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At A Crossroad: Profit or The Environment - A Perspective Piece


Before our very eyes, it is evident that the majority of the world has shifted its focus from altruism to “What is in this for me?”. Of course, we have many organizations and foundations donating huge sums of money to one cause or the other, and indeed, I feel honored to read about news like that. 


However, my point still stands that the world has embraced capitalism in every facet. The hunger and thirst to make as much money as can be permitted is on the rise daily. Look around you. Capitalism has held us by the jugular. Whenever people are speaking these days, the question almost now and then is: How much profit can we make? 


This isn’t different from what we see regarding environmental protection. I believe the biggest obstacle to our attainment of certain goals as far as the environment is concerned is capitalism. We cannot make significant progress if our environment is constantly seen as a cash cow. 

Image: @Happylittlefishes


Despite numerous environmental laws passed by several governments of the world, little to nothing has been achieved because these laws are only on paper and haven’t been implemented. 


The popular statement you hear when questions are asked about how we can prevent climate change and save our environment is to eat less meat, save electricity, use public transport, buy sustainable brands, etc. However, we are always for one reason or the other, neglecting the elephant in the room. 


How Did We Get Here?


Capitalism in itself isn’t a bad concept. It is an economic system whose ultimate objective is to make a profit. I have come to believe that its profit-centric approach is a double-edged sword. Capitalists go to whatever length to make such profit. 


It can have a positive advantage in that it is a source of motivation and drive to succeed but a negative in the fact that how this profit is gotten can be questionable.


I have discovered that firms in the capitalist web are usually under enormous pressure to cut costs as a way to increase profit margins. The belief is that if a firm doesn’t cut costs to reinvest in the growth of its firm, its competitors will. In such a situation, the competitor will gradually push that firm that has failed to cut costs out of the market. 

The issue isn’t necessarily cutting costs. The question I usually ask is: Who bears the brunt of the cost-cutting? Well, the answer is straightforward. Erik Wright, an economic sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provided the answer.


Erik Wright stated that the environment is usually the point of call when capitalists are seeking outlets to project some of that cost. For instance, instead of firms investing in the proper disposal of waste, they opt to dispose of it in the ocean. That is the most common example of cost-cutting. 


No matter how much these companies make, their objective is to further make more money. Hence, there’s no obligation to do the right thing. The market dynamics in capitalist settings do not provide any mechanism to check these behaviors. 


Except there’s an intervention from the state or organized social forces like Greenpeace, these behaviors go unchecked. Even with the states, I have noticed a deliberate reluctance to checkmate the practices of these capitalists. The reason for such action is too obvious even to the blind. 


In addition, there’s been tremendous growth around the world in the last few decades. The price of non-renewable natural resources under a capitalist setting is believed to be organized around short-term goals without factoring in the finite nature of the resources at their disposal. 


So many capitalists and I daresay, capitalists in general never think long-term. Their approach is how to get more on a short-term basis.

If they had a long-term approach to their policies, they’d have realized that some of their actions would not only have adverse effects on the environment but humans in general. The rate of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere has increased drastically since the mid-1990s. 


The motto for the mid-1990s, coincidentally, hinged on strong economic growth in developing countries that were known to consume huge amounts of oil, gas, and other natural resources. China and India were huge beneficiaries of this. 


The global economic giants both grew their economies rapidly over the last 20 years on non-renewable natural resources which emitted high levels of carbon emissions. These natural resources tend to be underpriced since their future value isn’t taken into consideration in terms of supply and demand. 


Margaret Slade on behalf of the World Bank believes that the underpricing of these natural resources is largely responsible for the huge negative impact the environment is facing. 


What Margaret Slade meant in her study is that buyers of these resources tend to over-consume these resources since they may be unaware of their prices in the market. A typical example is the fluctuating oil prices produced by the Persian Gulf States.


The International Energy Agency predicted in 2010 that by 2030, global energy use will increase by 50 percent with fossil fuel featuring majorly as a source of energy. That will impact the rate of climate change at a negative level. 


Fast fashion creates lots of water pollution through the release of greenhouse gases. It is believed to account for 20 percent of global wastewater. This experts say, contributes to 10 percent of the global carbon emissions. Polyester, one of the key materials used in fast fashion harms the environment. 


According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ), around 35 percent of all the non-biodegradable microplastics in the ocean are there because of synthetic fabrics that have been made by the fashion industry. 


It is such a bitter pill to swallow but we must be objective about our analysis. Several instances have shown that capitalism is incompatible with social justice and living in harmony with the environment.


How Do We Solve This? 


When discussing this, many have suggested things like rapidly phasing out all fossil fuels, large-scale investment in renewable energy, etc. However, there is more to be done than merely providing academic solutions. 


At the start of our discussion, I pointed out that the arrangement in the capitalist world doesn’t give any avenue to mitigate the hazards the environment suffers due to large-scale production and consumption. 


The first thing therefore that needs to be done is for there to be a non-market intervention that would help to contain the damages that will be inflicted on the environment. 


Can this non-market intervention be handled by the state? To a large extent, it can. However, we have seen in several instances that some governments across the world collude. So these environmental policies are only there on paper. 


They haven’t been implemented because government officials take bribes and all forms of inducements from these large-scale capitalists.  In such situations, it would be impossible to expect any form of action from the government and its regulatory bodies. 


In many countries, the state is under the control of influential capitalist because they are directly or indirectly responsible for funding their campaigns or elections. Naturally, the state will not take any concrete steps to stem the tide. 


The last hope of non-market intervention is social forces. A lot of democratic countries have freedom of expression ingrained in their constitution; and two ways to exercise this right are activism and protests. 

In the last few years, there have arisen several environmental advocacy groups that are holding capitalists all around the world to account. These groups may be able to force the state to impose certain restrictions on the firms and conduct regular inspections. 


However, international cooperation will be crucial to the long-term goals of such groups. As a unit, we must pull resources, talent, energy, and time to safeguard our environment. 


The ozone layer is depleting at an alarming rate, air around towns and cities is becoming unsafe for humans and major water bodies are getting filled with all sorts of contaminants daily. 


That is not all. Soils are no longer fit for farming because all sorts of chemicals have been used on them in the name of improving crop yields, fishes and other creatures in the ocean are going extinct at a rate we have not witnessed before.


We can make as much money as we can but what does it benefit you and I if we do not have a clean, healthy, and safe environment in which to enjoy that money? 

Finally, we all have to pick a side. Whether we want to make more profit and damn the environment or reduce our profit margins but retain our environment. 


Astronauts are working overtime to discover whether other plants aside from Earth, support life. So, I don’t know if many capitalists around the world are hoping to make as much money as they can at the Earth’s expense with the hopes of enjoying their wealth on planets such as Mars, or Jupiter. 


Nonetheless, Earth is still our home and the onus is on all of us to think about its long-term survival; because when push comes to shove, we have nowhere else to go. 


Thanks for Reading!


By: Jude Odeh


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“When push comes to shove, we really don’t have anywhere to run to”… (“Power is power”, a quote from a movie series I watched), if capitalist through its financial powers have reached a level where they can’t be held to proportionate level as the damage done to the environment, it becomes a problem to the environment in the long run. After all, what is losing a little money to fines to haul in even more profit.


Nice read!!!

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