Sustainable Development: Can Capitalism Adapt?


Money runs the world. What we can afford to buy and do is determined by our wages, and what goods and services cost is determined by how cheaply they can be produced, because the cheaper a good or service is, generally, the more people are willing to buy it, which means more revenue for the company that produces it. In a capitalist economy, the price is determined by the production costs of the goods and the wages for the workers that produce it – how much can be supplied for a certain amount of money – and how much demand there is for it. These are all measurable things. Measuring the cost of ecosystem services such as clean air, water, and pollination is not as easy.

The capitalist system that dominates the global economy is also a linear model with a beginning, where resources are extracted from the earth, and an end, where products that have reached their “end of life” become waste in landfills. Conventional capitalism demands limitless resources, but we live on a planet with limited resources. The math does not come together – we need to change our economic system to live sustainably.


The conventional capitalist economy is not complex enough to consider the costs of climate change or the value of ecosystem services. These contain factors that are impossible to put an exact economic price on with today’s methods and models. To paint a picture of the complexity of valuing ecosystem services, it is best to use an example, and one commonly used is pollination. It is an ecosystem service that is not only essential for food security for us humans, but for all land-living organisms. Pollinating insects can practically be put in the center of the ecological network, as almost all plants depend on pollinators. Herbivores rely on the existence of plants, and carnivores and omnivores, including us humans, rely on the existence of herbivores and, in effect, plants. There are even new findings that suggest pollination exists in marine environments, however, it is too soon to tell if these systems are also under threat due to human activity. To find an accurate price for pollination, one would have to consider all these aspects and all that it entails – virtually all life on land – which is impossible. However, it is also possible to estimate the price of ecosystem services, such as pollination, by studying what it would cost to sustain the ecosystem service if it were done through human or human-made means. It can be argued that such a valuation can be seen as immoral, as that price would, in some sense, represent how much life is worth, which arguably is invaluable. In the case of pollination, as with many other ecosystem services, it is far too costly and time-consuming for humans to take the place as pollinators.

Photo by Rob on Unsplash


Capitalism only works when people continue to consume When capitalism became widespread, the effects of a linear consumption model on the environment or natural resources were not considered. There was no thought about reusing materials. Why would there have been? There was no issue with diminishing resources during the industrialisation. But now we see that essential resources, such as oil and rare earth elements (different kinds of rare metals used in our daily technological devices, cars, and other technology), are becoming more challenging to get to: they are diminishing. For the simple reason that capitalism and consumerism were built on a linear model, the transition to a circular model – a circular economy – may be difficult and take a long time to attain. Already established production models are often cheaper than newly created ones, and if not, they are what people are used to. It is much simpler to continue doing something you already know than to adapt to something new and unfamiliar.


The established production models, where recycling and reusing in most cases are not incorporated or have just started to come into place, use technology that has been incorporated and adapted into how our society works. They have been changed and tweaked to become more effective and cheaper over a very long period. New or existing technologies must be applied and adapted to work in new areas to recycle and reuse materials from ‘waste’. Still, the costs will be higher since these will be new technologies and new applications. That becomes an issue when it is put in the context of capitalism, which favours efficient and cost-effective technologies – the already established technologies and their usages. How our economy works is a significant hurdle in transitioning to a more sustainable society.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash


For us to be able to make the necessary changes to live sustainably, we must rethink our economic system. That may be to replace it with a different one or to make adjustments to the capitalistic system so that it incorporates the costs of environmental damage and does not jeopardise the health and well-being of future generations. That is not to say that having a linear production and consumption model where ecosystem services are not considered are the only problems with capitalism from a sustainable point of view; there are several other problems with it. Neither is it to say that capitalism is all bad. Capitalism generates competition, and competition inspires innovation and development to gain the market’s upper hand. This is especially true when facing an enormous problem that needs to be solved – like climate change – because it opens up space for creating solutions that can be used for revenue. It is all about the chance to come up with the next effective invention that has the potential to solve that problem. But technological innovation and development are only a small part. The next step is to apply it in a societal and political context. New inventions will be useless if they can not be adopted into society, and the one we live in now favours the methods that have always been used. Thus, our economic and social system need to change to achieve a sustainable way of living and using the earth’s resources.

Natalia Olsson Orio
Staff Writer