Capitalism vs. Climate.
The face-off determining the futures of all generations to come.
Scientists have recently said that we’ve entered into a 6th mass extinction, as 500 land animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction, likely to be lost in the next 20 years. Just so we’re crystal clear on this, the same number of species was lost over the span of the last century.
Spurred by rising sea levels, lower crop yields, more frequent natural disasters and ocean acidification this event would change the lives of all humans forever. The effects would be irreversible, meaning the lives of future generations depend on how quickly we slam on the brakes and slow the proverbial climate steam train we’re all aboard.
This wild fable is what we face, and it gets crazier yet. We hold all the answers to the problem. Yet, we aren’t implementing them fast enough, and we know it.
“The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”– Greta Thunberg
So, this potential catastrophe comes down to us allowing it to happen?
I’m sure many of you who are familiar with the facts are thinking, “well, if this is the case, then why the hell isn’t more being done?”
I struggled to answer this question for a long time. Until the day when I watched Sir David Attenborough’s Witness Statement from the Netflix series A Life on Our Planet. Here, he made a point about our banks continuing to invest in fossil fuels, despite their detrimental effect on the environment.
This made it all click for me.
The problem is not the individual, but the way we govern our societies and business systems: capitalism.
I’m not saying that we should do away with this system, or that I’ve got a better idea for how things should work. I just think it’s important to understand the unseen manner in which our societal systems influence our behaviour, if we truly want to bring about positive change.
Capitalism is defined as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” (Lexico)
What’s important here is the fact that we all work towards earning more money, whether we’re an employee, an entrepreneur, a CEO or a company as a whole; for all the end-goal is the same: make more money.
Employees want to earn the highest wages possible by making as much money for their company as they can. CEOs want to bring in as much money as possible for their company to keep their shareholders happy and to hold onto their high paying job. A company wants to sell as many products or services as possible at the highest price they can get away with to keep their stakeholders and stay afloat.
There’s an important takeaway from this; capitalism rewards those who are more efficient, i.e. those who drive more profit.
Therefore, you can see how it goes against the nature of our societal system to support causes like climate change or the preservation of our wildlife, as they do not make a company or person money.
This is why Sir David Attenborough raised the point about our banks investing in dirty energy; to illuminate the problem capitalism has created: we have all been trained to be greedy and individualistic.
Banks continue to invest in burning fossil fuels and further destroying our planet because it makes them good money. They aren’t focused on the negative chain-reaction caused by their actions, so long as they see enough zeros on their income reports each month.
There is a silver lining though. While a CEO has pressure from hundreds of stakeholders to make more money for their company, the everyday person like you or I only have the will of one person standing in our way from contributing to climate change… ourselves.
Where our systems fail us, it is our responsibility to override them by doing what we can on the individual level.
Luckily, as consumers we aren’t powerless. Companies exist to serve the needs, desires and wants of people and so, by changing what we demand and will pay for on a wide scale we can affect the negative impacts our global conglomerates are having.
How do we change consumer demands on a wide scale?
Educate people about what’s important, why our current lifestyles are unsustainable and spread this message through powerful content and word of mouth. All in the hope that we will force our global corporations to rethink how performance is measured and mould capitalism into a vehicle that spurs climate action.
(Check out our green living series which will help you do just this!)
So, there it is: the capitalism vs. climate conundrum.
We’ve got a problem.
And we’ve got solutions.
But our business systems are preventing us from implementing them.
Let’s take a look at how we’ve prevailed to date, before examining the effect of a third contender in this fight.
How Are We Getting On?
Pre-Covid we’d seen the majority of countries join the Paris Agreement. While this is good news, this agreement doesn’t tie its members to their promises and, as a result, there’s been very little in the way of an uptick in climate action from governments and companies on the global stage.
We’ve seen the rise of activists like Greta Thunberg and her climate strikes spread across the world, with hundreds of thousands of students getting involved. As a result, alongside many other influences, climate change has become a common term most are familiar with. Allowing a global consciousness to form around our unsustainable and destructive actions.
However, despite climate science moving from mere theory and predictions to observable reality in recent years, it hasn’t been matched by the increase in urgency you’d expect. Leaving many of us waiting and hoping that our governments and companies will start acting soon.
And then what happened?
Covid stepped into the ring.
Covid’s Impact on the Capitalism Vs. Climate Fight
How has Covid impacted us?
We’ve been told to stay at home, which has meant we’ve all been working, educating, socialising and even exercising from home. We’ve been told to work from home where possible, travelling less as a result. Many only go out to purchase food. Many have opted to shop online to stay safe. International travel has been banned between hundreds of countries. Small businesses have suffered.
Overall, the world has largely been brought to a hault, especially for the average joe locked down nesting at home.
How has this affected the world?
Amongst all this madness, another great shift was occurring.
As general human activity slowed down to almost a crawl, we’ve given our planet a chance to breathe for the first time in decades.
Fish were seen in the rivers of Venice, deer were found walking through the streets of Japanese cities, dolphins swam and jumped in the waters of Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, and the air pollution over China and India cleared dramatically, allowing people in the state of Punjab to see the Himalayas for the first time in decades.
In the UK, wildlife sightings have soared with record sightings of stoats, foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and deer, who are usually sensitive to disturbances.
What’s more, our global emissions have plummeted by 7% in 2020, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is our actions having these adverse effects on our environment and ecosystems.
Has this acted as a wakeup call for people across the planet? Let’s see.
How has this affected our demands and perspectives?
Aside from us all hearing stories about wildlife returning to unlikely places, leading us to consider the negative impact of our actions just a little more. Covid has disrupted the flow of our lives in a way that almost none of us have experienced before, providing an interruption that’s led many to reevaluate what’s important in life.
My first thought when the pandemic broke out was that this occurrence was mother nature’s way of showing us how we’d taken things too far. Whether or not anyone had the same thought, I think many of us have been able to look at life through a fresh lens, formulating a different perspective about how we’ve been living and how we’d like to carry on.
A recent study has looked into the ways Covid has affected consumer habits and behaviors. Two particularly relevant long-term trends have been identified as being accelerated by the virus.
These interesting trends point towards a positive future when it comes to climate change.
As people shop more locally we’ll see less pollution from air miles on products. Similarly, with people supporting local businesses rather than larger and further away companies, we’ll experience a fall in transport emissions.
Moreover, as people look for more sustainable options and attempt to reduce waste, we’ll see less plastic consumed and less waste produced. This will reduce methane levels from landfill sites and shrink the amount of methane and ethylene released from plastics floating in our seas.
Another recent BCG survey found that people are more concerned with environmental issues since the pandemic. Moreover, they are more committed to making changes to their behaviour.
Over two-thirds of respondents think economic recovery plans should prioritise environmental issues. Furthermore, over 40% reported changes in their behaviour with more people trying to reduce household energy consumption, recycling and composting more, and, like the Accenture study found, are buying more locally and supporting small businesses.
So, perhaps the direct impact of Covid on climate change has been small. However, the long-term effect of the indirect impact is still to be seen.
Whether these consumer behaviour switches stick around will make a big difference. If they do, they’ll force larger companies to rethink their strategies and negative impacts on the environment.
What Can We Take Away From All This?
The struggle between climate and capitalism is real. In fact, a recent headline from The Guardian said: “Ending climate change requires ending capitalism.”
I personally don’t know about this. We’ll definitely need to see a redefining of successful economic performance, which would mean capitalism would be morphed, not eradicated all together.
One environmental historian and sociologist, Jason Moore, went so far as to label our time as the Capitalocene. Believing that the use of the term Anthropocene shifts the blame from corporations and capitalism to the general consumer. Considering just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, you can hardly argue with him.
However, the more we talk about these issues and choose to look for the unseen manner in which our societal and business systems inhibit us from making the speedy changes the science demands, the more we can grow our global consciousness and start to overturn the actions of our governments and corporations.
Similarly, we can take solace in the fact that Covid might have actually done us some good on our journey towards our goal of net zero emissions. The more of the general public who start to reject the actions of our governments and large corporations, the sooner we can achieve our goal and, as David Attenborough says, “live at one with nature.”
Do you think COVID has brought about lasting changes to our habits? Or, once we go back to ‘normal’ do you think this will all be forgotten?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for reading.