(This is one of my many brain dumps, intended to connect the dots between things in my own mind. Today’s brain dump is on environmentalism, economics and ethics)
It might be already obvious: The problem with most environmentalist movements is that the basic premise on which they are built, conservation, does not play nice with the supreme catalyst at the core of modern capitalism: a concept known as creative destruction.
According to Joseph Schumpeter, creative destruction is all about the perpetual replacement of the “old” by the “new”. The fuel that capitalism runs on is consumption, and the driver for consumption is innovation. When the old is torn down and destroyed, it makes the requisite room for the new and improved, and thus keeping the proverbial fire (of consumption) burning, and consequently the metaphorical wheel (of capitalism) rolling.
The colloquial American saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Strange saying coming from the land that gave us modern capitalism as we know it. To survive and prosper, the Capitalist needs to fix it, break it, put it back together, improve it, recolor it, re-brand it, repackage it and sell it at a higher price (and offer the old one on special!)
From a purely environmentalist (and arguably, a somewhat socialist) viewpoint, creative destruction is synonymous with waste and wastefulness. It is a seldom disputed fact that innovation is necessary for progress, but the problem with innovation is that it is not benevolent, as it is primarily driven by the quest for capitalist gain. Such a quest for material wealth, in turn, has been historically proven to have an element of boundless greed and general disregard for ethics (and sometimes plain stupidity). Any keen environmentalist will tell you that although innovation is a good thing, you can often have too much of a good thing. Too much innovation, or rather, deceitful marketing tactics masquerading as innovation, is actually harmful as it drives unnecessary consumption, and too much consumption leads to too much waste (and large credit bubbles that take down the world’s financial markets, as it happens) . All of this creative destruction leaves us with a bunch of “old” stuff that no one loves anymore. Unloved, old stuff get thrown away. Throwing stuff away gives us piles of trash that we have problems getting rid of later, and that often end up poisoning the Earth’s soils, rivers and oceans.
The notion of conservation, on the other hand, is not based on “fixing it”, but rather on reusing and recycling it. It is an ethical concept, as opposed to creative destruction being an economic idea bereft of abstract moral considerations and philosophical value judgments. Innovation is alright as long as it is “carbon neutral”. Carbon neutrality pisses businesses off for the very understandable fact (from a business viewpoint) that is an expense. Expenses erode profits, and the Wheel of Capitalism doesn’t roll as smoothly as desired.
Thus, it doesn’t matter which lens you look through at the issue at hand (environmentalist or capitalist), the fact remains that capitalism and conservation are inherently incompatible, if not polar opposites!
Or are they?
The way I see it, it is not so much an incompatibility of concepts as much as it is a rift in expectations and assumptions that shape how individuals and organizations on the far ends of the environmental awareness spectrum act. Environmentalists expect businesses to have some ecological decency and happily bear the expense of being “carbon neutral” or “green and clean”, oblivious to the fact that the business world does not come with a built-in element of environmental sensitivity, simply because being environmentally sensitive does not, by default, make you any money. Hell, it costs you money!. Organizations built for the purpose of commercial activity do not have a behavioral drive to tailor their commercially-purposed activities to be environmentally sound. Volumes have been written on how this sort of ecological awareness can be introduced to corporate cultures through various means, from arm-twisting legal frameworks to gung-ho citizen arrest style aggressive environmental activism by the likes of Greenpeace and others.
Ethics and capitalism are independent concepts. Product life cycles and biological life cycles share nothing but the word “cycle”. Universities have only recently introduced ethics classes to business programs. Environmentally-sound business practices are not inherently incompatible with profitability, it’s just that most businesses today just do not know how to make them efficiently compatible with their core activities. That is, I believe, due to mistaken impressions in the business world about what what being environmentally responsible as a business entails, but also – more importantly – due to the fact that clean technology is expensive because it is new technology. In the long run, clean technology would come into mainstream industrial technology, and businesses would change their traditional practices to be efficient and profitable while observing their environmental impact, and would no longer shun it on account of higher costs. Alas, as a wise economist once quipped: “In the long run, we’re all dead”. So let’s take a look at what could be done in the short run.
The way I see it, environmentalists need to adopt a strategy based on the English proverb that goes “If you can’t beat them, join them!”. I know what you’re thinking now. You probably read the last sentence in the previous paragraph about the futility of long-term activism, and the above quoted proverb and thought: “Hani, are you saying we do away with our quest for a cleaner world and join the greedy capitalist mob in an unwavering march towards ecological demise?! Traitor!”
Cease fire! No, I am not advocating any of that at all. I am not saying that us environmentally-enlightened folks should defect to the dark side and embrace the fruits of ethically-devoid capitalism now with total disregard for what’s going to happen to our environment, which by then would be our legacy to future generations. All I am saying is: businesses are great with marketing. They know how to make a marginally new (or even old) idea look brand new and have you reaching for your credit card for something that you probably don’t need, but merely want. Environmentalists need to learn how to make their ideas and causes as cool as commercial innovators make their products, and that’s for something that all of us actually need: a cleaner world! Environmentalists need to watch entrepreneurs and pick up the skills necessary to market and sell environmental activism and awareness. In other words, environmentalists need to quit being environmentalists and start becoming environmental entrepreneurs.
Environmental activists need to start putting less emphasis on answering the question of “how we can make them care?” (them being environmentally-unaware individuals and organizations) and more on “how can we make environmental sensitivity cool or economically-encouraging?”.
If we build it, they will come.