TOKYO—As Japan slowly comes to grips with the devastation created by its earthquake and tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, a debate is emerging in business and political circles about how to do more with less electricity—or just do less.

much to learn here. Including the power of a culture where people look to cooperate.

The current unrest in the Arab nations has called the world’s attention to some of the political and economic consequences of the West’s addiction to petroleum. But sadly it hasn’t brought back into focus two more fundamental and interrelated problems. The first is the population explosion; the second is the expectation of perpetual growth in per capita consumption, not just for several billion poor people, but for the billion or so who are already rich.

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It was only in the eighteenth century that greed became morally respectable. It was now considered healthily Promethean to turn wealth into money and put it to work to make more money, because by doing this one was benefiting humanity.

This inspired the American way of life, where money always talks. The end of capitalism means simply the end of the urge to listen to it. People would start to enjoy what they have, instead of always wanting more. One can imagine a society of private wealth holders, whose main objective is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into “capital.”

Financial services would shrink, because the rich would not always want to become richer. As more and more people find themselves with enough, one might expect the spirit of gain to lose its social approbation. Capitalism would have done its work, and the profit motive would resume its place in the rogues’ gallery.

Sustainability would have a chance.

The truth of US politics today is simple. The key policy for the leaders of both political parties is tax cuts, especially for the rich. Both political parties, and the White House, would rather cut taxes than spend more on education, science and technology, and infrastructure. And the explanation is straightforward: the richest households fund political campaigns. Both parties therefore cater to their wishes.

Watch out.

For finance to ‘operationalise’ the accumulation opportunity of environmental crisis and conservation, products and commodities connecting these domains need to be created that permit new investment, trade and speculation. As Martin O’Connor writes in the 1990s, nature needs to be ‘capitalised’ and ‘capital ecologized’ in new ways.19

We really need to understand how the economy is working, because we need to change it, and can’t if we don’t understand it.