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Would capitalism be able to function without environmental destruction?

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Soapy
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Feb 4 2015 15:40
Would capitalism be able to function without environmental destruction?

According to D Harvey Oswald capitalism requires an annual 3% compound growth rate to ensure that current surpluses in production can be purchased by future surpluses in liquidity. This requires constant expansion in consumption, production, and investment. However, this constant need for expansion causes serious problems like environmental destruction and global warming. The liberal solution to this situation is shift all consumption, production, and investment habits to renewable energy (although often so called renewable energy entails its own massive environmental consequences like wind power for example), compostable materials (which dont biodegrade unless placed in an area specially marked for composting) etc...

But then could capitalism still achieve its 3% compound growth rate? The only way capitalism was able to extricate itself from the depression of the 1930s was through an economy which first was based entirely around production of war materiels and then after the war suburbanisation and the reconstruction of europe. All of this was highly wasteful and laid the groundwork for the current environmental crises. Then after those projects were completed there was stagflation, followed by massive wage repression and the opening up of investment opportunities in order to find new sectors for capital to expand into. Umm...i guess and what im saying is that i cant really imagine an economy based around "green jobs" that wouldnt also be environmentally destructive in its own right but try telling that to the people at the "power shift" conferences.

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Feb 4 2015 16:22

To sum up i guess im asking since capitalism has always relied on environmentally destructive operations to achieve growth, is it at all possible to achieve growth using environmentally sustainable methods

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Feb 4 2015 17:38

These questions are discussed in the following article, specifically the second section sub-headed "Profiting from the planet"

WSM: An End to Growth? Beyond the productivist bias of the historical left

There's an easy short-cut argument you can make from value theory, but then you have to justify value theory, so it ends up not being so much of a shortcut in the end.

But, in outline, that is: Capital's valorisation depends on the sale of commodities embodying surplus value extracted from wage labour. As productivity increases, the amount of surplus value embodied in each commodity is reduced, therefore capital's expanded reproduction requires an ever-increasing production and consumption of commodities. Tendentially, given the increase of labour productivity often involves a substitution of labour power by material inputs (including power), the rate of increase of material productivity per commodity is less than that of labour productivity, such that to extract surplus value from the same (never mind increasing) mass of labour power means the extraction and use of ever-increasing amounts of natural resources and energy. In a wage-based cost system, the only disincentive to use of natural resources is the ever-decreasing labour cost in their extraction.

There's a slightly more involved argument about renewable energy resources to do with the difference between up-front or "sunk" costs, versus marginal production or running costs (i.e. the cost to produce an additional unit of output, once initial investment into sunk-cost capital has occurred), which people like Michael Perelman have implicated in the great economic crash following the railroad boom. It could also arguably become politically problematic to charge $X amount for KWh being generated from renewable generators once they're built and in service. Either way, a fuel commodity based power industry has a more proven profit model.

confusionboats
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Feb 5 2015 01:34

I don't think that it would be impossible for Capital to revolve-itself into environmental sustainability (given some kind of 'radical neoliberal' leftish reform) I just think that it is extremely unlikely.

I guess I mean it could.... technically
It would just never be safe to assume that it would

but then I guess I sort of vaguely accept value theory and vaguely reject economic determinism so my position is somewhat ..?

(I'm not and never have been an anarcho-primitivist mais,) I also think that the characterization of techno-pessimism as being 'Malthusian' is just outright slander..

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Feb 5 2015 08:09

Ocelot's points are good. You sometimes hear talk of 'dematerialsing' the economy, but aside from the fact e.g. software or internet commodities require energy-intensive hardware, the only other areas that are less material-intensive are things like care. But care is resistant to automation, and thus has low potential for productivity gains. So any major shift in this direction would likely slow or stagnate growth.

Paul Burkett also uses a value form analysis: for Marx, capitalist production is a combination of labour power (itself a force of nature) with nature. But nature appears as a 'free gift', and the drive to economise on socially necessary abstract labour time typically depletes it. So for example, if depleting the soil can drive down agricultural production costs - and therefore the cost of labour power - then it will be done. Hence the 19th century guano rush, and the importance of the (energy intensive) Haber process to agriculture since the 20th century.

The mainstream response to nature as a 'free gift' is to put a price on it. There's a lot of talk about pricing 'ecosystem services' at the moment, as well as carbon markets (and quasi-market techniques like shadow pricing and cost-benefit analysis). Economically, these amount to rents, i.e. claims on the total surplus value, not new additions to it. So even if states are willing and able to impose such property rights in a scarce enough way, and willing and able to police them and punish violators, this would seem to decrease the overall level of profits by spreading surplus out thinner with the addition of new rentiers (or at best, redistribute profits among the capitalists; depends if the new property rights expand the class of capitalists I think...).

The other mainstream claim you come across is the environmental Kuznets curve. This is dubious (wikipedia gives a good summary of the controversy). Not least because the supposed 'environmental improvement' phase remarkably coincides with the period of off-shoring and deindustrialisation in the Western world since the 1970s, so it's not obvious that the nation-state is the appropriate level of analysis for globalised production chains. And while something like this might apply to some pollutants, it seems unlikely to apply to environmental impacts per se, for the structural/value-form type reasons above.

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Feb 5 2015 14:34
confusionboats wrote:
I don't think that it would be impossible for Capital to revolve-itself into environmental sustainability (given some kind of 'radical neoliberal' leftish reform) I just think that it is extremely unlikely.

I guess I mean it could.... technically
It would just never be safe to assume that it would

There's certainly no technical obstacles to transforming to a more sustainable form of social production. The problem is that there don't appear to be any paths from here to there that lie along the route of profit-maximisation.

The actual historical development of capitalism can, and has, deviated at times from the path of short-term profit maximisation, but so far only under the pressure of an existentially-threatening balance of class forces. So the problem, AFAICS, is really one of agency. And if we could somehow arrive at such a propitious balance of class forces, why settle only for green capitalism?

confusionboats wrote:
(I'm not and never have been an anarcho-primitivist mais,) I also think that the characterization of techno-pessimism as being 'Malthusian' is just outright slander..

in fairness the linked article does distinguish between Malthusian techno-pessimism and an non-Malthusian wing - arguing as it does for the development of the latter.

Quote:
Techno-pessimists are themselves subdivided into two camps. One of which believes either that there are no technological fixes to capitalist growth because technology itself is the problem or that the overuse of natural resources is, as Malthus proposed, somehow innate to the human species, left to its own devices. The other camp does not fully share these beliefs, but what defines them as a pole apart is poorly defined.
.
It is a core proposition of this article that this lack of definition represents a historic failure by the left to build a properly anti-capitalist and egalitarian alternative to the “sustainable growth” illusions of the techno-optimists.

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Feb 5 2015 17:09

@JK

From what I understand you are saying that the key productive industries are tied too heavily to highly energy consuming automation for them to become sustainable. However, what about a hypothetical situation where energy was coming from renewable sources?

First of all, ignoring all of the powerful interest groups which currently prevent any sort of shift to renewable energy (other than the ludicrous ethanol solution) is it technically possible for production to be powered by renewable sources of energy?

Second of all, are there any sources of renewable energy which are not environmentally destructive in their own right?

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Feb 5 2015 18:07
Soapy wrote:
what about a hypothetical situation where energy was coming from renewable sources?

Yeah, in theory this could happen. Renewables are a booming industry. However, all previous energy transitions have been additive, not eliminative (edit: except maybe whale oil being eliminated by fossil oil):

80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to have just a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees; that's the tricky bit. Compared to writing off $20trillion or so in assets, a few subsidies for renewables and taxes on carbon are easy. I think as ocelot says, the barrier isn't technical, but political-economic. In the face of a large, militant movement, it's possible that states could legislate to ban further fossil fuel extraction... some kind of greened capitalism could be the result, if said movement doesn't develop a successful revolutionary dynamic.

BUT, that's only considering greenhouse gases. Wind turbines need mined materials, capitalist mining is still really polluting, so you'd need movements there too, and so on at pretty much all manufacturing/agricultural/extractive points. Again, these aren't hard technical limits, but principally political-economic ones. Challenging this at every point, then forcing the state not only to legislate, but then seriously enforce such costly regulations against the wishes of large sections of the capitalist class starts sounding like the movements have become the ruling force in society... in which case why not just expropriate?

(I need to look into mining more, but my understanding is it could be done a lot more cleanly, but that would push up costs, so it tends to be done as cheaply as local populations and legislation allows... so I don't think renewables are inherently reliant on ecologically destructive practices, but at present they're produced as commodities by capitalist firms like - almost - everything else.)

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Feb 8 2015 16:31

@Ocelot

Quote:
Tendentially, given the increase of labour productivity often involves a substitution of labour power by material inputs (including power), the rate of increase of material productivity per commodity is less than that of labour productivity, such that to extract surplus value from the same (never mind increasing) mass of labour power means the extraction and use of ever-increasing amounts of natural resources and energy.

Layman's terms?

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Feb 8 2015 16:56

it just means that due to the pressure of competition, the race to the bottom, you have to sell more, hence you need to produce more, this will naturally put a larger strain on natural resources, you will not bother with environmental safeguards etc. In other words, in its drive for surplus-value, capital is "using up" both people and planet.

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Feb 8 2015 20:27

I think ocelot is also saying that economising on labour means substituting energy and machinery throughputs for human muscle power, so there's an in-built tendency to increase energy/resource use right there in the drive to economise on labour.

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Feb 8 2015 21:48

Yes, he is indeed.

B_Reasonable
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Feb 9 2015 17:26
Soapy wrote:
The only way capitalism was able to extricate itself from the depression of the 1930s was through an economy which first was based entirely around production of war materiels and then after the war suburbanisation and the reconstruction of europe.

This view underplays the importance of the destruction of capital and the consequent increase in profitability.

Andrew Kliman wrote wrote:
The rates of profit skyrocketed during World War II. However, the rebound in profitability was not solely a wartime phenomenon. Nor was it driven solely by demand -- government borrowing to fight the war, foreign purchases of military equipment, and the “pent-up demand” that was supposedly unleashed when the war ended. It is doubtful that pent-up demand explains much of anything, since real GDP fell after the war —- largely because of an 81 percent decline in national defense spending between 1944 and 1947bn— and did not return to its 1945 level until mid-1950. And strong demand during the war cannot account for the fact that the rates of profit remained quite high through the mid-1950s.

What a purely demand-side explanation ignores is the tremendous boost to profitability provided by the destruction of capital value during the Depression and war. During the 14 years between the start of 1931 and the start of 1945, U.S. corporations’ advanced capital increased by 3 percent. To understand the magnitude of destruction that this implies, the 3 percent increase can be contrasted to the 164 percent increase in GDP during the same period, and the 192 percent increase in corporations’ advanced capital during the following 14 years. If advanced capital had not fallen in relationship to GDP between the start of 1930 and the start of 1947, its level at the start of 1947 w ould have been more than twice as great as it actually was, which means that rates of profit would have been less than half of what they actually were — that is, roughly at the same levels as those to which they fell during the next 60 years. And if that situation had persisted through the mid-1950s, there would have been no postwar boom in profitability. It is doubtful whether there would have been a postwar boom at all.

p76/77, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 2012 by Andrew Kliman

Periodically, there are discontinuities in the accumulation of capital, such as WWII or debt 'haircuts', that mean that it isn't necessarily inconsistent to maintain Capitalism (with say 3% compound growth) and need a geometric growth is the use of the Earth's resources. This allows for the possibility of the Green agenda towards low-energy and low-tech, perhaps combined with a Workerist anti-automation/right-to-work push, to impose state-restrictions that allow Green Capitalism to thrive.

Joseph Kay wrote:
However, all previous energy transitions have been additive, not eliminative (edit: except maybe whale oil being eliminated by fossil oil):

This is slightly misleading because is doesn't factor in the geographical growth and 'progression' of Capitalist production over time. Here in SW Wales, 150 years ago domestic heating was biofuels and industry powered by water, then coal came and went, replaced mainly by petrol and gas and now there are wind and solar farms with tidal power probably on the way. It is not unlikely that in time a similar degree of replacement will happen in the more newly industrialised regions, such as China. More generally, this demonstrates that replacement and elimination are possible within Capitalism.

Joseph Kay wrote:
I think ocelot is also saying that economising on labour means substituting energy and machinery throughputs for human muscle power, so there's an in-built tendency to increase energy/resource use right there in the drive to economise on labour.

If a Green Capitalist state restricts the use of energy/resources, for all market participants, it is still possible to cut production costs by replacing living labour with machines that consume the same or less resources than the people they replace.

I think there is a real possibility of Capitalism being able to function without environmental destruction, but more importantly, there is an even greater danger of the Green Movement convincing people that it's a desirable possibility. The Malthusian projections being used on this thread are symptomatic of a complacency and wishful thinking on the radical Left: 'The Green Movement can't hurt the emancipatory project -- because Capitalism can't go Green anyway -- and it might help radicalise people along the way.'

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Feb 9 2015 17:38

@B_Reasonable

Are you suggesting that the post-war boom was due to the fact that commodities had become scarce after the war thereby increasing their value?

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Feb 9 2015 18:28

Who's D Harvey Oswald? I tried googling, found his brother Lee, etc. can't find D.

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Feb 9 2015 20:57

David harvey smile

B_Reasonable
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Feb 11 2015 09:59
Soapy wrote:
@B_Reasonable

Are you suggesting that the post-war boom was due to the fact that commodities had become scarce after the war thereby increasing their value?

No, that a key factor in the post-war boom was that capital assets/inputs had become cheaper in comparison to the income from the commodities that could be produced from them. This served to increase profitability and stimulate further investment in turning these 'cheap' assets into productive capacity. This effect was both due to the company failures during depression and destruction from the war.