Capitalism, as a foundational concept, needs to be examined at an equivalent level. Integral Ecology, another foundational concept, rises to that challenge. Since the Neoliberal form of capitalism will never be compatible with life on Earth, nor social (including environmental) justice, nor the human soul’s potential, I contrast capitalism(s) to Integral Ecology, as articulated in Laudato Si’. Please join me.
The Ramapo College sustainability curriculum required me to tackle its underlying Political Economy. As a renegade economist (more later) I had been influenced by the work of Fernand Braudel, the great Belgian economic historian, on the theme of the emergence of civilization and capitalism, divided into three long books:
- The material culture within the household, the primary social group, provides the setting where you and I live out our lives, find meaning, and embrace loved ones. If we are to thrive, we do so within the household and its human form the family, and its economic functions, the locus of consumption — the driver of the American economy —, the reproduction of labor (such an economistic term), and the management of household debt. We dwell within our households, our families, our surrounding material culture. This critical, often fractured, local setting of the economy provisions the underlying layer to capitalism itself. Be smart about your shared dwelling with others within your ecological and social communities. This level does not provide the natural domain of capitalism, which thrives at the global level of long-distance trade and finance. The household’s primary dynamic renders care and love. Do your homework.
- The palpable shared activity of commerce occurs within our community, now under stress with the shutdown around COVID-19. The vibrancy of this middle-layer of the Braudel trilogy looms as the critical concern as the American economy sinks further as I write. Commerce, local small businesses and service providers so vividly presented by Adam Smith as the real wealth that enriches our lives, must be nurtured as well as the surrounding bioregions that we frequently overlook. Cherish your community, contribute to its prosperity, its local commerce. Exercise your citizenship and your local allegiances.
- Braudel spotted trouble at the highest elevation of capitalism: The global corporations operating within non-competitive markets, enjoying the bounty of globalization, and exercising privileged access to capital itself: loans, local advantages, lowest rates, and the ability to manipulate just about everything — with the all-important accumulation of profit for shareholders, thus above its stakeholders. Change that: As a stakeholder, indicate that you demand respect, consideration at the same level of profit. If not, simply forfeit your business. The marketing of brands creates nerve tissue that connects you to them as a (valued?) consumer). Vote with your dollars.
Alas, capitalism has morphed from around 1980 to its recent virulent form, Neoliberalism, the triumph of capital over everything else, such as humanity, the biosphere, and our future. Thus, as I see it, capitalism may not be tolerable or sustainable. More later. Take your economy back from capitalism, on your terms. Re-read my comments above.
I observe that the thought leader of capitalism, Adam Smith in his seminal Wealth of Nations, would agree — but read what he said, not what others select. Smith, a Scot nationalist, valued the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, all found in his town. Fed up with the Brits, he walked away from a tenured professorship in Moral Philosophy at Cambridge. Smith’s father obtained his son’s sinecure as a Customs House regulator, thus a civil servant supported ironically by excise tax levies. From there, he saw the damage done to Scotland by British trade and its political rule over the Scottish economy, thus colony. Adam Smith said so in his Wealth of Nations. You can look it up.
(BTW, Smith’s seance where he beheld “the Invisible Hand” occurred in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment, a landmark tome in ethics. Smith specifically referenced the Invisible Hand Of God. The quintessential metaphor of capitalism refers to a theological doctrine, not to economic principles. Google that.
However, diminish nothing that lives to the status of a mere commodity, the stuff of markets, enmeshed in the social relations that tend to dominate our lives. In the spirit of your being far more valuable than a commodity, enjoying precious potential that only you can actualize, and recognizing you and yours of the crowning achievement of Creation itself, do not debase your response to crude actions, language, or diminished relations — get that, guys.
What about Climate Change?
The COVID-19 pandemic reveals how much that we share, including the potential to destroy each other’s life through carelessness. Consider that this abrupt Black Swan (more later) has cousins, whom I will call Green Swans lurking over the Horizon.
I do not refer to the presumed blossoming of Corporate Social Responsibility (Elkington) but to the anticipated shortfall in financing the damage and the armoring (defensive infrastructure) of climate change. Ask which outweighs the other: the sway of Dark Money or the virtue of CSR? Is smart money with Dark Money? Is CSR for real or for show? Therein rests much of this story. Watch closely as November 3rd approaches. Lower your expectations but not your guard or your vision.
As I concluded my academic career, I taught courses at the undergraduate and graduate level with such titles as World Sustainability and Ecology, Economics, and Ethics. This project extends EEE into EEEE but will remain focused on the USA.
However, my colleagues in Environmental Science taught Climate Change, not me. In retirement, this omission could not endure. I studied, coming to Climate Catastrophe: Impacts and Responses, CCIR for short. Notice that each iteration of scientific report concludes that the prior report underestimated the rapidity of climate change and how deep it penetrates into Nature, including our species — which we forget as the crowning instance of Nature. Notice how the boundaries of science fail to perceive the gravity, and extent of climate damage.
So academics exhibit the relentless tendency to stick a dollar sign on that which has been lost, now diminished to commodities such as Environmental Services or as Natural Capital), all terms that morph Nature into the maw of capitalism. Further, corporate media hides how staunchly profiteers will use Dark Money to defend, excuse, and promote the same political economy responsible for the damage. This, at best, installs a de facto industrial policy in the USA biased toward the past and the rich. Such moves will not do, Dear Reader.
Why Integral Ecology matters.
Seek spiritual guidance. Hence, I turn to Pope Francis (I am a disillusioned Catholic) and to St. Francis for conversion to another way of Being, to the (neglected) Laudato Si’ encyclical and its action driver, Integral Ecology. Because Integral Ecology connects me to everything I need to live a meaningful, ethical life. I need to explain.
Capitalism as a foundational concept needs to be challenged at its own level. Integral Ecology, another foundational concept, rises to that challenge. Since the Neoliberal form of capitalism will never be compatible with life on Earth, or the thriving of the human soul, I have converted to Integral Ecology. I have some explaining to do, hence this website and blog.
Now, what? The answer to the question of the compatibility of capitalism with Integral Ecology provides the daunting mission of this website. So far, the provisional solutions:
- Cherish and nurture your household, the bonds that connect you socially, economically, and politically. Recall the admonition of Rene Dubos: “Think globally. Act locally.” Or its revision by my late friend Murray Bookchin: “Think strategically. Act locally.” Most of all, think & act, but know what you do and how to do it effectively.
- Buy from Vinnie, the local guy that you know and respect. His Italian restaurant’s take-out employs local kids. Vinnie says hello (and means it), knows your name, and values your patronage. And you, his service. This reciprocal relationship transcends the mere marketing of commodities, just as Vinnie’s kitchen surpasses mine and Adam Smith’s cherished village commerce surpassed the manipulative Customs House, the home of long-distance trade. Vinnie gets it. Adam Smith gets it. Do you get it?
- I must cut out. As a Trustee of our Cranford (NJ) Public Library and chair of its Policy Committee, I must prepare the policies and procedures for providing access while protecting the employees and the users. My point suggests that we are all Trustees, acknowledging our responsibility for the world around us. We do so as citizens expressing in real-time our obligation to give forward. To me, the precious concept of citizenship within a democratic process, a polis perhaps, transcends my status as consumer, taxpayer, and taker of whatever I can selfishly grab. The role of the citizen depends on what vitality we inject into that role. Some use the term Social Capital. I prefer the ancient term Virtue, the capacity to do good. Virtue requires effort, reflection, and inculcation of habits. Be a virtuous citizen. Your world needs you.
As I return to my family, my home, my library, I commit myself, Dear Reader, to continuing this essay. Thanks.
I leave you with the tantalizing quote by Vladimir Vernadsky after encountering Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Paris in 1929: “The Biosphere is the cradle of the Noosphere.”
Or consider Kentucky farmer-writer: Wendell Berry:
The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich and famous.
This expresses the theme of Integral Ecology and the formation of a sustainability economy.
More soon. Thanks, Dear Reader.