Perhaps the most intractable challenged faced by a global capitalist economy driven is its need forever growing profits. While it is given lip service, the central for-profit motives that operate within this economy infect everything, eventually transforming what are offered as development and social service programs into new business opportunities for corporations and capitalist banks. Notwithstanding its claims to be addressing human and environmental needs, this system by definition can only reduce them, as Marx observed in the mid-nineteenth century, to reified elements that are deprived of their true character. This has been particularly true during the neo-liberal era because its efforts to privatize global economic governance have undermined the limited liberal attempts to achieve improvements in the human condition and environmental sustainability through international institutions. The evidence for this can be found everywhere, from the fight to get AIDS medication into the developing world, to the rapid expansion of so-called public-private partnerships that conceal corporate environmental abuses. Yet, even without neo-liberalism, profit-centred capitalism would be hard pressed to achieve its promise of environmental and social where it must subordinate those goals to for-profit economic growth.
The tension within capitalism between the concern of its liberal politics for the quality of the environment and its essential purpose to generate growth revolves around its need to generate economic growth as a means to generate profit and concentrate capital. Thus, zero or limited growth is anathema to capitalism because it fails to achieve the “rising tide” of wealth, however mal-distributed, that justifies capitalist policies. This can be seen in the fear that grips capitalist governments at the very mention of the word “recession”, which merely identifies periods when capitalist markets contract, even to a limited extent. Liberal capitalists have tried to solve this contradiction by redefining sustainability as economic rather than ecological, generating a vast literature on “sustainable development” which at its core is nothing more than using concerns about the environment to further extend the influence of advanced capitalist countries into the inner workings of industrially less developed societies. This strategy has done little for either environmental sustainability or development, but, like the petro-dollar economy, has created vast new opportunities for the investment of accumulated capital and excess technological production in less-developing economies. The problem with a capitalist strategy for environmental sustainability is thus two-fold: it defines a “healthy” economy as one that generates growth, which by its own definition implies a further exploitation of natural resources; and the profits that it generates perverts sustainability strategies by tying them to for-profit schemes that exacerbates inequalities in economic and political power.
That said, capitalism also generates its own environmental unsustainability by failing to fully account for the effects that its systems of production have on the environment. Broadly identifiable as various forms of pollution, capitalism in the past has regarded them as “externalities”, or costs that do not have to be incorporated directly into its system of production, but which are exported to society in general. Thereafter, the costs are borne by those directly affected – most often the workers and their families that are involved in the productive process, and by other middle and working class members who either pay taxes to clean up the pollution, or who share in the affects of that pollution as it spreads throughout their communities. The limited efforts of liberal capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s to regulate pollution inevitably ran into strong resistance from the corporations they sought to regulate, and their failed efforts to stem the effects of pollution worked primarily to discredit liberal capitalism itself. The neo-liberal public-private partnerships that filled the gap from the mid-1970s onward were even less successful, but because the process through which they worked were privatized and hidden these failures achieved little public notice.
Looking more closely at how liberalism and neo-liberalism has responded to environmental quality issues is a cautionary tale about how they parallel the structures and ideology that guided the Bretton Woods system and led to the global economic meltdown we are now experiencing. Perhaps the best example of this is the present liberal/neo-liberal effort to contain global warming, which is being led by the governments of advanced capitalist countries and conducted through liberal environmental institutions closely associated with the World Bank. Climate science has been concerned with global warming at least since the early nineteenth century, but it was only widely heard after it became of interest to the U.S. government in the late 1940s as its potential for promoting technological development and national security politics became better understood. Thereafter, climate science became an ever larger, government-sponsored, institutional science program that incorporated universities, corporations, and government agencies into its web. However, the alliance between climate science and capitalist governments was cemented only after it achieved a place within a larger “sustainable development” project that was devoted to extending control over the post-colonial world by means other than traditional international politics. This inseparably linked institutional climate science to capitalist development and security strategies by requiring it supported by World Bank economic and political agendas. Even the highly touted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which offers itself as the scientific authority for international climate policy making, has become part of this capitalist agenda by arguing in its Fourth Assessment Report that market-based strategies are the best way to address climate change.
The cautionary tale in this story of global climate change policymaking is, as Marx argued, that capitalism acts to reshape all parts of society, including science, to promote its interests and goals. In this case, capitalism chose to institutionalize and promote climate science because it was useful in generating profits for technology companies, and particularly for rocketry and computing, and in generating discourses and storylines that were useful to promote concentrations of power within capitalist states. But its value increased as it became global climate science because it could then act as an organizing point to draw scientists from developing countries into the system and employ them as both human resources for science and as entry points to gain access to the inner workings of the scientific and political communities of their home countries. Then, once organized this community of climate scientists could be used as a powerful voice in favour of modern “Western” science and in support of the thick web of international institutions, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank, and regional capitalist economic policy groups, that would use climate change as a wedge to introduce sustainable [capitalist] development programs.
Capitalism using climate science in this way does not argue that the climate knowledge that it has produced is without merit, as conservative capitalists and conspiracy theorists like to argue, rather, it demonstrates how science as an institutions within modern capitalism been managed to produce knowledge useful to capitalism, as Marx argued more than a century ago. Some scientists working inside this system have acknowledged that problem by citing how institutions fail to address many, if not most, of the important issues that are not susceptible to capitalist exploitation, such as the need to adapt to a changing climate by improving the equitable distribution of power in society, and the glaring absence of acknowledgements in climate policymaking of the limits to technological solutions. Of course, both of these issues are directly related to capitalism’s necessary preoccupation with promoting profit, which blinds it to much of the human cost of its environmental pollution, and to its role in deflecting the problems with technological development where they undermine the potential for economic growth. But, if climate scientists are to be believed, and their evidence is compelling, a changing climate offers serious threats to continuing a “business as usual” approach to organizing human society.
There are many more examples of the perverse effect that capitalism is having on government responses to the global crisis of environmental change. In Britain, it first appeared with Margaret Thatcher’s profession of concern about reducing greenhouse gas emission through a switch from coal to fuel oil and natural gas, which in practice was used as a rationale for attacking the coal miner unions. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown added their own contradiction by advocating the expanded use of “green” bio-fuels as a means for Britain to achieve its promised reductions in greenhouse gases. But in effect, this swapped British tailpipe emissions for pieces of the Amazon, even as Blair-Brown continued to promote the expansion of intra-country air transport, which comes with heavy greenhouse gas emissions. For its part, the U.S. has followed a similar path and for similar reasons, adopting a rapid expansion of bio-fuel production, which has produced windfall profits for agri-business but also dramatically increased the world price of grain and accelerated the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through increased runoff of petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Similar profiles apply to other critical natural resources, including: global ocean fish stocks, which have been depleted through massive harvests conducted by huge factory ships (now being replaced by “ocean farming”, which is a serious threat to biodiversity and natural ocean systems); forests, with a rapid deforestation occurring in the developing world in response to their national debt and a considerable loss of biodiversity in the developed countries through the overuse of “managed” tree farms; water, which is no longer regarded as a common resource but a commodity that can be commercially exploited by trans-national corporations; and wildlife, which has been depleted to satisfy global capitalist economics to the extent that Stuart Pimm and Edward Wilson, two prominent ecologists, describe the current state of the planet in catastrophic terms.