Q: A documentary film based on Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything was recently released. In the film, Klein seems to blame capitalism for problems related to climate change and global injustice. Is it really capitalism that is to blame?
A: The simple answer is that causality is never so simple.
While capitalism is a complex, evolving concept, what is certain is that the capitalism of today is not what economist Adam Smith envisioned 240 years ago when he wrote Wealth of Nations and became known as the father of the idea of free markets.
In Adam Smith’s day, buyers and sellers had names and faces. There was far less virtualization of ownership. Self-regulation worked better because most people saw the direct impact of their economic and business decisions. Self-interest was more enlightened and bounded by empathy and compassion. Success was not only defined on individual terms.
Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein critiques our contemporary brand of “hyper-globalized”, “hyper-deregulated” and “climate-change-fuelled disaster” capitalism in which financial-centered, elite-centred capitalism trumps democracy, austerity trumps posterity and global trade trumps global climate.
Many business textbooks describe fundamental elements of capitalism. Greed is not one of them.
Yet, today, the tentacles of entitlement and greed reach into all parts of society, often choking out consideration of common good and global justice.
A focus on short-term profit maximization and self-interest creates significant challenges in today’s capitalism, fuelling greed of wealth and greed of power.
When deception, domination and greed trump stakeholder rights and a fair marketplace, Adam Smith’s capitalism will always fail.
So what’s the solution?
A simple and naïve blaming of capitalism for climate change and global injustice can defuse our sense of moral duty.
If I can blame an “ism”, then it’s too big to change or too big to be my fault. I don’t have to change my behaviour.
We need to start calling out the moral baggage found in common rationalizations in our contemporary capitalism: e.g., “It’s for economic prosperity.” “The regulators weren’t doing their job.” “Everyone else does it.”
In last month’s How We Live Matters, the writer suggested that sometimes employees should “hold your tongue and go with the flow” and “do the unethical thing that your boss wants you to do.”
However, aren’t Volkswagen cars emitting extra emissions precisely because VW employees did the unethical thing their boss told them to do rather than give voice to their values?
We need to find a way to ensure today’s capitalism also includes equality of opportunity, fair competition and a work ethic, as was originally intended.
Unfortunately, the gap between the world’s rich and poor is growing, most major industries face monopolistic conditions rather than fair competition among many sellers and a lot of work in the global marketplace is neither desirable nor good. Examples are unsafe workplaces, forced labour, conflict in extracted resource environments.
To recapture that spirit of capitalism Adam Smith intended — a capitalism bounded by morality and connected to democratic rights and principles — we all need to start focusing on what each one of us can do to create a well-functioning market system where economy, society, and politics are balanced and bounded by ecological considerations.
We need to limit individualism by focusing on living in relation with not just others in society but with nature as well.
Climate change is real. It is a wicked problem that is inherently connected to global injustice. It requires radical and bold action.
Ten years after Al Gore’s book and documentary, it still remains an “inconvenient truth.” Waiting for market logic or technology to fix things just hasn’t worked.
And we academics and consultants have to stop spending so much time creating and discussing new labels for capitalism (Conscious, Breakthrough, Shared Value, etc., etc.).
Let’s foster a marketplace full of businesses that authentically, rather than superficially, honour their responsibilities to customers, employees and local communities and that promote responsible stewardship of our natural resources.
Does this mean more regulation?
Absolutely, but it also means we need to better monitor and enforce the regulation already in place.
It also means we need to end the corruption in governments and international governing bodies.
We need to provide incentives for pursuit of alternate-energy options.
Does this mean keeping fossil fuels in the ground?
Absolutely, but Klein shows how with moral imagination and innovative thinking we can find the opportunities (including economic ones) in this decision.
So what can we do as individuals?
You might consider participating in a climate change march or vigil in communities on Nov. 29. Strong participation will show our solidarity with this year’s climate change meetings in Paris, where our new prime minister and minister of the environment and climate change will be representing Canada.
Details for an upcoming public screening and workshop on This Changes Everything can be found at radicalimagination.org.
Cathy Driscoll teaches business ethics in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University. She also sits on the Halifax-Yarmouth Archdiocesan Council for Development and Peace.