Can Capitalism Be Green?

Short answer: No.

But the question is complicated enough to warrant a longer answer.

One complication is that plenty of smart, environmentally committed people seem to think the answer is “yes” – people like Paul Hawken, author of books like The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. They think capitalism is reformable — that it can be made compatible with environmental sustainability.

Another such person is among the subjects of the documentary Food, Inc., which critiques the corporate food system. The film briefly profiles Gary Hirshberg, founder and head of Stonyfield Yogurt.

The firm started as a small organic-yogurt outfit. A decade ago, it was bought out by the multinational Danone. Hirshberg argues that capitalism is with us to stay, and so doing good within the system is imperative. He says he’d rather have Stonyfield get bigger and survive, assuring that at least a certain percentage of yogurt sold in the states doesn’t require releasing more pesticides into the environment.

Here the film injects an interesting note of ambiguity. The interview with Hirshberg is part of a sequence that includes a profile of Joel Salatin. Salatin runs Polyface Farm, the Virginia operation made famous in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Salatin argues that staying small and independent is the only way to produce food sustainably – that becoming part of a larger system (also known as “success”) inevitably leads to soul-crushing compromise.

Food, Inc. shows Stonyfield cutting a deal for distribution in Wal-Marts. To Hirshberg, this is a great success: helping a retail giant go organic, simply because that’s where it sees the market going. The ambiguity came in with a shot illustrating this capitalist triumph: a forklift in a huge warehouse moving around big cartons presumably containing Stonyfield yogurt. Salatin’s point couldn’t have been better illustrated: Once you’ve agreed to become part of the system, there’s less and less to distinguish you from it.

A clarification: Simply selling things isn’t capitalism. I don’t become a capitalist if my neighbor give me $1 for two zucchinis I’ve grown. Here’s the dictionary definition of capitalism: “An economic system characterized by freedom of the market with increasing concentration of private and corporate ownership of production and distribution means, proportionate to increasing accumulation and reinvestment of profits.”

From this concept, more or less born in 16th-century Europe, comes the logic of grow or die. Sufficiency isn’t sufficient. Hugeness is success. The bigger you are, the more you are celebrated.

The problem is those proto-capitalists bequeathed us the fundamental belief that the world of earth, water and air, of plants and minerals is, effectively, infinite, and that infinite growth is possible.

Once, on a less populated planet whose people didn’t burn fossil fuels, infinitude might have seemed real. The belief in infinitude is so ingrained that it takes effort to question it, even though we unquestionably no longer live on that planet. The minerals are running out, the water tables are running dry, the forests are torn up, the air overheated and poisoned.

The thing civilization called “growth” was always destruction, its costs (like degraded soils) written off and usually not even included in the price of the commodities it sold until it was too late (wheat could no longer grow).

Seriously, hats off to Stonyfield if it’s keeping a couple million pounds of pesticides a year from being sprayed. That’s great. But it’s also only a tiny fraction of the pesticides that get sprayed every year. And pesticides , meanwhile, constitute only a fraction of the damage national-scale yogurt-makers do – from packaging to shipping and more.

While it’s fair to praise those who are trying to do less damage, it’s not the action of any individual business (or consumer) that’s the trouble. The trouble is an economic system that’s based on exploiting the environment to make products and that depends on distributing those products as widely as possible, regardless of the actual need for those products.

Can there be a capitalism that doesn’t consume the planet? That doesn’t exploit every last finite “resource” regardless of the environmental consequences? That isn’t based on stoking the desires of humans for products ever more, ever newer?

One bit of proof, I think, is that for all the green talk you hear from business, and consumers, destruction of the environment continues apace. As we pat ourselves on the back for our revived consciousness, the forests fall (for beef or soy or palm oil). The water vanishes (for cotton or corn or livestock). The fish disappear. The earth warms.

Whatever little good its proponents might do, green capitalism is one of the most dangerous myths of all.

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