3.6 Development focused on the quality of life or casino capitalism and environmental disaster?

A sustainable economy is one focused on the quality of life; the unsustainable model is the casino that contemporary capitalism represents. The former uses qualitative measures of human well-being and environmental health; the latter, gross economic product (the aggregate of prices paid for goods and services) as its principal measure. 

Increases in such measures of gross economic product as gross domestic and gross national product (GDP and GNP) are popularly understood as "economic growth". However, these measures hide the negative effects on nature and human beings of an economic system that prioritizes profit maximization over human well-being and environmental health. They do so by combining both constructive and destructive effects of economic activity into a single measure. This kind of thinking and the system it masks will need to be changed and replaced if we are to adequately address the dual challenge we now face, that of just distribution and sustainable development. 

Curbing the political and economic power of large for-profit corporations is the decisive and necessary step towards building a society that is not only more fully democratic and just, but one that has any realistic possibility of establishing an enduring, mutually sustaining relationship between people and nature. Simply put, the longer term preservation of people and nature is incompatible with legal priority assigned to capital accumulation (especially stockholder value). Assigning priority to people and nature is the essential and revolutionary change that must be made if humanity is to long endure. 

Given these changes in societal goals, then the other kinds of corrective actions represented in this work have a reasonable chance of being effective. Together these changes (priority to nature and people over capital accumulation and economic growth) correspond to the recognition that the human-created economic system is a subsystem of the natural environment. Readers who want to get a thorough introduction to this perspective on economics can do so through Ecological Economics by Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley (2010, Island Press) and other work that Daly has authored or co-authored. A brief readable account of some of Daly's policy views (April 24, 2008, Sustainable Development Commission, UK) A Steady-State Economy: A failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternatives we face, can be found at http://steadystaterevolution.org/files/pdf/Daly_UK_Paper.pdf.

Already identified above are some key policy changes needed to defend and strengthen democracy. A strong democracy and an informed public are not only principal aims of progressives, they are the only adequate means to achieve knowledge-based, popularly-supported decisions and action on the serious social and environmental problems before us. 

Also identified previously is the principal obstacle to strengthening democracy and moving towards the alternative of a green social democracy. To repeat, the principal obstacle is extreme and growing income and wealth inequality. The decisive steps towards removing this obstacle are to break up and replace the engine that drives this menace, metaphorically described as Wall Street, and to redistribute income and wealth in the direction of increasing equality. The power of Wall Street can be reduced by first breaking up too-big-to-fail private-for-profit corporations, especially financial institutions, and transferring control of their capital to levels where capital is more likely to be used productively (mainly to community level public banks, small and medium family and cooperative businesses, and especially to the local units of formerly large corporations, with control of these latter exercised jointly by those who work in them and the communities in which they are located). Income and wealth policies would favor increasing equality, moving society in the direction of a green social democracy. Private property rights over the means of production would be replaced by giving stewardship rights and responsibilities to the working people making use of these means of production and the communities in which these means of production are located. The non-market economy, that part of the economy engaged in the provision of goods and services without charge to consumers, would be expanded at the expense of the market one, probably over a period of time. 

That brings us to the environment. Traditional practice and teaching of economics, particularly the more corrupted neoliberal economics advanced in recent decades at the demand and as a bequest of corporate power and wealth, treats environment as an inexhaustible source of raw materials, an infinite storehouse of waste and, formally, as an "externality", not encompassed by market prices. See Michael Perelman (2007, Palgrave Macmillan) The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From right-wing extremism and economic ideology to the next Great Depression for an account of the sordid intervention of corporate power in the academic teaching of economics in the United States. 

Science and our own experience informs us of a reality at variance with neoliberal economics. As a brief reminder: 

Earth is finite, even more so the biosphere, which life depends on. Little more than solar radiation arrives on Earth and little more than radiation ever leaves it. While the biosphere receives significant inputs from the Earth's interior over geologic time, for practical, everyday purposes, it is mainly a receiver of solar radiation from above and relatively smaller amounts of geothermal heat and some volcanic debris from below. 

Gaseous waste circulates through the biosphere. Dissolved waste can be carried away by flowing water. Non-biodegradable solid waste accumulates. The most readily available minerals have been taken first. The need for additional minerals has to be balanced with the need for agricultural land and locations where humans can live and work. The processes that sustain the ecosystems that all life depends on are affected, usually adversely, by the wastes from human economic activity. See Annie Leonard (2010, Free Press) The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health - And a Vision for Change and Lester R. Brown (2009, Earth Policy Institute and W.W. Norton & Co.) Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Our brief reviews of these books, including a summary of some of Leonard's main proposals, can be found at http://www.greensocialdemocracy.org/reviews/83-reviews/132-annie-leonard-s-story-of-stuff

Although environmental catastrophe has attended most if not all recorded societal failures in the past - see, for example, Jared Diamond (2005, Penguin Books, 575pp) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - as a species we have managed to survive, largely by shifting economic activity from the locations our economic activity has spoiled to new locations. These include formerly unusable areas that new technology has made usable. For the past two centuries, however, there has been practically nowhere new for us to move, at least not in large numbers. We have thus far survived an economic theory and corresponding practice based on a totally unscientific view of the relation between our economic systems and ecology. But there is not much room, if any, left for humanity to continue on this course. 

For an alternative view regarding the possibility of finding new places for capitalism to exploit when other parts of the Earth are destroyed and surviving to tell the tale, see Laurence C. Smith's argument in his (2010, Dutton) The World in 2050. Smith argues that global warming might mean a significant human migration towards the polar regions, particularly the Arctic, focussed on exploitation of the fossil fuel resources to be found there. The destruction of the planet and the untold human misery that would accompany the realization of Smith's prognosis are sufficient reason for an unprecedented environmental and social movement to avert or at least limit the consequences Smith portrays of a continuation of business as usual. 

What then are the primary tasks we need to accomplish if human life is to have an extended existence on Earth?

The contemporary approach of ecological economics to the problem of human impact on the environment focuses on the sustainable scale of economic activity. For that, the throughput of energy and matter in the economy needs to be limited. (See the work cited above by Daly and Farley, especially their concluding Part VI, p413-479.) 

Only in the context of a social policy commitment to limit the throughput of material in the economy to a sustainable scale is the familiar green aim of sustainable economic activity likely to be achieved. The practical obstacle to this achievement is the legal priority given to profit maximization. The corresponding ideological argument is for economic growth as measured, for example, by increases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The arguments that nature - and not a moribund capitalist system - poses a choice between employment and the preservation of nature or, what is equivalent, that the need for a healthy environment has to be "balanced" against the need for gainful employment must be exposed as the false dichotomies they are. Those alive today are here only because nature and our present use of it is providing for us. If it is going to do so in the future we must simultaneously begin reducing our demands on nature for material goods while distributing those we do produce in a more just fashion. A healthy natural environment is essential to human life. Capitalism is not. A just distribution of resources sufficient to provide for all in a sustainable natural environment is an achievable aim of green social democratic policy. Continued unfettered growth of capitalism is a death sentence to people and nature.

Cultural preparation for a green environmental policy offensive is ongoing and includes education for a just, sustainable society in a healthy natural environment and for recognition of the barriers – legal, institutional and cultural – to achieving this. As these barriers are removed, longstanding environmental policies like the following become more likely to be adopted and, when adopted, translated into practice: 

  • requirements to move in a timely fashion from dependency on fossil fuels to their replacement by renewable forms of energy, including the necessary changes in technology and infrastructure;
  • limitations placed on all material throughputs in the economy, dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other air-born pollutants, water-born pollutants, and solid wastes;
  • movement from deforestation to reforestation, land degradation to land restoration, soil erosion and impoverishment to soil protection and enrichment and wetland destruction to wetland restoration;
  • action to bring a halt to species extinction including maintenance and, where needed and possible, restoration to a healthy state of the ecosystems needed for maintaining species diversity;
  • reduction of material throughput and material waste, including requirements for durability of artefacts and recycling of used material, with priority attention to conserving nonrenewable materials.

Means of accomplishing these policy objectives might include financial incentives and disincentives, the latter including loss of business licenses and even criminal punishments for the most serious of deliberate violations. Specific responsibilities would pertain to extractors, producers, distributors and consumers, each responsible for the harm done at their respective stage. Even though there may be no objective means of determining the market cost of failures, there can still be a place for financial incentives and disincentives at each stage. Given competition to achieve the policy results specified by the people, a market economy modified in this way could function at the stages of extraction, production and distribution to reduce the environmental failures that occur before goods reach consumers. The same aim could be achieved within a non-market economy or the non-market sector of a mixed economy. 

The consumer would still be left with some responsibilities, for example, for properly dealing with biodegradable waste (recycled by nature) and for passing along some recyclable and reusable waste to the supplier of the original product (such as in the case of used electronic devices) and other recyclable and reusable waste (such as containers and packaging) to municipal services for processing. If moral incentives proved to be inadequate, then financial incentives and disincentives might also be applied to consumers. 

In addition to the practice of reducing, re-using and re-cycling materials, conservation efforts would, of course, also include encouraging, facilitating and when necessary requiring substitution of renewable materials and sources of energy for non-renewable ones.

More challenging than national and local laws and regulations, but essential in relation to the atmosphere and oceans that link all of us are binding, enforceable international agreements, including those that aim to dramatically reduce and ultimately eliminate significant greenhouse gas emissions. For this outcome, it will likely be necessary to move beyond capitalism everywhere, a lesson people are learning rapidly as the global environmental movement expands. 

If very little effective action is taken prior to the ascent of green social democratic governments, these governments, especially those that come to power for the first time in the major polluting nations, will have to undertake this task on an emergency basis. In effect, this would mean shortening the transition period to the new economy, hence the importance of prior success in bringing about as many changes towards green social democratic development of society as possible. Fortunately, some countries have already made significant strides and are committed to making further ones. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, as does their accumulation in the atmosphere and effects on the oceans and land surfaces. See, for example: http://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/07/13/analysis/these-missing-charts-may-change-way-you-think-about-fossil-fuel-addiction

Unstinting commitment and action on all the tasks listed above would not only address the major global environmental problems, wrestling them to the ground, it would – in the context of green social democratic governments, as we have defined them - provide jobs and purpose to all needing these, including replacing jobs lost in the industries based on fossil fuels. An attendant possible benefit might include reduced average hours of work necessary to achieve a high quality of life. The results would include as a more certain benefit greater overall security. 

Inevitably, ending dependency on fossil fuels and wasteful, destructive economic activity in general, also means wrestling to the ground all the powerful forces in society allied to the fossil fuel and other polluting industries. These include the entire cadre of economists and economic planners who promote GDP growth as the ultimate public policy. 

As proposed above, the most effective way of bringing about this change would likely be to include in business and professional charters the corresponding obligations to society for environmental and human welfare. If this fails, that is, if individuals or corporations break the conditions in their charters, they would forfeit their right to practice business or a profession. 

Taken together, the above actions should be a good start towards the environmental policy of green social democracy. 


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

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Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.