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Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis—Is Technology the Answer?

John Bellamy Foster is an acting editor, of Monthly Review. He is the author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and The Vulnerable Planet, and co-editor of Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, all published by Monthly Review Press.
(This article was written for presentation at the Hitotsubashi Symposium, “The Twentieth Century: Dreams and Realities,” Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, December 2-3, 2000.)

The standard solution offered to the environmental problem in advanced capitalist economies is to shift technology in a more benign direction: more energy-efficient production, cars that get better mileage, replacement of fossil fuels with solar power, and recycling of resources. Other environmental reforms, such as reductions in population growth and even cuts in consumption, are often advocated as well. The magic bullet of technology, however, is by far the favorite, seeming to hold out the possibility of environmental improvement with the least effect on the smooth working of the capitalist machine. The 1997 International Kyoto Protocol on global warming, designed to limit the greenhouse-gas emissions of nations, has only reinforced this attitude, encouraging many environmental advocates in the United States (including Al Gore in his presidential campaign) to advocate technological improvement in energy efficiency as the main escape from the environmental mess.

There are two ways in which technological change can lower environmental impact. First, it can reduce the materials and energy used per unit of output and, second, it can substitute less harmful technology. Much of the improvement in air quality since the nineteenth century, including its aesthetics, resulted from the reduction in the smoke and sulfur dioxide emissions for which coal-burning is notorious. Solar energy, in contrast to other present and prospective sources of energy, is not only available in inexhaustible supply (though limited at any given time and place), but is also ecologically benign. Environmentalists in general therefore prefer a shift to solar energy. Such considerations have encouraged the view that all stops should be pulled out on promoting technologies that increase efficiency, particularly of energy, and use more benign productive processes that get rid of the worst pollutants.

I want to concentrate here on the energy efficiency part of this. The issue of the materials used and the production technology are much more intractable problems under the current regime of accumulation. One of the reasons for this is that current productive processes often involve toxins of the worst imaginable kind. For example, we know that the proliferation of synthetic chemicals, many of which are extraordinarily harmful—carcinogenic and teratogenic—is associated with the growth of the petrochemical industry and agribusiness, producing products such as plastics and pesticides. (This was the central message of Barry Commoner’s Closing Circle.) Yet attempts to overcome this dependence on toxic production create a degree of resistance from the vested interests of the capitalist order that only a revolutionary movement could surmount. In contrast, straightforward improvements in energy efficiency have always been emphasized by capital itself, and fall theoretically within the domain of what the system is said to be able to accomplish—even what it prides itself in.

In the past, it was common for environmentalists to compare the problems of the “three worlds” using the well-known environmental impact or “PAT” formula (Population x Affluence x Technology=Environmental Impact). The third world’s environmental problems, according to this dominant perspective, could be seen as arising first and foremost from population growth rather than technology or affluence (given the low level of industrialization). The environmental problems of the Soviet bloc were attributed to its inferior technology, which was less efficient in terms of materials and energy consumed per unit of out-put, and more toxic in its immediate, localized environmental effects, than in the West. The West’s chief environmental problem, in contrast, was attributed neither to its population growth nor its technology (areas in which it had comparative environmental advantages), but to its affluence and the growing burden that this imposed on the environment. The ace in the hole for the wealthy capitalist countries was always seen to be their technological prowess—which would allow them to promote environmental improvements while also expanding their affluence (that is, growth of capital and consumption).

What likelihood then is there that new or newly applied technology will be able to prevent environmental degradation from expanding along with the economy?

The Jevons Paradox

In order to answer this question it is useful to look at what ecological economists call the Jevons Paradox.* William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) is best known as a British economist who was one of the pioneers of contemporary neoclassical economic analysis, with its subjective value theory rooted in marginal utility. Jevons first achieved national fame, however, for his work The Coal Question (1865). Jevons argued that British industrial growth had relied on cheap coal and that the increasing cost of coal, as deeper seams were mined, would generate economic stagnation. Substituting coal for corn, within the general Malthusian argument that says population increases faster than food supply, he observed: “Our subsistence no longer depends upon our produce of corn. The momentous repeal of the Corn Laws throws us from corn upon coal” (The Coal Question, 3rd edition, 194-195). Jevons argued that neither technology nor substitutability (that is, the substitution of other energy sources for coal) could alter this. Jevons was fabulously wrong in his calculations. His main mistake was to underestimate the importance of coal substitutes such as petroleum and hydroelectric power. Commenting on Jevons’ argument in 1936, Keynes said it was “over-strained and exaggerated” (Essays in Biography, 1951, 259).

But there is one aspect of Jevons’ argument that has attracted the admiration of ecological economists. Chapter Seven of The Coal Question was entitled “Of the Economy of Fuel.” Here he argued that increased efficiency in using a natural resource, such as coal, only resulted in increased demand for that resource, not a reduction in demand. This was because such improvement in efficiency led to a rising scale of production. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas,” Jevons wrote,

to suppose that the economic use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, the new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption according to a principle recognized in many parallel instances…. The same principles apply, with even greater force and distinctiveness to the use of such a general agent as coal. It is the very economy of its use which leads to its extensive consumption…. Nor is it difficult to see how this paradox arises…. If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each. And if such is not always the result within a single branch, it must be remembered that the progress of any branch of manufacture excites a new activity in most other branches and leads indirectly, if not directly, to increased inroads upon our seams of coal…. Civilization, says Baron Liebig, is the economy of power, and our power is coal. It is the very economy of the use of coal that makes our industry what it is; and the more we render it efficient and economical, the more will our industry thrive, and our works of civilization grow (140-142).

Jevons went on to argue in detail that the whole history of the steam engine was a history of successive economies in its use— and each time this led to further increases in the scale of production and the demand for coal. “Every such improvement of the engine,” he observed, “when effected, does but accelerate anew the consumption of coal. Every branch of manufacture receives a fresh impulse—hand labor is still further replaced by mechanical labor” (152-153).

The contemporary significance of the Jevons paradox is seen with respect to the automobile in the United States. The introduction of more energy-efficient automobiles in this country in the 1970s did not curtail the demand for fuel because driving increased and the number of cars on the road soon doubled. Similarly, technological improvements in refrigeration simply led to more and larger refrigerators. The same tendencies are in effect within industry, independent of individual consumption.

Technology and Accumulation

Although Jevons is credited deservedly for introducing his paradox, the full force of the problem he raises is not addressed in The Coal Question. As one of the early neoclassical economists, Jevons had abandoned the focus on class and accumulation that characterized the work of the classical economists. His economic analysis was primarily static equilibrium theory, ill-equipped to deal with dynamic issues of accumulation and growth. Jevons, who in many ways naturalized capitalism, could provide no more convincing explanations for continuously increasing demand than to point to individual behavior and Malthusian demographics.

Here it is important to acknowledge that capitalism is a system that pursues accumulation and growth for its own sake. It is a juggernaut driven by the single-minded need on the part of business for ever-greater accumulation of capital. “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” wrote Marx in Capital (vol. 1, chapter 24, section 3). The only real checks on this process are those generated by mutual competition and impersonal market forces, and, over the long run, periodic crises.

To be sure, mainstream economists since the days of Adam Smith have claimed that capitalism is a system devoted directly to the pursuit of wealth but indirectly to the pursuit of human needs. In reality, the first goal entirely overrides and transforms the second. Capitalists do not restrict their activities to the production of commodities that satisfy basic human needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and the amenities essential to the reproduction of human beings and society. Instead, the production of more and more profits becomes an end in itself, and the types of goods produced or their ultimate usefulness becomes completely immaterial. The use value of commodities is more and more subordinated to their exchange value. Use values that are devoted to ostentatious consumption, and that are even destructive to human beings and the earth (in the sense of rendering it unusable for human purposes), are manufactured and the desire for these destructive goods is manufactured along with them through the force of modern marketing (see Paul M. Sweezy, “Capitalism and the Environment,” Monthly Review, vol. 41, no. 2, June 1989).*

It is this singleminded obsession with capital accumulation that distinguishes capitalism from all other social systems, explaining why it can never stand still. A “stationary capitalism,” as Joseph Schumpeter observed, is a “contradictio in adjecto” (Essays, p. 29). Competition, of the sort that forces upon capital continual trans-formations in the means of production in order to maintain and enhance profitability, provides the essential motor behind this drive to accumulate. This is what Schumpeter, in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, called capitalism’s tendency toward “creative destruction;” its creation through innovation of new and more efficient forms of production and distribution, and at the same time its destruction of previous forms of production and distribution. Caught up in this unrelenting process of accumulation and creative destruction, the system runs roughshod over each and every thing that stands in its path: all human and natural requirements that interfere with the accumulation of capital are considered barriers to be overcome.

The exponential growth of capitalism and the increasing consumption of raw materials and energy that goes with it have resulted in a rapidly compounding environmental problem. It is this that lies behind what the Worldwatch Institute, in its State of the World 1999, called “the acceleration of history”—by which they mean the increasingly rapid transformation of the planetary environment and destruction of ecosystems.

Since there is no way in which the earth’s fundamental capacity to supply the rapidly increasing demands that are being placed on it can increase, the only way in which the problem can be solved is by somehow reducing these demands. There are three ways of conceiving this: stabilization and even reduction of world population; improvements in technology; and more far-reaching socioeconomic transformations. Since most demographers agree that population is gradually stabilizing but that this will not in itself solve the problem, given that per capita consumption of materials and energies continues to rise exponentially, the search for a solution invariably focuses on the other two aspects of the problem, and usually on the technological component.

Enter the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, which requires advanced capitalist countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012, has generated enormous resistance among those countries—despite the fact that failure to check the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere would trigger a series of chain reactions, leading to global environmental disaster within a relatively short span of historical time. The United States has not ratified the Protocol, and indeed the chances of ratification were so nonexistent that President Clinton did not even send it to the Senate for ratification. Intense negotiations about the level at which carbon dioxide emissions have to be reduced, the allowances to be made for forests (so-called “carbon sinks”), and the role of tradable pollution permits that would allow states to comply by buying permits to pollute are still taking place.

The main object of the Kyoto Protocol, with regard to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, is to stop the exponential rate of their increase within the atmosphere. A return to 5 percent below the 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 would result in a strong check on the tendency for such emissions to increase exponentially along with the scale of production. At that point, the aim would obviously be to try to maintain this level (assuming no attempt is made to reduce it further), so that emissions increased only arithmetically, not exponentially. Although it should be acknowledged that emissions at 5 percent below 1990 levels would still mean very substantial increases in the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This is often treated, as I have noted, as a technological problem, particularly where carbon dioxide emissions are concerned. Future efficiencies in energy consumption, in gas mileage, are expected to allow an increase in the scale of production without worsening the annual additions of carbon dioxide. In the decade following the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil crisis of 1973, the advanced capitalist countries as a whole, faced with higher oil prices, lowered their overall energy consumption to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio (or energy intensity of GDP) by producing smaller cars with better gas mileage, as well as through other economies in the use of fuel. (Although the Jevons paradox insured that the overall impact of greenhouse gases continued to rise.) Once this decade was over, cheaper oil prices allowed this ratio to rise once more.

The Social Structure of Production and Consumption

Still, it would be wrong to see this as a mere technological problem or one of fuel efficiency, since the technologies that would allow us to avoid such a rapid buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have long existed. If we take transport, for example, there have long been modern means of transportation, particularly public transit, that would vastly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions compared to a transport system built around the private automobile, and that would actually be more efficient in terms of the free and rapid movement of people as well. Instead, the drive to accumulate capital pushed the advanced capitalist countries down the road of maximum dependence on the automobile, as the most efficient way of generating profits. The growth of the “automobile- industrialization complex,” which includes not simply automobiles themselves but the glass, rubber, and steel industries, the petroleum industry, the users of highways for profit (such as trucking firms), the makers of highways, and the real-estate interests tied to the urban-suburban structure—constitute the axis around which accumulation in the twentieth century largely turned (Sweezy, “Cars and Cities,” Monthly Review, vol. 23, no. 11, April 1972).

In Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, which was heavily influenced by Schumpeter’s business cycle theory (in addition to the theories of Marx, Veblen, Keynes, and Kalecki), the authors argued that as a historical system, capitalism has always been dependent on epoch- making innovations. These are the kinds of innovations that alter the entire structure of production and the geography of production on a massive scale and around which the bulk of investment comes to cluster.

For Baran and Sweezy, three epoch-making innovations had come into play in the history of capitalism—the steam engine, the railroad, and the automobile. What distinguished the automobile in this respect is that it served as an epoch-making innovation twice—in two stages of automobilization. The first was the expansion of automobile production in the period up through the 1920s, including the beginning of the building of highways. The second was the massive buildup symbolized by the construction of the interstate highway system, the destruction of rival forms of public transit, and the accelerated rate of suburbanization that occurred immediately after the Second World War. It is not too much to say that the dominance of the automobile was associated with an entire regime of production and consumption, which has underpinned and still underpins accumulation in the advanced capitalist states.*

It is this automobile-industrial complex that is at the heart of our dependence on petroleum today and that accounts for the largest portion of carbon-dioxide emissions. At the time of the Gulf War with Iraq, President Bush told the population of the United States that the purpose of the war was to defend “our way of life.” Everyone knew what this meant: petroleum. Jevons had called coal the “general agent” on which the entire British industrial system depended and the economical use of (or cheapness) of coal as what allowed industry to thrive. Today petroleum plays an equally dominant role in our industrial system.

The capitalist class is divided when it comes to reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions to slow down the rate of global warm ing. A significant part of the ruling class in the United States is willing to contemplate more efficient technology, not so much through a greatly expanded system of public transport, but rather through cars with greater gas mileage or perhaps even a shift to cars using more benign forms of energy. Efficiency in the use of energy, as long as it does not change the basic structure of production, is generally acceptable to capital as something that would ultimately spur production and increase the scale of accumulation (leading to the Jevons Paradox). But a very large and powerful segment of capital in the United States is not willing to accept even this, because greater gas mileage points generally to smaller engines and smaller cars. Auto producers today, more than ever, are making the bulk of their profits from the production of large vehicles, with the growth in the market for sports utility vehicles and minivans. Henry Ford II’s well-known adage that “minicars make mini profits,” is still the governing principle. As for the petroleum interests, their vested interest in promoting the demand for oil is obvious. Viewed from this standpoint, it is scarcely surprising that there were virtually no votes to ratify the Kyoto Protocol within the US Senate.

At every point, meanwhile, capitalists and their acolytes have blocked the implementation of solar power alternatives, some of which are entirely feasible at this stage. Corporations have sought to take over solar power from the grassroots movement, not in order to promote it, but in order to hold it in abeyance. Under capitalism, it is those energy sources that generate the most profits for capital—of which solar power is certainly not one—that are promoted, not those most beneficial to humanity and the earth. This story has been told by Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Connor in Who Owns the Sun?

None of this, of course, should surprise us. Thorstein Veblen, who might, along with Rudolf Hilferding, be considered one of the originators of the theory of monopoly capitalism, emphasized the fact that capitalism, although it promoted a certain narrow kind of bottom-line efficiency, nonetheless represented a system of prodigious waste from any rational-planning perspective such as that of the engineer. He characterized the oil industry as one of “clamorous waste and mishandling” that led inevitably to “big business and monopoly control” (Absentee Ownership, 200-201). For Veblen, the whole industrial system under monopoly capitalism (or, as he called it, the system of “absentee ownership”) was permeated by reckless and useless consumption of human and natural resources, associated with the dominance of pecuniary goals over rational production. “The distinction between workmanship and salesmanship,” he observed, “has progressively been blurred…until it will doubtless hold true now that the shop-cost of many articles produced for the market is mainly chargeable to the production of saleable appearances” (Ibid., 300).

The sales effort has so penetrated into production itself that the use value criteria for commodities has been undermined and transformed by the needs of exchange value in quite radical ways. From this it is a small step to the Galbraithian “dependence effect”—that what we consume is dependent on the nature of production, rather than the reverse, as assumed in the “consumer sovereignty” hypothesis of neoclassical economics (Galbraith, The Affluent Society, chapter 11). Control over production, coupled with the force of modern marketing, has given capital the power to manufacture “needs” (i.e., desires) along with products. In fact, “product development” in the giant corporation is usually seen as a subdivision of marketing. Journalists never tire of pointing to the love of the automobile in the United States. But such “love” is more often than not a kind of desperation in the face of extremely narrow options. The ways in which cars, roads, public transports systems (often notable by their absence), urban centers, suburbs, and malls have been constructed mean that people often have virtually no choice but to drive if they are to work and live. Under these circumstances the car (or minivan), which consumers seem to crave, also becomes a kind of prison, made more tolerable (if only barely) by the introduction of cell phones and other gadgets. Meanwhile the social costs pile up. “Capitalism,” as K. William Kapp declared in The Social Costs of Private Enterprise,

must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs, ?unpaid’ in so far as a substantial portion of the actual costs of production remain unaccounted for in entrepreneurial outlays; instead they are shifted to, and ultimately borne by, third persons or by the community as a whole (231).

In such a system, it makes no sense to see possibilities for sustainable development as limited to whether or not we can develop more technological efficiency within the current framework of production—as though our entire system of production, with all of its irrationality, waste, and exploitation has been “grandfathered” in. Rather, our hopes have to be pinned on transforming the system itself. This means not simply altering a particular “mode of regulation” of the system, as Marxist regulation theorists say, but in transcending the existing regime of accumulation in its essential aspects. It is not technology that constitutes the problem but the socioeconomic system itself. The social-productive means for implementing a more sustainable relation to the environment within the context of a developed socioeconomic formation are available. It is the social relations of production that stand in the way.

The Irreversibility of Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis

Any attempt to follow out this contradiction in detail would take me well beyond the confines of the present essay. I agree with Paul Sweezy, who said in “Cars and Cities,”

while I believe certain palliatives to be possible, at least in principle, within the framework of the present monopoly capitalist system, I do not think that fundamental changes in the structure of cities and their relation to society as a whole [or equally large changes within the structure of production and consumption] can be effected without a radical change in the social order (17).

For Marx, the very nature of capitalist society from the very beginning had been built on a metabolic rift between city and country, human beings and the earth—a rift that has now been heightened beyond anything that he could have imagined (see Foster, “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift,” American Journal of Sociology, September 1999). There is an irreversible environmental crisis within global capitalist society. But setting aside capitalism, a sustainable relation to the earth is not beyond reach. To get there, we have to change our social relations.

Jevons had no answer to the paradox he raised. Britain could either rapidly use up its cheap source of fuel—the coal upon which its industrialization rested—or use it up more slowly. In the end, Jevons said they should use it up rapidly: “If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity” (The Coal Question, 459-460). Put in that way, the direction to be taken was clear: to pursue glory in the present and a drastically degraded position for future generations. Insofar as Jevons’ paradox continues to apply to us today—that is, insofar as technology by itself (given the present framework of production) offers no way out of our environmental dilemmas, which generally increase with the scale of the economy—we must either adopt Jevons’ conclusion or pursue an alternative that Jevons never discussed and which doubtless never entered his mind: the transformation of the social relations of production in the direction of socialism, a society governed not by the search for profit but by peoples’ genuine needs, and the requirements of socio-ecological sustainability.*


* See Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi, “Another View of Development, Ecological Degradation, and North-South Trade,” Review of Social Economy, vol. 56, no. 1 (Spring 1998), pp. 24-26.

* The literature on the importance of the Marxian distinction between use value and exchange value in understanding environmental problems (including the relation between economic waste and social-environmental costs) is vast. See, for example, John Bellamy Foster and Henryk Szlajfer, The Faltering Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), pp. 297- 316; Shigeto Tsuru, The Political Economy of the Environment (London: Athlone Press, 1999); and Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

* Regulation theorists speak of a “regime of accumulation,” geared to automobilization, which they call “Fordism.” But this is historically misleading for various reasons. See John Bellamy Foster, “The Fetish of Fordism,” Monthly Review, vol. 39, no. 10 (March 1988), pp. 14-33.

* “An energy revolution is both possible and necessary, but it will be achieved only as part of a broader revolution that takes power away from capital and puts it in the hands of the people where it belongs.” Paul M. Sweezy, “The Guilt of Capitalism,” Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 2 (June 1997), p. 61.