Readers sound off on capitalism, bottled water, and, yet again, the Sierra Club election
From the Hawken’s Mouth
I think Stan Cox’s piece is wonderful and I am glad to see it published. Entropy and thermodynamics are consistently excised from mainstream economics and it is good to see them re-injected.
Nevertheless, the author has made a rather odd and unusual error in characterizing my comments as pro-capitalism. There is not a whit of writing or speaking I have done that supports the capitalist system, including my book Natural Capitalism. In it I write clearly that “[c]apitalism is a non-sustainable aberration in human development.” What the writer has done is assume that natural capitalism is a variant of capitalism, but it is in fact (as clearly stated in the book and my writings) an homage to Herman Daly and ecological economics. The word is a play on the term “natural capital,” not a modification of “capitalism.” I am in utter agreement with Joel Kovel that the path to sustainability lies in the field of justice, not development per se. In a recent speech and article, I put it this way:
The way to save the earth is to focus on people, and in particular to focus on those people who pay the highest price for the current capitalist system: women, children, communities of color, the localized poor. The sustainability movement, without forsaking its understanding of living systems, resources, conservation biology, must move from a resource flow model of saving the earth, to a model based on human rights, the rights to food, the right to livelihood, the rights to their culture, the rights of community, the right to self-sufficiency. It is not, in my mind, a question of how to get the social justice people talking to the environmentalists. Essentially, the sustainability movement must become a civil rights movement, a human rights movement. Without that, it will simply be a failed white man’s movement from the north.
It’s great to see thoughtful coverage of the intersection of economics and ecology, but unfortunately, Stan Cox’s article doesn’t fit that bill.
Consider this howler: “a huge increase in aluminum recycling, starting in the 1970s, allowed cans to be produced at one-third the energy cost of those made from mined aluminum. That improved the beverage industry’s efficiency, and the number of canned drinks consumed per American has since doubled.”
First of all, his figure underestimates the energy savings from recycling by a factor of six. Making a can from bauxite requires twenty times the energy of making it from a recycled can (see here and here), so even if the per capita consumption of canned drinks has doubled, it’s still 90 percent less energy than it would take to manufacture half as many cans from virgin materials. Cox also fails to establish that cheaper cans lie behind the increase in beverage consumption — a trend that authors such as Michael Pollan (“When a Crop Becomes King,” The New York Times, July 19, 2002) have linked instead to the availability of cheap high-fructose corn sweetener, which drove down the cost of the contents, irrespective of the cans
But Cox’s article falters most egregiously in posing a simplistic dichotomy between capitalism and socialism. Neither exists in a pure form. Cox’s essay veers back and forth between advocates of market forces and boosters of socialism, but ignores the mixed systems that have yielded the highest quality of life. In Scandinavia, Canada, and Western Europe, market forces are channeled and restrained in accordance with the country’s democratically determined values. It’s this gray zone that was missing from Cox’s article, and it’s toward this nuanced approach that we would do well to direct our efforts.
Stan Cox responds:
Paul Hawken does use the term “natural capitalism” metaphorically, and I should have made that more clear. But while he has worked tirelessly and effectively to develop alternatives that would curb the abuse of people and the planet by big business, I do not believe that Mr. Hawken’s vision would entail an end to capitalism. Here and in my article, I stick to the long-established definition of capitalism as an economic system in which (1) most of the means of producing goods and services (“capital”) are privately owned, (2) the vast majority of people subsist on a wage or salary, that is, by selling their labor to the owners of capital, and (3) the amounts and types of goods and services produced, and their prices, are determined primarily by the owners of capital, each of whom is competing to increase her own rate of capital accumulation. (For a crystal-clear description of capitalism and what would be required to transcend it democratically, I recommend David Schweikart’s superb book After Capitalism.)
While I give a big thumbs-up to Mr. Hawken’s statement that “capitalism is a non-sustainable aberration in human development,” the concrete details of his proposals suggest that he is using a narrower definition of capitalism, encompassing the particularly rapacious mega-corporate form. That system clearly has to go, but eco-socialists maintain that unless capitalism is uprooted more completely, some of Mr. Hawken’s recommendations, such as incorporating the value of “natural capital” into pricing, run the risk of unintentionally opening up new opportunities for exploitation.
In referring to “mixed systems,” Mr. Zuckerman is pointing to countries that have incorporated some features of socialism, while remaining fundamentally capitalist. To the extent that those nations have reined in capitalism, they have managed to thwart some of its destructive tendencies; however, they are still very far from sustainability. Redefining Progress has computed the ecological footprint [PDF] of an average human on planet Earth to be an unsustainable 2.2 hectares (translating all resource consumption and waste production into their equivalent in land area). The average American has a Godzilla-size footprint of 9.6 hectares, and Canadians are close behind at 8.6. But even the smaller average footprint of the people who live in 13 Western European nations including Scandinavia — 4.9 hectares — could not be replicated globally either. It remains to be seen whether those nations can reduce that impact further while satisfying capitalism’s requirement to “grow or die.” A recent Swedish study showed that “green consumption,” as advocated by the government of that country, would “not solve the problem of climate change, but could at best offer a temporary palliative.”
Finally, on the subject of the relative energy efficiency of producing recycled aluminum, I was wrong. The Aluminum Association’s information, which Mr. Zuckerman cited and I also used (but misread), says that “only about five to eight percent of the energy required to produce primary aluminum ingot is needed to produce recycled aluminum ingot.” But the ability to supply packaging to beverage companies more cheaply and efficiently does nothing to curb the over-exploitation of other resources, from Corn Belt soils to village groundwater supplies in India. In searching for the root cause of growing consumption of canned and bottled beverages (including water), we should look neither to aluminum recycling nor to cheap corn, but to the beverage industry’s roaring success in simply doing what capitalists do: driving sales ever upward.
All of us — Hawken, Zuckerman, Kovel, Foster, and I, as well as most Grist readers, I’m sure — want to see a world like the one Paul Hawken describes above, and I expect we are in broad agreement about the mechanisms needed to get there. I hope we can work together to bring that world about, while continuing to wrestle with the big questions.
As a long-time Sierra Club member and activist, I deeply resent the remarks made by Stephanie in her correspondence to you about the club’s board election. Most of the folks who ran for the board and were the “controversial” candidates had joined the club only in the past year or so and had very little activist experience or work with the club in their resumes. Long-time club members and toilers in environmental battles lasting many years were, quite justifiably, a little leery of these candidates. Especially since a few of them advocated positions that the club had long ago wrestled with and found untenable.
Those who have accused the Sierra Club of being stodgy and a bit of an old-boy network usually haven’t spent a lot of time doing the work we do. It’s not an easy job for an internationally influential and powerful and successful environmental organization to remain as completely democratic and grassroots-derived as the Sierra Club. It’s a very hard row to hoe. All of us activists in the boonies have our gripes and complaints, but the Sierra Club has been and remains the most democratically constituted and grassroots-run nonprofit organization that I can think of. It is probably a more democratically, grassroots-run organization right now than our present allegedly democratic federal government.
That our troubles have gotten so far as to reach major TV networks and major newspapers can only indicate how important our work is to our nation and the planet.
So, in doing that work, we need to have mature folks, with excellent judgment and good environmental and political experience in charge. We have worked toward that goal in this election. The controversy has activated more of our members than we’ve ever seen vote in a board of directors election. This is a good thing. Folks are paying more attention. And good judgment has prevailed.
This is a thank you from a grumpy toiler in the fields to all of the folks who just pay their dues, but decided to think it through and vote for conscientious, experienced management of the biggest and most effective environmental organization on the planet.
Marianne de Sobrino
North Group, Redwood Chapter, Sierra Club
Tastes Great, Less Landfilling
Re: All Bottled Up
I consider myself an environmentalist and am well aware that the perception that bottled water is safer than tap water is often false. Despite this, my family only drinks bottled water. The reason is very simple: taste. In our community, tap water simply tastes bad. We previously lived in New York City, and we drank bottled water there as well — for the same reason. Health considerations play no role in our family’s dedication to bottled water.
I believe my family is saving many containers from the waste stream by using bottled water. First of all, we have a 5-gallon container with a dispenser, just like in many offices. We can refill the water container in our local grocery store. In addition, having better-tasting water always available, I believe my family consumes far less of other types of bottled beverages than the average American family. Naturally, this means we dispose of (or recycle) fewer beverage containers.
Des Moines, Iowa
Here Come Da Judge
Re: Craig’s List
Your interview with Craig Manson suffers from the classic defect of allowing a political figure to offer an attractive-sounding idea without the interviewer asking for facts to demonstrate its merit.
Manson says cooperation and habitat enhancement are good ideas. OK, but what has this guy done except deregulate and stop enforcing laws? His tactic is bait and switch. Why doesn’t the interviewer ask for examples of species that are better off under his approach? There are few, if any. I saw this technique when I worked for him in the early 1990s.
The career path of Mr. Manson is to make intelligent talk while implementing the hard-right deregulation agenda. He is then rewarded with judgeships like the good Air Force soldier that he is. We have a black conservative in Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, and before long, watch, we will have Craig Manson, an anti-environmental conservative, nominated to the federal bench.