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Luke Hutchison

TED Fellow, Google

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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 19 2013: Capitalism is only sustainable if the success of a business is measures by three bottom lines:

    1. Planet: Business activities must be ecologically sustainable
    2. People: Business activities must not infringe on the well being of society
    3. Profit: The business needs to make a profit to survive
    • Mar 20 2013: 1 and 3 are quite obvious but 1 is certainly not seen as fundamentally necessary to businesses in the current scheme of things.

      "well being of society" is something that is vague and perhaps what this whole debate is about in the first place. What would your definition of well being of society be?

      Also I think this is a little simplistic because capitalism is about more than entrepreneurship. What happens to the legal system, the banks, etc. etc. Good always happens at the cost of evil. well being of group a happens at the cost of group b.

      Also what happens to resources? Do they remain divided as they are now?
      • Mar 20 2013: Thank you Umaid.

        The question is: is Capitalism sustainable?

        The current form of capitalism requires perpetual growth from finite resources. In fact, two thirds of the worlds natural resources have been used up. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/mar/30/environment.research

        This is clearly not sustainable. So I would argue that 1 certainly should be fundamental to businesses that want to remain in business long term.

        With regards to well being of society, this is an Oxymoron. Capitalism, like slavery, can be criticized for the negative effects it has on any hope for equality — in wealth, income, power, access to culture, and so on. Capitalism is a system of production perpetuating a structural inequality and injustice located at its core. Capitalism requires exploitation of local and global society... abolition of that exploitation is the only way towards the well being of society.

        In a world of abundance, the global society will demand better well being at some point in time.

        Capitalism is not sustainable.

        A resource based economy that transends capitalism society is where we are headed.
        • Mar 20 2013: In agreement.

          I hope I was able to convey that although 1 is certainly the bottom line, most people don't realize the urgent implications of the "warning signs" or at the very least fail to take noteworthy and appropriate actions in response.

          Also I think we need to evaluate what our definition of abundance is. IF every individual in the world consumed as much as the average citizen in Western Europe or the United States the world would run out of food!
    • Mar 22 2013: well said and worth a TED Cred

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