22 May 2018

Capitalism has the answer, but what's the question?

In an interview given for the catalogue for "After the End of the World" (an exploration of the elements and impacts of climate change that I saw a few months ago in Barcelona), Kim Stanley Robinson, a successful science fiction writer, reflects on the "political economy of the Anthropocene":
This is what bothers me in economics: its blind adherence to the capitalist movement even when it is so destructive. Enormous amounts of intellectual energy are going into the pseudo-quantitative legal analysis of an already existing system that's destructive. Well, this is not good enough anymore because it's wrecking the biophysical infrastructure.
As an environmental economist, I am familiar with this critique as well as its weaknesses.

First, you have Robinson's misunderstanding of capitalism, defined as "an economic system based upon private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit." As you can see in this definition, capitalism is about ownership and profit -- in contrast to other systems (communism) where ownership rests with the state or collective or profits are not the goal.

Second, "means of production" almost always means physical, human and intellectual capital, i.e., factories, institutions and ideas. Although it's possible to include natural capital (ecosystems) in this definition as a means of including discussions over its depletion, such an extension would be a mistake, as natural capital is a collective good that cannot be managed or controlled by private individuals.

Third, a capitalist system, like all economic systems, is embedded in the political system where collective decisions are made about how the market should interact with non-market aspects of life. My tweet from a few months ago captures the reality:
Nature doesn’t need us. We need nature.
Fourth (and finally), we can therefore see how capitalism will help or harm ecosystems in exactly the way that "society" decides. That's why, for example, some countries have useful regulations regarding pollution while others have counterproductive policies to subsidize fossil fuels. It is this distinction (as well as the impressive way that capitalism "solves" problems to make profits) that Robinson misses.

Bottom line: Capitalism is not the driver of the Anthropocene as much as political and social decisions to ignore the costs of private consumption on ecosystems and other communal assets. We can have "sustainable capitalism" today by imposing the social as well as private costs of private consumption on individual consumers and capitalist producers.

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