Can environmentalism and capitalism co-exist?
Can environmentalism and capitalism co-exist? This is a question that is intended to
open a discussion on both the future of the planet and the very nature of what we do
on it. In order to answer this question I will first clarify what the question means to
me and how I intend to approach it.
My first objective will be to explain what I understand to mean by environmentalism
and capitalism. According to the OED an environmentalist is “a person who is
concerned with the protection of the environment” (OED 2001). Whilst this is true,
for the purposes of this dissertation I shall take a wider interpretation of the
explanation to include anyone who is fundamentally opposed to capitalism because
they believe that it causes the destruction of the natural world. For the purposes of this
dissertations debate it is necessary to widen the meaning of the environmentalism so
that ultimately solutions can be offered or a conclusion can be reached.
Equally I am going to take a broader view than that of the dictionary definition of
capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country‟s trade and
industry are controlled by private owners for profit” (OED 2001) to include
individuals (capitalists) who believe this system (the free market also known as the
neo-classical economic model) to be the most effective method of controlling a
population and improving the lives of the population simultaneously. Again it is
necessary to widen the interpreted meaning of the words „capitalism‟ and „capitalist‟
to include those who regard the natural world as a simply a resource to be exploited
for financial gain, and ultimately economic growth.
These revised definitions have been used in an attempt to simplify the reading of this
debate, and are intended as political bias on behalf of the author.
Using the definitions above one can see that the two ideologies are fundamentally
opposed to each other and both have enormously committed supporters today. So in
asking whether they can co-exist I am actually asking how they can work
simultaneously to reach their respective goals. I am going to argue that by changing
the way in which business is done and the way in which people think about the world
it is theoretically possible to arrive at a system that does fulfil each sides ideological
needs and subsequently reach a balance between the requirements of economic
growth and the preservation of the natural world. There are already a growing number
of people who believe that it is possible to reach a balanced conclusion to this
discussion and that the route to the answer is called sustainable development.
The debate surrounding sustainable development and its ultimate goal of a sustainable
future covers almost everything that is happening in the world (at the same time).
From identifying new species of mammals in Borneo to whether or not to have
nuclear power stations in Western Europe, there is an endlessly growing debate
concerning human impact on the ecosystems we depend on. Because of the width of
the debate I am going to focus my dissertation on finding existing solutions and
theoretically applying them.
In order to create the correct context for this debate I shall begin by broadly outlining
the current global situation, including the state of the environment and who or what is
responsible for it, in order to give a typical representation of where each side of my
argument is coming from. Then I am going to look at how this situation is likely to
progress and what the implications of progress are.
Secondly I am going to ask various sources what their predictions and feelings
(concerning the future state of the planet) are and compare them with a selection of
supporting texts outlined in the literature review.
Subsequently, using the information gathered I shall carry out case studies on various
companies that have already achieved a significant level of sustainable development
practices and look at how they compare with my research.
I will conclude with a summary of my findings.
I have chosen this subject for my dissertation because I believe that the goal of
achieving a sustainable system of living will become the singular most important
issue facing everyone everywhere. I believe that the most likely route to a sustainable
future will come from organisations making profit though sustainable practices as
well as governments reviewing environmental regulations and standards, to the
benefit of everybody.
In this dissertation a variety of view points will be cited, put across by different
people and organizations as to the state of the world. With all arguments ultimately
leading to the same conclusion, we cannot continue in the direction we are headed.
Because this debate goes much further than the question I am asking, I will focus on
looking for answers to a few specific questions rather than simply speculating
endlessly. The holistic question being the title of this dissertation (can
environmentalism and capitalism co-exist?), with the answer being less ambiguous –
yes but only if people can still make money.
Methods and sources of data
I have chosen to use a wide range of sources for this investigation, not only because
the nature of the debate I am going to construct will depend on the nature of the
research I carry out, but also because of the extensive opinions and consequences that
the subject invokes. As I am discussing a subject that is happening and changing as I
write, I have tried to use the latest information from news sites and online journals
such as the BBC and Environmental Science and Technology. I have tried to use only
impartial evidence; however it is often the case that the inherent bias of a source can
give you a more reliable picture than one simply repeating particular data. I will also
use a number of interviews with a range of people to try and obtain a picture of how
different people see the current global situation. This will provide a practical rather
than academic perspective. By asking several people from different backgrounds I
hope to gain an understanding of how they see the issue of sustainable development
and its effects. In particular individuals who work as part of the capitalist system
blamed by traditional environmentalists for the declining state of the world should
provide an interesting view point on any possible solutions.
This is a review of the texts that have been used in my dissertation. Because of my
chosen subject area which is extremely wide and covers everything that happens
everywhere, tough choices regarding the contents of the bibliography had to be made.
I have used several books that talk in depth about the current state of the world in
terms of environmentalism and capitalism being part of the same system. The key
theme of my dissertation is how design solutions can be used in all its forms to
produce a sustainable future and the ideological arguments that go with any form of
change. But my primary topic will be the difference between the capitalist
environmentalist ideologies and how they are going to have to adapt on both sides to
The first book under review is Victor Papanek‟s „Design for the Real World.‟ This
book is the reason I chose to write about the importance of the environment, social
change and how both are affected by the current globalisation of business. The first
edition of this book was written in 1971 and caused much controversy at the time. The
main message contained in this text is that design can and should be given greater
social distinction. He argues that through the augmentation of practical design and
socio-economic structures, living standards and general welfare can be increased. He
believes that there is a huge amount of knowledge in nature and ecosystems as well as
ethnic minorities that are consumed by larger cultures. “Much needs designing in the
third world. Let me repeat that we cannot sit in plush offices in New York or
Stockholm and plan things for them and for their own good” (Papanek, 1971:140).
Papanek was one of the original designers who believed in the social good that
effective design could do, not just how it could be used to make more money (added
The next book under review is by Jonathan Porritt and is called Capitalism as if the
World Matters. Jonathan Porritt is a distinguished environmental campaigner and
advocate of sustainable development. He has been the co-chair of the Green Party,
Director of Friends of the Earth, Chairman of UNED-UK, Chairman of Sustainability
South West and a trustee of WWF-UK. In 2000 he was appointed by Tony Blair as
Chairman of the new UK Sustainable Development Commission. His book is based
around the concept of a changing global capitalist system that has the best interest of
the human race as a guiding force at heart, not the just acquisition of money. The
book is designed to show how by incorporating ideas of global citizenship into
practical systems, business can become more successful in the long term than those
that do not. Because of his background this book should be biased towards the
environmental movement. However, the book is trying to demonstrate how the
current unsustainable capitalist system can adapt to a sustainable one. My close
reading of this text leads me to the conclusion that a change is required in the world,
and the people who adjust first will have a long term advantage. This book changes
the stereotypical view of environmental campaigners by demonstrating the financial
advantages to looking after the environment. “Like all opposition movements,
environmental campaigners became better known for what they stood against rather
than what the stood for…” (Porritt, 2006:17). “At the heart of the current
environmental crisis is the way in which current patterns of consumption and
production are unsustainably depleting our natural capital so that its ability to the
projected levels of the human population (let alone at the standard of living of most
people in the affluent industrialized countries) is seriously brought into question.”
Global Spin, the Corporate Assault on the Environment by Sharon Beder is the next
book I am going to talk about. This book presents an alternative view of how the
world is controlled by the media. Everyone knows that a small number of people are
responsible for informing everyone else as to what is going on in the world, be they
television reporters or newspaper writers: our views and opinions are often based on
small amounts of third-hand information. The book examines the relationship
between large corporations and the various forms of public relations activities that are
increasingly becoming news. The book looks closely at how business and
corporations use the media to propagate their agenda and rubbish the environmental
opposition by claiming they are religious fanatics, unpatriotic or even communists.
“Corporations put large amounts of money into advertising and sponsorships aimed at
improving the corporate image and putting corporate views. Much of this advertising
was on environmental issues.” (Beder, 2002) p18.
These three books have one common ideology; all three authors are trying to inform
their readers that there is another way of doing things. They all contain implicit social
commentaries that are designed to evoke the sense that urgent change is necessary if
the world is going to improve. In the context of my dissertation I have chosen these
three books because of the explicit and real problems and solutions explored within
When trying to answer my question of whether capitalism and environmentalism can
co-exist I am trying to find an alternative to the ideological hegemony that is western
capitalism. William Morris was one of the first people to see that large scale industrial
production caused social degredation and the redundancy of skilled craftsmen. For
this reason I have used a book by Christine Poulson as a reference back to the
beginning of the ideological argument I am addressing in this dissertation. This book
looks at the life of William Morris and the work he and his „firm‟ produced.
In order to look at my question clearly I have chosen a selection of texts that promote
anti-environmental feeling by displaying a selection of facts distorted to suit the
agendas of their writers. One in particular is by Kevin L. Clauson, B.A., B.S., M.A.
(Marshall University); J.D. (West Virginia University) who is also the Chairman of
the Government Department at Liberty University, VA and President of Christ
College, VA, who in a essay discussing environmentalism and environmentalist
claims states: “The point here is that there is scant scientific evidence for a
catastrophic global warming (nor for some mythical "Ice Age" either). Suffice it to
say regarding global warming: "What confidence can we have in the global-warming
predictions when less that fifteen years ago the idea that another Ice Age was pending
was popular enough for a book, The Cooling, to be written and to receive respectful
scientific comment?” (Clauson, 1990)
This text is aimed at people who are already sceptical about the religious (ideological)
reasoning of environmentalists and sets out to discredit their arguments. Another text
claims that environmentalism has become a religion. “In the West, with the decline of
organised Christianity and the discrediting of Marxism, environmentalism has taken
the place of religion for many.” (Martin Livermore, 2006) (extract from a discussion
essay posted on the BBC website.) He argues that humans should simply accept that
we are part of the planet and we should enjoy what we have. His arguments are based
on the classical view of an environmental campaigner with long hair and old clothes.
This is a view that is prevalent in all of my research. Jonathon Porritt also points
towards an increased antagonism between fundamentalist religious beliefs and
environmentalism. In the context that if there is a God that we are all accountable to.
Whatever the consequences of our actions, we are answerable to God, not each other.
This belief comes from the fundamentalist reading of the Bible (meaning that the
Bible is the word of God and therefore literally true) and incidentally this is the
branch of Christianity that George W Bush believes in. This group of Christians are
not concerned with environmental preservation because of their faith (put simply, the
world is going to end with the final day of judgement so why worry about anything
other than following the Bible?) It would be pejorative of me to denounce anybody‟s
beliefs but if you consider the facts you can clearly see people suffering as a result of
industrial development. Another text used is Michael Crichton‟s State of Fear. This
book was chosen because although it is a fictional story it is based around the on
going debate surrounding environmentalism in a capitalist world. This text contains
many references to published scientific documents that have been presented in such a
way as to contradict the hegemonic reading intended by their respective authors. The
result is a work of fiction based on fact that ultimately leads the reader to conclude
that environmentalists are as much to blame as any one for the state of the world. Out
of all the points raised in this book one is particularly applicable to this dissertation.
That is that whilst humans are to blame for the unsustainable way in which we live,
the traditional environmental movements started in the sixties and seventies do not
have an answer. In essence „State of Fear‟ is relevant because it has definitely become
part of the public debate surrounding the need for sustainable development, even if it
leaves no definite direction it concludes that things have to change. “Stable
management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their
place: snowmobiles and fly fishermen, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and
preservationists. These preferences are at odds and can not be avoided.” (Crichton,
During the reviewing of these texts and many others two predominant readings
become apparent. On one side the environmentalists (Porritt, Beder, and Papanek)
strongly believe that a change to current economic practices has to be made for the
benefit off all people. And on the other hand there are those who believe current
economic practices to be, if not perfect then at least the best we can ever manage,
whilst at the same time arguing that no one really knows what is going on with the
environment - subsequently concluding that we should all simply wait and see what
The state of the world
There have been five mass extinctions on earth in the last five hundred and fifty
million years; the last one was sixty five million year ago. Whether because of
meteors, volcanic eruptions or simply evolution, most life that has been on this planet
has not been sustainable. Humans however are the first species as far as we can tell
who have the ability to see where we have come from and where we are headed. This
ability gives us the foresight to change our habits before events overtake us, yet this is
not often the case.
In the last two hundred and fifty years the world has seen a unique increase in the
number of people on the planet. In 1750 there where half a billion people on the
planet, by the year 2000 there were six billion, and in the next fifty years that number
is expected to increase to nine billion. This is currently putting a vast strain on the
natural ecosystem that we depend on for our lifestyles. In the late 19 th century
William Morris saw that the industrialisation of England was not helping the majority
of people. He and a group of friends tried to keep the human element of creativity
alive in a world that was becoming less personal, more polluted, and making a
minority very wealthy. Today the World Wide Fund for Nature‟s (WWF) Living
Planet Index shows that at the current rate we are consuming natural resources we will
require three planets to continue consuming resources at the same rate. As the number
of people increases so will the amount that is consumed, however the increase in
consumption does not follow the increase in population proportionately, it is predicted
to increase much faster. This is due to a massive escalation in industrialisation and
economic activity around the world resulting in vastly more wealth and financial
prosperity for a minority and increasing consumer debt for the majority.
For the last fifty years (since the end of World War II) North America has been
leading the world in financial terms having the largest capitalist economy and an
especially influential pop culture. However things are going to change as Brazil,
India, China and Russia (referred to as BRICs) all develop and grow their own
economies. “In less than 40 years, the BRICs economies together could be larger than
the G6 in US dollar terms. By 2025 they could account for over half the size of the
G6. Of the current G6, only the US and Japan may be among the six largest
economies in US dollar terms in 2050.” (Wilson, 2003, Goldman Sachs). This quote
shows that in the next fifty years the combined wealth of the currently developing
countries will overtake that of the present wealthiest six (G6). At the same time the
United Nations influence is continually undermined by the greed and arrogance of a
few world leaders, consequently reducing the chances of dialogue rather than war
being used to solve conflict. This sends the message around the world that starting
wars is perfectly legal, so long as it‟s in your own economic interest. China in
particular has put economic growth ahead of human rights for many years, leaving it
with the fastest growing economy in the world, as well as huge amounts of money
invested in foreign countries. As a result China has some of most polluted cities in the
world and has only recently been allowed into the UN Human Rights council.
This amount of economic activity is putting ever increasing pressure on the na tural
resources that maintain it. Most of the economic prosperity of the last fifty years has
been possible due to the low financial cost of producing energy by burning fossil
fuels. However the burning of the fuels is currently being blamed for an increase in
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is in turn speeding up climate change (global
warming) with unpredictable results. The dependency of western economies on oil
has been a growing concern for many years and is starting to become a topic that both
business and politicians are beginning to address on a practical level. George W Bush
has openly stated that “America is addicted to oil” and Gordon Brown has recently
increased the road tax on oil hungry cars. These measures, whilst being proactive do
nothing to increase the use of renewable (sustainable) forms of energy or prepare for
the inevitable day when oil runs out.
To summarise, in the last fifty years the consumption of natural resources has
increased to a wholly unsustainable level leaving millions of people disadvantaged
due to a lack of traditional environments to live in. Whilst the profits generated
though this process of industrialisation only reach a tiny number of people.
It is clear that the current trend of ignoring the environment for the sake of economic
prosperity has to change.
So what does all this have to do with capitalism and environmentalism?
The current state of the world is unsustainable. Humans are using up natural resources
to create food, fuel, resources and ultimately wealth faster than they can be replaced
and this in turn is changing the world around us. This change is affecting different
people in different ways. The capitalist system of free markets put simply gives
anyone the opportunity to earn the difference between something they have
(resources, labour or skills) and what somebody else is willing to pay for it. Overall
the system works to the end that it continually generates wealth around the world. In
developed countries many people see financial gain as the reason for living. However
many studies have shown that being richer does not make you happier. “The social
basis for discontent in modern society is not so much lack of income; it is loneliness,
boredom, depression, alienation, self-doubt and the ill health that goes with them.”
(Hamilton cited in Beder, 2003). All over the world GNPs are increasing but people
are not gaining benefit from it. In other words, developed countries continually grow
economically but the people living in them do not develop (or as Maslow put it
„achieve self actualisation‟).
This area is one where the ideologies of the capitalist and environmentalist clash. The
traditional view of capitalism says the more you own the happier you are, whilst the
environmentalist says you can only achieve happiness though pursuing, not buying,
self actualisation. The latter argument is continually gaining strength as in order for a
capitalist to gain happiness he must continually consume more, leading to more
pressure being put on natural ecosystems. “Set the physical laws of nature against the
vagaries of neo-classical economics and there can only be one winner – and it won‟t
be mankind” (Porritt, 2006). The current system of consuming without regard for the
natural world will follow the laws of thermodynamics and lead us eventually to
extinction. As this is now an established but largely ignored fact throughout the
world, it becomes increasingly essential that sustainable methods of consumption
must replace the status quo. But first I am going to look at the background that any
and all solutions have to build on.
Capital and capitalism.
In order for a solution to be designed one has to see where the problem has come from
and understand what tools are available to help solve it. Because I am talking about
the ideological differences between capitalists and environmentalists I have identified
the most fundamental elements of the argument. These are both the problem and the
solution depending on how you see them. But they are undeniably the cause of all
activity. They are the five types of capital on the earth today.
I am going to talk about what is meant by the word „capital‟ and the importance that
all forms of capital have in creating a sustainable future. First I will define what the
different types of capital are and then go on to explain how I think they could be
Natural capital which is sometimes called environmental or ecological capital is any
stock of naturally occuring resources or services. These resources are either renewable
such as rain water, sunlight or trees, and those that are not such as oil, gas or copper
Human capital consists of the tasks that humans do such as learning, working or
looking after each other. Health and motivation are also stocks of human capital and
are very important for a successful economy.
Social capital is the structure that enables humans to work well in either large groups
or small teams. It can take the form of political parties or football teams. It enables
humans to work more effectively as part of a larger picture than as individuals.
Manufactured capital is the combined outcome of the first three kinds of capital. It is
the buildings where work is done, the schools where people learn and the churches
where they pray. Manufactured capital is everything that contributes to the output of a
county but is not output itself. For example the factories in which a stereo is made and
the tools that are used are all manufactured capital but the value of the stereo is
This is the value that is placed on goods and services that allows them and us to be
owned and traded. Unlike the other four types of capital, financial capital has no
intrinsic value, it is only a representation of how favourably natural, human, social
and manufactured capital have been used.
The use of capital
Of the five types of capital the one that will ultimately decide the success of the
human race will be natural capital. Without the systems that we rely upon every day
for food, water, and if you go deep enough something to do when you wake up,
civilisation would be no more. Since the relatively short time that humans have been
living on the planet we have gone from being a tiny group of mammals on a huge
world to a huge group of mammals on a tiny world. The best estimates say that there
will be nine billion people on the planet in about 50 years time and the rate at which
humans are depleting natural capital has many negative affects on the systems we are
currently dependent upon in order to maintain this level of expansion. For example; if
water basins are continually drained to provide water for manufacturing goods then
eventually you will be left with an abundance of manufactured capital but no water
with which to live on. You will be unable to grow food or provide water for washing
and cooking let alone drinking and eventually you will have to move. This example is
in essence what is happening in the world today. Although the example I have used is
oversimplified, the economic world today by and large does not value natural capital,
period. This is in part because it is only during the last thirty years or so that the idea
of humans being capable of destroying the world has been publicly accepted. For all
of man’s previous existence on the planet it has been his ability to manipulate his
surroundings for his own benefit that has led to his exceptional evolutionary advances
with a strong belief that the natural world is a power beyond his control, something to
fear and control. This belief has lead to the current economic state where by natural
resources are seen as free to exploit because they are just lying around. If this
continues to be the case then the fundamental quality of life that all people on the
planet aspire to cannot be achieved. This truth is starting to be realized.
“In reality, we haven‟t escaped the gravity of life at all. We are still beholden to
ecological laws, the same as any other life form. The most irrevocable of these laws
says that a species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all recourses – there has to
be some sharing. Any species that ignores this law winds up destroying its community
to support its own expansion. Tragically this has been our path. ……. There are too
many of us and our habits are unsustainable (Benyus cited in Porritt, 2006:135). By
valuing natural capital as highly as financial capital throughout the world the current
unsustainable capitalist systems that are used today can be reversed. As the limited
availability of natural resources becomes more and more apparent so is public concern
about the consequences of short-sighted consumerism. However, the current global
situation is unlikely to change in the near future so there needs to be a large scale shift
towards sustainable business practices built up over time to allow human and social
systems to adjust. With 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day there are
definitely more pressing social issues than sustainable development in large parts of
the world. It is this difference between rich and poor countries that could be blamed
for the rising rates of pollution and environmental degradation. Poorer countries are
industrializing their economies to generate financial capital, grow and subsequently
improve the living standards of the population. For example huge amounts of the
Amazon rainforest are being cut down to make room for growing Soya beans and
other farming practices. “As the countries of the Amazon become increasingly
integrated into the global economy and there is increased demand for ever-limited
natural resources, efforts to protect the region continue to be threatened by
unsustainable economic demands.” (WWF International, 2006) This practice is
increasing at an unsustainable rate, resulting in an economic structure that will
eventually collapse, destroying an irreplaceable forest.
To blame the developing world, or any one party for this situation is very short-
sighted, because many of the problems faced are derived from the social and
economic practices of the developed world, for example in Europe and North
America there is high demand for beef that is eventually sold at a price that has
nothing to do with the cost (both environmental and human) of producing it (this is
often caused by fluctuating currencies and global market prices being imposed onto
local markets), meaning cheap beef for the end consumer with no financial gain for
the producer. This situation has highlighted the ideological dilemma that is facing the
world. On one hand the environmentalists are concerned with preserving the
rainforest by opposing deforestation. Yet on the other hand the local farmers have to
feed their children, and will do whatever is necessary to do so.
This is a typical example of natural capital being used in an unsustainable way to
attempt to build up short term human and social capital but ultimately the
beneficiaries are those people living in already financially wealthy countries or those
wealthy enough to not rely on subsistence farming. What this example shows is that
commodities are traded in a way that benefits those people who live in the developed
world by preventing the economic development in the countries that produce them.
So what can be done?
There are many differing opinions and solutions to this problem ranging from those
who favour the complete disintegration of global trade (often environmental activists)
to those who believe that a neo-liberal free market system is the only solution (often
the position of large corporations and governments in wealthy countries). This results
in two main schools of thought, both believing that they have the solution.
Some people think the state should be held responsible for enforcing change and some
people think that it should be the responsibility of the consumer to change their habits.
Both of these arguments for change come from the environmental organisations with
various politicians paying them lip service “We need businesses and everyone as
consumers and passengers and drivers, to help us achieve it (Kyoto) too” (Blair, 2006)
but ultimately giving way to the will of the electorate. The above quote is an example
of how the media is used to deliver a message about the reducing of carbon emissions.
This quote was taken from an article written by Tony Blair, published in the
Independent newspaper. Due to the political persuasion of the Independent it was very
likely that the intended meaning of the article (that Labour are committed to saving
the environment) would have found favour with its readers. To this end the media has
been manipulated in order to make a political party seem as though they are doing the
right thing. The next section looks in more depth as to how the media can and is used
to perpetuate capitalist systems.
Public relations, the media and environmentalism
How you are told something affects what you hear. If somebody shouts loudly in a
crowded room it is likely that everyone in that room will listen and assume that what
ever the person has shouted was important (at least to them). This is a very simple
analogy of how corporations have been making themselves heard since public
relations as a business started in the 1930s. Large tobacco companies spent huge
amounts of money on advertising messages telling the public that smoking had no
negative side affects and was in fact good for you. In the same way the public
relations (PR) firms produce press releases that support whichever organisation is
paying them and reinforces a particular message favourable to that organisation.
“Their purpose is to develop and maintain public goodwill, as well as favourable
governmental polices” (Beder, 2002:112). Press releases are written by PR firms and
are then sent to news desks around the world. Once a press release arrives at a
journalist‟s desk they are then free to use it as a story, some are altered or added to,
and many are just printed as they come. This is often because of time restraints and
pressure to fill up newspaper articles or television programmes. In this way it is
possible to get your organisation’s angle into the public domain, carrying the
assumption that somebody has checked the facts. This is often not the case, here
Sharon Beder sums up PR - “The art of PR is to „create news‟; to turn what are
essentially advertisements into a form that fits news coverage and makes a journalist‟s
job easier whilst at the same time promoting the interests of the client.”(Beder 2002).
With the growing popularity of round the clock news channels the pressure on
journalists to come up with stories is growing. Thus the popularity of news
conferences, photo opportunities and press packs grows and so does the control of
those with enough money to pay for these events. It is this kind of control that is often
used against environmental organisations to discredit their arguments or simply to
„shout louder‟. This is because environmental organisations such as Friends of the
Earth or Greenpeace are opposed to the pollution and environmental destru ction
caused by the large corporations that are paying the PR companies. When Rachel
Carson‟s Silent Spring (a book about a year when there are no birds left due to a lack
of natural food caused by the use of insecticides) was published in 1962 the
Agricultural Chemical Association (representing the insecticide manufacturers) paid
for hundreds of negative reviews to be published claiming that the use of pesticides
was safe. The book has since become a hugely influential text and its main complaint
that the dangers of pesticides were not being made public, has subsequently been
accepted. Rachel Carson said “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a
barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They
should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides'.”(Carson, 1964 Rachel Carson.org)
As well as unfavourable reviews The Monsanto Company, “one of the nations‟s
largest chemical concerns, used parody as a weapon in the counterattack against Miss
Carson. Without mentioning her book, the company adopted her poetic style in an
article labelled "The Desolate Year," which began: "Quietly, then, the desolate year
began . . ." and wove its own apocalyptic word picture - but one that showed insects
stripping the countryside and winning.” (Lynda Lear, 2002). This process is called
„green washing‟ by environmental groups.
This is an example of how two different parties with different goals (one preventing
environmental degradation and the other continuing with a practice despite evidence
that it is harming the environment) have fought over the public‟s opinion and fears.
The arguments on both sides of this kind of discussion have got good reasons to exist
with the only difference being that one side stands to lose money though being forced
to change or stop its practices. And it is this difference that symbolises my argument
as to whether environmentalism and capitalism can co-exist. The market for PR firms
that change public opinion is growing alongside the increased public perception that
natural ecosystems are being endlessly exploited for the financial gain of a relatively
small number of people (shareholders) who are not physically affected by processes
that ultimately earn them money. At the same time the environmental NGOs are still
putting pressure on business to take more responsibility for their actions and publish
the facts with varying degrees of success. The present situation with the media being
mostly a profit making (and therefore accountable to shareholders) business means
that it is by nature biased towards earning profits and not telling the truth, leaving a
tiny number of people with specific knowledge to try and raise public awareness, such
as Rachel Carson.
“Democracy presupposes the existence of a public sphere in which vigorous debate on
issues of public importance takes place so that decisions can be made on complex and
controversial issues. In a system of commercial broadcasting, however, profit
imperatives limit the amount of time given to political debate…corporate control
severely compromises the democratic functions of television and renders it first and
foremost, an instrument of social control and legitimisation rather than a medium of
information and democratic debate” (Kellner cited in Beder, 2004:94-5).
This has led to the state we are in today whereby television is first and foremost a
form of „entertainment‟ designed to avert your attention from the real world. Apart
from a few dedicated producers working mostly for the BBC Radio Services,
television serves to distract from and distort social issues. The advent of „reality
television‟ an oxymoron if ever there was one, shows just how the systematic
manipulation of human emotion and pejorative notions of morality are used to create
a sense of control within their audience. This in turn leads to newspapers adding a
further sense of jurisprudence to the audience by portraying the bogus events of the
night before as in some way relevant to the lives of the reader, the result equals higher
viewing figures, higher advertising revenue and ultimately more money for the
producers. This means the entire program is designed to make a few people with
money even more money.
The point I am trying to make is that mind numbing television is destroying political
discourse by breeding complacency within a generation (living in MEDCs now aged
10-25 years) of people who have such an abundance of material possessions
(televisions, cars, phones, computers and designer clothes) that they become the only
method of peer evaluation. Here is a quote from an opinions page posted by Richard
Black on the BBC Green Room website - “fashion we can do without; it is a luxury
we do not need, a bauble that blinds, an environmental dead end. It is fashion which
leads a friend of mine to "need" 14 watches so she always has one that matches;
fashion which leads a relative to possess more than 40 pairs of shoes.” (Black Richard
Because of the massive amount of money spent on advertising each year aimed at
children and teenagers, you are left with a group of people who are led to believe that
only by obtaining the latest „toy‟ can they be happy and respected in their lives, with
no regard for the damage caused by this rampant consumerism. “Advertising design,
in persuading people to buy things they don‟t need, with money they don‟t have, in
order to impress others who don‟t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence
today” (Papanek, 1985). As I have mentioned before it is the unquestioning nature of
today‟s consumer culture that is depleting the planet’s resources in an unsustainable
way. The perceived value of an object has nothing to do with the resources both
human and natural which went into its creation, but is instead determined by how well
its presentation has been designed. If a product such as a pair of designer jeans are
sold for £200 then the value of those jeans is seen as £200 and anyone who buys them
wants that value to be added to their person. The fact that the jeans were produced for
a fraction of that financial cost and to the detriment of the environment bears no
relevance at the point of sale. Whether or not the jeans come with some random „new‟
feature and have a „cool‟ advert adding perceived value, however, is the most
important factor when deciding whether or not to purchase the item. In this example
the total cost of the product has been covered up by what a consumer is told they can
bring to their lives by purchasing it.
Using the information I have gathered I believe this situation will change for the
better and the people who can make this happen fastest are designers through the
application of sustainable development practices. If the answer to this predicament is
sustainable development then the fundamental systems that we currently use to value
resources need to change. At present the most sought after goal in the developed
world is the acquisition of money. However the worth of financial wealth derives
from only two things; the work that people do and the energy that comes from the
sun. By intelligently using the only true forms of capital on earth it is perfectly
possible for the earth‟s resources to support human life. The process of creating
solutions within a restrained environment is generically called design. Next I am
going to look at how two different companies have made money out of sustainable
Case study on Honda FCX
This is a case study of the new Honda fuel cell car that is currently being tested in
Honda started to experiment with fuel cell technology in 1999, road testing in Japan
as well as North America. Fuel cell technology is widely accepted as being a future
replacement for fossil fuels, if given the right support. “Full commercial status for
fuel cells in vehicles and power generation is achievable only with the active and
sustained support of the government at all levels” (Robert Rose of the Breakthrough
Technology Institute Inc 2003). The use of fuel cell technology is currently too
expensive for mainstream use, however several city governments in North America
have been loaned fuel cell cars in an attempt to raise their public profile.
Fuel cells work by essentially mixing hydrogen and oxygen to create heat and
electrical current (then used for powering a car, house or anything that needs
electricity), with the only by product being pure water. Because this process in itself
causes no green house gases to be released it has enormous appeal for those people
who live in crowed city centres where smog and pollution seriously reduce the
standard of living, not to mention the advantage of not being dependent on oil for
The main downside to this method of energy production is that is requires electricity
to prepare the hydrogen in the first place. If this electricity does not come from a
renewable source then the advantages of not burning fuel in the car are offset by the
fuel burnt in the production process. Honda has solved this problem by producing and
testing a fuel cell car on Yakushima, an island in Japan and a world heritage site. The
island has a very high level of annual rain fall and subsequently they built a hydro-
electricity plant. "...the local electricity company has built turbines to harness the
enormous hydro-electric potential on Yakushima - and it has done that so successfully
that it produces far more electricity than the island's 15,000 inhabitants can use"
(Head, 2006). Honda has teamed up with the local university to produce fuel cells
with the surplus electricity. This is a classic example of sustainable development
being used to improve the standard of living and look after the environment at the
Case study 2 Howies
Howies is a small clothing company who specialise in outdoor clothing. The company
is famous for its original t-shirt designs and high quality standards. Howies was
started by husband and wife Dave and Clare Hieatt in the front room of their home. At
the time Dave was working as a copy writer for a London based company and decided
that he had had enough of not believing in the work he was doing. The result was the
establishment of a company whose ultimate goal is promoting a sustainable existence,
not one based on material wealth.
The company only uses organic cotton despite the high cost. Non organic cotton
contains very high levels of chemicals in the material as well as accounting for a huge
proportion of global pesticide use.
The company has a policy of strictly sourcing products from ethical sources and
taking responsibility for the conditions of all the workers associated with their
business. One thing Dave is really certain of is that he would rather Howies was
influential than big. “Staying independent is a vital factor, as soon as you start selling
out financially you end up having to compromise and end up selling out ideologically
as well.” (Crofts, 2003). This dedication to ethical business practice has meant that
the company makes very little profit but has an extraordinarily high brand value. “The
proof of the effectiveness of such practices is that Howies routinely get a 20%
response rate from their catalogue when industry norms are closer to 6%.” (Neil
Croft, 2003). Howies is testament to the fact that the current practice of disposable
fashion is not the only way to earn a living in the clothing industry, one specifically
famous for exploiting workers around the world in the pursuit of an even larger profit
margin. Howies above all uses good design to ensure the longevity of its products,
resulting in lower levels of production and subsequently waste from manufacturing.
This is another example of environmental and capitalist ideologies working together.
Howies have set a benchmark in ethical trading, giving them a level of customer
loyalty and brand presence that not even a company with the largest advertising
budget could ever achieve.
In order to gain an understanding of what my dissertation topic means to a wide
variety of people, I used a questionnaire to gauge opinions and ideas on issues related
to my dissertation. I chose to ask simple yet revealing questions based around the
subject of sustainable development. My intention was to see what people consider
sustainable development to be and how if affects their lives. I chose a simple style so
that the answers I got reflected the immediate reaction to the question. Rather than a
long and complicated set of questions that I feel would have caused confusion and
ultimately given a false perspective.
The questions I have asked are as follows;
Q1. Do you think the environment is in any danger as a result of human activity?
I asked this question firstly, to establish whether or not the person answering it thinks
the environment is under threat, and secondly to establish an ideological direction for
the answers to the rest of the questions.
Q2. If so, what do you consider to be the biggest threat?
This question was aimed at finding out what aspect of the environment people where
most worried about.
Q3. Would you change the products and services that you consume directly as a result
of any threat to the environment?
By asking this question I wanted to see if the issues talked about in the previous
question would directly affect the day to day activity of the interviewee. By this stage
the idea that there is a problem with human activity has been established, so I wanted
to find out if people saw themselves as part of the problem or solution.
Q4. Who do you think should be held accountable for the damage caused to the
environment by economic growth?
This question was aimed at finding a group of people who can be held accountable for
any damage talked about previously. I also wanted to see who people thought should
have to pay for any change made to the current system.
Q5 .Do you think that NGOs (Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth) should have
more or less power to change government policy?
This leads on from the previous question by providing both a possible solution to the
environmental problems caused by economic growth. As well as the chance to
comment on what people think the role of NGOs should be and how much power they
Q6. How would you define „sustainable development‟?
I asked this question to find out if the term „sustainable development‟ could be
described to me in another light. It was also very important to me to gain an
understanding of how the issue of sustainable development is conceived in minds of
people who have not looked into it. This is the most important question because it
provides me with an opportunity to present solutions that appear to make sense, not
just from a designer‟s point of view but to everyone. I believe this is a crucial element
in reaching a sustainable future.
These are the results from my questionnaire.
Everyone who completed my questionnaire agreed that the environment is under
threat from human activity. I was expecting this answer because this fact has become
embedded into the public consciousness though all forms of media. My next question
regarding what is considered to be the largest threat to the environment produced
some mixed results but overall pollution that causes global warming was considered
to be the largest threat. This is an interesting response because it is something that
everyone can do something about. Cutting down on wasted energy can save money as
well as help to prevent global warming. When asked if any one would consider
changing the products used the response was positive. Only one person said that they
had not already done so.
Next I asked who should be responsible for the current problems facing the
environment. The results showed that the government took most of the blame,
however business and individual consumption were also to blame. Again it is
interesting to note that apart from business it was ultimately the responsibility of
individuals to make changes, whether though electing a new government or making
changes to ones own life.
The next point I wanted to gain an understanding of was whether or not NGOs should
have greater authority over government. This question produced some mixed results.
Some people thought that more power should be given and some people thought that
no power should. The background of the person answering the question clearly had an
effect on the way people answered this question. The older people all said that the
amount of power that they should have must represent the amount of support they
have. Whilst the younger people though they should at least have more influence if
Lastly I asked for a definition of what people thought sustainable development is.
From the answers to this question I have determined that the people‟s ideas about
sustainable development are actually similar to that of my own. Every one who
answered the question said that it involves planning ahead and looking for ways to
This dissertation has looked at what the world is currently like and how it can be
improved. From looking into many different aspects of the way we live I have come
across an answer.
Many people believe that their status within society is based on the amount of wealth
they are able to display. This process of perpetual conspicuous consumption in my
opinion has become a religion or at least the dominant hegemonic ideology in our
society, resulting in huge amounts of waste energy and resources being generated to
keep a certain level of perceived happiness for sale.
This has to change. If all forms of capital are treated with equal respect then the
process of sustainable development can truly begin. “Capitalism is a marvellous
system for creating wealth. On the other hand, unregulated capitalism creates hideous
social injustice and promptly destroys itself with greed.” (Ivins & Dubose, 2004:15).
If business and governments actually start planning for the long term in terms of
investment in locally produced renewable energy, useful public transport and
education at a national level then I believe international economic development would
start to benefit everyone in the world not just the wealthy minority. I believe that a
free market is the best way of creating wealth, as long as true impact (social,
environmental and financial) of any actions are properly evaluated and regulated to
prevent environmental degredation. Although there are many positive steps being
taken to promote the practice of sustainable development, unless more effort is put
into resolving conflict around the world and educating people the state of the
environment will remain as it is seen today – somebody else‟s problem.
Those with environmental agendas will need to look further at how to work along side
business to make money and save the environment, whilst those in power whether
political or financial will have to invest in sustainable business practice in order to
survive. On one hand brand equity is increased though sustainable business practices
(Howies) and on the other you can make money from effectively manipulating natural
If capitalists want to survive they have to become environmentalist and if
environmentalists want to survive they have to become capitalists