The Ecological Question: Can Capitalism Prevail?

Daniel Buck


Apocalyptic visions of resource exhaustion forcing capitalism's final crisis rest upon overly narrow understandings of what, exactly, constitute natural resources. Natural resources are posited to be out there, natural things that can be picked up, cut down, mined or otherwise gathered, processed, and used. They are finite, and once used up will be gone. There is some hedging of this position, of course: forests can be re-planted, tin cans and bottles can be recycled. But this view takes resources to be strictly natural, rather than just as much social. That is, it overlooks how things found in the natural world only become useful to human societies in the context of particular socio-technical frameworks. It thus fails to adequately grasp technology and especially the dynamism of technological innovation and change under capitalism. Furthermore, these visions of final crisis tend to confuse particular manifestations of capitalism--that is, particular historical social formations--with capitalism itself, thus underestimating the flexibility of the beast. This short essay will unpack both of these assertions to argue that capitalism very likely will survive the 'ecological challenge', though this need not imply that the future will be rosy, utopian, or even based upon some kind of post-resource (as in post-industrial) political economy. Finally, the almost exclusive focus of the debate on the ways that capitalism must be regulated by the state into adopting solutions, should be shifted to take better account of the ways that capitalism could very well accumulate its own way to solutions--at whatever cost to humanity.

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