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Conflict Theories of the Environment

Conflict Theories of the Environment


In this video we’re going to examine conflict theories of the environment. Conflict theories mainly focus on social inequalities and the way that these translate, in this particular video at least, to environmental problems, not to mention a set of other problems. The main emphasis is on political and economic processes and the implications have also been extended out beyond from social class, gender, and race which all have been tied in some way to environmental issues. So we’re going to begin this discussion by looking at some early conflict theories, and then we will trace them through the present day and think about some current thinking. We’ll start with Marx and Engels, who are usually the ones that all discussions of conflict theory begin with. Marx and Engels were not themselves all that interested in talking about the environment. They were writing at a time when people didn’t really even use the word environment, in the way that we do today. What they were focused on was the political and economic processes that we will become interested in and is in this presentation. They’re, of course, critics of capitalism and they endorsed moving beyond capitalism to something else– socialism/communism that sort of thing. Now they’re mainly critical of capitalism though because of the kind of inequality that it created. It was class inequality that they were first and foremost interested in. They’re also critics of Malthus, who as we’ve discussed in another presentation, was someone who blamed the poor for problems related to overpopulation. What Marx and Engels pointed out was that capitalism created the poor, so the population explosion that might have been happening as the result of being poor, was not their fault, it was the fault of the capitalists. So, they were they were not accepting of Malthusian views. Although Marx and Engels were not themselves that interested in the environment, and the types of problems that were occurring as a result of capitalism in the environment, there was at least later in Marx’s life, writing that had some environmental implications. This was discovered by John Bellamy Foster and the late 90s. There was, in the third volume of Das Kapital, that Marx talked about the way capitalism disrupts natural systems and flows that link humans to the environment to nature. He called this metabolism–literally he was talking about metabolism–the process of waste and so forth, that the by-products of living, particularly, in living in large cities, and the accumulation of waste being dumped at that time into the local river, creating disgusting conditions visible to anybody walking by. I imagine it was quite a smell, quite a sight, rather unpleasant and disgusting. Marx and Engels observed that this practice was undermining natural systems which would have been able to accommodate waste and actually make use of it, for instance, when it came to replenishing the nutrients in soil. We have now poor soil quality because nutrients are not being restored, and we have contaminated water ways as vast amounts of waste end up contaminating rather than replenishing the earth. Beyond those early observations of Marx, it was later thinkers in the tradition of Marx, although pretty far away from the initial ideas voiced by Marx. Logan and Molotch worked out of a growth machines framework, and the essential idea of a growth machine is built out of the same kind of critique of capitalism, essentially that we have a growth coalition forming at the community level, where local elites who have an interest in expanding their wealth will steer local public officials towards wealth and they will also garner the support of local media. This growth coalition leads to different forms of economic development that may not necessarily even benefit your everyday citizen in the community. In fact, it may contaminate their environment. With a pro-growth kind of ideology that develops anybody who is critical is instantly labeled as someone standing in the way of progress, and so anti-growth narratives are viewed quite negatively. One of the key ideas of growth machine theory is this idea of use values versus exchange values. Use values have to do with the quality of life that people wish to have–clean environment, good schools, good health, reliable jobs, all of those types of things that make life enjoyable and livable. And then we have exchange values which are purely economic, have only to do with profit and profit expansion. What we have is, oftentimes, these values come into conflict. As we mentioned it’s usually the elites–a narrow minority of the community–who really push the exchange values on the rest of the community, and oftentimes undermining the use values that most people in the communities may have. That’s why dirty industrial practices that contaminate the environment are often tolerated, because exchange-values are in operation in place of use-values. Local politicians get on board with that because they receive more revenue from expanding economic growth. Who can argue with that? More jobs, more money, equals more taxes, more taxes at least has the potential for more investments, but sometimes we give great tax breaks to corporations who create jobs and this can actually result in an economic loss to the community as they have to subsidize different companies through tax dollars that are invested in infrastructure. If a large factory comes along and is a major water user, and a major user of local roads, guess who gets to pay the the tax bill for that? That’s the local citizens typically. The media is usually quite supportive of the growth machine as we mentioned, because more readers equals more sales, more profit, more advertising dollars, so they have a vested interest in growth. Again, on the face of things, that doesn’t sound so bad, but when it’s leads to the promotion of exchange values over use of values the media may be doing a disservice. Of course that’s a hypothesis, the extent to which that actually happens is an empirical question. That’s the basic notion of the growth machine. Now, moving beyond some of these sort of Marxian/neo- Marxian ideas we’re going to we’re going to take a look at some alternative contemporary theories of the environment that are related to the conflict perspective. One of those is ecological modernization theory. EMT is really the framework that sets the foundation for sustainable development. EMT believes that sustainable development is viable and can be achieved through the existing framework, so it is not anti-capitalist. It is pro-government regulation typically, although not all EMT proponents believe the government’s intervention is necessary. A lot of what is involved with ecological modernization is a cultural enlightenment where people come to see the value of green technology, and of course therefore, technology plays a vital role. As we come up with more ecologically efficient and sustainable technologies, and as more people adopt those technologies, and as businesses adopt them, we begin to see some improvements environmentally. A lot of times that happens because government implements new standards and regulations that call for improvements in technology. This can also be thought of as Kuznet’s curve, which is essentially the notion of a upside down U. If you think about early stages of development plotted against environmental problems, usually we see the problems get worse over time early economic development, but what’s proposed by ecological modernization theory, this notion of the Kuznet’s curve, is that there’s a late stage or an advanced stage of economic development where environmental problems level off and even decline. That’s when we’re in a period of sustainability. I mentioned that not all proponents of this view think that the government needs to make it happen. So there’s a free market versus a state intervention debate going on there, but most of the advocates of this theory will suggest that the state intervention is key, that businesses will not adopt ecological technologies unless forced to do so, but once they do they begin to see that those were actually ways to make profit. So that’s, well, it’s an interesting discussion but we’re not going to go to do deep into it. Essentially EMT says that the culture of advanced societies will become ecologically enlightened, just to say a little bit more about that, and that means that they’ll begin to see the limits of unregulated economic activity: contamination, pollution, those kinds of things. They’ll begin to demand clean cleaning those things up and having more safe and clean environmental conditions. They will buy technologies that make that happen and producers will begin to adopt production processes that are more green as well. One of the critiques of that is of this kind of regulation, sustainable regulation, the critics questioned the belief that the state can effectively regulate economic activities. If you think about the growth machine idea, or we’ll mention the treadmill of production in a few moments, both of these are theories that are critical of that. They think the state is really…when it does regulate, it is just performing an act of symbolism. Sort of a slap on the wrist to please the public, essentially, when in essence they have all all interest and continuing to see that economic growth go forward without regulation, as a way to amass greater revenue. So the question is how do how do we know that regulation and enforcement are not just symbolic–that they could actually make a real difference? Another critique of this perspective is, often times, when countries like the Netherlands or Germany, for example, become very strong environmental states that is they develop a framework of strict regulations requiring ecological technologies and so forth. But oftentimes, what that leads to is the displacement of problems, so any kind of more damaging industries rather than cleaning up their act they just leave the country and move to other countries where the regulations are more relaxed. Those same countries may turn around and import the end product so essentially what you’ve done is just simply move the problem to on to somebody else, and critics from the world system perspective, in particular, are well aware of this dynamic and are greatly concerned about it–that essentially this the environment becomes a privilege of the more privileged core countries, and the harmful environmental practices of certain industries, is the unfortunate disadvantage of semi peripheral or peripheral countries. Yhis has been called the Netherlands Fallacy–the idea that we can ignore the relocation of environmental problems. Out of sight, out of mind, kind of thing. Another critique is about technology, this one called Jevons paradox. The idea that we can have more ecologically sustainable technologies, more efficient technologies, this is what we are taking on with this critique. The notion here is that every time we see an advance in ecological sustainability when it comes to technology, it’s often offset by a corollary rise in production or consumption. In other words, what we’ll call the treadmills, begin to just move more quickly. Just as an example, you know, the hybrid vehicle is supposed to improve the efficiency of fuel and driving. So if somebody were to maybe move further away from their job because of that increased efficiency then they’re essentially driving more offsetting any kind of gains from the fuel efficiency, by just having a longer commute. That’s the kind of problem we’re concerned about with that. Another critique has to do with values and behaviors–this notion that people become ecologically enlightened. Cultural critics will point out there is a wide gap between the values and the behaviors of individuals. In other words, even though we may become concerned about the environment, we’re not necessarily going to start behaving in ways that are more pro-environment. Behavior is not a simple function of our attitudes and values, it has a lot more to do with our circumstances in life, our situational conditions, and so on. We’ll say more about that in another presentation later on. Behavior is very complex and cannot be reduced to value motivations– that’s the key point. So now I move on to sort of the opposite type of theory, the treadmill of production, which is often viewed as kind of a logical opponent of ecological modernization theory. It’s quite critical of the potential for sustainable development, in many regards. It views environmental problems as a routine outcome of our current global corporate capitalist structure. Until we change the structure we’re going to continue to see environmental problems. The idea that we can work within this framework, which is accepted by ecological modernization theory, is called into question. Until we change the structure this notion of sustainable development is viewed as empty promises, as something that is sort of a false hope. They really emphasize the need to change our structure. That means to shift away from a profit-driven economic system and a growth-oriented government agenda. Those two things according to treadmill of production go hand in hand. Very consistent with the growth machine ideology. They’re also concerned about production and accumulation. The basic idea here is that given the current structural arrangement, organizations have no choice but to continually expand their profits in order to remain competitive. They do that by ramping up their production of goods, and in doing so, also finding ways to cut costs. Because profit has to do with cost and price and if you can’t just keep increasing the price for your products, you’ve got to find ways to cut costs. Why do we need to keep increasing profits? That’s a good question, and that’s largely because corporations have investors and investors demand to see a return on their investments. If you ever watch CNBC or any of these channels that track the stock market, and you know, maybe talk about a company’s earning reports, you’ll notice that if if a company’s earnings are the same as last year that’s not viewed positively. The hope is things will be increasing because increasing profit means greater return, greater return means greater confidence in the company, and so on. So companies are really in a tight competitive race, they need to cut labor costs, they need to cut down on resource cost,s and they need to cut down on waste costs, and that’s largely where we see the environmental implications. So a lot of times what that means is externalizing the real cost of production. Companies will sort of become midnight dumpers if they need to find ways to dispose of the byproducts of production, in ways that don’t cost money. That’s what we call a hidden cost, because the cost is still there. You know, let’s say a company is dumping toxic waste into a local lake. Maybe nobody notices it, but eventually the contamination leads to some kind of problems in the local drinking water. People start developing health problems and now we have a very expensive Superfund site–you know, this program where the EPA has to come in and clean up contaminated environments. Treadmill of production theory says that we can’t really address this problem till we begin to internalize the real costs of production, and that means becoming fully aware of the damage that’s being done in real time. We could see similar types of problems in the livestock/meat industry, in the oil industry, generally in energy industries we see a lot of environmental problems, in a range of production processes for different types of products. Treadmill of production, and in general, the conflict perspective, point to this notion, the Marxian notion of a crisis of overproduction. There are two two types of crises we’ll see built into the capitalist system– the logic of capitalism. One is over time because we’re trying to increase profits, companies have a desire to pay workers less and less to cut costs on labor and to produce more at the same time. The irony here is we’re expecting workers to turn around and buy more, despite their lower wages, and that of course isn’t probably going to happen. This can lead to the creation of overproduction, right? We have a lot of mass-produced products that we have to discount, retailers wind up discounting greatly because the demand isn’t there. The demand isn’t there because the pay is too low, and that’s one economic crisis that can start shaking things up and lead to real problems with capitalist economies. You might ask about the recent credit crisis–we continue to see problems with people going deeper and deeper into debt. Is that a reflection of this kind of underlying tension of the crisis of overproduction people not being paid enough, so they substitute credit for their paycheck, they plunge themselves into debt, and oftentimes can’t repay it. That leads to failing banks and that leads to a ripple of problems which we saw recently in 2008-2010. It led to a massive recession. The opposite type of problem and this has to do with particularly those businesses relying on natural resources is a crisis of under- production. In this case producers begin to encounter declining natural resources while they’re trying to increase their rate of production. They’re exerting greater pressure, over time, on a more limited and shrinking resource base. Again, we have a contradiction here we have a diminishing supply of resources with in increasing demand for those resources and that leads to a crisis of under production. An example of that would be commercial fishing, as a fishing company begins to play this game of becoming more profitable over time it seeks to catch more fish, but as we over- fish we going to see the collapse of different fish populations–desirable fish populations. Treadmill of production theory also takes a look at the role of the state through all this: what does the government do? We’ve already mentioned the view of the state from the perspective of the growth machine, which is pro-growth and we’ll see that the treadmill for production holds a similar view. The ecological modernization view is more of a neutral actor, the state can regulate business and that is not the view of treadmill of production. Essentially, as with growth machine theory, treadmill states that state has an interest in promoting economic growth because economic growth leads to greater revenue for the state. They also note that the state has this dual function of at least appearing to satisfy the use values of the public, so that means providing for safe/clean environment, preventing disasters and when there are problems, coming up with ways to control the damage and protect the health of citizens. So these functions of course often come into conflict, and when that happens you begin to see the evidence of what the real priority is. The profit motive often trump’s the use-value motives. The exchange value trump’s the use value. Very consistent here with growth machine thinking. So, the role of the state, the question is, you know, can in the state actually make the protection of citizen interests the first priority or is the first priority going to be the protection of business interests? Those are not necessarily in conflict but they can be, and so when they are in conflict the question is what’s the greater priority? The state needs funds in order to maintain its power of course, running campaigns is expensive, and then conducting the business of government is expensive, so there’s all kinds of interest in being friendly to business donors and those those actors that can supply a great deal of tax base. Usually that’s only challenged when the public makes demands otherwise and as we saw with the environment the 60s and 70s. Widespread social movements demanded government respond, and Nixon responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and in passing several forms of regulation, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and some others. It’s a lot of these theoretical discussions of conflict come down to the economy versus the environment question, you know, so the question is can economic growth exist alongside a robust environmental protection plan of some kind? Economic growth isn’t necessarily bad for the environment, and that’s the the point of sustainable development. If we invest in companies that promote green technologies maybe we can turn the tide of some of this damage that’s being done. That’s the hope of ecological modernization theory, but we can’t neglect or ignore the critiques offered by those more critical such as treadmill of production or growth machine or as we’ll see in another presentation the global political economic perspectives, that the pressures for economic growth often leave environmental considerations off the table altogether, or at best as a secondary concern. That’s what we’re going to start these discussions of conflict theory. Thanks for watching!

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