A divided Germany offered a solid basis for comparison, with a market economy system in the West and a planned economy system in the East.
German historian Hubertus Knabe, a leading expert on the history of the GDR, observed: “One of the biggest climate killers in the world was, in fact, a country that had abolished capitalism – the GDR. In 1989, the GDR emitted more than three times as much CO2 for each unit of GDP as the Federal Republic.
Other comparisons also confirm that the abolition of capitalism leads to more rather than less environmental degradation. In 1988, the GDR emitted 10 times more sulfur dioxide per square mile than the Federal Republic (124.5 tons versus 12 tons per square mile).
The worst environmental destruction has occurred in non-capitalist countries. In their book Ecocide in the USSR, Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. conclude that “no other industrial civilization has so systematically and for so long poisoned its land, its air and its people”.
Many people will agree that socialism is even worse for the environment than capitalism, but they still have reasonable doubts: isn’t economic growth in general bad for the environment?
There is one argument in particular that seems logical, at least on the face of it. Because the earth’s raw materials are finite, infinite growth is impossible. This leads many to conclude that somehow growth must be curbed.
But on the basis of numerous data series, the American scientist Andrew McAfee proves in his book More from Less that economic growth has decoupled from the consumption of raw materials.
Companies are constantly looking for new ways to produce more efficiently, that is, to make do with fewer raw materials. They do this, of course, not primarily to protect the environment, but to reduce costs – an entirely capitalist motivation.
And innovation, another characteristic of capitalism, has fostered a trend we call miniaturization or dematerialization. An example of this trend is the smartphone. Just consider how many devices are contained in your smartphone (phone, camera, calculator, voice recorder, dictionary and much more) and how many raw materials they consumed.
There is a very strong argument that even in terms of climate change and environmental degradation, capitalism is not the problem, it is the solution.
Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and author of The Power of Capitalism and The Rich in Public Opinion.