China Environmental Law

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Climate Change: What Would Marx Do?

March 2nd, 2009 · 7 Comments

Would you like a Marxist critique of capitalism’s response to global warming?  No, ok skip today’s post and come back tomorrow.  Yes, read on, although I will only give you the smallest snippets of a 16 page article entitled A Failed System: The World Crisis of Capitalist Globalization and its Impact on China  which was “originally a presentation delivered to the International Conference on the Critique of Capital in the Era of Globalization, Suzhou University, Suzhou, China, January 11, 2009.”

One gets the sense the “impact on China” part was an afterthought.  The article is primarily a critique of the capitalist system and its creation of and response to the current economic crisis.  It does, however, touch upon the way capitalism (at least American capitalism) responds (or rather fails to respond) to global warming. 

Many non-Marxist commentators have noted that economists constitute the leading ideological opponents of aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although few of those commentators ascribe this phenomenon to the fact that the “primary role” of these economists is “as ideological defenders of the capitalist system and promoters of its drive for profits and accumulation at any cost.”  It certainly is true, however, that “establishment economists generally argue against any major attempt to avert climate change, i.e., to bailout nature. At the same time they do not hesitate to advocate spending trillions of dollars to bailout banks.”

The article’s attempt to paint Marx as a proto-environmentalist is especially unconvincing, but there is one paragraph which raises an issue that deserves further consideration:

Capitalism’s ultimate solution to ecological problems-since fundamental changes in the system itself are off limits-is technological. But any technological gains in efficiency in the use of natural resources are overwhelmed by the extensive and ecologically disruptive pattern of growth that characterizes this rapacious system. Hence, capitalism is a failed system where ecological sustainability is concerned.

Is a sustainable society by definition not a capitalist one?

Tags: environmental policy

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lotsa Advice // Mar 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Ask Marx’s wife.

  • 2 Geoff // Mar 2, 2009 at 10:56 pm


    Interesting closing question there. I disagree with the premise that a sustainable society is by definition not a capitalist one.

    I’ll respond with a quote from Natural Capitalism:

    “For all their power and vitality, markets are only tools. They make a good servant but a bad master and a worse religion. They can be used to accomplish many important tasks, but they can’t do everything, and it’s a dangerous delusion to begin to believe that they can—especially when they threaten to replace ethics or politics.”

  • 3 Francis // Mar 3, 2009 at 3:41 am

    Note and disclaimer: Below are a bunch of musings. Obviously, they could and should be elaborated and researched if they are to be taken seriously. Still, I may have hit onto something with one of them.

    >>Is a sustainable society by definition not a capitalist one?

    Haha. I would suppose an affirmative answer to that would depend on if the land, water, and air itself lacks value or can’t be valued. If you can put a value on those things and measure the impact that environmental degradation does, then I suppose it WOULD be valuable to set aside land for non-development.

    Therefore, park land would be worthwhile because every tree could be counted toward removing carbon from the air. (Practically, I don’t see this valuation ever being feasible.)

    But I suppose, in a sense, this is what carbon-trading and carbon-taxes attempt to accomplish.

    Currently, the tragedy of the commons menaces the world since clean air is difficult to value or commoditize… Still, that tragedy would likely strike a Marxist society just as harshly as it would strike a capitalist society, if not harsher, as I believe Russia’s and China’s past environmental woes have demonstrated. One could argue that a communist society which valued environmentalism over production would behave differently, and perhaps that society would– but the inefficiencies produced by Communist “markets” would probably necessitate workers putting bread on the table rather than reducing carbon emissions worldwide 0.0000001%.

    Due to a mix of factors and arguably due to the societies’ increasing wealth (see: The Kuznet’s Curve… and thus increased leisure time to protest about pollution, and ability to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to become more concerned with the environment than with creating cheap-and-easy jobs), capitalist Japan and the US generally recovered and improved their environments from old highlighted 1960s disasters. This move up the Environmental Kuznets Curve seems to indicate that a sustainable society IS a capitalist one. As people become richer, they can value environmentalism to a greater degree.

    Perhaps if the world’s governments found a way to commoditize clean air just like Dasani and other water manufacturers have commoditized those little plastic water bottles, then there will be a capitalist incentive to support even more environmentalism. Then again, one could argue there already IS capitalist incentive to support greater environmentalism- consumers choose with their wallets; they can buy from a “green” company or they can choose not to. They can buy a more expensive “green” car, or they can buy the cheaper car. Companies might seek to be greener so they can acquire good PR and acquire more customers. Capitalism gives a great deal of incentives toward “greenness” when people know just how “green” any one product is.

    Still, can you imagine how nervous and depressed everyone would be if everything is properly valued- especially if citizensbarely see an improvement in the world’s environment due to their miniscule personal effect on pollution, but they see a gigantic rise in prices for everything? Would you ever be able to eat meat again as its price goes through the roof due to carbon taxes? Would you ever be able to drive your car as taxes on emissions rise prohibitively?

    If a sustainable society is not capitalist, then what is it? It’s probably not Communist. Is it socialist- if government-inspired carbon taxation is considered socialist, then perhaps the only sustainable societies can be socialist societies that force a value on the “common good” and the “commons” and then allow people to trade within that schema.

    Personally, I prefer to imagine that a capitalist society would be the most sustainable. In that society, absolutely every blade of grass, tree, parkland is valued and assessed, but emissions themselves are not taxed; this could create incentives for people to plant trees and could make undeveloped land more valuable.

    But that seems elusive when it is so difficult to really value just what a clean piece of air is worth, and when everyone creates noxious emissions when they use their electricity, run their refrigerators, run their cars. And additionally, such a valuation would perversely encourage non-development. It would basically create a new currency. Instead of gold being valuable, what would really be traded would be “Greenness.” Therefore, the richest countries would be, in many cases, the most undeveloped.

    Odd scenario.

  • 4 cmcelwee // Mar 3, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Geoff & Francis: Thanks for your thoughtful comments! Francis: I wish I could “muse” like you can. Here’s a post from Legal Planet:
    The Environmental Law and Policy Blog that considers some of these issues, but not as well as you two have: Is Environmental Law Socialist? I’ve got to mull this one over a bit before I’m ready to venture and opinion. In the meantime, it may be wise to buy property in Kyrgyzstan.

  • 5 Francis // Mar 4, 2009 at 3:00 am

    Thank you for the link to the Legal Planet article. It was interesting.

    I think they probably said what I tried to say much more concisely when they commented that;

    “but environmentalists do tend to think that property right come with complementary obligations to respect the public interest. If as we are taught in law school, property is a “bundle of sticks,” then the public holds some of the sticks, and so even “private property” has its public aspect.”


    “economics, which has long identified externalities like pollution as prime market failures.”

    Society, in America at least, already accounts for environmental concerns to some degree- people are not allowed to dump trash anywhere they please (they often need to pay for removal); seepage and spillage by oil companies into groundwater and aquifiers carries penalties; etc. All these consequences raise the cost of doing business, but they appear to be reasonable when weighed against the alternatives.

    It seems that environmental sustainability can be assured to some degree by conducting a B<PL calculation. If the burden of caring for the environment is less than the L-Amount of Liability of the Damage and P, the probability of the damage, then in a capitalist society, it is economically feasible to build in the costs.

    Regrettably, I have yet to see any proximate and definite evaluation of exactly how much damage each person’s carbon emissions actually do to the environment. There seems to be some evidence that they do damage, but it seems a bit impossible to quantify how much is gained by eliminating one carbon source or taxing one source prohibitively so that a poor person cannot afford to drive to work.

    If some brilliant scientist could effectively demonstrate exactly how certain types of pollutants damage the environment and exactly how much a reduction can save the environment and effectively benefit everyone, rich and poor; then I think the market would be extremely amenable to building in the cost. (Caveat: I have read summaries of carbon tax and cap and trade plans but have not had an opportunity to examine the science in depth as much as the subject deserves.)

    In the absence of a clear cost-value calculation of pollutants’ externalities, it would seem that the imposition of arbitrary restrictions would be socialist- a government would be determining value by fiat and to prevent popular outcry, the world would probably have to subsidize the poor and poor countries whose carbon would be taxed ; or the government would make the world currency “greens” and the richest country would be that which produces the least greenhouse gases- everyone else would buy carbon credits from them (like from our beloved Kyrgyzstan))

    Without a way to effectively quantify and measure damage and what can be gained by fixing the damage, it would seem that a capitalist economy would be unable to be sustainable. But when a way to quantify and measure damage emerges, then public outcry may be heard, as it was with the (1990s???) outrage against CFLs, and it may become feasible, in a capitalist market, to price in the true cost of production.

    Apologies for the length. I wish I could speak briefer on the subject, but it just seems to have so many nuances and I want to make certain I mention all the important issues.


  • 6 Greg // Mar 4, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Well, after 3 glasses of pinot I can’t muse too much on this idea, but I do know that Marxist paradises such as NK and the USSR are environmental nightmares, so it is evident that central planning by a “people’s committee” is not the way to go. On the other hand, we should all fear and dread the day that markets have full control of water carbon as commodities and thus set the price of our day to day lives.

  • 7 cmcelwee // Mar 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    @Greg: the best time to read CELB is after 3 glasses of wine. Keep the musings coming.

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