Monthly Review
November 2009*

The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction*

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

The core argument on the paradox of wealth here was first introduced in a
paper by both authors, entitled “Marx’s Ecology in the Twenty-First
Century,” presented by Clark at the International Symposium on Ecological
Civilization, Sanya, Hainan, China, June 23, 2009. Subsequent versions were
delivered by Foster at the Marxism 2009 conference, University of London,
July 4, 2009, and the Political Economy of the World-System Miniconference,
University of San Francisco, August 7, 2009.

Today orthodox economics is reputedly being harnessed to an entirely new
end: saving the planet from the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist
expansion. It promises to accomplish this through the further expansion of
capitalism itself, cleared of its excesses and excrescences. A growing army
of self-styled “sustainable developers” argues that there is no
contradiction between the unlimited accumulation of capital — the credo of
economic liberalism from Adam Smith to the present — and the preservation of
the earth. The system can continue to expand by creating a new “sustainable
capitalism,” bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its
reproduction. In reality, these visions amount to little more than a renewed
strategy for profiting on planetary destruction.

Behind this tragedy-cum-farce is a distorted accounting deeply rooted in the
workings of the system that sees wealth entirely in terms of value generated
through exchange. In such a system, only commodities for sale on the market
really count. External nature — water, air, living species — outside this
system of exchange is viewed as a “free gift.” Once such blinders have been
put on, it is possible to speak, as the leading U.S. climate economist
William Nordhaus has, of the relatively unhindered growth of the economy a
century or so from now, under conditions of business as usual — despite the
fact that leading climate scientists see following the identical path over
the same time span as absolutely catastrophic both for human civilization
and life on the planet as a

Such widely disparate predictions from mainstream economists and natural
scientists are due to the fact that, in the normal reckoning of the
capitalist system, both nature’s contribution to wealth and the destruction
of natural conditions are largely invisible. Insulated in their cocoon,
orthodox economists either implicitly deny the existence of nature
altogether or assume that it can be completely subordinated to narrow,
acquisitive ends.

This fatal flaw of received economics can be traced back to its conceptual
foundations. The rise of neoclassical economics in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries is commonly associated with the rejection of the
labor theory of value of classical political economy and its replacement by
notions of marginal utility/productivity. What is seldom recognized,
however, is that another critical perspective was abandoned at the same
time: the distinction between wealth and value (use value and exchange
value). With this was lost the possibility of a broader ecological and
social conception of wealth. These blinders of orthodox economics, shutting
out the larger natural and human world, were challenged by figures
inhabiting what John Maynard Keynes called the “underworlds” of economics.
This included critics such as James Maitland (Earl of Lauderdale), Karl
Marx, Henry George, Thorstein Veblen, and Frederick Soddy. Today, in a time
of unlimited environmental destruction, such heterodox views are having a
comeback.2 <>