Climate Change, Species Extinction and Capitalism

As the US Northeast experiences record snowfalls during this winter, Vice President Al Gore has been the butt of jokes from those who argue that Climate Change or rather, Global Warming, isn't happening. Mr. Gore responded with a strong opinion piece in the New York Times pointing out why the record snowfall is consistent with climate change theory and urging the Senate to pass climate change legislation. It is a testimonial to the propaganda power of the fossil fuel interests that Mr. Gore had to write such a rebuttal after the world experienced the hottest decade in recorded human history.

Meanwhile, the UK Met office is predicting a worst-case temperature rise of 13-18 deg F for the continental US... This prediction takes into account carbon feedback cycles that were absent in all the IPCC predictions to date, i.e., it is closer to reality. (For more on this, please see Dan Miller's excellent talk on Fora TV.) Temperature rises of such magnitude in the next 50 years, within the lifetimes of some of us, would be devastating for the vast majority of complex life on the planet.
 

 


How did we come to this dire situation? Contrary to the popular belief that every generation left a more prosperous world for the next generation in human history, it appears that every generation merely left better tools for the next generation to exploit the riches of our planet. As these tools became more and more powerful and human numbers increased, human exploitation of the planet's riches has now reached epic proportions and this is overwhelming the life-sustaining capacity of the planet. Though less than 0.5% of the biomass on the planet, humans are now consuming nearly a quarter of the photosynthetic output of the planet, with just one-fourth of the humans doing most of the consumption.

Billy Joel was right when he sang that "we didn't start the fire; it was always burning since the world's been turning." However, the fire has reached conflagration proportions over the years and our generation is now faced with the responsibility of putting it out as it is threatening to engulf the planet and extinguish most complex life on it. Ours is the generation of leaders at this critical moment in human existence, whether we like it or not.

The NY Times journalist, Chris Hedges, is declaring that Capitalism is the culprit and Corporations have won and that while we must continue to resist, ... significant change will probably never occur in our lifetime. He appears to believe that there is a clique of greedy, self-interested industrialists - the Illuminati, if you will - who are working hard to kill all life on the planet in the service of Mammon.

Having worked in a couple of large corporations, I have a different take on what's happening. The corporate CEOs I knew were not diabolical enough to concoct such suicidal conspiracies. Yet, these CEOs were also gunning for breakneck development schedules and huge quarterly profits to satisfy the growth demands of their shareholders. Ultimately, the hedonistic treadmill that these corporations were contributing towards was mainly fueled by the greed and self-interest of many millions of shareholders, who all wanted to make huge profits on their stock portfolios and expected the corporation to remain a permanent growth story. Sort of like, cancer cells.

Perhaps, the denial industry on climate change stems from the fear that all solutions eventually require a massive cultural shift away from greed and self-interest that form the basis of modern day capitalism. In fact, we can make a strong case that if humans don't stop being greedy, become empathetic towards other species and reverse their habitat losses, this Sixth Great Extinction event will continue unabated, with or without climate change playing a major role in the extinction event. Such habitat losses mainly occur because of our increasing consumption of animal products through our dietary choices, which account for the majority of the photosynthetic output of the planet that we consume.

However, capitalism itself does not compel people to become greedy and self-interested any more than a mixed company gathering compels the attendees to engage in debauchery. Adam Smith himself used the term "enlightened self-interest" as the motivating force behind capitalism, not greed and naked self-interest, and warned that capitalism could degenerate into the "endless pursuit of unnecessary things" if man's lower instincts took over. Sort of like, modern day capitalism. And, self-interest is perhaps never more enlightened than when voluntarily allocating capital to preserve life on earth for generations to come.

Would it not be truly empowering if the hedonistic treadmill is fueled by the actions of each one of us and not just by the evil machinations of a few, because then, we can stop fueling it with our actions. I, for one, pledge not to purchase any "stuff" for this calendar year and will make do with what I have, come what may. Of course, that's in addition to the "Ahimsan pledge" not to consume any animal products for the rest of my life. I'm in the second year of the Ahimsan pledge and I never felt better in my life!

As Mr. Gore quoted Winston Churchill, "Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required."