Can Capitalism Coexist With the Environment?

Can Capitalism Coexist With the Environment
by Desiree Leigh, Wake Up to Live

Industrial capitalism stimulated economic growth by way of trade and a global mass market based on mass production.  With the rise of the industrial revolution, slavery and serfdom were uprooted and the lower social class could now earn wages and own property.  Fluidity between classes became apparent.  Thus, capitalism brought benefits such as freedom of choice, a competitive market, private ownership, and economic and political independence.  Nonetheless, can a capitalist system coexist with the environment?  Capitalism brought “domination and exploitation” (Parkinson & Drislane, 2011, p.163) over the working class, conglomerate control of industry, and destruction to the ecological system.  The major concerns of a capitalist system in relationship with the environment is the attitude of maximizing corporate capital at all costs, even at the expense of abolishing the environment by way of industrial pollution, such as toxic chemicals, sacrificing public health, and the free trade agreement.   

With the growth and expansion of technology and production by way of a capitalist system, an abundance of toxic waste products began to accumulate from various corporate industries; and, in order to maintain a profit, the industrial corporations needed to dispose the toxic materials with minimal expenses.  Oil, gas, uranium ore mining, and steelmaking industries created massive levels of toxic chemical wastes.  Thus, toxic dump sites were established in many rural Northern communities across Canada, as well as other areas, with negligence to the occupants, lake water, soil absorption, and air quality.  For example, the Inuit communities of the Northwest Territories were “exposed to excessive radiation from uranium ore” from the nearly “two million tons of radioactive [material] dumped into the Great Bear Lake” without the federal Crown corporation warning individuals about the dangers of being exposed to the toxic chemicals (Brym, 2008, p.286). As Barlow and May stated, it was not only careless, it was a criminal act (p.286).  Individuals living in toxic waste dump sites suffered with health problems and many died from tuberculosis and cancer (p.286).  Human lives, animals, fisheries, and the ecological system were destroyed in doing what was ‘right’ for the corporation: maximizing corporate profits at all costs by minimizing expenses and allowing the Inuits the suffer from the Crown corporations consequences!   

Because there is great pressure placed on the government by corporate lobbyists to do what is right for the corporation, and so that the corporation does not suffer from any financial ramifications, the government submits to the pressure.  The lax government authority for the safety of the environment and human welfare seems to imply that Canada takes a backseat “treat[ing] toxic chemicals as though they have constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty” (p.290).  Even when the government took action to ban a toxic chemical called MMT, they found themselves in a predicament when a U.S. based corporation lost profits and held Canada accountable.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signifies a capitalist system to its fullest rank that maximizes profits for the sacrifice of human health and the environment. 

“[U]nder provisions of Chapter II of NAFTA, companies from one of the three NAFTA countries [Canada, USA, Mexico] who lose profits based on a regulatory decision in one of the other countries can sue the government for damages” (p.291).  

A case in point was Ethyl Corp, which sued Canada for “damages in the amount of $350 million” (p.291) when the Canadian government took action to ban MMT.  To add, in the court proceedings Ethyl Corp.'s Canadian lawyer Barry Appleton said, "it wouldn't matter if a substance was liquid plutonium destined for a child's breakfast cereal.  If the government bans a product and a U.S.-based company loses profits, the company can claim damages under NAFTA" (p.291).
In summary, for a healthy relationship to coexist between capitalism and the environment, reform must take place to regulate pollution and implement laws, which neither government nor corporations can overpass, that protect the environment and mankind.  Awareness of the present danger of toxic chemicals needs to be a united and global issue.  Nonetheless, once the capitalist clutches the taste of wealth, power, exploitation, and control, how do they slow down the ravenous?  Whether it is the capitalist system itself or the lax in governmental laws in free trade and pollution regulations, our environmental health is in danger. 

Brym, R. J. (2008). Industrial Pollution in Canada. Society in Question (5th ed.). (pp. 285-292). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education Limited.

Parkinson and Drislane. (2011). The Canadian Economy and New Forms of Work. Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology (2nd ed.). (pp. 181-189). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education Limited.


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