Capitalism – Our Best Hope?

I woke up this morning feeling depressed so today I want to write about hope. In Jessica White’s memoir Hearing Maud she writes about the idea of a pharmakon – an Ancient Greek term for that which is a poison and a cure. For Jess, when she was 4, the strong antibiotics they gave her for her Meningitis saved her life but also irreversibly damaged her ears.

I think, in our society, Capitalism is the pharmakon.

Last night Prof Sharon Friel used the term Consumptogenics. I think it’s a term she coined herself. You can search for it online – there are several references. The term encompasses economics, agriculture, packaging, marketing, retail and distribution. It describes the unquenchable need our economy has to prove itself by always growing.

Economics, of course, is a human construction. We have invented the rules. We are the players. And, just as with the microcosm depicted in the game Monopoly, the aim of the game is to be rich. Individuals want to be rich. Businesses want to be rich. Countries want to be rich. And for all that wealth to occur, money must move rapidly and for the money to move, goods and services are required and consumed. In countries that are wealthy (like Australia) consumption has become all consuming because of this need to grow.

Just like in Monopoly, though, if there are winners, there must also be losers. Professor Friel put up a slide with this quote which has been adopted by the United Nations and summarised under the term: “Adaptation apartheid”.

The rich will find their world to be more expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable, disrupted and colourless – in general, more unpleasant and unpredictable, perhaps greatly so. The poor will die.” Smith (2008)

Capitalism is threatening to become like an over-zealous mistletoe that kills its host tree, thereby killing itself. Sustainability is economically essential. But that’s a bit of a digression. My point is, Capitalism is the poison that continues to drive Carbon Emissions, plastic production, oil and coal mining, fossil cars, consumption, consumption, consumption.

However, I have hope that Capitalism is also the cure.

At the end of the talk, during the panel session, a woman in the audience asked a question relating to economics. It was something like “Australia is a libertarian society. We’re all about a fair go and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. There is always a strong backlash at any changes in legislation which might be perceived as being a “nanny state”. How is it possible to adapt this culture to the essential new pathways?”

The first part of Professor Friel’s response (which is the part I am interested in) was that:

a) Australia is one of the most UNequal (unfair) societies in the world and that being able to pull ones self up by ones bootstraps is, in most cases, a fiction.

b) Australia is one of the most heavily regulated societies in the world but we are regulated by the private sector, not by the public sector.

c) Many industries are crying out for our Federal Government to make strong legislation around the changing demands of Climate Change but that the government is not responding. Professor Friel specifically mentioned the energy sector.

P’s job has given him a generous window into the energy sector and what Professor Friel says is true. But what she didn’t say (and possibly didn’t know) is that, without policy guidance, the sector is setting out to find its own pathway. P is part of a project largely funded by big players in the energy sector from around the nation. The project is to find the best way to integrate alternative energy systems and battery storage into the Australian energy grid as it currently exists.

They are not funding this research because they are green. They are funding it because alternative energies are orders of magnitude cheaper than coal or nuclear. It is no longer economically viable for an energy provider to insist on coal. The numbers speak for themselves and in a society largely dictated to by the private sector (as Prof Friel commented), it is money that talks at least as loud as policy.

People buy efficient cars because they are cheaper to run. People live in efficient houses because they are cheaper to run (and more comfortable). Who wants to pay out $500 a quarter to the electricity company if you can live in a well insulated house and pay half that? People buy second hand clothes and goods because they’re cheaper.

Money talks. Last night Ian Walker commented that people who profess to be Climate Change deniers still exhibit “green” behaviours. He didn’t say why but I am almost sure that the reason is money.

Until very recently, the old way has been the cheap way because that was the known technology. But the tables are turning. The ticket price of electric cars is still more expensive (although running them is SO much cheaper if you do the maths) but it won’t be for long. And as soon as that see saw tips, people’s behaviour will change.

Last night people talked about using children to get the message across. People talked about the Grim Reaper message during the HIV campaign. But, in this case, I believe, it is money. Money is the universal language.

Capitalism got us here and Capitalism may well save us. That is my message of hope.

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