Capitalism is a bubble in the sense that it is based on speculation that tomorrow’s economy will be better than today’s. If Betty Banker invests in Jeremy Jam’s preserve shop and the economy is favorable, they both earn wealth from the initial investment. However, if the economy is stunted and no one can afford to buy jam, Jeremy doesn’t earn anything, and Betty’s at a loss. Capitalism, and subsequently economic growth, thus requires that tomorrow’s economy is better today, and innovation and market outreach can facilitate such growth by increasing both poles of supply and demand.
But we’re hitting a snag on two fronts: environmental and social–the first of which will be explored in this post.
The production of most consumer goods requires inputs of capital but also requires inputs from Mother Earth in the form of oil, minerals, forests resources, and water; and while the waste from the production returns to Mother in landfills, chimney stacks, and discharge pumps, the capital returns to the investor in dividends.
One strategy to stimulate economic growth is through increasing consumption. There has been a shift in the last several decades away from durables towards disposables. From ceramic plates to paper plates, cloth diapers to disposable diapers, from sterile steam cleaning systems to disposable medical tools. However, these disposables necessitate re-purchasing and that is when corporations can secure a loyal consumer base who pay more in the long-run than they would if they invested in quality, reusable products. Apple has a similar model in which the software of iPhones conveniently crashes when the next model is released.
Growth can’t occur without consumption, and stimulating consumption comes at a cost to our dear planet. With each product unit comes more natural resource extraction. The Earth is not as big as we treat her. These resources are finite. As of 2010, we only had 46.2 years of oil and 58.6 years of natural gas extraction at the current global production rates. Phosphorus, an essential ingredient for fertilizers, will run out in 50-100 years unless new reserves are discovered. Coal will be gone in 188 years–although our climate and health would benefit if this was already a resource of the past. Even freshwater–the most necessary compound for human existence–is stressed from the continual extraction by industry and industrialized agriculture. By 2025, 1.8 out of the 7 billion people on this planet will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity–that’s six years away. What are we going to do when the bottom of the oil well runs dry? When our only source of freshwater is the melting glaciers?
But production is just the beginning of the disposables’ impact on the environment. Once the product dies true to it’s name, it slumbers bulkily among its brethren in landfills or swims indefinitely in the gyres of garbage circling in our ocean at size masses twice the size of our largest states. The United Patches of Garbage. Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to completely decompose. Styrofoam and tinfoil will never decompose into the environment. Twenty minutes as your Starbucks cup, a thousand years in our global ecosystem. We’re not only putting marine life at risk from the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked each year into our oceans, but this is also a human health crisis as plastic particles and chemical additives leach into our soil, air, and water systems, accumulate in our produce and livestock feed, and ultimately enter our bodies to cause cell damage, inflammation, impairment of energy allocation functioning, and other severe health consequences. This earth is contained and contaminated. Plastic particles cannot escape. Since the 1950s, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced–a mass approximately 27 times that of the entire human population. What are we going to do when the disposables accumulate as skyscrapers towering over us like in the movie, Wall-E?
Our Mother simply cannot sustain the extraction and disposal rates that the capitalist growth imperative requires. What goes around, comes around, and in the end, our relationship with the environment will determine our fate as a species.