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Luke Hutchison

TED Fellow,


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Is capitalism sustainable?

Bono stated in his TED2013 talk that the numbers show that we can eradicate all poverty worldwide by 2030. While I really hope that is true, it begs the question: Is capitalism sustainable? Is it possible to have a rich and middle class without a poor class? The sad reality of capitalism is that if there is an exponentially small number of people with exponentially large wealth, there has to be an exponentially long tail of much poorer people who are each contributing to that wealth. Not that we necessarily need an exponentially small number of people with exponentially large wealth, but would the world keep running without capitalistic incentives that increase the separation between rich and poor? Can we eradicate all poverty without the rich sharing their riches? What happens to civilization when nobody is willing to work in the factories and orchards, or build roads?

(Please don't take this question the wrong way! Personally I wish that nobody had to work menial jobs. I just don't understand how we can eradicate poverty when so many jobs will always translate into low-paid labor.)


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  • Mar 14 2013: More than a reasonable question. Your answer lies in the nurturing nature of Capitalism. Capitalism nurtures Greed. This has to be recognized...discussed and discussed some more. As it is right now! I appreciate a forum where sensible replies like yours allow me to share what I feel is the time for us as a species to think outside of our addictive comfort zones. Us being the folks who are not living in squalor. "...If Greed was not part of the Human Condition" This would suggest, that Greed is by Nature embedded in our existence as a species. I disagree. Greed, by definition is attached to 'the desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.' So the next logical question would be 'WHY' would someone feel the need to do this? Is it in his very Nature, or is it the very Culture he lives in? Culture and Nature are two very different things, that can easily be confused. But in the same breath, the two are as intertwined as day and night. The Aspect of our "Nature" in play here is 'FEAR'. Capitalism promotes Fear, fear nurtures Greed, Greed nurtures deceit and crime. And it is our Fear that has created a Culture of Greed. But the most important part of your reply James was the last 11 words.
    "...until someone comes up with a way to make better people." EXACTLY! I know it can only be done by taking away the Fear of the need for Money. When Luke said "...I wish that nobody had to work menial jobs.",supposed you did want a menial job? What if that was all you could handle, for whatever reason? Supposed you want to be surgeon, and knew you could pursue it? Supposed 'Sanitation' cranked your tractor? The face of politics would change into a more meaningful process which would be goal driven behind the soul purposes of Education, Quality of Life and Ecological Awareness and Restoration. Sure, Jealousy, Ambition, Competitiveness, Love, will always factor in when "Struggles" are present. But I know we can do better than this, with all we know and are capable of in 2013.
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      Mar 14 2013: " I disagree. Greed, by definition is attached to 'the desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.'"
      Very good definition, but the tendency toward greed seems as ancient as man. As an example you could go back to the ancint laws from almost every culture, the "thou shalt not covets" in all ancient societies. We seem to be born wanting more. A baby wants more of what apeals to it's taste buds, and will become angry when not satisfied, I don't think it is the culture, I think it is in our nature to want more. I am not saying it is right, I am saying it is what is! We have to start from where we are, even if where we are is pretty much screwed up. Even if such a program would work, where would we find these perfect human beings who would help us to manage it? Who provides the resources, the food clothing and shelter needed for the first few decades of this Brave New World? Probably the greatest advancements in the human condition, the very advancements that brought us to the point of being able to have this discussion in this manner, and the political freedom to do so came as a result of capitalism. Does it have a dark side? Yes it does! Our political system with capitalism at it's base has allowed freedom, and, at the same time, slavery. It is worth noting that that same system eventually found the heart and soul to end it.
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        Mar 14 2013: We can point to greed as "human nature" and thus use this as justification for unbridled greed, as if by denying our greed we are denying our human nature. But charity, forbearance, reflection, and contentedness are also all aspects of human nature as endemic to the human race as greed. Human nature also must include an abiding sense of justice, fairness, equality, progress, and (perhaps as new capacities) sustainability and global awareness. We can always retreat to limbic levels and our fate may indeed resemble something akin to that depicted in. e.g., the book (or movie) The Road. But I believe the promise of a discussion such a this is in dispelling the inevitability of this outcome and recognizing that we can-- and often should-- control our primal urges that were wrought in a world of scarcity. We have much greater potential to nurture the 'sapiens' aspect of our species' namesake than contemporary capitalism's emphasis on avarice allows.
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          Mar 14 2013: We certainly should control the darker side of our nature, no doubt about that. Even if greed is not a part of our nature, it still exists. People have debated these issues since the very earliest days of human accounting. My question is still the same: How do we get there? If communism or socialism could have produced the sort of utopian people we are talking about, surely no person in China or North Korea, or the former Soviet Union would be hungry at this point. I wish I was wrong, but unfortunately it is not so. I hope that some of those who differ with my oppinion are right and we can all live in peace and harmony, but thousands of years of human history seem to indicate otherwise. What our history does show without exception is that the only places in the world where people on a large scale have managed to have some measure of peace and prosperity are those places where there has been a free market system.
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        Mar 14 2013: There must be a distinction between communism-, socialism-, and/or capitalism-done-right and communism-, socialism-, and/or capitalism-done-wrong. Marx and Engels wrote in response to the dystopia of capitalist industrial England. This does not mean that capitalism looks like mid-18th Century England in all cases. Likewise communism under Stalin or in N. Korea presently is hardly what Marx and Engels envisioned. And as to socialism, Denmark and Sweden seem to be faring well these days economically and in terms of citizen satisfaction with their government and society. Perhaps we should be less spooked by these labels and then could learn a thing or two from these good examples of, say, sociaiism-done-right.
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          Mar 14 2013: I understand that a modified socialism in a modified free market can work on some levels, at some times. In the big picture, it is rare.
        • Mar 15 2013: Eben, what you said I could not agree with more and is at the Crux of how some folks in America create mass fear to move their own agenda(s).
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          Mar 15 2013: Eben and Craig, even if greed is not a part of human nature, it still exists in our world. How do we move from being a greed riddled humanity to being better individuals in a world where greed is the predominate culture. How do you keep people from being greedy? How do you keep the greedy from swallowing the innocent. Do you force it? In a world dominated by selfishness, lust and greed, who is at the helm of such a great movement? Will those who help us get beyond our selfish tendencies become greedy in the process? Where do we find those saints who guide us? I would not even trust myself!
    • Mar 15 2013: Another definition of greed to consider: "Greed is wanting more from others than you are willing to provide to them." Under this definition, a person who is providing a great deal of value to the world should never be chastised for accruing wealth. Humans are driven to accumulate sure, but is this a bad thing? Wealth is created by delivering value to others, and capturing a percentage of that value for yourself in return for your efforts. If you provide a lot of value, you deserve great deals of wealth. But if you provide nothing, you would be greedy to expect anything.
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        Mar 15 2013: Sean, perhaps the key issue is the difference between what is shared and what is accrued, using your definition of the term 'greed'. The recent TED talk by Richard Wilkinson may help put some meaning behind a term like 'value' in the context of 'providing a great deal of value to the world'.

        Perhaps you would agree to the folksy wisdom of the quote by Libertarian Walter Williams: "Let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you, and why?"

        The answer to Williams is this: it depends on how you earned that wealth. If that wealth was "earned" by exploiting labor and extracting environmental resources beyond sustainability, then that wealth cannot be fairly called "yours". The concept of sustainability recognizes, for the first time in the human experience, the real raw resource limits of our planet and the fact that this is a key source of wealth. This where social justice and environmental sustainability intersect, and this is where terms like "wealth" and "value" must be anchored.
        • Mar 15 2013: I agree with this. I believe those who produce should be allowed to keep mostly all of their wealth as long as two constraints are met: their efforts do not exploit the life/lib/pursuit of happiness of someone else and the long term health of our planet. We've mostly gotten the first one under control, but on the second one we have major work to do.

          I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on implementing this.
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        Mar 15 2013: Some concepts that are difficult for us to grapple with presently can, in time, become social norms by "organic" transformations of behavior, such as through popularization of ideas, adopting new descriptive language, and even through dialogues such as this. I think about, for example, the effect that Harriet Beecher Stowe had on influencing the national mood about slavery.

        I can also cite, for example, Brownmiller's (1990) account of Camita Wood's appeal for having been denied unemployment insurance after what we would now identify as clear case of 'sexual harassment'. That case was the origin of the term 'sexual harassment'. It was a term that was deliberated on in a brainstorming session by Woods and her lawyers and several others with similarly denied claims. Now as a result we have an easy way to discuss a concept that circumlocution could not otherwise communicate effectively enough to justify leaving a job and being eligible for unemployment. A similar history attends the term 'child abuse'. These are what linguists refer to as 'lacunae'-- concepts for which there is a gap in language. I believe that words can change worlds. The fact that we are discussing 'sustainability' at all is progress. This word would have drawn blank stares 20 years ago. But now we have some sense for a target in mind that would, 20 years ago, have required several sentences and possibly the loss of attention.

        I believe that national moods can change as well. Conspicuous consumption can grow more unpopular than it is now. It can be popularly internalized that hoarding wealth is not the gateway to happiness and that it may actually cause suffering in the world. And quite possibly those intangible elements of support and esteem-building-- those that give us a sense of accomplishment and success; those that give us a sense that we have lived/are living 'the good life'-- will center on ecologically sustainable behaviors. I already see much progress in this regard, and I hope for more.
      • Mar 16 2013: " Humans are driven to accumulate sure, but is this a bad thing?"

        Yes, it is. Nature is not designed for this. We are not squirrels occupying a tiny ecological niche. We got clever, realised we could engineer a comfort zone for ourselves and our preferred species, and set about building the largest ecological ponzi scheme the world has ever seen.

        Over the next 50 years or so (if we wish to live in such vast numbers) we've got to re-engineer our production/consumption systems. Accumulation has to be seen in context of the whole - it is vital to carry forward a strategic reserve but there is no serious place for just owning more stuff .

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