ENVIRONMENT | Beyond Capitalism: Moving forward in reverse

By Lisa Bland, Publisher, Editor in Chief of TheGreenGazette

The past year has been a whirlwind. As I look back at the topics in my news feed, I consider how mind boggling it might have been even five years ago to walk into the complexity of topics, choices, and stimulus we process daily in our lives. Imagine if it was 50 years ago.

News headlines such as how humans are driving the sixth mass extinction on the planet, how the world will run out of breathable air unless carbon is cut, that we’ve permanently passed 400 ppm carbon in our atmosphere, and how we are on track to lose two-thirds of our wild animals by 2020 flash daily against the backdrop of pushing ahead with pipeline and fossil fuel infrastructure, and the concern with robust and healthy economies. It’s hard not to feel uneasy, and like maybe it’s time those in authority admitted the obvious. In the political realm, in many countries, the elephant still sits in the room. We skirt around the connecting points between our finite planet and our global market economy.

This is not to say that some global problems aren’t being addressed by advancements in technology and policy change. Solutions such as Tesla’s recent launch of solar roof tiles and Powerall home batteries, Sweden’s announcement to give tax breaks for fixing stuff instead of throwing it away, plans to ban plastic microbeads, zero waste grocery stores opening up, and plastic bag bans in major cities. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a feeling in the air that change might not happen quickly enough. Like a frog in boiling water, maybe our brains have become accustomed to co-ordinating and normalizing increasingly more divergent incongruencies and creating order out of chaos when they should be registering danger.

The feeling that there’s not much time to attend to things that really matter is a record playing in the background. When I talk to friends, I hear the same sentiment. As the year comes to a close, I wonder if the pace will ever slow. Where does this road lead, and how did we get here? What is driving us forward?  What is at the root of all this?

At the crossroads between our free time and our wants and needs, lies money. The need to secure money to buy more time is an imperative. At the root is the commodification of our world and an economic system that depends on constant growth and productivity. The reason we’re moving so fast and struggling so hard is capitalism.

In her book, Capitalism must Die, Stephanie MacMillan describes capitalism as a mode of production that converts the natural world into surplus commodities through the exploitation of labour. Under this system, one class of people monopolizes production, including other’s means of subsistence, and the lower classes are forced to sell their labour to survive. Since agriculture arose approximately 12,000 years ago, class divided economies centred around the private securing of surplus wealth in the form of storable goods—salt, grain, tea, and in today’s world, cars, iPads, coffee, etc. In a capitalist system, the flow of commodities from earth extraction to assembly line to landfill forms the basis of the circulation and accumulation of  money.

In an interview with the BBC, David Suzuki suggests economics is not a science, but a set of values. He goes on to say conventional economics is a form of brain damage, and while impressive in the conversion of raw material into extractive and manufacturing processes, and on down the line to wholesale and retail, it is destructive by nature.

“Where do you put the ozone layer, underground aquifers, topsoil, biodiversity, in the economic system?” he asks. “They’re called externalities. Well, you might as well be on Mars. It’s the web of life that filters water in the hydrologic cycle, and miro-organisms prepare the soil we grow our food in. Nature performs all kinds of services. Insects pollinate all of the flowering plants.”

The economy is not the bottom line.

In cultural studies, the term fetish describes an object that a society believes to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others. Fetishism basically assigns value or powers to an object. According to Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production, not the actual relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. Commodity fetishism transforms the abstract aspects of economic value into objects, or into real things that people believe have intrinsic value.

In a capitalist society, cultural goods and services sold in the market allure the consumer with the promise of a rich, creative individuality, but in reality, through commodification consumers have little time for the personal self, and are caught in a constant playing out of a sense of identity through the value of objects.

If we move beyond ideas of defining worth through objects, what might we find? Is it possible we might recover some of our humanity? In a Wall Street Journal this summer, Pope Francis stated capitalism is terrorism against all of humanity, arguing that terrorism grows as long as the world economy is centred on the god of money and not the person, and leads to disenfranchisement and extremism.

Physicist Stephen Hawking believes greed is one of the greatest threats to the earth, and that humanity needs to collaborate and change our relationships to wealth and possessions if it is to rise to challenges like climate change, food production, disease, and overpopulation.

Many of the articles in this issue of TheGreenGazette speak to ways of simplifying, living in community, and creating new visions for the economy of the future. It seems that at this point in history it’s time to stop staring up the steps, and to also start stepping up the stairs. If we are going to figure out a way to manifest a life of simplicity and get off the consumption wheel, when is a better time than now?

It brings to mind one of my favourite chorus lines from local musician, Brent Morton of Drum and Bell Tower in his song, “Moths”:

 

“And the market floats on bubbles

  And we know the bubble’s gonna burst

  so we might try moving forward

  in reverse

  so we might try moving forward

  in reverse.”

 

Maybe, like capitalism, it’s time to step away from the old ways of thinking and knowing. My goal this coming year is to move towards simplicity, make more home cooked meals, enjoy the company of friends, take more time to follow a creative path, and get closer to some natural capital outdoors.

Wishing you a peace-filled winter.

 

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