American Capitalism and the American Environment

For decades, the United States of America has been beheld as the champion of capitalism. A nation grown from a group of small English colonies into a world superpower, through relatively free market trade. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, American capitalism grew in a rapidly technologically advancing era without the challenge of a powerful opposing economic theory. Many Americans, even today, scoff at the idea of voting for a liberal candidate, using the term, “socialist,” as an insult, and their reason for casting a ballot for conservative candidates. With it being such a driving force of the American way of life, even possessing the capability of representing the “American dream,” capitalism should be investigated as one of the most prominent ideologies in American culture today, only barely displaced by democracy. Considering its accomplishment in allowing the United States to remain a predominant force in world trade, capitalism can understandably be viewed as a positive force. However, it’s impossible to fully comprehend the impact of capitalism in the U.S. without taking into context the nation’s environmental history, and the intense trauma capitalism has inflicted upon the American environment through influencing practices such as urbanization, industrializing cattle production, and the mass acquisition and consumption of fossil fuels.

When Europeans first arrived in the New World, they found it remarkably untouched. Native Americans had affected the land, as it would be impossible for them to not, but without the Western world’s technological advancements and, more importantly, competition between nations, the Americas had yet to be ravaged like Europe had been through centuries of demand for resources. Once developed, the colonies were urbanized in order to produce resources and wealth for their mother nation, as is the idea of capitalism: to produce and gain as much as possible. Urbanization was essential to the capitalistic growth and gain in America, because it led to larger populations, which meant more consumers of British goods, and more producers of resources for the British Empire. Urbanization aided in making producing or transporting goods more convenient, again increasing production and commerce. The process of building cities entailed the destruction of vast areas of forest, for space to build, materials to build with, and to clear land for the production of goods. Forests were not the only natural features changed to benefit colonists, wetlands were drained, rivers were dammed, and canals were constructed. People at this point in time viewed nature as almost supernatural, that it “seems to point out with significant energy, as the favourite retirement for the dead,”  but just as any other suspected supernatural concept, Europeans also feared and sought to control it. So, despite this ideation, negative alterations were made to the environment solely for colonists and English investors to profit, or to invest for future profit, the trademark goal of a capitalist economy.

One of America’s most lasting cultural figures has been the cowboy, although they’re often inaccurately depicted as gunslinging adventures, rather than the real-life, much less interesting, cattle herders. Cattle have always been a symbol of status, even in smaller towns today, albeit to a lesser extent, but these animals have been praised for their meat, milk, and hides, and considering their large size, they can be profitable. Arguing against raising cattle should be easy though, as they have considerable drawbacks- they take much more space and many more resources than other American-raised livestock. The cattle industry boomed shortly after the American Civil War, because Texan ranchers joined the Confederate army, leaving their cattle to multiply. During early Reconstruction, the South’s economy had little market for beef, so in order to profit, returning ranchers had to drive their herds North (Figure 1). As demand for beef and milk rose with this influx, then with world populations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more cattle have been raised for the slaughter. During their lifetimes, they create absurd amounts of methane gas, which contribute significantly to climate change, a fact that has largely been overlooked in favor of reaching consumer demands. Capitalism directly supported, and continues to support, the sacrifice of the environment in order to produce highly demanded goods.

The beginning of the industrial revolution heralded many inventions and innovations, one of the largest being harnessing fossil fuels to power steam engines, predominantly coal at the time. With the steam engine becoming implemented in factories for production and boats and locomotives for transportation, coal was a highly sought-after resource. Mining coal became a steady work source, although a dangerous one. Many factors threatened miners and fatalities were common. In one report from a Pennsylvania mining company investigating an incident, “whereby fifty-eight lives were lost.”  This disregard for the preservation of the health of workers indicates capitalism’s view of laborers as tools, as expendable in the name of profit, just as it sees an outside force like the environment. However, fossil fuels are finite resources, and as time progresses, the easily accessible resources are used and remaining coal and other fuels are more difficult to acquire. More recently, as oil became another essential resource, companies have begun fracking, in order to reach more difficult reserves of oil. Fracking is essentially blasting deep rocks with high pressure water, and it causes a number of problems, such as contaminating water supplies with dangerous heavy metals, and the process is heavily suspected of causing tremors and earthquakes. The use of fossil fuels is notoriously unhealthy for the environment, as increased carbon-dioxide emissions contribute significantly to global warming and climate change. They’re became so commonplace though, that if humans stopped using the fuels altogether immediately, American society would likely collapse, as everything from cars to houses are powered by burning fossil fuels. Even today, certain capitalistic leaders cut back on regulations made to protect the environment in the interest of growing businesses, none less environmentally-friendly than fossil fuel industries.

With the primary goal of capitalism being to profit, it shouldn’t be surprising that a heavily capitalist society is suffering from numerous environmental problems. Colonists destroyed millions of acres of land for it to suit their needs, to be used for profit. The cattle industry has been supported in favor of consumer demand, ignoring negative environmental impacts. Fossil fuels have been mined and used so excessively that burning as much as we have has changed our climate, as opposed to switching to cleaner, but more expensive, energy options, and potentially dissuading large fossil fuel corporations from participation in American markets. The history of capitalism in America cannot be fully understood with that context, which shows how destructive unchecked capitalism is and the damage it has caused. The only possible solution is immediately placing massive restrictions on certain industries and to attempt to repair the harm that’s been done, assuming it isn’t too late already. There is confidence in some climate scientists that in the nation’s current situation, “There is certainly time to avert the worst impacts of climate change.”  Regardless, if the U.S. continues its current path, the future looks bleak, and we may soon discover that profiting is difficult if the world has died.

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