Can environmentalism and capitalism co-exist

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					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.

Literary review

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

work together.

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.”

(Porritt, 2006:123).

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

better used.

Natural capital

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

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

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

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

financial capital.

Financial capital

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

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

same time.

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.

Primary research

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

should have.

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.

Questionnaire results

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

not power.

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

improve society.


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

systems (Honda).

If capitalists want to survive they have to become environmentalist and if

environmentalists want to survive they have to become capitalists



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