Oh, the humanity!
Canadian luminaries shed some light on what's needed to give our economic system a makeover for the greater good
Over the years, capitalism has been an effective and impressive shape-shifter. At the dawn of the industrial age, it appeared as a magnificent behemoth, emitting boastful plumes of soot into the sky and flattening vast landscapes in the name of unadulterated progress. Today, its skin is markedly softer, and a few tinges greener. Sustainability initiatives appear in company mandates, and hopeful messages of corporate social responsibility are offered to a citizenry more and more concerned about environmental and social well-being. Yet the internal engine that drives capitalists remains unchanged, fuelled by the same fire: profit.
The pursuit of profit is responsible for capitalism’s uncanny ability to adapt, for better or for worse. If the means of obtaining it are not regulated, profit can lead to corporate self-destruction, as the world witnessed in 2008, when short-termism and greed led to the downturn of the global economy and the shedding of a few multibillion-dollar corporate tendrils (such as Lehman Brothers). It has also resulted in longer-lasting and ultimately more significant external degradation, such as the poisoning of the atmosphere, freshwater and ecosystems. Moreover, the collective emissions of a global economy have brought CO2 levels to a point where climate change is an inevitable part of our long-term future.
While the economy is often perceived and discussed as something separate from nature, it has never been clearer that economic survival is inherently linked to environmental well-being. By necessity, decades of destructive profiteering have ended in a capitalism whose only means of survival is to evolve into a more compassionate and responsible economic model. But is it possible?
“First, we have to recognize that the past 20 years have not been a victory for capitalism at all. Second, to realize capitalism allows for growth in the power of the citizenry. Companies are not ethical or moral, nor are governments. People are ethical; the people create the standards. People need to be educated in an ethical context, and the market needs to be set up in such a way that the people who work in corporations are able exercise their ethics.”
—John Ralston Saul, Canadian author and essayist
“In the climate era, we need all hands on deck. We need innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership from all sectors. In order to ensure that we don’t run from disaster to disaster, as we have from the Gulf oil spill to Fukushima, our society needs to chart a fast course to clean, safe renewable energy systems that ensure climate stability, economic stability and healthy communities. This challenge requires innovation and leadership from all sectors. Most importantly, it requires strong laws from government to change the rules of the game.”
—Tzeporah Berman, co-director, Greenpeace International Global Climate and Energy Program
“We need to make markets work for a better world. Companies must move away from this obsession with short-termism; the financial crisis showed us how poorly resources are allocated when that occurs. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, while increasing disclosure requirements, has not addressed this fatal flaw in the system. Investors and governments must demand long-term planning be integrated into corporate culture.”
—David Runnalls, senior fellow, Sustainable Prosperity
“Capitalism will only work in symbiosis with humankind and the environment if its rules incorporate the full and true costs of pollution. If we don't sufficiently put a price on pollution, capitalism will ultimately fail humankind.
--Marlo Raynolds, senior advisor, Pembina Institute