Capitalism’s ecological crisis


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ASSESSMENTS of the contemporary ecological crisis are as much political constructs as they are pronouncements on the existential status of Nature – ‘the "otherness" to humanity’.1 Perhaps, more so at this point in time, it would be inadequate, if not erroneous, to be innocent of the politics and interests that substantially and fundamentally influence and determine the rate and direction of ecological degradation, both on a national and global scale.

In India, especially in recent years, environmental concerns have visibly become an integral part of the mainstream of political debate and action. Consequently, it is imperative to move beyond the crude problem-policy framework (debating appropriate technologies, etc) to the relatively more sophisticated task of distinguishing between the differing environmental agendas within India’s diverse social and political spectrum.

Rightwing environmentalism in India has, in fact, already acquired considerable traction and leverage in the realm of policy and action. Its most dominant variant is a neo-Malthusian strain that currently saturates the popular media in the form of pop analysis and smart soundbytes. In the neo-Malthusian schema, environmental degradation is the net result of population growth, i.e., it is argued, in diverse ways, that the sheer excess in human numbers is the primary and sole burden on scarce resources.2

This reasoning, that privileges the quantity of the impact rather than the quality of the ecological footprint, though deeply flawed in its argumentation, nevertheless, provides legitimacy to several reactionary social and political agendas. Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation programme during the Emergency years in 1975-77, for example, was an early offshoot of middle class neo-Malthusian inspired paranoia that was violently unleashed on the urban poor. The great lie about neo-Malthusianism is that it deliberately ignores and avoids engaging with aspects of structural inequity and seeks to obscure the political origins of environmental degradation.



When statistics on population growth are shadowed by consumption patterns, for example, an entirely different picture emerges. The Human Development Report 1998 on consumption patterns noted that 20% of the world’s people in the highest income countries consumed 45% of all meat and fish (while the poorest 20% account for 5% only), 58% of total energy (ditto… less than 4%), 84% of all paper (ditto… 1.1%), and own 87% of the vehicles (ditto… less than 1%).

Though many of the poor in high income countries live in relatively severe destitution as well, the HDR (1998) points out ‘that a child born in the industrialised world adds more to consumption and pollution than do 30-50 children born in developing countries.’3 Clearly, it is the quality of the impact on the environment rather than the sheer size of numbers that matters, a claim that is even more apparent if one accepts the ‘ecological footprint’ accounting of Wackernagel and Rees.4 Their table below indicates just how wide the gap is between the consumption of the rich (few) as against that of the poor (many).5



Rees and Wackernagel calculate that on an average, at current rates of consumption, a person from Canada and the U.S. would require roughly 4.3 and 5.1 hectares of land respectively to support his/her lifestyle, while the corresponding figures would be 0.4 (India) and 1.8 (world). This inequity in consumption patterns between different countries is, however, most acutely reproduced within the political boundaries of the national economy as well. Consequently, the Indian elite is as voracious a consumer and polluter as their counterpart in the so called first or developed world. In fact, in India it becomes particularly nauseating to see the wantonly wasteful lifestyles and egregious consumption habits of the rich and middle class amidst the desperate poverty of millions.


Comparing People’s Average Consumption in the US, Canada and the World


Consumption per person in 1991





C02 emission (in tonnes per yr)





Purchasing power (in $US)





Vehicles per 100 persons





Paper consumption (in kg/yr)





Fossil energy use (in gigajoules/yr)

250 (234)




Fresh water withdrawal (in m3/yr)






On the other hand, it would be facetious to simply conclude that wasteful consumption patterns and lifestyle preferences are the primary causes of environmental degradation. They are, in fact, more symptom than disease. Rather, it needs to be emphasised that current rates of pollution and environmental devastation derives from the peculiar character of the world’s most dominant social and economic system – capitalism.

The salience in the observation, however, lies not in asserting that capitalism destroys the environment, as other social forms such as the socialist experiments (or attempts at socialism) in Eastern Europe and China had also degraded their environments but, more significantly, in ascertaining the uniqueness of the capitalist imprimatur on the natural world. That is, only by identifying and drawing out the specific and distinct impact of capitalism on nature can the method in the madness, so to speak, be uncovered and the pace and direction of the contemporary ecological crisis be tracked and understood.



One of the most interesting analyses in this regard is advanced by Neil Smith, suggesting that the central question hinges not on explaining the extent or limitations of capital’s control or dominance over nature but in understanding the production of nature in the image of capital. In other words, capitalism propelled by the dictates of the accumulation process attempts a qualitative transformation of nature, which is furthermore generalised on a world scale.6

In effect, capitalism’s self-expansion through the appropriation and the production of surplus value is simultaneously the attempt to insinuate into the substances of nature and its varied processes the value relation, in which exchange value subjugates use. That is, the complexity of nature and its innumerable interlinkages are broken down, dissolved and then reified into or treated as capitalist commodities or stock of units of capital. Several recent studies have, in fact, described how the phenomenon of nature is being recast and compressed through technology to be marched in rhythm with the ineluctable cycles of capitalist accumulation.



Jack Kloppenburg’s detailed monograph on biotechnology, for example, meticulously maps the manner in which capital penetrates plant breeding through the science of hybridisation and effectively breaks the previous unity of the seed as grain and the means of production.7 It would indeed not be an exaggeration to state that the entire biotechnology revolution, with all its potentially dangerous consequences, is essentially the projection of the image of capital into seed production.

Terminator seeds, for example, are the classic exemplar of the capitalist signature on the gene. Here, the primary producer is dispossessed from ownership and control over the seed, which is now an input regulated by the laws of interest, profit and ultimately the accumulation imperative. Similarly, the whole carbon trading regime that some mega-corporations in the industrialised world are currently authoring as a solution to climate change, is premised on the principle of regulating the entire planet’s atmosphere though a market imperative. Their intentions roughly translate into a desire to divide up the planet’s atmosphere into shares that can then be traded through markets and thereby literally commodify the sky itself.



Capitalism, however, in the process of producing or remaking nature by mapping onto it forms of exclusive property and attempting to regulate it as commodities, causes various degrees of disarticulation – the dissonance and disruption caused to the integrity of ecological processes. For example, the biological and chemical equilibrium of a fluvial system, in its complex and varied interconnections, may be disconnected by a series of dams. In contrast to the integrity of its previous circulation regime, these dams now artificially manipulate the river’s flow to feed the needs of irrigation for intensive agriculture and hydroelectricity for urban use, much to the detriment of aquatic life, wet-lands and often the livelihoods of traditional fishermen as well.

Another example would be the manner in which, under the rubric of ‘scientific forestry’, a large number of forests in India were transformed from being a mosaic of interconnected ecological niches to monocultures for timber extraction. Consequent to which, not only was specie diversity severely attenuated in these forests but traditional community access was either extinguished altogether or severely curtailed.8

In effect, the uncoupling of ecological processes and the reconfiguring of environmental landscapes by capital had adverse impacts not only on the natural world but also operated as a form of enclosure in the manner it ended innumerable types of customary rights and scales of access of local communities, i.e., the traditional patterns of resource use.

This, however, is not to suggest that disarticulation is a feature unique only to capitalism. Rather, as a necessary caveat, it needs to be underscored that different social forms bring to bear different rates and intensities of disarticulation to their ecological contexts. What is, nevertheless, unique to capitalism is the global scale and unprecedented intensity of disarticulation that it has brought about by pollution and through high rates of extraction. In fact, given the range and scope of the natural world’s qualitative transformation in the current epoch of capital, it would perhaps not be an exaggerated reaction to agree with Bill Mckibben that nature, as previously known and experienced, has ‘ended’ and transformed instead into a new reality.9



Not surprisingly, capitalism, given the particularity of its impact, has caused its own peculiar ecological crisis. A crisis that James O’Connor has termed as the ‘second contradiction’, whereby capital impairs and exhausts its own social and environmental conditions and thus threatens its ability to reproduce the basis for profit and accumulation.10 In other words, acid rain, climate change, over-fishing, decimation of wildlife, deforestation, nuclear waste build-up, and so on, are recognized not merely as a common threat to humanity in general but essentially and fundamentally as a crisis for capitalist reproduction.

In effect, crisis-stricken capital collides against a veritable ‘rebellion of nature’ that finds expression in a range of new social movements that mobilise on themes of environmental degradation such as deforestation, pollution, mining, health and gender. These movements in turn present themselves as ‘social barriers’ that confront capital’s unbridled exploitation of nature. Consequently, much like capital’s recourse to Keynesian planning to restructure itself out of an economic crisis, O’Connor argues:

‘…capital restructures the conditions of production also in ways that make them more transparently social in form and content; for example, permanent-yield forests, land reclamation, regional land use and/or resource planning, population policy, health policy, labour market regulation, toxic waste disposal planning and so on.’11

Though the adoption of some of these ‘social forms’ to restrain the (ab)use of nature provide an imagining for a socialist ecology, O’Connor is careful to point out that capital’s restructuring is nevertheless fraught with complications and may even result in the deepening of its ecological crisis.



Indian environmentalism, in fact, can be best analysed as being chiefly propelled as a response to the moribund and hyper-exploitative version of capitalism that has been imposed on its populace. In the past several decades a virtual explosion in ‘environmental movements’ or popular mobilization on environmental themes has, in fact, become highly visible on the political landscape. The relatively prominent ones would perhaps include struggles such as (a) Chipko – challenging deforestation in the Himalayas; (b) Narmada Bachao Andolan,12 Tehri and Koel Karo – resistance against large dams; (c) Chilika Bachao Andolan – against shrimp farming by the Tata Corporation; National Fishworkers Federation – struggles against the entry of mechanised fishing, and so on.



Besides these, however, there has been a whole slew of what Smitu Kothari terms as a ‘million mutinies’ of lower visibility but of substantial intensity involving struggles over issues such as industrial pollution (Bichhri, Rajasthan), mining threats to rural and forest based livelihoods (Gandamardhan, Orissa; Rayagadha, Bihar); defence of common lands (Karnataka), among others.13 These movements, both the prominent ones and those relatively less visible, have essentially turned on questions concerning the immiserisation of marginalized communities through the alienation of their livelihood resources.

In fact, since the so called liberalization of the economy in 1991, the overall thrust of capitalist development in India has dramatically moved towards violently destroying the subsistence economies of the poor and marginal by either direct seizure of their resources or by polluting their environments.

These environmental movements, however, have tended to concentrate on issue-based coherence rather than comprehensive political cohesiveness. That is, they have remained largely resistance oriented and have been hesitant towards acquiring a broader political thrust vis-à-vis an emancipatory agenda. The formation of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in 1992 has, however, begun to explore this possibility.14 Nevertheless, the lack of political cohesiveness among these movements in actuality stems from a deeper complication, viz., the limitations caused by the forging of multi-class alliances that are operative only as an issue-based approach.15



The celebrated agitation against the dams on the Narmada river spearheaded by the NBA, for example, is a creatively welded, though tenuous, alliance between rich farmers and the adivasis or tribals (landless and subsistence peasants). Similarly, the struggle against the Tata Corporation’s attempt to move into shrimp farming in Chilika lake (Orissa) was led by a broad coalition of poor traditional fisherfolk, petty contractors and fairly rich and powerful speculators drawn from various segments of Orissa’s bureaucratic and political elite.16

In other words, these examples suggest that the social and class composition of the alliances may not be able to hold beyond the issue and therefore, not unexpectedly, are rarely able to mobilise on a comprehensive political agenda.17 However, this is not to suggest that they lack consistent politics as much as to emphasise that class constraints tug at attempts to expand the movement into different realms of struggle, i.e., not all classes and social groups have the same objectives in their opposition to capitalism.



The peculiar sociology of the Indian political landscape, much like race in the United States,18 has, moreover, added a unique dimension to environmental struggles in so far as dalit and adivasi communities have been particularly vulnerable to capitalist expropriation. One glaring instance would be with regard to displacement by large dams. According to the World Commission on Dams (India Report), for instance, though dalits and tribals account for roughly 24.5% of the total population, they comprise 62% of the total of those displaced.19 Similarly, the impacts of deforestation and the pollution of rivers and streams have been hardest on rural women, the vast majority of whom are actually landless agricultural labourers, often forcing them to spend many more backbreaking hours to secure fuel, fodder and drinking water.



The eruption of resistance through the rubric of environmental movements to the above mentioned threats to subsistence security, environmental degradation and the direct appropriation of resources has, not unexpectedly, also forced both the state and capital in India to review their strategies for rule and accumulation. Their subsequent manoeuvres to readjust the social temperature for exploitation, has essentially comprised a mix, involving tactical retreats in the form of temporary pauses in state violence or a more rigorous attack through rightwing environmentalism.

Termed as free market environmentalism, its proponents are currently advertising it as a veritable global vision for saving the natural world. The entire history of environmental destruction is being rewritten ahistorically as a product of wrong pricing, inadequate incentives, free riders, subsidies and inefficiency. The solution, according to these market environmentalists, is to allow and enable the rule of the self-regulating market as final arbiter for resource allocation (that operates unhindered through the true laws of supply and demand) with the state only being required to enforce property rights and contract.20

Already in India, some of the heady ideas of this convoluted reasoning, alongside the prodding of the World Bank and IMF, have been advanced – most recently in the water sector, for long a social good delivered by government as part of its responsibility to citizens. With the declaration of the New National Water Policy by the prime minister in the National Water Resources Council meeting (1 April 2002) citizen accountability will be transformed into customer choice. According to item 13 of the new policy, water will be privatised with transnational corporations managing access to it on the basis of profit.21



In parts of Africa, in fact, free market principles for ‘conserving’ nature or wildlife have been in operation for several years. A slew of ecotour operators and hunting companies in places such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania in cahoots with pliable governments have successfully transformed nature parks and sanctuaries into commodities that are now frequented only by dollar rich western tourists for trophy hunting excursions. The local communities that previously utilised these areas and their forests resources have either been expelled, often by state violence, or bought out by paltry compensation.22

In India, as well, considerable contestation is currently occurring on the issue of customary rights and access of local communities to their resources, now reclassified as natural parks and wildlife zones.23 Though in the immediate future it appears distant that the Indian government may go the Africa route, the unfolding logic of market environmentalism, nevertheless, poses a serious long term threat.

Paralleling the move to give elements of nature a price tag, often through the ridiculous notion of contingent valuation, capital is increasingly pushing for what is considered as clearer property rights. Most notably, in the realm of bio-prospecting in which even the seemingly democratic task of determining community ownership of genetic material for claims on possible profits is in actual fact the logic of capitalist property being projected onto biological material to be regulated in the final instance by the market imperative. Historically this has always been skewed against the marginal and poor.24

In sum, left environmentalism in India will have to contend with these variously complicated manoeuvres of capital that at heart seek to maintain the conditions for accumulation. Thus far, unfortunately, the largest left parties in India (CPI and CPM) have uncritically accepted the dominant discourses on development and have yet to seriously engage with the critical relationship between environmental degradation and democracy.25



 I would like to thank Smitu Kothari, Shripad Dharmadhikari, Amita Baviskar, Malavika Vartak, Shreekant Gupta, Shellie Corman and Deborah Sutton for corrections and comments. I also thank the various participants of the ‘Towards a People’s Development’ workshop held in San Francisco on 16 and 17 March 2002.

1. See Kate Soper, What is Nature? Blackwell, UK, 1995. Especially her qualifications on the use of the term Nature, pp. 15-36.

2. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968 is often considered the first comprehensive argument linking population growth to resource depletion. Lester Brown’s State of the World reports from the World Watch Institute based in Washington D.C. is another example. See the early critiques by Barry Commoner and Murray Bookchin of Ehrlich’s views. A particularly toxic revival of neo-Malthusianism has recently occurred through the writings of Robert Kaplan and Homer-Dixon, who link ecological security to overpopulation and economic and political stress that then results in violence. A comprehensive critique of their views is available in the introduction of Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts (ed.), Violent Environments, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, pp. 3-38.

3. Human Development Report (1998), United Nations Development Programme, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

4. Ecological Footprint is essentially an accounting tool which is calculated as ‘the flows of energy and matter to and from any defined economy and converts them into the corresponding land/water area required from nature to support these flows.’ See Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1996.

5. Wackernagel and Rees, ibid., p. 85.

6. See the chapter, ‘The production of nature’ in Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, Basil Blackwell, 1984, pp. 32-65.

7. Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology 1492-2000, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.

8. See the classic by Ramachandra Guha, Unquiet Woods, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1988.

9. See Bill Mckibben, The End of Nature, Anchor Books, New York, 1990.

10. James O’Connor, ‘The Second Contradiction of Capitalism’, in Natural Causes, The Guilford Press, New York, 1998, pp. 158-177. The article first appeared in 1988 in the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.

11. O’Connor, ‘The Second Contradiction of Capitalism’, op cit., p. 161.

12. For an activist’s account and an excellent review of the issues concerning the struggle in the Narmada valley, see Sanjay Sangvai, The River and Life: People’s Struggle in the Narmada Valley, Earthcare, Mumbai, July 2000.

13. Smitu Kothari, ‘A Million Mutinies’, Humanscape, September 2001.

14. Interestingly enough, the manifesto of the NAPM claims that they are a coalition of ‘like-minded groups and movements’ which retain their ‘autonomous identities’. NAPM does not even strive to be a ‘federation of constituent members.’ For the NAPM programme and manifesto, see the website

15. See Sanjay Sangvai’s interesting discussion on the forging of the tribal and bazariya (landed farmers of Nimad) alliance in his book The River and Life, pp. 126-29.

16. I argued this earlier in an unpublished paper titled, Party Politics and Environmentalism: Should the Left in India ‘Green’ Itself? presented at the Joshi-Adhikari Institute, 17 July 1999, New Delhi.

17. The multi-class and diverse social composition probably accounts for the ambiguity in much of the political rhetoric spawned by these movements. I have found Amita Baviskar’s as yet unpublished paper helpful in understanding this question. See Amita Baviskar, ‘Red in Tooth and Claw? Looking for Class in Struggles over Nature’. Conference on Social Movements and Poverty in a Transnational Age, Center for South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, April 2001.

18. The classic work exploring race and pollution in the US is Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Westview Press, Boulder, 1990. Also see Roger Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring, Island Press, Washington D.C., 1993, pp. 235-260.

19. Large Dams: India’s Experience, WCD, 2000, p. 101. For the WCD report see

20. See Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Free Market Environmentalism, Palgrave, New York, 2001 (2nd edition).

21. Statement issued by Rashtriya Jal Biradhari, 8 April 2002. Email: Also see Peter Gleick, Gary Wolff et al, The New Economy of Water: The Risks and Benefits of Globalization and Privatization of Fresh Water, Pacific Institute, Oakland, February 2002.

22. See Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998 and Richard Schroeder, ‘Debating Distributive Environmental Justice: The Politics of Sharing Wildlife Wealth with Rural Communities in Tanzania’, paper presented at the Berkeley workshop on Environmental Politics, Institute of International Studies, 5 April 2002.

23. Vasant Saberwal, Mahesh Rangarajan and Ashish Kothari, People, Parks, and Wildlife, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2001. The authors of this tract, however, seem optimistic that participatory management would be able to democratically resolve the question of the local communities access and rights to zones now declared as National Parks.

24. Paul Burkett makes the significant point that ‘insofar as value encapsulates capitalism’s fundamental antagonism with nature, then any environmental policies under which value remains the "active factor" in human production are unlikely to seriously alleviate ecological crises.’ See Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, p. 81. Burkett’s book is a well argued corrective to views that have wrongly pilloried Marx for being a promethean anti-ecologist.

25. As this article goes to press a most significant political development has occurred with the left (CPM and CPI) progressive parties and some trade unions supporting the ‘People’s March’ (11-13 July 2002) being led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. This possibly heralds the formal entry of mainstream politics into the realm of environmental issues.