All markets need governance to protect a requisite Level Playing Field. The confusion between optimism based on the promise of human scientific progress and Capitalism as the means to further human and planet welfare helps create epistemological pathologies.
“Radical ecology” has come to mean a kind of left-wing back-to-the-landism that throws off consumer culture and mass production for a pastoral low-tech lifestyle. But as the brilliant science journalist and Marxist Leigh Phillips writes in Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, if the left has a future, it has to reclaim its Promethean commitment to elevating every human being to a condition of luxurious, material abundance and leisure through technological progress.
Phillips is a brilliant writer and an incisive scientific thinker with impeccable credentials in the science press. He’s also an unapologetic Marxist. In this book — which is one of the most entertaining and furious reads about politics and climate you’re likely to read — he rails against the “austerity ecology” movement that calls for more labor-intensive processes, an end to the drive to increase material production, and a “simpler” life that often contains demands for authoritarian, technocratic rule, massive depopulation, and a return to medieval drudgery.
It wasn’t always thus. The left — especially Marxist left — has a long history of glorifying technological progress and proposing it as the solution to humanity’s woes. Rather than blaming the machine for pollution, Marxists blame capitalism for being a system that demands that firms pollute to whatever extent they can, right up the point where the fines outweigh the savings.
As far back as Engels, Marxists refused to countenance the idea of limits to human growth. While Malthus was (incorrectly) predicting that humanity would exhaust its food stores any day now and plunge into barbarism, Engels wrote, in Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy:
Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population.
But how can a finite planet sustain infinite growth? Through improvements in material processes. We use a lot less to make things today than we ever have, thanks to science — and capitalism. The less labor and material used in a process, the less it costs to make and the more profit there is. But growth under market conditions also requires pollution/extraction/waste/overproduction:
The firm not be able to pay for new materials or labour or the upkeep of its machines and will go out of business. This is why capitalists, left to their own devices, have no choice but to pollute or extract or pump out CO2 or catch fish at a rate that is heedless of what remains of our store of resources. It is not that they are evil or greedy. If one capitalist says to herself “To hell with the profits! The planet is more important!” then she will quickly be beaten by a rival who is not so scrupulous. To keep going, they will have to give up on such high-minded thoughts. And this is true regardless of size, whether a globe-rogering, $11-bajillion-market-cap, Taibbian vampire-squid investment bank or a mom-and-pop corner shop that sells nothing but thimbles of rosewater-scented whimsy and hand-sewn felt puppets of characters from Wes Anderson films. If right next door, a big-box chain-store Whimsy-Mart opens up with vats of all-you-can-eat cut-price Owen Wilson dolls and that small business doesn’t toughen up, then they’re …..
The answer, Phillips argues, is a democratically planned economy — a socialist solution. Not the “green lefty” answer, which requires “de-growth,” but growth that is guided by democratic, not market, forces:
• The capitalist says: There may or may not be resource limits, but don’t worry about them! Innovation will come along in time! Full steam ahead!
• The green lefty says: Innovation can’t save us! There’s an upper limit to what humans can have / an upper limit on the number of humans. Slam on the brakes!
• The socialist says: Through rational, democratic planning, let’s make sure that the innovation arrives so that we can move forward without inadvertently overproducing. And move forward we must, in order to continue to expand human flourishing. So long as we do that, there are in principle no limits. Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!