Capitalism and resource management

Climate & Natural resources13 Jan 2014Oliver Schultz

Most discussions of power in natural resource management tend to omit the primary issue of capitalism.

The following is a polemic, intended to generate open debate about the critical issue of capitalism and natural resource management. There is growing recognition that the management of natural resources is fundamentally determined by relations of power. Although grassroots researchers, activists, and NGO workers have been confronting this reality for decades, it is only recently that policymakers and funding institutions such as the World Bank have begun to formally recognize the degree to which relations of power determine the use and management of natural resources. While this development should be welcomed, it is noteworthy that most discussions of power in natural resource management tend to omit the primary issue of capitalism. Yet capitalism is the dominant social force which organizes our relation to nature, both materially and symbolically – it is the defining structural context in which it is embedded. At a symbolic level, capitalism is a cultural system which shapes how we think and speak about the natural world. At a material level, capitalism is a form of global economic organization that shapes our actions in relation to nature, structuring how we utilize and manage natural resources.

A strong argument can be made that capitalism does not facilitate ecological sustainability or social justice. Once easily dismissed as radical and ideological, this claim is becoming increasingly difficult to dispute in view of the mounting socioecological crises unfolding around the globe (see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, the Millennium Development Goals Review 2010 and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report 2013). Few would argue that the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is rational, or that economic growth has benefited the majority of the global population.

It is worth revisiting some basic realities of contemporary capitalism. For example, corporations are the primary vehicles of capital accumulation, yet they are legally constituted in fundamental opposition to nature and society. As legal professor, Joel Bakan, has pointed out, corporations are mandated by law to maximize shareholder value before all else. This has a perverse effect on the way that corporations relate to nature and society. Every decision is reduced to a consideration of economic costs and benefits: if causing harm to people and the environment will increase profits, then it becomes economically rational to do so. The destructive logic of corporations is nurtured by the multilateral trade agreements of the World Trade Organization. These agreements include ‘investor protection mechanisms’ that defend the financial interests of private investors from ‘expropriation’ by national governments through, for example, the implementation of environmental policies and regulations which limit industrial pollution. Investor protection mechanisms can have a chilling effect on national governments, which may be reluctant to formulate and implement strong environmental regulations for fear of upsetting ‘investor sentiment’.

Despite the evidence suggesting that the structures and processes of capitalism are directly linked to these crises, the dominant responses from the ‘global community’ have centred on market-based mechanisms which do not conflict with those structures and processes. An example is the depoliticizing discourse of ‘governance’ which pervades development and natural resource management policy and practice. According to this discourse, the interconnected and complex nature of socioecological crises requires the application of knowledge and resources by actors in the private sector, civil society, and government agencies. The basis for this engagement is collaboration and mutual compromise (as poignantly illustrated by the Du Pont Corporation’s ‘Collaboratory’ project). Yet the discourse of ‘governance’ conceals the structures of power in which governance is embedded. Words like ‘class’, ‘domination’, ‘inequality’, ‘conflict’ and ‘power’ are exchanged for words like ‘partnership’, ‘cooperation’, ‘synergy’, ‘solutions’ and ‘compromise’, thus depoliticizing decision making and implementation processes. In the discourse of governance, capital is part of the solution, not the problem. In this context, mechanisms like carbon trading and ethical consumerism (such as ecolabelling) can be proposed as rational solutions to address environmental problems, because they ostensibly balance the interests of capital, society and the environment. However, the basis for these mechanisms is profit making within the existing system of capitalism, which is directly implicated in the crises these mechanisms were meant to address in the first place.

It is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that more radical measures are required if we are to continue to live sustainably on this planet. That these measures should include fundamental changes to the structures of global capitalism seems self-evident. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to begin proposing what these structural changes would look like in full, but they would have to include political and economic decentralization, so that ordinary people have direct access to decision making, and the resources required to make a dignified living. These structural changes would therefore entail a redistribution of political and economic power. Equitable and sustainable use and management of natural resources is thus a matter of politics, rather than a strictly technical matter. As researchers, we have a duty to engage in a rigorous analysis of all the relevant factors that shape natural resource management, including the structures and processes associated with global capitalism. Although there are considerable political and economic pressures against speaking openly about radical structural change, the unprecedented scale and pace of global socioecological crises compels us to take this difficult step.