The Parable Of the Green Widget Company
Most ‘green’ and other non-socialist left environmentalist movements which are okay with capitalism will try to sell you on ‘environmentally friendly’ products instead of the normal evil icky bad-capitalist products you buy. So instead of a plastic cup, use a recycled cardboard cup. Instead of ordinary socks or clothes, buy those made from recycled materials or with environmentally friendly seals of approval showing they produce less waste per product. Or, instead of a pickup truck, drive a hybrid or electric vehicle. These are all very well intended ideas, and some of them sometimes do some meaningful amount of good, but none of them attack the problem at the source (something Marx is adamant about) — and because of that none of them can stop the problem, or stem the tide of growing consumption, production, pollution, and inequality.
The regular (non-green) widget company
It’s easier to envision with a hypothetical: so let us begin The Parable of the Green Widget Company. Lets say we all start consuming whatever silly widget (not a green widget yet, mind you — just a regular (non-green) widget to start) from the whatever store. It’s a device or a toy or something, like many of our purchases, that we don’t necessarily need or even use all that much, but that we continue to purchase and we go through approximately one every year or two (this is to keep the math easy, it doesn’t change the larger narrative much to adjust the timescale). And let us also suppose they also had a truly successful launch coupled with a brilliant advertising campaign, something along the lines of an Old Spice commercial. So people see it, and see advertisements for it, and are told they need it, so they end up wanting it more and more, regardless of actual need, and next year they go out and buy one.
Meanwhile, lets pretend the primary resource that is used to make the widget is wood. I know that’s weird in the digital age, but it’s easier to visualize the environmental destruction for the hypothetical. So lets say, resource-wise, it takes exactly one tree (chopped down) to make one widget (again, this is just for easy math purposes — you can adjust the quantity of trees or types of resources without it effecting the larger narrative of the story). So in the first year this widget manufacture goes out into the forest to chop down 1 million trees and then have their labour teams produce 1 million widgets. It’s a tremendous success — they are able to manufacture more than enough demand to completely sell out within a year. And the success has only brought more demand! People want more widgets! So (again for easy math), let us say that the widget is growing in popularity, at an arithmetic, constant rate of one million people per year — so every year one million more people want a widget than did in the previous year. That is, in year 2, there is a demand of 2 million widgets, and in year three, there is a demand of 3 million widgets. Let us also assume that — for the moment — the forest is vast and the widget company has no problem meeting this demand. (Also, as an aside, Marxist Econ is technically supply-side economics, and this hypothetical looks very demand side, but that’s not what this hypothetical is pertaining to demonstrate here, so let it go for now). So by year 10 they are producing 10 million units and cutting down 10 million trees to make those units — just in that year. Every year, more and more trees are cut down to produce more and more widgets!
But now, the deforestation is starting to get rather noticeable, and some members of the public — especially those concerned with the well being of the environment and ecosystems, are getting a little upset with the (regular, non-green) widget company. Surely there must be a solution! Socialists are yelling that — maybe — the solution might be to stop or slow widget production — saying that we don’t really need this widget, or we can share some of the already existing widgets, or we create far fewer and give it only to those that truly need it or will make the best use of it. They keep saying that we do not need to maximize widget production, and that maybe the widget isn’t improving our lives as much as the advertising wants you to believe. But those radical dreamers have been yelling that same shit for years, and their marketing team sucks, so their criticisms go largely ignored. However, people cannot so easily ignore the forest. So a ‘green’ movement emerges. But thankfully, these are green capitalists! They want everyone to keep buying widgets, but don’t worry — they also have a plan to save the trees!
Not unlike certain actually existing capitalist brands, this new green-insider movement of environmentally-conscious capitalists (who still work within the regular (non-green) widget company) decide that, as a promotion and marketing campaign, the company will engage in a massive tree-planting campaign! This will show everyone that they are not the problem, and are actually working towards being sustainable (ha!), and environmentally friendly, by planting millions of trees to begin to make up for the vast quantity that are being chopped down to make widgets.
So this green-wing of the company (call it a movement) begins a massive tree-planting campaign. They get all their marketing budget resources together and go out and after one year (the eleventh of business for the regular (non-green) widget company) and find that they have planted a million trees! Quite the accomplishment! (Also in this hypothetical, let’s say that trees are fully grown after just one year, for convenience of the math) But now they go to look at the forest and it’s terrible. In this, year 11 (since the widget launched), another 10 million trees (total, from the forest) were cut down. “But how?” ask the green movement? They planted a million trees, surely only 9 million trees should have been lost! But alas, they forgot that widget sales went up another million this year. So another million trees were lost (in fairness, had it not been for their planting efforts, it would have been 11 million instead of 10 million). But next year (year 12 for those keeping track), it’s the same thing. If their marketing budget remains the same (it likely would not double in a year), then they will go on to plant another million trees, but now 11 million (12 million cut down, plus 1 million planted) total trees were lost. Despite committing to planting a million trees per year, the company continues the path of deforestation and environmental destruction — even though it really looks like they were trying super-hard to prevent that!
Enter The Green Widget Company
Clearly, while some small amount of damage is being offset, the aggregate rate of destruction of the trees continues to increase and worsen. So a brand new idea! This green movement breaks away from the old regular (non-green) widget company, and launches their own new widget — calling themselves (yes, finally, here it is) the ‘Green Widget Company.’ This new company is dedicated to doing more to protect the environment right from the start. The tree planting campaign was a fine idea, but these very environmentally conscious folk have a brilliant new innovation that they claim will change (and possibly solve) everything! They have invented a new ‘environmentally friendly’ widget, which can be produced using only a half a tree! Meaning you can now make two ‘green widgets’ from just one tree! So much more efficient! “The world is saved!” celebrates the green-aligned media and the marketing department of this new Green Widget Company. Hooray! So they launch in their first year (year 12 going on 13, relative to the old regular (non-green) widget company) and make a big splash in the market with two million sales in their first year! And they pride themselves on the fact that they only had to cut down one million trees to produce their widgets. And guess what, they still kept up their old campaign from before — the green widget company planted a million trees, so it was a complete wash for them! Zero footprint (this year, year 13 for those keeping track)!
Meanwhile the original regular (non-green) widget company can’t efficiently compete with this cool new ‘green’ widget. So, instead of growing their sales by another million this year, their sales actually went down by one million units (this is because one million new units demanded came from the green widget company instead, and another million lost in direct competition to the green widget — again this is all something of an oversimplification, but follow the larger trend of the narrative to get to the point). So for this year (year 13), the original regular (non-green) widget company only cut down 11 million trees this year. People are still looking at the forest and seeing more and more trees disappear, but damn if the TV doesn’t make it look like the green widget company is doing some good. By the way, at this point 86 million trees have been cut down to make 89 million regular (non-green) widgets. For now, we are assuming that both the regular (non-green) and the Green Widget company are both committing to plant one million trees, each, per year! The environmental liberals gush and fawn over this commitment to sustainability. “This is the turning point!” they decry triumphantly, while those bitter socialists express doubt (more of a minor inflection point). For the Green Widget company, it is proof of concept and proof of sustainability, and for the regular (non-green) widget company, they continue their marketing ploy to try to keep from losing too many sales to the emerging new environmentally focused rival with a better (environmentally) product.
But this general trend continues — every year the green widget company sells another two million units (so 4 million total in year 14, and then 6 million in year 15 . . .) by taking all of the 1 million new widget buyers and also stealing 1 million of the original regular (non-green) widget company’s customers (it’s a more environmentally friendly product, after all!). So, going onward, each year the original widget company sees its sales drop by another million (10 million in year 14, and only 9 million in year 15). And so for this moment of equilibrium (lol), we are consistently losing only eleven million trees per year (eleven million in year 14, another eleven million in year 15, . . .). This is for the new million trees cut down by the green widget company each year (for their 2 million new green units) offsetting the one million fewer widgets from the original widget company. Still, each year the forest loses another million trees and people are still seeing it but starting to find more ways to ignore or rationalize the loss of so many trees.
So one of two things happens to the original regular (non-green) widget company (neither of which make a difference). Either the original widget company adapts and produces their own more environmentally friendly ‘original regular green widget’ (which we can assume to also be made at the same rate of two produced per one tree consumed, to be (more or less) exactly competitive with the green widget company — again, to keep all remaining math purposes simple and clear) or they go out of business by year 24, when their sales drop to zero (really, they’d close up long earlier, but it’s mostly irrelevant). If they do the former, then we can effectively say that the regular (non-green) widget company has become the Green Widget Company for all intents and purposes with regards to our discussion. But if we assume the latter, then we can watch them close up shop and we can see the final aggregate environmental costs of the regular (non-green) widget company in their 24 year existence.
It’s a triumphant victory for the Green Widget Company, and therefore the environmental cause (or so the green-capitalists insist)! With no more remaining regular (non-green) widget company customers to steal, growth now continues steadily at 1 million new customers per year. And, so now the green widget dominates the market, and here in year 24 there are 24 million widgets sold and only . . . uh -oh, a distressing 11 million trees consumed (12 million minus the 1 million trees planted — the regular (non-green) widget company is gone and no longer planting trees). And the projections are in for next year (25), 25 million units sold, and an expected 11.5 million trees cut down. The number has gone up! But this was supposed to be the Green Widget Company, and even with their amazing innovation (producing two widgets for only one tree), their sales have continued to grow so much that it has overwhelmingly offset the harm reduction that they had initially attempted to provide! Yes — there are now more widgets available to the public (meaning they are abundant and likely cheaper too), but because the goal of the company needs to be to maximize profits and keep increasing sales, they are incapable of saying “that’s enough widgets for now, let’s take a break and regrow the forest.”
And it all just keeps getting worse for the Green Widget Company. I mean, certainly not-at-all for their owners and shareholders, who are likely enjoying vast profits and tremendous growth to their personal wealth — but for all the citizens in society who had cared about protecting the forest or finding environmental solution, they have to be left wondering ‘what happened?’ By year 30, 30 million units are sold, and 14 million trees are being cut down! The green widget company is causing even greater deforestation (trees cut down per year) than the original regular (non-green) widget company!!! How absurd! Now that the Green Widget Company is big and rich from all their success, they decide to (more than) redouble their tree planting efforts. Massive charitable donations to the cause! Socialists roll their eyes, but fuck them, the Green Widget Company has a planet to save (but more importantly more profits to be made)! So this massive effort leads to a brand new marketing campaign. From now on, 10 million trees being planted each year instead of only 1 million. Wow! (do you all get where this is going now? well too bad, I have more left to cover) “This new effort will surely save the forest,” cry the enviro-liberals.
The Environment is Saved . . . right?
So in year 31, with the massive new tree planting campaign, only 5.5 million trees are lost (15.5 million cut down to produce 31 million widgets, but 10 million new trees are planted). A huge success! “The planet is saved again!” By the way, in case you are wanting to keep track, we are up to over 275 million (aggregate!) trees lost from the initial pre-widget forest state of thirty-something years ago. Much of that was from the original, less environmentally friendly regular (non-green) widget company, but at this point more of it is coming from the Green Widget Company. Yes, they are producing considerably more widgets — but they are now causing worse environmental destruction just for the sake of producing and selling widgets; the fallacy being that no consideration is made for the use or function or necessity of these widgets being produced (or distributed in a different manner) — that is left entirely to the green capitalist owners of the Green Widget Company, who have no interest in stopping or slowing their cash flow. As long as the sales and demand are there (created and supplemented by their marketing team, no doubt), the spice continues to flow.
So the company settles into success and comfort for the long haul, as growth continues. Each year, another million new sales! By the time they are producing 40 million widgets per year (year 40), they are right back to losing 10 million trees per year (20 million cut to produce the 40 million units, but 10 million planted, and I’m going to stop keeping track of total trees here because you get it by now). The green widget company doesn’t know what to do! Or rather, they have no problem simply continuing to do what they are doing, because they are continuing to make sales, and continuing to make profits (to the delight of the owners, who are the ones making these production decisions — except that, being a private for-profit business, the decisions are largely made for them — whatever makes them the most money). By the time we get to year 50, an enormous quantity of widgets have been produced (but an enormous quantity of them are already broken or obsolete or disposed of, and replaced by the newer models — repeat customers!). And despite all the tremendous effort of planting a whopping ten million trees per year, the destruction of the forest continues to worsen year in and year out.
But does the problem take care of itself, eventually? At some point, widget production will eventually need to decline, right? If it isn’t an essential good, and isn’t something we depend upon for our existence (that is, it could be described as a luxury), then what exactly can be done within the confines of a capitalist system to save the forest? We’ve tried the various green-capitalist solutions, and while they did reduce damage for a time, they ultimately failed to stop the problem at its source, and the problem has continued and grown and worsened for the forest and environment (to the great wealth enrichment of the green-capitalists, and the (perhaps dubious) benefit of widgets for millions of people). Over 460 million trees (grand total) have been cut down! And more still being felled! So, finally, in a last ditch effort to save the forest within the operation of the capitalist system, the green-liberals launch a boycott campaign to tell the public to stop consuming widgets!
Ignoring the fact that real life boycotts virtually never work, let us pretend that somehow the anti-marketing campaign is successful. In the eyes of the public, the widget isn’t cool anymore. People stop buying them dramatically. Within a few years, widget sales have dropped to a petty fraction of what they once were. The Green Widget Company is no longer reaping the vast profits it was once accustomed to, and the business folk behind its operation are largely moving on to greener pastures. So finally, the Green Widget Company is about to close its doors —the forest is saved now, surely! Right? But, just as they get ready to shut down, thinking at least maybe we will finally stop chopping down the forest, and that the replanting effort might allow it to regrow. Sadly, with no more income, the tree planting sponsored by the green widget company will have to come to an end as well. If we want the trees replanted, it will have to be done at a loss — to someone.
But unfortunately, the forest is likely not to be spared, because any unexploited, freed up resource under capitalism, becomes an asset for sale, eventually purchased by a capitalist who will exploit, use up, and exhaust that resource to the enrichment of their business’s owners and shareholders, who, like all private businesses, expect profits — the long awaited return on their investments. So the trees do not end up being saved or even left alone, they end up sold off to another enterprise that will begin the chopping and restart the deforestation process in the creation of a new product. Even if the business fails or the product isn’t a hit, it wont be long before another wave of capitalists come along to takeover the forest from the previous owners, and begin exploiting it in much the same manner (for whatever product).
What am I saying with all of this?
The purpose of a capitalist market is to convert natural resources into garbage. If you were to zoom all the way out, and look at the whole of the Earth on even a medium timeline of a few decades, and were to point to the Green Widget Company (emphasis on the Green) and ask “what is this institution doing?” you might come to the conclusion that it exists to populate landfills with widgets, and wonder what the larger societal benefit of that institution could be when the environmental harm (the destruction of the forest, in this specific case) is demonstrable and evident. And while this example used only the forest as one proxy component to stand in for the whole of the environment, you can extrapolate this to all the other parts of our struggling ecosystem around the world.
I also realize that there is the increasingly convoluted pro-capitalist argument that the competing companies will actually forever drive innovation. But the fact is that resource consumption and labour input requirement for the commodity will never reach zero, and the rate of efficiency of improvements necessarily declines over time as the resource and labour inputs approach zero. Using a different, more abundant, resource does not necessarily solve the larger problem either — it only solves the problem locally for the capitalists, but does not stop either the aggregate resource depletion of whatever new resource is being used (which can be substituted in for trees in any of the above models), nor does it do anything to prevent further exhaustion of the forest from other companies seeing to exploit it, as the new resource widget companies have no more use of it, and would likely want the forest off their balance sheet (no doubt sold to another enterprising business seeking to make full use of it). Capitalism doesn’t offer a toolset with which to stop this production cycle of endless resourcing to depletion.
Yes, you need an economic system that can put a kibosh on all kinds of unnecessary, non-essential, unrequired capitalist production, that exists to create needless, wasteful commodities for quick sale, which end up in landfills or sitting idly in storage only shortly after their time of purchase. You need an economic system that can grow on an S-curve (rather than trying to have permanent exponential growth), and can exist in some degree of harmony with nature, rather than trying to exploit it down to the last resource. Socialism offers society the tools to turn many of these resourcing faucets off (or at least reduce the flow to sustainable levels), while capitalism will constantly rework the plumbing to keep the water flowing, without any consideration if the reservoir is being depleted or exhausted beyond capacity.
This isn’t an argument against using any resources, nor is this making the case for some anarcho-primitivism, where humans are to be expected to go back to nature or live off the land (such a solution is both horrible and would result in a great deal of suffering). But the argument is that we do not need to be exploiting all of our resources at the rate we are now — we are overproducing — we are overproducing too much junk and crap (that ends up in a landfill in a few years time) especially, that we don’t need to survive, or have decent, comfortable, purposeful dignified lives). The problem is that we don’t have an economic system capable of hitting the brakes on the industries that the larger human society might largely deem to not be worth the environmental damage and impact. Of course we need to use some resources, and exploit some of the planet, but we are incapable of making meaningful reductions or limitations while operating under the constraints of capitalism, and its endless drive for profits.
So, yes, the socialist solution is a planned economy. And this does mean that, Westerners especially, will end up having less stuff. There is this great concern about having less stuff for oh so many Westerners, ignoring that having less stuff is the material state of existence for most of the rest of the world at all times. The nightmare for some Westerners of having less stuff (despite that situation also likely resulting in having more free time and less work to be done) is a very confused one. It doesn’t even need to mean a world with no widgets, it just means that some widgets might require us to share or take turns, rather than having widgets exclusively for ourselves. The idea that production needs to be maximized and operating on full power at all times, to make as many widgets as possible as soon as possible, is a dangerous mistake, but one imposed by a for-profit capitalist system.
Planned Economy is a word that socialists need to defend more and take back. The idea that such a thing as an unplanned economy even exists is a misconception that we should also confront — we live in a planned economy now, only that most of the planning in our economy is done by the banks (who are more than happy to provide the loans to the green capitalists to go out and buy up the forests, and build their factories, so that they can all keep making widgets, making their profits, all at the expense of the environment and ecosystems of the planet). The solution is to have an economy planned by society — the people, not through the market but through democratic apparatuses and institutions, with the power to say no to increased resource exploitation and the ability to say yes to having less stuff.
And yes, that does mean we, Westerners, whose lives and homes are overflowing with crap and junk as it is, end up ultimately having less stuff — less junk, less garbage, less planned obsolescence, and fewer purchases that we send off to the landfill within a years time. It means that we can build things that will last longer, do more manual repairs on existing things to keep them running longer (rather than going out and buying a new one), and in doing this, we can reduce the immediate strain on the Earth from the exploitation of the planet to service the mindless consumption habits imposed on the (already dying) consumer middle class of the West. The problem, and the point of this essay is that the green solutions provided under capitalism fail to be solutions, and, even with the best of intents and innovations, ultimately fail to be green as well.