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Capitalism Killing Our Planet

The title of a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian started off, “Capitalism Is Killing Our Planet.” Like the economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher many decades ago, it criticized our emphasis on economic growth and capitalism for overemphasizing it to the detriment of our environment. In his address to the U. S. Congress in 2015 Pope Francis stated that the “pursuit of the common good” should be “the chief aim of all politics.” Two years earlier he had criticized capitalism for being a “system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” 

Regardless of various apologies for capitalism, the core of it is the seeking of profits in a market economy. As the conservative economist Milton Friedman once wrote, "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits." Sociologist Daniel Bell stated that “capitalism . . . [had] no moral or transcendental ethic.” This dogged determination to gain a profit and the lack of any higher ethic once led capitalists to hire young children and pay them shamefully. In Das Kapital Karl Marx, quoting factory-inspector reports, provided many instances of such abuse, for example: “That boy of mine when he was 7 years old I used to carry him on my back to and fro through the snow, and he used to have 16 hours [of work] a day . . . I have often knelt down to feed him as he stood by the machine, for he could not leave it or stop."

In recent years I have often been struck by how capitalist corporations in their pursuit of profits hurt the common good.

A contemporary of Marx, the novelist Charles Dickens, sometimes noted the the environmental impact of seeking profits over all else. In his Hard Times, for example, he depicts the ugliness that the capitalism of his day often revealed—his fictional Coketown “had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down.” 

In reaction to such nineteenth century abuses, revolutionary and reform movements arose. One of them was Progressivism, which one historian has defined as an attempt “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a counter calculus of the public weal [well-being].”

Since World War I, which ended the “Progressive Era,” various activists and politicians have continued attempting “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism.” But in the USA and other capitalist countries they have often been countered, and blocked, by contrary forces such as the Trumpism that fought for minimal restraints on capitalism. This see-saw battle has left the USA somewhere between the more unhindered capitalism of Marx’s time and the democratic socialism found in many European countries. (A U. S. State Department publication in 2001 declared that though “the United States is often described as a ‘capitalist’ economy,” it “is perhaps better described as a ‘mixed’ economy, with government playing an important role along with private enterprise.”)

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In recent years I have often been struck by how capitalist corporations in their pursuit of profits hurt the common good. Almost three years ago I wrote of Purdue Pharma’s marketing of the opioid OxyContin and how that corporation “put profits first. Before any ethical considerations. Before the interests of people. Even if it killed them.” For many earlier decades the same could be said of major tobacco companies. More recently in 2018 and 2019 the crash of two Boeing 737 Max jets revealed a case of putting profits above safety, as did the 2019 agreement of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to pay billions of dollars for devastating California wildfires it started. This year it has been Facebook that an internal whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, has accused of putting “astronomical profits before people.” 

Perhaps the best recent example of the profits-first-and-damn-the-common-good attitude displayed by big corporations comes from the 28 October Opening Statement by Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney at a Congressional Hearing on “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action.” 

Her statement deserves to be quoted at length because it reveals that “Big Oil” continues to obstruct the far-reaching changes needed if we are to take on the climate- change crisis with the full and determined vigor necessary.

For the first time, top fossil fuel executives are testifying together before Congress, under oath, about the industry’s role in causing climate change—and their efforts to cover it up.

For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe. . . .

Big Oil has known the truth about climate change for decades.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Exxon’s own scientists privately told top executives that burning fossil fuel was changing the global climate. 

Exxon and other big oil companies had the opportunity to tell the truth and lead the way to find alternative energy sources. 

But instead, Big Oil doubled down on fossil fuels. Working with the American Petroleum Institute, the Chamber of Commerce, and other front groups and PR firms, the industry ran a coordinated campaign to mislead the public, hide the danger of its own product, and derail global efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. . . .

The American people lost more than thirty years when we could have curbed climate change. Today, we face stronger hurricanes, dangerous wildfires, and destructive floods.

As the effects of climate change have become undeniable, Big Oil has changed its rhetoric. 

Now, they say they believe in climate change. . . .

But as Maloney objects, “even today, lobbyists from American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups are fighting tooth and nail against key climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act.”And Big Oil continues to hamper our transitioning to the much more sweeping green energy sources we need to develop.

walter moss

Walter Moss

In summary, putting profits before all else--capitalism’s main goal--can kill our planet. Not profits, but the common good, must be the main aim of our politics. The progressives of the early twentieth century insisted on this. Today, in the face of Trumpism, Big Oil, and abetters like the American Petroleum Institute and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, we must also insist on it. Without any exaggeration, we may say that the fate of our children and grandchildren depends on our success.

Walter G. Moss