shopping trolley in empty car park

Should we replace capitalism?

Capitalism has generated goods and services that humans have ploughed into more humans. We love it and that might make it unstoppable. But all is not lost…

Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?

George Monbiot Dare to declare capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it

This is classic lefty namby-pamby that sets everyone up with an impossible choice. Give up all your good stuff because maybe if you don’t, there will not be enough to go around. 

Chaos either way. The real problem is that Monbiot is right, no pun intended. 

In his eloquent post, he suggests there are thinkers on their way to solutions to the choice, that there might be an alternative to wealth creation or wealth grabbing and the appalling politics that goes with both.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what those solutions might be. Classic.

The hints that Monbiot mentions are these

  • the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, 
  • Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics 
  • environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. 
  • the notion of ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’ and 
  • social justice on the principle that ‘every generation, everywhere, shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth’.

All of these are interesting, and each has potential. Some might even work, especially in combination, but any solutions will still have to overcome several fundamentals.

The size of the problem is daunting. 

NASDAQ share prices on mobile phone
Ever since money was decoupled from the gold standard it has become digital and its growth apparently unstoppable

There are 8 billion souls who all want more than they currently have, and most of them have no idea that meeting their needs has at least two huge effects on the finite pool of natural capital. 

Meeting human needs

  • uses resources 
  • creates externalities

Now we have known this for a long time and, for the most part, chosen to ignore them both because the reality is that capitalism has generated a heap of supply that humans have ploughed into more humans; biology and all.

It is easy to ignore the consequences of meeting human needs when one of them is more humans. That is a success for individuals who now have the joy of children and grandchildren and for a society that has more people paying taxes and buying goods and services from each other. Believe it or not, this is actually a political platform.

What is there not to like?

Challenging isn’t it?

Given the basic biology – all humans have demands and will convert supply into more humans – it is hard even to acknowledge that resources might be used up for even the bible tells us to ‘have dominion’

We are starting to acknowledge some of the externalities. 

Climate change has forced us to look at carbon emissions. Around the world, there are now laws against overt pollution from industrial processes, especially where they have a direct impact on human health. There is even some concern for the oceans that have been a dumping ground for so long, especially the effects of plastic waste.

Greater awareness is good and will put some enthusiasm into solutions to the consequences of our fixation with economic growth, but Monbiot is asking a bigger question. 

Do we stop capitalism?

Historically the answer has always been no.

All the past attempts to replace capitalism have either failed (soviet communism), morphed into something with capitalism in it (Chinese communism) or were never really able to scale (the kibbutz or commune). Instead, the world has become a business.

These attempts are more than a few ideologies not getting enough traction other than by force. 

It suggests humans actually like capitalism; in fact, they like it a lot, right down in the telomeres of their DNA. Making money (the modern equivalent of resource gathering) is innate in enough of us to make ‘do we stop’ the wrong question. 

It is likely that we cannot stop.

This realisation is embedded in the work of all the people George Monbiot quotes and, in our view, the reason why they are only ideals and not likely solutions. For example, even if you were able to persuade the majority of people that ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’ was the way of the future, there would always be a budding entrepreneur or syndicate boss figuring smart ways around it for personal gain.

So maybe we can’t stop capitalism even if we wanted to, except by force and that never ends well.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Tackle all the externalities first by putting their real cost on the private balance sheet. This will slow economic growth and opportunity, but it is essential, or the consequences will grind growth into the dust anyway.

The specifics of what to do about emission reduction, waste recovery, heavy metal pollution and a myriad of other consequences will appear as though by a miracle if businesses are forced to put actual costs into their budgets. We will be amazed by their ingenuity.

Generate awareness that we use natural capital and will need to continue to use natural capital or there will be chaos. Not only that, but we need to use it for a long time. 


Sorry for shouting, but this is the only way to avoid the worst of the pain. 

Let’s figure out what we have and how fast we are using it up and then we can be frugal where we must and find alternatives to the resources we just have to have.

Caring for natural capital is just what we came up with in a hurry. There are surely much better solutions that you can figure out.

If we can help you that would be great.

Please comment and add your own suggestions.

sustainably fed

Hero image modified from a photo by Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed