Campus / News / February 4, 2009

Our common future—is capitalism sustainable?

As part of International Fair’s “i-Green” theme, Professor of Economics Steve Cohn spoke last Wednesday night on sustainability. The talk was originally titled, “Sustainability: What is it and how do we get there: Competing Paradigms,” but Cohn quickly suggested a different name that gave the audience a personal stake in the topic, “Our common future — is capitalism sustainable?”

A diverse group of students gathered in Ferris Lounge, listening as Cohn provided an overview of the realities imposed by a global capitalist system and its relation to the issue of sustainability.

Cohn spoke of sustainability as the “ability of our generation to meet [current] needs without compromising future generations’ capacities” to meet theirs. In describing this idea, Cohn listed three dimensions to sustainability: exhaustible resources, renewable resources, and the environmental envelope that encapsulates everything. He said the “most serious constraint on sustainability” is not resources, but that we will “run out of environmental capacity to handle the waste we produce.”

In questioning how to assess the sustainability of capitalism, he presented two frames—that of the “Neoclassical Cornucopians” and “Treadmill Theorists.”

Neoclassical Cornucopians represent the dominant paradigm in economics, proponing the belief that markets regulate resources efficiently through the use of price signals. They believe that problems only arise when there is market imperfection.

Treadmill Theorists, on the other hand, view capitalism and its markets in a critical light. They view capitalism as carcinogenic, with the belief that it will eventually destroy the environmental envelope it grows within because, as Cohn said, “there is no limiting logic to restrain it.”

Currently, capitalism drives us to use resources and destroy the environmental envelope simply because there is no incentive not to. Cohn outlined the stark reality that people see “payoffs to this growth at the same time dangers caused by it…grow.”

One of the main tenets of capitalism is free market competition, which creates what Cohn called a “relentless drive” that “always leads to pressure for growth.”

Cohn said that “macroeconomically, we set our economy up so that if it’s not growing we have serious problems.”

Regardless of whether it has a negative impact on our environment, we need growth. It has become what he called “an integrated and imperative way of life.” Our economic structure has superseded human control and direction, and has created a social context making growth imperative.

Cohn made numerous references to Karl Marx, capitalism’s original critic. He reminded students that Marx had acknowledged that before capitalism, man had not known the extent of his capabilities, and that it had been a great enabler. Cohn echoed this thought, and saying, “The economic growth compelled by capitalism has acted as the avenue to all other social goods.” There is no denying that growth can create positive change. Cohn listed a variety of benefits brought by increased wealth, including increased happiness, suppression of social strife, enhancement of welfare, and the reduction of poverty.

However, these benefits are not achieved without a cost, and as capitalism expands, the ability of our environment to handle all its byproducts is stressed.

Cohn posed the question, “What kinds of risks are imposed by an economy that can’t slow down?” Even students lacking formal knowledge in economics are likely to sense looming disaster, especially after the past few months have made economic hardship a reality.

Part of the problem Cohn illustrated is that it’s impossible to know what risks we are taking. There is no real way to measure the amount of destruction we are doing to our ecosystem with the use of fossil fuels, and because of that, there is no ability to weigh that unquantified damage against the pressure for growth.

As the talk wound down, Cohn asked the audience to give a show of hands of those considering capitalism as sustainable. After a silent and motionless moment, he asked to see those finding it unsustainable and the majority collectively raised their hands into the air.

Smiling, Cohn said, “If you think capitalism is the problem, you have a problem, because it’s not going away.” It has created the social context we live in, and Cohn said that he firmly believes that the system “only changes when life changes.”

He spoke about the necessity and difficulty of making ideological shifts, and spoke to his belief that “as a college, there is more chance” of creating this change, because of a greater sense of interconnectedness.

Along with putting forward the suggestion of increased financing for researching and developing alternative technologies to compete in global markets, Cohn stressed the importance of human ingenuity.

He provided a number of ideas aiding efforts for sustainability. He was realistic about the potential for change, stating that for now, capitalism is our system and all efforts for change will necessarily grow out of the model we possess.

Cohn’s primary suggestion was to “get in the habit of doing things.” He emphasized that small social change compels larger change, a growth that is not entirely unlike the cancerous spread of capitalism. He made it clear that Knox is the perfect location for students to start creating change. Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman was in the audience, and Cohn acknowledged Schwartzman as a prime example of someone “doing things” and creating social change at a communal level, particularly through his creation of the Center.

After some discussion between students and the professors, the final question of the evening was offered by senior Kevin Wickman who asked, “Do the forces exist currently to take capitalism elsewhere?”

Cohn’s answer came quickly. “Yes, human beings built the world, they can change it…We’ll find the solution in trying to build it.”

Gaby Fox


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