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Revisiting Capitalism vs. Climate

SHADES OF GREEN: The two have been erroneously identified as being mutually exclusive

When environmentalists contend that capitalism is the cause of climate change, they complicate an extremely difficult problem and obscure solutions to perhaps the most serious threat ever to confront modern humanity.

Predictably, any proposal for the outright abolition of capitalism shifts attention from environmental considerations to economic ones, even eliciting defensive reactions strong enough to reject the veracity of climate science itself. But a resolution to the capitalism vs. climate debate already exists.

Consider the two opposing sides. For environmentalism, climate change is an established fact; the likelihood that we are changing our planet’s climate by burning fossil fuels is about 95 per cent certain. No debate. As for capitalism, it has been a remarkably successful economic system, with a stellar record of being resourceful, innovative and adaptive. No debate. Indeed, capitalism seems as compatible with our character as environmentalism is with nature.

The conflict, writes Mark Lynas in The Guardian Weekly (March 20/15), is that the two have been erroneously identified as being mutually exclusive. The result has been an ideological war between them, to the detriment of us finding a feasible way of living comfortably and harmoniously within the bounds of nature’s limits.

But limits are familiar to us. The wholesale extraction of resources and the habitual abuse of ecologies are eventually constrained and guided by the reality of limits. The same can be said of capitalism. The vast wealth and material benefits it has generated have similarly been constrained and guided toward the imperative of a collective good. Capitalism has regularly been forced to respond to the imposition of limiting conditions.  An unrestrained free-market economy in the realm of human affairs is as much a myth as the survival of the fittest in a civilized society. Caring, kindness, fairness and justice have inevitably become humanizing forces in the expression of capitalism. The growing need for environmental considerations is just the latest iteration.

Such considerations don’t require the elimination of individual initiative, private ownership or the abolition of international banks and multinational corporations. They simply require the establishment of new regulations that direct capitalism’s energies in socially and environmentally responsible directions — a process that may seem unusual only because it is occurring in the context of our present circumstances. This, in essence, is the same responsive adaptation that has inspired capitalism to build and staff hospitals and schools, to construct and maintain highways and bridges, to generate and distribute electricity, to levy taxes, impose laws and function with civility.

The forthcoming regulations to be placed on capitalism won’t destroy it; they will simply civilize and attune it to the historical circumstances in which it finds itself — the same process that has been operating since capitalism’s inception. These regulations may be pollution controls, carbon taxes, emission limits, curtailed resource extraction, or any of the constraints and encouragements that society deems necessary to guide capitalism’s creative energies.

As an economic system, capitalism will continue to function in the service of humanity. If it must extend its sensitivities and curb its liberties to relate more respectfully to nature, this will simply be a step in its evolution as an inventive expression of human ingenuity.

Note: Last week’s omitted column, The Pliocene, can be found at, or googled.