Green Or Gone

Only Environmentalism Can Save Capitalism

Rescuing the planet from the ravages of capitalism may be just the thing our dominant economic system needs to save itself, columnist Jean-Marc Vittori argues.

It's a slippery slope
Jean-Marc Vittori

-Analysis-

PARIS — Capitalism is in a vicious circle. For lack of a project, it ends up consuming its own capital. And this represents a real threat to the future, because capitalism offers tremendous economic efficiency. It's to capitalism, after all, that we owe much of the fabulous improvements in living conditions over the past two centuries. Even its most ferocious critics, such as the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, concede to that much.

Capitalism also has much to do still. But it can't go it alone. It will have to be saved by its enemies, as has been the case several times in the past.

Let's start by agreeing on the terms, because we find ourselves here in the fantasy mill. Anarchist essayist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon gave a clear definition of capitalism more than a century-and-a-half ago. It's an "economic and social regime," he said, "in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who use it through their labor."

French historian Fernand Braudel later dispelled the frequent confusion between market economy and capitalism. The former is an area of competition where, as Karl Marx observed, the slope is the "tendency of the rate of profit to fall." Capitalism, in contrast, is the "upper story" dominated by monopolies where the natural slope is accumulation, as Marx — and more recently Thomas Piketty — also noted.

The survival of the planet is not an income that can benefit just a few.

If capitalism is formidably powerful, it's because it allows for the accumulation of capital, and this capital is then invested where it's most effective: in machinery, transport infrastructure, research, etc. It's so powerful, in fact, that it cannot exist without opponents such as government, trade unions and intellectuals.

"Without this presence of counterpowers, capitalism would disappear in its excess of power, through the imbalances of income, the losses in production and the revolutions that would result from it," philosopher and venture capitalist Sébastien Groyer explains in his fascinating dissertation.

Today, however, capitalism has lost its way. It doesn't know where to go. To be more precise, the operators of capitalism — business leaders and large investors — no longer know what to do with the masses of money they move around. They don't have any big plans anymore. So that money goes to the shareholders. Instead of raising money by issuing new shares to finance their growth, companies buy back their old shares. Apple alone has announced a $100 billion buyback program.

The saving-the-planet project

Supporters of this strange practice put forward two arguments to justify it. First of all, they say that when interest rates are low, a company makes more money by borrowing to buy back shares. That is absolutely correct. But said company could hope for even more profits if it had beautiful projects to finance.

Secondly, they say it's better for a company without projects to return the money to its shareholders, who are in a better position than the company to detect promising innovations. That's correct again... except that the shareholders who receive the money don't seem to be putting it into other firms. They prefer, in particular, to inflate the real estate bubbles which are forming everywhere.

The digital revolution should, of course, have been a wonderful investment opportunity. In his campaign for the 1992 presidential election, in the United States, Bill Clinton promised an ambitious "information superhighway" project. But this project has absorbed too little money. It's turned into a commonplace modernization of telecommunications networks. Beyond this, the economic and financial impact of information technologies has been nanified by Moore's terrible law, which divides the price of the basic brick of this revolution, the electronic chip, by 1,000 every 10 years.

Karl Marx monument in Chemnitz, Germany — Photo: gravitat-OFF

Capitalism has always been at its most effective when mobilizing huge sums of money to finance colossal projects: maritime expeditions to the new worlds in the 16th century, cities and railway networks from the 19th century, infrastructure (electricity, roads, telecommunications) and large mass production factories in the 20th century. Today, though, nothing seems to be up to the task. Digital is too cheap, and the next revolution, that of biology, seems to be affected by the same virus — the price of sequencing the human genome has been divided by 10,000 in 10 years.

In the end, it's a good thing.

Nothing, that is, except the greatest challenge in human history: saving the planet. As we've known since at least 1972, with the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth report, growth financed by two centuries of capitalism is unsustainable over time. It's too greedy in non-renewable resources, too threatening to the biological and climatic balance that has allowed life to appear and the human species to flourish. And yet, only capitalism is powerful enough to finance the ecological and energy transition. Likewise, only environmentalism is ambitious enough to give capitalism a new project.

Still, capitalism is unable to make this switchover on its own. As always, it needs norms, impulses and constraints in order to succeed. This time, it will also need a new ingredient, because the survival of the planet is not an income that can benefit just a few. So we will have to create new financial channels, a different sharing of risk and income. In the end, it's a good thing. Capitalism's most fascinating characteristic, after all, is its ability to reinvent itself.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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