Commentary  Can’t teach an old dog

“Sustainability” misses the real issue: capitalism

Today, most people claiming to stand for sustainability illustrate how we destroy the environment with our small, day-to-day choices, such as driving rather than taking the bus to work. Far from making the problem any clearer, this myopic view frustrates our efforts to deal rationally with the problem. All the while, at a snail’s pace, people everywhere are awakening from their long slumber, finding the possibility of an ecological meltdown quite worrisome. While we scratch our heads, we continue to ravage the earth; with time the problem only grows worse. Before throwing our hands up in despair we ask: “What can we do?”

We’re usually given solutions based on sustainability, including sustainable energy, sustainable housing, or sustainable agriculture. However, two problems directly arise from this “solution.” What does the term sustainability mean in the real world, and can this solution be enough to save the world from catastrophe? There’s something striking about most proposals preaching the gospel of sustainability: the only thing they seek to “sustain” is the current system, the system that is the cause of our dilemma today. In fact, the idea of “sustainable capitalism” is not only a utopian fantasy, but also a contradiction in terms.

The words economy and ecology both find their origins in the Greek word oikos, which means a house, housekeeping, or living relations. Ecology is the study of how we interact with our home, the earth. The economy, like the Greek word oikonomia, signifies the rational administration of the home (oikos). Politics and economy are inextricably linked: the economy is in administration of resource allocation, while politics is the administration of relations between people in society. Since humans are all social animals who constantly consume resources, none of us can escape from the grip of political economy. This grip could be more broadly identified as the commons. When some claim they don’t have any responsibility to save the earth, and therefore won’t do anything, your response should be as follows: “Okay, but only if you choose to do so without using resources. You can start by ending your oxygen consumption if you stop breathing….” Those who do nothing in the face of great peril have no excuse.

Our house is being poorly managed: according to the Global Footprint Network, “UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the mid 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.” Rationality would say that sustainability is in the system’s interest. Eventually it will cut off the branch that it sits on, right? However, our economy doesn’t seem to work that way. As an example, consider that almost one-third of all commercially fished species in the coastal regions and open ocean have collapsed and the catch has plummeted by more than 90 per cent since 1950. Researchers for the magazine Science found that if we continue to fish at our current unsustainable rate, the world will probably run out of seafood by 2048. In the name of private profit, you would think that the fishing industry would have already done something drastic. Think again.

Human footprints have grown too large for the globe, and we’re crushing everything in our way. Ecological activist Brian Tokar notes, “An international consensus is emerging that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of 30-40 per cent are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos, with reductions on the order of 85-95 per cent required by mid-century.”

This isn’t a struggle against the object of liberal ire, like Australian intellectual Clive Hamilton’s example of Texans cranking the air conditioning to enjoy a nice log fire. Lifestyle change is certainly necessary. But the real battle is for the masses to have true democratic control of the commons: let the revolution begin!

Alex LaCroix is a U1 History student. Show him you’ve studied Marx, too, at