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Environmentalism: the New Socialism?

April 18, 2011

It seems that just the mentioning of the word socialism strikes fear in many Americans. But what about environmentalism? One can hardly argue that the idea of a more sustainable environment is a bad or scary one. So what exactly is it about environmentalism that is socialistic?

According to Rush Limbaugh in this book, The Way Things Ought To Be, “With the collapse of Marxism, environmentalism has become the new refuge of socialist thinking. The environment is a great way to advance a political agenda that favors central planning and an intrusive government. What better way to control someone’s property than to subordinate one’s private property rights to environmental concerns.”

Limbaugh argues that environmentalism is a way for the government to take control of one’s private property; however, most environmentalist will argue that the concept of private property itself is one born out of the modern, capitalistic era.

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote earlier in the semester for my environmental history class. It describes some of the arguments environmentalist make against capitalism:

“The story of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas is learned as far back as elementary school. It has even earned itself a catchy nursery rhyme: “Back in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he sailed the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.”  There is no doubt that we all know the story; however, for most, it was sold to us under false pretenses.  This famous voyage is known as “the discovery of the New World,” despite the fact that this world was by no means new, nor was Christopher Columbus the first to discover it.  The voyage did, however, mark the beginning of a new era characterized by globalization.  This era, without a doubt, has had detrimental and irreversible effects on our environment. Donald Worster, in his book, the Ends of the Earth,  describes two major forces that have placed our earth in what he refers to as “an unprecedented state of vulnerability.” The first, a significant population increase in Europe and second, the rise of the modern capitalist economy.

Although a capitalist economic systemwould not fully exist as we know it today until the 19th and 20th century, the transition to capitalistic style of thought, which, according to Worster, requires people to “learn relentlessly their own private accumulation of wealth.. They must think constantly in terms of making money. They must regard everything around them – the land, its natural resources, their own labor – as potential commodities that might fetch a profit in the market,” began to develop during the 15th century. In this quote, Worster mentions the concept of commodifaction, or the turning of nature into a commodity, which is further elaborated on by William Cronin, who answers the question, how did colonies support themselves? Cronin discusses what an early explorer, Richard Hakluyt called, “merchantable commodities,” which he describes as “natural products which could be shipped to Europe and sold at a profit in order to provide a steady income for colonial settlements.”  But, what, exactly, was consider a so-called “merchantable commodity?”  Cronin goes further to explain that “a ‘merchantable commodity’ in America was what was scarce in Europe.” So, it seems that we have come full circle. Overpopulation and lack of resources to sustain the population led Europeans to establish colonies in the “new world,” which could provide them with the resources they needed to sustain their growing population. These elaborate methods of trade begin the transition from a barter economy, to a money economy, and ultimately a free market economy (for capitalist societies), which Worster claims has caused much of the environmental evils. ”

Are environmentalist like Worster and Cronin, who blame much the the environmental issues we face today on the emergence of capitalism, socialist?

Professor Lavaque-Manty mentioned that capitalism has the ability to adapt and has made the transition to green.  Although this may be true, one cannot turn back time and undo all the environmental damage which capitalism has already done.

What do you think?

  1. justinwilliamsgsi permalink*
    April 20, 2011 11:31 AM

    Frankly, I’m surprised that this post didn’t garner more attention. You’re absolutely right to point out the tortured relationship between environmentalism and capitalism. Perhaps one of the most pressing questions of environmental thought is what role, if any, the market should play in distribution of limited resources. Robert Gottlieb, another historian of environmental movements, argues that at its core, environmentalism – understood as the early 0th century political movement concerned with wilderness preservation or urban social justice – reacted to the increasing degradation of human environs caused by industrial capitalism. The Cayuhoga was on fire, open sewers collected fetid waste, smoke was choking everyone. All these effects were the product of industrial capitalism’s development.

    While almost all enviromentalists agree that present capitalist arrangements are leading us down a bad road, they’re deeply divided about the proper solution to that problem. Some self-styled environmentalists argue that most (all?) environmental problems are the product of governments meddling in markets, or else insufficient market design. Consider fisheries collapse: the problem is that we have a global common stock of fish, and it’s in everybody’s short-term interest to overfish. And because marine fish stocks are unowned, nobody has an incentive to act as a steward. The solution, say these free-marketeers, is to form an ownership scheme that will encourage stewardship. Same goes for air pollution: the problem is that nobody owns “air,” and so polluters can get away with sullying the air, because nobody wants to enforce their property right to air.

    That’s probably the most radical version of green capitalism. Milder forms are more ubiquitous. How do we solve the environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture? Buy local and organic. The problems with carbon emissions? Buy a hybrid, or else an electric car. So at least some environmentalists think that the market can save us, and socialism is hardly a necessary environmentalist move.

    There are also anti-capitalist strains of environmentalism, touting the impossibility of reconciling the free market with sustainability. It’s an open question who is right. Rush Limbaugh gets a sweaty forehead just thinking about environmentalism, but the movement is perhaps more friendly to capitalism than Rush admits.


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