Theory: A Social Ecology of Capital

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June 15, 2023

The Canadian Malartic mine, located in the heart of Québec’s Abitibi Gold Belt. Photo courtesy of Clara Vinn

Ninety-two gigatonnes (GT). That's the amount of matter that was globally extracted on the planet in 2017. This linear throughput represents the brute materiality of capitalist societies. About half of this throughput (44 GT) is made up of sand, gravel, limestone, and other non-metallic minerals. Most will be transformed into concrete structures, some will be used as infill for roads and buildings, and the rest will be dissipated as fertilizers critical to industrial agriculture or shaped into short-lived glass commodities. Another quarter (24 GT) is extracted as biomass, flowing through society as food and feed, but also burnt as fuel or accumulated in buildings. Fossil fuels, whether energizing artifacts such as cars, airplanes, and chainsaws, or shaped into single use plastics, represent 15 GT of throughput. The global extraction of metals adds another 9 GT to this mass flow. 92 GT in 2017, and certainly more today given that in 1970 the global extractive flow amounted to 27 GT. The mass of matter that capital sets in motion has grown by a factor of 3.4 in a little less than half a century. 

This tripling of the mass throughput embodies the capitalist growth that is undermining the ecological stability of the Earth. Although there has been much talk, hype, and debate concerning the dematerialization of capitalist accumulation, it would seem that there is nothing post-material about this economy's growth process. To put this growth into perspective, the amount of matter fixed by biological processes in the earth's terrestrial ecosystems, the planetary scale of organic growth (including capitalist agriculture) in the form of yearly net primary production, is estimated to be 118 GT. The mass flows of matter set in motion by capital therefore rival in scale those which support the flourishing of all living beings on Earth. 

These material flows shape and determine the social ecology of capital and their study is necessary to understand and face the environmental contradictions of capitalist society. My new book, A Social Ecology of Capital, aims to contribute to such an effort. It weaves together into a critical theory of contemporary capitalism, material, and energy flow analysis (MEFA), or social metabolism, with heterodox perspectives on capital accumulation and economic growth. 

A Social Ecology of Capital grew out of the need I felt to ground critical theory on a renewed ecological materialism; a materialist account that would be non-reductionist and compatible with the recent wave of constructivist scholarship on energy. I turned to social ecology developed by the Vienna Institute of Social Ecology—more specifically, their positive science of social metabolism—to develop a dialectical and critical theory of capitalist metabolism. 

Social ecology, which was initially proposed by Murray Bookchin in the 1980s, can be defined quite simply as the study of the ecological relations of societies with the natural world. By the ‘natural world,’ social ecologists do not have in mind either the abstract nature of theoretical physics (though thermodynamics are an important part of the social ecologists' analytical toolkit) or pristine wilderness. They mean the physical natural world, the Earth, a living planet entirely reshaped by life processes and ecological relations that largely overdetermine its geophysical state through biogeochemical cycles. Like all other living beings, individual humans thrive through and because of their interrelations with the planet’s abiotic and biotic environments. Yet, when humans interact with other living beings and communities or earth processes, they do so through social relations and social structures that are both material and symbolic, thus the term social ecology. These relations are both necessary and objective, though their historical and cultural forms are contingent and diverse. A core feature of these relations for contemporary social ecology is their connection to the economic process of modern societies. 

Social ecology provides a language relevant to a society with an economic process dependent on mass material flows, or what I have called throughput in my book. Throughput refers to the flow of 92 GT of matter put in movement by the economic processes of Capital, including biomass-based materials, ores, stone, sand, or fossil fuels. It is a category developed by the pioneers of ecological economics (e.g. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen), who were unsatisfied with the dematerialized conceptual apparatus of classical (and more so neoclassical) political economy, which centred on the analysis of the production, distribution and consumption of a value bearing output consisting of goods, infrastructures and services. Throughput is also more than the Marxian use-value form that passively bears the exchange value of commodities. Its linearity instead extends beyond relations of production and consumption. Extraction and dissipation precede and follow these economic relations. Their logic and nature cannot be reduced or assimilated to either as is usually the case in most models of political economy. 

Social ecology proposes a materially expanded view of the economic process, mediated by four structural moments:

                                                                                                                         Extraction - Production - Consumption - Dissipation 

Capital accumulates at each point, where it is fixed in determined forms and encounters the labour and social practices that drive the throughput. Extraction and dissipation are points where the economic process is biophysically entangled with ecosystems and earth system processes such as biogeochemical cycles through their source and sink functions. Mass production and mass consumption imply mass extraction, and mass dissipation or mass waste. The throughput that must be extracted from quarries, mines, fields, pastures, sea beds, and forests, as well as the matter that must be fracked, dug, cut, scraped, and trawled, will eventually have to be buried, incinerated, biodigested, and plowed under, unless it just leaks into the nearest river, billows into the sky, or is dumped into the sea. These material transformations of the throughput are necessary, massive, and have grown at exponential rates during the last half century. 

A Social Ecology of Capital proposes a theory of capitalist society as a historical totality.

A Social Ecology of Capital studies in a systematic manner the substance, structure, and metamorphosis of the biophysical throughput as it flows through the four points of the economic process. It also examines the social relations that mediate this flow from natural source to natural sink, as well as those that govern the accumulation of matter in the form of artifacts. Artifacts might not have agency, as argued by Alf Hornborg, but as capital or commodities, and because of the social relations of use and property these forms imply, they do command certain flows of matter, further reinforcing the long-term dependence of the economic process on mass extraction and mass dissipation. 

Finally, social ecology understands the material entanglements between nature and this extended conception of the economic process of capital as articulations between autonomous orders of causation. Instead of hybridity and ontological flatness, my book works with a dialectical perspective where natural and social processes intermediate each other, where social causation becomes (not is) natural causation, and natural causation becomes social causation, where one cannot apply the Durkheimian dictum that social facts must be explained by social facts. 

In addition to studying the linear flow of matter in the economic process, A Social Ecology of Capital proposes a theory of capitalist society as a historical totality. In that sense it is in dialogue with similar efforts by political ecologists (e.g., Alf Hornborg) and ecological Marxists (e.g., John Bellamy-Foster and Paul Burkett, and Jason Moore). But its specific contribution is to think of this historical specificity by working with the concept of socio-metabolic regimes developed by the Vienna Institute of Social Ecology. In the language of social ecology, capitalism as it exists today rests on a fossil metabolic regime, though it emerged in the context an agrarian metabolic regime. 

The book explores how the economic process of agrarian societies, including those with relatively developed capitalist social relations (E.A. Wrigley’s advanced organic economies), are bounded and limited by the constraint to generate a biophysical surplus through ecological relations which in fine rest on net primary production or photosynthetic activity. This is a core theme of classical political economy and explains the importance for Adam Smith and David Ricardo of the theory of diminishing marginal returns. My book studies how, in its historical development, industrial capitalism overcame this barrier to growth and accumulation by shifting the basis of social metabolism from an ecological surplus to a geological surplus of "already accumulated" sources of energy in the form of fossil fuels. 

The constraint of this new metabolic regime is not surplus generation through rational husbandry and improvement, but efficient surplus use through optimized and less wasteful prime movers and machines, the object of thermodynamics (see work by Cara DaggettLarry Lohmann and Nick Hildyard). And the first locus of application of this geological surplus is to expand and enhance extractive activity in a self-reinforcing loop. The coal-fired steam engine’s first commercial application was in coal mining, providing the mechanical energy necessary to drive pumps that pulled water out of ever deeper coal mines. Without these pumps, most of the coal seams that powered the industrial revolution in England would have remained inaccessible. The same is true of oil and iron. The self-reinforcing or recursive loop means that as capital is invested in the capacity to extract, economies of scale result: the mass extractive flow grows, economically extractable reserves grow, and the per unit cost of extraction diminishes. It was Stephen Bunker who observed that when capital accumulates at the point of extraction, marginal returns are initially positive not negative, encouraging further accumulation and locking in further flows of extracted matter. As fixed capital builds up at the point of extraction, the minimal volume of economically viable extractive flows grow, as does the capacity to transport, transform, and dissipate this throughput, be it oil, lithium, graphite, bauxite, or sand. 

If the biophysical constraint faced by capital in this context is how to entropically absorb this massive pre-existing geological surplus, exponential economic growth provides the answer. 

The study of advanced capitalisms metabolism expands arguments made by fossil capital theorists such as Andreas Malm and Matthew Huber. The concept of capitalist metabolism is broader and encompasses the whole of the material flows of geological origin on which the economic process has come to depend, as well as how they are tied, along the throughput flow, to social relations of extraction, production, consumption, and waste or dissipation. Today capitalist metabolism depends on elements drawn from almost all corners of the periodic table, whereas as argued by Vaclav Smil and other industrial ecologists, just half a century ago a dozen materials were critical to the metabolic activity of society. 

Advanced capitalism has been theorized by a long tradition of radical heterodox political economists (Michal Kalecki, Paul A. Baran and Paul Sweezy, James Crotty, Juliet Schor) as organized around an accumulation regime based on the overconsumption of what capital overproduces. A Social Ecology of Capital, and the ecological materialist turn it proposes, builds on this tradition through the study of the metabolic drivers of growth and accumulation as well the ecological consequences and contradictions this growth implies. These elements are brought together in a model of accumulation where biophysical and social dimensions intermediate each other. It concludes with the question of how to break out of the capitalist growth treadmill in which most societies are now trapped, examines the alternatives (e.g., socialism, progressive green growth), and ends with a plea to seriously consider socialist degrowth as proposed by Giorgios Kallis, Jason Hickel, Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and others, as the only viable alternative to socioecological collapse. 

A Social Ecology of Capital does not resolve all the issues raised by the need today for an ecologized materialism as a foundation for a critical theory of capitalism. Its contribution is to propose an analytical framework and conceptual tableau that is as systematic and precise as possible, hoping this mode of exposition will favour discussion and debate. The downside is a work that is at times abstract and grim but, then again, as I write in the book: “this does reflect essential features of the [material] logic of advanced capitalism: massified, abstract and not so poetic” (12).

Éric Pineault is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal. With a focus on Canada's extractive and hydrocarbon sectors, his research employs a dual approach of political economy and ecological economics. His latest book, A Social Ecology of Capital, is available now from Pluto Press.

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