Capitalism, Socialism, and the Environment

Jason Fehrnstrom, Scarlet Staff

A landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an ominous, urgent report that indicates the world may see a precipitous ecological unraveling in merely two decades. The panel had been developing this report since 2015, when it was commissioned to do so under the Paris Agreement.

According to the panel, if current emissions trends continue, the atmosphere will likely warm up as much as 2.7 degrees above level found in the preindustrial era. If this were to happen, coastal regions would become less habitable, increasingly extreme weather events would happen with regularity, agricultural difficulties would lead to massive food shortages, and much more.

Moreover, the panel indicates that averting this crisis would require “rapid and far-reaching transformations” to human activity to happen at a “speed and scale” with “no documented historic precedent.” While these changes may be technically possible, according to the panelists, they are politically unlikely, given the perennial inability of individual countries and intergovernmental associations to properly regulate carbon emissions.

These revelations are politically and emotionally paralyzing. The magnitude of the crisis is inconceivably large and much of the damage is irreparable. Despair starts to set in during times like this, which inevitably leads to the search for a scapegoat. For many, the obvious culprit is the entire capitalist system. Moreover, according to this line of thinking, a socialist economy would be a panacea to cure all environmental ills.

Certainly, there is merit and value to this argument. Capitalism is a big part of the story of environmental degradation. Capitalist ideology dictates that if each person follows his or her interests, the general welfare of all will be promoted. This philosophical tenet of classical liberal capitalism is difficult to reconcile with present circumstances. Fossil Fuel magnates who are following their own interests are doing so at the expense of many.

Moreover, Market economies encourage short-term decision making that revolves around quarterly earnings reports, thereby ignoring the long-term consequences of expedient, irresponsible resource use. Growth is sought at any cost.

Yet, not all economic growth is capitalist. Socialist entities, past and present, that vociferously repudiate free enterprise do not have the greatest track record either. Indeed, the profit motive is not the monolithic cause of environmental degradation.

if current emissions trends continue, the atmosphere will likely warm up as much as 2.7 degrees above level…

The Soviet Union is a great example. The Soviets may not have been concerned with private property or the profit motive. However, they were determined to economically grow in such a way as to catch up with, and eventually outmatch, their western adversaries.

The Soviets relentlessly pursued economic growth at the expense of the natural world. Today, Russia, the largest component of the former Soviet Union, has the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s worst air pollution.

Furthermore, former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan are still dealing with the consequences of failed Soviet irrigation and water diversion projects. The Aral Sea, which is located in Kazakhstan, used to be the fourth largest sea in the world. Today, it is only ten percent of its original size.

Perhaps discussing the ecological merits of The Soviet Union is a bit anachronistic. A more contemporary example may be fitting. Venezuela has had a string of leaders who have positioned themselves as bulwarks against the world capitalist order. In spite of denouncing the profit motive, they still have the second highest deforestation rate in South America. Moreover, their entire economy practically relied on exportation of fossil fuels, which significantly contribute to environmental degradation.

It is expedient and reductive to assign the totality of the blame to either of these economic phenomena. Free-marketeers and ardent socialists have both exploited nature in order to achieve their strategic ends.  

In this crucial moment, it is imperative that we not think about economic systems in strict either-or terms. In order to meet this crisis, the world ought to harness those qualities of free market economies that foster the technological innovation needed to meet this crisis. Indeed, this is already occurring. Solar Panels and renewable energies are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable by the year in the market.

However, this free market economy must not be unmitigated and unchecked. Representatives must create robust regulations that are designed in such a way to create harmony between human economic activity and the natural world. Where regulations are insufficient, the state may need to adopt nationalize certain industries and sectors as one would see in a socialist style economy.  


Source→ three paragraph quotes)

Russia info→  

Venezuela Stats→

Aral Sea info→