Earth Day and capitalism



Earth day is the day that we reflect on our relationship with Mother Earth. Globally, we are abusing the earth. If we want the earth to stick around hospitably for us, then we must end capitalism.

Capitalism is an economy that must grow. Economic growth, both in terms of CO2 output and shear resource usage are leading to the next great extinction in earth’s history.

In terms of gross resources and waste, the data shows that in the early 1970’s we began consuming more than the Earth provided, and disposing more than could it reabsorb. Since then, our global economy steadily grew an average 3% GDP/year. Growth has meant increased crop yields due to GMO’s and fake foods, poisoning our air, water, food, and soil.  For us, this means a health crisis with increases in obesity, cancer, depression and mental illness.

In terms of greenhouse gases, in 2009 the Obama administration conservatively and noncommitally stated that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This means a drop of roughly 2.5% a year. Problematically, with the exception of the 2007/2008 economic collapse, greenhouse gas emissions have only increased since then. For every 1% GDP growth, our CO2 emissions increase by .7%. Global climate change has affected every continent, causing more extreme weather, drought and crop failure.

Greenhouse gas emissions stem from many economic practices, not simply cars and electricity. This includes, extracting fossil fuels, creating fertilizers, deforestation, and meat production to name a few. These emissions are ubiquitous to our economy. On aggregate, when our economy grows, so do these emissions. Frustratingly, for each 1% our economy declines greenhouse gasses only shrink .5% as the newly produced machines largely remain working. In order to reduce emissions by 2.5% a year that means shrinking our GDP by 5%.

According to the World Bank, US GDP declined less than 3% between 2008 and 2009. As we all remember, this felt similar to near free fall, negatively affecting millions of middle and lower class Americans. With capitalism, as we know it, the necessary decade long 5% annual reduction would be unfathomable.

Some may say that we can fix our way out with more efficient technology or that we can continue to grow by creating a more efficient economy. The data shows that as efficiency increases so does usage of the tool and its fuel. While efficiency is certainly laudable, without a fundamental shift in economic consciousness and constriction of fossil fuels, it will yield more emissions and consume more resources.


Byron Harmon is a life ​long Salem Resident. ​He received ​a Bachelors degree in philosophy from Willamette U​niversity​.

3 thoughts on “Earth Day and capitalism”

  1. Thanks to Byron Harmon for his commentary on the failure of capitalism. Combined with our current worship of material goods, we humans have turned capitalism from an idea that could have worked, into a mode of life where getting more is the only goal. In the words of essayist Wendell Berry, how can we live lives of infinite growth in a finite world? It cannot work, it cannot continue.

    Keep speaking the truth, Byron. I take to heart your urgent message. I applaud you: Instead of writing your pithy column, you could have spent that same time entertaining yourself with any of the available media toys.

  2. I have only 13 things to say to the predictions of the first earth day in 1970 that Mr. Harmon has eluded to here. Predictions that always make good fodder for articles and soapboxes but lack truth 44 years later.

    13 Predictions that may not have happened by the prognosticators of earth worship….
    “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” — Harvard biologist George Wald
    “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Washington University biologist Barry Commoner
    “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.” — New York Times editorial
    “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich
    “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich
    “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
    “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter
    “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine
    “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
    “Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich
    “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
    “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.” — Newsweek magazine
    “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt

  3. Mr. Farris, while its true that many of the predictions made 44 years ago have proven false, science is an adaptive process. Most of the things prediction you have posted related to food production, they could not have taken the Green Revolution into account.

    Air pollution has caused many deaths, the problem is that it is difficult say that someone died directly as a result, instead pollution pushes trends, increasing breathing difficulties, asthma rates, cancer rates etc.

    For a clear synecdochic example of hyperconsumption having clear environmental impacts I suggest you look at fishery data. Over the 20th century fish consumption per capita has grown while the human population has also grown. As a result we have see the collapse of wild salmon, halibut and Cod populations. The World Wildlife Foundation has found that from 1970 to the present global wild life populations have fallen by 50%. Data also shows that the current extinction rate of species is 1000 times the background extinction rate. Capitalist growth is taking its toll, perhaps not directly in the terms that the particular predictions you chose supposed.

    Climate Change is real and a serious problem for humanity. Globally temperatures are rising, with more erratic weather events taking place. We have droughts in California, unprecedented storms, flooding and crop failure everywhere. It may interest you read about the dramatic land loss in Louisiana due to rising waters

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