Climate Change and Capitalism

Park, Jonathan T.

Capitalism was designed as a mechanism for efficiently allocating scarce resources, encouraging human ingenuity, and improving the quality of life for those willing and able to participate in the system. This economic model has been prodigiously effective at enabling people to convert natural resources into fungible commodities and monetary wealth. By transmuting vast amounts of natural resources into marketable products, capitalism has generated an unparalleled degree of wealth and prosperity. In theory, the production of wealth and the collective quality of life can be constantly enhanced under this economic model. Although wealth accumulation has hitherto entailed the unsustainable depletion of natural resources, capitalism maintains that when a commercially viable resource is exhausted, the market will produce an alternative. Thus, capitalism is supposedly an indefatigable method for perpetually generating more wealth and greater social prosperity.

While capitalism has produced a plethora of socioeconomic benefits over its relatively brief history, it has also instigated unforeseen and undesirable consequences. With every product having a byproduct, our ability to extract and consume an immense bounty of natural resources has generated a correspondingly monstrous amount of waste in the form of physical garbage, atmospheric pollution, and other forms of environmental degradation. Global climate change has been the most severe consequence of our society's excessive atmospheric pollution.

We now know that our primary method of generating energy – burning fossil fuels – releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, heating up the planet and severely altering the climate system. Anthropogenic climate change poses an imminent threat to the planet's life-sustaining ecological systems, and it represents one of humanity's most difficult challenges to date. If humanity is to overcome this problem, we will need to place strict, explicit limitations on the amount of atmospheric pollution that can be emitted globally.

Since pollution is a direct consequence of consumption, we must also limit the amount of resources we use. Any viable solution to climate change will therefore require a global agreement to drastically inhibit the extraction, production, and consumption of natural resources. Yet, the capitalist system as it currently stands is neither designed for nor capable of consciously inhibiting its own propensity for unsustainable growth. The basic assumptions under which neoliberal capitalism operates renders it incapable of correcting climate change.


Also Published In

Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development

More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth Institute
Published Here
December 11, 2015