Thought experiments in the political economy of (ecological) crisis displacement: Part 1

The future crises that we confront depend, above all, on the way we choose to respond to the present ecological crisis

Martin CraigWith the term ‘crisis’ used so often and so liberally in recent years it’s worth reminding ourselves of the term’s medical etymology: namely, a moment in which the condition of a sick patient deteriorates and ‘decisive intervention’ must be made to ensure survival.  In this and a subsequent post I will explore the idea that decisive intervention in one area of political-economic life often leads to crisis in another at a later date – ‘crisis displacement’.  I do so in light of urgently needed decisive responses to the climate crisis.

Although this perhaps suggests a rather pessimistic outlook, a cursory glance shows that the unexpected consequences of decisive decisions are the very drivers of history.  Crises are also moments in which dramatic and even progressive forms of change can take place.  Yet some crises are preferable to others.  My proposition is that the way that we approach the climate crisis will have great implications for the crises we confront in the future, and thus that we ought to consider now what form those crises might take.  I do so through two ‘thought experiments’, depicting two ways in which the climate crisis could be resolved and considering their possible consequences.

My analysis is inspired by Jason Moore’s ‘world ecological perspective’.  The Marxist family to which it belongs has long claimed a fraught relationship between capitalist profit-seeking and long-term economic growth.  Moore expands this focus to include the relationship between capitalism and the ‘free gifts of nature’ upon which growth depends.  He argues that capitalist growth depends upon capital appropriating four naturally occurring goods: energy, raw materials, food and labour power.  Collectively, he calls these the ‘ecological surplus’.  Food is a particularly important component of the surplus in Moore’s view, because food prices condition the cost of living (and thus wage costs) across capitalist economies.  However, sustained scarcity in any aspect of the surplus can register as rising production costs and pressures on profits, intensifying distributional conflicts and forcing capital out of productive activities and into financial speculation.

Moore’s focus is on how such scarcity has historically been evaded.  He argues that technological and geopolitical developments periodically combine to expand (‘revolutionise’) the ecological surplus, allowing capitalist economic growth to proceed unhindered (at the cost of the compounding magnification of ecological degradation).  For example, underpinning the exponential growth of capitalist economies during the industrial revolution was the coal-fired steam engine; rising productivity in agriculture (premised on the imperial appropriation of farmland, mechanisation and the discovery of nitrate fertilisers); rising productivity in resource extraction (premised again on the imperial appropriation of resources, mechanisation and the use of enslaved and indentured labour); and, finally, a vast quantity of unpaid domestic labour.  In his account these combined to lower raw material and labour costs, allowing capitalist growth to continue to historically unprecedented levels.

Moore claims that the present era increasingly shows symptoms of a failure to revolutionise the ecological surplus, and he is pessimistic about the prospects for a revolution to occur, given the ecological consequences of past capitalist growth.  In particular, he points to a secular rising trend in food prices since 2002 and explains this by reference to slowing agricultural productivity and rising agricultural production costs, which he argues pose an insurmountable barrier to future capitalist growth.  Whether he is correct is not something I shall try to resolve here, although I take the proposition seriously.  However, his focus on the ecological surplus as a precondition of profit and growth poses an especially interesting and relevant challenge to contemporary responses to climate change.  Rather than revolutionising the ecological surplus, contemporary policy points (in principle, if not in practice) in the opposite direction: it tries to make fossil fuels more expensive in the long run by ‘pricing in’ the externalities of carbon emissions.

Of course, the intention is to stimulate industry and governments to decarbonise the existing ecological surplus. Let’s therefore make the (enormous) assumption that it succeeds in doing so on a timescale consistent with the international global warming target and in a way that does not increase energy costs.  There is growing evidence to suggest that such a reconstruction is economically plausible.  Importantly, though, this does not and cannot equate to a revolution of the ecological surplus, for it does not dramatically reduce production costs.  Indeed, it is unlikely that a technology capable of doing this presently exists, although many are actively seeking one.  In my next post I shall consider what the crisis-displacing outcomes of such an imaginary technology could be.  For now, I focus on what kinds of crisis displacement might arise from a decarbonisation of the existing ecological surplus.

My argument, in a nutshell, is that the most likely political-economic outcome in this scenario is to exchange the carbon crisis for a deeper crisis of inequality.

Envisioning the form that this crisis of inequality could take depends on whether or not Moore is correct to argue that the ecological surplus that sustained capitalist growth in the 20th century is depleted.  The body of analysis to which colleagues at SPERI have contributed is more optimistic about the potential for future growth, providing that the shortcomings of contemporary growth models are addressed.  It argues that over the past 25 years capitalist growth has come to depend on household indebtedness in countries such as Britain because the ongoing neoliberalisation of the international political economy has undermined household-income growth.  The suggestion is that this credit-based fix is unsustainable, meaning that a crisis of inequality must eventually be confronted and neoliberalisation abandoned if capitalist growth is to be sustained.  In this view, a decarbonised ecological surplus simply displaces the carbon crisis into the future, where it returns as a crisis of excessive inequality.

If Moore is correct, however, then we are already beginning to confront an altogether more intractable crisis of inequality that is inseparably linked to the carbon crisis.  If the ecological surplus is indeed depleted, then a rapid escalation of distributional conflicts between classes and nations can be expected as rising production and food costs throughout the international economy make profit increasingly contingent upon greater exploitation, with paradoxical consequences for global demand and growth.  In this view, decarbonisation of the existing ecological surplus cannot evade what is, in essence, a crisis of capitalism itself.  Crisis, it argues, can only be displaced through the creation of a post-growth (and therefore post-capitalist) political economy.

From the perspective of 2015, mounting any kind of serious challenge to neoliberalism – let alone effecting a transition to a post-capitalist society – seems a tall order.  For this reason, the prospect represented by my second scenario – one in which the ecological surplus is revolutionised as well as decarbonised – may seem a very appealing one.  By lowering the cost of production and living costs, such a scenario would allow us to evade the distributional questions bound up in the two crises of inequality sketched out above.  Yet, from an ecological perspective, this outcome may yield a yet more intractable (ecological) crisis than the present one! The reason why this might be the case will the subject of my next post.