Throwing stones in the capitalist glasshouse (with some disturbing data)

It is often said that the problems of modern life are due to the greed of capitalists—they are the ones who dig up the minerals and oil from the ground to make a profit; they are the ones who destroy the environment quite happily if it makes them a profit and they can get away with it; and it is the greed of capitalists which has people around the world working for very little gain, in sweat-shops and in poor conditions, so they can make more profit.

Behaviour analysts and many others know that naming a characteristic of a person as ‘greed’ is not useful as an explanation, even if in real terms it fits perfectly.  As a derogatory term it might be useful to get them to look further into their own contexts, but it does not explain anything (like calling someone a ‘racist’ is satisfying but not useful for changing what goes on).  We always need to look further into the contexts to understand how this all works.

Digging into the contexts is also useful to help us see the interface between individual actions and the bigger societal stuff.   They are not separate ‘levels of analysis’ or worlds, they are both always present and are merely different ways of naming a single aspect of what we observe without the rest of the context.    For the current example, here are three ideas for rethinking, and I will then say more about the third one and with some data:

  • capitalists are not inherently greedy; they are in a context (thanks to their money or that of their parents) of being able to be greedy; we might do the same if we were in that context
  • without the whole capitalist system to allow them to make profits they could not be greedy, so any individual greed arises from being in that bigger system (which needs changing)
  • capitalists only make profit if they can sell; but selling needs demand and buyers, who are therefore also implicated in the capitalist system disasters

This last point is extremely important for contextual analysis of the world’s problems and for solutions.  It is important because it implicates most of us in the greed of the capitalist system, not just the capitalists themselves.  In future, every time you call a capitalist greedy you need to seek out the contexts for the demand by which they are able to be greedy.

I came across several writings saying that the ‘greed’ of the capitalists was to blame for various social and ecological disasters.  That the oil pipeline they are trying to push through the Dakotas presently arises from the greed of the oil companies, for example.  And the ‘greed’ of the owners caused the miners to die from a mine collapse in another part of the world.

Looking at this contextually, the capitalists running the show are certainly implicated in blame—I am not saying they are not.  But from the third bullet point above we can also point a finger at most of us, because all those profits are coming from people who are demanding resources, and this allows the capitalists to take advantage and make their profits (I’ll leave aside here the ‘marketing and ethics’ aspects).

Some data

To make this more real, I went back to a really important but disturbing book about how the large western economies are all rapidly trying to buy up the last remaining deposits of minerals and resources from the earth: Michael T. Klare (2011). The race for what’s left: The global scramble for the world’s last resources.  I went through the whole book and the index and listed all the important minerals, rare elements and energy sources taken from the earth, and then alongside this I wrote their uses.  What do they end up being used to make?  And who uses this stuff?

If you look down the second column of the Table given below you can see lots of the things in modern life which we all happily use, and which, indeed, we all demand.  The obvious constituent materials we all know about are oil, coal, iron, etc.  But there are many we have never heard of which are also being ruthlessly and greedily purchased and mined around the world by the major western countries, but which are all necessary for the things we ‘need’ in our everyday lives.

Read through, it is scary.  For example, the oil pipelines being ruthlessly pushed through the Dakotas is partly happening because there is such a demand by everyone for oil.  By everyone!  That includes you and me.

Other scary examples include the number of rare elements being sought (and fought over) to use for electric hybrid cars and their batteries, which are supposed to be eco-friendly!  And so many rare elements are ‘needed’ for computers and mobile phones.  An important material tantalum is used for special steels, nuclear reactors, jet engines, automotive electronics, miniature capacitors, pagers, computers, and mobile phones, but only comes from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.  So nations are trying to be friendly towards the DRC to get hold of tantalum.  Even worse, Klare documents how, not coincidentally, Afghanistan has some of the largest remaining deposits in the world of aluminium, copper, gold, lead, lithium, niobium, osmium, tungsten and zinc.  It is not just oil that is being fought for over there.  There is a demand for all these other minerals so nations are trying to gain control of the deposits one way or another.

The point of all this is firstly, to show that we are all implicated in this, and cannot just blame the greedy capitalist alone.  But the most important point of this is not to accuse or lay blame.  The important thing is to look for solutions.  For all the conflicts and problems in the world we can certainly try and restrict the capitalist system and the capitalists’ greed, especially come the revolution.

But we can also go back to a really old strategy from Buddhism, the Puritans, the early Christians, the Quakers, and many others: reduce our ‘need’ for things.  We are part of the problem and can provide part of the solution.

Buddhism is perhaps correct, then, that the root of suffering is desire.  Sure capitalists exploit our desires, and inflame them with marketing, but their greed itself is driven by most of us wanting all these things in column two.  Learning once again to reduce and restrict our ‘needs’ and ‘desires’ for things will also help in the survival of the planet.  And working together we can start that right now–even before the revolution overthrows capitalism, if it does at all.

aluminium/ bauxite Throughout industry and building
antimony High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
beryllium High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
cerium High-tech applications, lens polishers
chromium Stainless steel
coal Power from burning
cobalt High-strength alloys, special industrial functions, arms manufacture, batteries for hybrid cars, buildings
copper Buildings, electrical wiring, roofing, plumbing
dysprosium High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics
erbium Metal alloys
europium High-tech applications, energy-efficient lightbulbs, fibre optics
fluorspar High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
gadolinium Neutron radiography
gallium High-speed semiconductors, LEDs, photovoltaic solar cells, lasers
germanium High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
gold Jewellery, investments, corrosion resistant electrical connectors, computers, infrared shielding, coloured-glass, gold leafing, tooth restoration
graphite High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
holmium Glass tinting
indium Flat panel displays (indium tin oxide), infrared detectors, high-speed semiconductors, photovoltaic solar cells
iridium Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices
iron Steel, arms manufacture
lanthanum High-tech applications, hydro-electric motors, electric car batteries
lead Building construction, lead–acid batteries, bullets and shot, weights, solders, pewters, fusible alloys, radiation shielding
lithium Wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries for hybrid-electric cars, glass
lutetium Metal alloys, catalyst radionuclide therapy
magnesium High-strength alloys, special industrial functions, corrosion-resistant steels
manganese Steel making, stainless steel, aluminium alloys, buildings
molybdenum High-strength steel
natural gas Power for electricity
neodymium High-tech applications, high-strength magnets, hybrids electric motors, portable electronics
nickel Arms manufacture, batteries for hybrid cars, steel alloys
niobium/ columbium Special steels, used for oil and gas pipelines, superconducting alloys
oil Power
osmium Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits
palladium Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits
platinum Cars, hydrogen fuel cells, jewellery, catalytic converters, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits
praseodymium Searchlights, aircraft, portable electronics
promethium X-ray units
rhodium Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits
ruthenium Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits
samarium Glass manufacturing, high-strength magnets
scandium Aluminium alloys, semiconductors, stadium lights
silver Currency, solar panels, water filtration, jewellery, electrical contacts and conductors, specialized mirrors, window coatings, and in catalysis of chemical reactions, photographic film, X-rays.
tantalum Special steels, nuclear reactors, jet engines, automotive electronics, miniature capacitors, pagers, computers, mobile phones
terbium High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics
thulium Lasers
tin Homes, cars, kitchen appliances, computers, televisions, air conditioners
titanium Planes, space ships, armour, arms manufacture
tungsten High-strength alloys, special industrial functions
uranium Nuclear energy
vanadium High-strength steel, corrosion-resistant steels
ytterbium Stainless steel
yttrium Lasers, fibre optics, energy-efficient lightbulbs
zinc Corrosion-resistant plating, brass, batteries

 

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