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http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue56/Smith56.pdf
by Richard Smith   [Institute for Policy Research & Development, London]

Abstract 
In rejecting the antigrowth approach of the first wave of environmentalists in the 1970s, pro-growth “green capitalism” theorists of the 1980s-90s like Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, and Francis Cairncross argued that green technology, green taxes, eco-conscious shopping and the like could “align” profit-seeking with environmental goals, even “invert many fundamentals”  of business practice such that “restoring the environment and making money become one and the same  process.”

 This strategy has clearly failed.


The project of sustainable capitalism was misconceived and doomed from the start because maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism so long as this increases profits. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns...

profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and sets the limits to ecological reform -- and not the other way around as green capitalism theorists supposed.

We can’t “cut back” to save the planet because capitalism can’t solve the unemployment crisis any more than it can solve the ecological crisis.

We’re all onboard the TGV of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. But as our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOS, capitalist economists, politicians and labor leaders, is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster.

Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this  means that, so long as the global economy is based on capitalist private/corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to collective social suicide and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the  problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require national and international economic planning to reorganize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends.

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Replies to This Discussion

I agree with Richard Smith that we need collective democratic control over the economy and that our focus must be on the needs of society and the environment rather than wealth creation.  However, I would put the main emphasis on control and planning at the local and bioregional level supported by national and international planning.  Added to this would be the creation of new institutions as needed. 

I also see the intertwined environmental crisis restricting our economic activities to those that meet our needs.   In this view, "provisioning" the population and work focused on that end, not the "creation of jobs", is the goal.

I would also go further back than Smith's critique of capitalist corporations.    

From the time commercialization was first emphasized in early Venus, an emphasis on trade and the "accumulation of wealth" as a way of life has gained ground around the planet to the detriment of the historical focus on "provisioning" for the population.   And in this process local peoples and local environments have been marginalized and negatively impacted around the world.   Further, during this ever expanding focus on commercial activities, the capitalist system was created.  This system consists of a hugely complicated web of beliefs, values, and institutions (laws, banking, schooling, financial and so on and so on) all focused on wealth creation mainly through trade.

The corporations are the final feature of an advanced capitalist system, but even if they did not exist there would be much to undo to regain a focus on human and environmental well-being.  Individuals need to change, but the most important part of that change will be our creation of new institutions that can support the world we need.

 

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