Friday, November 14, 2008

Response to Herve Kempf's "How the Rich are Destroying the Earth."

This is a response to an interview with Le Monde's environmental correspondent Herve Kempf, who has written a book entitled "How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth." One of his points in the interview was that environmental feeling is much stronger and more advanced in Europe than in the US. Having been an active Sierra Club member since the 60s, and aware of the environmental movement's history, I can remember when environmentalists were called conservationists, and their main concern was with preserving wild places. It was primarily from this start, here in the US, that modern environmentalism emerged.

As the stunning ferocity and broad human impact of environmental problems has become clearer, the nature of the required response from different countries has also diverged substantially. Europe, for reasons having nothing to do with virtue or intellect, has developed in a much more population-dense way than the US. Consequently, it now has less opportunity to curb its pollution than the US, while the US faces far more severe dislocations to make the progress it needs. Hence Americans are more cautious, on the whole. At the same time, however, we have a far greater opportunity to make a large impact, and to develop profitable businesses as a result.

Another point Kempf makes is to define capitalism as an ideology that views human motivation as entirely selfish, and competition in the marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of all. I strongly disagree. Capitalism refers to a way of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services that depends on substantially unregulated private entities seeking to sustain and, if possible, enrich themselves in the process. At the other extreme, of course, are command economies in which an authority has the right, usually circumscribed by tradition, to direct the creation and distribution of goods and services. Nevertheless, I think capitalism is a term so fraught with pejorative implications that it is best avoided. I have just finished writing a history of the origins and ancient development of business, and tried very hard never to use the term.

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