The problems of eco-capitalism

In the middle of our multiple crises, modified forms of capitalism – usually branded New Green Deal or something similar – are presented as solutions. This is a dangerous distraction.


Only a madman or an economist would dispute that the world is in the grip of a series of related ecological, climate and equality crises, and that these crises are human (and largely man) made, The response of governments across the world has been tragic. As I write, politicians are defending the mining and burning of coal in a country that is literally on fire. Amongst the more radical parts of the political mainstream, usually on the left but rarely in power, there is a suggestion that with adapted production and distribution systems, our existing economic model can respond to these challenges. These ‘Green New Deals’ (GND), championed for example by (some) Democrats in the US and most left-of-centre parties in the UK are the ‘other’ game in town; a counterpoint to the wilful, greedy destructiveness of our current policies. They are however unlikely to work.

Problems of implementation

Firstly, a set of issues relate to the ability of capitalist agents – be these firms or governments – to act in ways which deliver necessary aims. It is chastening to think that even under a hypothetical Corbynite government in the UK, the reshaping of our transport, broadband and energy systems would necessarily (given the almost impossible climate timescales) be delivered by Capita, Openreach and Serco. As the examples of HS2 and Heathrow are showing in real time, in the UK at least, directive, sustained and effective policy of the type needed is the rare exception – let alone in the interrelated, cross sectional way a GND really requires. More broadly, chasing ecological ends using capitalist means confronts the issue that the core requirement of private capital – generating not just a return, but the maximum return, on investment – is antithetical to sustainable behaviours. An obvious example is the private transport sector, where we have seen the Dieselgate scandal, the massive growth in sales of heavy, inefficient and polluting (but profitable) SUVs, and the market leadership of two-tonne plus super-performance battery electric vehicle, during a decade where the eco-climate catastrophe was clearly evident and urgent. No matter the sector or industry involved in any GND, in the absence of wholesale nationalisation or mutualisation, implementation actions are doomed to gaming, regulatory capture and failure.

Problems of scope

Even if the above problems were solved in a timely and holistic fashion, the Green New Deals proposed during the late teens would not suffice to address our natural crises. There is a problem with the scope of the current debate, which focuses on the role of industry and production in adapting to our straitened circumstances, whilst downplaying the radical changes necessary in wider lifestyles and behaviours. Proponents of investment to ‘green’ the economy rarely draw out the necessity for people to consume in far less destructive ways, and indeed far less overall (see for example the Labour Party’s relative silence on the expansion of Heathrow). This means that Jevon’s Paradox will come into full effect: savings from energy efficient housing will be pumped into more purchases and more holidays, and better public transport systems will help already large cities grow even larger, sucking in more people to work there (and more food and energy to sustain them). This lack of holism is stark. And without a wider, deep green framing for why a GND is necessary, arguments for wider lifestyle change are harder to make.

Problems of paradigm

This last point illustrates the most fundamental issue with positioning Green New Deals or tweaked-capitalism as the solution to our interrelated natural crises. Capitalist systems rely on an ever-growing economic base to reward investors and owners of capital (and yes, anyone with a pension, that includes you). Money, and hence the resources it commands, must multiply, and the lack of adequate multiplication is decried as recession and stagnation. GND proponents often couch green investments in terms of kickstarting anaemic economic growth in Western democracies, with an old-fashioned Keynesian injection addressing this issue of secular stagnation. But this focus on ‘jobs and growth’ ignores the incompatibility of ever-growing economies with our ecological limits. What is pitched as more jobs, more prosperity is actually an ever-faster and ever-greater transformation of (largely) natural resources into useless waste, and despite some improvements in the relative efficiency of resource use, the world has failed (to decouple economic growth from resource throughput. Energy saved as developed economies move from manufacturing to services is replaced by used in Asian to manufacture goods then shipped thousands of miles to Western consumers; smokestacks are replaced by server farms and two weeks in Tenby with multiple short breaks here there and everywhere, and overall energy and material use go ever up, This is a circle that cannot be squared – or if it can, only within timescales orders of magnitude longer than those that we have imposed upon ourselves with our prior behaviours.

What is to be done?

Debates around the greening of national or global capitalism are fundamentally flawed. They address how we do things, not what or why we do them. They focus on intensity and efficiency, not the absolute scale of activity generated by society and economy – but it is the latter that is the core problem. There is way too much stuff, unequally distributed. The actual solution is of course to restructure our economies to be respectful of global limits: to massively downscale the production of consumer goods, to eat more locally and parsimoniously (and probably plant-ily); to scale back new physical investment in favour of climate-adapting existing structures; to abandon hyper-mobile lifestyles for local work and fun; and to just… kick back and relax a lot more. Of course, none of this will, or perhaps can, happen ‘top down’, which is why I have advocated for a number of years that our economic direction should be set at a much more local level, where radical but embedded and bespoke solutions – including degrowth (or rather a-growth) might emerge, crowdsourced and with wider support. Wales –naturally endowed, diverse (but with a common vision for future generation) and frankly, crap at capitalism anyway – is a great place to start.

Image by KC Green

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