Saving capitalism will not save the planet



The government’s response to the credit crunch crisis is taking it into strange places and forcing ministers to consider very fundamental issues. As Andrew Rawnsley wrote so pertinently in The Observer last week (Dec 14), does it really make sense to reduce VAT in order to allow people to keep spending their money on large quantities of imported goods.


 Now we have a further interesting question highlighted in the same newspaper by Catherine Bennett yesterday: does it make sense for the government to bail out Land Rover Jaguar given that its main output is gas guzzling cars which have no place in any rational allocation of resources? Instinctively, I sympathise with Bennett. Range Rovers are the most terrifying vehicles to encounter in towns, especially when I am on my bike, and as far as I’m concerned, the fewer the better.

 The trouble is that the issue is not that simple. Most of the products of capitalism are pretty useless. Who needs Rolex watches that cost £3,000 when my tenner job bought in the market keeps just as good time. Who needs champagne bottles that cost £160 as are on offer at the St Pancras champagne bar? Or frankly, who needs the computer games that are turning our children into brainless zombies with RSI? So where does it end? The problem is far greater. Capitalism, we are learning, is not really sustainable but we are all on a merry go round of having to spend more in order to keep the show on the road. At some stage it will stop spinning and we will all fall down. Perhaps not this time, but maybe when the oil does start to run out.

 Bennett wanted the Land Rover workers to be retrained to produce more environmentally friendly goods, the kind of arms into ploughshares strategy that was popular in the 1970s. Rawnsley suggested a massive programme of improving railways and producing green energy.

 None of this is simple. The workers might not have the right skills and gearing up programmes to improve the railways will take time. But at least these columnists are on the right lines. Simply pouring money into Land Rover Jaguar, a company owned by billionaire Indians, hardly seems sensible. There is no such coherent approach coming from government. Instead we have Mandelson promising to privatise the royal mail. Just possibly he should look at the experience of the railways before embarking on that programme. When will they ever learn?


  • Dan

    Yep – hard to disagree with this of course, but without being cynical Lenin and co realised capitalism wasted large amounts of resources for the few whilst many starved. They had a solution – probably sounded good on paper – but it didn’t work so well in the end (as we know) – although the abject starvation of many in Russia was resolved.

    Meanwhile western capitalists had another idea – democracy – ansd spread the goods of capitalism (the baubles) a bit thinner – but wider. Welathy can still have a roller – but the masses get a reasonable Ford (bit like your watch comparison Christian). That’s worked quite well 9although the rich had to be dragged kicking and screaming with it – might go wrong yet of course – it’s early days for democracy / liberal capitalism in terms of world history.

    Of course neither process did the environment any favours!

    Writings of Tom Rolt (of course another famous transport comentator!) on this theme are instructive, so too William Morris I think.

  • As usual Christian you have hit the nail right on the head in terms of what the cure is not. But it’s not just a simple capitalism vs. socialist issue. Both systems in their extreme form fail – you need the right mixture of social conscience and entrepreneurial drive.

    The engine that is consuming our planet is our banking system – for as long as you fund today’s spending with interest-bearing loans that have to be repaid tomorrow, you are stuck chasing your tail in the futile drive for endless and unsustainable growth.

    BTW Dan, I am fascinated by your reference to an aspect of Rolt’s writings that I am not familiar with. Do please provide a reference.

  • Ross

    For someone who doesn’t like capitalism, there’s a fair amount of it now being advertised on your site! [smiling, honestly]

    Seriously – capitalism isn’t the problem; it’s human greed, something which has been shown over time to be quite independent of the system it lives in (whether socialism or communism).

  • Ross

    Furthermore – on privatising the Royal Mail – Mandy would do well to look at the difference between privatising BAA or BT (which worked well enough, as both monopolies were profitable), and privatising Railtrack (a monopoly which was not viable without subsidy, lots of it). It was this element of subsidy that explains a lot of why the carefully-crafted arrangements in GB’s rail privatisation broke down. The arrangement just proved to be too risky.

    A privatised Royal Mail would *not* be given the commercial freedom it needs to make a financial profit, so the whole arrangement would be likely to end in tears. Unlike BAA or BT, too many conflicting objectives – an issue with the railway as well.

  • Nigel Frampton

    Are the bail-outs to the banks, Land-Rover et al really about ‘saving capitalism’? I don’t think so – it’s almost certainly about saving the current jobs of a few MPs with marginal seats. The more ‘capitalistic’ commentators are in fact saying that the bail-outs are bad for capitalism, as they interfere with the workings of the markets – and may well prolong the recession rather than helping the economy to start growing again. Typical politicians really – meddling in something they don’t understand, and making things worse than they already are.

    I also agree with Ross – the problem is human greed, whether it is greed for money or influence or power. The role of government should be one of protecting the weak from the excesses of the strong (the successfully greedy), but, of course, if one or more of the ‘strong’ parties (such as the owners of businesses) are the same as the government, then the weak will almost certainly be poorly represented. So I suggest we would be better off with a well regulated capitalism – if the politicians could actually get their act together to setup such a system.

    In practice, as has already been said, neither socialism nor capitalism have done much to save the planet, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be like that. Using resources wisely and efficiently should not conflict with the capitalist need for profit – on the contrary – but maybe a little regulation is needed to ensure that businesses act responsibly in this respect. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of that sort of regulation coming.

  • Paul O

    So many iconic companies, the very pillars of GB PLC, have been or are about to be found keeping two cars on the driveway while having nothing in the freezer. ( As an aside this is not new, its been a common economic practice for households in Wilmslow for many years ) Meanwhile the Treasury which for many years has been pleading poverty and fiscal budgetry rules is suddenly awash with money (possibly conjured up by Paul Daniels himself, who knows) to help UK PLC out of this massive hole. Where has this money suddenly appeared from? does it indeed exist? or is it also on paper and just putting off the judgement day? If we stuck strictly to the economic views of the 1979 Thatcher Government then I believe that Capitalism is already well past dead and buried we are into something else now.

    Something this crisis has identified to me is common ground between myself and the 1979 Thatcher Government. Just as they didn’t want taxpayers to pay Leyland car workers to build Austin Allegros that no one wanted I don’t want us to pay people to build gas guzzling Jags & 4X4’s that no one seems to want anymore and the planet could well do without.

    Banking systems and money lending aside let’s not also forget that the USA for some time has and still is spending an unsustainable amount of its GDP on its military capacity in order to influence world events rather than seeking to influence events by trade while keeping an affordable military capabilty. I’m not being a doom monger when I say that as a consequence the USA could be somewhere near to where USSR was in the mid 1980’s, a few years off a complete economic meltdown. The USA may indeed have blown it for everyone and if they tumble a lot of the recent George Bush era anti American feeling in Europe will suddenly vanish as people realise the real economic and social consequences of not having an economically strong America on the World stage anymore. All sounds a bit alarmist but current events and the state of the worlds first economy make it entirely possible. Today Woolworths tomorrow the USA and by default the UK.

  • RapidAssistant

    I think Ross hit the nail on the head – it’s greed. And Christian’s point about it being not until the oil runs out that things really will come home to roost. Maybe the picture foretold in the Mad Max films will come to pass and there really will be an apocalypse.

    The trouble is – most of us will be long gone and plucking our harps by the time that happens, and the selfish inclination is sadly to live for the moment – which is the view that will prevail unless we have the balls to do something about it now.

  • Dan

    Dyspozytor Said “BTW Dan, I am fascinated by your reference to an aspect of Rolt’s writings that I am not familiar with. Do please provide a reference.”

    I think probably best example of this is Rolt’s auto biog trilogy – esp 3rd volume where he expounds his views on the way society is damaging the environment through what we would see as consumerism (yet I don’t see Rolt as a ‘back to the land’ anti materialist advocate – just a way of living more in harmony with our resources) – he also commences this theme in the 1st volume when talking about the landscape he recalls passing through on his pre war Canal Voyage (the voyage that resulted in his first book). The auto biog is a long way from books like ‘Red for Danger’ or his engineer biographies – but it is an excellent read and fascinating life story where he expands on his own views on life in more detail than he would in such books as the biogs – I think you can get all 3 vols combined for about 10 quid paperback.


    Judging by this summary on that website I suspect ‘High Horse Riderless’ also touches on this theme – but I have not read it so can’t be sure. Not sure how easy to get hold of it is – I quote the site:

    “LTC Rolt was first and foremost an engineer with a passion for machines. He was acutely aware, however, that the mechanical, material and largely urban world was overriding traditional and organic values. In High Horse Riderless he set out to answer how machines and science could be reconciled with the harmony of the natural world and with the life of individual creative freedom. It is as relevant today as it was in 1947.”

    The superb Ian Marchant touches on these aspects of Rolt’s life in his enjoyable read ‘Parallel Lines’ – a book also well worth a read – see:

    Hope this helps.

  • Dan

    Dyspozytor said “BTW Dan I am fascinated by your reference to an aspect of Rolt’s writings that I am not familiar with. Do please provide a reference”

    I’m thinking of Rolt’s autobiography – where he expands on these themes to a certain extent (the way in which human life through consumption is endangering the natural balance with the planet – and doing nothing to bring greater levels of personal satisfaction and reward). This is particularly noticeable in the 3rd volume – but also a bit in the 1st volume of the auto biog trilogy – esp. the bit in the auto biog about the canal voyage which became his first book. See:

    This is a long way from classics like Red for Danger or his engineer biogs – but I found it a superb read where he enlarges on his philosophy of life.

    The trilogy is easy to get hold of.

    Also – I’ve not read ‘High Horse Riderless’ – and not sure how easy it is to get a copy – but this description suggests their might be more on this theme in this work:

    “LTC Rolt was first and foremost an engineer with a passion for machines. He was acutely aware, however, that the mechanical, material and largely urban world was overriding traditional and organic values. In High Horse Riderless he set out to answer how machines and science could be reconciled with the harmony of the natural world and with the life of individual creative freedom. It is as relevant today as it was in 1947.”

    Ian Marchant’s excellent book Parallel Lines (notionally about railways but really about all sorts of things) has a great section on Rolt that enlarges on this theme.

  • Ben Hughes

    I may be around long after the problem of peak oil begins – I am only just going to be 19 years old. I will probably be a maximum of 50 or 60 years old by the time it happens.

    It’s my generation who will be the first to really suffer. I was quite stressed out about it for one or two weeks in the first term of University. Other people in the Hall of Residence I talked to hardly knew about the impending problem of peak oil – perhaps more awareness amongst my 1990s generation will mean that the governments of today will be forced to listen?

    I do understand the point about saving jobs in LandRover Jaguar because the industry is also connected to the many suppliers who rely on this kind of work. Any transition to stopping making gas-guzzling cars and moving onto buses, trains and tram vehicles in addition to lightweight cars will be difficult. But better now than later.

    Maybe even reopening some (relatively) easy-to-reinstate rail routes would keep the construction industry going – we will still need to build structures, so it makes sense.

    The many motorway widenings and bypasses planned will probably cost £8 billion and are keeping many construction people employed. But I would rather have that investment moved to electrification of railways first and tramways for every settlement in Britain with a population of 150,000 or more (using cheaper methods such as Carpet Track).

  • MickeyMouser

    Good contributions here. Govt policy right now – consumer stimulus – has to be seen as nothing more than emergency first aid. We need to face up to the realities, we have fooled ourselves that we can have an economy driven off retailing and finance. Sadly the latter has proven itself fickle and retailing will only work so long as the countries producing resources and manufactured goods lend us the money to buy them, which is looking pretty shaky right now and any fool can see won’t sustain us for decades to come.

    Economic leadership should mean developing the national resources and infrastructure so that we can produce more stuff that we need ourselves and reduce our dependency on imports, particularly of energy from Russia and the Middle East. Simple Adam Smith style free market theories fall down when you have the losing hand in geopolitics.

    It’s got to start with transport policies and the development of renewable energy technologies. If we don’t do it then other European countries in the same boat will snatch the prize and we will become even more of a backwater, a low skill, low tech economy that the world will have left behind.

    Can we do it? No probably not, the clowns that run us, whichever party it happens to be, can’t spot the difference between strategic industries and building another bypass and link road to a retail park. All economic growth isn’t it? Right!

  • GeoffD

    One day we might wake up and realise that resources are finite and the ‘continual anthem of growing the economy’ is in fact a hollow tune. I’m told that there are three primary colours (I’m colour blind so I’ll have to trust people on this one). We cannot make a new primary colour, only enjoy mixing them into shades and hues (which nature does far better than we can. We cannot create new resources only manage them. True some can be replenished, but only if we don’t abuse them.

    Chief Seattle’s speech to the then President of the USA is legendary and could still teach us a thing or two. It will need a great deal of wisdom and strong leadership to enable us to redress some of the obscene imbalances that we have created. It probably means that we will have to put aside our longing for the extortionately priced watch and concentrate on making sure that everyone has the basic necessities for life.

    In the meantime, panic measures to prop up the financial institutions whose activities have contrubuted to the current crisis, will not help a lot. We need to take a harder look at ourselves, because the equivalent of putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed is hardly likely to work.

  • Bob Battersby

    The rich play on fear and greed of others to amass great fortunes at others’ expense. The Banking Collapse is no surprise to them: Remember, trade cycles of Boom and Bust are excellent ways of making money out of nothing in both a rising and falling market. Adam Smith (who’s on your £20 note) said something like “..when merchants meet, it is to conspire against the public..”. They Play and We Pay seems the agenda. And if you have the money, you can buy the favour of those with political and legal power, especially weak willed leaders like we’ve had in Britain and the USA. We do need to look at ourselves and make sure we are not our own worst enemies.

  • RichardW

    A fact that seems never to be mentioned – like the “elephant in the room” – is the increasing number of human beings on the planet. They will need to travel – fact. They will desire security and comfort – fact. Resources are going to be in greater demand – fact. It is no good regressing to the sterile left-wing agena of the awful 1970’s as a way forward. Capitalism is flawed and causes problems; it’s terrible. However compared to all other financial-political systems I have ever come across, it’s the least-worst, and the only one I can see that gives us any hope of fulfilling the needs of an ever-expanding population.