Capitalism’s Incompatibility with Environmentalism

Featured Image: University of Florida


In the driest non-polar desert in the world and in a land just west of the Andes mountains lay dunes of discarded clothes, victims of the fleeting trends of the previous years. It is estimated that 39,000 tons of clothing end up in Chile’s Atacama Desert each year, all discarded by the United States because they couldn’t be sold (Duong). According to the United Nations and Insider, annually, clothing production accounts for 8 to 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, therefore amounting to a greater contribution than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion Addresses Damage of ‘Fast Fashion). It takes centuries for these pieces to biodegrade — if they do biodegrade at all — and with each day that passes, the layers of discarded clothing littering this desert only climb higher.

The crisis currently taking place in the Atacama Desert is not only a result of the general societal subscription to a culture that associates material goods with status, but it is also a dangerous consequence of the continued prosperity of an economic system that incentives greed.

Image Source: Green Network

According to National Geographic, carbon dioxide levels are currently at a “record high,” therefore causing “extreme weather, food supply disruptions, and increased wildfires” due to the change in our climate that is caused by greenhouse gas emissions (Nunez). In close relation to this plight, in 2013, it was found that just ninety companies are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the “major industrial greenhouse gas emissions” (Starr). Just three of these ninety companies include ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell. Now, in order to decrease these emissions and prevent further catastrophic damage to the planet, it is imperative that companies make the decision to switch to renewable energy sources. However, because transitioning to renewable energy would “wreak havoc” on companies’ — specifically oil companies’ — profitability, few are even considering making the change (Domonoske). Investments in renewable energy are low risk, therefore meaning that they are low return and thus incompatible with the goals of the capitalist system (Hyman).

This attitude of profitability over the well-being of our planet can also be seen in the burning and deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. In 2020 alone, a grand 5.4 million acres of the Amazon were burned to the ground, arguably to increase the profit of companies such as Costco and Walmart (Kimbrough). International meat and soy companies incentivize farmers to clear and burn the Amazon Rainforest in order to create farmland from which they can buy soy and slaughtered cattle (Hurowitz). “Major soy traders” specifically are driving deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon Basin, the Brazilian Cerrado, and the Gran Chaco of Argentina and Paraguay in order to make a profit. Farmers are to “clear a forest, make money, exhaust the soil,” and “repeat,” then leaving portions of our planet barren shells of their previous forms (Simon).

Just one consequence of the burning and deforestation of the Amazon is a substantial loss in biodiversity, with 95% of all Amazonian species being affected by the fires and 85% of these species currently being listed as threatened (Stolte). A loss of biodiversity in the Amazon Rainforest means a loss to important medical research conducted in this forest, with 25% of the drugs used in Western medicine coming from global rainforests, as well as a loss of ecosystems’ abilities to sustain themselves (Saving Rainforests with Medicinal Plants). The Amazon also serves as a regulatory for carbon emitted into the atmosphere, “scrubbing and storing” the substance and managing Earth’s climate (Stolte). Should this rainforest continue to suffer, not only will humans feel the effects of a loss of medical research among other things, but we will also feel the effects of even more rampant climate change.

Furthermore, indigenous peoples are also feeling the effects of the burning and deforestation of the Amazon. Matt Simon, a staff writer at Wired, claims that the native people of the countries which house this rainforest have existed within it for thousands of years, and they have all managed to not burn it down (Simon). Nonetheless, they are still suffering a decline in respiratory health due to the fires, as well as a destruction of their crops and depletion of edible and medicinal plants and hunting game (Brazil: Amazon Fires Affect Health of Thousands).

Image Source: The Conversation

Finally, according to an analysis developed in part by experts at the London School of Economics and the Stockholm Environment Institute, just 20 companies are currently responsible for over 50% of single-use plastic waste (Foundation). These materials are made almost entirely of fossil fuels, and they are the most common type of discarded plastics, with 8 million tons of plastic waste entering our oceans each year (Parker). This means that they are suffocating, entangling with, and being ingested by marine life, therefore decreasing marine biodiversity. When marine biodiversity is lost, ecosystems lose their ability to withstand disturbances and regulate climate, and when toxins ingested by fish and wildlife enter the food chain, there exists a serious threat to human life (Andrews).

Because it is significantly cheaper to produce from newly created plastic rather than from recycled plastic, corporations have no reason to make this change. They will act in the best interest of their own personal profit, paying virtually no regard to the effects of their actions.

Image Source: National Geographic

It is important to remember that the consequences listed above are largely due to unrestricted greed and the valuing of profit over the livelihood of our earth and the prosperity of native communities. Nevertheless, it is also important to remember that greed and selfishness at the expense of others and at the expense of our earth is not necessarily natural, as well as that our nature as humans is not necessarily fixed. In fact, according to a report published by Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, altruistic behavior — meaning behavior in which an organism acts to benefit other organisms at a cost to itself — is “common” within the animal kingdom, “particularly in species with complex social structures” (Okasha). One example of this behavior is present in communities of vervet monkeys: “Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked.” Therefore, altruism is very natural by the very definition of the word. It is only when organisms are introduced to a social climate in which unchecked greed and selfishness are encouraged that we see these behaviors arise to such a degree as is present today.

A system that incentivizes greed will never be able to adequately maintain the wellbeing of our planet. Capitalism’s need for constant growth exhausts our earth’s resources, compelling producers to expand and make the most profit no matter the cost to our planet. Thus, capitalism is severely incompatible with environmentalism, and it is imperative that we establish a system of worker-ownership and democratic planning by people who are not simply motivated by greed.

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Andrews, Gianna. “Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health.”, Carleton College, 27 Jan. 2021.

“Brazil: Amazon Fires Affect Health of Thousands.” Hrw.ord, Human Rights Watch, 28 Oct. 2020.

Domonoske, Camila. “Big Oil (Probably) Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon. but It’s Definitely Changing.”, National Public Radio, 8 June 2021.

Duong, Tiffany. “Chile’s Atacama Desert: Where Fast Fashion Goes to Die.”, Remedy Review, 17 Nov. 2021.

Foundation, Minderoo. “Revealed: Businesses and Banks behind Global Plastic Waste Crisis.”, The Minderoo Foundation, 19 May 2021.

Hurowitz, Glen, et al. “The Companies behind the Burning of the Amazon – Mighty Earth.”, MightyEarth, Aug. 2019.

Hyman, Leonard, and William Tilles. “Why Oil Companies Can’t Replace Oil Profits with Renewable Profits.”, Oilprice, 19 Jan. 2021.

Kimbrough, Liz. “The Brazilian Amazon Is Burning, Again.”, Sage Publications, 7 June 2021.

Okasha, Samir. “Biological Altruism.”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 21 July 2013.

Parker, Laura. “Plastic Pollution Facts and Information.”, National Geographic, 3 May 2021.

Nunez, Christina. “Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Is at a Record High. Here’s What You Need to Know.”, National Geographic, 3 May 2021.

“Saving Rainforests with Medicinal Plants.”, Mongabay, 22 Mar. 2020.

Simon, Matt. “Who’s Burning the Amazon? Rampant Capitalism.”, Conde Nast, 28 Aug. 2019.

Starr, Douglas. “Just 90 Companies Are to Blame for Most Climate Change …”, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 25 Aug. 2016.

Stolte, Daniel. “Study Shows Impacts of Deforestation and Forest Burning on Amazon Biodiversity.”, University of Arizona, 2 Sept. 2021.

“UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion Addresses Damage of ‘Fast Fashion’.”, United Nations Environment Programme, 14 Mar. 2019.

Kennedy Kelis

Hi ! My name is Kennedy, and I am a 17 year old writer from Atlanta, Georgia. I am currently in my senior year of high school, and I am passionate about ending economic exploitation, ending systemic racism, and much more. My favorite musical artists are Hozier and Dolly Parton, and outside of writing, in my free time, I enjoy playing piano, spending time with friends, and searching for the next best book to read.

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