Can We Rebuild Capitalism to Make it More Sustainable?

These days, when someone tells you capitalism isn’t working, you’re probably more apt to roll your eyes than pay attention. Criticisms of the capitalist system are now deemed to be the province of stoned 2 am dormroom conversations and the agendas of uber-radical activists. But it shouldn’t be that way — there are indeed plenty of problems with capitalism, and it’s well worth taking a hard, intelligent look at some of its shortcomings. And perhaps more folks will pay attention when respected scientists and Harvard professors are telling us that it’s time to reform our current system.

Dr. Paul Epstein, a professor at Harvard, is a remarkably intelligent man — his work in revealing the true cost of coal has been seminal in fueling the push to shift away from dirty energy. I had the chance to interview him a few months back, and he spoke eloquently about the kind of society we should be aspiring to. Grist recently ran a piece by Dr. Epstein, and Science author Dan Ferber, called “We need a whole new kind of capitalism as we aim for sustainability”. Here’s the pitch:

Today we stand at the crossroads. In one direction lies business as usual, the road we’ve traveled for decades. Down that path, we’d forgo serious measures to rein in our oil consumption, we’d continue buying oil from the dwindling number of oil-rich nations to drive our SUVs a mile to the grocery store, and we’d scrape Alberta clean to find a few years of tar to put in our tanks. We’d decapitate more mountains in Appalachia to heat our homes and power our flat screen televisions, pumping out climate warming carbon with every watt.

But another path exists, and it leads to a far brighter future. We can consciously shape a new and enlightened global economic order for the 21st century, much as the world’s developed nations, guided by economist John Maynard Keynes, shaped an enlightened and prosperous global order at the Bretton Woods conference near the end of World War II.

Sounds good to me — but how do we do it? According to the authors, we would need to unfold a massive regulatory structure — one that imposed strict rules on the financial sector, shepherded funds to protect the global commons, installed a ‘Tobin tax’ that would restrict currency speculation and generate revenues for said global fund, and reduce the influence of the IMF and the World Bank. The plan also has the effect of giving any libertarian within 10 feet of it a heart attack.

This is all well and good — and it’s some fine Utopian dreaming indeed. And of course, I would support any global economic plan that sought to “shape the economy not for the profit of the few but for the benefit of all humanity, rich and poor alike.”

But if the authors want to see their plan move from Utopian dream to anywhere near execution, some sort of massive, revolution-scale action plan needs to accompany it. That being the case, my knee-jerk reaction is that if you’re going to such lengths to imagine a more perfect society, replete with gargantuan reforms that would transform entire industries, why keep capitalism in the mix at all? And what does capitalism that’s not driven by profit even look like? Perhaps that’s better explained in the book that this was excerpted from, Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It.

That said, we should parse these ideas carefully — the piece packed with good ones that we take for granted in an era dominated by corporate greed and a general acceptance of profit-driven capitalism as the status quo.

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Image credit: Ian Sane via Flickr/CC BY

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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