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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


The profit motive vs. the environment

When I cross-posted the "crowded theater" post below on Daily Kos, some of the commenters seemed to think it all had to do with "human nature," and here, the question of socialism not being a "magic bullet" are raised. The latter is certainly true. But what is key, and I think some people (particularly the ones reading the post on Daily Kos; probably not so much here) don't really understand the effect of the profit motive (i.e., capitalism), so let me give just two examples.

Last night on the news, there was a report on a "green entrepreneurs" forum, where venture capitalists were deciding on "green projects" to fund. And what got funded (at least, the one the story focussed on)? A guy making Porsche-like all-electric cars which go from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds and are going to sell for $200,000. And why would this guy get funded, vs., say, a guy making super-inexpensive electric cars to sell to the masses to $10,000? Surely if one were producing things, or using society's accumulated capital, to fund projects based on need, the latter would win out. But because this is private capital, and because of the perceived profit potential of the former (selling fancy toys to rich people), it's the former that got funded, and the environment, which could have benefited from large numbers of people driving inexpensive electric cars, takes the hit because instead there will just be a tiny number of people driving super-expensive electric cars.

Here's a completely different example - near where I live, there used to be a huge neighborhood of older (older in California means 1950's; sorry to offend your sense of "old," you Europeans) one-story houses. One by one over the years they have been virtually all knocked down and replaced with huge, two-story "McMansions" that sell for $1 million plus, each using more wood (and hence consuming more CO2-reducing trees) than its predecessor, and also each much more expensive to heat and consuming more natural gas (not a huge factor in this relatively warm part of the country, but still a factor). Why is this happening? Are families getting bigger? No, actually they're getting smaller. But, with a fixed asset (a given piece of land), developers are doing the only thing sensible under capitalism - using it to its maximum profit potential by putting up the largest house allowed by law on the property, and thereby selling it for the most money (and the most profit). They aren't doing this because they are "greedy," although they may be. They're doing it because that is the natural response for anyone working in the profit system. The system doesn't make them greedy, but it brings to the fore the greed which is inherent in everyone by rewarding it.

And the environment suffers. The examples here are hardly the most egregious ones, just two that confronted me in the last 24 hours. The phenomenon they represent, and the damage caused, are widespread.

Update: I can't resist posting this, although it has nothing to do with the profit motive, and more in the category of "the rich are different than you and me":

[Paris] Hilton...also told reporters that she is making an effort to personally contribute to protecting the environment.

"I changed all the light bulbs to energy safe light bulbs and I'm buying a hybrid car right now," Hilton said, adding she also turned off the lights at home, didn't leave the TV on or the water running when she left the home.

"Little things that people can do every day to make a huge difference."
Anybody out there usually leave the TV on or the water running when you leave home? Anybody? Anyway, I guess the appropriate thing to write here is to repost the most important quote from Al Gore's Nobel Prize speech:
"We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action."

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