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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Capitalism and the environment: Interview with James Speth in NPR Worldview's series "Critical Thinking on Capitalism," March 26, 2008

Capitalism and the environment: Interview with James Speth in NPR Worldview's series "Critical Thinking on Capitalism," March 26, 2008

Andony Melathopoulos

Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008


A paradox confronts American environmentalists, according to James Gustave Speth, the Dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “We now have a flourishing environmental movement, a proliferating number of organisations, more and more money going into this, decades now of environmental legislation and programs, at all levels of government, and the environment keeps going downhill.”

The contradiction, according to Speth, results from the U.S. environmental movement focusing too narrowly on working “within the system.” They lobby, litigate and educate the public to the neglect of an “equally powerful effort to change the system itself.” “We haven’t challenged corporate power and the domination of wealth in our political process, we haven’t… challenged the deep subsidisation of environmental destruction… we haven’t challenged growth itself, we certainly haven’t challenged our own hyperventilating lifestyles.”

The environmental movement, he continues, must move beyond the victories of the 1970s that led to technocratic environmental regulation. It needs to go from being “basically… an inside the Beltway business” towards an “environmental movement that is far more committed to building grassroots political power. We need a real movement and we need to get real political about it.”

A major task of this grassroots political movement is to exert the pressure necessary to transform capitalism towards an ecologically sustainable end. Capitalism, according to Speth, presently cannot reproduce itself without concurrently increasing the level of economic activity. This activity, he maintains, can be “less or more environmentally destructive,” but ultimately undermines sustainable development. “This is the core of the problem. We have a system that is very successful at creating economic growth and this economic growth is inherently destructive and is overwhelming our efforts at environmental clean-up and environmental management.”

The crushing current of capitalist production, however, is one that Speth suggests can be mitigated. Prices can be adjusted to be “environmentally honest” through market-oriented instruments such as emission cap and trade permits. Growth can be tempered by shifting the focus away from traditional statistics that exclusively measure growth, such as Gross Domestic Product, towards ones that measure progress towards sustainability, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. Finally, the legal structure of large trans-national firms can be recast to make them responsive to environmental and social imperatives. “The corporations should be governed with the participation of all of the stakeholders in the corporation and not just the people elected by… the shareholders… this would change the dynamics of the corporations fundamentally. It would make the corporation a lot more open to protecting local communities where they live and work, it would make them a lot more responsible and responsive to environmental concerns… it would not be a constant war to maximize profits.” He even briefly situates his programme within an earlier revolutionary tradition: “We must dramatically change the publicly traded, limited liability global corporation just as previous generations set out to eliminate or control the monarchy”.

Ironically it was the Nineteenth Century European revolutions to “eliminate or control the monarchy” that primarily enabled the age of industrial capitalism. These capitalist social relations were far more productive and dynamic than the feudal relations that were overthrown. This dynamism and productivity, however, is interwoven with contradictions. The current environmental crisis highlights this contradictory character. Capitalism is not only generative of the blind runaway development that causes the damage, but also of a science which can quantify the damage and model scenarios for its mitigation, cultural currents that redefine use-values to include environmental parameters and even price mechanisms that warn capitalists of ecological constraints on productivity. Ultimately, our ability to both cause and recognise the problem is a product of capital. Dr. Speth’s renewed call to “eliminate or control the monarchy” arises from a growing gap between “how things are” (worsening environmental conditions) and “how things ought to be” (awareness of the possibility of solutions). This gap not only results in crisis, it also provides the revolutionary germ for transcending capitalism and, as such, the possibility of directly dealing with environmental problems. Crises, however, have been historically averted not by revolution, but by policies of reform. The ultimate goal of these reformisms is not the overcoming of capitalism, but rather, to make the necessary changes for it to persist. Unwittingly, by not confronting the fundamental logic of capitalism, reformism provides the basis for renewed contradictions and crisis.

Dr. Speth’s programme, in this sense, is not revolutionary, but reformist. Instead of fundamentally trying to reshape society in an ecologically sustainable way, as he frames his goal at the beginning of the interview, he brackets this transformation within the confines of capitalist production. Like the reformers of the past, he searches for the steps necessary to renew capitalist accumulation in the face of this latest looming crisis.

There are already a number of mechanisms to renew profitability in the face of environmental degradation. Speth provides an example of such a mechanism in his interview. Previous to the 1970s acid emissions grew in-step with economic activity in industrialised countries. Using a combination of stringent regulations (1970s) and a sulphur dioxide cap and trade emission trading system (1990s) the ratio of sulphur dioxide/GDP fell among U.S. firms by an average rate of 9% per year (1970–2000). The environmental crisis of acid rain, consequently, had the effect of encouraging capitalists to adapt and determine new ways of accumulating capital. These new ways increased profitability in spite of mitigation costs. The reproduction of capitalism in this non-polluting form, consequently, acted to restore profitability.

Harriett Friedmann points out “Just as a “coalition of enlightened capitalists, middle-class reformers and militant labor movements brought us not socialism but welfare capitalism” so the coalition of environmental, consumer and fair-trade movements promised not a reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity, but green capitalism.” Speth’s reformed capitalism is still capitalism and, as such, it is subjected to the contradictions inherent in all historic forms of capitalism. These contradictions invariably sew the seeds for new and varied crises. A good illustration of the self-perpetuating nature of reformism, and one that is of pressing relevance to the environmental movement, is the string of crises that have plagued agricultural production from the outset of industrial capitalism.

The rapid urbanisation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a disastrous rise in food prices. Instead of confronting capitalist production directly, British liberals resolved the crisis indirectly by eliminating agricultural tariffs. The European Diaspora in the Americas and Oceania responded to the opened market and increased their production of food. European capital tied these distant agricultural areas together in a network of railways and shipping fleets. By 1873 this network caused regional wheat prices to converge into a world market. This market expanded considerably and by 1929 its production had increased almost six-fold.

While the reforms of the first food crisis achieved the goal of reducing food costs in the urban industrialised core, it also created the basis for a renewed crisis. This new crisis had a different appearance. Perhaps the most devastating manifestation was the sudden drop in prices that resulted from overproduction coupled with intense international competition. Between 1925 and 1935 prices dropped steeply by two thirds and this undermined the profitability of most farmers.

The more well-known symbol of this crisis, however, was the ecological catastrophe of the “Dust Bowl”. Unlike the scientific focus on long-term soil fertility of the earlier English High Farming, the new era of Diasporic-Colonial farmers ploughed perennial grasslands down without an understanding of how to prevent chronic soil erosion. Within two generations, consequently, North American farms turned their highly productive soil into a wasteland.

The farm crisis of 1925–1935 was addressed in the U.S. by the New Deal reforms that supported beleaguered farmers through government purchases of surplus commodities. This form was replicated after the war by other advanced capitalist countries. Although this policy stabilised farm incomes it had the unintended consequence of subsidising the overproduction of food in advanced capitalist countries, which in turn, depressed production in developing countries. Furthermore, productivity was restored not by returning to High English Farming practices, but by a value maximizing assemblage of industrially-produced inputs, including machinery, agro-chemicals and genetically-improved seeds.

The continued failure to deal with the commodity nature of agricultural production resulted in a renewed food crisis in 1974, in the midst of a period of immense global economic turbulence. Falling profitability of U.S. manufacturers coupled with escalating national balance of payment deficits forced the U.S. to deal with its accumulated food surplus. A massive Soviet-American grain deal in 1972 and 1973 provided the U.S. an opportunity to sell off its massive surplus for needed hard currency. Consequently the reliably abundant U.S. food surplus was suddenly unavailable to developing countries and prices for grains and oilseeds tripled. Furthermore, the crisis precipitated the abandonment of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, which essentially enabled the freer movement of international capital, and consequently, the expansion of trans-national corporations. Corporate dominance, therefore, has more to do with the failure of an earlier reformist policy to deal with the financial instability that plagued the 1930s than, as Dr. Speth asserts, an unfortunate corporate legal structure. From this perspective, the increasing influence of corporate actors in determining agricultural development, from genetically modified crops to monoculture, must ultimately be understood as a historic failure of an earlier reformism rather than a property inherent of corporations per se.

The solution to the food crisis of 1974 was to work towards an international agreement on agricultural trade. We are presently witnessing the failure of this solution, as international food prices again sore in 2008. High food prices were the genesis of the original reforms in 1846 and yet, after three major international food crises, reformist policies have only deepened the problem. The failure to arrive at an international agreement on agricultural trade at the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round has set the stage for the latest reformist attempt to deal with the food crisis. Private capitals have seized on the failure of multilateral agricultural negotiations to establish their own international food standards. These standards have enabled the development of two internationally differentiated food streams: one stream for affluent consumers providing high quality food grown with environmentally sustainable practices and fair-trade labor, while another stream supplies the remainder of humanity with the opposite.

Herein lays a deeper problem with reforming capitalism and one that drives at the heart of the paradox identified by Speth at the beginning of his interview: why in the face of a looming environmental crisis does a mass movement of “common concern” fail to act? The constant cycle of reformism and crisis suggests that an underlying dynamic is directing events rather than the actions of political movements. In the absence of an international politics of the Left, contemporary politics are unable to fully confront or resolve crises and are, thus, understandably disempowering. While the instruments of reform (eg. cap and trade emission trading system, redesigning corporate legal structures) have the capacity to avert crisis, they focus on these “means” at the expense of seriously considering the “ends,” or more specifically, the “reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity.” Speth’s “ends” are all mediated indirectly through capitalism. It is this indirect path, I believe, that has made environmental politics resemble more a “will-less football” than the necessary and engaged mass movement that it needs to be. |P