Seize the Means of Carbon Production

Why capitalism is bound to fail in its half-baked efforts to tackle the existential crisis.

If there were a single question on climate change during Tuesday’s Democratic debate, we likely would have heard the same lukewarm talking points that bombard voters whenever they have the nerve to ask about our impending doom. A carbon tax would’ve been mentioned, with some tepid debate over it. The same goes for nuclear power, a favorite of Cory Booker. The need to expand natural gas, a long-heralded ‘transition fuel,’ might have been touted by Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden. Even Elizabeth Warren, a self-proclaimed progressive, wants to base climate change action around the oxymoron ‘green manufacturing,’ which is reliant on the idea that eternal demand for more stuff is compatible with a sustainable lifestyle. (Spoiler: it’s not.)

All these candidates’ plans converge somewhere: harnessing the powers of the almighty market forces to tackle climate change in the classic American way — producing more stuff. It’s how we got over the Great Depression, and, to a certain extent, the Great Recession, too. Americans like stuff. We like letting the market do its thing. But this compulsive production of stuff and complete deference to the market has filled our oceans to the brim with plastic. It’s flooded our landfills with dangerous chemicals, and infiltrated our groundwater with cancer-causing compounds. It’s the litter you see on the sidewalk, and the packaging you throw away on just about everything you buy. It’s the invisible emissions that are causing the hundred-year storms you see every time you turn on the TV.

The truth is, when we let the market do its thing, we get climate change. The industrial revolution is the sole reason humanity was able to produce this much carbon in such a geologically short timespan. Now, companies like Shell and Exxon are holding society hostage because they have won the market. Capitalism gives them no reason to care about the wellbeing of society — their only concern is the safety of their profit margins.

Capitalism, at its heart, is an economic system based on self-interest alone. Many self-proclaimed capitalists embrace that fact. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of ... the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That’s why fossil fuel companies can do what they do. But it’s also why climate plans that keep the market for energy intact will always fail. There is no market left to be won. If we as a species want any hope of a survivable future, we must intervene in the market and promote the interests of society ahead of the interests of profit. For too long, we have allowed the lines between ‘profit’ and ‘social good’ to blur.

If capitalism does not promote welfare for the sake of welfare, or human progress for the sake of human progress, then it, like any other selfish system, is prone to the tragedy of the commons. The ultimate motivation of profit or making a killing at the end of the cycle of innovation will always be a hindrance to progress on climate change. The wealthy executives at the helm of the fossil fuel industry have no motivation, under capitalism, to care about the well being of their fellow human beings or the earth from which they have made their profits. If we actively promote, as a society, an economic system in which selfishness is the prime virtue, then that’s exactly what we’ll get — and the state of the planet will reflect what we chose.