Musings, philosophy, arguments on vegetarian living, from the heart of Europe (Belgium, that is).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism

I just finished reading What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism. Its authors, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, want to demonstrate that the concept of a sustainable world is antithetical to the logic of capitalism, with its unlimited growth imperative. I liked the book, but as the animal issue was entirely absent, I felt like dropping the authors a few lines.

Dear Mr Magdoff, Dear Mr Foster,

Thank you for writing What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism. I have just finished it and it stimulated my thinking. I do believe you are right and that our present system is part and parcel of the problem, and that we need to rethink it, into a totally different system. I will look, in my own work and life, how I can take your message to heart.

But please allow me to make an attempt at stimulating your thinking. I do not want to take any moral high ground. It’s just that we all have our pet social issues that lie closest to our hearts, and I found that you treat mine with a bit less creativity than I would have hoped for. That seemed to me to be in contrast to the emphasis you put on “new conceptions”, on out of the box thinking, on overhauling systems and practices instead of polishing them up or painting them green.

A couple of times in your book you briefly talk about our food system. In passing, you mention animal agriculture, and state that this system needs to change too. You talk e.g. about raising animals on the same farms that produce their feed. But why be so conservative? My concept of a fair and just world is one that is fair not only for humans, but for all sentient beings. Why prolong the system of our exploitation of other species? Just as you believe the greening of our economy is not a sufficient solution to achieve fairness for all, I believe that making animal agriculture more humane or sustainable is insufficient to achieve fairness. On the very last page of your book you quote Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s refrain “what – about – the people?” You write: if there is to be any hope of significantly improving the conditions of the vast number of the world’s inhabitants – many of whom are living hopelessly under the most severe conditions – while also preserving the earth as a livable planet, we need a system that constantly asks “what about the people (..) instead of how much money can I make?” What if we read the word “inhabitants” with non-human animals in mind? What if we would add the need for the question “’and what about other living beings’ instead of ‘how can I make sure I can keep satisfying my taste buds with dead animals’”?

In my opinion, if we want to be and act *really* fair, we might want to question whether we can still justify the killing and eating of animals while (at least in the west) there are enough cruelty-free, environmentally friendlier and healthier options available. It is a tough question and not one that I expect everyone to ask at this point, but it is one that, in all humility, I hope to be allowed to expect from idealist out of the box thinkers like yourselves.

Perhaps, like many other people, at some point you may ask yourselves this question too. Even if you don’t, thank you anyway for writing your wonderful book. And thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the book of course...

    The "unlimited growth" imperative of capitalism is exactly an element of how biological systems compete for resources. Yet, the planet managed to reach a sustainable equilibrium, with all these systems competing against each other in a cut-throat way. An environmentalist should understand biology and realise that all alternatives to nature's law are fundamentally flawed.
    Human growth and technological development has taken a path towards something that is fundamentally unsustainable for the whole planet. We can act like victims of the system and continue on this path, leading to our own undoing. Or we can attempt to rise above it, by applying corrections where there are perversions, and by applying ethics. I have very little faith in governments or economic systems to organise themselves to do this. Politicians "directing" people, applying ethics ("think of the people")? Sorry, I don't buy it. We'd have world peace and a unified global economy by now if that worked. Change is going to have to come from the ground up.

    The beauty of vegetarianism/veganism is that it is ethical and at the same time leads to a more efficient use of resources (allowing growth to continue longer). As such, it is not at odds with capitalism or the unending quest for growth. The only thing we need to overcome is the bad eating habits of the majority of the people. Less demand for animal-based food, less cruelty and inefficient production. Take the war on drugs as another example: the only possible way of combating that is to kill demand.
    EVA is doing _exactly_ the right thing to drive this evolution. As we've seen with smoking in the last decades, slowly building up support among people that this is a bad thing, until that support reaches a critical mass, works.
    Keep up the good work, Tobias.