A study by Kai Kuhnhenn, Luis Costa, Eva Mahnke, Linda Schneider, Steffen Lange
To stop climate change, we have to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But can we still achieve this target? And if so, what pathways can society take in transiting towards a climate-just economy? One important yardstick emerging from it was the need for global emissions to reach net-zero by 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in his «Special Report on Global Warming to 1.5°C». One important problem with this and other scenarios is that virtually all rely on continued global economic growth.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie realised the importance of broadening the discussion’s perspective and considering societal pathways that are currently not included in either the IPCC reports or the public debate. Together with researchers from engineering and the natural and social sciences, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie developed a «Societal Transformation Scenario» for this publication – a global climate mitigation scenario that explores the climate effects of limiting global production and consumptions and of envisioning a broader societal transformation to accompany these transformations to reach a good life for all.
We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There’s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.
How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly — typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we’re told, is simply crazy.
We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We’re told we shouldn’t even think about such things. But we can’t help thinking — is this really the “end of history,” in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?
We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us — for good reason. Capitalism — or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives — will be our death if we don’t escape it. Crucial to progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in outdated dogma that alienates but in plain language that resonates with people. We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler conversations — radical politics in five minutes or less — why we must abandon predatory corporate capitalism. If we don’t, we may well be facing the end times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.
Here’s my shot at the language for this argument.
Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.
In short, either we change or we die — spiritually, politically, literally.
1. Capitalism is inhuman
There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We’re told that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.
Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.
Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we’re told, that’s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we’re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit circular?
2. Capitalism is anti-democratic
This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical example to the contrary?
For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that the wealthy dictates the basic outlines of the public policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this any way to run a democracy?
If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.
Let’s make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one vote. When Bill Gates goes the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for political power. Right?
3. Capitalism is unsustainable
This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits.
Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.
Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air.
A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to a question about challenges to capitalism was TINA — There Is No Alternative. If there is no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.
Here’s another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate capitalism: TGIF — Thank God It’s Friday. It’s a phrase that communicates a sad reality for many working in this economy — the jobs we do are not rewarding, not enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words of one songwriter, “get up and do it again.”
Remember, an economic system doesn’t just produce goods. It produces people as well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is this who we want to be?
We’re told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? Is there really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don’t need to spell out a new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees of what’s to come.
Home and abroad
In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don’t like the values of the world around us; we often don’t like the people we’ve become; we often are afraid of what’s to come of us. But in the First World, most of us eat regularly. That’s not the case everywhere. Let’s focus not only on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a global context.
Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. That’s more than 3 billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That’s more than 300 million people.
How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That’s 500 children — not every year, or every month or every week. That’s not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.
When we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. But don’t get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember TINA: There is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.
TGILS: Thank God It’s Last Sunday
We have been gathering on Last Sunday precisely to be crazy together. We’ve come together to give voice to things that we know and feel, even when the dominant culture tells us that to believe and feel such things is crazy. Maybe everyone here is a little crazy. So, let’s make sure we’re being realistic. It’s important to be realistic.
One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, “Well, that may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what’s possible.” By that logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday destroy the planet.
But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.
What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable system — one that leaves half the world’s people in abject poverty — is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.
If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.
I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that’s being realistic, I’ll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com
Leon Logothetis traded in his desk job to chase his dreams. He went to 40 places in nearly 20 countries in five months, with no money, food or places to stay. Logothetis joins “CBS This Morning” to discuss the book about his journey, “The Kindness Diaries: One Man’s Quest To Ignite Goodwill and Transform Lives Around the World.”
Etelle Higonnet has worked for years to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries, which are heavily involved in tropical deforestation.
Pandemics like COVID-19 are linked with deforestation and the wildlife trade, and she’s married to a public health expert, so it was ironic that she nearly lost her life to the disease last month.
Higonnet argues that ending the wildlife trafficking which seems to have caused the pandemic is of no use if animals’ forest homes continue to be bulldozed, sending them into contact with people.
This post is a commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.
I have been sick with COVID-19. When I started writing this, holed up in my New York apartment, I could feel the shakiness, sharp headache, muscle and joint pain that I came to associate with my coronavirus fever during the first week. As the writing and my illness progressed, the virus attacked tissue around my heart, sending me to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where I was separated from my husband and contemplated the possibility of dying alone while I wrote my will.
My husband, who ironically enough is a public health expert specializing in pandemic preparedness, was also sick. In our regular lives, whilst he fights to provide better access to life-saving health systems for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, I try to protect rainforests. I conduct undercover investigations into deforestation, and campaign to hold major companies accountable for their role in destroying nature.
This infection had me reflecting with particular urgency on how his and my work intersect: a planetary binge-destruction of forests and the creatures in them is setting us up for one pandemic after another.
Most epidemics, as my husband ceaselessly reminds me, start with ‘zoonosis’: when an illness makes a leap from animal reservoirs to humans. The CDC estimates that three-quarters of humanity’s emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife–there are perhaps 1.6 million potentially zoonotic viruses. MERS likely came from dromedary camels; measles and TB from cows; AIDS from primates; avian flu from birds. SARS shared 99.8% of its genome with a civet coronavirus. (Many civets were massacred after SARS hit.) The 1918 “Spanish flu” is thought to have come from a US midwestern pig farm. COVID-19 appears to trace its origin from a bat via a pangolin.
In my case, I have COVID-19 because my husband kissed me. He contracted the virus from meeting with someone else who had it; the infection chain traces all the way back to a Chinese “wet market” where the fateful pangolin was sold after being wrenched from its forest home. If anyone ever thought health and environmental concerns are not connected, they should think again. Deforestation and wildlife trafficking are exactly how we got into this global COVID-19 pandemic.
The more we encroach into forests, the likelier it is we humans will come into contact with heretofore undisturbed animals, whose pathogens will have the exciting opportunity to penetrate new victims – us. And when we raze forests, their animal inhabitants stumble into our human strongholds. I’ve witnessed it firsthand in my work: disoriented, lost, homeless creatures seeking a last desperate toehold even in areas where humans abound.
This new proximity simply makes it more likely that pathogens will leap from wildlife to humans. I have documented devastation of rainforests cut down at vast scale for agricultural commodities, and have seen what this does to scattering wild creatures. Poaching, trafficking, and consuming wildlife just rolls the dice towards zoonosis again and again.
Right now, we are rightly consumed with social distancing, hand washing, and life-saving medical help. But for the future, a crucial step humanity must take to protect itself from new pandemics has got to be a total ban on wildlife trafficking worldwide, and an urgent end to tropical deforestation.
Unfortunately, President Trump has not only exhibited spectacular incompetence in managing testing (my husband and I went a week in New York without being able to get tested, embroiled in Kafkaesque calls galore) and other pandemic preparedness, and his administration has also embraced global forest destruction. By doing so, Trump and his ilk are creating ripe conditions for a pandemic like COVID-19 to hit us again.
Every nation should step up to champion a clear path to ending all wildlife trade at the next UN conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity. I hope that the representatives of nearly 200 countries there will realize they can simultaneously protect people from pandemics, and species like pangolins from mass extinction – via a robust ban on the wildlife trade, as it seems Vietnam and China may do.
But ending trafficking is of no use if animals’ forest homes are bulldozed, sending them fleeing to our back yards. We should go further and declare an end to deforestation for agriculture in the world’s most destructive commodities: beef, soy, palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa. This would be a courageous and intelligent response to COVID-19. If you think it’s expensive, then just mull over the likely financial losses hitting us from this pandemic we are in. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
This is especially true for the coming summer. Every summer, vast swaths of the Amazon and Indonesian woods are burned in raging forest fires, largely driven by beef, soy, and palm oil industries. When forests burn, toxic smog billows out in quantities that can be seen from space. In 2015 alone, the toxic haze from Indonesian peat and forest fires led to an estimated 100,300 premature deaths and exposed 69 million people to unhealthy air pollution. What will happen when respiratory infections peak from COVID-19, at the same time as killer smog spreads across the Amazon and Southeast Asia, in already fragile health systems? Harvard scientists recently published a new nationwide study for the US linking pollution to COVID-19 death rates. If I was near a forest fire, I’m not sure my already overtaxed lungs and heart could have handled it. I might be dead now.
The smart answer for world political and corporate leaders is an immediate, strict zero-burning policy.
Limiting exposure to “exotic” animals and protecting their forest homes is key, but we ignore at our peril transmission from “conventional” domestic animals. Our world’s food systems must be reformed to make our planet more pandemic-proof. If poaching is rolling the dice with our lives, then livestock rearing is Russian roulette. Many concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the industry calls them, are festering cesspools of illness, including pathogens just waiting to make the leap to animal-to-human transmission.
With birds and pigs often held in unhygienic, atrocious, closely-packed conditions, small wonder that they get sick, or that bird flu and swine flu occasionally spiral out of control at warp speed, as pathogens rapidly recombine and mutate into novel viruses. With 3/4 of antibiotics administered annually to food-producing animals in the US, we also are on track to experience serious outbreaks of drug-resistant diseases like flesh-eating strains of bacteria that can leap from animals to humans. Our meat industry is essentially providing adventurous pathogens with vast banquets within which they can mutate and spread, all within close contact to us. Coincidentally, our meat industry is also one of the major global drivers of deforestation, which brings us back full circle.
Positive solutions and leadership on this challenge could involve making bailouts of the meat industry conditional on giving power and money back to small farmers instead of billionaires, favoring farms with fewer animals that are more safely raised. We need ‘social distancing’ for farm animals – i.e. more space, less crowding, smaller farms, cleaner spaces where animals don’t wallow in their own excretions and feces (which is often how viruses are shed), and help for any struggling farmer who is willing to transition out of animal husbandry. Carrots will never give us coronavirus, and there is no risk of “broccoli flu.”
COVID-19 has shown just how closely interwoven we are. Infecting one person can rapidly sicken millions. We humans sink or swim together. Viruses respect no borders between nations, and they aren’t limited to one species, either.
Our current plight sheds light on our interconnectedness with the natural world. I pray that coronavirus can teach us to open our hearts, to love the earth, and understand that treating one part of our planet ill endangers all of humanity.
Maybe it’s my fever dreams echoing in my waking ears, but I can almost hear the world’s forests whisper: if we burn, you burn with us.
Etelle Higonnet is a Senior Campaign Director at global environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth, where she has fought to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries. She was recently named a Chevalier of France’s Ordre National du Mérite (National Order of Merit) for her work to protect the environment.
See all of Mongabay’s coverage of COVID-19 pandemic here.
Banner image: Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Roger Hallam talks with Stephen Sackur from BBC HardTalk about the need to ACT NOW. If you believe we need to do something about the climate crisis join us in October for the international Rebellion. In October 2018, we declared The Rebellion. In April 2019, we declared The Emergency. In October 2019, we will declare The Truth. Starting on Monday 7 October, we are joining together as global family in an International Rebellion as we grieve the suffering and destruction of our beautiful homeworld. We will gather with our communities across cities, countries, and continents, to rise up and rebel for our deep love of life and the need to protect it. Join the rebellion: https://Rebellion.Earth/