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The Prospects of 'Green' Capitalism. Systemic Accumulation and Cost Re‑Externalizations in the Green Economy

Dissertation in Political Science

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Christian Lammert
Second supervisor: Prof. Boris Vormann
Third supervisor: Prof. Markus Kienscherf

This thesis seeks to understand the repercussions of increasing ecological constraints and of the imperative of “greening” for the future of global capitalism. It engages in depth with the Green Economy (or green growth) approach developed by major international institutions (OECD, World Bank and UNEP) and focuses on the centrality, conditions, feasibility and by-effects of systemic accumulation in a green-capitalist economy. To theorize these, a conceptual framework is developed that distinguishes between political-economic and structural-economic constraints and comprises a set of functional and normative criteria for “green” capitalism (economic, ecological and social), potentially available “green” systemic accumulation strategies and empirically observable green-capitalist macro-strategies. This framework draws on a wide range of critical theory, including Marxian economics, regulation theory, world-systems analysis, Jason W. Moore’s world-ecology approach and further writings in political ecology.

It is found that a combination of political-economic and structural-economic constraints renders the market-oriented Green Economy approach largely ineffectual with respect to its declared intentions. Its non-confrontational politics are too passive even to realize a minimal “passive revolution” in the Gramscian sense. Instead, the “actually emerging” Green Economy assumes the form of an Economy of Additionality that leaves the fossil-fueled infrastructure of global capitalism in place and develops little transformative power. Prevalent “green” strategies partially internalize socio-ecological costs only to re-externalize these to vulnerable populations and ecosystems, in violation of the Green Economy’s normative standards and “win-win-win” promise. 

Generally, most “greening” measures do not contribute positively to systemic accumulation but merely attempt, by rationalizing the maintenance of capital’s conditions of (re)production, to reduce the drag on accumulation exerted by ecological degradation and resource depletion. Against this background, the pressure for a “green-tech revolution” to resolve the fundamental capital—ecology contradiction is enormous, but the unprecedented absolute decoupling of systemic accumulation from environmental consumption remains physically and politically extremely unlikely, and “green” capitalism’s dependence on its realization is a very risky wager. These structural constraints equally apply to more politically balanced alternative green-capitalist projects such as neo-Keynesian proposals for a Green New Deal, suggesting systemic limits to the “greening” of capitalism. The hypothetical full internalization of socio-ecological costs, while not precisely quantifiable, might well render further systemic accumulation impossible by pushing down profit rates. Global capitalism is approaching planetary limits, the potential for the appropriation of “cheap nature” is increasingly exhausted – and “win-win-win” scenarios for nature, society and capital are not on the horizon.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft