It may sound strange, but wouldn’t it be nice if Trump’s disconnect between endless economic growth and environmental crisis stemmed from pure ignorance.
At least if this was the case, there would be a chance (though perhaps a very slim one) of enough tweets getting through to him that demonstrate the reliance of the economy, and indeed all life itself, on nature, that he might eventually see the contradiction.
But unfortunately this is not the case. His, like most governments, know very well that investing in the green economy will actually produce more of the growth that they and mainstream economists relentlessly espouse. But in the short-term, adopting this will not make him nor the CEOs of destructive and exploitative industries richer.
Whilst there is heightening direct action by citizens worldwide attempting to force governments and private sector to take seriously the climate and extinction crises, doing so will release their grip on power. Money is power, and through no accident those carrying the most of both are saturated in dirty industry and environmental exploitation. “The US would always put economic growth ahead of environmental concerns” touts Trump, but this itself is an oxymoron. With no environmental resources there is no economic growth. Even in contexts that seem in a way separated from natural resources, such as services-based economies (like the UK), there is a reliance on nature – how could tech companies operate if the minerals used to build technology are finished?
Many people want the climate and ecological crises to be taken more seriously, but they also want the economy to grow. They agree with the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on her attacking of useless, fossil-fuel corrupted politicians, but yet they don’t vote for the Green Party because they don’t believe they can handle the economy or achieve the growth that will make society richer. In the US, reportedly 66% of democrats rate ‘the environment’ as a higher concern than ‘the economy’, and this is exactly the sort of figure that Trump loves to disseminate because growing the economy is envisaged by most as the solution to societal problems. ‘Success’ is, after all, often considered directly related to the amount of money being made.
However what is now clear is that consistent growth in the current scheme of capitalism is the problem, not the solution to inequality and poverty. Naomi Klein describes it as: “an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts” in that “the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy”.
Those experiencing the harshest effects of the search for endless growth are indigenous peoples. Often very reliant on their land and the resources it provides (not just for subsistence but also medicinal and spiritual value, and sense of identity), and in many cases considered the lowest class of society, indigenous groups are exploited repeatedly by big industry and governments, particularly where their presence is considered a threat to industrial development. This is most stark in Brazil, where the president, Jair Bolsonaro, absolutely despises indigenous Brazilians, saying that “the Indians are evolving, more and more they are human beings like us”. His infatuation with capitalist greed is not only prioritised over the Amazon but human life: “There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon” … “[indigenous reserves] are an obstacle to agri-business” … “We’re going to give all the ranchers guns”.
Whilst an outrageous assault on human rights in the first instance, the extinction of indigenous cultures – languages, rituals, knowledge – is a threat to our collective survival and ability to adapt to an increasingly difficult future. Aboriginal Australians, for example, have been warning the government that the current landscape management is unsuitable for the Australian context, and will lead to the out of control fires we’re now seeing. Aboriginal Australians, on the other hand, practise controlled ‘fire-stick farming’, and have been for tens of thousands of years, making the landscape what it is today. In Central Africa, indigenous forest hunter-gatherer peoples have been practicing an egalitarian social structure based on sharing for millennia. Hoarding of resources does not occur because of cultural taboos (Ekila) and a mentality of sharing not just between people but other species too. Unfortunately, things are rapidly changing, and now, sponsored by international institutions, multinational companies, and facilitated by corrupt officials, the forest is being privatised into logging and mining concessions, as well as safari parks and protected areas to the exclusion of local people.
In many Global South countries, particularly sub-saharan Africa, aggressive neoliberal capitalism (privatisation of resources to make money) by international companies is forcing the overexploitation of natural resources and causing gross human rights violations in the process. This isn’t solely being carried out by foreign companies but also international institutions like the World Bank who, despite claiming to work towards eliminating poverty, put countries into debt through huge loans which come with the conditions of privatising resources in order to pay money back.
This privatisation largely benefits local elites and external businesses and organisations, supporting and creating ideal conditions for corruption to emerge. Indeed many international companies directly (but discreetly) support corrupt leaders in exchange for allowing unreserved access to purge the country’s natural resources. As Tom Burgis puts it in relation to Congo: “In the era of globalisation the foreign protagonists in Congo’s looting machine are not monarchs or imperial states but rather tycoons and multinationals”. He goes on to give the example of Laurent Kabila, the ex-president of DRC, who benefitted from “at least $4m a week in cash-filled suitcases from mining companies”.
Despite Burgis’ thinking, imperial states do continue to ravage Africa in true neocolonial spirit in order satisfy endless thirst for quick capital. At the recent UK-Africa investment summit, instead of pledging to support sustainable energy and locally-led development initiatives, the UK government placed most investments into monopolising goldmines and securing shares in around £2 billion-worth of fossil fuel projects, despite claiming to support sustainable development in Africa. Lucas commented that the “hypocrisy of the government’s position is breath-taking”. This type of foreign capital is destroying the Congo Basin forests and and other areas and communities around the world, and the UK is enthusiastic in doing so: 59 British companies either entirely or partially own oil and gas fields or gold, diamond and other mineral mines in Africa, with the majority of profits locked away in London to build endless capital as well as shared with corrupt governments in order to guarantee continued access. British-owned or based companies, subsidised by the UK government, collectively own more than $1 trillion of natural resources in Africa.
If you were tricked into thinking that the capitalist system itself is not the problem, that it can be adapted and turned green, just look at the unwavering lies and deception (‘greenwashing’) by big industry. The latest example of this is BP, who claim to be so keen on reducing emissions that it will “axe some of its oil projects and reduce investment in others in a bid to be more environmentally friendly”. Last week it then emerged that BP had been secretly lobbying the US government to weaken legislation in order to reduce the environmental obligations for new fossil fuel extraction projects. Due to Trump’s camaraderie with dirty industries like BP, they were successful.
And at the World Economic Forum in Davos, despite hosting a forum on ‘Averting a Climate Apocalypse’ with Greta Thunberg, and claiming that climate change was one of the ‘hottest topics’, big business ranked over-regulation as the biggest risk. The climate crisis did not even make the top 10. A reminder that, time and time again, environmental and social rights will be abused in the current system to satisfy monetary greed.
So, it seems that capitalism is terrible both environmentally and for human welfare. The replacement? Models such as Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics‘, whereby the economy is centred not on endless growth but rather on achieving a balance between human wellbeing (including social & gender equity, peace, and health) and planetary boundaries. The idea here is a consideration of future generations. The fact that this is a radical economic proposition is testament to how skewed the current system is. George Monbiot, also championing this model, suggests that rather than monetary wealth dictating the amount of resources individuals get their hands on, it should instead be the amount of that resource which will be required by future generations. Under this scheme, economies do not salivate over endless growth, but rather over the wellbeing of humanity and the planet. Is that such a big ask?