Why We Need to Look Beyond Capitalism to Save the Planet

Why We Need to Look Beyond Capitalism to Save the Planet

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Every year, the dire consequences of climate change make themselves inescapably apparent. The fires, floods, storms, and droughts affect more and more people around the world. One gets the sense that every season brings with it headlines of unprecedented records and devastating destruction of ecosystems. Despite a handful of loud, corporate-backed voices, the consensus is increasingly that our biosphere is under severe strain. For many communities around the world, it’s no longer a question of how real climate change is, but rather how much ruin it will bring. The damage from the recent floods in Pakistan is estimated to be worth about $10 billion. More importantly, the catastrophe has claimed over 1,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless — a burden that will undoubtedly plague the country for years to come. The global impact is critical too: with large swathes of Pakistan’s crop land damaged, rice exports are likely to suffer, which will have ripple effects across the world given that Pakistan is the 4th largest exporter of the grain.

The disaster in Pakistan is, in many ways, the perfect example of what’s in store for the world as climate change spirals out of control. For one, ecological degradation is bound to affect those places that are least equipped to handle it. As environmental collapse strains the capacities of governments in the underdeveloped world, political crises will become commonplace. This will not be a problem that the advanced capitalist countries will be able to sweep under the rug. Political pressure will emanate beyond the periphery, with climate migration becoming an increasingly prevalent dynamic. Moreover, because the so-called Global South is the capitalist world’s factory, infrastructural damage in countries housing outsourced manufacturing will have undeniable effects on every single consumer in the Global North.

As forests burn, oceans fill with trash, and skies suffocate from pollution, the urgency to act will be overwhelming. And yet, even with many in the scientific community specifically identifying the current economic model as the fundamental driver of environmental degradation, decisive action appears perpetually out of reach. [1] This is in no small part due to ideological constraints of neoliberalism, which has installed narrow guardrails on economic, ecological, and political discourse. The world as conceived by the neoliberal tradition is extremely reductive and entirely subjected to the logic of the market. As a consequence, most of the mainstream solutions to the climate crisis have been intrinsically shackled by the unimaginative and ahistorical lens of capitalist dogma.

The Limits of Market Logic

Mainstream economic thinking, sometimes called neoclassical economics, has long since abandoned serious considerations of value theory. Value is a subjective judgement of individual wants and needs. Its actual dimensions and origins are of little theoretical concern. The main fixation in neoclassical thought is price theory. Prices, and consequently monetary valuation, are the primary information with which we can assess other relevant economic variables. An important implication of this approach is the absence of historical context. The mainstream view sees monetary valuation, that is, the pricing of things in the world of commodities, as a phenomenon that stretches across history. Because money is a fundamental dimension in this perspective, commodity production and exchange is treated as a universal framework.

The Marxist critique of this is pretty obvious: Marxists see in this worldview an essentialization of capitalism. To review, the core class relation of capitalism is “wage-labor.” Capitalism is a specific mode of production in which a class of people, the workers, are separated from the tools, resources, and infrastructure needed to produce things. Workers are left with the option of selling their ability to work to the people who actually possess the tools, resources, and infrastructure. This class division is what is meant by “wage-labor” — labor becomes a commodity bought in exchange for wages, which the sellers of labor, the workers, need to survive. Unlike previous economic arrangements, capitalism brings huge masses of laborers together, often in the same space, to produce commodities. Importantly, commodities are not produced for direct consumption. By definition, they are products made for exchange. Their function is to enter a market where they are exchanged for something else. Rather than being exchanged for other commodities, the sheer volume and frequency of commodity exchange in developed capitalism requires that this trading of commodities is mediated by money.

In essence, wage-labor is the defining feature of capitalist economies. Wage-labor as a relation of production requires transforming concrete labor into abstract labor — reducing all labor to a basic unit that can be quantitatively exchanged. The carpenter’s labor is different from the potter’s, but capitalism treats both as uniform through commodity exchange. This transformation from concrete to abstract labor is manifested in money. Thus, monetary valuation is a feature of capitalism that stems directly from its core organizing principle. Challenging the monetization of nature will require challenging the foundation of capitalism as mode of production.

The point of this digression is to demonstrate just where neoclassical economics fails in its understanding of monetary valuation: it treats the process we just discussed as a timeless feature of economies. Marxists say, on the contrary, that wage-labor, commodities, and therefore monetary valuation, are all historically specific. That, of course, does not mean that money and markets did not exist in non-capitalist systems, they surely did. Capitalism is simply the system that takes this process as the central social organizing principle. This confusion made by the neoclassicals is extremely important: it enables them to think only in terms of monetary valuation. The mantra is that all value is measurable in money terms, and any value that hasn’t come under the umbrella of pricing mechanisms merely needs to be commodified and marketized. Neoclassical thinking encourages the invasion of prices into all spaces because prices are supposedly the only way to understand value. It takes the essence of the historically specific mode of production that is capitalism and projects its features into the past and future.

Why did we get so lost in the weeds with this conundrum about essentializing capitalism? Because this kind of thinking has serious effects on the environmental question. The main limitation of capitalism when it comes to the environment, according to neoclassical theory, is that nature isn’t priced — or at least that it isn’t priced very accurately. If we were to marketize natural resources, and even things like emissions, the market would allow for solutions to issues of over-extraction or pollution.

There are many problems with this attitude. For one, money is unidimensional whereas natural phenomena are complex and multifaceted. The use-value of nature can take on so many different angles, something the one-dimensional structure of monetary valuation can’t account for. Moreover, money is quantitatively limitless, whereas natural resources are not. This monetization distorts our perception of nature as a limitless expanse that can be subsumed under the rules of the market.

It is also the case that prices are not merely reflections of scarcity. Overfishing, for instance, might result in growing prices as scarcity affects fish supply, but this development could easily be offset by other pressures that bring the prices down. There is no reason to expect prices to act as accurate signals of the ecological state of a given sector. In fact, high prices could even motivate “technological advances that reduce extraction costs and/or lower the amount of resource needed per unit of final goods,” meaning the supposedly endangered resource would actually be extracted at an accelerated pace (Burkett 2009, p. 124).

Are We Trying to Save Capitalism, or the Planet?

Because neoclassical theories can’t think beyond capitalism, their solution to environmental degradation is really about keeping the capitalist furnace running. Considerations for the environment are framed through the lens of sustainability — which somewhat misleadingly refers to sustaining capital accumulation, rather than the ecosphere. Weak sustainability theory comes from Robert Solow’s finding that natural resource depletion is actually not a threat to long-term aggregate output so long as reproducible capital is accumulated at a rate to offset resource inputs. In other words, as natural resources are depleted, resource inputs in production processes can be substituted with capital inputs. A highly technologized and capital-rich economy will therefore rely on less natural resource inputs, thus making the issue of diminishing natural capital non-threatening.

What a sigh of relief! So long as we get creative enough to rely more on complex technologies that allow for less natural resource inputs, it won’t matter if we strip the Earth of virtually all its materials. Strong sustainability in turn introduces the idea of “critical” natural capital — ecological elements that are indispensable to the continued existence of humanity (and broader ecosystems). For strong sustainability to be maintained, any net loss of critical natural capital is unacceptable. As with weak sustainability, some resources are still “safely” depletable, so long as they do not meet the “critical” criterion. The imperative to substitute natural resources with capital continues in strong sustainability arguments, but with the strict condition that some resources have to be preserved. Still, it is not clear what constitutes “critical” natural capital and in many instances proponents of the position are content to push the burden of resolving the looming crisis onto technological miracles.

Critics of neoclassical sustainability theories are highly sceptical about the substitutability of manufactured capital for natural capital. It’s a fair point: can we actually assume that as natural resources get burned away we will be able to magically swap them out with “manufactured” components?

The story is laughably transparent: how can we dodge the environmental catastrophe while holding on to capitalism? This is where the conventional understanding of economic systems really breaks down. Growth in capitalism is about the accelerated reproduction of capital, which necessarily implies a larger flow of commodities, which in turn can only mean a greater volume of waste emissions. Thus, the very mechanism by which capitalist economies sustain themselves is the same mechanism that generates ecological degradation. There are, of course, mechanisms in capitalism that could be responsive to ecological issues. What Marxists understand as ‘socially necessary labor time’ reflects the competition between firms that produces an industry standard for production. Any firms that operate less effectively, that is, any firms that do not use materials as efficiently as their competitors, pay the price on the market. Firms are certainly incentivized to limit waste in order to lower unit costs and thus achieve a more profitable production process. Still, the overall trajectory of capitalist production is towards ever-greater accumulation of capital, which can only be achieved through the ever-greater production of goods. Competition also forces producers to increase the productivity of labor, which by definition entails a larger processing of matter and energy per hour of labor.

It’s important to remember something that is often forgotten even by ardent environmentalists. Ecological issues don’t actually have to be “pure costs” in capitalism. Instead, waste disposal and recycling can become profitable markets in their own right, with little regard for actual outcomes relevant to human sustainable development.[2] Thus, capitalism is more than capable of reproducing itself “sustainably” even as the ecosphere unravels around the world.

This last point gets at a very critical distinction. Are we looking for sustainable capitalist development or sustainable human development? The two are fundamentally incompatible and as such invite entirely different sets of policies. Paul Burkett (2009) perfectly describes the contradiction:

“Stated differently, the tension between the system’s economic signals and the environment is not a matter of ‘missing markets’. The problem is that the economic signals and incentives generated by the wage-labour relation do not, and cannot, encompass the requirements of a healthy and sustainable economy-environment interaction. They can only encompass the environmental requirements of value accumulation with all its ecological contradictions. No matter how efficient, complete, or undistorted the price system may be, there is no way that its one-dimensional measuring rod of money can be an adequate measure of, or guide to, the sustainable production of use-values by human labour enmeshed with nature. There is no way that the system can reverse its anti-ecological reduction of wealth to abstract labour, or the dominance of markets and money over life-values. A system based on exploitation of labour must also exploit nature. A more ecologically sensitive system would have to overcome the separation of workers and communities from the conditions of production and put sustainable human development, not money and capital, in command of production” (p. 293).


The notion that we need to look beyond the confines of capitalism for solutions to the ecological crisis is gaining popularity. [3,4] What’s more, it is becoming clear to many that the environmental struggle is necessarily a class struggle as well. Under capitalism, the individual is alienated from nature much as the workers are alienated from fruits of their labor and from the means of production. Capitalism reduces nature to price tags the same way it reduces concrete labor to a uniform, abstract labor, to be bought and sold on the market. By contrast, the Marxist understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature might be best characterized by the words of Marx himself:

“Nature is man’s inorganic body — nature, that is, in so far as it is not itself human body. Man lives in nature — means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Only “disalienation” can rework our view of nature, not as something external to be brought into the economy via monetary valuation, but as something we are inseparably defined by. Nothing short of a direct challenge to the class structure of capitalism will be necessary to overcome the existential threat of climate change.


Burkett, P. (2009). Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy. Haymarket Books.

Williams, C. (2010). Ecology and socialism: Solutions to capitalist ecological crisis. Haymarket Books.




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