Extinction Rebellion is wrong – capitalism is not to blame for climate change

Divided Germany provided a solid basis for comparison, with a market economy system in the West and a planned economy system in the East. 

The German historian Hubertus Knabe, a leading expert on GDR history, observed: “One of the world’s biggest climate killers was, in fact, a country that had abolished capitalism – the GDR.” In 1989, the GDR emitted more than three times as much CO2 for each unit of GDP than the Federal Republic.

Other comparisons also confirm that abolishing capitalism leads to more rather than less environmental degradation. In 1988, the GDR emitted 10 times as much sulphur dioxide per square mile as the Federal Republic (124.5 tonnes vs. 12 tonnes per square mile). 

The worst environmental destruction occurred in non-capitalist countries. In their book Ecocide in the USSR, Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. conclude that “no other industrial civilisation so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, and people”.

Many people will concede that socialism is even worse for the environment than capitalism, but they are still left with reasonable doubts: isn’t economic growth in general bad for the environment? 

There is one argument in particular that seems logical, at least at first glance. Because the earth’s raw materials are finite, infinite growth is impossible. This leads many to conclude that, somehow, growth must be curtailed.

But based on numerous data series, the American scientist Andrew McAfee proves in his book More from Less that economic growth has decoupled itself from the consumption of raw materials. 

Companies are constantly looking for new ways to produce more efficiently, i.e. to get by with fewer raw materials. They do this, of course, not primarily to protect the environment, but to cut costs – an entirely capitalist motivation.

And innovation, another characteristic of capitalism, has promoted a trend we call miniaturisation or dematerialisation. One example of this trend is the smartphone. Just consider how many devices are contained in your smartphone (a telephone, camera, calculator, voice recorder, dictionary and much more besides) and how many raw materials they used to consume.

There is a very strong argument that, even in terms of climate change and environmental degradation, capitalism is not the problem, it’s the solution.

Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and author of the books The Power of Capitalism and The Rich in Public Opinion

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