Extreme Capitalism

James Tam, in this rant, says that the underlying cause of Hong Kong’s current almost-but-not-quite civil war is extreme capitalism. This post is not a response to his, and nor is it about that civil almost-war, but is an acknowledgement that he’s supplied a point of entry for a post I’ve been trying to write for months.

The thought started in an Indonesian island. A company down there, which I’ll call An Indonesian Tourism Developer (AITD)  aims to develop luxury tourism in a remote Indonesian island in a way that is environmentally sensitive and socially inclusive. I bought into that line and into AITD. A couple of friends got wind of this, and likewise also bought in.

I think AITD will prosper. But the scales were taken from my eyes when one of those friends commented that, despite the rhetoric, the company is just another bunch of white guys telling the locals how to do things. Given that the company is for all practical purposes a bunch of Australians who happen to be white, guilty as charged. But why, in a colour-blind world, should this matter?

It should matter not because the guys are white or Australian, but because western capitalists are the last people to be telling others how to be environmentally friendly or socially inclusive.

Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, the world was carbon-neutral. People rose with the dawn and slept with the dusk. The food they ate ripened under the sun and the machinery they used was powered by wind or water. This was no bucolic paradise: growing populations cut down forests for timber and fuel, most lived in small villages where they lived poor and died young, and the only political system on offer was monarchy. But, for its many faults, it was a fossil-fuel-free system.

The island in Indonesia, too, is no paradise for many who live there. It is remote, there are few prospects for the entrepreneurial, and many women have their first child before they ever get to make a choice about their adult life. But the island is as close to carbon neutral as it’s possible to be. Yes, there are 50 c.c. scooters everywhere, the sea is noisy with the farts of outboard engines, and what little electricity the island has comes from gas. However, a sizeable majority of the population farms or fishes. Much, though not all of that farming is one crop a year without fertiliser. The fishermen use nets and lines, small scale, with none of the trawling that trashes the ocean.

Back to Australia. There is compelling evidence that Australia has been inhabited for upwards of 40,000 years. Before mass immigration from England in the nineteenth century, Australians lived in groups, some settled and some nomadic. They never bothered to domesticate animals. (Given how easy it is to kill a large kangaroo, how fecund kangaroos are, and how many mouths a dead one can feed, I suppose they didn’t see any point.) Nor did they farm as such, although they did nurture individual plants by watering them and protecting them from other animals.

It’s easy to over-romanticise this. The spread of humanity is characterised by the demise of megafauna – the Maoris arrived in New Zealand about a thousand years ago and had pretty much killed everything bigger than themselves by the time the white guys arrived, and fossil records show that Northern Americans, when they wandered across the Bering strait, started out by eating everything living, moving and big. The worrying possibility also occurs to me that the niche for large kangaroos was created by the anthropological extinction of bigger game. Be that as it may, as animals are renewable but species are not, it is not the case that pre-industrial living was based entirely on renewables. However, it is the case that pre-industrial ways of living were for all practical purposes fossil-free.

Back to today. There is no doubt that the planet is heating. Global heating is accelerating much faster than science predicted. This article for example, says that Greenland’s ice is already, today, melting at a rate predicted for 2070, and another link I’ve lost says that Canadian permafrost is melted to a depth not predicted until 2090. Both of these have huge positive feedback loops: melted ice becomes water, which absorbs rather than reflects the heat from sunlight, permafrost discharges methane, which is a much bigger warmer than carbon dioxide. I personally think it obvious that humans cause this heating, but whether or not we did, all the indications are that our planet is heating up, fast.

Humanity has survived through ice ages and probably became a distinct species about three million years ago when the global temperature was about several degrees higher than it is now. So, humanity will survive. Not all humans will survive – a very large portion will die – but our species is adaptable enough to rough it out. The question is who.

Let’s get back to capitalism. Capitalism is, of course, the concentration of capital. It’s not difficult to accumulate large amounts of capital in village or nomadic societies; it’s impossible. The concentration of capital requires the concentration of humans, and those humans live in cities. The etymology of civilisation is the Latin “civus” meaning city, so the link between capitalism and civilisation is inherent. You may dig your mine or build your nuclear plant in the countryside, but the money comes from the cities.

Now, cities may provide many of the things that make life worth living – concerts, anonymity, the leisure to write blogs – and many of those things require capital. Some are obvious – roads, subways and the internet – some are less so: modern medicine is also very capital-intense. Many of these are good things: they give people longer, more meaningful and fulfilling lives. But an example of the bad stuff, look no further than the food that feeds those cities.

There are lots of cool things you can do in cities, but the one thing you cannot do is grow food. Sure, you can have a potted plant on the balcony, or even a small allotment, but self-sufficiency is out of the question. So, cities outsource their food production. Until about a century ago, fossil fuels only came into that food production only at the edges, to transport food to cities by steam train. Most crops ripened in the sun, such fertilisers as there were, were natural (compost), and most of the work was manual. No longer. From crop dusters to fertilisers to vast combine harvesters to the systems needed to convey and preserve food from “farm” to mouth, modern agriculture could not exist without fossil fuels. And all that hardware means that modern agriculture, far from being a Farmer Jones fairy-tale, is very capital intensive.

A use side-effect – for business – is that man is set apart from his food. And that isolation lets agri-business get away with murder. This is no longer a business about providing a healthy, balanced and sufficient diet. This is a business about pressuring people to eat far more than is good for their own health or that of the environment. Where the agri-business isn’t selling calories that will never be used to produce obesity, it’s about selling to hulks to support their superfluous musculature.

The resulting health problems, too, are good for business. I have mentioned how capital intensive modern medicine is; I didn’t mention that much of it would be unnecessary if the agri-business weren’t creating so many diseased human beings. Global heating, too, is great for business. As Russia and Canada melt, vast tracts of land open up. Greeenland boasts of its great untapped resources – “Hi, come and mine us!” – while the oil giants cheerfully announce that the melting is opening up yet more fossil fuel reserves. Where will it end? In violence. Again, great for business – all those guns and weapons sales.

And this is where we end up. I am a capitalist and a free-market guy; I also believe in freedom of movement of people. I believe that there are rewarding and useful things humanity can do with capital. We can build great hospitals; we can harvest the sun’s energy directly and use that energy to do things that enrich and improve life; we travel our planet (on boat and train) and learn about our amazing ball of rock in the void.

But capitalism ceases to serve humanity when it loses its regard for the human and environmental consequences. The companies that make people eat too much could improve the quality of billions of lives by producing less food and using it better; the fossil fuel industry has the capital to move to a fully green grid in a decade or to if it so chose; the car industry as well as building electric cars could simply build smaller ones – does any human need to be driven around in a machine that weighs twenty times his or her body weight? – and the armaments industry could stop selling to the bad guys so the good guys didn’t have to arm themselves to the teeth against that possible threat.

Back to that island in Indonesia. AITD will probably thrive, but it risks becoming a form of extreme capitalism. The rich and uncaring will fly in, look at poor people as they would animals in a zoo, gorge themselves on the local produce on the basis that it is sustainable – when their very presence destroys that sustainability – swan around on luxury toys, and fly out leaving a carbon footprint bigger than that of the average city in the island.

Is that extreme?

The coming century is likely to see massive human movements as heat and drought drive people from their homes. Capitalism could be part of the solution; it could provide a richer, healthier life with opportunities for all. Extreme capitalism impoverishes the many while enriching the few, regards health as a commodity, and reserves opportunity for those who don’t need it. If extreme capitalism wins the day, those few who survive will not be those who are now rich – because most couldn’t wipe their own bottoms without help, let alone grow their own food – but those who know how to live in nature without gouging it. I wonder what their descendants will think should extreme capitalistism prevail.