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Environmentalism vs. Capitalism: Are they Enemies?

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By Amy Summers | March 31st, 2017

For as long as most anyone can remember, there has been a battle of two opposing viewpoints: environmentalism and capitalism. The general consensus is that these two ideas are contradictory. To save the environment, we must stop progress. To push the economy forward with capitalism, we have to make environmental sacrifices. While there’s certainly evidence to support this theory, are capitalism and environmentalism actually enemies? Are they friends? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

What is Environmentalism?

To understand the topic completely, let’s start at the basic definitions of the two ideals. First, environmentalism.

What exactly is environmentalism? Thoughts of long-hair hippies chained to a tree in front of a bulldozer might come to mind. But the general idea of environmentalism isn’t that radical or extreme — although it can be taken that far.

At its basic core, environmentalism is advocacy, action, or a belief system that seeks to protect the natural world. Environmentalists are people that subscribe to the idea that the Earth — and its natural world and living inhabitants — are worth protecting. In an expanded view, environmentalists are a group that believes the Earth NEEDS protecting — sometimes at the cost of other causes.

What is Capitalism?

Capitalism is a bit different than environmentalism. Capitalism is an economic structure that places the bulk of wealth and product ownership into the hands of private citizens or corporations. In theory, capitalism functions to offer all private entities a level playing field that inspires healthy competition.

Each private entity has ownership of capital — be it money, products, land, etc. If a different private entity wants something that another has, those parties must come to an agreement of that thing’s worth. In a capitalist economy, this is known as the “price.” In practice today, the most common price is measured in currency or money. Competition between private entities is meant to both keep the prices of things fair and encourage innovation.

The driving force behind capitalism is that the competition between private entities encourages economic growth. Progress and wealth accumulation are seen as positive within the capitalist model. Growth is necessary to maintain a capitalist economy long term.

Are Environmentalism and Capitalism Enemies?

If you just look at the language in the definitions of environmentalism and capitalism, it is easy to see why the two concepts have a perception of being in conflict. Environmentalism is meant to preserve — protect, maintain, save, etc — the natural environment. Those verbs seem to contradict the values of capitalism like progress, growth, etc. How can something both be preserved while it progresses?

Historical, these two values have been in conflict — especially in the U.S. political systems. Take the oil industry, for example. In the United States, oil is a major industry that directly reflects the nature of our economy. We need the oil to drive cars, produce energy, and basically keep our industrial economy alive. In a capitalist economy, oil distribution is controlled by private entities — oil corporations.

In an effort to continue growth in the oil market, U.S. companies are constantly seeking new areas to drill for oil. This helps profits and the U.S. economy, but it has had devastating results for the environment.

In 2010, oil excavation operations on the Gulf of Mexico by BP took a turn for the worst. An explosion on one of the rigs killed 11 employees a started a massive leak into the Gulf. It was the largest accidental oil spill in the history of the world — leaking 3.19 million gallons into the water before crews were able to stop the leak. The oil killed hundreds of birds and wreck the delicate ecosystem of life in the ocean. Effects from the oil spill are still being felt years later as deep sea coral and other organisms are affected.

BP started drilling in the Gulf to meet a demand from a capitalist economy that needed more oil and to keep the growth of its revenue going. Because of this, many environmentalists equate capitalist progress as an enemy to the environment.

On the other side of the issue, there are capitalists and corporations that view environemntalists as being too extreme in their protection of the environment. Environmental benefits from regulations — cleaner air, cleaner water, protected wildlife – are not easily quantifiable. In a capitalist economy, everything has a general numeric value. Because of this, it can be hard for corporations to accept that they have to spend money to comply with environmental regulations when the only return is benefits for the environment — benefits that often cannot directly see or experience.

In the case of offshore drilling — and to a different extent, the use of oil as an energy source at all — many capitalists feel the environmental costs of offshore drilling are worth it to boost the U.S. economy and lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Having a valuable commodity on our own shores gives the economy strength.

Does It Have to Be This Way?

In short, no. Capitalist progress doesn’t necessarily have to be at the expense of the environment. While many corporations and private entities have sacrificed environmental protection in the name of capitalism and profit — the two ideals can be complimentary.

The beginning of a friendship between capitalism and environmentalism could be started with a shift in perception. Capitalist corporations often very strict environmental regulations as a burden and hindrance to productivity. A recent economic data study of American’s Clean Air Act showed that the legislation’s effect on “employment and productivity” to be “small and transitory.” Changes in “trade and investment” were found to be “negligible.” The initial changes to comply with environmental regulations have costs involved — and they’re certainly a pain — but the actual effects on productivity and profit were negligible.

The second reason capitalism and environmentalism need to be friends is because they can help one another. Let’s get one thing straight — nobody hates the environment. It’s just that some capitalism supporters don’t want environmental regulations to disrupt their business or cost them money. But sometimes “going green” can actual create innovation and drive profit.

For example, regulations or production changes that conserve energy help the environment — but they also significantly reduce energy and production costs. While the costs upfront can seem steep, these changes — like solar panels, energy efficient equipment, geothermal heating — can cut costs over the long term.

“Going green” has public relations benefits too. In general, the public is supportive of environmentally friendly companies. By implementing — and marketing — the environmentally friendly practices, a company can appeal to environmentalist audiences. Certain consumers will pay more for an environmentally-friendly product or chose an environmentally-friendly company over a competitor. One example of this is the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification initiative. New buildings and remodels can get LEED certified based on a 100-check point system. This environmental seal of approval brings prestige and reputability the building and company.

In the end, everyone has to live on this planet. If we can find way to get along — to make the environmentalist and capitalist get along — it can benefit everyone. Companies can continue to progress and grow — the planet can be protected and flourish.

Questions, Comments, or Suggestions? Email me at amy.summers@thenewsreflection.com

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