Economic and Ecological Crises: Separate responses and integrating theory

TitleEconomic and Ecological Crises: Separate responses and integrating theory
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Anderson, J.
Affiliation (1st Author)Emeritus Professor of Political Geography, Queen's University Belfast
Section or WGEnvironment, Science, and Risk Communication Working Group
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodeENVW4a
Slot Code (Keyword)ENVW4a
Time of Session16:00-17:30
RoomHelix Blue Room
Session TitleEnvironmental Sustainability and Crises in Ireland: Performing Public Participation or Public Acceptance?
Submission ID5269

The current economic crisis is so severe that measures to deal with the growing ecological crisis, especially global warming, are seen as too costly in straitened circumstances. Ironically, economic recession by reducing the burning of fossil fuels may somewhat relieve the ecological crisis, though only temporarily – or so we hope, for don’t we also want a resumption of economic growth? But maybe measures to solve ecological crisis could then be afforded – we hope, but maybe not? There is now a growing contradiction between capitalism’s inexorable imperative to accumulate more capital through economic growth and the sustainability of the environment on which capitalism depends. Yet media and political discourses often treat economic and ecological crises as separate worlds, each with its ‘economic’ or ‘environmental’ correspondents.This reflects the separate theorising of economic and ecological issues within conventional social science, even within Marxism where the theorising of both crises is arguably most advanced, and indeed some Marxists make a virtue of the separation. This paper argues that we now need to develop an integrating theory of economic and ecological crisis, and that media and political responses to an array of major ecological problems should be assessed against the reality that they are caused by capitalism and cannot be solved within it. The traditional Marxist view is that crises are inherent to capitalism, created by the economic system’s internal contradictions rather than by external causes. Ecological problems were deemed ‘external’ but this separation no longer makes sense where the problems, such as global warming and extreme weather events, are substantially due to the pursuit of capitalist growth, and now contribute directly to the economic crises. We therefore propose that capitalist crises should be seen in terms of three major contradictions,, the central ‘capital versus labour’ contradiction; the less trumpeted ‘capital versus capital’ contradiction, as expressed in the often ruthlessly destructive competition between individual capitals or collectivities of capital; and ‘capital versus nature’ as now capitalism’s third internal contradiction. The ‘revenge of nature’ in Engels’ phrase is a capitalist product which potentially threatens the capitalist system.Assessed against this reality, most media and political responses not surprisingly are found wanting. The outright reactionary camps – the ‘climate deniers’ and advocates of ‘lifeboat ethics’ or beggar-thy-neighbour geopolitics - are obviously inadequate; but so too is the current mainstream of ‘ecological modernisers’ who acknowledge there are problems but claim that capitalism has the solutions, usually technological ones. In contrast, radical ‘greens’ who advocate ecological harmony often recognise that capital accumulation is the central problem, but they tend to evade the realities of capitalism’s central contradiction of ‘capital versus labour’. And that leaves ‘ecological socialism’ with its goal of a non-capitalist society that does not have to dominate people or nature. If ecological-economic crises intensify there could be a sharpening polarity between ecological socialism and ecological barbarism.

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