The current environmental challenges have taken humankind by surprise, both skeptics and believers in the concept of environmental conservation. Before the realization of retreating coastal shores and the development of ozone holes, it was easier for some people to dismiss the dangers of environmental degradation as a scare from socialists who were out to defeat the operations of a capitalist world. However, with time the changing climates, retreating and disappearance of rivers, as well as the general hostility that most of inhabitable areas started exhibiting have forced both the capitalists and the socialists to go back to the discussion table with a view of coming up with a lasting solution to the challenges of environmental preservation. Much research has been done in trying to explain why and how the environment is slowly becoming unfriendly to life as it has been since time immemorial.
One of the arguments advanced by Magdoff & Foster (2005) is that the kind of environmental destruction that the world has had to bear during the last fifty years surpasses all destructive activities that humankind may have ever inflicted on the environment. The issue of environmental concern came to the limelight with the nuclear revolution immediately after the World War II. This is because of the radioactive materials that were released in the environment. However, environmental destruction is as old as capitalism, given that capitalism is premised on the principle of making profit regardless of that particular activity’s associated risks. The paper examines the views of traditional supporters, who argue that environmental challenges can be effectively addressed even with the ongoing capitalism as a driving force in the global economy. It also examines the assumption that addressing the environmental challenges cannot occur with the capitalism in place.
The interrelatedness of environment and capitalism can be blurred especially from a capitalistic point of view. This is especially where certain activities in the global economy seem to provide better solution to the challenges that human beings face. One argument for the role played by capitalism has been that it has led to the discovery of renewable resources that are relieving Mother Nature of the responsibility of having to replenish the used resources. Furthermore, a big assumption and one which might turn out to be so dangerous was the capitalistic belief that some natural resources, such as air, land, and water, were simply unlimited resources that Mother Nature would simply replenish once they are used. It is difficult to explain how the air that people breathe could be depleted, it was simply impossible. In the meantime, forests were cleared up to make land for building of more smoke emitting factories and opening up of water catchment areas and exposing them to unfriendly conditions.
As argued by Polychroniou (2009), the contemporary environmental concerns have come to take humankind not so by surprise, given the fact that the last 50 years have seen a destruction of the environment that exceeds the rest of human effects realized before that period. The spread of global economy through capitalism created a situation where localized destructive activities to the environment became widespread throughout the entire world. The earth has resilience in renewing its resources, but in cases where the destructive activities are widespread and human population is growing, it has become seemingly impossible for Mother Nature to replenish its destroyed resources. This has in process exposed humankind to an imminent danger of being wiped out.
With the realization of this danger, the topic of environmental conservation continues to elicit much discussion and argument in the international arena with views coming from two polar opposites. On the one hand are those who view environmental destruction as a function of the capitalistic world and on the other hand those who view the environmental destruction as a collective responsibility of the human activities regardless of whether they are socialists or capitalists. The most important issue in this ongoing debate is not whether one faction can prove the other as the cause of environmental destruction but rather the ability to come up with a tenable answer to a lingering danger. One major question has been to determine if the environmental conservation can be managed with the global economy in place as outlined by the principles of capitalism. This paper critically examines the available literature to determine if contemporarymost difficult environmental challenges can be successfully overcome as long as the global economic system remains capitalistic.
One of the ensuing proposal, put forward by Homer-Dixon (2001), concerning environmental challenges is that, “the largest part of the problem has its origin in the functioning of the world’s economy as it has developed in the last three or four centuries.” This definitely puts capitalism in the center of the controversy surrounding the circumstances that initiate and sustain environmental degradation and how collective effort from such point of view can help stop the destruction of our environment. The widespread environmental challenges, as they stand out now, coincided with a period of industrial revolution and technological advancements, such as emergence of coal, steam, and railroads in many countries around the world, the global use of steel, electricity, and chemicals in homes and in factories, the large-scale use of petroleum in general and by automobiles in particular, as well as the overall mechanization and chemicalization of agriculture (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 1999). The Malthusians also add the unprecedented explosion and increase in urbanization and that of the population around the world resulting from the increased capabilities of production and good health care services as also contributing to this problem. The above list is no less exhaustive but only gives an overview of the nature of elements that cause environmental destruction and the role that capitalism generally plays in exacerbating the environmental challenges.
Cunningham & Saigo (2005) argue that the environment is under a "dismal litany of problems.” The environmentalists further noted that an ever increasing population in the world also related to the depletion of natural resources, such as land, air, water, energy and food resources. Additionally, the two noted that an unparalleled loss of biodiversity in history at the dawn of the 21st century was experienced on the earth. In his view, Brooks (2006) consents with their observation by indicating that, “the environmental problems and the potential environmental catastrophe we face are a direct result of the capitalist system”. The environmental challenges are fixed with a serious “polarization of global wealth and poverty” (Cunningham & Saigo, 2005). With the increase in capitalism, wealth ownership and the ultimate control of the world systems have become concentrated in the hands of a few people that it is difficult to sufficiently address the challenges of environment by rubbing shoulders with the wealthy capitalists. As more people are plunged into an abyss of poverty, the few enriching individuals continue to amass power to control production and exploitation of natural resources and therefore exacerbate the problem of environmental destruction, since the mechanisms they employ in the process are only meant at benefiting them alone.
Capitalism and Sustainable Environment
According to Hardin (1982), the current economic activities have been designed to control the usability of natural resources that provided the bulk of the raw materials used in the production of goods. The principles of capitalism have played a crucial role in enhancing the global economy by developing systems and mechanisms that ensure natural resources are used sparingly. This is in line with the traditional perspective on how capitalism plays a big role in conserving the environment through the technological advancements witnessed in the last fifty years. Hardin (1982) further argued that contrary to the popular view of some socialists and communists, the current environmental challenges that the world is facing are far from being a result of the capitalistic approaches, adopted during the industrial revolution. Evidently, the so-called capitalists are continuously dedicating a good percentage of their financial and human resources to the conservation efforts, aimed at warding off the challenges of the environment. Many companies such as General Electric, Unilever, and Nestle are using technological advancements to ensure that the products that they manufacture are eco-friendly and limit the production of harmful wastes into the atmosphere(Davis, 2011).
Brooks (2006) observed that many proponents of capitalism have pointed out to numerous activities that the global economy is doing to address the challenge of environmental degradation. Different companies have earmarked areas that need to be addressed through corporate social responsibility to mitigate the problem of environment. Through various international efforts, the production processes and disposal of waste are both being transformed in an effort to ensure the they do not result in straining natural resources or destroying some of the protective layers, like the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Characteristically, the efforts have received an international attention with the corporate world showing their interest to participate in the activities of conservation. Several governments, which are essentially capitalistic in their approach to doing business, are also involved in the conservation efforts and are increasingly coming together to chat the way forward. Through financial support, capitalism is rallying different communities to plant trees as an effort of recovering the forest cover, which is important in replenishing the natural air. This is done together with a proposal to cut down on the production of carbon gases in factories by adapting to more environmental friendly production methods.
Traditional Perspective on Challenges of Environment
According to Brooks (2006), the nature of capitalism to rely on the exploitation of natural resources for purposes of making profit has caused the earth to lose its capacity to replenish the exploited resources. Furthermore, the systems of capitalism put a hindrance to address the challenges, facing environment, because capitalism itself controls and manages the resources that could be used to address the challenges. As such, Brooks (2006) noted that a conclusive address of the challenges solely depend on the willingness and goodwill from capitalists to set aside some of the profits that they make for the conservation efforts. The world is already under the threat of becoming an inhabitable place for most of the life forms, owing to the large number of species that are extinct.
Consequently, the global economy has become too much dependent on the natural resources that are available in the environment. The close dependence creates a parasitic system where the global economy relies on the natural resources but lacks the mechanisms to address the ensuing challenges resulting from the use of natural resources. The concepts of globalization, global economy, and technological advancement among others have all contributed to the spread of capitalism across the world and therefore they affect areas, once shielded from the destructive activities of humankind (Homer-Dixon, 2001; Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 1999; Cunningham & Saigo, 2005 and Hardin, 1982). Apart from directly affecting the environment through massive exploitation of natural resources, capitalism has also spread to other areas that were once a pinnacle of natural resources and therefore ensured that the earth had no place remaining unexploited. The spread of capitalism has made it difficult for the world to address the challenges facing the environmental because it has all the resources, needed to solve the environmental challenges.
The principles of production and marketing have been the mainstay of capitalism, which aims at having new businesses in the world that maximizes overall profit that business people get (Beder, 2006). Because profit is attached to every activity, it is difficult for capitalism to come up with long-term measures that are going to address the challenges of environment. Each of the undertakings, that the capital world is doing, is however detached from the issue of profit and must eventually end up profiting some individuals. As noted by Homer-Dixon (2001), the problem is not the making of profit but rather the sustainability and eco-friendliness of such ventures. He noted that as long as the activity ends up producing profits, it means that the measures of addressing the environmental implications are compromised and therefore cannot be sustained. The picture created is that the main concerns of capitalism is to continually come up with exploitative ways that will ensure that the natural resources are utilized with the aim of making profits, while paying little attention to the resultant effects on the environment.
The emergence of capitalism encouraged the establishment of factories and industries that produced a high amount of wastes both in terms of gases and solid wastes. It also encouraged clearing of forests for large scale building and the use of chemicals in agriculture (Beder, 2006). Coupled with increasing population around the world, the combined efforts have continued to put pressure on the environment through depletion of natural resources. The pace at which the earth is losing resources does not therefore match with the pace at which human beings are exploiting those resources. Furthermore, the situation is made worse by the production of harmful wastes that are finding their way into the various water bodies like seas and oceans, which played an important role in the renewal of the depleted resources. In essence, the environment is attacked from both sides, disrupting the process of replenishing that the earth can afford. The global economy is also stressing on marketing strategies that encourage unhealthy competition among the people and in the process derailing the progress towards conservation efforts. Capitalism thus creates an unbreakable system that together with promoting the environmental challenges makes it impossible to effectively address the problem of environmental destruction(Pena, 2012).
In general, the environmentalists` approach implies an existence of inherent exchange between the environment and a capitalistic world. While the exchange is inevitable between the two, the capitalistic world preys on the environment so much without paying attention to the environmental implications. Lenox (2001), Willard (2002), as well as Esty & Winston (2006) indicated that the influence of capitalism on the environment through creativity and innovation negatively affects the capacity of the earth to replenish the natural resources that are provided for by the environment. The greening programs, instituted by many capitalists, are yet to produce a quantifiable impact on the conservation efforts because they are offset by the increasing activities that the programs seek to address.
In addition, from the time when the impression of environmental degradation was perceived, much has been discussed on the role of the economic world in the contribution to the contemporary environmental condition as environmentalists point out to one reason after another to justify the claim that that capitalism is the main cause of the environmental degradation. The proponents of capitalism also formulate their ways of justifying their innocence in the environmental woes facing the humankind and further initiating programs that are meant to alleviate the challenges of environment (Willard, 2002).
The global economy is forcing many governments and corporate bodies to consider ways of improving the markets. The technological innovations also start to play an important role in discovering new sources of energy, which can be renewed, as a way of addressing environmental challenges (Esty &Winston, 2006). The discovery of new sources of energy is providing the much needed source of energy to the capitalism. The world is moving from a production dependent economy, where large factories manufacture products through friendlier methods. It is also notable that a new form of economic activities that is not dependent on the natural resources is being introduced and this is likely going to contribute immensely to the ongoing conservation efforts. The use of technology is also going to reduce the need for large quantity of raw materials, which are essentially derived from the environment. For instance, the efforts to make motor vehicles that use oxygen instead of the traditional fuel is posed to reduce the dependence on the fuels, production of which poses a threat to the physical form of the environment. Another benefit from this effort is reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide that vehicles emit into the air and which contributes largely to the amount of harmful gases in the atmosphere (Lenox, 2001).
Although it is going to address the problem of environmental degradation, a challenge may arise in future about the disposal of waste products that result from the use of metals and other materials used in auto manufacturing. This therefore shows that capitalism cannot fully absolve itself from the problem of environment, since its products will no doubt contribute to the destructive mechanisms to the environment. As such, Hardin (1982) indicated that the principles of capitalism and global economy are in direct conflict with the conservation programs that they purport to implement since each activity finally results in the wastes or something that will harm the environment in the future. The only solution seems to be that of going back to the socialist approaches that advocate for a purely natural agriculture with a sedentary lifestyle to avoid movement of people from one region to another. According to the current systems in operation, this is an impossible approach since the world parts became so integrated and so dependent on one another to the extent that restricted movement and a sedentary lifestyle cannot be achieved. The growing population also complicates the whole issue because people can no longer produce enough for themselves without interacting with others from different parts of the world. It is a system that promotes dependence on each other and more on the natural resources that people are expected to conserve (Cunningham & Saigo, 2005).
However, the conservation of environment has been undertaken by several corporations that are marshalling their efforts towards establishment of an eco-friendly production. The community initiatives that receive support from the capitalists are aimed at improving the environmental situation. This is done through the adoption of systems and measures such as planting of trees and safer disposal of wastes. According to Werbach (2009), the increase in capitalist ventures and initiatives is an indication that capitalists are willing to participate in the conservation activities, therefore playing an important role in the general approach to the whole issue of conservation. Evidently, this is going to contribute to the solution of the environmental challenges since the capitalists have the financial powers, which can be used to solve the problems.
But as Hardin (1982) noted, this is going to depend largely on the willingness of some of the biggest polluters of the environment, like the United States, which did not sign the Kyoto protocol. Agreeably, the capitalist world holds the means to control the views that are not in favor of their approaches. However, as Cunningham & Saigo (2005) noted, conservation of the environment is a crucial issue that cuts across the traditional issues of the social status and links the rich and the poor in the same fate that will definitely befall the humankind. Therefore, Cunningham & Saigo (2005) suggested that there should a proper approach to discussions about environment given that everyone is affected when the environment is destructed.
Generally,Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2011) argued thatthe production and marketing strategies together with the ongoing discussions about environmental conservation can be successfully implemented through the coordination of activities and efforts that have been previously scanty amongst the capitalists and the socialists alike. The converging of efforts and establishment of better means of production will go a long way in ensuring that the environment is conserved and that the earth is empowered to replenish the lost resources. Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2011) further argued that reduction in the emission of harmful gases will ensure that the ozone layer, which protects the environment from harmful ultra violet rays, is kept intact and replenished through natural mechanisms. The world can only achieve this through a conscious approach on addressing environmental challenges in a proactive and objective manner. This means that capitalism as well as socialism will need to play their part in bringing the world to knowledge and appreciation of the imminent danger that the world is facing. This will bring an awakening in the mindset of people and especially those who are making the earth to lose its capacity to renew natural resources to be considerate in the resources exploitation.
The onus of environmental conservation is thus left on the governments, which are expected to design laws that are going to regulate the marketplace, so that each activity that is taking place in the environment is aimed at delivering the general good to the society. There is a need for a collective realization that capitalism, communism, or socialism cannot produce the sustainable redistribution of materials, together with controlling the population increase, which is essential in the control of environmental destruction(Pena, 2012). The existing challenge can be surmounted and unprecedented coupled with the social, political, and economic challenges, but a concerted approach should be adopted, given the fact that there is no way to ignore the environment because sooner or later the effects will influence the human beings when the environment is completely destructed.
Research evidence indicated a looming danger to humankind in terms of environmental factors, thus rendering it increasingly impossible for the earth to effectively support life in general. This is evident in the continual recession of the most important natural resources, such as land and water, which are increasingly becoming unable to support sufficient production. On the one hand, capitalism has plunged into frantic efforts to address the challenges of environmental concerns. While this issue is a matter of life and death for human beings in particular and life on earth in general, the issue is always received with political pronouncements and unfounded oppositions by some capitalist leaders. However, an important point that seems to be swallowed up amid the discussions, surrounding the issue, is that environmental depletion will definitely affect everybody alike.
Several obstacles hinder the efficient development of conservation activities that the environment requires so much. The intertwined nature of some of the destructive activities with the livelihood of thousands and perhaps millions of people continue to be a thorny issue, since addressing environmental problems will definitely affect the people’s lives. However, people themselves have an option of either choosing to address the problem and save the earth from environmental destruction or to continue with the activities and face the consequences. Addressing the challenges seems to be the most tenable option. Many corporations and governments that were producing a lot of wastes have already embarked on corrective measures and are adapting eco-friendly production. The Kyoto protocol is one of such efforts that have been undertaken by several governments towards creating a carbon free environment or at least cut down on the amount of carbon that they produce. Although the plan is still facing a number of challenges in terms of support, it can be argued that the capital world is taking a bold step towards addressing environmental challenges.
In light of the ongoing efforts, this paper concludes that environmental challenges can be addressed through capitalism. It is argued that the activities that led to the environmental destruction were instituted by man and in the same way people can address those activities if there is a collective will to do so. The foregoing analysis indicates that the existence of life on earth is dependent on the steps that are going to be taken towards solving the problem of environmental destruction. The discussions, surrounding the causes of environmental destruction, can be fruitful as far as capitalism and socialism world are both willing to approach it with an objective mind. The center stage that needs to be agreed on first is that the world, in which people live, is under the threat of total destruction and therefore there is an urgent need to address such a problem.