Can Buying a New Product Solve Climate Change?
Neeyra Estrada Pena
If climate change continues at the current rate, Minnesota will have an estimated average of 42 days with temperatures above 95 degrees (F) by the year 2100, compared to the average from 1990-2010 being 0. If you think that is bad, Dallas will have an estimated average of 133 days above 95 degrees by 2100, compared to their average of 44 days from 1990-2010. That’s over one third of the year that Dallas will spend in over 95-degree weather (Cullen)! The greatest contributor to this trend of increasing global temperatures is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Part of the reason we are so dependent on fossil fuels is because our economy is built to be dependent on these fuels and the more we use, the more our economy grows. With that understanding, we can begin to see that reducing our use of fossil fuels contradicts continued economic growth in a capitalist economy. The incessant raping of earth’s natural resources is a serious threat to humanity and all living things, as this is the single greatest driving force behind climate change. Many would argue that switching to renewable energy sources is the best solution. Though renewable energy is certainly a good starting point, given the impending dangers climate change is posing right now, the root of the problem goes much deeper than a simple switch of energy source alone can fix. That is because destruction of the environment and its natural resources is imbedded into our capitalist economic system through continuous economic growth; therefore, unless we adopt a new economic system, the long-term destruction of our environment is destined to continue indefinitely.
First, it is important to understand what naturally occurring fossil fuels are. Life on earth is carbon-based and because of this, when life ends, it then recedes into the ground and millions of years later, it returns to its most basic state: carbon. That is where we get coal and oil; both are natural resources. In their most basic form, coal and oil are compressed dead things. This is certainly a strange thought. In understanding this, we can begin to understand what the term ‘fossil fuels’ really means. Yes, fossil fuels means fuels made from the fossil remains of the dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, and the remains of our ancient ancestors.
When we use these fossil fuels, we are simply extracting carbon from the ground and redistributing it into the air as carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide then makes it into the air through emissions, as well as through the extracting process itself. This is where the term carbon footprint comes from. A carbon footprint is the “total amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere each year by a person, family, building, organization, or company” (Glossary of Climate Change Terms). In short, it is a measurement of how much carbon we are taking from the ground and releasing into the air as carbon dioxide. When carbon dioxide releases into the air, it creates a greenhouse effect. This means that the sun’s rays are trapped in our atmosphere and cannot be released because of the carbon dioxide in the air obstructing the natural process that allows the rays to escape back into space. Since energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it must be converted. The sun’s rays then convert to heat, and create a little blanket of warmth around the earth. This may sound nice; however, this actually creates many problems for the inhabitants of our planet through climate change. This increase in warmth does not just cause warmer winters and hotter summers. It also wreaks havoc on the earth we know and love and jeopardizes all of humanity and every living thing encompassed in this new blanket of warmth.
Having this basic understanding of what it really means to use fossil fuels is important in recognizing how destruction of the environment’s natural resources is imbedded in our capitalist economic system. To have a better understanding this, we must discuss what economic growth means in a capitalist economy. Simply put, our economy grows when there is an increase in money circulating in it. How do we increase the money circulating in the economy? This is also quite simple: by buying more stuff. Yes, that is the key to economic growth! The more we consume as individuals, as a community, as a society, and as a country, the more our economy will grow. The push for continuous consumption and indefinite growth poses great risks for our environment and its natural resources.
That is because continuous economic growth leads to the destruction of our environment. When we consume more stuff, we create more waste. This poses a bit of a problem for us, as we have not quite figured out how to make use of our waste. Actually, we have not figured out any better alternative than to bury our waste and cover it up with grass that we hope will thrive off our waste. Somewhat funny, I relate this idea to a dog kicking dirt over its freshly dropped waste. Only their waste actually biodegrades and feeds the soil eventually; meanwhile, ours certainly does not. Have you ever driven past a landfill and smelled that awful smell? The smell of methane: the byproduct of our buried waste. Like carbon dioxide, methane also causes climate change and has a similar effect on our atmosphere as carbon dioxide does. Thus, an increase in waste alone is harming our environment and adding fluff to that blanket of warmth we discussed earlier. This is not the only contradiction between the needs of our environment and the continuous push for economic growth.
Another problem the environment faces with continuous economic growth is that as we grow economically, we tend to use more resources because we can simply afford more resources. Remember, the more money circulating, the more our economy grows. While this is good for our economy, the effects on our environment are disastrous. Since carbon is our most used resource in both oil and coal form, the more we consume these resources the more carbon we are displacing into the air. Here comes that blanket again, and since we have more resources and more money why not just crank up the air conditioning (A/C) and call it a day? Well, the electricity used to run A/C’s is produced using fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, and the byproducts of refrigerants and A/C’s also cause global warming and climate change; therefore, this raises further conflicts of interest between the environment and our economic growth.
Economic growth is directly at odds with environmental sustainability and the reduction of fossil fuel use. Here is one clear example of the negative correlation between our use of fossil fuels and our economic growth. As shown in the graph of US greenhouse emissions from 1990-2014 (see figure 1), our carbon dioxide emissions were on a slow but steady increase from 1990 until 2007-2008. It began to decrease in 2007 and reached an all-time low during 2009. The recession of 2008 caused this decline, suggesting that slowing our economic growth indeed lessened our greenhouse gas emissions. This decline in carbon emissions during the recession is what sparked my interest in the contradictions between the use of fossil fuels and economic growth. Interestingly enough, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gas emissions remained largely stagnant and undisturbed by the recession (U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014). It is somewhat ironic that meanwhile an economic recession causes great suffering among many people, it is actually a sigh of relief for our environment. It seems that we cannot find a common beneficial ground between the environment and economic growth in a capitalist economy. Does this mean that we must reduce our economic growth if we want to save our planet? In one word: yes. The destruction of our environment is deep-seated in our capitalist economic system. This problem goes much deeper than the simple solutions posed by many environmentalists today.
Fig. 1. U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas, 1990-2014.
In the debate over how to lessen our use of fossil fuels in a consumption-driven, capitalist economy, many people are turning to renewable energy as a possible solution. This helps, of course. However, this only reaches the surface of the real problem. In an interview, Dr. Joel Jensen, an environmental ethics professor at North Hennepin Community College, suggested that renewable energy sources, though necessary for sustainability, are only a good short-term solution. I must agree with Jensen on the following point: in the long term, even if we were to make a complete switch to renewable energy, we would still have a situation in which economic activity is creating negative environmental concerns. Jensen warns, “you cannot have economic growth and a happy, healthy environment.” If we want to have long-term sustainability, we cannot focus on economic growth. We must choose which is more important to us: environmental sustainability or economic growth.
Not all would agree with Jensen and me on that point. In his article titled “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis,” Christian Parenti, a professor of sustainable development, suggests that a change in economic systems would come too late compared to the devastation that climate change is already beginning to cause. Further, Parenti argues that our best bet against climate change is to work within our current economic structure to create policy changes that would decrease greenhouse emissions: “Dealing with climate change by first achieving radical social transformation—be it a socialist or anarchist or deep-ecological/ neo-primitive revolution, or a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to a mythical smalltown capitalism—would be a very long and drawn-out, maybe even multigenerational, struggle” (51). It is true; the impending doom that climate change carries with it is lurking around the corner at this very moment. We cannot deny the immediate need to change our way of life if we are to do anything to stop climate change. This is where policy change could help us take the appropriate steps toward a path with cleaner, renewable energy sources. Though this is a short-term solution, we must take this step if we are to stand a chance in the fight against climate change.
In regards to policy change, Parenti discussed the immense amount of power the government has in driving down the price of clean energy and making it more affordable than fossil fuels. He pointed out how the US government funded the development of IBM and subsequently, the computer industry. Once developed, the US government became the largest consumer of the computer industry products they helped fund. Our government could apply a similar approach to clean energy. Because our government accounts for about one third of our GDP (Parenti 55), it certainly has the spending power to make dynamic change within the clean energy realm if it chose.
Another policy change we can make to decrease our use of fossil fuels is to impose a carbon tax. A carbon tax is exactly as it sounds, a tax placed on businesses for expelling greenhouse emissions. This would eventually drive up the cost of fossil fuel use so much that it would be clear and obvious that the most economical thing to do would be for businesses to invest in renewable energy sources (Parenti 54). This tax would also be beneficial for economic growth because it would create predictability, which industries tend to favor. Although many oppose the idea of more regulations, if we take away all other emissions regulations and simply implement one uniform carbon tax policy and we implement it well, that one policy alone would be more effective in reducing greenhouse emissions than all of the other regulations we currently have in place combined (Jensen). Now we understand that with the US government’s spending power and policy change alone, we can drastically cut our fossil fuel emissions. Though it appears simple, something does not add up. If it is truly so simple to reduce our fossil fuel emissions and environmental destruction, and if we understand the grave future ahead of us if we refuse to do so, then, why has our government been so slow to implement any of these changes? There is certainly a concerning flip side to this coin.
It is troubling that our government seems so reluctant to invest in renewable energy. Though it is probably a compilation of many reasons, I learned about one in particular that was especially disturbing. Throughout history, humans have used several different energy sources. Interestingly, a long time ago the Dutch utilized wind and water technologies, though these technologies would seem primitive compared to how we can make energy of these elements today. During this time, the Dutch held a lot of power because they were the most efficient energy producers, and that made them seem untouchable. That is, until coal was discovered in Great Britain. With the use of coal on the rise, the energy that the Dutch could produce with wind and water simply could not compete. The Dutch were forced to take a seat while watching Great Britain rise to power, where the Dutch once were. Great Britain became the new dominating world power in large part because of their developments within coal mining. Great Britain maintained that power for quite a long time. Then, the pesky United States came along and discovered oil. Though coal did put up quite the fight, it simply could not stand against the efficiency and economics of drilling and using oil. Quietly, the British were also forced to take a seat while the new energy producers rose to power, the United States of America. Are you beginning to see the pattern here? Changing energy sources does not simply mean a change in infrastructure or swapping out one system for another. Rather, a change in the primary energy source ultimately leads to a change in the dominating world power (Patterson 76). Now are you starting to see why the United States is so hell-bent on keeping its citizens addicted to oil and fossil fuels? They have no other choice, for a major change in our energy sources would mean a major change in world dominating powers. This is simply something the United States is not willing to give up.
Because it appears that we will not be changing our primary energy source any time soon, we should discuss how the continued raping of earth’s natural resources is affecting people around the globe. We are quickly learning that climate change is much like an onion in that it has many layers of consequences. In an article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, they explain why it is nearly impossible to predict every consequence of climate change. “Climate change does not occur in a gradual, linear way, but is nonlinear, with all sorts of amplifying feedbacks and tipping points” (692). Considering all of the devastation that we can already see happening and all of the devastation that we can already predict will happen because of climate change, it is frightening to know that this is only the outermost layers of that onion and far greater danger lies ahead.
One of the many consequences of climate change that we are already beginning to see is an alarming increase in droughts. We saw this in the United States in early 2016 when California was experiencing severe droughts. At one point, over 90% of the state was in drought (Grad). However, this is certainly not limited to the United States. In fact, it is happening on a global scale right now. Droughts are having disastrous effects for the people of India, northeast Africa, and Australia and it is expected that these droughts could increase to 70% of the land in these countries within decades (Magdoff and Bellamy 692). It is important to note that when the drought occurred in California, the United States had the resources to overcome this drought and save the people affected by it. Many of those countries experiencing drought on the other side of the globe are not equipped with sufficient resources to save all of the people who are affected. Consequently, many impoverished people will die.
Though droughts will be a great harm to many impoverished people around the globe, there is an even greater threat at bay. Rising global temperatures are melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica at an alarming rate (Jensen). Consequently, sea levels are rising with the melting ice. We are already beginning to see a rise in sea levels, and this will have catastrophic consequences for people living in low-elevation areas around the globe. Even a sea level rise of 1-2 meters would prove devastating for hundreds of millions of people around the globe (Magdoff and Bellamy 692). Many of the people affected by this are impoverished and have no way to move to higher land. Take Bangladesh for example. They are one of the most densely populated countries in the world and they are extremely impoverished. They will likely be one of the first countries to experience flooding because of rising sea levels (Jensen). Another country rising sea levels effects is The Maldives. They are an impoverished island nation whose civilization dates back to 2,000 B.C. and they will be completely flooded out if sea levels continue to rise (Jensen). Since they are an island nation, they will have nowhere to go, and without the help of an evacuation plan from another country, most of these people will likely die. Not only will the people themselves die, but the ancient culture and civilization itself will go extinct thanks to climate change.
Though impoverished countries will largely be the ones affected by rising sea levels, this will affect the United States too. For example, Miami is experiencing many issues because of rising sea levels (Jensen). However, it is important to understand that the US has the resources to relocate and help these people. Despite that, even in here in the US, the most impoverished people will suffer the greatest at the hands of rising sea levels. Take New Orleans for example. They are losing land equivalent to the size of a football field every single day thanks to rising sea levels (Jensen). If we look back on what happened after Hurricane Katrina we can see that our economic structure of continuous growth and the abuse of natural resources really created the problems many of the poor people in that area had to deal with.
In her article titled “Climate Justice: The Emerging Movement Against Green Capitalism,” Ashley Dawson explains how Hurricane Katrina was a compilation of many disastrous decisions that was years in the making; contrary to George W. Bush’s claim that this was simply an “act of God.” It was no “act of God” that the poorest people were the ones living closest to the failed levees. Real estate companies had sweet-talked many poor, predominantly African American, people into buying houses on drained and redeveloped swampland. They did this by claiming that the land was higher in elevation than it truly was. Meanwhile, these companies certainly knew this land was already eroding thanks to rising sea levels (Dawson 485). As a result, the poorest people in New Orleans were the ones hit hardest by Katrina’s devastation. It was no “act of God” that governing agencies allowed Big Oil companies to accelerate the erosion process of these redeveloped lands described above by drilling canals into the already vulnerable freshwater estuaries just east of the city (Dawson 485). Katrina was the first real impactful repercussion of global warming that we had seen thus far. It serves as just another example of how the poorest people are the ones who will suffer most at the hands of rising global temperatures. However, this was no “act of God.” This was an act of capitalist greed and the greed of fossil fuel companies themselves.
Though we have seen that climate change poses a great threat to humanity, humans will not be the only ones affected by it. Many habitats and ecosystems are changing with the rise in global temperatures. This leaves the species of animal and plants in that area with three choices: they can move to another habitat more suited to their needs, they can adapt to their changing habitat, or they will be forced to go extinct (Jensen). For example, the polar bear we know will not exist in the near future. Since global temperatures are rising, their habitat is getting smaller and smaller and eventually they will simply have nowhere to go and will go extinct. Climate change is going to affect all life on this planet in one aspect or another and it is important that we do our best to fight against these disastrous changes.
Since we have an economic system that is refusing to change its energy source due to a fear of losing power, we must ask ourselves if a change of energy source is even the proper solution. Sure, it is a necessary change we must make to reduce our carbon footprint, which would help slow down climate change. However, this would simply be an excuse to continue doing what we have been doing. Buying a new product (renewable energy) will not stop us from consuming. It will simply be an enabler for us to consume more things since we will feel like we are lessening our harm to the environment. It is a consumerism-focused marketing scheme much like low-fat ice cream. If something is low-fat we can eat twice as much, right? If our primary energy source produces fewer emissions then we can stop caring about the carbon footprint of all of the other items we are consuming and the waste we are still producing because of consumption, right? Jensen compared this notion to what he calls the “Ex-Lax paradox.” When we have stomach troubles, we go to the store and look for Ex-Lax or some laxative similar to it. What we are eating is causing our stomach troubles, and yet we go to the store to buy a new product to eat in hopes of feeling better. We are doing the exact same thing, and expecting different results! There is an old Chinese proverb saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are so conditioned to believe that buying a new product will solve our needs that we do not even realize how paradoxical it is. It is so deeply ingrained into our minds that when we begin to discuss solutions to problems caused by this insatiable need for economic growth we are largely incapable of thinking of solutions outside of the scope of our current economic system.
It is truly impossible to find a solution to climate change within our capitalist economic system. You cannot find a solution to a problem caused by the incessant need for growth this system poses by continuing to strive for economic growth. That is completely at odds with environmental sustainability, or living within our environmental means and limits. Capitalism cannot conceive limits! Magdoff and Bellamy said it best, “Capitalism’s basic driving force and its whole reason for existence is the amassing of profits and wealth through the accumulation (savings and investment) process. It recognizes no limits to its own self-expansion…” (696). We live in an economic system that cannot be confined by its environmental limits. We must understand that if we are to live within our environmental limits, our economic system must change. They cannot continue to coexist if we are to make lasting change in the fight against climate change. It is clear now that if we want lasting change and environmental sustainability, a change in our economic system is necessary. Humanity could suffer dire consequences if we do not act soon.
It is easy to believe that we will remain unaffected by climate change; however, no one will remain unaffected, and this is something we must accept if we are to make any kind of lasting change. The contradiction between preserving our environment and maintaining economic growth mainly affects all people here in the United States because we are discussing economic growth in a capitalist economy. However, the much larger problem that is climate change will affect every human inhabitant of planet earth, in addition to all of the animals and plants we share this planet with. It is self-preserving to think that this will only affect people who live on coastlines and people who live near the equator. However, as self-preserving as this way of thinking may be, it is destructive and frankly an error in our thinking. We must accept that this will affect us all. There will certainly be some people affected more than others. As I discussed earlier, the most impoverished people of our world, though they contributed the least to this devastating climate change, will be the ones who suffer the most. If we do not act now, then we will allow those impoverished people to bear the burdens of our negligence.
Our dependence on fossil fuels has already created lasting effects in changing our earth’s climate. It is clear that capitalism not only fuels climate change, but also is largely the cause of it. The primary and constant driving force of economic growth thus creates a lack of understanding of what our environment can actually sustain. We are pushing our environment to its limits, and Mother Nature has already begun to push back. Recognizing that reducing our use of fossil fuels contradicts continued economic growth is the first step towards finding a long-term solution for the hazards that capitalism poses for our environment. Upon recognition of this contradiction, we must make an important and potentially dire decision. Which is more important, maintaining our only planet or maintaining our current, changeable, economic system? The latter will lead to climate change catastrophe, and ultimately, our demise. This is not a choice for us to make, but rather a duty we must fulfill. We have a duty to all living things on this planet. As human beings, we are the chosen leaders among this planet. Leaders have an obligation to those whom they are leading, and that is to act in the best interest of those whom they are leading, even when that conflicts with the individual interests of the leaders themselves. Thus, it is our duty to act in the best interest of the planet, even if these interests conflict with the economic interests that we have been conditioned to have. Hotter summers and warmer winters are just the tip of the climate change iceberg. We do not have time to ponder our options here; the time to act is now.
Cullen, Heidi. “Think It’s Hot Now? Just Wait.” The New York Times, The New York Times
Company, 20 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/20/sunday-review/climate-change-hot-future.html?_r=2.
Dawson, Ashley. “Climate Justice: The Emerging Movement against Green Capitalism.”
Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, edited by Louis P. Pojman
and Paul Pojman, Sixth ed., Clark Baxter, 2012, pp. 481–497.
“Glossary of Climate Change Terms.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Aug. 2016,
www3.epa.gov/climatechange/glossary.html. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.
Grad, Shelby. “Most of California Is out of the Drought.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles
Times, 23 Feb. 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-drought-gone-20170223-story.html. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.
Jensen, Joel. Personal Interview. 21 Mar. 2017.
Magdoff, Fred, and John Bellamy Foster. “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About
Capitalism.” Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, edited by Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman, Sixth ed., Clark Baxter, 2012, pp. 691–712.
Parenti, Christian. “A Radical Approach To The Climate Crisis.” Dissent (00123846) 60.3
(2013): 51-57. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Feb. 2017.
Patterson, Rubin. “A Great Dilemma Generates Another Great Transformation: Incompatibility
Of Capitalism And Sustainable Environments.” Perspectives On Global Development &
Technology 9.1/2 (2010): 74-83. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.
“U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014.” United States Environmental Protection
Agency, 2014, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/us-greenhouse-gas-inventory-report-1990-