Climate change activism took to the streets this week – traffic chaos in London and Edinburgh, transport disrupted, street demonstrations and police arrests.
Supporters of Extinction Rebellion set out to disrupt “business as usual” and highlight the “climate and ecological catastrophe unfolding across the globe”. Scotland saw some 30 arrests and in London up to 500,000 people were affected by the diversion of 55 bus routes.
More is likely to follow. Prominent among the protestors was an organisation called the Green Anti-Capitalist Front. It accuses capitalism of “killing the Earth ... Without the imposed scarcity of capitalism and the alienation and isolation it causes,“ its leaflet claimed, “we would be able to build communities which fulfil everybody’s needs while reducing our environmental impact to a manageable level”. The choice, it concluded, was between “a future where we can flourish, or a capitalist-induced hellscape awaiting us if we do nothing”.
Not all the demonstrators might go all the way with Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s declaration that “we have to overthrow this system which is eating the planet with perpetual growth”. But I suspect the sentiment is widely shared by those glueing themselves to lorries and blocking the streets of our major cities: ‘Capitalism’ is the enemy of climate action and sustainability and it is only through government intervention that change can be made.
It is a view that is as poorly informed as it is self-defeating, for it is the opposite that is more true. It is ‘capitalism’ – the system driven by the choices and actions of millions of consumers and producers – that is the most effective means of delivering change and improvement. To this extent, climate change activism and campaigns for sustainability are part and parcel of capitalist progression, the means by which consumers – and increasingly investors – are compelling changes in consumer choice and corporate behaviour. And it is through this process of reform and adaptation that our best prospects lie.
Already there is an irreversible swing away from fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources from wind farms to solar panels are a growing feature of modern life. There is a constant drive for technological gain and improvement. Our homes are better and more efficiently powered and built. Petrol-driven vehicles are under challenge from the electric car on which billions of pounds have been invested. Emission standards have improved massively from 30 years ago. And in innumerable areas of consumer behaviour we are making wiser and more informed choices – from food to household products, toiletries to clothing.
Of course, we can despair that we could be doing better; that the pace of lifestyle change is not faster, that bad habits persist. But that is all the more reason why the forces driving change should not lose heart and should redouble their efforts.
Nor is pressure for environmental protection and sustainability coming from consumers alone. A growing number of institutional shareholders are making commitment to sustainability a key requirement for the companies in which they invest. Earlier this week, Legal & General Investment Management, the largest money manager in the UK with £1 trillion worth of pension fund money, warned that the world is facing a climate catastrophe and businesses around the world must address it urgently or face the ultimate sanction for a public company – investor boycott.
Its climate warning was the top of a list of concerns about the way companies are run. And here it is not alone. The fund managers who are pulling their investments out of fossil fuels include the World Council of Churches, the Rockefeller family and insurance giants AXA and Allianz. Collectively their portfolios are said to total about £7 trillion and they will increasingly influence firms with discretion over their use of fossil fuels. Many other investment management companies have also adopted environmental sustainability metrics while others have launched specific ‘sustainability’ funds.
In all this, government has a role in setting standards and adopting tax policies that encourage companies to innovate and adapt. But it cannot be left to government alone, or for activists to assume that government ownership and control will assure a cleaner, safer environment. We surely learnt that lesson with Chernobyl and the industrial devastation exposed in eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain came down. And we are learning it again with China, where the pursuit of growth has wrought far more environmental damage than that which Monbiot and others have accused the West. ‘Capitalism’ is not the enemy of climate change activism – rather the means by which it can drive forward that constant need for innovation, adaptation and life improvement.