The imperative for tomorrow’s economy to be more prosperous than today’s puts capitalism in a bind that necessitates resource extraction and pollution while also reducing costs or labor, which furthers wealth inequality and the polarization of humanity into producing and consuming classes (See Parts I and II).
There are two general solutions to prevent the capitalist bubble from bursting and collapsing the social structures that we have built to support its expansion: 1) feed it further by transcending Earth’s limits; 2) transform our economy from a bubble to a circle and empower the worker.
Growing the bubble
How can we sustain the capitalist expansion without polarizing wealth inequality and ecologically-limiting extraction/disposal bursting the bubble? We go to space. Elon Musk knows capitalism needs to expand to survive, Trump’s people know this–that our Earth will not be able to accommodate economic growth for much longer. We won’t have to drink water or breathe air flavored with chemical and plastic toxicants, capital investments on a new planet will surely return profits as colonization has always been profitable in the past, and discovered extraterrestrial resources and minerals will likely make way for even more investment opportunities.
However, while this solution might work to accommodate the expanding bubble, the equity issue of space colonization remains at large. Who will get to escape the perils of climate change on Earth and at what cost to whom? The 2013 film, Elysium, already portrayed this future in the year 2154 where the poor were left to rot on the crime-ridden and dust-suffocating planet, while the rich lived in an orbiting space platform free from pollutants and the poor.
With our planet’s air, water, and soil leaking with pollutants, it is no surprise why any well-off, wage-inflated member of the 1% would want to escape the dirty dredges of Earth, and although this is just a presumptuous prediction, it is likely that this privilege will not be granted to the majority of humans. Environmental racism is already a phenomenon in which poor and minority communities are in closer proximity to hazardous waste facilities, nuclear power plants, and other health threats than their wealthy and white counterparts. Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black community, still has water tainted with lead. STILL. After all, if one has the financial clout and political agency to fight for their community, why wouldn’t they?
We can transcend our planetary boundaries through space colonization, but the social implications will remain at large.
From bubble to circle
Alternatively, we can deflate the capitalist bubble slowly and transition the late-capitalist, growth-imperative economies into circular economies that support our society and the environment. One of the most popular new economic paradigms is that of the steady-state, zero-growth economy that many ecological economists support. Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, defines a steady-state economy as an economy that maintains population and production levels at low enough rates to maintain ecological sustainability and manage minimal flows of matter and energy within the production/consumption cycle. In other words, we don’t need to push consumption for the sake of consumption. We don’t need to deplete minerals, use up finite fossil fuels, or further strain our environment to put superfluous products on heavy shelves; our society will not be better off with hoverboards or airpods or a new laptop every four years. However, the switch to a steady-state might not be enough. Steady-state economics does not actually reduce environmental exploitation or other consequences of growth, it just maintains that the rate of growth is equal to that of the rate of growth of the workforce and ensures that the capitalist bubble can stay within the ceiling of ecological limits. Additionally, critics question whether this economy can facilitate a stable and socially just society in a capitalist regime that still prioritizes capital accumulation.
The circular economy, a concept that also lingers within the capitalist framework, advocates for the closing of material loops and to reuse resources and materials in the production system in contrast to the linear capitalist model of “take, make, dispose”. Imagine a world in which all of the plastics used to bottle our soda or keep medical devices sanitary came from recycled plastic materials. Imagine a world where food waste gets composted and applied to our crops as fertilizer to replace the toxic chemicals that kill our pollinators, degrade our soil quality, and run off into our waters to fuel oxygen-depleting algae. Lion King is right, the circle of life encompasses the circularity of ecosystem processes and should incorporate the circularity of our economy. Even China committed to a national circular economy strategy in response to rapid population growth and industrialization in an effort to reduce resource consumption and environmental degradation.
However, the transition to a circular economy does not mitigate the social impacts that the drive for reduced costs and increased profits has on the producing class of the world. For this, we need collectivization and cooperativism. What if instead of one person profiting off the labor of workers, the workers profited themselves? REI and other cooperatives have this business model where, in addition to employees getting compensated living wages, annual profits are distributed to the cooperative through dividends to members/loyal customers, employee profit-sharing initiatives, and investments in public service non-profits. Is this not a better model than a handful of executives dolling out millions in surplus profits amongst themselves through bonuses and stock options before any potential dividends even reach shareholders, while employees are left with squat diddly?
We can keep pushing growth forward though is our quality of life still improving? Our health is being severely degraded by the factory-produced food, our life expectancy is declining, our inequality is unprecedented, and our sense of community and belonging is eroded and festering outbreaks of mental health illnesses that theoretically shouldn’t exist in the wake of abundance. Or, we can quit while we’re ahead and transition to a system that is more sustainable, inclusive, and supportive of the whole of humankind and our dear Mother Earth. Our economy cannot exist without a society, and our society cannot exist without an environment to feed and sustain us.
We don’t need a digression, we just need to ensure we are accountable for our inputs and outputs and that we consider the needs and desires of all of humanity–not just the ones purchasing our products. Are environmental protection and social inclusion really threatening economic growth? Or have the mirrors of influence distorted our view.