How rethinking capitalism may save the planet

If the earth is to survive catastrophic climate change, the economies of the world can't continue to grow infinitely. Maintaining the status quo makes ecological viability impossible. Mathematician and philosopher David Schweickart asks whether there is another way forward for capitalism, one in which the choice isn't between the economy and life itself.

Mathematician proposes 'economic democracy' as a viable alternative to capital growth

Students participate in a global walkout for Climate Change on March 15, 2019. Philosopher David Schweikart believes that "economic democracy" — a new approach to capitalism — may just help save our planet. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

** Originally published on April 4, 2019.

When David Schweickart's 16-year-old granddaughter casually mentioned that she thought humans wouldn't last more than two more generations because of climate change, he was shocked.

It's not that he didn't understand what was happening to the planet. What surprised him was how urgently young people were feeling the crisis.

Professor Schweickart then began thinking through his decades-long work on alternatives to capitalism, but now in the context of climate change.

Capitalism is deeply entangled with acquisition and consumption. Growth isn't merely seen as good but has taken on a moral connotation as something good in itself. We refer to it using valorising terms, such as progress, evolution and development.

Unfettered growth, in this context, is so deeply tied to freedom that we've even come to see capitalism as a necessary condition for democracy. But is consumption-based capitalism sustainable when we know that it is precisely consumption that has led our planet to the brink?

Schweickart found his starting point in Karl Marx's Das Kapital. But — as he points out — Marx proposed a way to think about the problem of capital, without offering any viable alternative.

Philsopher David Schweikart points out that Karl Marx makes a powerful and compelling critique of capitalism but the economic theorist didn't provide a model for a viable alternative to capitalism. (Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So Schweickart proposes something he calls "economic democracy," an approach to capital that could help not only with a better quality of life for us, but may help save the planet.

He says that conventional capitalist corporations have a particular relationship with the goods and services they produce, the profits they generate, and the people they employ. As a company grows and generates increasing profits, the imperative grows to cut costs, continue to grow, and generate yet more profits.

Growth always means exponential growth. But exponential growth also means exponential consumption.

Democratic firms, on the other hand, run like cooperatives with the firm itself owned by the employees. The imperative to grow is not about maximizing profits, but about creating more work for more people.

According to Schweickart, "Democratic firms — i.e. firms controlled democratically by workers in the firm — do not face the same imperative. Doubling the size of a democratic firm may well double the size of the total profit but all else equal it will double the size of the workforce — twice as many people with whom we share the doubled profits. There's no incentive to expand."

Schweickart goes on to conclude: "Essentially democratic firms expand when there are increasing returns to scale but tend to stabilize when returns to scale are constant." 

Stable firms which have less incentive to grow, and to consume, and whose interests are directly tied to the interests of its workers may be a workable way to slow down the negative impact of human activity on the climate.

David Schweickart is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago. The talk heard in this program was recorded at Ryerson University earlier this year. David Schweickart's book, After Capitalism, is published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. 

**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.


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