A Tale of Sheep and Monks – Why Even “Sustainable” Capitalism is Not The Answer

Key Question in this Post:

  • Is a revolution in capitalism the key to saving us from doom?
  • Are sustainable companies the key to saving us?
  • Will “zero / negative economic growth” be the answer?

I guess it started as a thought only in Weekly Ponder #4 when I considered one emerging school of thought in sustainability that argues whether the model of perpetual economic growth is (1) viable or (2) even desirable. The assumption was that resource depletion for some time now has already reached a point where it exceeds the rate by which we can restore those resources. Underlying this was an idea that questioned whether we may even need to consider zero to negative economic growth in developed countries to slow that rate of resource depletion – while still not losing that much in the quality of life.

Perhaps because part of me feels the idea of non-growth is semi-reasonable just at the same time that it’s also crazy and heretical, I’ve been wondering how much we are really achieving with the prevailing mode of sustainability of today. As I come across hundreds of blogs, tweets and Facebook comments every week on the web, I feel increasingly uneasy and -for a long time already – quite unsatisfied with the headlines about this or that corporate CSR/sustainability achievement here and there. As some of you may remember my past skepticism about sustainability as we know it, I’ve always considered the majority of corporate sustainability efforts, while well meaning, not much more than “doing less bad” than actually doing real good. Combine this with the last ponder about growth and I am encouraged in my doubt, which I restate commonly as follows: there is simply no way we can have our cake and eat it.

In  other words, I fear we can’t keep capitalism – even the sustainability-prone type – the way it is. Not if we care about esoteric, hippy stuff like survival, that is. But what I will argue today – and indeed what I fear far more – is this: even “super-duper sustainable, radically modified, shared/blended/mixed/hybrid value” capitalism won’t do it for us… not by a long shot.

  • Truthfully, I wouldn’t be so encouraged in this idea if there weren’t hundreds of posts annoying me every week about how we have to “modify” or “adjust” capitalism, make it a little bit more green, a little more sustainable, and then we can all sing and dance for another hundred years… at least before things get really ugly. There are literally hundreds of reports, papers and movements about “capitalism 2.0, 3.0, or 4.0, etc.” that will be the way we should go. To this end, countless intelligent, accomplished, caring people in many places – treehuggers and treehuggers with book contracts alike – write long treatises that essentially say the same thing: we must re-invent the basis of capitalism and our economy if we are to avoid doom.
  • So what is new about my ruminations today? Mostly a fundamental “wait a minute, umm…” moment, which I introduce by raising my hand timidly amidst the crowds around me: “How are we going to reinvent anything while the capitalists – hardcore and “reformed” alike – are among us suggesting measure after measure of what I would consider “polite but half-ass by two” in accomplishing our salvation?” In other words, how can anything be overthrown, revolutionized, changed, or reinvented, when we have entire boards of directors of large corporations the world over unable to pass something more courageous than, say, resolutions forcing “enlightened companies” to publish their sustainability results in a report that nobody reads? Perhaps things like Puma Vision are taking an important step further in starting to bake environmental costs into their actual financial statement and accounting costs. But that’s 1 out of a million companies.
  • Nonetheless, my contention in principle can be captured by the following corny metaphor. Imagine a world inhabited only by sheep and wolves. How can a bunch of sheep (including our Good Generation concerned about sustainability) pass laws banning sheep meat production when a bunch of the other voters and legislators are wolves? Even the wolves who are are semi-vegetarian and well-meaning are still in their nature required to  eat meat to be healthy and well. They will vote for good measures to the degree that they won’t die as a result of those measures. To save you from the metaphor: capitalists will by their nature and essence be driven to make profits, no matter how sustainable they purport to be. And those profits, in many ways, have existed in attractive abundance over the past two hundred years because the cost of resource consumption was never priced into the math of investors that invented today’s financial markets, e.g., the modern stock market.
  • But I suppose my concern is that even if we were to radically “modify” our capital markets to incorporate all kinds of measures and systems that price in natural resource depletion (forget even for a moment all these other CSR costs like good labor practices, etc.), unless a miraculous technology comes to our aid – like Star Trek “replicators” – why would the capitalists among us really agree to measures that will make the idea of profit as surplus of income over cost equal ever closer to zero?
  • So one the one hand, you have the new school of sustainability arguing that the only way to “reasonably quickly” save us is to cut out growth or reverse it to reduce resource consumption, i.e., corporations ideally setting production to approach a more “natural equilibrium” of environmentally neutral impact (resources taken equal resources replenished) – which comes at the risk of operating uneconomically/unprofitably. On the other hand, you have today’s corporate sustainability elite that likes to commission countless reports and studies flooding the internet showing that “come on, we really don’t have to go that far now, do we?” The goal of course is to demonstrate that if corporations can grow “sustainably” and “responsibly” the environmentalists (still derided) can stop worrying, investors can still get their profits (or even more due to all kinds of magical innovation) and everyone will be happy happy ever after.
  • What does this leave us with as a bottom line? Who’s side am I on? Well, perhaps a more sensible way to express this is to do some fuzzy math (as in: I have no numbers or statistics handy right now). Even if every company in the world cleans up its supply chain, buys only from disadvantaged farmers, bans the use of all toxic materials, and recycles its plastic cup lids, a few fundamental revelations about our civilization simply do not go away.
  • Point 1: even the most sustainable companies are still in the mode of growing, which requires them to produce more, taking more resources, leaving less for others to take and produce eventually. To be honest, I view this rather pragmatically because even for all my critique of traditional capitalism, I tend to blame companies only half-way. After all, they exist and produce stuff because there is a market for it.
  • In other words (Point 2) this situation exists because as a society of consumers voting with our dollars, we continue to vote in favor of more stuff. That is what I find especially incomprehensible about the emerging “LOHAS” consumer segment (the one buying healthy stuff, responsibly sourced, etc.). No matter how much better they may feel, they still belong to the same society of consumers demanding not only more, but also newer, funner, cooler, and more interesting stuff constantly. It is this very conclusion about our inconsistency of values and choices (not excluding myself conveniently) that enlightens as much as it depresses me.
  • If you expected me to end this post with a fiery attack on capitalism, I am sorry to disappoint you. Not because I think capitalism doesn’t deserve to be attacked (that’s still too much fun), but because it doesn’t matter if we attack it. It doesn’t matter because the question for me is not whether we need to change, modify, or even overthrow capitalism and conventional economic theory about growth or not growth. The real question, instead, is whether we can overthrow ourselves. Can we evolve (in the truest sense of progress) from a society of dumb consumers who keep demanding more stuff to fill their existence with leisure and entertainment, towards one that is happy with (a lot) less stuff? One that does not equate lack of choice to reduced well-being and “quality of life”? In the purest – perhaps a bit silly – form of this argument, you would have to ask if we could all choose to become essentially monks (or that which makes them virtuous in my opinion) – living by little, subsisting with only the essential, consuming nothing but intangible (and infinitely available) goods like faith, love, inner peace, meditation and walks along lakes – while having literally no environmental impact but for the daily pesky incense burnt. You know what? I don’t think we can.
  • In summary, this is where the buck stops for me. Debating capitalism in its current or future sustainable forms is not just really unimportant, it is woefully besides the point. That is why I am not that passionate about any of the daily CSR/innovation/capitalism 2.0 headlines we’ve seen ever since the first tweet hit the web. What it IS, however, is easy. As with all blaming, I suppose. Profits, capitalism, greed, bankers, I don’t care what you openly love to hate. It is misplaced, wasted hate because the object of passion not only too easy to hate – it’s not even the main culprit. What IS significantly more difficult, on the other hand, is to debate ourselves and the premises upon which we define our so-called quality of life that unquestionably comes at the expense of a decaying natural environment everywhere. What takes great courage and behavioral change – to a degree that will make most psychologists and anthropologists’ heads explode – is to make a fundamental choice to simply make do with less. And I really mean LESS and fewer of everything but sleep. Fewer travel (boo CO2), fewer gadgets, fewer magazines, fewer amusement parks, fewer cows eaten, fewer variety of clothes (my wife will beat me for this), fewer cars, and so on and so forth. How companies will be prompted to produce less and how some business entrepreneurship (which we cherish in most societies) may otherwise slow to allow us some time to think and recover those resources, I don’t know. I hate to say this because it sounds not only heretical, anarchic, impractical and boring but also so painfully cliché: changing ourselves towards a life of vastly greater moderation is the only way out of this mess. And with it, a lowering of the bar to today’s minimum requirements to happiness and economic well-being that we have grown accustomed to especially in developed countries. But I am not suggesting this out of pessimism or idealism. I actually don’t think it’s impossible at all and that even if we achieve a quarter or half of such change, we can’t be all that worse off than our ancestors who managed to live modestly (epidemics and lack of the internet aside ) but not necessarily less happy. That is why I have a strong suspicion that the monks kind of had it right all along. Damn them. On a selfish note, it also makes me feel less bad about habitually not dropping my dimes into those jars in the temple.
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One thought on “A Tale of Sheep and Monks – Why Even “Sustainable” Capitalism is Not The Answer

  1. Katherine says:

    Interesting and in my opinion true. I’m sick of being told that it is my patriotic duty to buy more stuff that I don’t need so that people can keep their jobs and buy more stuff that they don’t need. It’s a daily battle for me to try to live with less, but I agree that radical changes in how we feed, clothe and entertain ourselves is the only way to truly change the paradigm. But travel is something I’d encourage, despite the impact to the ozone layer. I don’t mean travel to Paris. I mean travel to understand how humans can be happy without air conditioned McMansions, mounds of gadgets and toys and the season’s latest fashion.

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