Capitalism's Environmental Crisis-Is Technology the Answer?

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Capitalism's Environmental Crisis-Is Technology the Answer?


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


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 greenhousegas 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 output, 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 countr ies 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).

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Capitalism's Environmental Crisis-Is Technology the Answer?
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