Sunday, February 17, 2013

Clothing Carbon Footprints and the Future of Capitalism

I recently got to hear firsthand from clothing manufacturers about how they have reduced the carbon footprints of their signature products.  They didn't reveal the secret sauce behind their methods, but I didn't expect them to reveal any trade secrets and I certainly wouldn't reveal such things myself.  The common approaches to reducing the carbon footprint of clothing involve more natural dyes, less artificial fibers, simpler patterns, and fewer choices.  One of the clothing honchos did ask a very interesting rhetorical question:  "What does capitalism look like without growth?"  I think I know the answer.

Capitalism requires three basic inputs:  labor, natural resources, and capital goods.  Those capital goods are a fairly broad term and can include intellectual capital, i.e. the know-how to make a process work.  Intellectual capital is potentially unlimited because it springs from human imagination.  Labor and natural resources are ultimately limited by the carrying capacity of this planet's biosphere and its existing stock of energy and minerals.

A perpetual growth model runs out of steam when populations cease to grow and the quality of natural resources hits a peak.  The Club of Rome's most dire predictions haven't come true yet because technological advances in the use of materials continue to extend the peak of this planet's various production curves.  The mining sector is well aware that ore grades of new discoveries continue to decline.  Some kind of downward adjustment to lifestyles is probably inevitable but the timing is unknowable.

The Western world already has experience with an economic model that could produce a steady-state economy:  feudalism.  This model was sustainable partly because it was coupled to environmental conditions that suppressed population growth:  high infant mortality and short adult life expectancies.  Its natural resource base was less clear (to me, anyway, as I'm not a medieval historian) but the relevance for our time is that a wide array of environmentally invasive activity wasn't needed to meet a population's basic material needs.

I'm not endorsing a switch from capitalism to feudalism as a solution to the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet.  I do advocate a deeper look at what drives the satisfaction of material demand.  Imposing carbon constraints on manufacturing is one way to gradually habituate a population into accepting the impossibility of unlimited growth.  Another method is to incentivize hot-looking women to wear skimpier clothing in warmer weather.  I'm all in favor of that transition.