The ability of humankind to persist increasingly seems contingent upon our ability to limit our consumption generally and in particular, to drastically reduce – if not stop altogether - the burning of fossil fuels. This constitutes a contradiction of capitalism; on the one hand energy sources are a major source of value to capital precisely because they are finite but on the other hand, our survival depends on using renewable sources. Sustainable consumption presents itself as the solution to this problem as it seeks to nudge both producers and consumers alike towards more sustainability. Accordingly, this is an age in which we encounter various conscientious capitalists apparently committed to the task of reversing the tendency towards environmental devastation, for example Richard Branson, George Soros, and John Mackey.
However some authors warn that the destructive tendency is inherent to capitalism itself. For example, David Harvey argues that capital has historically expanded at an annual compound growth rate of 3% meaning that a doubling of the global economy is necessary about every twenty years. In circumstances where this growth becomes stunted, Harvey argues that crises erupt and have the consequence of re-ordering the economic infrastructure so that growth levels can be returned to. Global bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Harvey argues, are structured to identify what transformations to an economy are necessary in order to restore growth and then rigorously impose these transformation via the terms of ‘bail-outs’. Harvey argues that capitalism is a mechanism of growth, therefore imagining capitalism without growth and imagining that we can simply decide to have a zero growth economy is to misunderstand what capitalism is. While a doubling in the amount of capital in the global economy does not necessarily rely on a doubling of the amount of physical objects produced, or the doubling of the burning of fossil fuels, it is very difficult to imagine how contemporary levels of production, already too high, can be reduced, let alone prevented from doubling too.
For Marx, capitalism is a model of infinite expansion. Marx explained two alternative forms of commodity exchange. The first form is C-M-C, that is commodity - money - commodity. In such a hypothetical situation, a person has a surplus of a commodity that they have produced, for example bread, but requires other commodities, for instance, shoes. Therefore, they sell the bread for money, then use the money to buy the shoes. In this form of exchange, the money’s existence is mediated by the need to gain specific commodities and the commodity is sought for its use-value (i.e. the person wants to wear the shoes). This, however, is not how capitalism operates. Instead, capitalism functions via an alternative form; M-C-M. Here the starting point is money and the tendency is to use money to generate more money by investing in commodities. Therefore, the capitalist invests in a commodity in order to exchange the commodity for more money. In this case, the commodity is mediated by money and the primary source of value in the commodity is its exchange value, meaning that what the commodity is and what its useful is, is largely irrelevant to the capitalist. According to Marx, this mechanism ensures a restless and feverish commitment within capitalism to constant expansion and accumulation. M-C-M, Marx argued, the procedure in which capital begets capital, is the operating basis to our capitalist economy and this seems to ensure that more commodities will endlessly be produced in order to satisfy the drive to generate more money.
A further analysis that problematizes any possibility of sustainability within capitalism is Andreas Malm’s analysis of what he terms ‘fossil capitalism’. Malm argues that if we want to understand why capitalism tends to burn so much fossil fuel, then we need to understand this as a matter of class relationship. For example, during the industrial revolution, some mills used water as the primary motivator while others used coal. At several stages there were highly innovative developments which pointed towards greater efficiencies to be gained by the use of water, a resource that costs nothing, as distinct from coal which has numerous costs attached. Malm argues that for a variety of reasons these experiments with water were abandoned and coal was adopted as the primary motivator of the industry revolution. Chief among these reasons was the fact that it was easier to exploit workers in factories located in urban centres because there was a constant source of disposable labour. By contrast building factories near fast-running water meant that the factories were often located away from urban centres, and therefore workers were less disposable. Therefore the reason why, in these instances, capital prefers burning fuel rather than renewable energy sources is because it is easier for managers to dominate labour. This reminds us that the reasons why capital functions the way that it does will be informed by how best to dominate labour, and this imperative needs to be understood in any discussion on fuel sources. Malm’s argument is that capitalist class relations work best in circumstances where fossil fuels are being burnt and this needs to be understood in discussions of sustainability.
In any case, there is little evidence to suggest that global markets are on the verge of abandoning the use of fossil fuels. Quite the contrary, there are continuous increases in energy prices that must signal a long term commitment to the exploitation of these increasingly scarce resources. The amount of global capital currently invested in oil and gas is believed to be $4 trillion – or expressed differently, $4,000,000,000,000 – suggesting that nobody of influence seriously believes that we are on the verge of cutting carbon use. Put differently, the loss of such a staggering sum of money (roughly 8 times the size of the Swedish economy) would cause so massive an economic crisis that it must surely be inconceivable. As Frederic Jameson reportedly said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism’.
This is all to say that there may be structural and material obstructions that might prevent capitalism from achieving sustainability. Yet despite such arguments, there nonetheless remains a strong commitment to the hope that sustainable consumption will be achieved and is the right way to pursue the sustainability agenda.