond it to the spirit, and we can make material activity “ecological” only if we reject materialism and prioritize the non-material and trans-ecological value of seeking and contemplating the holy and true, the good and beautiful.

Needless to say, if we have erred anywhere here, Dear Reader, we beg your pardon and would welcome your due correction.

May God bless us all.

  1. Even if we curbed consumption, keeping up with the food and water demands of an overpopulated world would continue to be at the root of environmental problems. In many places around the world where people live in poverty, their shear numbers are outstripping resources. But we agree. Over consumption, too, must be addressed. However, to only address consumption while clinging to the notion that we can continue to fill the world with increasing numbers of humans is not a solution. Seven billion people, in and of itself, is not sustainable.

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