It is difficult not to see the flaws in our consumer-oriented capitalist culture. Or, at least, that is the thought I had as I lay sprawled out on the Jersey shore, watching propeller planes drag advertisements across the horizon. As these promotions for apple cider slushies and liposuction seasonal discounts spoiled my ocean view, I grew a little disgusted with capitalism and its ceaseless advertising of things I do not want or need.
Capitalism and the economic activity and innovation it brings have arguably made the world a better place. It has provided millions of people with historically unparalleled levels of comfort and security. In fact, global capitalism makes the words I type possible. My computer was carefully designed in Silicon Valley, and pieced together with materials from China, Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, and Japan (just to name a few).
So how should we address this love-hate relationship with capitalism?
Regulatory capitalism has frequently been used to mitigate the free market’s most reprehensible side-effects (i.e. endangerment of the public, severe economic inequality, and corruption among elites). For example, in the United States, the government does not allow tobacco companies to advertise to youths. Similarly, the United States has laws which enforce humane working conditions, and antitrust laws to prohibit the creation of monopolies. These restrictions on the free market exist because, in a purely capitalist system, the amoral actor will always outperform the moral one. This is demonstrated on the global scale by the plethora of transnational companies that make a profit by skirting environmental regulations and ignoring indigenous and minority rights.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, put it quite succinctly when he said, “Capitalism is a great technology and a mediocre philosophy.” The capitalist engine of production and consumption is built around the principle of self-interest. This all works great when it comes to producing material goods and stimulating an economy. However, it is less appealing as a moral philosophy.
Sustainability directly clashes with the flawed moral philosophy of capitalism. Sustainability is the production and consumption of goods and services that sustain the environment. Though it is, of course, in our species' long-term interest to preserve our environment, on the individual level this can be difficult to grasp. Most people do not directly encounter the consequences of global warming, pollution, or rising sea levels (or if they do, they don't recognize it as such). When you toss away a disposable cup after only one use, it does not feel like you are tossing away humanity’s future with it. Thus, sustainability can be viewed as an ethical dilemma. How do we get people to sacrifice their lifestyles for a cause that does not directly effect them, and for people they do not know?
That is why the global capitalist system needs restrictions to ensure that it acts morally and sustainably. On a global scale, this is performed by international environmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations tasked to enforce sustainability targets and guidelines. The United Nations’ Paris Agreement is an example of how an intergovernmental organization can encourage unified global progress. On the national level, this is done by economic policies that deter the private sector from acting irresponsibly, for example, carbon taxes.
So what can the individual do to make sustainable capitalism a reality? Support politicians that believe in intelligently regulated capitalism. Vote to put more scientists in office who have an understanding of these complex environmental issues. Support the growing industry of social entrepreneurship that is helping transform consumers' definition of self-interest. And most importantly, stay informed and advocate for change.