Capitalism as an environmental issue

Jim Davis (my blog)

Economics describes the systematic way in which humans interact with the environment in the production and reproduction of their lives. As such, no environmental issue exists independent of economic relations. The common root of "ecology" and "economy" -- "ecology" as the study of the "house" (oikos) we live in, and "economy" as the "management" of that house -- hint at their profound interconnection. The long list of environmental crises facing our planet suggests faulty household management. Using Marxist concepts, this paper explores the interrelationship of today's economy and these environmental crises. I will show how these crises are either a direct result of, or exacerbated by, the dynamics of capitalism. As a result, the solution to these crises cannot be separated, or solved within, capitalism.

The first chapter of Cunningham, Cunningham and Saigo's (2005) textbook on environmental science recounts a "dismal litany of problems" (p. 23): a growing world population straining global air, water, energy and food resources; an accelerated loss of biodiversity on the same scale as the dinosaur extinction; and the stark polarization of global wealth and poverty -- 200 people have more wealth than half of the world's people; almost half of the world's population lives of less that $2 per day.

Scratching the surface of each of these issues quickly reveals the web of contemporary economic relationships. We live in a capitalist economy. While the capitalist system has still not yet penetrated into every corner of people's lives, it does dominate the world economy, with a few notable exceptions. Capitalism as a system is based on the private ownership of the means of production, expropriating unpaid labor (surplus value) through the production and distribution of commodities, with a goal of the maximization of profit. In Capital, Marx explored the internal dynamics of capitalism, arguing that as a system, capitalism must grow or die. At the risk of "pain of going under", the capitalist has little choice about this (Marx, 1981). This internal logic prompted Marx and Engels to write in the Communist Manifesto, "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere." (Marx and Engels, 1848)

Historically, this chasing, nestling and settling has included the search for raw materials and new markets in the process of expansion. The maximization of profit means finding the cheapest sources, using the cheapest labor, and externalizing costs such as waste disposal and pollution. The expansion of the market takes place extensively, by pulling new geographic regions into the market; and intensively, by commodifying or privatizing previously non-market activities and actively promoting an increase in personal consumption through the manufacture of desires. Within this process, technology is constantly developing, affecting the reach and speed of economic circuits, upsetting the process of accumulation, and changing the arithmetic of value.

The polarization of wealth and poverty is an emergent property of capitalism -- without any state intervention, wealth will pool in the hands of a few people, while poverty will drown the vast majority.

Cunningham et al. describe the environmental consequences of this pressing poverty, but the roots of the poverty -- and hence the environmental consequences -- are in the private ownership of the means of production and the maximization of profit. For those able to consume, the heavy environmental footprint of the consumer (in particular the American consumer) is a direct result of an economic system that requires the maximization of consumption to satisfy the maximization of profit.

Can capitalism be contained, toned down, or even reformed? The environmental movement of the 1970s enjoyed some success in winning legislation to control some of the worst abuses connected with capitalist economic activity, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act (Werber, 2005). However, these kinds of controls run counter to the logic of the maximization of profit. Crises are endemic to capitalism and the crisis of accumulation in the 1970s fueled the neoliberal push for reduced government, the opening of closed markets, and free capital flows that today we associate with globalization. The flow of capitalism runs today in the other direction -- towards less scrutiny, less control, fewer taxes, and no regulation. These are the ideal conditions for profit maximization.

"Green capitalism", where the production of surplus value occurs through the production of renewable energy technologies, waste reclamation, trading pollution credits or even ecotourism, may address certain facets of environmental destruction, but still replicates the relations of capitalism globally, which must function on the basis of profit maximization. A hybrid car is a good thing, but it does not address urban sprawl and habitat loss, the impoverishment of the workforce, or the resource depletion that goes into making the car. While "going green" makes certain sense within the logic of capitalism as a toxic environment becomes more of an internal cost, or waste can be commodified and become a new source of profit, such choices do not eliminate wealth polarization and alienation. And so the broader destructive impact of capitalism on the planet will remain (Kovel, 2002).

Cunningham et al. point out that the solution to environmental problems (which are rooted in social problems) in fact is not complicated: re-order economic priorities to favor sustainable development and devote a fraction of the money currently spent on the military worldwide to social development. Inherent in these solutions though is a revolution in economic and social activity. One cannot wish away the internal dynamics or laws of a system and still preserve it. The economic priorities of capitalism cannot be "re-ordered" without destroying the economy as capitalism and reconstructing it as something else, something benign and sustainable.

The dismal litany seems to be getting longer. But capitalism as a system is historical. Modes of production have come and gone in the past, and there is no reason to believe that this will not be the case with capitalism. The environmental movement, to really succeed in creating a sustainable economy that preserves the remarkable ecology of Earth, must dig into the real processes underlying the current eco-catastrophe and there discover the path to real solutions.


Cunningham, W., Cunningham, M., & Saigo, B. (2005). Environmental science: a global concern. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Foster, J. B. (1999). The vulnerable planet: A short economic history of the environment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, J. B. (2002). Marx's ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Kovel, J. (2002). The enemy of nature: The end of capitalism or the end of the world? London: Zed Books.

Marx, K. (1981). Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. III. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manfesto. Retrieved January 16, 2006 from

Merchant, C. (1989). Ecological revolutions: nature, gender, and science in New England. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Werbach, A. (2005, June 21). Environmentalism is dead. What's next? In These Times. June 21, 2005. Retrieved January 5, 2006 from