“System change, not climate change” is one of the banners you can typically see at a Fridays for Future strike. I’m not a fan of that slogan, because while “not climate change” is something we should all agree upon, there’s no further definition of what “system change” entails. It leaves room for interpretation. What is the “system”? Do these young people want to abolish democracy to establish a “climate dictatorship”, as some right-wingers claim?
There’s another banner I’ve seen at climate protests: “Burn capitalism, not coal.” Again, I think we can agree on “not coal”, but why “Burn capitalism”? And probably capitalism is what they meant by the word “system” on their previous banner.
Of course, I’m fully aware that slogans have to be short and to the point. However, it reminds me of something that has been on my mind quite often lately. It is a problem for the discussions in society as we talk about ways to avert the climate crisis and effectively solve other issues, for example, around social justice.
Friday night, Luisa Neubauer, one of the Fridays for Future movement’s leaders and public figures, was on German public television in the ZDF show Aspekte. Being asked about system change, she said that we have to get away from “the dichotomy of capitalism and socialism”. That’s precisely what I’ve been thinking, too! Instead, she argued, we have to design an economic system compatible with the Paris agreement’s climate targets, but it’s not her expertise to describe or even name that system. It’s also noteworthy that she never said anything against capitalism per se but always qualified it as “fossil capitalism” or “this capitalism”, which is a good start.
Many people speaking out in favor of capitalism often argue that we have a choice between either what we have right now (or an even more neoliberal version of it) or the failure that was Soviet-style state socialism. Since nobody wants the latter, we can’t mess around with the system.
On the other hand, people use capitalism as a one-word explanation for everything they deem unfair or wrong in society, a system designed around exploiting people and the planet for the sole benefit of a few rich people.
I don’t want to go too deep into it right now, but if you look at studies and statistics around human progress, the world tends to get better. For example, we have improved health and education and reduced poverty around the world. In most metrics except for CO2 levels in the atmosphere, things look optimistic, but the latter could ruin everything else. I’d say it’s tough to argue that the positive developments have happened despite instead of because of our capitalist economy. I personally believe in markets and the power of entrepreneurship as a motor for innovation. However, I don’t believe in unlimited growth, monopolies, and extreme inequality. We have to adapt our economy to reap the benefits and mitigate the downsides of capitalism, for example, through regulation and redefining our goals for success outside of GDP growth.
Just like Luisa, I don’t claim I have the solution. I’m not a subject matter expert, only a curious software developer and IT entrepreneur cosplaying as a public intellectual. However, the one thing I’m confident about is that we won’t redesign our economy for the 21st century if we continue arguing between capitalism and socialism.