Manchester Science Festival: “Is Capitalism Compatible with Environmentalism?” and Why My Washing Up Won’t Do Itself

As part of CEM’s partial effort to provide a guide to the issues raised in MoSI’s climate theme at its science festival, we present this guest post from Grace Bridgewater. Grace is studying for a masters in Global Environment, Politics & Society at the University of Edinburgh, where she is using her dissertation to look at the rise of anarchist ideology within modern social movements. Grace previously completed a degree in Politics & International Relations at the University of Manchester. 

The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), as part of its science festival, is putting on a virtual event this Friday evening (26th February 2021) entitled “Is Capitalism Compatible with Environmentalism?”. This is part of a wider series of events sponsored by corporations including purveyors of gas, electricity and pharmaceuticals.  The title of this event seems like another desperate attempt to ask the same question in the hopes of finding a different answer.  It reminds me of the famous saying that madness is doing the same thing again and again and again, and hoping to get different results.

Coming from the echo-chamber of climate activism and environmental politics, it is hard not to feel like this question is getting boring.  I can give you the answer here: the fundamental characteristic of capitalism is that it aims to create ever-increasing growth from a planet with finite resources, and by exploiting human and non-human labour, and therefore there is no way that it can be compatible with anything that aims to prioritise something else – a healthy planet; equality and equity; human rights.  Scholars have long argued that we cannot decouple capitalism from the leading cause of climate change – carbon (Bellamy Foster, Andreas Malm, Peter Newell, Matthew Peterson…I can go on!).  Even when a fuel resource is made more efficient, this doesn’t actually lead to a reduction in consumption (evidence, evidence, evidence, evidence*, evidence*) and renewable energy won’t be an adequate solution if consumption levels themselves are not addressed (evidence, more evidence!) (1).  Ever-increasing consumption levels are tied into the vicious cycle of profit-making and associated environmental degradation which are core to capitalism. 

To give MOSI some credit, they have chosen a panel –Professor Robert Pollin and Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta (both economists) especially – who will be able to critically analyse the grave environmental problems being caused by global capitalism. Yet it is notable that both of them shy away from challenging some central orthodoxies. Robert Pollin has written disparagingly about de-growth and Partha Dasgupta’s review of the economics of biodiversity primarily recommends pricing ‘natural capital’ even though more radical changes are needed. 

It will also be interesting to see what speakers Professor Joanna Haigh (a climate scientist) and Anusha Shah (a civil engineer) have to say to this.  Science is often believed to be an apolitical field, but the topic of climate change makes it incredibly political.  What role should science have to play in combating climate change, when it is now an inherently political issue?  

Whilst science is vital in addressing the symptoms of climate change, the cause of planetary ecological breakdown is capitalism. Waiting for a scientific discovery that will magically fix climate change is like me waiting for the washing up to do itself (very tempting, but I’ve had zero success so far and there is no evidence it’s at all likely).  Naomi Klein rightly stated that waiting for science to tackle climate change is simply another strategy of looking away from the problem. Similarly, my dog stares at the wall when caught surrounded by a fine selection of chewed up pens.  

The description of this event asks “what are the political and economic obstacles that lie between reconciling capitalism and sustainable development? And what is the science that underpins it all?”.  The issue here is that the “political and economic obstacles” are not obstacles at all – they are impenetrable barriers. If the panelists merely suggest a few tweaks to capitalism to overcome ‘obstacles’ then they will have failed to grasp the scale of the problem. Capitalist sustainable development is an oxymoron.

I hope this event tackles questions such as: how can science, politics, and economics support each other with disseminating de-growth (read: anti-capitalist) theories into mainstream politics?  How can citizens attending talks like this support the transition that economists like Pollin and Dasgupta are calling for?  How do we address the fact that science has been given the impossible task of fixing the symptoms of climate change when the root cause of the problem is not being addressed in the mainstream?  Will my washing up ever do itself?

(1) Apologies for using evidence which is largely hidden behind paywalls – those marked * are accessible to all – this is not the space for a rant on the problematic nature of the hiding of academia behind paywalls, but it is worth pointing out that this is why events such as this one are important as they make important topics more accessible to the public.  Hopefully, the above answer will at least reach new ears and inspire the same demand for change that makes me write articles like this in my spare time.

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