Capitalism is the driving force behind the climate emergency
Caitlin Johnstone is a reader-supported independent journalist from Melbourne, Australia. Her political writings can be found on Medium
First published by Caitlin Johnstone in Caitlin’s Newsletter July 13, 2023
I just read a disturbing paragraph in a New Yorker article about the Instant Pot, a popular electronic pressure cooker whose parent company recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy:
“So what doomed the Instant Pot? How could something that was so beloved sputter? Is the arc of kitchen goods long but bends toward obsolescence? Business schools may someday make a case study of one of Instant Pot’s vulnerabilities, namely, that it was simply too well made. Once you slapped down your ninety dollars for the Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1, you were set for life: it didn’t break, it didn’t wear out, and the company hasn’t introduced major innovations that make you want to level up. As a customer, you were one-and-done, which might make you a happy customer, but is hell on profit-and-growth performance metrics.”
Just think about that for a second. Under our current systems for profit generation, which is the primary driver of human behaviour on this planet, making a quality product that lasts a long time instead of quickly going obsolete or turning into landfill will actually drive you into bankruptcy.
An article in The Atlantic about the bankruptcy filing similarly illustrated this point last month:
“From the point of view of the consumer, this makes the Instant Pot a dream product: It does what it says, and it doesn’t cost you much or any additional money after that first purchase. It doesn’t appear to have any planned obsolescence built into it, which would prompt you to replace it at a regular clip. But from the point of view of owners and investors trying to maximise value, that makes the Instant Pot a problem. A company can’t just tootle along in perpetuity, debuting new products according to the actual pace of its good ideas, and otherwise manufacturing and selling a few versions of a durable, beloved device and its accessories, updated every few years with new features. A company needs to grow.”
This just says such dysmal things about why our planet is facing the existential crises it’s now facing. Corporations will die if they don’t continually grow, and they can’t grow without things like inbuilt planned obsolescence or continued additional purchases, which in a sane society would just be regarded as shoddy craftsmanship. Our entire civilisation is driven by the pursuit of profit, and to keep turning large profits your corporation needs to continually grow, and your corporation can’t continually grow unless you’re manufacturing a crappy product that needs to be continually replaced or supplemented, and you can’t manufacture those replacements and supplementations without harvesting them from the flesh of a dying world.
As writer Robert Moor recently observed on Twitter, “The fact that Instant Pot is already being framed as a corporate cautionary tale — the company that went bankrupt because they made a product so durable and versatile that its customers had little need to buy another one — instead of as a critique of capitalism is deeply, deeply depressing.”
It’s really heartbreaking to think about all the ways human potential is being starved and constricted by these ridiculous limitations we’ve placed on the way we operate as a collective. Resources being allocated based on how well they can turn a profit stymies technological innovation, because the most profitable model will always lose out to less profitable ones that are more beneficial to people and our environment. Someone could invent a free energy machine that lasts forever and costs next to nothing, and even though it would save the world you can be certain it would never see the light of day under our current systems, because it couldn’t yield huge and continuous profits and it would destroy many current means of profit generation.
Science should be the most collaborative endeavour in the world; every scientist on earth should be collaborating and communicating. Instead, because of our competition-based models, it’s the exact opposite: scientific exploration is divided up into innovators competing against other innovators, corporations competing against other corporations, nations competing against other nations.
If we could see how much we are losing to these competition-based models, how much innovation is going unrealised, how much human thriving is being sacrificed, how we’re losing almost all of our brainpower potential to these models, we’d fall to our knees and scream with rage. If science had been a fully collaborative worldwide hive mind endeavour instead of divided and turned against itself for profit and military power, our civilisation would be unimaginably more advanced than it is.
This is doubtless. We gave up paradise to make a few bastards rich.
Our competition-based, profit-motivated systems limit scientific innovation, and they also greatly limit the scope of solutions we can avail ourselves of. There’s a whole vast spectrum of potential solutions to the troubles we face as a species, and we’re limiting ourselves to a very small, very inferior fraction of it. By limiting solutions to ones that are profitable, we’re omitting any which involve using less, consuming less, leaving resources in the ground, and leaving nature the hell alone. We’re also shrinking the incentive to cure sicknesses and eliminate problems rather than offer expensive, ongoing treatments and services for them.
Or even a project as fundamental to our survival as getting all the pollution out of our oceans. The profit motive offers no solution to this problem because there’s no way to make a surplus of money from doing so, and in fact it would be very costly. So the pollution stays in our seas, year after year. People have come up with plenty of solutions for removing pollution from the sea, but they never get rolled out at the necessary scale because there’s no way to make it profitable. And people would come up with far more solutions if they knew those solutions could be implemented.
How many times have you had an awesome idea and gotten all excited about it, only to do the math and figure out that it’s unfeasible because wouldn’t be profitable? This is a very common experience, and it’s happening to ideas for potential solutions to our problems every day.
The profit motive system assumes the ecocidal premise of infinite growth on a finite world. Without that, the entire system collapses. So there are no solutions which involve not growing, manufacturing less, consuming less, not artificially driving up demand with advertising, etc.
It’s hard to appreciate the significance of this artificial limitation when you’re inside it and lived your whole life under its rules. It’s like if we were only allowed to make things out of wood; if our whole civilisation banned the entire spectrum of non-woodcraft innovation. Sure such a civilisation would get very good at making wooden things, and would probably have some woodcrafting innovations that our civilisation doesn’t have. But it would also be greatly developmentally stunted. That’s how badly we’re handicapping ourselves with the profit motive model from the pursuit of viable solutions.
And some solutions would be really great right now. This planet just had its warmest week in recorded history, and Antarctic sea ice is now failing to form in what for the southern hemisphere is the dead of winter. Even if you still want to pretend global warming isn’t real, this planet’s biosphere is giving us plenty of other signs of looming collapse, including plummeting insect populations, a loss of two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife over the last 50 years, ecosystems dying off, forests disappearing, soil becoming rapidly less fertile, mass extinctions, and oceans gasping for oxygen and becoming lifeless deserts while continents of plastic form in their waters. So our need for immediate solutions to our environmental crisis is not seriously debatable.
But we’re not getting solutions, we’re getting a world ruled by corporations whose leaders are required to place growth above all other other concerns, even concerns about whether the future will contain an ecosystem which corporations can exist in or a human species for them to sell goods and services to. Corporations function as giant, world-eating sociopaths, because our current models let their leaders and lawyers wash their hands of all the consequences of the damage their monsters inflict in the name of growth and the duty to maximise shareholder profits.
People worry about the world getting destroyed by machines driven by a heartless artificial intelligence, but we might end up destroying it with a kind of artificial mind we invented long before microchips: the corporation. So much of humanity’s dysfunction can be explained by the fact that corporations (A) pretty much run the world and (B) are required to act like sociopaths by placing profit above all other concerns.
As long as human behaviour remains driven by profit, ecocide will continue, because ecocide is profitable.
As long as human behaviour remains driven by profit, wars will continue, because war is profitable.
As long as human behaviour remains driven by profit, exploitation will continue, because exploitation is profitable.
As long as human behaviour remains driven by profit, corruption will continue, because corruption is profitable.
There is no “good” model in which human behaviour can remain driven by profit without these destructive behaviours continuing, because so many kinds of destructive behaviour will always necessarily be profitable. No proponents of any iteration of capitalism have ever been able to provide any satisfactory answers to this.
The call then is to move from competition-based, profit-driven systems to systems which are based on collaboration toward the common good of all. We’re a long way off from that, but a long way can be cleared in a short time under the right conditions. Our species is at adapt-or-die time, and the adaptation that must be made is clear.