Peak everything! – peak capitalism? Talk at Urania, Berlin

When spending a lot of time thinking about consumerism and its ecological and social consequences, one cannot help to also mull over possible ways out of this dilemma. On the one hand, we often hear that we need to be positive about a problem in order to stimulate behaviour changes. On the other hand, I personally feel taken for a fool if someone only attempts to cast a positive light on or offer overly simplistic solutions to dangerous global threats such as climate change. But when being confronted with the bitter truth about global warming or resource depletion etc., I strongly feel the desire for possible solutions, for something I personally can do.

One of these situations was the evening of June 26, 2014, just after I’ve listened to a talk by Prof. Birgit Mahnkopf at Urania in Berlin, which was announced under the title “Peak everything! – Peak capitalism? What are the consequences of the socio-ecological crisis on the dynamic of capitalism?” (my own translation). I will now try to summarize what struck me most, well knowing that my meagre notes won’t allow me to capture everything. So the following is probably not a very good account of what Prof. Mahnkopf really said but more about what I made out of it:

Capitalism is based on profit and growth. Without making profit, without growing, the economy gets into trouble. The built-in striving for economic gains leads to immoderateness and excess – and hence to the exploitation of human and natural resources. Having said that, capitalism treats nature as external input and output factors (i.e. the world famous externalities).

In a nutshell, economic growth depends on cheap natural resources and ecological sinks as well as cheap human capital. Economic growth always brings about increasing resource depletion and pollution. In its search for cheap input and output factors, capitalism has spread across the whole globe – and now it is reaching the planetary boundaries (Rockstrom 2009). A lot of things are peaking within the next 20-30 years: we are facing peak oil, peak minerals (e.g. rare earth metals), peak arable land, peak drinkable water,… and climate change.

But what does that mean for capitalism itself?

As decoupling of growth and resource consumption seems to be impossible, we have to choose between the two options socio-ecological collapse vs. socio-economic revolution.

Well, actually for me this means to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. 🙁

Instead of hoping for green growth based on technological innovations or voluntary changes in consumer behaviors, Prof Mahnkopf sees the steady state economy as the only way out of this dilemma.

  • The dynamic equilibrium of a steady state economy implies “growth” rates between -0.2 and +0.2% which result in a decreasing per capita income.
  • Due to their energy thirst and CO2 emissions, this would also mean a controlled exit from industries such as fossil-fuels, chemicals, automotive, aviation and construction.
  • Another consequence would be a de-globalisation and a strengthening of local economic circles.
  • Capitalism always resolved social inequality and thus social conflict by enlarging the cake so that everybody would get a larger share than before (i.e. “elevator effect” : Ulrich Beck). As this trick is not viable anymore, we would need a re-allocation of wealth within societies and between the “first” and the “third world”.

And this is exactly the point when most of the people in the western world hold their breath. We all don’t want to give away our belongings, we don’t want to do without exotic spicery and fruits, we don’t want to give up long-distance traveling and our smart phones. We want a big piece of the cake. And hey, frankly, this really sounds like communism. And in a city like Berlin, which was divided by a concrete wall during the cold war, nobody really wants to be reminded of real existing socialism, except for some inconvincibles.

As I said, I found Prof. Mahnkopf’s talk very impressive and I felt that she knew what she was talking about, but actually I don’t like either of the options she was suggesting. Well, life is not all guns and roses. But enough is enough.

We can choose between socio-ecological collapse or socio-economic revolution. We can choose between natural disasters and political distribution conflicts.

Oh my. 🙁

PS: Now you know the reason why it’s more effective to communicate in a positive way. If you are given two unattractive scenarios to choose from people tend to be paralised rather than motivated to act. But honestly, I still don’t have a clue how to put a good face on climate change.


Source: my own notes and memories. 😉

For further reading: Birgit Mahnkopf: Peak everything – peak capitalism (pdf, in German only)