Sustainable Capitalism

Jesse Ausubel writes,

Agriculture has always been the greatest raper of nature, stripping and simplifying and regimenting it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in America, in about 1940 acreage and yield decoupled. Since about 1940 American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land. Corn matters because it towers over other crops, totaling more tons than wheat, soy, rice, and potatoes together

The title of this post contains a redundancy. Capitalism is inherently sustainable, relentlessly producing more human satisfaction using fewer resources. What environmentalists call “sustainability” ought to be called primitivism, producing less human satisfaction using more resources. Read Ausubel’s entire piece.

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12 Responses to Sustainable Capitalism

  1. Tom DeMeo says:

    I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t true. A series of decisions at the margins can lead almost anywhere, including off a cliff. There was a perfectly reasonable market for charcoal in Haiti to cook with. Now there aren’t any trees left.

    • MikeP says:

      I strongly suspect the market wasn’t reasonable. In particular, I suspect that the logging rights either were nonexistent or were handed out by concession from an inept and or unstable government. Even corruption is not required for this market to be unreasonable. If the owners of the forests had strong rights in the forests, charcoal would have been more expensive but there would still be trees.

      • Tom DeMeo says:

        Aren’t you really just backing into this conclusion?

        The only thing that would make rights strong enough would be if there was enough value to justify the effort required to protect the assets involved. How does that work for a forest in a very poor country? It just doesn’t. Short term interests are different than long term interests. Some times short term wins.

        • Andrew' says:

          So the question is whether an example of unsustainability indicates a dearth of capitalism.

          Wouldn’t forest owners desire to continue selling charcoal?

          You can’t just assume eithet that because the forest is gone it is because of a robust capitalist charcoal market.

          • Tom DeMeo says:

            Yes, forest owners would want to continue selling charcoal.

            And it is not a stretch to assume a robust market here. Charcoal was the primary cooking fuel in Haiti for generations.

            All that is needed for this theory to fall apart is to acknowledge that sometimes people choose short term gain over their longer term interests. Doesn’t this happen sometimes?

            And isn’t it also true that sometimes people have resources that can produce value, but simply fail to provide the necessary effort and organization to realize that value? Yes, I think that can happen too.

  2. econ man says:

    nice post

  3. sam says:

    Capitalism is sustainable if and only if all externalities are properly priced in. Capitalism approaches sustainability when externality pricing approaches completeness.

    The alternative to capitalism raise by those who rail against it is “let’s make decisions by feelings”. That is guaranteed to be unsustainable.

  4. Andrew' says:

    I think this is the metaphor of Interstellar- complete with corn. Primitivism isn’t sustainable either.

  5. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    What do Americans do with all that maize? I mean get that North American’s like Nachos and Burritos, but not like Mexicans do. I’m sure by weight, more wheat is actually eaten. Is the surplus all turned into sweet-stuff and ethanol? In which case, is the wheat-vs.-maize balance just a result of government distortions?

    • Adrian Ratnapala says:

      Doh! Mexican’s are North Americans. Let’s say USA-ers.

    • JohnnyBeeDawg says:

      The best burgers and marbled steaks come from turning corn into meat. Most corn isn’t eaten directly by human beings. There’s a lot of hungry cows out there.

  6. jorod says:

    The more you subsidize it the more you get. Also, when prices fall, farmers have a habit of planting more, thinking this will increase income.

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