IS CAPITALISM SUSTAINABLE? — Globe Hackers
I implore you to read this book and others like it. We must understand the material basis for economic growth and its limitations. We are at an inflection point where circumstances outside our control dictate how hard we land after almost two hundred years of industrial and technological development made possible by exploiting fossil fuel resources. There is a vast amount of literature across domains of science addressing our need for energy and materials to continue our current economic growth paradigm. We will either understand what these efforts are telling us and work to mitigate the harshest consequences of our actions or blindly crash. The results of inaction will be dire.
The essay below by the author of Sustainable Capitalism is simply common sense. It’s not a sophisticated treatment of modern capitalism and consumer society, nor the science of sustainability, but it captures the spirit of many people’s concerns. I have recommended many books concerning these topics.
The Players of The Great Game will never address the core concerns and science of sustainability unless people make them.
I realize most readers of this magazine are operators of small farms. But, some questions are too important to leave the economists and politicians. If our capitalistic economy is not sustainable, neither are our farms or our society or humanity. Some questions are so important that no one can afford to remain uninformed, uncommitted, and uninvolved.
Is capitalism sustainable? Not the type of capitalism that dominates America and most global economies today. This is not a matter of personal opinion but a direct consequence of the most fundamental laws of science. Sustainability ultimately depends upon energy because anything useful in sustaining life on earth relies on energy. All material things that are of any use to humans, food, clothes, houses, and automobiles, require energy to make and energy to use. All practical human activities, working, and thinking require energy. Physical scientists lump all such functional activities together and call them “work.” All work involves energy (definitively.)
Energy is continuously transforming. The natural tendency of energy to change from more concentrated to less concentrated forms gives energy its ability to perform work. All material things, such as food, gasoline, plastic, and steel, are just highly concentrated forms of energy. Matter converts into energy, as in eating food or burning gasoline-the structure of energy changes by using heat to make electricity and electricity to produce light. However, even though work invariably changes matter to energy or changes the form of energy, no energy is lost. This is the first law of thermodynamics, energy conservation law, as in Einstein’s famous E=MC2.
At first, it might seem that energy could be recycled and reused forever as if sustainability would be inevitable. However, once energy performs work before, it must be reconcentrated, reorganized, and restored. Unfortunately, it takes energy to reconcentrate, reorganize, and restore energy. And, the energy used to reconcentrate and restore energy is simply no longer available to do anything else. It has lost its usefulness. Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, is the tendency of all closed systems toward the ultimate degradation of matter and energy, toward inert uniformity, an absence of structure, pattern, organization, or differentiation. The barren surfaces of the Moon or Mars are examples of systems near entropy.
Since the loss of energy to entropy is inevitable, it might seem that sustainability is impossible. Even if waste and pollution could be avoided entirely by using and reusing energy, the tendency toward entropy would continue. Life on earth would not be sustainable without the daily inflow of new solar energy. Sustainability ultimately depends upon using solar energy to offset the unavoidable effects of entropy.
Capitalism is a very efficient energy extraction system, but it provides no incentive to reconcentrate and restore energy to offset entropy. Capitalists have no economic incentive to invest in energy renewal to benefit future generations. Capitalists reduce waste and pollution or reuse resources only when it is profitable to do so. Capitalists have incentives to use renewable energy to support current consumption but not to re-storing energy for future generations. Capitalism inevitably tends toward physical entropy.
The law of entropy applies to social energy as well as physical energy. All forms of human energy labor, management, innovation, and creativity are products of social relationships. Humans cannot be born, reach maturity, and become useful without the help of other people who care about them. People must be educated, trained, civilized, and socialized before becoming productive members of complex societies. All organizations, including business organizations, governments, and economies, depend on the ability of people to work together for a common purpose, which in turn depends upon the sociability and civility of human societies. Human productivity directly results from healthy personal relationships within families, friendships, communities, and cultures.
Capitalism inevitably dissipates, disperses, and disorganizes social energy because it weakens personal relationships. Maximum economic efficiency requires that people relate to each other impartially, which means impersonally. People must compete rather than cooperate if market economies are to function efficiently. When people spend more time and energy working and being economically productive, they have less time and energy to spend on personal relationships within families and communities. When people buy things based solely on price rather than buy from people they know and trust, personal relationships within communities suffer from neglect. Capitalism devalues personal relationships and disconnects people, thus dissipating, dispersing, and disorganizing social energy.
Capitalistic economies use people to do work while doing nothing to restore the social capital needed to sustain positive personal relationships. There is no economic incentive for capitalists to invest in families, communities, or society to benefit future generations. Capitalists build relationships or contribute to social causes only when such contributions contribute to their profits or growth. Capitalists do not waste energy by investing in social capital. Capitalism inevitably tends toward social entropy.
Economies are how people facilitate their relationships with other people and their natural environment in complex societies. Economies transform physical and social energy into raw materials to create products and services for impersonal marketplaces. All economic capital uses natural or social capital. Once all our natural and social capital is exhausted, there will be no need for financial capital. Without capital, an economy loses its ability to produce; it tends toward economic entropy. Today’s capitalistic economies quite simply are not sustainable.
A sustainable economy must be based on a fundamentally different paradigm, precisely, on the paradigm of living systems. Living things by nature are self-making, self-renewing, reproductive, and regenerative. Plants have the innate capacity to capture, organize, and store solar energy to support other living organisms and offset the energy lost to entropy. Living things also have a natural propensity to reproduce their species. Humans, for example, devote significant amounts of time and energy to raising families, with an insignificant economic incentive to do so. Individual life is not sustainable because every living thing eventually dies. But, communities and societies of living individuals have the capacity and natural propensity to be productive while devoting a significant part of their life’s energy to conceiving and nurturing the next generation.
Relationships within healthy living systems must be mutually beneficial and thus must be selective. All living organisms are made up of cells, and a selective or semi-permeable membrane surrounds each living cell. These semi-permeable boundaries keep some things in and let other things out while keeping some things out and letting other things in. Likewise, living organisms are defined by boundaries, skin, bark, and scales that selectively allow different elements, air, water, food, and waste, to enter and leave the organism’s body. If these boundaries were completely permeable or impermeable, reproducing life forms could not exist.
The same principle holds for all living systems: ecosystems, families, communities, economies, and cultures. The relationships among elements of healthy natural ecosystems are, by nature, mutually beneficial. However, relationships among humans and between humans and nature are matters of choice and thus must be consciously and purposefully selective. People must be willing and able to choose to maintain positive relationships with other people and decide to take care of the earth to benefit themselves and benefit future generations.
Capitalism provides no economic incentives to sustain life on earth, but humans have the innate capacity and natural tendency to do so. Throughout human history, people have chosen families, communities, and societies over isolation, even when it was not in their short-run individual self-interests. Many cultures had respected, revered, and cared for the ecosystems they depended on without financial incentives. Modern self-interest is a very new thing. It puts material consumption over everything that makes us human. Not until the last few decades were the social and ethical constraints removed, turning capitalism into an unsustainable system of extraction and exploitation with no consideration for future generations.
To restore sustainability, people must make conscious, purposeful decisions to rely on renewable energy, not just for consumption but also to rebuild stocks of natural capital for the benefit of future generations. To restore sustainability to capitalism, people must make conscious, purposeful choices to rebuild positive, mutually beneficial relationships with other people, not just for economic gains but also to restore depleted stocks of social capital. No economic system approaches the efficiency of capitalism in utilizing natural capital to meet individual material human needs and wants. But, natural and social capital must be continually renewed and replenished to sustain economic prosperity. Our current breed of politicians and economists hasn’t the mindset to address sustainability issues in a capitalist frame. They are only concerned with their careers and profits.
Is capitalism sustainable? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand energy and entropy. All people have the ability and responsibility to understand the importance of this question, commit, and become involved. If we don’t, greed will destroy our species sooner than we think.
Originally published at https://www.globehackers.com on June 4, 2022.