Are we confronted with a rather pleasant irony, that profit became the main motive behind saving our planet?
When my good friend Borjan Jovanovski contacted me with the idea to write a column on ecology, my first response was to decline, considering that my direct involvement with this area comes down to using different containers for different types of waste and reading levels of air pollution on a mobile app. Actually, what surprises me the most, I told him, is that ecology has been a heated topic for so long, and for just as long we haven’t seen any global progress towards a ‘greener society’. Does it not make sense that we all want to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat healthy food? Why are these things not a top priority everywhere? Hm, maybe this is a topic on which I have something to say after all. Zoom out – I tell myself – let’s look at the bigger picture.
What we usually call ecology is actually a branch of biology, but when we use it in layman’s terms, we are actually referring to ‘environmentalism’, the ‘social movement intending to influence political processes through lobbying, activism and education, with the purpose of protecting natural resources and ecosystems’. This movement started in the mid 19th century, when the industrial revolution made it obvious that new technologies are allowing us to significantly change as well as damage the environment. That is why serious ethical issues have taken center stage in public discourse, especially regarding finding balance between developing the economy and protecting the environment; questions that we don’t have (globally agreed) answers to to this day.
Accidentally or not, the beginnings of first ecological movements coincide with the rise of another side effect of the industrial revolution – capitalism, as the most widespread economic system. The widespread societal acceptance of the free market and its ‘invisible hand’ was no doubt one of the most important factors in accelerating economic growth and advancing our civilisation more generally in the 19th and 20th centuries. Clever and capable entrepreneurs invested in research and development, created better and better products and services, increasing the standard of living – for many people, everything was going for the better, and in a positive direction.
As the main motive of capital is profit, human insatiability comes to the social surface, stimulated through a consumerist view of success in the ‘modern world’, almost exclusively through the lens of money and profit. Alongside that, the great corporations phenomenon of the 20th century has led to a ‘depersonalisation’ of ownership. Growth and profit became almost the singular measures of corporate value and their sole goal – not considering their impact on the environment. Most owners are not informed on these topics, or simply are not interested. Of course, as ecological topics are becoming more and more important to the public, so are corporations including chapters on ‘sustainability’ in their goals – often considered ‘a necessary evil’, rather than a genuine need.
As well meaning as eco-activists are, and as persistent they are in solving ecological problems, they are (most often) treating the symptoms, rather than the basic, systemic problem – corporate greed.
This systemic issue can be solved in two ways – one is a ‘redo’ or a ‘refurbishing’ on the concept of capitalism. This, of course, will not happen any time soon. The second way is to make ‘green technologies’ profitable. This is more realistic and seems to be under way, starting from trends in the area of sustainable energy sources, to electric cars, or to new and efficient (nano)materials for different uses. It’d be a very pleasant irony, for profit to become the main motive behind saving our planet.