Green economics

Jurriaan Bendien j.bendien at
Mon Apr 29 10:11:55 MDT 2002


To tell you the truth, I am not an expert on Green economics and did not
devote profound attention to it. I met Christine when I was working as
education officer in a library and organising a course on environmental
issues (which included a critical view of the working environment by a
health inspector, as well as a Maori view, a feminist view etc.).

As far as I remember, Christine's critique was simply that I assumed that
economic value resided in human labour and its products, but this ignored
the value of the natural and biological environment, that is the biosphere.
Therefore, I operated with a very narrow and indeed mistaken concept of
value, and I should rethink the valuation of objects, or the way things are
and should be valued, starting off perhaps with a quick refresher course in

Her essential claim was that Green economics integrated the value of the
natural world into economic theory. In addition, Green economics had a lot
to say about how economic organisation could be accomplished in a way that
was better for people and for the environment. In so doing, Green economics
would draw on the findings of modern physics, game theory, and the
biosciences etc. and she had books about that, I don't recall the titles.
There were various "laws" involved, such as the law of entropy.

My reply to that was that she confused my personal values, which include an
appreciation of nature and a belief in the need for human stewardship of
nature, with the spontaneous tendency of capitalism to reduce the value of
everything to commercial value within the framework of private property,
with all the consequences of that. It wasn't me who imputed value to
labour, rather it was the capitalist system which found in the exploitation
of human labour the source of value augmentation, and reduced the problem
of value to commercial value.

I denied that nature has an intrinsic value, apart from the value that
human beings give to it. But I agreed that so-called "externalities"
(external costs), which include those parts of the environment and the
biosphere to which private property rights cannot be attached easily, and
to which it is difficult to impute a price, are largely disregarded in
bourgeois economics. But that, I said, was a problem of orthodox economics,
of bourgeois civilisation - things which cannot be priced fall outside the
discipline, they are at best a problem of the state, NGO's concerned with
saving the trees and the animals, or taxation policy etc.

My argument was that the cause of environmental pollution and despoilation,
which undermines the basis for a healthy socialism in the future, should be
sought in the laws of motion of the capitalist system. Marx himself already
referred in Capital Volume 3 to the pollution of the Thames, as an example
of how "externalities" are treated by capitalist production.

The problem I thought was more (Alvater's phrase) that the partial economic
rationality of capitalism (achieved within the individual enterprise)
combined with overall (global) irrationality. Simply put, a cost which does
not figure in the company balance sheet is not a cost to the enterprise,
even though it may be a cost to the community as a whole. The only way in
which the bourgeois state can deal with this, is to impose restrictions
(limits) on what enterprises may do, but it does not alter the whole
direction of what is produced and how it is produced, even if incentives
are paid for "green and clean" production.

Christine however pointed out crazy environmental policies in the USSR and
China, arguing I couldn't very well blame it all on capitalism and the
market. I agreed with that, but I argued that these were essentially
backward countries (in terms of labour productivity and infant mortality)
which had tried to catch up quickly by imitating capitalist models and
technology, in a bureaucratically distorted way (including the Stalinist
dogma that ecological concerns were "petty-bourgeois sentiments"). So in
addition to capitalism there was the problem of bureaucratic mismanagement,
there we agreed.

My problem with the Greens was not so much their valid concerns, but (1)
their blindness to the effects of capitalism, and to the reality of class
society and class politics, (2) their belief that you could have
ecologically sound market economy, (3) their methods of political
organisation, and (4) their propensity for substituting mysticism and
subjectivism for rational argument.

Well to cut a long story short, I didn't rubbish the Greens as a "petty
bourgeois deviation", rather I considered that environmental and ecological
problems were far too important to be left to the Greens. (see my article
in New Zealand Monthly Review, "Marxism and Ecology", reprinted in French
Inprecor around 1989).  I thought the Greens didn't take the problem
seriously enough. I wanted to tackle Green issues in a different way that
would show up the real roots of the problem as I saw it. Green politics, I
thought, was not really effective in countering the bad effects of
capitalism for the bio-physical basis of human existence, simply because it
was not anti-capitalist.  I considered that only a democratically
centralised, socialist planned economy had the potential to implement sound
ecological policies. That had originally been the reason for my transition
from Green politics to socialist politics as a 20 year old.

Christine objected to that, because she considered the Greens to be
politically far more effective than the socialists, she believed in
small-scale production and so on. It was an interminable discussion. Today
I have to laugh a bit at my naivity at the time, but I think my intuition
was correct.


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