Home | About | Donate

You Can’t Put Capitalism Over Sustainability—and Other Lessons From China

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/08/20/you-cant-put-capitalism-over-sustainability-and-other-lessons-china

1 Like

We are 50/50 liberal VS conservative. How does that add up to working together, sharing, or any other mutual enterprise?

Great article. I once wrote to a mainland China paper that the country should be ashamed with the rise of billionaires, not proud, when tens of millions of rural people were still living on less than a dollar(USD) a day. And when its cities were choked with pollution and country streams and lakes devoid of fish and other marine life that had helped sustained peasant life for millennia. There has been some progress in recent years, but much remains to be done.

It’s good that the writer’s audience are now more willing to listen. Whether China would resolutely change course or not, however, is anyone’s guess. Neoliberalism isn’t easy to defeat, whether in the PRC or anywhere else, including the US.


It appears to me that China is in a constant mode of upgrade, creating modern infrastructure, and they sure as hell are beating us at the money game.
We are the sticks in the mud, relinquishing our democratic power to the oligarchy and ultimately to the growing fascist movement of a “New World Order.”


Except for Commondreams and a few other publications, there has been too much focus on personalities than on the need for systemic change. It’s like the habit of talking about “Kim something” or “Assad” or “Trump.” Or even of “Iran” or “Moscow” or “Beijing” or the “White House.” All that when real discussion should be on the world’s people, the actual lives they’re living.


"Among other things, these principles call on us to abandon the goal of increasing GDP through consumption in favor of growing the well-being of people and Earth by supporting culturally rich, low-consumption lifestyles."

  • from the article

For me, that is the key message, and one which individuals can act on at once ! I did - in 1998 ~

Since David Korten is an economist, I would like to hear his opinion on how to prevent the collapse of the world economy, or of any country’s economy, should GDP be replaced ? In effect, GDP would shrink - that means quarter after quarter of negative growth - depression, in simple terms.

The colossus of modern capitalism is built upon the lending of money, and as I understand it, growth is the only way to prevent collapse.

Perhaps I am wrong - which is why I would like to hear Korten on this, or Joseph Stiglitz, or Herman Daly, etc…

Could we go negative growth without collapse ?

PS: I’ve got to be clearer ~

As Korten alludes to in his article, we do not run a real economic system, but he never spells it out. I will try.

What we run is a ‘chrematistic’ system, from the Greek. It and the prime number in our lives, GDP, measures the flow of money, and takes virtually nothing else into account, such as the depletion of non-renewables, such as soil, minerals, fertilizers etc…, nor does it account for the effects of pollution of any kind, the health of indivduals or children, mental well being, sustainability, all the things that constitute a real economy, also from the Greek ‘oikonomia’.

Obama bailed out the banks and printed money, not because he likes bankers, because he was told in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t he wouldn’t have an economy at all.

People want jobs - its that simple - that why they vote conservative in large measure.

Destroy people’s ability to make a living and you will get insurrection.

Economists - come forth and tell me and the viewers here how this can be done if GDP goes negative ?

It is a tenet that a true test of a general or war leader is the management of a retreat.

Can we do this - manage this retreat - this complete about face ???

Don’t give me this pie in the sky crap unless you have got a plan - and if you have a damn plan - spell it out !

Korten has written some interesting things, but needs to take his ideas closer to their logical ends in this piece.

Centralization of wealth and power has been a raison d’etre for environmental destruction and derangement since humans discovered that they could make a commodity of dried grains and ship them with an army by feeding horses or oxen with the stalks.

Destructive behavior is driven by extraction of resources without return of surplus to the productive system. This constitutes failure to take care of land and not only constitutes the failure to take care of people, but the drive to subjugate them. To be clear, Russia and China both demonstrated that this could be done under nominal top-down communism. The West has demonstrated that it can be done at least as thoroughly under nominally humanist and nominally democratic capitalism.

But there’s more. Capitalism is a system ideologically and organizationally driven to assure extraction and the creation of externalities by manipulation of exchange markets and of status tokens of representative wealth.

Of course you cannot long put capitalism over sustainability, and you do so every time you put capitalism over regenerative use of land and people–basically, every time you go about creating externality, every time you go about extracting what you do not return. The upshot of this, though, is that you cannot have capitalism without putting capitalism over sustainability. Capitalism is what exists when decisions are driven by capital acquisition in direct opposition to human and environmental need, for the dominance of one human over the other.


Is the central problem capitalism - or the borrowing and lending of money ?

To me, capitalism in its pure form is simply a combining of resources - where one can’t - many can.

It does not necessitate either borrowing or lending, but rather the sharing of initial capital - and the concomitant sharing of risk should the venture fail.


well, in China’s defense they took hundreds of millions out of poverty and did that amazingly fast. And they are largely waging an economic campaign to achieve leadership, not a military one as the US is doing. And they have tried to limit population growth and religious zealotry, invested in high speed rail and renewable energy. The US government is doing the opposite of all that. So China seems closer to working on sustainability even if they have many billionaires.


I have no special copyright on the word, so you might supply a more elaborated definition. I do not mean to imply that you are using it improperly, only that yours is not mine and not the usage that I anticipated myself.

My puzzlement comes at least partly from these points:

  • Communism is also a combining of resources, so unless communism is a type of capitalism, capitalism is not just a combining of resources
  • Tribalism is a combining of resources, even with no currency or capital involved.
  • The phrase “initial capital,” suggests to me that you might intend to refer to corporations, but capitalism need not involve incorporation; it usually does, but this does not make the terms identical
  • Capitalism, in my experience, is not generally understood to require any sharing whatsoever, unless we are to include sales and rental as “sharing,” which is at least non-trivial.
  • I wonder by what measure one might suggest that risk is generally shared concurrently, though perhaps this is what makes actual capitalism impure. In practice, to externalize risk brings profits, and is in that sense rewarded by the system and laws.

Borrowing and lending are significant, especially when they can be done at interest, and the structure of these or of the understandings around money in general are not neutral. They are certainly possible in any system that involves currency unless they are forbidden, and even medieval usury laws did not go quite that far. Can I take it that a capitalism with a complete prohibition of lending could be regarded as pure, or is that another thing entirely?

Having read Mises and Friedman and others along those lines, I find that I still have no really coherent model of what a “pure” form of capitalism would be. It seems sort of like a pure conglomeration, but you are probably referring to something in the structure of the conglomerating. In conversations, some people seem to use this as suggesting a lack of social programs, and “free market” advocates seem to imagine that this means a relative absence of government or of “regulation.” And yet, if we take “regulation” as it is usually used colloquially, everything about currency and everything about ownership and everything about the market as opposed to the goods without the market is a matter of regulation.

Perhaps I can be clearer about what I am saying myself, so let me take a shot at that. Capitalism directs action by rewarding not the creation of wealth per se, but the accumulation of capital by profit.

These are grossly different. So if Mr. Peabody blows up Paradise to extract the coal as in the old Johnny Cash song, then sells the coal for more currency than it cost him to blow up the mountain and ship and market a resulting product, then he is rewarded by more capital, which allows him to command more resources and more readily influence their management. If, on the other hand, he decides that the hillsides and the watershed below should not be destroyed, he is not rewarded by capital, though perhaps he gains some good will or has a very nice day. He has more wealth in the sense that he is titled to something of greater value: the hillsides themselves as opposed to the money itself. But his capacity to direct further actions and further use of resources is thereby diminished because of the various ways that people respond to money.

In this way, supposedly “materialistic” profit-driven decisions regularly sacrifice palpable value in favor of a value-as-represented by money accounting, and as misrepresented by money accounting.

This is true of systems involving currency in general, but becomes truer as more decisions are determined by money count. Capitalism is a system by which decisions made by money count rather than in accordance with more palpable aspects of reality are rewarded with the understood right and capacity to make more decisions. In this way, the people most ready to sacrifice genuine value tend to be accorded leadership of the society as a whole.

This is a guarantee of destruction, and we are living in an enormously extended empirical demonstration of that. For the record, none of this means that people within a capitalist system may proceed without engaging capital and money and ownership as existing social mechanisms. But we ought to know what we are playing with while we do so.


yeah, well so what? we know what we want but we don’t have the power, or won’t use the power we have, to get it. the folks in hong kong get it. one thing they have going for them is they are all in the same spot. they can all act together. we’re scattered out. and with that our combined voices are scattered out and diminished.

with bolsonaro, brazil’s trump, destroying the amazon rain forest as fast as he can and i mean he’s moving fast, and donnie doing the same here and putin not giving a damn in russia and india overwhelmed with a hugely growing huge population, i tend to get an overwhelming sense of defeat.


Well, here’s to having a plan. I have one, though it is not particularly my own. As a disclaimer, it is also not complete. And there is nothing wrong with criticizing it on that basis (which I suppose is obvious). And I am no economist.

The trouble with any plan being complete is that some of the parts of implementation have to evolve. There’s no point in imagining without question some end point that can be decreed. And any transitional state will have to make use of current local laws and customs that will surely change in one way or another as things progress.

That said -----

We might not be able to “go negative growth” without a collapse. Collapse is usually relative, but probably something to be avoided anyway.

If we continue with what has been called growth to date, particularly growth as measured by things like GDP without reference to the conditions of actual productive systems, a crash large enough to put that system down is guaranteed (though it’s timing may be anybody’s guess). This is because we extract from the systems that support us and (mostly) do not return to these systems, so we exhaust them.

However, what supports human beings, just like any other creatures, is at base not an economy, but an ecology. That does not mean economy is unimportant. What we call economy is a massively artificial system, but also the primary one by which humans arrange how to divvy up spoils and assign responsibility for the distribution and use of resources. So no one is going to walk out and do everything that needs to be done without money, nor even without profit and all or at least most of the incumbent problems and iniquities. It has to be evolved through and out of, and quickly, but it cannot just be dropped.

At the same time, even the wealthy among us need this system to be replaced or displaced. The worst possible way to accomplish such a thing is by direct armed conflict (though it may be the one left us at some point). Even peaceful mass protest is a significantly disruptive method, though it is one that showed far greater success in at least the 20th Century, and its continuation right now in Hong Kong is of interest, since it is clear that both the disruptive protesters and the repressive state are evolving new methods.

Those who would create positive change must make the least possible intervention for the greatest possible results. That is why nonviolent protests have been more successful, altogether, than revolutions (see here the works of Gene Sharp). That will involve creating alternate systems within the larger international economy, responding to and taking care of the members of that economy, but supporting that international economy as little as possible.

This happens by taking care of basic necessities locally–not necessarily individually, but mostly in small groups when these can manage the task. So, we need water; we should retain water, conserve it, and use it. We need food. We should grow it, and local municipalities with green spaces should grow it.

This will involve confronting all the usual individual resistances to cooperation, but there’s not a lot of alternative to that. It will also involve confronting the large and entitled system that will strike hard against independence. And we will have political fights that derive from that.

But any implementations of broad social policy beyond baby first steps require the pre-existence of an alternate economy to sustain people during transition. This may include multiple currencies (see Bernard Lietaer). It must include a polycentric network of various sorts of social group in relatively open communication (see Elinor Ostrom, particularly Governing the Commons). It must include an extensive and decentralized regenerative agriculture (see particularly Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual). An interesting though probably early look at political implementation at a civic level, one that has seen considerable actual experimentation, is Rob Hopkins’ concept of transition towns (as described in The Transition Handbook).

In all events, the first steps require individuals and small groups creating abundance with decreasing reference to the global economy and its artificial scarcities, but with reference to global and local ecosystems, and their genuine nonmonetary wealth.

Wow - quite the reply - I was not expecting that- so thank you for the time and effort!

Yes, I agree - capitalism - it is a definitional thing, and of course, hard to come to any meaningful one, given the look and feel of what everyone pretty much calls capitalism, which we have all lived with all our lives, and includes the Federal Reserve in the States, central banks of various kinds elsewhere…

This system, the fuzzy capitalism - is a death machine, as some have perceived at least as far back as Alexander von Humboldt, and much more recently, since the MIT Club of Rome Report in 1972, "The Limits to Growth (LTG) is a 1972 report[1] on the computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources.[2].

So you are not an economist, and neither am I (geologist). You mention ecology -that rings - agree - that is the true base.

I was for 11 months a fully fledged stockbroker, just after the crash of 1987, and I ran my own business for years - a consulting firm specializing in field geology in the Canadian oilptch - simply - wellsite geology. I designed our accounting system from books I had used in University accounting and law classes. A small incorporated business - but very successful in its own way - we ‘invented’, or at least put into practice, specialized forms of sample collection and control drilling. I say this to give some perspective to my thoughts.

I read that “Limits to Growth” report when it came out - it has never left me - seared into my brain and being to this day, for I recognized, even at the age of 22, that I was reading the future - and a dystopian one at that.


Interesting observations - that capitalism as I think of it - would mean that communism, tribalism etc would qualify. Actually, I agree with that, because that is how I think of capitalism - simply a combining of resources, not including lending or borrowing, or possibly even money. This is of course not the conventional view when capitalism is used on this site or around the world.

The reason I differentiate is so as not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Being primarily an outdoorsman all my life, and a geologist as a means to that end in a part of my working life, and not at all interested in debate - I look only for solutions to our current predicament, and I see many of your ideas that I agree with.

But that baby and bathwater necessitates finding the real problem, and my question was whether it was the combing of resources or the present financial system, which has, to my way of thinking, nothing to do with either capitalism or economics in the true sense of those words, that is the real problem? They are presently conflated and intertwined - tools in the hand of financiers.

It is mystifyingly complicated - our present system - and so difficult to fix. Perhaps it cannot really be fixed, only tampered with.

One of the authors of that “Limits to Growth” believes that it is past fixing, and collapse of some sort is inevitable. History suggests this also.

So this is the time to separate baby and bathwater - so that post collapse we have some idea of where the real problem was. And I agree with you also that no complete plan is possible - it will emerge and evolve as circumstance and chance allows.

But my hunch is that it is the financial system, with its emphasis on borrowing and lending, usury in fact - and the accumulation of capital by this means - basically ‘you work and I’ll accumulate the vasy majority of the proceeds’ - that is the real problem.

Abe said it far more clearly than me, so I’ll hazard a quote of his:

"It has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have , without labour , enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue."

I suppose this discussion will not clear up things, but I have enjoyed a few new insights, so I will end here, and say Ciao !

PS: OK - maybe one more thought.

If we go with my unique definition of capitalism - then as tribes and such, we have always been capitalists.

But we have not always been financiers, now have we ?


We are overwhelmingly progressive. Solar and wind power and government help for them, universal health care, living wage, free or affordable education, ecological protections and climate action, and most other progressive goals are desired by 70, 80, 90% of people in the US. Only by deception, manipulation, coercion, and the application of massive amounts of money do the rich and the right maintain control–through the SlowCoup:

  1. Small-state bias in the Senate…
  2. …in the House,
  3. …in the Electoral College,
  4. Post-1964 reorganized right,
  5. Propaganda/lobbying network,
  6. Gerrymandering,
  7. Voter suppression,
  8. Intimidation and containment,
  9. Census manipulation,
  10. The corporate duopoly party and its
  11. Lesser Evil Gambit,
  12. Six major conservatizing institutions,
  13. Interchangeability of money and power in our society,
  14. Empowerment of rent-seeking monopolistic corporations and industries,
  15. Domination of media by the wealthy right wing,
  16. Domination of politics by the rich and the right,
  17. Pervasiveness and profitability of fossil fuels,
  18. Accumulation of pressure on oligarchy, nature, progressive institutions, and our psyche,
  19. The oligarchy’s overreaction and
  20. Rejection of a progressive future,
  21. The illusory comfort of autocracy in emergencies,
  22. Psycho-industrial complexes,
  23. Civilization’s dysfunction,
  24. Koch Constitutional convention.
    Earlier, incomplete but annotated version:


Yes, clearly there is a baby to not be thrown out with the bathwater. And I do not mean that goods and services are not to be exchanged nor that an accounting need take place in some way.

The system–existing social economic system–is self-directing and complex, much as an ecosystem is. So anything that we can call the problem is apt to involve relations between a lot of parts. Of course, the sorts of things we are talking about do.

I think that means we have to concentrate on things that we can put together fairly readily, to work with people we can empathize with and agree with to some point.

We have always exchanged, and it is not the same to be a financier.

  1. Small-state bias in the Senate…
  2. …in the House,
  3. …in the Electoral College,
    I have sometimes thought of giving statehood to some City Metropolitan areas, At least statehood for New York City and Los Angeles.

The TARP was a Bush and Chaney Project. Obama’s failure was in not prosecuting Wall Street.


Yes - I have enjoyed our ‘exchange’ !

Ciao ~

Well, please do. As long as you’re at it, why not do it right? There are 33 cities in the US with more people than Wyoming, smallest of which is Milwaukee, and even neighborhoods bigger than that state. 4 NYC boroughs, eg. including Brooklyn equal to about 4 Wyomings. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/

Would you please statify therm, too?

Or we could give each representative and senator proportional voting power.

I never hear anyone discuss China and how their booming economy and growing GDP happened so fast.

My era of Vietnam was supposedly fought to stop the spread of communism around the world and hundreds of thousands died to keep communism at bay. Are they rolling in their graves?

How big of help was multinational corporations from the US building manufacturing facilities and hiring slave labor and giving up their intellectual properties created that boom in China? Leaving the American worker displaced and many incapable of recovering. We leave ourselves insecure in providing the necessary parts and products to manufacture most of our needs. Think car parts, airplane part, airplanes, and…et al.

We are dependent on the Asian markets/China. Hardly makes me feel secure but the richest 10% of Ameicans think they will be fine?