Monday, March 10, 2008

Capitalism As If The World Matters

Some quotes from Jonathon Porritt's seminal text on eco-economics.

"'Development without growth' is precisely the kind of talk that sends shivers down the spines of all good capitalists. But the self-inflicted blindness of contemporary capitalism to the laws of thermodynamics is the first and most problematic barrier to reconciling capitalism and sustainability. It is by no means the only barrier."

". . . at the heart of the issue of scale lurks the vexed issues of population growth. Cut it which way you will, growing populations necessitate growing economies to provide more food, more houses, more services, more teachers, more doctors and more jobs. Growth-bound economists and politically correct environmentalists conspire to keep the issue of population off the agenda, obscuring the incontrovertible reality that every extra human being makes it just a little bit harder to find ways of living within the Earth's limited carrying capacity. It would, however, seem unreasonable to lay the blame for this uniquely at the door of capitalism. Religion, ignorance, prejudice and political cowardice have at least as much to answer for."

"Within any capitalist system, to be 'uncompetitive' at either the company level or at nation-state level, is to fail. It is as simple as that. Competition for customers, competition for capital, competition for talent and competition for reputation and brand value: it is competitiveness that sorts out the capitalist sheep from the capitalist goats. Competition has become both dominant and deeply divisive, as pointed out by Tony Stebbing and Gordon Heath:
"Competition makes economies inherently unstable and leads to the extinction of businesses through dominance and monopoly. The wide-spread belief that the competitive process must permeate every aspect of life is damaging the global environment since the pace of economic activity exceeds the capacity to assimilate polluting consequences. Competition drives the rate of economic activity towards the maximum energy and resource use. It is unsustainable because there are no intrinsic controls upon the pace of economic activity." (Stebbing and Heath, 2003)
However, as we have already seen, competition itself need not necessarily pose such a dilemma. In terms of the efficient use of both resources and capital, the challenge to eke out maximum economic value for every unit of energy and raw material is as critical to sustainability as it should be to commercial success. The problem is not competition per se, but the incorrect valuation of resources and inadequate levels of regulation to create a level playing field conducive to sustainability.

This is probably a judgement that most people would arrive at instinctively anyway. Populist interpretations of evolution, from Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley onwards, have accustomed people to the idea of nature being 'red in tooth and claw', with all life forms engaged in endless titanic struggles to ensure 'the survival of the fittest'. So what could be more 'natural' than the history of humankind (both before and after the Industrial Revolution) being cast in the same metaphorical framework? This rationale of social Darwinism has been taken up with unbounded enthusiasm by the politicians and academic economists most centrally involved in the neo-liberal revolution of the last 25 years. When all else fails, it has provided at least some flimsy justification for patterns of irresponsible and uncaring corporate and political behaviour that prioritise competition over everything else, characterised by folksy phrases along the lines of 'Its a jungle out there', 'Its a dog-eat-dog world', 'Let the devil take the hindmost', and so on.

So it often comes as a bit of a blow to them when this interpretation of evolution is revealed as a complete fabrication, a socio-political distortion that tells us much more about Britain during the mid 19th century than about the evolution of life on Earth. What we now know is that individual organisms in a mature ecosystem go to great lengths to avoid competition by specialisation or by developing their own differentiated niches. Resourcews are often shared with frugal efficiency. Territorial animals actually avoid fighting if at all possible, relying upon complex behaviours and rituals that stop short of actual conflict. This has all been formalised by ecologists in what is known as the competitive exclusion principle': The occupant of any niche excludes all others by virtue of specialisation, and therefore avoids competition and possible extinction.

Beyond that the work of scientist such as Lynn Margulis and Janine Benyus has revealed fascinating patterns of mutual interdependence and elegant symbiosis. The great biologist Lewis Thomas is quoted as saying:
'The urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements, is perhaps the oldest, strongest and most fundamental force in Nature. There are no solitary, free-living creatures; every form of life is dependent on other forms' (Thomas, 1980)."

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