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Conscious Capitalism: Making Amends for Warnings Unheeded

Our current state of environmental awareness and questions regarding the destructive forces of capitalism are not new. In fact, we’ve known for decades that the world was in peril. So, why didn’t we listen and how exactly did we end up where we are today? 

Photo by Daniel Grizelj via Getty Images

There is nothing like a crisis to focus our attention. The warming planet’s collateral damage is certainly worthy. 

In real time, we are baking in unprecedented heat, feverishly trying to douse global forest fires, building levies to hold back melting glaciers with their accompanying sea level rise and experiencing rainfall that is flooding towns and subways. Thus, no surprise at the urgency in signing global agreements to reduce the use of carbon intensive fuels.

Previously, people thought their tenure on the earth was assured, but those of their children was iffy. Now, climate change is so in our faces that countless global citizens are aware their own prosperity and, possibly, survival is in jeopardy. This realization has now translated into individual action.

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In America and much of the free world, capitalism is the dominant influence on our lives. Its response to the environmental crisis may well determine our future. However, before we explore its present state of awareness, it might be useful to review past attempts to make us conscious of environmental concerns. Unlike authoritarian societies, a free market in ideas did warn us a while ago.

As an aware (woke) youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was warned. That is why this “new” awareness of what we eat, wear, drive, live in and visit has an echo to it. I am glad we are here now, but why didn’t we listen then? 

A good place to start might be in 1947, when Adelle Davis wrote Let’s Cook It Right. She went on to author several other Let’s books. All told, they sold over 10 million copies. She made it clear that the American diet of processed foods, meat-centric meals and lack of exercise was going to lead us down the road to ill health. Witness our current obesity crisis. Her plea for local foods, along with more fruits and vegetables, is reflected in today’s $700-per-couple, all-vegan meal at Eleven Madison Park. 

Another visionary was Frances Moore Lappe whose Diet for a Small Planet came out in 1971 and sold over three million copies. Pointing out that the growing global population could not continue to eat as we were, and that food waste was an issue, she urged everyone to eat less, eat more plant-based foods and stop environmentally destructive food growing and processing practices. 

Stewart Brand knew something was amiss with the ecology of the planet back in 1968. To help counterbalance big ag and corporate everything, he published a magazine and later a book, The Whole Earth Catalogue (WEC). In 2005, Steve Jobs acknowledged the WEC was a major influence in his life. The book promoted local, practical and low-impact ways to live a more authentic life, well before off-the-grid was a term in daily use. The WEC’s focus on less consumption and goods of a higher and authentic quality is mirrored in thousands of products today.

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Global warming from the greenhouse effect, the collapse of the food chain, a dystopian future of the super-rich isolated in fortified towers while the masses seethe on hot streets? My all-time favorite movie, Soylent Green, released in 1973 and starring Edward G. Robinson, lays it all out. Based on a 1966 sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room!, our over-taxed power grid, prone to failure when the temperature hits 100 degrees, was just what author Harry Harrison envisioned over a half-century ago. He also foresaw the disastrous effects of income inequality and the social violence that would result from an excess of atmospheric CO2. (Harrison’s vision of “Soylent Green” is so shocking, I won’t spoil it here.)

Undoubtedly the visionary of visionaries is the still-productive-at-101 James Lovelock, who formulated the Gaia theory, which was first published in his 1975 article, and later book, The Quest for Gaia. Lovelock understood then what a warmer earth meant. He knew the earth would adjust from the warming caused by fossil fuels in a way that was detrimental to humans. He believes the earth is a living organism that is interconnected in ways we refuse to understand. Gaia theory warns the coming adjustments will be so disruptive that most of us will not be able to live our lives as we did before. Lovelock has gone on to write numerous other books on this and adjacent themes. If you are not familiar with this scientist, one of the most brilliant minds of this century, you should be. 

What does all his mean for the future of capitalism? As Clyde Barrow chair and professor of political science at the University of Texas reminds us, “Marx wrote that capitalism would dig its own grave. Its short-term focus on quarterly profits causes it to ignore important issues, even those that threaten mankind.” 

But now everyone, or almost everyone, knows there are real threats to the environment that need to be blunted. The way we live our lives will be different. There is not one single aspect of our daily actions that does not need to be transformed tomorrow and every day after.

ESG investing is now the standard for investors. Loaning capital via equity or debt to industries that are harming the planet no longer makes sense. Building a better, greener world by rethinking how we eat, travel, shelter, dress and consume energy not only gives us hope for a better future but can and will also create profitable new industries. All you need to know is Tesla’s market cap is far larger than GM, Ford and the legacy brand Chrysler combined, all in the span of 18 years. Revolutions within capitalism will be commonplace as windfarms replace oil derricks, organic food suppliers replace toxic ones and even sellers of artisanal good like Etsy replaces old-line commodity retailers like Macy’s. Solar panels will eventually eliminate oil delivery trucks.  

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Marx acknowledged capitalism was incredibly dynamic, even if he doubted its long-term future. We may be in the first part of his observation. The dynamic part. No system wants to self-extinguish; it is human nature to invent solutions to problems. 

Why we did not head the earlier warnings is also a function of human nature. Just as individuals procrastinate, so do societies. Warnings are not headed until disaster arrives on one’s doorstep. As citizens of Miami, Greece, the Western United States and a score of other locations know, what is on their doorstep today will only get worse tomorrow. We know the warmed earth is bringing destruction. Now capitalism 2.0 has arrived and will have to act faster, with far greater structural changes to our way of life, if it is going to survive.

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