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23 March, 2020 11:38:13 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 23 March, 2020 11:39:48 AM

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Transcending capitalism

Health also makes the need for action more personal
MOHAMMED ABUL KALAM, PhD
Transcending capitalism

Some people might think it's a ridiculous conversation, but for the sake of the planet, we need to talk about ending capitalism.Bangladesh’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 12 years straight. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth?Capitalism limits limitless economic growth, yet research shows that trajectory is incompatible with a finite planet.If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trends suggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse.
A report includes a survey of 222 leading scientists from 52 countries who identified five global risks: failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation; extreme weather events; major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; food crises; and water crises.

They identified these risks as the most severe in terms of impact on planetary health – the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends. Notably, the scientists underlined the threat that the interplay and feedback loops between these risks pose. In other words, each of these global risks worsens one another in ways that may cascade to create a worldwide systemic crisis.

We should not be thinking about them in isolation as politicians sometimes seem to do.Ultimately, the report leads us to wonder: will humans continue to thrive on Earth? The answer depends on whether we can act together, with urgency, to reduce our footprint.

The report isn’t all doom and gloom: Beyond these global risks, the report covers topics including food, oceans, politics, media and forced migration. The report doesn’t simply describe problems, it highlights where progress is being made, such as with technology. The Our Future on Earth report found the consequence of inaction on climate change. Such existing technology is being used to promote consumption in the pursuit of economic growth, rather than to safeguard ecosystems or to promote just and fair societies. But the report also highlights how the digital sector has immense potential for reducing emissions and empowering people to monitor and protect ecosystems.

This can include, for instance, using digital technologies to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions in buildings, transport, and industry. And new imaging technologies are providing satellite data to monitor forests in real-time, and track deforestation and illegal forest activity.

But the “great acceleration” of economic growth during the second half of the 20th century has put enormous pressure on earth systems. The rapid expansion of broadscale agriculture and extensive mining in some regions has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and land degradation.

Now, there is an opportunity to reverse this trend by harnessing investments and financial instruments for sustainable development, including green bonds, sustainability-linked loans and more.

Connecting crises through the lens of health: One way we can connect the five global risks, tackling them in a holistic way, is to think about human health. Specifically, human health offers a useful perspective on sustainable development for policy-makers for three reasons.

First, it makes clear the need for action is urgent because extreme weather events – amplified in frequency, intensity, and duration by climate change – are already affecting health.

Health also makes the need for action more personal. There are compelling human stories about the loss of lives and livelihoods from environmental change for engaging policymakers. This isn’t an abstract environmental issue: it’s affecting real people in our local communities.

But it’s not all bad: there are health benefits from transitions to sustainable development. For instance, we’re able to, by 2030,reduce the 7 million annual deaths from air pollution by two-third. Using this health lens can illuminate potential win-win-wins from sustainable development policy, and can help policymakers grapple with the enormity of the crises the world faces.

Health in all nations: Dr.GroBrundtland, who chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, contributed to Our Future on Earth. She notes that a key message from the 1987 report remains relevant, explaining: Our most urgent task today is to persuade nations of the need to return to multilateralism.

For Bangladesh, this means we should be actively supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change. We also must carefully reflect on the health impacts in other countries as more than 440,000 premature deaths each year are associated with air pollution from coal-burning.Beyond humans, Dr.Brundtland’s call for multilateralism is a broader reminder of the interdependence of all species – all animals, plants, and microorganisms.

We have to demonstrate, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a pro-capitalist societythat operates within Earth’s ecological limits. This won’t be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within and between nations). And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the conversation.

What is growth? Economic growth generally refers to grows domestic product (GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and environmental impact have been closely linked.

Capitalism needs growth. Businesses must pursue profits to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services. And if any government tried to slow or stop growth for environmental reasons, powerful economic forces under capitalism would offer fierce resistance – with some businesses perhaps threatening to leave the nation altogether.

What about ‘green growth’?Most mainstream economists and politicians accept the science on the dire state of the planet, but not many people think capitalism is the problem. Instead, the dominant response to the ecological crisis is to call for ‘green growth’.This theory involves producing ever more goods and services, but with fewer resources and impacts. So a business might design its products to have a less environmental impact, or a product at the end of its life could be reused – sometimes called a ‘circular economy’.

If our entire economy produced and consumed goods and services like this, we mightn’t need to abandon the growth economics inherent to capitalism. Instead, we would just “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact.

Too good to be true: There are several big problems with green growth theory. First, it isn’t happening at the global scale – and where it is happening to a limited extent within nations, the change is not fast or deep enough to head off dangerous climate change.

Second, the extent of “decoupling” required is simply too great. Ecological footprint accounting shows we need 1.75 planets to support existing economic activity into the future – yet every nation seeks more growth and ever-rising material living standards.

Trying to reform capitalism – with a carbon tax here and some redistribution there – might go some way to reducing environmental harm and advancing social justice.

But the faith in the good of growth brings all this undone. The United Nations’ development agenda assumes “sustained economic growth” is the best way to alleviate global poverty – a noble and necessary goal. But our affluent living standards simply cannot be globalized while remaining within safe planetary limits. We need degrowth, which means a planned contraction of energy and resource demands. Taking a fair share: Earth’s population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Our current levels of consumption do not add up.Something resembling a fair share could involve developed nations reducing energy and resource demands by 50% or even 75% or more. This would mean transcending consumer lifestyles, embracing far more modest but sufficient material living standards, and creating new post-capitalist modes of production and distribution that aimed to meet the basic needs of all – not for limitless growth.

The “downshift” in material consumption can begin at the individual level where possible. But more broadly we must create local and sharing economies that don’t depend on globalized, fossil-fuelled distribution chains.A range of social movements will be needed to persuade politicians to adopt systemic change.

Last year’s global student strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests were a good start. Over time, they could createthe wide-spread public momentum for an alternative, post-growth economy.Ultimately, structural and policy interventions will be needed. This includes changes to land governance to make sustainable living easier. And we need to start having difficult but compassionate conversations about population growth.

Transcending capitalism: I’m certainly not suggesting we adopt centralized, Soviet-style state socialism. After all, a socialist economy seeking growth without limit is just as unsustainable as growth capitalism. We must expand our imaginations and explore alternatives.

I don’t have all the answers – and I think post-capitalist movements, now and in the future, will probably fail. But if we do not recognize capitalism’s inherent growth fetish as the central problem, we cannot formulate a coherent response.

Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR) Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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