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Before coming to Duke, I understood that environmental issues are largely the externalities of economic development. So, the solutions seemed obvious: the government should incentivize the adoption of “green” solutions, regulate the economy to minimize environmental impacts, and hold individuals and companies accountable. I recognized the argument I’d be up against (government intervention will stymie economic growth) and I knew my counterargument (government intervention will create “green” economic opportunities while promoting clean air and water, wildlife conservation, habitat preservation, and climate action). The only path forward was creating a more environmentally sustainable economy.

During my first semester at Duke, I took a class called Globalization and Corporate Citizenship. This class opened my eyes to a completely new perspective. “Economic growth is a train headed off a cliff, and the only ideas Democrats and Republicans offer are different ways to speed up the train.” My professor spoke about how capitalism, a system in which perpetual economic growth is the aim, values only the commoditization and monetization of resources, and ascribes no value to happiness, family, community, animals, or the environment. These things only mattered if you bought or sold them. I often played “devil’s advocate” to this idea, as my friends and family can surely attest to, by highlighting the progress we’ve made on environment issues, how renewable energy and carbon capture technology combat climate change while creating new jobs, and the lack of an alternative.

Fast forward to DukeEngage. I began the program viewing Portland as a model of environmental sustainability in the 21st century. There are parks everywhere and easily accessible public transportation. Portland adopted a 100% renewable energy resolution, restricts new bulk fossil fuel infrastructure, and a Clean Energy Fund is currently on the ballot. These factors did not come at the expense of the economy, rather, Portland’s economy is flourishing with the high-tech industry, athletic/footwear manufacturers, and breweries.

Then, why have many program participants, staff, and community partners argued that capitalism must go? As a social enterprise, the system led to the expropriation of Native American land, the enslavement of African Americans, and the exploitation of workers. They argue that capitalism is the driving force behind every environment issue. Rather than harnessing the potential in capitalism to shape a greener world, they argue we must “reverse the train.” They believe that progress made on environmental issues has largely been a fallacy, merely transferring the impacts to lower-income communities, communities of color, and other countries. This includes relocating power plants, shifting the discharge destination of pollutants, and shipping away our trash. Even on areas which we’ve undoubtedly advanced, such as the adoption of clean energy or the protection of public lands, they contend the benefits have been outweighed by increasing resource throughput and development.

Throughout DukeEngage, these conversations have arisen in our weekly dinners and weekend excursions. I often feel like I’m perceived as “that guy” who, despite resounding evidence of the devastating effects of capitalism, continues to believe in the “immoral” system because of the unparalleled opportunity it provides for innovation, mobility, and progress. I feel like I need to acknowledge the negatives before I can ever address the positives to avoid being seen as naïve or merely blinded by the privileges I’m fortunate to have grown up with. While I sometimes play “devil’s advocate” to ignite interesting conversations, I also use it to distance myself from the perspectives that could be seen as ignorant or immoral. I really want to have the debates, whether the result is opening my mind or agreeing to disagree.

Oregon State Capitol in Salem
Oregon State Capitol in Salem

But, in today’s day and age, I feel as if appreciation I express for capitalism, or even the U.S. Constitution, is bound to cause people to dismiss my ideas as simply a product of being a straight white male from a middle-class, highly-educated suburban neighborhood. Supporting capitalism doesn’t make me complicit in environmental injustice, nor does being a consumer of any good or service mean I’m inherently “part of the problem.”

With all of these issues, I struggle. I struggle because I’m a devoted environmentalist who’s committed to protecting animals, preserving habitat, and combatting climate change; all while believing in a system which drives these issues. I struggle because I envision a society where diversity is embraced, where every person counts, where everyone has the opportunity to follow their dreams, where all life is respected, where community is the foundation; all while endorsing capitalism which has facilitated discrimination, unchecked power, growing inequality, and rigid individualism. I struggle because I’m an unrelenting optimist in a world where it is increasingly common, and accepted, that democracy and the market cannot work. I struggle because I’m an environmental enthusiast feeling increasingly ideologically distant from many fellow advocates.

But, I’m also proud. I’m proud that at DukeEngage Academy when we were asked to respond to the statement “The American Dream is still possible for everyone” and every single participant besides me disagreed, I strongly agreed. It’s not because of being naïve, it’s because of being optimistic. I’m proud to believe in the ability of capitalism, which is ultimately a system of people, to right its wrongs – with the help of government – and forge a greener, more just future. I’m proud to believe in American democracy, to stand up for The Constitution (“that document I’m so attached to” as someone put it) and the belief in government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” I’m proud to stand up for the environment and animals, and to do so while supporting opportunity, ingenuity, and progress for all.

I’m thankful to participate in DukeEngage, to have the ability to explore these different perspectives. I’m thankful to live in a society where I’m allowed to discuss and debate such important ideas, where it’s okay to see things differently. I’m thankful to be able to have my own beliefs and act on them to make the world a better place. I’m thankful to be able to partake in “The Great Environmental Debate” alongside others who deeply care about people, animals, and the planet.

DukeEngage Portland headed to Opal Creek Wilderness
DukeEngage Portland headed to Opal Creek Wilderness