All photographs are credited to Ayana Angina.

Humanity calls itself Homo Sapiens, the Latin translation of “wise man”. We are certainly smart; humans have built up civilization, agriculture and eventually industries. However, in my definition, wisdom implies the ability to act responsibly, and I, therefore, believe we should get rid of “Sapiens” and call ourselves Homo Economicus instead. 

Unsustainable development is a short-term answer to our insatiable hunger for more profits, more products, and more prosperity, and the long-term effects of greed, materialism, and speciesism will be and already are the death of billions of living beings, including 300,000 humans annually according to the Global Humanitarian Forum. Despite our self-declared “wisdom”, our politicians have failed to realize that we humans are too passengers on this one space ship with limited resources that we have so beautifully called  Earth. On that spaceship, most people seem to follow only one thing blindly: money. Even if it comes at the price of resource depletion, plastic pollution, deforestation and much more. Therefore, we need to change the course of our spaceship Earth, and to do so we need a change in the systemic improprieties of our capitalist societies.

According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 2014, the 3 major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions were electricity and heat production (25%), agriculture, forestry and other land use (24%) and other energy industries (21%). Sustainable alternatives in those areas would negate billions of tons of emissions annually. The most crucial advancement needed is already available; renewable energy has existed longer than fossil fuels. In 1885, Werner von Siemens, a German industrialist, said the following about fossil fuels: “However great the scientific importance of this discovery may be, its practical value will be no less obvious when we reflect that the supply of solar energy is both without limit and without cost and that it will continue to pour down upon us for countless ages after all the coal deposits of the earth have been exhausted and forgotten.” There is only one gigantic obstacle between humanity and sustainability: the colossal walls of capitalism.

The free market that thrives within the walls of capitalism generates competition. This leads to a global system of production that is not based on the needs of the people, but on the profitability of the product. In that system, the consumer is meant to believe that they need to consume infinitely. This is realized through planned obsolescence; producers purposefully downgrade the quality of a product so that the consumer has to replace it regularly, causing exploitation of finite resources and huge amounts of waste. Think about it, how many times have you replaced your iPhone in the past 5 years…? Summarily, in the competition of consumerism, sustainable development is simply not profitable enough and, therefore, not competitive.

This competitiveness provokes a race for money, no matter the cost. This is seen in all sectors, even in the care system. For instance, earlier this year, Bernie Sanders took a group of type-1 diabetics to buy Insulin. In more socialist Canada, insulin was 50% cheaper than in more capitalist America, where the healthcare system is not created to provide care for the population, but to make billions of dollars for insurance companies. In a nutshell, this shows us that solving the climate crisis in a system that exclusively allows for profits through cheaper unsustainable pathways is impossible. As Greta Thunberg said: “If solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.”

Considering that millions of jobs rely on the current economy, a change in this system is extremely hard. However, there is a way to gradually shift to an environmental economy, while giving every actor in the economy a chance to adjust. Unlike the system we function in today, an environmental economy would take into consideration the externalities of GDP and supply and demand. This would mean that industries cannot pollute the environment without economic consequences: ecosystem services are given value. In addition to valuation, regulation in the form of cap and trade has potential, as it would create a pollution market. The pollution market would work by enabling companies to buy emission permits from the government, generating government revenue that could be used to subsidize sustainable development. Due to an annual lowering of the pollution limit, the value of emission permits would go up as they get scarcer. Yet, companies staying below their cap could sell their emission permits to companies struggling to reduce their emissions. Altogether, this would create incentives for companies to develop sustainable ways of production.

This system could work if executed right, but like any other economic system, there are loopholes. Companies could find ways to falsely offset their emissions by selling what is left of their emission permit to another company without actually achieving the offset. Therefore, the system would have to be very well regulated by governments. By creating transparency through monthly reports on emissions governments could prevent the exploitation of loopholes. Altogether, I believe a cap and trade system is a realistic, yet adequate solution to climate change because it would not only be an economic shift towards sustainability but would also induce a shift from the current western ego-mentality to a much-needed eco-mentality.

In conclusion, even though our greed, materialism, and speciesism have blinded us from our impacts on the natural world for decades, I believe that humanity is wise enough to solve the climate crisis. It is indeed human nature to pursue money blindly. However, in an environmental economy, that instinct to follow money can be used to build a sustainable society. If we do it wisely, we can use the money that triggered unsustainable destruction in the past century, to trigger sustainable development now. Doing that, we can build the stairs of environmental economics, brick by brick, to climb our way over the walls of capitalism.

Noah Zuijderwijk

About Noah Zuijderwijk