Hundreds of years from now, assuming someone’s left to critique world history humanity’s failings will be seen intersecting with global warming, climate change and political instability, forming an epicenter of reckless abandon, waste and environmental fallout. Drawn to those same Cartesian coordinates, historians will easily connect the deaths of rainforests, bleached coral reefs, melted glaciers and ice sheets, and intensified storms, not to mention their chaotic aftermaths, with a single primary cause: Capitalism. For roughly 150 years, any objective analysis or withholding consent for economic and political systems in which private profits (instead of public good) control trade and industry has been deemed “un-American.” But since the 1st Gilded Age (the last 40 years especially), dangers of industrial capitalism, while often ignored, are readily apparent. Among them are cyclically depressed economies, exploited labor, and profit-driven acts of violence such as wildlife and habitat destruction. Anthropogenic climate change and global warming have added droughts, floods, heat waves, and wildfires, any combinations of which lead to crop failures.
In fact, industrial capitalism’s resource plundering has been a massive generator of waste and externalities, frequently producing unnecessary commodities while pumping an estimated 1.5 trillion metric tons of CO2 into the air since 1751. In the mere 65 years since Sputnik launched (Oct. 4, 1957), we’ve discarded enough “space junk” to form an orbiting belt of cosmic solid waste, not only posing collision threats to telescopes, satellites, and other spacecraft but menacing 7.7 billion people and countless nonhuman earthlings below. What goes up without maintaining orbital speeds of 16,500 mph eventually comes down and, if large enough, doesn’t necessarily incinerate completely from atmospheric friction. July 30th, 40% of a 25-ton Chinese rocket stage survived reentry to crash in Borneo. Weeks earlier, a charred 10-ft.-tall Space X remnant plummeted to Australia, embedding in the ground. Henny Penny (a.k.a. Chicken Little) may have been more prescient than hysterical after all.
With human populations, past and present, numbering in the billions, concentrating in cities and producing (at minimum) nitrogenous waste, urban pollution would still be a problem even if capitalism and industrialization didn’t compound it. Capitalism, however, both widens and intensifies scopes of environmental impacts. As Austrian-born political economist and Harvard professor, Joseph Schumpeter concluded, capitalism survives by a “gale of creative destruction,” a term coined by German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart but popularized by Schumpeter in 1942. While living in a Taconic, Connecticut country house, Schumpeter wrote and lectured prolifically, incorporating the idea into much of his business cycle theory. Because capitalism insists on and mythologizes continuous growth, it relies on constant streams of new products and consumers willing to buy them, needed or not. Most perform the same functions as older merchandise, just marginally better. A few are major improvements. Those competitively inferior to the tried-and-true are promoted by advertising to attract buyers anyway. New industries, products, demand and consumption are capitalism’s staples, whether those products are essential to society’s basic needs or not. Worse, when “new” products are introduced, the “old” are systemically made irrelevant to encourage replacement. Parts and accessories prolonging use become harder to find, regardless of functionality. That which isn’t recycled or relegated to attics and museums ends up discarded in scrap heaps. If improperly tossed, heavy metals, chemicals, plastics and other materials foul the environment. Creative destruction may not perfectly capture the essence of capitalism, planned obsolescence and disposable economies, but it’s serviceable in explaining why so much creative energy is random and profit-driven, not directed at human or planetary needs. The result: entrepreneurs provide innumerable choices of beer, tires, processed foods, insurance, law firms and lending institutions, but people are sicker and more overwrought than ever from the constant pressure to buy things. New clothing styles and other fads become “must-haves,” whereas durable, affordably priced, low-maintenance, energy-efficient housing and vehicles either aren’t produced or manufacturers add bells and whistles and marketing fluff to drive up the cost. That quest for higher and higher profits by reducing value also contributes to product redundancy.
Does this portend capitalism’s downfall and eventual takeover by people naturally opposed to it? Schumpeter expected progressive movements to replace capitalism, not only led by intellectuals and social justice advocates, but especially by low-wage workers and the unemployed, both made expendable by increasing automation and global economies. Tech firms, Big Pharma, Big Oil and other corporate giants are already sitting on huge amounts of cash, stashed away in war chests, little of which adds to the value of merchandise they produce. As the middle class continues to lose ground and younger people can’t afford to start families or buy homes, reinvestments and wage increases are jettisoned by businesses in favor of CEO bonuses and buybacks. The preconditions for success, which made market capitalism viable in the 20th century, primarily technological advances, are now becoming more an encumbrance than a catalyst for employment.
As I learned taking FORTRAN IV as an RPI freshman in 1970, complete with boxes of punch cards and inordinate amounts of stress and time preparing them, computer software excels at coding for “looped behavior.” That’s where its computational powers lie. By the same token, American education is predicated on training people via looped-repetitive patterns to acquire levels of professional expertise sufficient to support not only themselves but their families. Because modern software is able to perform looped-repetitive patterns much more efficiently than humans, technology and capitalism are now at odds. Workers still train to do what software and digital algorithms currently do better, and while no economic system is equipped to deal with this paradigm of complex emergent systems, capitalism’s emphasis on profit instead of societal needs makes its incentive structure tenuous. Today’s looped-repetitive software, machinery and robotics not only obviate lower skill jobs in service industries and assembly lines, they excel at most repetitive behaviors, even in fields such as medical diagnosis, nonstop truck-driving and sports column writing. Only in singular acts of creation, such as writing poetry, formulating scientific hypotheses or doing something else unprecedented are human advantages over machines fully realized. Unfortunately, American educational processes have not been designed to develop or cultivate singular acts of creation. Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), depicting a totally automated dystopia, is becoming a reality. It warns against “technological determinism,” a theory posed by RPI social sciences professor Langdon Winner, whose primary focus is educational technologies, how over-dependence on machines and technology can negatively affect our qualities of life. Have we become too smart for our own good? Will eliminating humans from vast arrays of repetitive work be the creative-destruction straw that breaks capitalism’s back or will it be its steady stream of innovations and resource looting supporting continuous growth? As the planet becomes less and less habitable and greater inequality means bigger safety nets for the vulnerable (guaranteed minimum incomes, for instance), capitalism without conscience will inevitably topple.
While creative destruction sows the seeds of capitalism’s demise, the biosphere still suffers collateral damage. As Schumpeter inferred, capitalism’s main motivation to innovate is to monopolize an idea, allowing firms to charge excessive profits to insure themselves against uncertainties long-term. This, I think, is at the core of America’s reticence to aggressively convert from fossil fuels to cleaner alternative energies. Coal and oil, after all, enabled early capitalists to expand profit margins by exacting more work in significantly less time. That meant paying fewer workers while increasing production. The rise of capitalist economies coincides with centralization of factories and rapid rises in greenhouse gas emissions because dense, energy-packed fossil fuels boosted production from fewer employees. Despite hurting workers and the environment in the process, the core imperative of capitalism has always been continuous growth, which in a biological world, just as with cancer cells lacking contact inhibition, spells disaster. For many decades now, the rate of human conversion of natural resources into raw materials has far exceeded the rate at which the biosphere can replenish itself. In other words, continuous growth paradigms which underlie capitalism are unsustainable, leading to overfishing, degradation of arable soil, shrinking forests and oil reserves, fragile global supply chains, even COVID’s spread and continued persistence. The rates at which capitalist markets excessively extract raw materials, transforming them into goods and services (some needed, most not) has entangled our waterways with single-use plastics, destroyed large swaths of climate-regulating habitat and triggered Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Capitalists’ creative destruction and technological determinism have led us down a dark, foreboding alleyway.
Since 1988, 100 companies have caused an estimated 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. Capitalist mega-companies, many multinationals, keep worsening the climate crisis by expanding into new regions of the globe to extract natural resources and exploit cheap labor. Exxon-Mobil, Monsanto, Coke, Pepsi and Walmart are just a few of the offenders dumping and/or laying waste where environmental laws are lax, then once their damage is discovered, using “green washed” public relations gimmickry to rebrand and salvage corporate images. In 2004, Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising firm working for British Petroleum, the world’s second largest oil giant, came up with idea of “carbon footprints” to deflect climate change responsibilities away from Big Oil and misdirect to individuals. Six years later, BP was culpable in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster but continues to join other fossil fuel producers pushing “market-based” approaches that impede progress mitigating climate change. Despite its worsening impacts, free-market ideologies of industrialists continue to be floated to shape approaches and priorities addressing global warming, the same kind of strategies used historically to obfuscate and delay restrictions of tobacco, DDT, asbestos and ozone-depleting CFCs phased out 35 years ago (i.e., 1987’s Montreal Protocol). “Disaster capitalists” have similarly used the energy blackout in Texas during the polar vortex freeze in 2021 to embed free market ideas and deregulation to drive up prices and maximize profits at consumers’ expense. The same kind of financial coupe occurred in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked-out power and killed 3,000 people. Scientists have warned for decades that, unless societal transformations occur, which subordinate capitalist interests, the Earth will warm more than 1.5 degree Celsius. That’s the maximum average temperature increase above which catastrophic tipping points could trigger, making climate change irreversible. The last time the planet had comparable concentrations of atmospheric CO2 sea levels were 30 meters higher.
In an age of historic inequality, capitalism has become the new feudalism. Social power stems inevitably from control of people’s access to vital resources, including the means by which they raise families, passing genes to future generations, a biological imperative. The lead role of industrial capitalists in Western society would have been impossible if ordinary folks fulfilled vital needs. Only when their needs aren’t satisfied are people amenable to laborer and consumer dual roles. Thusly, since the 19th century, working classes have been pushed into choosing higher consumption and more work instead of leisure time. Scarcity therefore is a precondition for exploitation, providing a plausible, if dubious, motive for nonstop development, excess consumption and their aftermaths, environmental and ethical. Sustainability favors stability and egalitarianism. Vast majorities of citizens are disconnected from their jobs and prevented from fulfillment by corporate lords and ladies of the manors, who despite being our worst economic sinners reinvent themselves as saviors by giving something back after making a killing. By doing so, they redefine change and progress in terms of what benefits their bottom lines. In essence, the worldviews of militarily/politically powerful aristocrats and commercially powerful capitalists are the same and seek to bend those of the masses to enrich them. Capitalism tips election results in its favor, determines what financial aid programs colleges should have and how we go about mitigating diseases based on what generates the most corporate profit. Investment banks responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and bailout are now saying they’re benefiting the poor, promoting the false family dynamics of good business. Not surprisingly, the only people who’ve fully recovered from that meltdown are the master charlatans that caused it. We’re due for a new and better post-capitalist reality.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.