Workers’ Liberty organises a monthly Marxist ecology reading group. This month we discussed a chapter on “Entropy and ecological economics” from Marxism and Ecological Economics by Paul Burkett.
Expanded from the version in the printed paper.
Over the last three decades, Burkett and his co-thinkers have developed metabolic rift theory and played a significant role in restoring Marx as an important ecological thinker.
As part of that project Burkett has engaged in critical dialogue with the ecological economists. The ecological economists emerged in the 1970s but trace their roots back to earlier figures like the Ukrainian socialist and correspondent of Marx and Engels, Serhiy Podolynsky who attempted (unsuccessfully) to apply thermodynamics to economic questions. Burkett and his co-thinkers have written several books showing that Marx and Engels had more sophisticated understanding of thermodynamics and there is a lot of common ground between their approach and the approach later developed by the ecological economists based on the entropy law.
Leading ecological economists Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly argue, following the first law of thermodynamics, that human activity cannot create or destroy energy. Instead it constantly draws on material/energy resources provided by nature and dissipates waste back into the environment. Following the second law they argue that ‘matter-energy enters the economic process in a state of low entropy and comes out of it in a state of high entropy’.
From a thermodynamic perspective the human economy is an “open dissipative system”. Individual cells, living organisms and communities of living organisms are also open, dissipative systems. Biological metabolisms draw low entropy matter-energy from the environment and dissipate high entropy waste back into the environment. Similarly the biosphere as a whole is also an open, dissipative system that draws on low-entropy solar energy to power life’s metabolisms and dissipates waste heat back into space.
Human labour manipulates the materials of the earth to produce useful goods and services but only by drawing on more useful, ordered forms of matter-energy and dissipating out less ordered, less useful forms. This occurs both during the production process (material pollutants and heat) and following consumption by the end-user. In Georgescu-Roegen words, the “entropy law is the taproot of economic scarcity”. Eventually capitalist growth runs up against natural limits.
This can cause specific, localised resource scarcity, which can impact on the smooth functioning of the capitalist economy. But such shortages are easily overcome as production expands into previously unexploited areas and the market adjusts for any additional costs involved in production. Capitalism requires an ever expanding frontier of primary industries (agriculture, mining, logging/forestry, fishing) at the expense of biodiverse wilderness. This expansion leads to a bigger problem, overlooked by bourgeois economics: absolute scarcity. Capitalist growth leads to a general ecological degradation.
There is broad agreement between ecological economists and metabolic rift theorists on this framework. However, ecological economists lack an analysis of the social relations of production and so give no explanation as to why capitalist social relations cause escalating ecological crisis.
Marx’s labour theory of value allows us deeper insight into the social drivers of this process. Value is a measure of socially necessary labour time. So the use-values we draw from nature, have no value and are treated as “free gifts”. Entropic value is a property of a commodities use-value, not its exchange value. It finds no expression in monetary form.
Capitalist competition leads to increasing productivity as firms compete to produce more output in less labour time. Capitalism has its own efficiencies. The constant pressure to produce more for less labour hours incentivises some recycling, efficiency gains and substitutions. However, the relentless pursuit of profit means any ecological benefit tends to be offset by increases in the scale of production. By increasing the matter and energy processed per hour of labour and by maintaining or extending the working day and size of the workforce, capitalism accelerates and expands material throughput and entropic degradation.
Understanding that low entropy use-values provided by nature are not valued in capitalist economy also allows us to understand one of Burkett’s important insights, “capitalist reproduction does not depend upon any particular limit to entropy level in its matter-energy requirements” and further “short of human extinction, capitalist reproduction in no way hinges on the maintenance of natural wealth of any given entropy level. In other words, capitalistically-induced crises in the conditions of human development do not necessarily mean crises of capitalist reproduction.”
To halt this escalating ecological crisis, Herman Daly proposes placing quotas on material inputs from nature. Georgescu-Roegen describes two forms of low entropy matter-energy—stocks and flows. The stocks are mostly products of past metabolic processes: forests, mineral reserves (coal, limestone, many metal ores etc), crops, domesticated animals, the fisheries etc. The flow is the constant flow of solar energy. Nature’s own metabolic production processes operate on their own timescales and capitalist society tends to exhaust the stocks faster than they can be replenished.
Marx and Engels recognised this problem. In his penultimate letter to Marx, Engels remarks on the squandering of “past solar heat”, “our energy, our coal, our ores, forests etc.”. In this way, capitalist speed-up creates an irreparable rift between the social metabolism and the natural metabolism. Marx also points to the need to limit and regulate material inputs:
Instead of a conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations, we have the exploitation and the squandering of the powers of the earth.” (949, Capital vol 3)
Capitalist speed-up creates an irreparable rift between the social metabolism and the natural metabolism. Marx also points to the need to limit and regulate material inputs:
Instead of a conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations, we have the exploitation and the squandering of the powers of the earth.
Others in the reading group were more critical. Reformulating real issues of harmful waste and of resource depletion in terms of entropy, some said, blurs rather than clarifies. Some productive activities, such as agriculture, in principle reduce entropy: when they are environmentally damaging, for example by soil degradation, the damage cannot be captured by general reasoning about entropy. Even if recycling can never be 100%, as the ecological economists insist, it can get near that. Some said that Burkett, in fact, has misunderstood the basic physics of entropy.