Top Of The Eco-Pops (Global Analyses Fight to get to Number One)

By William Shutkin and Critical Art Ensemble, 10 April 2001

William Shutkin and Critical Art Ensemble beg to differ about ecology and capitalism



William Shutkin, author of The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, gives five reasons for believing that democratic capitalism and vital eco-systems could happily co-exist.

1. Capitalism is a Construct. To believe that capitalism is inherently limited vis-à-vis environmental goals is to give up the battle before it’s been joined. Like all man-made systems, capitalism is constantly being shaped, revised, and reinvented by those communities who adopt and use it. As with any human institution, it is subject to abuse and malfeasance, but has proved increasingly open to progressive reform through shareholder activism, corporate social responsibility techniques, social policies, and other interventions.

2. Capitalism is Only Part of the Equation. As an economic model, capitalism is just that. It does not and cannot purport to be a comprehensive system of social governance or social values. Capitalism on its own can be an awful environmental menace (not to mention its sometimes evil social effects). But economic activities are conducted within a larger system of social relationships, and rely on legal and political systems to temper and manage their effects. In a representative democracy and liberal legal order such as exists in the U.S., this means there is the potential to deal with capitalism’s negative environmental externalities i.e., pollution and waste, through social policy, regulation and adjudication. That firms and markets have yet to be effectively regulated or held accountable for their environmentally harmful actions suggests that the political and legal orders have not functioned as effectively as they should.

3. The Paradox and Promise of American Environmentalism. No other nation on the planet can claim an environmental traditional as strong and enduring as the American environmental movement. No doubt this is in part a function of the fact that as early as the beginning of the 19th century, concerned citizens started to worry about the pace and scale of environmental destruction brought about by mercantilist enterprises bent on exploiting natural resources as part of a simultaneous nation-building and commercial effort. Capitalists, and Americans in general, have historically resisted efforts aimed at putting the public interest ahead of private gain. But as Americans have become more educated about and engaged in environmental efforts, the demand for more ‘social democracy’ and social responsibility has grown, suggesting the strong possibility of a greener capitalist culture over time.

4. No Other System’s Proved More Environmentally Responsible. Unfortunately, no other social order has proved more environmentally responsible than America’s capitalist/liberal democratic system. Every large, industrialised nation has experienced or is in the process of experiencing large-scale environmental degradation owing to the depletion of common resources and the attendant negative environmental externalities. Because of the sheer size of the American economy and a uniquely aggressive consumer culture, the nation’s ecological footprint is larger than any other. But we must not assume it has to be this way; the reformist tradition within the capitalist/liberal democratic system is robust and can help create new environmentally friendly ways of reforming economic development.

5. Natural Capitalism and Sustainable Development. Emerging theories and practices of economic development are finally coming to recognise the immeasurable value of nature’s goods and services and the malleability of capitalist constructs. Ideas like ‘natural capitalism’ and ‘sustainable development’ suggest there are feasible methods for protecting natural resources while supporting viable economic activity. From green design and industrial ecology to green tax policy and sustainable land use planning, new policies and techniques are being developed to ‘green’ the way firms and market behave, and the way communities and regions physically grow and change over time.

William Shutkin


U.S. tactical media collective Critical Art Ensemble give a 6 point account of the symbiotic relationship between market behaviour and ecological crisis and its economical leveraging power.

1. Hyperbole as Ideological Fuel.Disaster, catastrophe, and crisis are part of a rhetoric that is structured around associations with the extraordinary and the severe; however, this language system is just a mundane and routinised form located in everyday life spectacle among populations saturated by Information Communication Technology. Crises – real, virtual, or impending, medical, ecological, military, or economic – are an ideological fuel intimately tied to capital that function to either raise or protect it.

2. Storm in an e-Cup.For example, the current economic crisis in the US amounts to little more than a market correction in regard to over-valued corporations, the loss of faith in the vapourware known as dot-coms, a reaction to the Asian market strife, and some yuppies losing money on the stock market. The US is in no way threatened by a serious economic depression, but it is enough of a catastrophe for Bush to withdraw from the international global warming agreements because corporate profits would be damaged.

3. It’s Only a Crisis if the Market Says So.Global warming isn’t a crisis, because dominant corporate culture knows that to define it as such would diminish profits rather than increase them. Once profitability reaches a point where it is worth the investment to find a symptom-arresting solution, the market will do so, and global warming will be granted the status of an authentic ecological disaster.

4. Crises of Scale.It’s not just the status quo that loves a good crisis; activists use the rhetoric of crisis too. They have to, since it’s only the rhetoric of the extreme and the excessive that generates action. Unfortunately, resistant initiatives and unpopular fronts can only generate minor (in the Deleuzian sense) crises. These have no exceptional profit potential (such as the impact of the AIDS crisis in the third world), and tend to primarily affect only those who are considered to be unnecessary to the efficient functioning of the profit machine. Minor crises are good for an occasional news report, or to help impoverished relief agencies raise money, but they will not affect policies on the distribution of capital. Ultimately, minor crises are just bad investments.

5. Reclaim the Crisis: Delink.So what can be done by resistant groups? Not that much in terms of changing the general dynamics by which sign value and exchange value are deployed. Battles over the placement of a crisis within a hierarchy that dictates the immediacy and intensity of response are primarily in the hands of corporate or national sovereigns. However, alternative macro-tactics do exist. For example, the current initiative by Treatment Action Campaign in Africa to start an alternative network for pharmaceutical production and distribution (South to South) of medicines to treat HIV is a sign of hope. Its plan is to create a coalition of states and manufacturers that can raise the necessary capital to produce the desired drugs at an affordable price. Strategically, it is a plan to delink from the global market (something even more frightening to the first world than the independent production of drugs).

6. Empire Fights Back.As one would expect, first world counterattacks have already begun. In South Africa, for example, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (a coalition of American, German, and British drug companies) has already filed a suit to stop the initiative, claiming patent violation. This situation is complicated by the refusal of the South African government to declare a state of medical emergency that would give South Africa compulsory licensing for the manufacture of generic medicines.<*> In this situation, we get a clear example of what a real crisis is (as opposed to a spectacular, virtual, or impending crisis) – a point of desperation in terms of loss and deprivation that makes a tactical revolt against global market oppression necessary rather than profitable. And we see what a ‘free market’ actually means – a global market dominated by nomadic capital and structured to serve its interests alone.

Critical Art Ensemble

William Shutkin <>

Critical Art Ensemble <> []

<*>For up-to-date details on the recent climb-down over accessibility of generic medicines to South Africa see []