Capitalism under the microscope

August 3, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

Annie Leonard has passionately researched and written a book she titles: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with the Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change (2010).

I haven’t yet finished her book, although I’d like to post on one point she strongly makes early on, a point that is the elephant in the room regarding most discussions of the American way of life. It is a topic not far from the hearts of the many free market fundamentalists out there. The topic is whether it’s time to put capitalism under the microscope. Here’s what Leonard has to say:

[There is no doubt we will reach the planet’s carrying capacity; we’re heading in that direction now…. a big part of the problem we face today is that our dominant economic system values growth as a goal unto itself, above all else. That’s why we use the gross to metric product, or GDP as a standard measure of success….

All right. Are you ready? I’m going to say it: this critique of economic growth is a critique of many aspects of capitalism as it functions in the world today. There. I said the word: “capitalism.” It’s the Economic-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.

When writing the film script of The Story of Stuff, my intent was to describe what I saw in my years on the trail of trash, visiting factories and dumps and learning about how things are made, use, and thrown away around the world. I certainly didn’t sit down and figure out how to explain the flaws of capitalism. It was trash, not economics, that was originally on my mind. So at first it took me by surprise that some commentators called the film “an ecological critique of capitalism” or “anti-capitalist.”… it turns out that a hard look at how we make and use and throwaway Stuff reveals some pretty deep problems caused by core functions of a specific economic system called capitalism. There’s no way around it: capitalism, as it currently functions, is just not sustainable….

Yet, in the United States, were still hesitant to broach this unmentionable subject, fearful of being labeled unpatriotic, unrealistic, or insane. Elsewhere in the world, there’s a widespread recognition that some aspects of capitalism aren’t working well for the majority of the world’s people or for the planet; people talk about it openly….

Can we put capitalism on the table and talk about it with the same intellectual rigor that we welcome for other topics? Can we examine the failures of capitalism without falling into generations-old stereotypes and without being accused of being un-American? Refusing to talk about it doesn’t make the problems disappear. I believe the best way to honor our country is to point out when it’s going astray, instead of sitting here silently as many economic, environmental, and social indices worsen. Now would be a good time to start looking at what we could do differently, and what we could do better….

The belief that infinite economic growth is the best strategy for making a better world has become like a secular religion in which all our politicians, economists, and media participate; it is seldom debated, since everyone is supposed to just accept it as true.

Why are so few people willing to challenge, or even critically discuss, an economic model that so clearly isn’t serving the planet and the majority of its people. I think one reason is that the economic model is nearly invisible to us. … [W]e tend to forget that were viewing the world through the paradigm, like it’s a pair of contact lenses…. before we can change a paradigm, we need to identify it as a paradigm rather than assume it is truth.

[Starting at page xviii]


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Science, Simple living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    With U.S. businesses losing jobs to, among other places, communist China, I've begun to wonder if U.S.-style "capitalism" actually is a better economic system than, say, the "capitalist" economies of Western Europe or even a centrally-controlled economy like China's. At least two facts suggest that U.S.-style capitalism might not be the main reason for current U.S. prosperity. One is that the U.S. economic model is plainly not sustainable — in that it depends instead on mechanisms that reward those who can most rapidly exhaust the planet's non-renewable resources. This alone would suggest it is a sub-optimal system. The other is that despite the condemnation we hear of centrally-controlled economies (like China's) by supporters of the U.S. "free" market system, much of the U.S. economy is actually under the fairly tight control of a relatively small number of multinational corporations — entities that are, themselves, centrally controlled. Thus, there appears to be an argument that the U.S. and, say, China are not as different from each other as popular opinion seems to believe: despite outward differences, they are both essentially top-down autocracies. In China, the autocrats call themselves "politicians;" in the U.S. they call themselves "business executives." In both countries, these unelected economic elites call most of the shots, leaving us to wonder if the past 200 years of U.S. prosperity might be more a consequence of its fortunate surplus of natural resources than of its so-called "free" market system.

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