Capitalism and Environmental Challenges

There is much literature that explains how the current environmental challenges have become such as they actually are. The issues of global warming and climatic changes have continued to receive much attention in the international arenas. Scholars and researchers try to unravel the puzzle of just how to overcome the environmental challenges the world is facing today. Many environmentalists have put forward a couple of theories trying to explain the relationship between environmental degradation and capitalism that many countries and societies have adopted. Ultimately, there is a connection between environmental degradation and capitalism that encourages gathering wealth at whatever cost without any regard to whether people are affected somehow or not. 

In the midst of the arguments as to whether capitalism can lead to environmental degradation, there is a question of just how capitalism leads to such challenges. Arguably, the connection between capitalism and environmental challenges will continue to elicit the controversies between capitalists and socialists. The underlined factor is a need to be convergent in the argument and agree on the way moving ahead. This means that the environmental destruction affects both capitalists and socialists. This paper critically examines some existing views that review whether the today’s most difficult environmental challenges can be successfully overcome in case that the global economic system remains capitalistic. The paper discusses some views from both proponents and opponents of the assertion that the current environmental challenges have been caused by the capitalistic global economic system.

The common belief among environmentalists is the existence of intrinsic trade-off between capitalism and the environment. Lenox (2001), Willard (2002), Esty and Winston (2006) have all demonstrated the impact of capitalism with the example of large businesses and firms. They have the influence on the environment through their “greening” programs. Additionally, since the realization of the environmental degradation concept, much has been discussed on just how the business world has contributed to the current environmental situation. Thus, environmentalists have been pointing out one reason after the other one as to why the current environmental destruction is the work of capitalism. From their part, the opponents of this view have also started to come in with the reasons why capitalism is not being responsible for the destruction of environment. Instead, they were pointing out what the capitalistic world is doing in order to conserve the environment.

One major tenet that capitalists are putting forward is the question of conditions and methods they are using to conserve the environment, which, according to their argument, does not have the socialists’ argument. According to Werbach (2009), the augmenting of capitalist activities and community initiatives is that the capitalist world is bringing back into the communities. It is, in fact, playing a crucial role in ensuring that the environment is being conserved. To this end, there is an equally opposing view among environmentalists and capitalists as to whether the problem of environmental degradation can be addressed conclusively with apportioning the blame on one group. Ultimately, the capitalist world possesses the machination to manipulate with the views that do not favor them. However, as Cunningham and Saigo (2005) have observed, the issues of environment transcending traditional issues of a social status and a disconnection between the rich and poor. This underlies the conventional environmental arguments and divisions.

The destruction of environment influences on almost everything under the earth. For instance, the encouragement of clearing forests such as the Amazon for crop cultivation and the human settlement endangers almost half of the world species, thus, eliminating the biodiversity of nature. The continued extermination of natural resources deprives the earth from the ability to sustain life. The debate on the environmental conservation is an issue of socialists; though capitalists continue to occupy the international arena cutting down trees. Clogging is going on under an attentive eye of the global economy flanked by capitalistic ventures. The world has become more capitalistic by nature compounded by the exponential human population straining the limited natural resources. As a result, the world is undergoing some adverse environmental changes that will definitely turn to be disastrous to life, in general. Both human beings and other forms of life are in danger of global warming caused by the emission of carbon gases into the atmosphere (Esty &Winston, 2006).

The Connection between Capitalism and Environment

According to Cunningham and Saigo (2005), the environment is faced with a "dismal litany of problems.” The two environmentalists argue that a growing world population is putting strain on such environmental components as land, air, water, energy and food resources. In addition, they argue that there is the unprecedented loss of biodiversity in history at the dawn of the 21st century. Brooks (2006) has agreed with this view arguing that, “the environmental problems and the potential environmental catastrophe we are facing are the creations of the capitalist system”. These environmental firsts are coupled with an austere “polarization of global wealth and poverty” (Cunningham & Saigo, 2005). In the perpetuation of capitalism, the world has become so much contrasted in terms of wealth ownership. The first 1.000 wealthy people in the earth own more the half of the earth’s population. Furthermore, more and more people are falling below the poverty line, while the world capitalists continue to innovate and create more ways of amassing the wealth. In the end, the environmental struggle becomes implicitly an issue of the wealthy and poor. The connection between capitalism and environmental challenges, thus, is a composition of various forces that act independently to overcome the increasing challenges in the equation of natural resources.

At the connecting point between capitalism and environment is an issue of nature preservation. Capitalism predates on such natural resources as land and water forming the greatest composition of nature. With the advance in innovation and creativity, capitalism has been taken to another level where the products produced in the pursuit of capitalistic ventures turn against the nature’s composition despite having been attacked by capitalism earlier. The implication created is the answer to the current environmental challenges lies in addressing the state of global economy. It relies so much on the principles of capitalism. According toBrooks (2006), this is a traditional view that holds capitalism responsible for the contemporary environment challenges.

Traditional Perspective on the Question of Environmental Challenges

One of the main proponents of this traditional view isQuinn (1992) that has argued that capitalism, especially that advocating for the establishment of new businesses, plays a not very significant role, if any, in providing the long-term environmental sustainability with propagating the use of renewable resources. The notion created by his views is that capitalism encourages the innovative and creative use of natural resources without considering future generations. Extrapolated further, this view indicates that the current environmental challenges are a result of the earlier capitalistic activities failed to address the issues of a climatic change and global warming unheard during the early days. As such, the emergence of capitalism has encouraged building big factories that emitted the huge chunks of carbon gases in the atmosphere (Quinn, 1992). They also have encouraged falling of trees in order to create the land for building firms together with the cultivation of land parcels along river banks. This provides them with more products for sale, all for the purposes of making profits. Ultimately, these activities from capitalists have brought about the current environmental challenges.  

A further view implicating the role that capitalism has played in the escalation of environmental challenges is propagated by Brown (2006). He has argued that without the intervention of government into capitalistic activities in the business world, business people are inherently going to create mechanisms and externalities focused on destroying the public good, including the natural environment. Consequently, it is only through controlling the activities of the capitalist world that the challenges faced by the environment will be conclusively tackled. Brown (2006) has ironically pointed out that this seems to be an uphill task. This means that the custodian of environment is the government itself turning to capitalism, thus, derailing the efforts of addressing the problem of environment.

This same view is held byBrooks (2006). He has argued that the environmental conservation can be effectively tackled with blessing the merchants of global economic systems. Thus, they accept to direct their efforts towards the collective address of the environment issue. Whether this view remains as seen is an issue of controversy because most governments across the world are built on capitalism. As pointed out byBrooks (2006), “the maximization of profit means finding the cheapest sources, using the cheapest labor and externalizing costs such as the waste disposal and pollution.” This implies that capitalism pays no or little attention to the environment so long as the conditions are necessary to continue making profits. The result of this approach is the destruction of environment both irresponsibly using the environmental components and without disposing harmful wastes to the environment.

Furthermore, Brooks (2006) has argued that the predatory and expandable nature of capitalism has made it difficult to control its effects on the environment. It is not easy to address the environmental challenges posed by capitalism. Thus, apart from holding the resources that could be used to address those challenges, capitalism also infests other regions where the environmental degradation has not reached. The capitalistic tentacles spread through the global economy, globalization, and technological advancements. They have all contributed to the regions that were once crusaders of environmental conservation to turn into the agents of environmental destruction. For example, the continued expansion of the world market systems and synchronization of lifestyles has led to the increase in the production of environmentally unfriendly wastes finding their way into the traditionally conservative regions.

To this end, Esty and Winston (2006) have observed that capitalism has brought about commoditization and privatization of natural components that were once considered as non-market resources. An illustration is the use of timbers and natural soil in the construction of big building in Africa. Initially, the African continent was exclusively a green continent the trees of which were only used for firewood and the soil for cultivation. However, with the arrival of capitalism, these natural resources have been commercialized, wherein trees are fell for the purposes of providing timbers for the construction. The soil is dick out for making bricks. This is further exacerbated by the rapid growth of population in Africa as well as the rapid opening of the continent to the international market. Thus, natural harmful wastes have increasingly started to pile up in Africa with no place to dumb them. Furthermore, the huge factories are being built in Africa as a result of the changing lifestyle that has also led to the production of waste products and the emission of harmful gases into the atmosphere. Thus, this contributes to the global destruction of environment. Magdoff and Foster (2005) have noted that this is a sure way of spreading capitalism being as the devastating effects to the previously conserved environment. The two scholars have contended that, “within this process, technology is constantly developing, affecting the reach and speed of economic circuits, upsetting the process of accumulation, and changing the arithmetic of value” of the environment.

Critical Perspective on the Question of Environmental Challenges

According to Magdoff and Foster (2005), “'what every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism is that it is the root cause of the environmental crisis; and that capitalism is incapable of solving it either by going green or by becoming non-growing”. The argument for the role of capitalism in the destruction of environment has been debated for a long period. Some of the early critics of capitalism as a way of destroying the environment have observed that the cultivation of land for the purposes of producing factory inputs has taken a primitive approach. It was not consciously controlled and, thus, led to the emergence of deserts. This whole issue started with the agrarian revolution in Persia and Mesopotamia where the large scale agriculture for marketing purposes had begun. As such, Magdoff and Foster (2005) have argued that capitalism propagated a system where planning and environmental issues were the secondary priorities in the economy. Further, he argues that the current capitalist system produces the environmental destruction on a much bigger scale than that of ancient times.

Magdoff and Foster (2005) have observed that the question of environmental conservation is far beyond the current discussions. They seem to lay the blame on capitalism as a main cause of environmental degradation. On the other hand, Davis (2011) has argued that capitalism, as a way of free market, is made up of socio-economic systems that are dependent in the established primary institutions, including the private ownership and voluntary exchange. Thus, these two institutions exonerate capitalism from the blame largely contributing to the current environmental challenges as the individuals are given the free will to choose if to conserve the environment which way they deem relevant. Therefore, Davis (2011) has argued that capitalism gives individuals the freedom to pursue self-interest activities that include the efforts to conserve the environment without succumbing to external influences. Further, Davis (2011) has indicated that through capitalism, different communities have been empowered with skills and resources to individually and collectively deal with the problem of environment.

Capitalism has been ahead in encouraging the conservation of natural resources by encouraging individuals to use fewer resources. The global market forces do not encourage the exhaustive use of natural resources, but instead encourage individuals to maximize their production while using fewer resources. The further contribution to the conservation of environment is the recycling of wastes as propagated for by capitalism. Evidently, Foster & Magdoff (2005) have noted that the benefits that capitalism has brought to the efforts to conserve the enormous environment. This is through capitalism that the technological advancement has been realized in the areas of agriculture and sociology. For instance, capitalism is responsible for the advent of new mechanisms for farming that have increased the production per acreage to a hundred fold. This means that more space is available for forests and water catchment areas being important in the conservation of environment.

Kovel (2002) has further argued that if it were not for the principles of capitalism that encouraged innovation and creativity, all land would be cleared down to provide a room for the production of enough food to meet the need of the current world population. Moreover, the discovery of technological tools such as computers has led to a tremendous reduction in the need for paper. This, in itself, has encouraged the felling of trees. Even more important is a fact that capitalism has led to the discovery of renewable resources such as sunlight. It supplements the global energy needs. Thus, if it were left in the hands of socialists, it would have gone out of control leading to the depletion of natural resources used to provide energy. 

Irrespectively of such contributions by capitalists to the efforts of environmental conservation, the further critics have been expounded on this. For instance, Foster and Magdoff (2005) have argued that the principles of capitalism and marketing are founded on the exploitation of both natural and human resources. At the onset of capitalism, capitalists through markets and commodization of natural resources continue to discover not only the new ways of exploiting the environment but also the production of waste products that are harmful to the environment. The challenge to the environment, thus, becomes double ended as capitalism continues to predate on the few remaining natural resources. Consequently, the environmental destruction catches up with other natural elements like the ozone layer. It has been once beyond the reach of human activities. Kovel (2002) has noted that by destroying the ozone layer, capitalism has touched the backbone of environment as the world comes to the bitter realization of global warming and adverse climatic changes. The forests and water catchment areas have started to recede at the alarming rate even as the capitalist world and global economy continue to discover more harmful products through technology.

Furthermore, Homer-Dixon (2001) has argued that the concept of green capitalism, which was supposed to bring on board capitalists to participate in addressing the issue of environmental destruction, also failed. He argues that it has instead only led to the production of the surplus goods through what is known as renewable technologies. Moreover, green capitalism also claims to inculcate measures of waste reclamation and ecotourism as a way of compensating for the environmental destruction. However, these measures still follow the principles of capitalism that requires maximization of profits in everything and, thus, fail to address the issues supposed to be addressed. As noted by Kovel (2002), “while "going green" makes a certain sense within the logic of capitalism, the toxic environment becomes more of the internal cost, or waste can be commoditized and becomes a new source of profits. Such choices do not eliminate the wealth polarization and alienation”. Thus, the wider environmental destruction continues to be manifested across the world through capitalism.  

In contrary to the socialists’ view, Beder (2006) has noted that the solutions to the challenges faced by the environment are entrenched into the social systems than into capitalism as many environmentalists suggest. Evidently, the issue of environmental conservation can be easily solved by changing the economic priorities towards the encouragement of sustainable development and by allocating a given percentage of resources spent on the non-environmental projects to promote the social development. This view is also supported by Magdoff & Foster (2005). They have noted that such measures will call for a total change in economic systems controlling the global markets in the contemporary world. Furthermore, there is the need to change the laws governing the economic activities to ensure that all activities whether social, economic or political address the issue of environment as a priority before any other will definitely bring an end to everything including the capitalists themselves. Ultimately, this requires a change in the economic priorities that capitalists hold safe in their hearts. They reorder the economy that means that the capitalists relinquish some of tenets driven it to where it is now. This is similar to engaging in the fair trade and encouraging the equity in distribution of resources.

According to the US National Academy of the Science Report, many climatic changes witnessed around the world are a result of human activities. Most of human activities in question are a brainchild of the capitalist world encouraging the maximization of profits into every activity. Currently, the rainforests in Amazon and Congo are all being destroyed due to the capitalistic activities creating a higher demand for both land and wood products. The same problem is exacerbated by the rather myopic short term approach. This is an idea spread by capitalism of natural forests that can be selectively harvested and replaced with other trees. The report further indicates that this view is myopic because it does not address the way the land is going to be preserved from other factors as the erosion of soil that occurs when the land is left bare. The current state of land has taken from capitalism few decades to  bring it back to its former state, where the top soil was sufficiently fertile to support agriculture without the need of any artificial manure. However, this is obviously an impossible mission since capitalism continues to take toll on the land and other natural resources without any signs of abating.

The Way Forward

According to Homer-Dixon (2001), the discussions about environmental changes have elicited many concerns from socialists and capitalists in the same measure. Nevertheless, there is still no consensus on how to approach the conservation of environment. However, the measures are being put in place to ensure that the environment is protected from destructive human activities. As noted, much still needs to be done to ensure a holistic approach to the problem of environmental challenges. For instance, the Kyoto protocol established the binding obligations for industrial countries to cut on their emission of greenhouse gases. The protocol has been ratified with almost all the United Nations’ members except the United States. It is aimed at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Similarly, several projects under the Kyoto protocol are a reminiscent of environmental efforts geared towards addressing the problems of environment. They should be reinforced. For instance, a clean development mechanism, emission trading, and joint implementation will ensure that the emission of harmful carbons into the atmosphere has been significantly reduced to avoid the problems of environment. In addition, several firms are adapting to a greening concept where several projects are being specifically designed and funded by big firms to protect the environment. The capitalist world is, therefore, slowly coming to terms with the realities of environmental challenges and, thus, putting in place the mechanisms that will ensure the environment as conserved and preserved.

Furthermore, companies and nongovernmental organizations should continue pushing for the idea of corporate social responsibility becoming mandatory. There the capitalists use a part of profits to support activities directly meant to make the society involved in the efforts of preserving the environment. According to Homer-Dixon (2001), there is a general belief among the capitalists that , “business and society are interwoven rather than distinct entities; therefore, the society has certain expectations for the appropriate business behavior and outcomes” This view is changing the way business and large firms are approaching the issue of environmental conservation with creative ways put in place to encourage other businesses to provide the resources and focuse their efforts on the collective conservation of environment.

Finally, governments should also continue enacting laws and policies that are geared towards bringing awareness to the public on the importance of conserving the environment. They should encourage people to participate in the conservation efforts such as avoiding the cultivation along river banks and conserving forests with planting trees. People should also be encouraged to avoid using forest lands, while at the same being educated on the importance of conserving the environment. 


There is no doubt that the current environmental situation is posing a great danger to the welfare and survival of life on the earth. The rate at which natural resources are depleting cannot be overlooked. Different studies have indicated that the environmental destruction  witnessed across the world is a result of human activities. Addressing the effects of these human activities is a challenge because the same is seen as the source of livelihood to human beings. Furthermore, addressing the issue from a marketing point of view complicates the whole issue of environmental conservation. It touches some of fundamental principles of capitalism. Capitalism itself claims to have instituted measures that will contribute to the conservation of environment like community projects, technological advancements and reclaiming of waste lands. The discovery of renewable energy sources is important among others. However, the same innovations continue to put strain on the environment through the creation of harmful ones.

In the light of several ongoing efforts, it can be argued that the environmental conservation can be achieved even with the current capitalist economy. Once the business world is brought to the understanding of implications of destroying the environment, several firms and governments will come together to find the better ways of exploiting the natural resources without causing any harm to the environment. At the same time, they will ensure that the environment is conserved to reverse the already destructive effects that the global economy has caused. Further, a unified approach to environmental problems by all stakeholders will ensure that the world continues to replenish the lost resources. However, this can only be achieved if there is the goodwill from both capitalists and socialists to address the problem of environmental degradation.

From the above analysis, it clears that the problem of environmental changes is an issue being important to the existence of life on the earth. The arguments as to whether the contemporary environmental challenges can be successfully overcome in the light of a capitalistic economic system can take ages to be concluded. In the midst of these arguments is the continual destruction of environment and the depletion of natural resources.

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