Let’s blame capitalism, then?

There is a large literature in the social sciences about the role of capitalism in environmental crises. The idea that capitalism is to blame as the underlying cause of environmental crises (and to some degree the social problems mentioned previously) is a relatively common one in social science literature, particularly those of the ecological Marxist variety. Trying to synopsize this literature may be impossible in one blog—but I’ll try to cover the important bases.

First, let’s leave aside those who argue that sustainability is best achieved through capitalist expansion, partly because this position relies on a faith in technological fixes, and thus leaves aside crucial questions of social relations and power. These arguments also refuse to deal seriously with the apparent changes in ecosystems that have followed colonialism and the spread of capitalism to all over the planet—the expansion of capitalist economies has brought us to the limits of “planetary boundaries” or past them.

Believers in the environmental “Kuznet’s Curve” think that as incomes rise, environment-saving technologies become more societally possible and implementable. But the science of the curve is based on faulty statistics, it projects history into the future rather than assessing what’s happening now, and it reduces environmental impact to a country-to-country (rather than global) analysis. Average statistical “incomes” rising is not an indicator of lower global “throughput” (i.e. the usage of raw natural resources), and all the rage among economists and mainstream policy makers about “decoupling” economic growth from throughput has not been associated with any actual reduction of throughput (only slowdowns of economic growth have reduced throughput).

Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg’s argument that “environmental problems are actually getting better” has been thoroughly disproven (though of course embedded fossil fuel industry shills like Myron Ebell come to his rescue). Those who argue that we are now in the “best of all possible worlds”, because of capitalism, are at best ignoring obvious signs of ecological crisis; at worst, they are defenders of the status quo with a stake in its continuation (like the doctors hired by the tobacco industry to defend smoking regardless of the emerging consensus about its harms).[1]

In contrast to these defenders, most critical social scientists point to capitalism as a negative force on social and environmental health—the question is to what degree, and how these forces intersect with alternative, opposing ones like state regulation or social movement organization. The question is not if capitalism is bad, but how bad, and how it can be dealt with.


Why is capitalism to blame? In short, capitalism creates conditions for constant competition (between firms). This competition leads to individual firm growth (“get big or get out”), but also pushes the economy to have to grow as a whole.[2] The drive to grow and outcompete competitors leads to greater labor exploitation, and greater negative externalities (especially environmental ones like soil loss or water pollution). More often than not, the pursuit of profit outweighs other factors of decision-making in capitalist firms within capitalism-promoting states.

Capitalist firms are dedicated to investing capital in costs of production in order to earn more income from production than they spend: this is the process of capital investment and accumulation. In the realm of agriculture, the drive to create greater surplus monetary value drives farmers to grow, to exploit labor, to achieve economies of scale, to overproduce, to find new and more lucrative markets, and so on. Under capitalism, farming is no longer for subsistence or human reproduction; it has become simply another form of capital investment and accumulation. We can see the history of colonialist expansion through the lens of capitalism’s drive to constantly expand into new areas and find new ways to extract and accumulate value. With this expansion came the transformation of many production systems into capitalist ones.

Furthermore, most governments reinforce the tendencies of capitalism, because the imperatives that drive businesses to economic growth as a primary value are paralleled by imperatives on governments and elected officials. This can be seen simply in the need for governments to maintain their own legitimacy: economic growth is seen to ensure higher levels of employment and thus a satisfied populace, while all the work that governments do must be paid for through taxation; this taxation, in turn, relies on an economic base. So most officials, representatives, and governments—whatever their stated political position—support measures that increase economic activity and ensure capital investment/accumulation—rather than, say, environmental protection or social stability.

So here, we can see why governments like Bolivia’s, though supported by small-scale peasant agricultural movements, continue to promote and support export-driven “extractive” industrial agriculture production: it provides governmental stability (by not pissing off powerful agribusiness elites), and generates foreign currency exchange revenues that the government can put into popular (legitimacy-enhancing!) domestic social spending programs.

(Of course, when social or environmental problems become too problematic for certain parts of society, they become crises of legitimacy for the government, which might temporarily switch priorities in order to re-secure legitimacy.)

So capitalism itself, and in its synergies with the “economism” of governments, makes impossible conditions for stable societies living within ecological boundaries. But still, there are valid arguments against seeing unsustainability and injustice as solely stemming from and built into capitalism. Each capitalist country, region, locality, business, or person operates by capitalism’s patterns and imperatives, but differently. Friction and difference do not disappear under the weight of capitalism.

Because of this, some commentators hold hope that capitalism can be reformed or made less harmful through various mechanisms of personal, social, and/or government regulation. These are the kinds of commentators who might put the blame for capitalist industrial agriculture’s damages on the industrial rather than the capitalist part, because it is assumed that within capitalism, “bad” agriculture can be regulated into less harmful forms.

Since the historical forces of capitalism are interwoven with the advent of industry, the spread of colonization, and the domination of for-profit corporations, only counterfactual scenarios can tell us what would be best, between ending corporate control, ending industrialization, and ending colonial capitalism. Most likely, the solution lies in attending to the problems of all three, separately and in combination.

This might be a dismantling of existing corporate actors, through anti-trust actions. It might be reducing the prevalence of industrial methods in favor of agroecological ones, on and off of corporate farms. Lastly, and most difficultly, it means challenging capitalism at all scales, from the colonial capitalist values that people enact in daily life, to the pro-capitalist policies promoted by governments. As Marxists for years have declared, we must find means to transition towards collective and common ownership of the “means of production” rather than it being only the property of capitalists.

So, an antidogmatist position on the question of what is at the root must acknowledge each of these elements, and look inside each of them, and how they mutually reinforce each other, in order to develop counteracting tendencies and actions. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that capitalism isn’t the only problem at play here. Why that is will be explored in the next post.

[1] There may indeed be signs of “progress” associated with the modern era, but these largely involve basic human health such as lower infant mortality and maternal mortality, and better sanitation (which rely on relatively inexpensive interventions that do not require constant growth in capital or capitalist industry).

[2] Further there are issues of monetary policy; in that our 20th century debt-based “fiat” currencies also contribute to the growth imperative. This video explains this process well and is interesting.

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