Market Forces Wealth or Health: How Capitalist Structure has Failed Us Spring 2001 Market forces, in my belief, have always shaped the relationship between humans and their environment, and I have found it a daunting task to consider the history of such a long and complicated relationship. In all truth, market forces can be considered as anything that drives our means of consumption and our economy as a whole, and from this point of view, they can be seen as existing in some way since the dawn of time. So, instead of starting at the beginning, I will instead focus on the relationship between humans and nature from the start of what I see as the beginning of the end. The capitalist economy’s history, when viewed in light of mans entire existence, has been rather short and in that span of time, it has managed to catapult much of the world into a very new and destructive relationship with the Earths natural resources. While the changes that capitalism has brought about have been slow to evolve, it is a system that has deeply altered much more than the marketplace and which has forever changed the world. In this paper, I intend to demonstrate how the core concepts of the capitalist economy have lead the world into ecological disaster.
There are many structures on which capitalism is built and a few of the most core principles are the ones that are most destructive. The tenets of individualism, efficiency, profit maximization and consumerism can be found at the heart of many of the most damaging practices of today’s world. Since they are main pillars of the capitalist marketplace, they are very pervasive and have become widespread, standard practices and ways of thinking. Individualism it is a new development in our social structure and one that has left a very deep impression. While capitalism did not spring up overnight, the period of it’s development is not relevant to this analysis, so I shall consider capitalism from some hypothetical starting point. Up until this starting point, the community was the central unit of sociological structure. Families and communities were tightly knit and gave support to one another.
This type of lifestyle provided an accurate sense about how one person’s actions affect everything around them and the relationship that humans had with their environment reflected this awareness. Yet, with the rise of capitalism, individuals and not groups, became the focus. This shift in viewpoint now emphasized the rights of the person over the rights of the community and set up a sociological structure that could condone the overuse of natural resources, the contamination of public goods, such as water, and general disregard for the impacts of ones actions. Communities no longer had the right to control the environment that they lived in, since that environment was now owned, and the law now protected the rights of the businessman and the property owners. The capitalistic view of efficiency, which in modern times has involved touting the benefits of privatization and self-regulation, is another culprit in the devastation of the world’s natural resources.
While efficiency in the market may have been intended to prevent the misuse and overuse of resources, modern corporations have seriously modified it. They have come to use this tenet to protect their interests and to allow them to continue, unchecked, behaviors which are detrimental to all living beings. They claim that their more complete knowledge of the situations at hand empower them to be the best planners and in the name of efficiency, governments have been allowing businesses to self-regulate. Even when a problem is so serious as to demand regulation, corporations have been the authors of the very regulations they are subject to. In The Globalization of Corporate Culture, Karliner sites how “U.S.
corporations also helped write laws that use a risk assessment formula to make economic consideration the determining factor over health protection when setting environmental standards .. ” He also mentions that even the Business Council for Sustainable Development argues self-regulation as the most efficient mechanism for change, and promotes the spread of capitalist free-market systems as the ticket to sustainability in the world. The idea that efficiency can be achieved through the capitalist economy is so pervasive that even those who claim to be environmental advocates ” .. have made the worldwide expansion of resources extraction, production, marketing and consumption synonymous with sustainable development.” (Karliner) Profit maximization, one of the most basic concepts of the capitalist structure, is the tenet that I see as most harmful. Profit is the reason businesses exist, and I certainly would not argue a return to a non-industrial society, but the goal of profit-maximization certainly needs to be rethought.
Since the market has little or no capacity to reflect the true cost of environmental degradation, the maxim of profit maximization inherently leads to serious environmental damage and loss of human and animal life. Some of the most recent problems with this maxim involve the activities of the P.R industry as related in Silencing Spring. As the truth has started to come out about the role corporations play in the destruction of our environment and calls have been made by the public for repair and prevention, the focus on profit maximization has led businesses to manipulate the consumer. Instead of cleaning up their act, businesses have engaged in deceitful P.R programs which air to change the consumers’ image of them, rather than change the problem. Silencing Spring sites a few examples; ” .. corporate sponsors form partnerships .. ” which lead to the downplaying of potential hazards and the building of a righteous company image, companies are also co-opting a green image through affiliations with environmental movements because “such companies are finding that cold cash will buy them good will from the environmental movement.” In addition, “some of the industrial polluters with the worst records have devised “public education” campaigns that enable them to placate the public while they continue polluting,” (Silent Spring) through the distribution of free literature and so called education materials to schools and other community forums, all which distort the truth in order to create a more positive image for the company.
While all these activities require a multi-billion dollar input of cash annually on the part of the companies, the costs are viewed as more profit-friendly than the improvements necessary to take corrective and preventative measures. Thus, profit-maximization has encouraged and allowed corporations to deceive rather than protect. The development of a consumerist society is also a result of capitalism. We now exchange our labor for money that we use to buy all of our necessities. This has separated us from the means of production and from realizing the truth about many things.
Helga Moss makes several conclusions about the state of our society because of consumerism and these things are; she sees herself as “delinked from nature and people as producers of the things that I use to live” and “the fact is that within the market economy, the people and ecosystems that contribute .. are invisible.” This separation has changed our view of natural resources and the production process, so we have turned to a consumerist lifestyle. This lifestyle reflects a of lack of knowledge concerning the true nature of the production process. We keep consuming with reckless abandon because we have no way to relate our actions to the loss of human life and natural resource degradation. This separation has also begun to separate us from each other.
Sustainable methods of production and consumption are being overrun by a consumerist attitude, and as a result our “emphasis on economic growth is tearing apart the very foundation of our societies, the way we live our everyday lives and develop as human beings.”(Moss) While their can be no argument that capitalism has provided many with a prosperity unlike that of any other time, there is plenty of room for arguments about the resulting quality of life. Systems of thought and action that have persisted since the dawn of time are being destroyed little by little and the result is a disintegration of society and nature that cannot continue without seriously damaging results. Economics.