Putting profits before people is nothing new. It is part of this late-stage capitalist model the world follows: Far too many corporations turn a blind eye to the consequences of their destructive, exploitative practices in search of improved profit margins and shareholder value. But it has clearly gone too far when our planet is on the brink of environmental collapse. Simply put, it must end.
A new UN report is set to reveal that up to 1m species face extinction because of human actions.
Glaciers are melting and causing sea levels to rise faster than scientists’ predictions. Species are dying off at a pace that has led scientists to conclude that the earth’s sixth mass extinction is already underway. More than 28,000 people are dying because of polluted air each year in Britain. Nature is being destroyed at a rate of tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report. The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.
What will this mean for us? Freshwater shortages, climate instability and a potential 23% reduction in the productivity of global land – meaning potential food shortages. Yes, it’s that serious.
The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide, – Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Ibpes).
While the blame cannot squarely lie at the door of oil and gas companies, they must shoulder their portion of criticism for the part they play. The largest five stock market listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m (£153m) a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change, according to reports. One recent study found that worldwide fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $4.9tn in 2013. It estimated that eliminating those subsidies would have cut global carbon emissions by 21% and air pollution deaths by over half.
On the other hand, companies hoping to build new wind farms, solar plants and tidal lagoons, have been dealt a blow after the UK government said there would be no new subsidies for clean power projects until 2025 at the earliest. The government also announced that until 2025 it was freezing a carbon tax on dirty energy generators. But of course, this likely has nothing to do with all the money spent on lobbying by the big oil and gas companies.
Under capitalism, new technology is only used, and funded and subsidised, if it is profitable to do so. Saving the planet is not profitable in a financial sense.
Not only are these big companies resisting climate change action and disrupting those who want to make a difference, but ExxonMobil also plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. Even modest growth within the sector could have serious repercussions for the environment. According to an assessment by the IPCC, an intergovernmental climate-science body, oil and gas production needs to fall by about 20% by 2030 and by about 55% by 2050, in order to stop the Earth’s temperature rising by more than 1.5°C above its pre-industrial level.
What is their interest in climate change initiatives being passed, and progress being made in the field of renewable energy? Money. It all boils down to money. The health of the planet, and its inhabitants, comes second to profit and value for shareholders.
That brings us on to the newest trend in gas extraction. Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” is a technique to extract natural gas from harder to access unconventional sources trapped in rock formations such as shale gas, coal bed methane and tight gas.
Fracking in the UK has triggered many small earthquakes. Leakage of natural gas from drilling and pipework means more methane is entering the atmosphere. Fracking operations deplete water sources and have been known to contaminate groundwater with methane and undisclosed chemicals.
This again shows that companies are guilty of short term thinking, of massaging profits and shareholder returns. Everything seems to be about the bottom line and the minimum standard that they can get away with.
The purpose of a company is to serve its customers. Its obligation is to not harm everyone else. And its opportunity is to enrich the lives of its employees. Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that maximizing investor return was the point. It shouldn’t be. – Seth Godin (American author and former dot com business executive)
And it’s not just the environment that is affected by the practices of profit over people.
Lest we forget the events of 14th June 2017. Grenfell tower block, in Kensington, was destroyed by what should have been a controllable fire. The tower block should have been fitted with a sprinkler system, instead, it was fitted with cladding around the exterior so it would look more appealing to the residents of surrounding luxury housing. It is rumoured that cost was a significant factor and that the material that was used might not have been the most flame-retardant. This was an exercise in keeping the cost of a refurbishment as minimal as possible to maximise profits. An entirely preventable event and tragic loss of life, one which is unforgivable.
Our current form of capitalism is failing to produce an increasing standard of living for most of its citizens. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing at an alarming rate. The ratio of CEO-to-worker pay has increased 1,000 per cent since 1950, according to data from Bloomberg.
The UK had the weakest wage growth of any G7 country over the past decade, according to the OECD, despite eight years of economic growth and strong employment. People have seen a real decline in living standards, with many now relying on foodbanks to survive.
Companies are laying off employees and driving down working conditions when profits have never been higher. If you can’t take care of your employees in the midst of record profits, how should your team expect to be treated when times get tough?
Surprisingly enough, when you pay your staff less and less in real terms they have less to spend on other services and commodities in the economy, meaning companies look to cut costs even more to maximise profit – hence why the race to the bottom is well underway.
This has not been aided by rising house prices. The goal of producing homes under our current model of free market capitalism is not to house more people, but to make the most money for the people who own and build houses — meaning a practice of leaving some completely built homes empty to raise the price has been all too common, and it is in the companies interest to build as few houses as they can, meaning supply and demand dictates they can make more money per house. Profit over people.
The next industrial revolution is really kicking into motion. Some 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Elon Musk, of Tesla, has stated he believes that 50% of jobs could be lost by 2030. This means even more money will end up in the pockets of big companies, CEO’s, and shareholders unless action is taken to redistribute the wealth amongst the displaced workers. This is where Universal Basic Income may become necessary – a topic that requires it’s own article to explore it fully.
If we continue with our current direction, the outlook is bleak – for both humanity and all other life on our planet.
Whether it be big oil companies disrupting positive actions in the face of climate change, giant pharmaceutical companies jacking up prices on a number of critical prescription drugs, companies exploiting slave labour in Africa and Asia, or a company re-cladding a building for aesthetic purposes for the benefit of rich property owners in the area and using the cheapest means possible, we deserve much better.
Yes, we can all stop using single-use plastics, recycle more, stop eating as much meat: and these actions will make a difference. But a major systemic change of, or within, the dominant economic model the world follows is necessary to really turn the tide. UK Parliament has now declared a Climate Emergency – but what use is this is serious action is not taken?
Capitalism is driven by the endless pursuit of profit, and that’s the stumbling block we must cross to save the planet we inhabit. Instead of having our humanity subverted to serve the marketplace, capitalism has to either be made to serve human ends and goals, or it has to be toppled.
We cannot continue failing some of the most vulnerable people, and the planet upon which we depend upon for survival, in exchange for maximising profits. Something must change in our approach – our planet and livelihoods are on the line.