Public opinion polls indicate a decreasing concern regarding environmental issues over economic and social issues from the early 1970s to present. One poll indicates that, in 2012, only 29 percent of Americans believe it is very important to restore and enhance the national environment. This is down from 63 percent in 1971 who felt a similar way.
This change is noticed prior to the discovery that the average amount of carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere is approximately 400 parts per million, a quantity unknown to Earth while humans have been in existence. It has been determined that the primary reason for this is a result of human activity through the massive and unbridled consumption of our natural resources.
The problem of over-consumption is not an issue unique to capitalism, but it does not change the fact that humans have always needed to live within the confines and the limits of the natural environment. To ignore this point means a real risk of civilization collapse, which we note of Easter Island.
Despite the varied history of human resource use, our current economic system encourages and thrives on the consumption of our natural resources. This, combined with population growth, has created a major burden on our natural environment.
Because capitalism depends on consumption, environmental conservation and preservation is a hotly debated political issue. Consumption, as we know it, means there will be fewer natural resources for humans to use to live. With fewer resources available, competition for these resources will increase. As this competition increases, the result will be greater inequality and restrictions to freedoms because we are not stewarding the environment responsibly.
When we consume too much, our individual and societal liberties will begin to erode in a fundamentally different way. With peak oil past and peak coal on the horizon, costs will rise, competition will divide, and civil liberties will be usurped.
Capitalism, in current theory, does not take into consideration preserving and sustaining the natural environment because its driving force is on consumption. In fact, none of the economic "-isms" (capitalism, communism, socialism) presently has a focus on protecting and conserving the environment.
It is important for us, as innovative Americans, to alter our current economic system that gives a real chance for the natural environment to be conserved and protected, ensuring individual freedoms and community perpetuation. Perhaps the debate regarding pollution permits and carbon credits will create a paradigm shift in how we view the environment and what we would like to achieve with being a free people.
Even better, maybe it will intensify the dialogue with respect to addressing the combination economic, environmental, and social concerns.
Nichlas Emmons teaches in the Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University.