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The planet cannot survive our remorseless pursuit of profit

The planet cannot survive our remorseless pursuit of profit

Capitalism is on a collision course with human life and the future of our planet. Each year, air pollution takes more lives than smoking: the last estimate suggests 8.8m deaths across the world, compared with 7m from cigarettes.

As documents seen by the Guardian reveal, the oil industry has known for half a century that pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels poses severe threats to human health. By the late 1960s, Shell’s internal documents warned air pollution “may, in extreme situations, be deleterious to health”, while by 1980, Imperial College was warning of “birth defects among industry worker offspring”. And yet the same industry actively lobbied against clean air regulations proposed to protect health and save lives.

This may cause moral revulsion, but the behaviour is perfectly rational. An economic system based on accumulating profit will downgrade all other considerations, including the sanctity of human life. There is no economic incentive for a fossil fuel company to willingly support measures that minimise the detrimental impact of their relentless search for profit: indeed, quite the opposite.

Take another example of a product that has a detrimental impact on the environment and our health: meat. Eating too much processed and red meat is bad for health, while meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions. But healthier diets and lower emissions as a result of lower meat consumption would not accord with big meat’s desire to maximise profits. In 2014, the industry splashed out around $10.8m (£7.7m) in campaign donations, and another $6.9m lobbying the federal government. That investment paid off: in 2015, the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services declared that sustainability would not be considered as a factor in their flagship dietary guidelines.