Barry Commoner: Capitalism versus the environment

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[Quotes & Insights #14]

In the last thirty years many thousands of production decisions have been made in the United States. They have determined that automobiles shall be large and sufficiently powerful to travel at a rate of 100 mph; that electricity shall be produced by nuclear power plants; that we shall wear synthetic materials instead of cotton and wool, and wash them in detergent rather than soap; that baseball shall be played on plastic rather than grass; that the beneficent energy of sunlight shall go largely unused.

In every case, the decision was made according to the “bottom line” – the expectation of an acceptable profit. More precisely, as we have seen from the behaviour of U.S. oil companies, such decisions are based on the marginal difference between existing rates of profit and hoped-for, larger ones.

It would have been a fantastically improbable statistical accident if most or even a small fraction of these thousands of decisions, made on the basis of a hoped for marginal increase in profit, happened neatly to fit into the pattern of a rational, thermodynamically sound energy system.

Such an energy system is a social need, and it is hopeless to expect to build it on the basis of production decisions that yield commodities rather than the solutions to essential tasks; that produce goods which are maximally profitable rather than maximally useful; that accept as their final test private profit rather than social value.

Thus, the energy crisis and the web of inter-related problems confront us with the need to explore the possibility of creating a production system that is consciously intended to serve social needs and that judges the value of its products by their use, and an economic system that is committed to these purposes. At least in principle, such a system is socialism.

Barry Commoner, in The Poverty of Power (1976)