The Capitalist Dilemma: An Environmental Cause for Concern

Hoover Dam

A short time before the trip to Arizona State University (ASU) for the Clinton Global Initiative (C.G.I.), Sarra Tekola and me watched a documentary titled, “Last Call at the Oasis“, 2011 ( from which we heard about the depletion of our most vital resource; water. In particular, the documentary spent considerable time discussing the Colorado River that passes through the Hoover Dam in Nevada and supplies Las Vegas with its water supply. So, when we had the chance to see it for ourselves and gather some data we could not pass up the opportunity.

The irony is that a city like Las Vegas, Nevada sprouts up in the desert, without a water source and has a population explosion within the last hundred years to a population of 596, 424 according to 2012 statistics; with a continual influx of visitors that was reported at approximately 39,668,221 for the year of 2013 ( Walking through Las Vegas you cannot help but to be struck in awe at the astonishing monstrosity of the city. Gigantic buildings as far as the eye can see that appear to have grown out of the earth in the middle of this desolate and lonely desert.

Why was this ever thought to be sustainable?

“The Colorado River Basin states are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Each state is party to the Colorado River Compact entered into in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 24, 1922” (


The water is not only unevenly divided between these states and their citizens, but also Mexico is not receiving the volume of water, if any that it used to receive from the Colorado River; they now at best only receive approximately 10% of the original flow from the river.

“There are 29 Tribes with reservations within the Seven Colorado River Basin States” all competing with the United States government to maintain water rights because the over consumption of water is depleting the resource, dislocating peoples because of either building dams or the displacement of water after the dams are completed ( Either way, the manner in which the United States is addressing its water needs is having dramatic impacts on both the Native American way of life and their rights to life and the liberty to plan their own lives which predate the United States by a few millennia.

Troubling moral problems and ethical issues?

First, “Manifest Destiney” as an ideology (, whereby the citizens of the United States in the 19th century systematically expanded across the continent, displacing and exterminating the Native American population, was at best morally flawed and at worst the most evil and diabolical genocide this planet has ever witnessed. In addition to that, through a series of treaties the United States government, who possessed an unfair bargaining advantage, stripped the tribes of their water rights. All of this had the effect of systematically destroying entire cultures and those that remain are struggling to maintain their heritages. If in fact, we do have an obligation “not to harm,” then this obligation when applied to this situation both from a time-slice perspective and from a historical perspective poses a serious moral problem because it is clear that people and peoples are being harmed by the practices of the United States government.

Second, if we also believe that “cultural imperialism” is wrong then, we are necessitated to also believe in “normative cultural relativism,” whereby each culture has the right to practice the norms of their culture without having another culture imposed upon them. This line of reasoning also has the caveat of forming an inconsistency in terms of opposing cultural imperialism, but also believing that each culture has a right to its own culture, thereby disqualifying any action to change an imperial culture’s actions (Talbott, William. Which Rights Should Be Universal, p. 39-47). (

However, this issue is about the United States being the imperial force, so that caveat does not hold because this is a bottom-up change from within the imperial culture. Thus, given the historical nature of the appropriation of lands and the imposition of American culture, and in particular for this line of reasoning, material culture in the form of technology, is wrong because Native American cultures are at best being changed and at worst eradicated.

The third moral problem concerns property rights. In accordance with Leif Wennar’sIron Law of Political Economy,” whereby resources tend to gravitate to those that are stronger and away from those that are not as strong, ownership of those resources are then protected by coercive means (Wennar, Poverty is No Pond: Challenges for the Affluent, 2010, p. 11). To flip the nail on the head, so to speak, of those that think they feel justified in the status quo, they would not feel it to be just if their property was wrought from their possession by someone who had the coercive means to do so. This shows that even if Wennar’s “Iron Law of Political Economy” is an accurate representation of the way the world is, that it is not just and since it is not just, then it is morally wrong.

The right to own property is a human institution, not a right that is inherent by birth like some sort of feudal privilege. Nor is it infallible, that is to say that one, it is always appropriate, especially in a case wherein the ownership of a particular resource causes undue harm to others, a perhaps unintended effect, but definitely an externality not taken into the calculus of the economic equation. And two, that property rights are not something that should be guaranteed by birth. If for the sake of argument, we were to step into the Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, as John Rawls suggests, ignorant of our circumstances (race, class, social status, gender, generation, etc..) and our bargaining power, then in this hypothetical and fair deliberation wherein no one knows where they came from and where they will go when they leave the deliberation, that no party present would agree to inherited property because they may be the one without the power over others that comes from owning property. Thus, when we truly consider the institution of private property it does not appear to be just in any form, especially when we consider the morally arbitrary distribution of the possession of resources, we can see again that the status quo of the ownership of property is unjust and as such is morally wrong.

However, if the situation is considered in a historical context, avoiding the ahistorical and counterfactual appeals, then the coercive force that has been utilized by our ancestors to secure for their progeny the resources that now give them power over others, that can be labeled as unjust. So, even if an individual, group, institution or government is beholden to the fact that they did not employ coercive means to acquire the resources that they now possess, they are still benefiting from the unjust acquisition of those resources and that is unjust. So, no matter how we look at the situation, in terms of private property, the institution is an unjust and morally corrupt institution.

So, there are definite issues with property rights and what people do with the property they believe they are entitled to, especially when those actions impact others.

Returning to the water crisis that began this discussion the question now becomes, how did it come to this?

Climate activists and scientist have been screaming at the top of their lungs for decades about the impact of our societal practices and how they were going to lead to the destruction of our planet. However, most people sat back on the sidelines and chose to believe that these people were lunatics on their soap-boxes screaming about conspiracy theories and millenarian predictions foretelling the end of the world. The climate change deniers all clamored for proof, and given the volumes of irrefutable data, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (, and prolific activists/authors like Bill McKibben ( who have clearly identified the problems, their causes and proposed potential solutions, but still they have denied. It is true, that there is hardly anything about any science that is irrefutable and a definite in all situations so, there is potentially a margin of error involved, but this denial runs deeper than the questioning of research. For thousands of years people have believed that we were descendent from or created by gods, and only two centuries ago did Charles Darwin ( propose the Theory of Evolution. Nearly two-hundred years later there are still people who refute the theory, even with the insurmountable data to support it, but by and large it has become accepted by a vast portion of our civilization; at least to some extent. So, if the conception of where we came from and how we came to be, a concept that has been with us for thousands of years can be revised as a result of scientific data, then there must be more at work than just the relevance of scientific data because climate change by far, has less impact on how we conceive of ourselves and our world than the Theory of Evolution.

The problem is I think, as Steven Gardiner put it in, A Perfect Moral Storm (2006), a series of dilemmas that converge like three great storms to form a massive and catastrophic event. First, there is the Prisoner’s Dilemma that suggests that people have a rational reason to defect in a community action problem as oppose to cooperating. In terms of climate change this plays out by first suggesting that climate change is a problem that affects more than one individual and that the only remedy is through collective action because if there are defectors then the actions of the rest do not make a difference. I think the problem is the structure of the system because when every individual and state is in competition for limited resources (land, fuel, energy, potable water, clean air, food, etc…), even though the best outcome for all is to be found in cooperation, there is no reason to trust that the other agents will not defect and “free-ride” on the efforts of the others.

Automobiles and Carbon Emission

Thus, when we have a problem like carbon emissions, that although as Walter Sinnot-Armstrong , in the essay, It’s Not My Fault (2010), points out, that carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring and necessary chemical for the survival of the planet, the aggregate effect of carbon emissions by humans causes a failure in that system. The failure being that excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will cause the warming of the planet to the point that it is no longer inhabitable for human beings and other animals that depend on the temperature remaining relatively close to what it has been for thousands of years. Furthermore, Sinnot-Armstrong suggests that each individual’s contribution is so minuscule that it does not make a difference whether they produce carbon dioxide or not because it is an aggregate problem. He likened it unto pouring a glass of water into a stream that was already going to flood regardless of the cup of water that was poured in. Sinnot-Armstrong’s ultimate conclusion was that there is no moral principle that can obligate individuals to not contribute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but that it is wrong on an aggregate level, so the responsibility must fall to a governmental agency to manage the problem and to mitigate it.

Sinnot-Armstong’s argument, compelling though it is, seems to mostly support the claim that Gardiner made in that climate change is a collective action problem. The example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma showed us that each individual has a rational reason to defect and not to cooperate however, there is more than just defecting that is the problem with why people have not been so quick to accept the science on climate change. Because of the nature of climate change and carbon dioxide pollution, there is a spatial and temporal differential between the people who are the cause of the harm—those that receive the benefits of maintaining the status quo—and those that pay the cost of the harm—usually future generations. Gardiner called this the “Dispersion of Causes and Effects” and that “the impact of any particular emission of any greenhouse gases is not realized solely at its source, either individual or geographical; rather impacts are dispersed to other actors and regions of the Earth” (Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm, 399). Further, that there is a temporal dispersion because greenhouse gases will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years and the impacts of increased amounts are not immediately experienced, but are rather “seriously backloaded” and left for other generations to suffer with. As a result of these two conditions, the people who produce these harmful effects do not feel an obligation to not contribute carbon emissions and moreover also do not feel an obligation to mitigate the problem because it is in their best interests not to do so.

In effect, even if the people of today were able to enter into Rawls’s hypothetical Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, future generations would not be included as a party in the discussion and thus, we would not be able to take into account their opinions. As such, future generations and the impacts of our actions on them are discounted in this generation. Now this has the unintended effect of what Gardiner called the “multiplier effect,” wherein each generation is presented with a set of circumstances that were presented to them by previous generations and it is more cost effective for them to continue the status quo then to mitigate the problem and leave it for a later generation, which serves to compound the effects of the harm and to diminish the likelihood that the problem will be addressed until it is too late. This is not as complex of an idea to wrap our minds around even in today’s day and age when the Cold War stretched for half a century and over three generations, and even had its precursors prior to World War II when the conflict between Russia and the United States was escalating as two divergent ideologies continued to collide. Generations not responsible for the creation of the Cold War, were almost obliged to pick up right where their predecessors left off. Climate Change and carbon emissions are no different. Oil retrieval, refining and burning as a source of energy began in the 19th century and as the world became more industrialized it also became dependent on it for survival, and now there does not seem like a way to wean ourselves off of it, even if it means our destruction to maintain the status quo.

In sum, I believe the aforementioned reasons are what have led to opposition to the theories on climate change and why there has been so little action to stop a problem that can be remedied. I have not touched on corporations much and I will not break from that except to note that corporations have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo. Drawing from a point that I made earlier, they have the resources they do because of an unjust acquisition of those resources. But to drive the point in further, corporations because of their “resource privileges,” their power to control resources (Pogge, Thomas W. Assisting the Global Poor, p. 11), can afford to control the agenda with political debates and funding, lobbying, and via the media and other forms of marketing that the average person is influenced by. They of course are also affected by the same factors as climate deniers, but they are doubly constrained because of their financial stakes in the production and sales of fossil fuel technologies. And although climate change should not be an externality in economic terms because if there is not a sustainable climate from which to garner resources and a population to sell their products to, then there will be no economy, it nonetheless is an externality. What we are left with aside from that contradiction is almost an entire civilization that is either unwilling or unable to do anything about the climate change problem which we are now faced with.

The climate change deniers, it seems evident, do not deny it as much because they do not believe the science, but because of a moral dilemma that causes them to focus on issues that seem to be more immediately important and relevant to them. They base much of this rational on the fact that they believe they do not have an obligation to future generations, but as has been shown that is not accurate because if we were to trade places with a future generation and have to deal with the problems that we left them with, then we would not find it to be just. So, if it is not just from that perspective, then it is not just in our perspective now. Because it is not just, that necessitates an obligation of our generation not to leave the world worse off than when we found it. The problem is getting people to see and understand that obligation and to devise practical ways that we can meet that obligation. Sinnot-Armstrong may be right in the assertion that we need our governments to take action to secure our future and to make the types of changes that individuals are reluctant to make themselves. However, I am doubtful that this will be a just situation because of what we have seen of how the United States government imposes its interests on others.

Now that we understand why people have not accepted climate change as a problem, what exactly is the problem and why is it so important?

The climate deniers clamored for proof and yet when they received scientific proof of the cataclysmic changes facing our generation, they refuted and denied its accuracy for many reasons, but now the proof is not coming in the form of scientific papers, it is coming in the form of the ruin of a water supply. Until this point the two may have seemed to be unrelated, but I will show how climate change and a depleting water supply are interconnected. The primary factors are over population and our seemingly unbreakable reliance on fossil fuels, which are both interconnected and interdependent and are the cause of global warming and in turn is the cause for the water depletion.

Throughout history, even when a civilization has grown beyond its means like Rome did in the late 2nd and 3rd c. C.E., when the population became too great to maintain it, the civilization had the potential to disband or devolve and for people to disperse. That is not the case any longer and the nature of our problems with their contemporary causes, are much different than any civilization which has predated us. In times like those with circumstances like theirs, the earth was not locked into a globalizing phenomenon wherein what happens on one side of the planet affects what happens on the other side of the planet and further to future generations.


No, the world we now live in is plagued by problems that supersede nation and state borders such as rising oceans from the melting of the polar ice caps, nuclear contamination of ecosystems, loss of carbon sinks due to deforestation of tropical forests, global warming resulting from an excess of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, and of course fresh water depletion and that means there is no escape from these problems by moving elsewhere on the planet. Historically, overpopulation has been associated with a starvation because of a lack of food, but now with the advent new technologies that have been in use since the 19th century we, as a civilization, have created environmental problems that threaten our very existence on the planet.


In the late 19th and early 20th century, agricultural technology made a vast leap and as a result more people were able to gain access to the food that they needed for two reasons; first, food production increased; and second, as a result of the increase in food production the price of food was dramatically decreased because of the law of supply and demand, whereby greater supply with equitable demand forces a downward shift in the price of a good. With more people able to live because they had access to a relatively consistent supply of food, they moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from satisfying their physiological needs, to higher-order concerns such as building and living in oil, gas and electrically heated homes with lights and enjoying pleasures that we now take for granted, like owning and driving cars to get back and forth to work. None of the things that I have mentioned would pose any problem to the planet if it were not for the mere volume of people who now drive cars and the massive operations undertaken by corporations to supply our population with energy, like mining for and refining coal, drilling for oil and gas fracking, nuclear power production and so forth. Although, it is true that the mere volume of automobiles on the roads do contribute a vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, their contribution is far overshadowed by the volume of pollution created by the energy production industries. One of the primary factors for the volume of energy production is because of our ballooning population with its exponential demand for energy, but that is not the complete story, as I have argued elsewhere, corporations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo because they are financially invested and stand to lose money by shifting to more sustainable sources of energy production.

It is also the case that a civilization experiencing overpopulation can and often does over-consume and over-tax the resources available to it whether that is food, air, timber, oil, the atmosphere or water. There is a finite pool of resources of which we have to draw from in order to sustain our population, but when we have a ballooning population with an exponential growth in demand for those resources it is inconceivable that the resources would not be depleted. In fact, this is the basis of economics, which concerns how and why people make choices of how to employ limited resources which have alternative uses, in the face of scarcity. Implicit in the discipline of economics is the concept that the rarer the good is, the more it is worth and the more demand there is for it because it is rare—the law of supply and demand. In the 18th century, Adam Smith (, the author of The Wealth of Nations, surmised that the market was controlled by the “Invisible Hand” of price, and that price, which shifts in accordance with the amount of supply in negative correlation to demand; when the supply decreases and the demand remains static, then the price must shift upwards to limit the amount of people who are willing and able to purchase a particular good.


The concept of price being the invisible hand that controlled markets was purported to be able to limit the overconsumption of resources. However, that has proven not to be the case, as is evinced by the fact that even though price is prevalent in the markets of the planet that resources are still being depleted.

The Capitalist Dilemma.

Capitalism is founded on free trade between parties and suggests that all parties can be made better off by unencumbered trade, but does not take into consideration the depletion of resources. The system is incentivized to over-consume and over-tax resources because it is free to meet whatever demand the population has. This means regardless of the invisible hand of price which is supposed to control the market is undermined by the self-interest to be made better-off (recall the factors of collective action problems discussed earlier). Another incentive created by the system of capitalism is the incentive to destruct or eradicate a resource because, if the supply is decreased then, price must increase to maintain the equilibrium thus, in accordance with self-interest, which is the hallmark of capitalism, there is more profit to be made by the depletion of resources, and this is what I call the Capitalist Dilemma.

What has essentially been created is a system of consumption that is designed to over-tax and over-consume the finite resources we have, not a system that is designed to be sustainable. Interwoven into the very fabric of the structure of society is the inherent goal to eat ourselves out of food, to destroy the atmosphere, to deplete our water supply; and overall to systematically eradicate any chance our civilization has of survival.

So, Las Vegas?

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Las Vegas, Nevada with its water crisis is a microcosm of what the rest of the world, in a short time, will be faced with. And though, it is an extreme example in our contemporary context because the city arose in a desert that did not have the resources to support it and so, it had to commandeer resources from neighboring regions to sustain its static population in the influx of visitors, which its economy is based upon. Nonetheless, Las Vegas provides us with the real life proof of what climate change activists and climate scientist have been screaming about for decades; our use of fossil fuel energy and our rate of consumption will lead to our destruction. So, the estimate that millions of people will be impacted by the crisis facing the city and the region (Colorado River: Setting the Course. The Great Depletion’: Historic Alarm Triggered at Lake Powell,, as a result of overpopulation and over-consumption of a vital resource becomes a principle source of evidence, albeit not the type of evidence the climate deniers clamored for, of the effects of climate change.

Hoover Dam Water DepletionLas Vegas has been receiving its water from the reservoir Mead Lake, which was created by the Hoover Dam and is fed by the Colorado River. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal; “[b]y April 2015, the surface of Lake Mead could sink to 1,075 feet above sea level, triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the river and prompting water supply cuts for Nevada and Arizona” (Federal officials cut water delivery for Lake Mead, speeding reservoir’s decline, August 17, 2013,  Within the last hundred years the static population of Las Vegas has grown to 596, 424 according to 2012 statistics; with a continual influx of visitors at the end of 2013 that was reported at approximately 39.6 million people.

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Hotels, sky scrapers and casinos with a surrounding civilization that has all the trappings and industries of any other United States metropolis compose Las Vegas and demand water for their survival. In such an area, watering one’s lawn is not just watering a lawn that should not be there because it is not only non-indigenous to the region, but the only source of water for the lawns is simultaneously also the drinking water source. Now lawns may seem like a trivial subject to bring up, but it is the possession and maintenance of a lawn in Las Vegas has dire moral implications involved with it that can be generalized to evaluate the management of water.

First, a lawn is not a necessity, that is, it is not necessary for survival and as such, this means that it is a luxury possession. Yet, while there is water shortage crisis there are still thousands of lawns and if this is not an example of Conspicuous Consumption then I do not know what is because not only is Las Vegas in jeopardy of losing its water supply, but the Colorado River basin supplies six other states, 29 Tribal Reservations, and Mexico, which are all being adversely impacted by this catastrophe, and the wealthy still show their wealth by possessing lawns. Las Vegas at Night in front of the Bellagio HotelTo remedy this problem, the government of Las Vegas has begun to issue stipends for people not having lawns because it is considered an infringement of peoples’ individual rights to force them not to have a lawn, but rather a more native type landscaping design that is sustainable in the region. The principle of the individual right stands in direct contestation of the collective right and is a prime example of how one defector can cause a collective action situation to fail. Thus, in accordance with both Pogge’s “Resource Privilege” and Wennar’s “Iron Law of Political Economy,” we can see how those with the coercive power to protect a resource can overpower others even if it is to their detriment and is in direct violation of our obligation to do no harm. If there is this much trouble in regulating whether people waste a resource as precious as potable water a lawn that is unnecessary for survival and that has dire impacts on millions of people’s lives, it is no wonder that there is a water shortage problem, especially when hotels like the Bellagio can make artificial lakes for show.

There are two principle factors that are contributing to the depletion of this water supply; first, the population’s demand for water and its willingness to consume beyond sustainable measures; and second, the global warming that has resulted from the greenhouse gas emissions—from the use of fossil fuels—into the atmosphere has caused both the climate in the mountainous regions that feed the Colorado River to shift so that not as much snow falls and also the snow pack that is achieved melts faster and earlier in the year. This is precisely what Steven Gardiner argued in A Perfect Moral Storm, with his discussion of community action problems, wherein the rational response is to defect and act in one’s own self-interests, or to consume as much water as is desired regardless of the overall impact; and is right in line with what I have called the Capitalist Dilemma, the propensity of the system to promote the destruction and the eradication of a resource.

In the end, what we are left with is an entire system, from the acquisition of resources, to the justification of the over-consumption of those resources that is morally bankrupt. Lands and resources were stolen from a people that were decimated by the United States and its citizens. Then the very same governmental institution tolerated and promoted the proliferation of capitalism, technological advancement with its subsequent destructive polluting potential, and instituted a regime in which dissenting voices are silenced or dismissed as heretical so that the agenda is controlled and the people remain docile. The incentive is to maintain the status quo, but that is no longer, not to imply that it has ever been, appropriate for the circumstances facing us as a civilization. What is occurring to Las Vegas, and in fact to the entire Colorado River Basin is just a microcosm, a portent of what is to come for the rest of the planet if we allow ourselves to fall victim to collective action problems like the environment.

For further reading check out “Global Government: A Remedy to Collective Action Problems”


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