Environmentalism Isn't Socialism or Capitalism. So What Is It?

Capitalism Hummer photo
CC BY 2.0. Scott Feldstein

Scott Feldstein/CC BY 2.0

Back in 2010 I argued that environmentalism was not socialist and that we all, right wingers and left wingers alike, have a shared interest in keeping our planet a hospitable place to live.

We Must Reform Our Economy
But I am increasingly aware that we can't avoid asking the big questions about what constitutes a sensible way to structure our economy. If we want to secure a prosperous future for our children, we must shape our political and economic systems so they encourage stewardship of the resources we all depend on for survival.

And the best way to do that is to take our cues from nature.

peru rainforest species discovered

cspruit/CC BY 2.0

Nature As a Model for Better Design
Much like advanced robotics modeled on nature, or food production that mimics the forest, we must tap into one of the most sophisticated design processes ever to have existed—evolution. (let's not get into a discussion about "intelligent design" here - I am using the term design broadly.)

Over billions of years, nature has developed systems to maintain equilibrium and optimize conditions for life to flourish. And it seems to me that our economy could do with a similar focus not just on growth, but resilience.

Lions hunting photo

Hege/CC BY-SA 2.0

Capitalism as the Natural Order is Nonsense
This is where the "nature as teacher" argument gets interesting, because while socialism and communism have usually been communicated in explicitly political terms—that is, they are argued as being the best way to ensure prosperity for the greatest number of people—capitalism, and I am talking about red blooded free market neo-liberal capitalism here, has regularly been put forward as the "natural order of things" in this dog eat dog world. (Either that or a God-ordained reality in our dominion over the earth.)

George Monbiot recently explored how the poisonous philosophies of Ayn Rand have become the new right's version of Marxism, and in doing so he shed some light on how ideological capitalism distorts our view, not just of the world around us, but of human nature itself:

Through her novels (such as Atlas Shrugged) and her nonfiction (such as The Virtue of Selfishness) she explained a philosophy she called Objectivism. This holds that the only moral course is pure self-interest. We owe nothing, she insists, to anyone, even to members of our own families. She described the poor and weak as "refuse" and "parasites", and excoriated anyone seeking to assist them. Apart from the police, the courts and the armed forces, there should be no role for government: no social security, no public health or education, no public infrastructure or transport, no fire service, no regulations, no income tax.
Mock Coke capitalism shirt photo
CC BY 2.0. @boetter

@boetter/CC BY 2.0

Self-Interest and Greed Are Not Synonyms
The problem here is not that self interest is promoted as an absolute—it is that "self interest" is a) mistaken as simply "looking out for number one", and b) expressed primarily in monetary terms. And we've seen how this narrow, perverted definition has caused untold economic and environmental chaos and real human misery.

From beneficial mychorrhizal relationships in the forest to the fact that dominance in dog packs is at least as much about social skills as it is aggression, our understanding of how the world works is increasingly pointing to complex webs of interdependence. Sure, competition plays a huge role in those webs—but it is just one part of a larger picture that includes altruism, kindness, cooperation and creativity. Any sensible economic worldview must take this dynamic, complex understanding of the world into consideration.

Patagonia: Don't Buy This jacket

Patagonia (PDF)/Promo image

A New Paradigm is Emerging
Fortunately, from Benefit Corporations through cooperative, localized supply chains and collaborative consumption to a recognition that money is just a tiny part of the real economy, people are finding innovative ways to move beyond outdated ideologies and deliver real-world services and products in a resource constrained world with an end goal of not just making money, but pursuing well-being, happiness and a sense of purpose too.

This new concept of economics is not capitalism. It's not communism. And it most definitely is not consumerism. So what is it? I'm thinking "creativism" would be a pretty attractive term, if it didn't bring up connotations of a whole other controversy. (Yes, I do believe in dinosaurs.)

But maybe it's not an "ism" at all. Maybe it is just being human.