Creative Destruction: Capitalism’s Double-Edged Sword

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The process of creative destruction as an essential fact of Capitalism can be considered true, but to assign the adjective creative to the word destructive as Joseph Schumpeter does in his quote, suggests a positive nature. As a result, one must view the framework as either positive or negative. This paper will show that Schumpeter’s assumption of the positive nature of the creative destruction of Capitalism is, in fact, capable of destroying the planet.

Both James Gustave Speth, who wrote ‘The Bridge At The End Of The World” and Paul Wapner, who wrote “Living Through The End Of Nature” would agree with this statement. Let us begin with Speth’s argument that capitalism is killing the planet.

Speth believes, outright, that “Capitalism’s inability to sustain the environment is one of the biggest threats to its future.” (Speth, 188) Speth would begin with the way that we value success and growth in this country and argue that this distortion of values has resulted in the destruction of the environment. The very nature of our technological advancement, says Speth, has created a new reality one different than what our ancestors faced.

The fight to retain control over natural resources, the fight for survival in advanced industrial societies has changed. Economist John Maynard Keynes foretold “Thus for the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem -- how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy leisure...how to live wisely and agreeably and well.” (Speth 108)

What Speth is saying is that our technology has given us the freedom to think of needs beyond the basics of food and shelter. As a species, we have strived for a way of life that frees us from the bonds of nutrition and the elements. Industrial civilization, our current form of capitalism, is obsessed with growth, this growth-mania adopted by governments and economists around the world presents a problem for the environment. Industrial processes have disrupted natural ones. The degradation of the planet is evident, Speth says, through the destruction of the environment such as a toxic atmosphere or the degradation of the ecosystem or the widespread death of animals.

This industrial activity has largely been fueled by capitalism’s motto that growth is good. But Speth challenges the very notion of whether or not we should even grow. Just because we can grow is not a good enough answer to grow. Speth would even argue that, despite our growth and our ability to chart progress via a chart, we are not happier as a nation. And other nations looking to emulate our way of life are finding themselves in a similar situation.

“The story of the pursuit of happiness in America is thus a story of its close alliance with capitalism and consumerism.” (Speth, 128). To some degree, the excesses of capitalism can have a detrimental effect on the market and the environment. By changing the way we interact with the market and capitalism, we can effect environmental change. The first shift in thinking, in terms of the way we value our economy, has to start with the term Gross Domestic Product. GDP has long been used as an indicator by countries and global organizations as a measure of growth.

“GDP includes everything that can be sold or has monetary value, even if it adds nothing to human well-being or welfare” (Speth, 138). GDP also links us to the ideology that more stuff is better than less stuff. According to a study Speth finds that “once a country achieves a moderate level of income growth, further growth does not significantly improve perceived well-being.” (Speth, 130). Even further, “Economic output per person in the United States has risen sharply, but there has been no increase in life satisfaction, while levels of distrust and depression have increased substantially.” (Speth, 137).

Speth attacks the main plank of this argument, by saying that the development we currently have is not valuable and is destructive of the planet. The second prong of attack to the hypothetical anti-environmentalist argument would be that presented by Wapner. Wapner is of the belief that nature as we once knew it no longer exists, and that it is important to note that we do not have all the answers. A major fallacy in the argument comes from the statement “There is no environmental problem that is either sufficiently serious or not eliminable by technological innovation and human ingenuity.”

Wapner believes that this idea that we believe we are capable of being complete masters of our universe, the environment, has led to the destruction of the planet. There are some earth processes that we cannot mimic. There are some solutions presented by nature that are better than what man may have to offer up.

This tight grip that society has on the notion that technology will deliver it from the destruction of the planet has only ensured further destruction of the planet. Critics of the environmentalist movement have cut out novel solutions as a result of their loyalty to the technology movement. But, “it offers conviction at the price of narrowness. With their deep commitments, the dreams lock out novelty and surprise,” (Wapner, 205) That is, the viewpoint presented by the hypothetical argument would only serve to create more problems.

Therefore, Wapner believes we must let go of this notion that technology will light the path forward eternally, and accept the fact that we may be in the dark for some time. “We gain confidence by understanding the limits of our understanding,” Wapner says, “This is the key to preserving wildness in a post nature age. To appropriate Thoreau, one could say that being torn and unsure about the way of things is "the preservation of the world." (Wapner, 206)

The destruction of our environment is the result of “a catastrophic moral failure that demands a radical shift in consciousness.” (Ophuls 20) Without shifting our consciousness towards something representative of original mores and culture, the destruction of our environment will be complete. One that shapes the individual to be his own constable. By reigning in our passions, accepting that technology and the state will not save the environment but a shift in lifestyle and the political scene towards Natural Law, we can make moves to stop the destruction of this planet. “And what does a machine governed by mathematical formulas and physical laws have to teach us about how we live? Nothing.” (Ophuls 22)

Works Cited

Ophuls, William. Plato's revenge politics in the age of ecology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Speth, James Gustave. The bridge at the edge of the world: capitalism, the environment, and crossing from crisis to sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

Wapner, Paul Kevin. Living through the end of nature the future of American environmentalism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010. Print.