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The capitalism conundrum

The capitalism conundrum
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First Published: Fri, Sep 25 2009. 11 04 PM IST

Capitalism as if the World Matters: Earthscan, 360 pages, £35 (around Rs2,800)
Capitalism as if the World Matters: Earthscan, 360 pages, £35 (around Rs2,800)
Updated: Fri, Sep 25 2009. 11 04 PM IST
In 1934, renowned economist Simon Kuznets warned the US congress that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from the measurement of national income”. Decades later, his words sound prophetic. While receiving the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his pioneering work on computing national incomes, or what has since then been termed GDP, Kuznets anxiously argued that distinctions must be made between quantity and quality of growth.
Capitalism as if the World Matters: Earthscan, 360 pages, £35 (around Rs2,800)
Contemporary research clearly demonstrates how right Kuznets was, as economic growth triggered by increased personal consumption does not necessarily translate into overall well-being. A recent quality-of-life study among young people in the UK has proved that 76% of people are regularly tired; 47% have difficulty sleeping and 42% suffer from depression. Such trends are no longer restricted to Western societies; each of around 80 million new citizens arriving on this planet every year are vulnerable to such lifestyles.
In Capitalism as if the World Matters, British environmentalist and author Jonathon Porritt argues that capitalism may be the only economic game in town but the challenge is to reinvent it before its inevitable, catastrophic collapse. Porritt prisms capitalism through five capital frameworks: natural, human, social, manufactured and financial. He argues that it is possible for political leaders to rescue capitalism if they think up measures beyond minor tweaks and fixes.
Sample this: Americans threw 32 billion cans of fizzy drinks in 2002, worth 435,000 tonnes of aluminium, which is enough to rebuild the world’s entire commercial air fleet more than 1.5 times. The linear model of resource use—make, use and dispose—considers recycling the sole benchmark of economic success, without taking into account its ecological impact. Symptoms, not systems, remain the political order of the day, regrets Porritt.
Porritt, who once chaired the UK Sustainable Development Commission, does not, however, allow environment concerns to overwhelm his arguments. He says the challenge is for those who are happy to be described as “environmentalists” to engage with the disempowered, the dispossessed and the disengaged to deal with the world’s most serious ecological problems. But the irony is that most environmentalists are so depoliticized that any mention of the bigger capitalist picture sends them running back to their bird-boxes to simmer organic lentils.
It’s a mindset that prevails among India’s environmental groups. Almost all of them have largely remained distanced from politics, giving politicians a free hand in using human and natural capital as inputs in the process of capital accumulation. Porritt suggests that reconciling sustainable development with capitalism is today’s most critical intellectual challenge, for which more resources need to be devoted by the environment movement.
Capitalism as if the World Matters argues that the GDP-based assessment of economic growth helps governments justify extracting natural resources from forests. Governments ought to be told that a majority of the world’s population favours well-being over wealth, as revealed by an online poll conducted by the BBC: A remarkable 81% wanted happiness as a goal; only 13% wanted wealth.
Porritt’s views only augment this consensus.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Sep 25 2009. 11 04 PM IST