Accounting for the environment

Issue: 116

Paul McGarr

Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics (Historical Materialism Book Series, Brill, 2006), £48.30

Paul Burkett, along with John Bellamy Foster, is one of the Marxists who has done most to engage with the ideas and the theorists to emerge from what might broadly be called the green or environmental movement. In so doing both Burkett and Foster have made a significant contribution to developing Marxism in a way that allows it better to address key issues of our age. Often they have done this by going back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and peeling away the layers of misinterpretation and distortion that enemies, and some friends, have buried their ideas in.

Foster’s landmark book, Marx and Ecology, for example, comprehensively debunks the idea that Marx and Engels had little to say about ecology and the environment, or that they were somehow in favour of endless expansion of industry and the domination of the natural world without any care as to the limits or consequences. Foster showed that a deep concern for the natural world, and an understanding of the relation between humanity and nature lay at the heart of the ideas of Marx and Engels, and must remain at the heart of Marxism today.

Burkett rightly argues that “the most influential prejudices against Marx and Engels among ecological thinkers—that they ignored natural limits, championed human domination of nature, embraced anti-ecological industrialism, downplayed capitalism’s reliance on materials and energy, and reduced wealth to labour—have all been thoroughly debunked”. And he and Foster have been key figures in this debunking.

Burkett’s own particular contribution to this engagement of Marxism with the green movement and ecological theorists flows from his background as a professional academic economist. He has not been afraid to wade into the often highly technical waters of the dominant capitalist school of economics—known as neoclassical economics—and, from a Marxist perspective, grapple with its key arguments.

The technical prowess and often intimidating mathematics at the heart of neoclassical economics should not be allowed to cover up a simple truth. The theory is an attempt to prove that untrammelled market capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, indeed the only possible world. It makes a whole series of extremely strange, and mostly patently false, assumptions about the way individuals behave and how the market works, thus allowing the maths to arrive at precisely this conclusion.

It is theory written backwards, with the assumptions deliberately crafted to ensure the desired result follows. As Burkett argues, “In other words, it attempts to conform the real world to the abstract-ideal market model.” This is not only a deeply dishonest method, but, as any mathematician will tell you, the most sophisticated theoretical edifice is only as sound as the foundations or assumptions at its base. If those are nonsense then all the fancy equations in the world don’t make the theory any better.

In this book Burkett’s focus is on a very precise area. He wants to engage with a field of formal economic theory that has developed alongside the growth of the green, environmental or ecological movements of recent decades. Ecological economics is now an academic discipline in its own right, with journals, academic conferences—the works. It embraces a very wide range of thinkers. Some are firmly within the pro_capitalist neoclassical camp, and essentially want to embrace the widespread concern over the environment and incorporate that concern safely within pro-capitalist ideologies.

Others are genuinely critical of capitalism and its destruction of the environment, and are seeking an alternative to the dominant economic theories and models used to justify it. However, almost all these critics of capitalism within ecological economics, argues Burkett, share a dismissive attitude towards Marxism. He wants to show that this attitude is misguided.

The result is a useful contribution to Marxist theory, and Burkett’s arguments are mostly well founded. The book is not, however, an easy or accessible read, despite Burkett’s hopes expressed in the preface. There are several reasons for this.

One is that the book is uncompromisingly academic in approach, style and tone. It engages with debates within academic economics entirely on their terms, with few concessions to an audience of even well read political activists with a serious interest in these issues. This is certainly not a criticism of dealing with serious and complex ideas. It is rather a plea for aiming for the very difficult, but achievable, goal of being able to deal properly with such ideas without “dumbing down”, while at the same time conveying the key arguments to a wider, non-specialist political audience prepared to make an effort to grapple with these ideas. Marx and Engels in many of their writings, including some of the most difficult, often achieve this, as have many of the best Marxist writers since.

Unfortunately even determined readers of Burkett’s book unfamiliar with many key notions in neoclassical economics will be confused by casual references to “the Von Neumann/Sraffa balanced growth framework” and the like, and will struggle to follow large chunks of his argument.

There is a place for the approach Burkett adopts, of course, but in my judgement that place is academic journals for conducting debate among fellow specialists. A book like this should be attempting precisely to bring the serious ideas involved in such arguments to a wider audience. Others may disagree with this criticism and dismiss it as a matter of my own misguided personal taste. Fine—but it remains my very definite opinion

A second difficulty lies in the subject matter Burkett focuses on. He deliberately rejects a focus on “topical issues such as global warming, wetlands protection, the political economy of oil, and so on” as “not very useful” to his purpose.

He wants instead to grapple with the “conceptual issues” and “methodologies” within the discipline of ecological economics. A better approach would have been to use the very topical issues he rejects as the focus for discussing how valid and useful the concepts and methodologies of thinkers within ecological economics are, and of examining what a Marxist critique of them had to say. Such issues are, after all, the acid test of any serious theory which claims to have important things to say about ecology and the environment.

Despite my criticisms, I do think there are some interesting elements in the book. One chapter, for example, compares some current debates in ecological economics with those among the Enlightenment economists known as the Physiocrats, whose ideas Marx had to grapple with in developing his own theories.

The core Physiocrat argument was well put by one of the movement’s key figures, the 18th century French writer Turgot: “The earth is always the first and only source of all wealth.” The Physiocrats saw all economic “value” as ultimately resting on agricultural production. Burkett shows how some elements of the Physiocrats’ ideas have been taken up by modern ecological economists. He also shows how Marx’s critique of the Physiocrats (a critique combined with praise for many of their insights) for not grasping the specific way value manifested itself in capitalism, with the crucial distinction between use_value and exchange_value, is relevant to debates in ecological economics today.

Another chapter looks at an outgrowth of neoclassical economics called Contingent Valuation, which has become a focus for debate within ecological economics. These are basically surveys in which people are asked how much they would be willing to pay to have some environmental benefit, or how much they would be willing to accept to lose that benefit. The chapter has the merit of showing the utter absurdity of the neoclassical economists’ attempts to put a price on everything, and the way such economists have, often quite hilariously, tied themselves in knots faced with people’s refusal to behave as their market theories say they should.

In the end, as Burkett notes, “survey responses contradicting such commensuration [putting a price on this or that environmental issue] are typically thrown out”. If real people don’t behave the way neoclassical theory says they should then, conclude the neoclassical theorists, reject the real people.

Other chapters deal with the notion of “natural capital”, which has become fashionable in some sections of ecological economics, power inequality and the environment in various economic models, and yes, for those with the stomach, “Sraffian models of ecological conflict and crisis”. The book closes with a discussion of how Marx’s arguments about a future communist society gel with ecological notions of sustainable development, though again, for the reasons cited earlier, this potentially fascinating discussion is curiously dry and unengaging.

One chapter (co-authored with John Bellamy Foster) which I personally found interesting (though it is also quite technical and my enthusiasm perhaps betrays my own background) debunks an oft repeated claim among ecological economists and theorists. This is that Marx and Engels rejected attempts by one of the contemporaries, Sergei Podolinsky, to relate economics to basic laws of the natural world, in particular the laws of thermodynamics (for example, the principle of energy conservation). According to this myth, rejecting Podolinsky crippled Marxism’s ability to develop any ecological basis for its economic arguments.

Burkett and Foster convincingly demolish this myth, and show that in fact Marx and, in particular, Engels were very well aware of developments within natural science. They both had a very sharp grasp of the importance of grounding their own ideas in a wider scientific understanding of the world. Moreover, they produced a detailed and correct critique of Podolinsky’s specific ideas linking economics with energy laws, a criticism which showed a far better grasp of the real relation between human economic activity and the laws of the material world, including thermodynamics.

Overall though, while parts of the book are interesting, and I am sure Burkett has done valuable intellectual work in grappling with the range of ideas he does, for all the reasons mentioned earlier I cannot be very enthusiastic about the book, or recommend that people get hold of it, unless they are economics specialists.