Shop ‘til you drop: The modern tragedy of contemporary consumer capitalism and a planet at breaking point
Photo: by Pixabay on Pexels
By Arvin Johnson
Consumer capitalism of the 21st century is in a state of crisis: relentless, excessive and unsustainable, modern capitalism has bitten off far more than it can chew. But who cares?
We are now facing an ecological crisis that is undeniably and irrefutably a consequence of the economic tendencies of consumer capitalism, where the desire for quick and cheap production ignores the issue of long term environmental sustainability (Næss 2006). As a result, we now live in an increasingly ecologically unstable world, the consequences of which you and I are starting to feel.
These major contradictions are a result of contemporary capitalism being unable to control the forces that it has conjured (Urry 2010). It’s like Frankenstein and his monster, except instead of being 8-foot-tall, having some sort of moral conscience and an endearing child-like innocence, modern capitalism and its consequences are ubiquitous, unremorseful and callous. The only similarity is that both Frankenstein’s monster and capitalism are human made and responsible for their own self-destruction.
Capitalism inherently depends upon economic growth in order to survive, this growth being reliant on the consumption of the natural environment. Commercial agriculture and excessive manipulation of the earth’s resources, along with the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels, are key to the dramatic climate change that we are seeing, as well as the loss of biodiversity around the world. Economic growth under capitalism directly equates to environmental deterioration, a hypothesis proven by Azomahou and Phu (2001) and their study of global greenhouse gas emissions; through analysing the per capita CO2 emissions of 100 countries between 1960 and 1996, Azomahou and Phu found a positive correlation between economic growth and increased CO2 emissions of each country. Economic growth – capitalism’s fundamental vitamin – is therefore intrinsically interlinked with ecological decline.
Despite the latest significantly large spike in global CO2 levels, as well as April’s worryingly warm short-lived mini-heatwave, large capitalist corporations (100 of whom account for 71% of all global carbon emissions (Carbon Majors Report 2017)) continue to unrepentantly – and unsustainably – chuck more coal into the furnace. When profits are concerned, issues of environmental degradation are side-lined, ignored or made to appear insignificant in the grand scheme of economic progress. To admit that capitalism is in crisis is to admit that capitalism doesn’t work, and that certainly isn’t going to happen. Engulfed in the lie of its own legitimacy, modern capitalism is unable, and unwilling, to force the genie of its consequences back into the lamp.
But so what? Why should we bother caring about something that isn’t going to affect us in our immediate lifetime? Have we as a species become so senselessly wrapped up in our own individual existential self-importance, so selfish that we regard our own microscopic lifespan as the only lifespan worth sustaining? Well, no. But considering that just under half of the population of America (the third largest populated country in the world) don’t worry about the effects of climate change, its clear that global compassion, or understanding of environmental degradation, is severely lacking.
It’s not a surprise that these sorts of attitudes are commonplace in many Western capitalist societies, especially the USA, considering its role as the global capitalist super-power. This is because self-serving environmental attitudes go hand in hand with the nature of capitalism. Modern capitalism and neo-liberalism, with their advocation that ‘greed is good’ and competition is essential to human existence, has not only seen a dramatic increase in the destabilisation of this planet’s natural regulatory systems, but it has also made it seem ok. This is the saddest bit. Excessive resource exploitation to fuel consumer industries is justified by the claim that production is in the favour of the consumer; we want a new iPhone XS Plus Max Super, so fat-cat-capitalist-Colin will get you one, as quickly, cheaply and unethically as he can (see Marcuse’s ‘One Dimensional Man’ (1964)). He’ll really make you want it, even need it, so that when you’ve finally got it, there’ll be no questions asked as to how it was made, or why it was only $443 to manufacture but cost you the equivalent to four months’ worth of rent to purchase. It is within the interests and very nature of capitalism to keep you ignorantly consuming, unaware and thus emotionally unaffiliated with the damage that consumer culture does. Therefore, capitalism not only has direct material ecological consequences, but it also has implicit ideological ecological consequences.
According to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C by the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we now have only 12 years to control the disaster of climate change. As profits rise, so do sea levels. That’s why its to up to us to change the future: Rekindle your global compassion, question your excessive consumption, and hold the spawns of capitalism accountable for the inexcusable damage that they have done.
- Næss, P., (2006) Unsustainable Growth, Unsustainable Capitalism, Journal of Critical Realism, 5:2, 197-227, DOI: 10.1558/jocr.v5i2.197
- Urry, J., (2010) Sociology and Climate Change. The Sociological Review 57, 84-100. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2010.01887.x
- Azomahou, T., Phu, N.V., (2001) Economic Growth and CO2 Emissions: a Nonparametric Approach. Leuven: Université Catholique de Louvain
- Griffin, P., (2017) CDP Carbon Majors Report July 2017. Available online at: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf?1499691240
- Marcuse, H., (2002) One-dimensional man. Routledge: London