Stephen Reed explores system change as a solution to the climate crisis and critiques capitalist and socialist methods for tackling the environment.
Throughout the past decade, climate change and the environment has commanded itself as a central theme in political discourse both in the UK and the wider world. In fact, a recent YouGov poll found that in 2020 the environment the most important issue for 24% of the British population, up 10% from similar research conducted in 2010. And thus, this increasing concern has sparked a growth in research, awareness and activism targeted at protection our natural world. A prime example of this would-be actions in 2014 when 130 environmental groups signed the Margarita Declaration, calling for an end to the capitalist system as a solution to human-caused climate change. The reasoning behind this stated that current mitigation methods of carbon capture, trade and conservation efforts are not sufficient to prevent environmental disasters and as a result a radical system change is the only solution. In other words, socialism is the answer to all our climate related problems.
This rejection of capitalism for the sake of the environment has been the subject of large amounts of research and campaigns by environmental organisations, many of whom have adopted the anti-capitalist rhetoric of ‘system change not climate change’. And, I wonder if it can really be that simple. Is socialism the proverbial vaccine to our degraded environment, or are we overlooking the benefits of a capitalist society when tackling the climate crisis?
For the sake of this article, I am defining socialism as any economic or political theories advocating collective of governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Conversely, capitalism is an economic system characterised by private or corporate ownership of goods by investments which are determined by private decisions, prices, production, and the distribution of goods determined by competition in a free market. In other word, the defining difference between these two systems if whether the so-called ‘means of production’ is in the ownership of the state or private individuals.
Socialist arguments suggest that public ownership of industry would allow us flexibility to organise the economy as our needs changed. In this scenario, the government has the power to train individuals and place them into an industry where there is a shortage of workers. Not only would this wipe out unemployment entirely, but this organisation can be done purely with the bettering of society as its driving force and allow the creation of a ‘truly green’ economy.
On the flip side, capitalist arguments would address the importance of innovation in tackling the climate crisis, and that the competitive nature of a free-market system furthers this goal. This is a fair point to be made considering in the 2020 Bloomberg Innovation Index all of the top ten most innovative countries have mixed economies centred around a free-market system. It is argued that in the long term, this drive for innovation will create a range of solutions to the climate crisis. This could include methods of energy generation and production of consumer goods in a sustainable and efficient method.
Of course, alongside the benefits of capitalist and socialist structures for the environment; there are significant drawbacks of each which would need to be overcome for either to be successful in isolation. The ultimate failure of socialism is intrinsically tied to our own nature and the human desire to be an individual driven by free will. It is undeniable that we all have different dreams, desires and motivations in life that take on different paths both in terms of our careers and other aspects. And thus, a socialist system where people are essentially required to act as no more than a cog in a national machine, is not compatible with our free will and would be unable to accommodate human desire for a fulfilling and enjoyable career.
It is also worth addressing the fact that the backbone of a functioning socialist system is an incorruptible administrator that can run society with perfect precision. The centralised nature of the socialist system means that any mistakes or corruption of the administrator will ripple out into the whole community, unlike the modular nature of capitalism which allows for failures of individual leaders within the economy.
That being said, while the social and environmental responsibility is shared out across a much broader group of people within capitalist structures, the incentives are purely financial. And thus, in the free-market system, people are always at the mercy of what is profitable in that population, which rarely aligns with what is best for the environment. This raises the Achilles heel of capitalism: in order for this system to benefit the environment it relies on either the good will of individuals or the ‘invisible hand’ of the market happening to produce environmentally beneficial profit motives.
Realistically, it is possible for socialist advocates and capitalist advocates to share the same end goals: a sustainable economy that increases employment, productivity, freedom, and equality. However, they widely differ in their means to achieving this end. And it should be noted that neither system has inherent qualities that make them more environmentally friendly. Looking at carbon-dioxide emission alone, the top ten producers in 2019 includes nations with a range of different economic systems, notable led by China and America.
And yet, recent events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic do show us that both systems can overcome their weaknesses in times of crisis. Lockdowns have been used across the world to slow the spread of the virus, indicating that people are open to having their freedoms restricted in a time of crisis. In fact, in May after twelve-weeks of lockdown, polling found that 77% of the UK population supported lockdown extensions, expressing a widespread willingness to continue making personal sacrifices for the greater good. Alongside this, governments across the world have taken a central role in the drive to create a vaccine. This government intervention has led to the recent production of a range of vaccines in the UK, US, and China so far. In the UK vaccines have been rolled out in December, far sooner than the 12-18-month times scales predicted in March. This innovation was only made possible by government intervention on a widespread scale.
It is clear that in reality is not as simple as capitalism or socialism being better or a solution to the climate crisis as both have inherent benefits and drawbacks for the environment. And thus, the slogan of ‘system change not climate change’ is an oversimplification of two complex structures, creating a hero-villain narrative, when in reality neither of which offer a quick-fix for the planet. As with almost every western nation it is important to note that the British Economy is a mixed economy. This offers us the freedom to implement ideas from both capitalist and socialist systems is one of the great successes of our democracy. It is therefore vitally important that we do not write off ideas and solutions from either side based purely on ideology but attempt to implement the best parts of each to tackle the global climate crisis.
Stephen Reed is a Biochemistry graduate from Cardiff University with an interest in politics and environmental policy.