I was thinking about capitalism, shareholder capitalism, economic expansion, consumerism, and global warming.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines capitalism as "an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned, and development occurs through the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market." As such, capitalism has existed since before the dawn of history as farmers, hunters, and individual merchants traded their wares for necessities. This straightforward activity reached a zenith with the great trading cities of Italy at the beginning of the Renaissance, Venice, Genoa, and Florence. These formed banks to fund increasingly longer, riskier trading expeditions that brought back great wealth reaching as far as China. While wealth was accumulated, it tended to be acquired by families and city-states.
The Eighteenth Century brought about two tectonic shifts to economies and the accumulation of wealth. The Industrial Revolution created the enormous potential to manufacture and distribute masses of goods at economies of scale never seen in history. Financing such endeavors were beyond even the banks and a new way to generate capital was created. Shareholder capitalism is "a system driven by the interests of shareholder-backed and market-fixated companies". The Industrial Revolution was fueled by carbon combustibles. This was the beginning of the now inexorable growth of CO2 emissions that drives climate change. Then, another innovation was added to seal the coffin of the world environment that I knew as a boy in the 1960's. Henry Ford believed in paying his worker a decent wage so that workers could go out and buy one of the all-black cars Ford Motor Company was producing. Alfred P. Sloan, CEO of General Motors, had a better idea. He splintered the company into five brands based on price range. He introduced color to cars and, most importantly, he changed their styling each year. Sloan took Ford's transportation solution and made it stylish, selling new models to the consumer every year.
Sloan had invented consumerism, a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. Consumers no longer bought what they needed. They bought what they wanted. Madison Avenue was born to create the desire for the things that Wall Street created. The endless, insatiable desire was created. This created a cycle. Companies that made stuff, big and small, consumable and capital, invested large amounts of money in advertising to create the desire for current and future products.
After WWII, G.I.'s coming home enjoyed their newfound middle-class status taking advantage of the G.I. bill and other rewards of surviving the carnage. They encountered shareholder capitalism using consumerism to fuel product sales. The ugly fact about shareholder capitalism is that stock prices are driven by quarterly profits. Profits are expected to increase quarterly. The only way to increase profits is to drive consumer demand via consumerism or decrease salaries. Increased consumer demand requires increased production. We went from homes and cars to stoves and refrigerators to portable electronics and personal devices to subscriptions to entertainment that consumers never even own. And all the while, we consume a steadily increasing flow of natural resources, produce ever-increasing pollution, and accelerate the heat civilization causes via direct production and greenhouse gas emissions.
Aside from the measurable deforestation, consumption of non-replaceable resources, and steady increase in the world's temperature and violence of storms, I have seen the change on a micro-level. The fireflies that used to turn Maryland pastures and lawns into a starry night sky are in the 1990s are entirely gone. As little as four years ago, late summer would bring clouds of monarchs around lantana. Now, I may see one or two over the entire summer. My personal impression that the number of birds has declined rapidly since my youth is unhappily confirmed by Scientific American. The world is both changing and dying because consumers think that they need a new iPhone every year, need to live in a 65F to 75F temperature range, a new car every 6 years....the list is endless.
We tell ourselves small and big lies about stopping pollution and warming. Only 9% of produced plastics are recycled. A depressing 0.1% of plastics ever made have made it into a recycled product. At the other end of the spectrum, we tell ourselves that buying that quintessential millennial status symbol Tesla will help save the planet. But we seldom think about the increased carbon cost to make one. Depending on how much of the electricity is made from carbon fossil fuels, you would have to drive the Tesla between 13,000 and 93,000 miles to break even with the carbon cost of making a Corolla.
Interesting poscript some weeks after writing this: premiere industrial capitalist Elon Musk exhorting Americans to have more children to save civilization. It's not civilization that Elon cares about. He only cares about his stock price. The ugly truth about shareholder capitalism is that the stock market rewards increasing profits. Increasing profits require increasing consumer expenditures. Increasing expeditures either mean greater consumer wealth or more consumers. Greater consumer wealth means larger salaries with the resulting decrease in profits. Therefore more people to spend more is better. But we are already past a sustainable level.
In the second half of the Twentieth Century, 3.5% of the world's population living in the U.S. attained the highest standard of material living ever achieved. By the end of the century, with Europe not far behind in material consumption, the planet was already in a pollution and global warming tailspin. Now, the other 7.5 billion have piled on. The world sees Kardashian rubbish on social media and wants to live like that too. So the rest of the world is in a dash to catch up with the West. The materialist consumption economic and political paradigm that created this environmental disaster cannot be tweaked a little to get us out of it. Greta Thunberg is entirely correct:
People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
Scientific American: The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth.