How late stage capitalism prevents us from addressing the climate crisis

The system values profit over the well-being of people and the planet we live on

Climate change is as much, if not more, about the systems that brought us to where we are today than they are about the greenhouse gasses themselves. Yes, greenhouse gas emissions are the mechanism that leads to shifts in climate patterns around the world and an overall warming phenomenon. However, it is more the shift from a focus on collective benefit to a focus on individual interest and shareholder profit, that is leading us down a path where we actively create a tragedy of the commons

“A situation where individuals who have access to a public resource, called the commons, act only in their own interest and in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource.”

Worse yet, the impacts of climate change itself is felt most by those who have contributed the least to the problem. For millions, climate change means loss of livelihoods, ecosystems, communities, identity, and well-being. Climate justice seeks to address the just division, fair sharing, and equitable distribution of both the benefits and burdens of climate change, and the responsibilities of dealing with it. Industrialized nations and corporations have amassed wealth by burning fossil fuels, leading many to argue that a just outcome would involve them redistributing more of this wealth towards those who have to deal with the consequences. Climate change is not just an environmental issue but also an ethical and political one. 

The systems we have today operate in such a way that collective survival and well-being often runs counter to the very survival and well-being of individuals. Yet our society functions best when we consider the needs of the collective and take appropriate actions to serve those mutuals needs. We pool our resources to fund the creation of shared infrastructure we all benefit from, such as sewage and water systems, transportation networks, and electrical production and delivery, to name just a few. Ultimately, the purpose of society is to keep order and humans functioning in a safe manner. 

However, the institutions and systems that have been created to maintain modern society no longer respond to the collective need and only focus on profit maximization. We tend to see the concentration of capital and political power in the hands of increasingly small numbers of individuals, whose interest for profit maximization is pitted against our collective need for survival and well-being. We need to reform, rebuild, or replace the current system or incarnation of capitalism that we use because it doesn’t serve the public interest. This is the core of the issue that prevents us from adequately addressing the causes of climate change and deploying the needed technologies to mitigate its effects. 

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money.”

– Cree Proverb

Capitalism is often thought of as an economic system in which private actors own and control property that align with their own interests while allowing supply and demand to set prices in markets in a way that can serve the best interest of society. Free markets can only flourish when governments set the rules that govern them and support infrastructure. However, governments are influenced by organized private interests that try to leverage the power of regulations to protect their economic position at the expense of public interest, repressing the same free market that bred their success. 

We need our systems and institutions to look out for and ensure basic individual needs to allow for collective decision-making in terms of long-term sustainability and public good. When we think of getting ahead in life, we ignore that we often do so at a cost to others. A system that only allows us to replace another, doesn’t allow us to question why there aren’t places available for all of us. Why must our success be at the expense of another? Instead of getting ahead we should all be allowed to succeed and prosper. By avoiding scarcity mindsets that put us in direct conflict with one another for our survival, we can reject the false premise that we need others to fail for us to succeed. We will then be free to tackle larger issues that affect all of us but are not solvable at an individual level, like climate change.

In Waterloo Region, and across Canada, housing is a collective interest but too often those who own and have housing are pit against those who are unhoused in a system that is slowly mandating a fight to the death. Though the UN recognizes housing as a basic human right and while Canada works towards legislating that right into law, we still see folks suffering unnecessarily. The fact that encampments exist (Waterloo Region is in the process of evicting an encampment of 50 tents in an empty lot in Kitchener) is a major failure of our society and governments at all levels. But the action of criminalizing and further marginalizing folks who need our support shows how truly cruel our society is. 

We have pushed working class folks towards home-ownership as the main way to build wealth and long-term financial stability. Any loss in home value likely feels like a direct attack on the homeowner’s well-being and financial future. We, as a society, have allowed a system to take root where any potential action that lowers home values is in direct opposition to homeowners. This naturally leads to NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes of not wanting certain types of housing and/or services near homes because it could affect home values, which directly impacts the financial futures of many homeowners. We are pushed into a scarcity mindset where decisions for the collective directly impact the well-being of the individual, a homeowner in this case. While financial well-being is not the only factor leading to NIMBY attitudes, it is a good example of how our economic system pits individuals against one another in a real-life game of survivor. 

When everything seems like a threat to our survival, often we turn to criminalizing the threat instead of addressing the underlying issues. Instead of providing services, support—or housing—for those experiencing homelessness, our leaders send armed police to evict people living in encampments. We criminalize people for experiencing poverty and/or homelessness when modern capitalism increasingly requires us to step on others to metaphorically “get ahead”. When simply living in a tent on public land is considered a direct threat to the survival of others, how can we ever find common ground to effectively address large-scale issues such as climate change? Instead, what if we considered ensuring access to basic universal needs—secure housing, clean water, and food?

Halifax Regional Council recently voted to push the federal government to enact universal basic income. But it seems a concept at risk of perpetuating the problem and potentially making it worse instead of addressing it. In the current economic model, giving people a universal basic income will increase demand for goods and services, but it won’t necessarily increase the supply of those goods and services at an affordable price leading to inflation instead of universal access to basic goods and services. If we instead moved towards a model that guaranteed access to basic goods and services, we could ensure the creation of additional supply of things like housing and mandate a minimum amount to be built and maintained. We should move away from focusing only on profit to focusing on basic well-being. When people are no longer required to be stressed for their individual survival, we can move from individual survival to our collective survival and address major issues like climate change.

To truly release all people from these concerns, we also need to consider the ways in which our institutions and systems have criminalized and committed violence against people, historically and currently, through treating them as threats instead of addressing underlying issues or conflict. The issue is not as simple as apologizing and ceasing harmful actions, though that is the bare minimum to start. One cannot simply break a person’s leg and apologize while expecting them to be able to immediately start running again. It requires medical attention, treatment, and potentially physical therapy after the initial injury heals. In the same way, we need to heal the broken legs of all people historically and currently harmed to move toward a future where we collectively work together to address large issues like climate change. 

Humanity currently faces great existential risk from the impacts of climate change. We did not end up here accidentally but through the systems we have created. Though, there are some actors who are more responsible than others for how we have arrived at this crisis. If we want to effectively address climate change, we have to also address the systems that perpetuated the continued existence and worsening of this crisis, and we must hold people accountable for their part in creating it. We can all work towards a solution together but we must use a climate justice lens to address the historical wrongs that led to where we are. 

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