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A Note on the Social Ecology of Capital

June 8, 2023

“The materiality of capitalist metabolism appears in one of three guises: social metabolism as flows of energy and materials passing through societies, or throughput; social metabolism as an accumulation of material stocks; and social metabolism as the colonization of ecosystems by human activity.”-Éric Pineault, A Social Ecology of Capital, 2023, page 9.

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A Social Ecology of Capital is a contribution to the critical analysis of capitalist growth and its environmental contradictions. What environmental historians have named the Great Acceleration, both of growth and ecological destruction, can be described, experienced and understood in a myriad of ways. My book draws on the metrics of global material flows to capture and illustrate this growth process. In 2017, capitalist economies extracted 92 GT of matter from the earth’s ecosystems (this metric excludes water), up from 27 GT in 1970. That’s a growth factor of 3,4 in less than half a century. This upscaling of capitalist extraction is mirrored by mass flows of waste forced into the Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles either in the form of gaseous emissions, liquids and solids sunk into land and water. Not all the mass throughput is dissipated, a significant portion (55%) is also accumulated as material stocks: buildings, infrastructures, industrial structures, machines and durable goods, all which one day will dissipate and be absorbed by natural sinks. In the meantime, this vast accumulation of material stocks commits society to future ever greater extractive and waste mass flows.

The economic process as a linear throughput

Drawing on these biophysical descriptions of the economic process as a material flow, Social Ecology approaches capitalism as a distinctive form of social metabolism. In their development, societies engage in relations with ecosystems and earth processes that are both necessary for their continued reproduction but historically contingent in their specific form. Advanced capitalism has a distinctive social metabolism that I try to define and explain in my book. This explanation aims to accomplish a certain number of things. A first objective is to share Social Ecology’s material view of the economic process, a view shared today by many ecological economists. This view breaks out of the idealized model of an economy founded solely on relations of production and consumption. For too long, both critics and ideologues of capitalism have seen this economy as a self-contained circular flow of goods and services, monetary incomes inducing monetary expenditures between households, businesses and eventually governments.

From a biophysical perspective, the economic process appears rather as a linear flow of matter, a throughput, organized around 4 basic socio-ecological relations: extraction, production, consumption, and dissipation. Extraction and dissipation mark and govern the ecological relations of society, they constitute the social interface between the economic process and ecosystems as well as the biogeochemical cycles that make the Earth our living world. Where classical economic science sees a flow of goods and services as the result of economic activity, whether these are considered as use-values or through the lens of exchange value, Social Ecology sees a material throughput, irreducible to the valued output, flowing from ecological source to sink. Put more concretely, mass production coupled to mass consumption entails necessarily mass extraction and mass dissipation, or more colloquially, mass waste. If one considers contemporary capitalist societies as organized around the imperative of the consumption of what results from overproduction of a mass of commodities, then one can understand the social ecology of capital to be dependent on the constant upscaling of a mass throughput that can be measured in gigatons or gigajoules.

The socio-ecological drivers of capitalist growth

Having a description of the material scale of capitalist economies and of the composition of the mass flows that capital puts in motion is an essential first step towards a critique of growth. A Social Ecology of Capital tries to go further. Understanding what drives this throughput flow and the resulting growth is the second aim of the book. Political economy has been studying how social relations shape the economic process of modern societies since the emergence of capitalism in the 18th century and more particularly the role played by value and capital in the growth process of capitalist economies. These economic drivers of growth are approached in the book with the tools and insights from contemporary heterodox approaches to capitalism, postkeynesian, marxian and feminist economics in particular. This leads to the revision of many basic economic categories such as value, labour, surplus, consumption and growth, both from an ecological and critical political economy perspective. The point of consumption, for example, is rethought in accordance with feminist economics as the colonization of reproductive activity by commodified forms of provisioning, a contested terrain between the imperative of valorization of capital and the communal reproduction of life. Capitalist drivers of growth, such as the imperative of accumulation, the constraint of expansionary investment and the impetus for growth spurred by profits are studied as metabolic processes.

This analysis of capitalist metabolism examines how capital accumulates at each point of the metabolic process and shapes as well as drives the throughput. The figure below, drawn from the book (figure 5.4), nicknamed in my research notes “Entropy happens” brings together the two main determinants of the throughput flow, the capitalist process of valorization tracked by the vertical axis, and the biophysical process of entropic degradation of matter and energy in the horizontal axis, which also represents irreversible time.

As argued in the book, though value and entropy are articulated, they are not reducible one to the other. This figure presents a model of

“the metabolic structure of the accumulation of capital by tracing how the mass throughput flow is mediated by the valorization and realization imperatives of a capitalist monetary production economy before losing all value in the capitalist waste process as it flows toward dissipation. It articulates these imperatives to the four moments of the metabolic process outlined in previous chapters: as value is extracted through the exploitation of productive labor and realized in circulation, matter and energy are entropically extracted (E), productively and consumptively transformed (P and C) and then dissipated (D) as waste, which corresponds to unproductive but socially necessary practices and labor. These are the specifically capitalist relations that drive and shape the throughput flow in a basic Marxian framework. From point E to P value is formed and crystallizes as consumable output at C, from P to C value is conserved and realized at point C, all the while increasing the entropy of the throughput. At the point of consumption, value sheds its material form and returns to the capitalist as money (M’), while the elements of the material flow are used and flow toward the point of social dissipation or waste.”

At these points – extraction, production, consumption and waste – capital encounters and is intertwined not only with the powers of labour (productive and reproductive), but with the forces of nature, the material underside of the economic process. Among these forces, fossil fuels are a decisive materiality in the development of capitalism, this has been observed by many contemporary critical theorists of political economy, from Elmar Altwater to Andreas Malm and Matt Huber. The metabolic regime of modern capitalist economies has been characterized as “fossil” given the centrality of this form of energy by social ecologists and marxists.

A Social Ecology of Capital pushes this argument further, arguing that the material entanglement and dependencies of modern economies are not only fossil, but more widely geological in nature. Most societies before today had a social metabolism that was intertwined and dependant on ecological relations to living and growing beings, inanimate and raw matter was not a core component of their throughput, biomass was. Up until 1900, biomass was by far the dominant form of the throughput even in industrialized Britain. At the onset of the Great Acceleration in 1950 biomass flows are dwarfed to current proportions in the advanced capitalist core (around 27% of the throughput), while fossil fuels, metal ores and mineral matter, including sand, gravel and rock, come to dominate the throughput. Capital accumulation becomes dependant on forces created by long and deep geological cycles. What I call capitalist society’s “fossil-industrial” metabolic regime (following work by the Vienna school of social ecology) is the outcome of this shift from ecology to geology.

Mass production, mass consumption, core features of advanced capitalisms’ accumulation regime, implying mass extraction and mass dissipation, would not have been possible in a metabolic regime bounded by the limited biological productivity of ecosystems. It is through the shift of the material basis of accumulation to what I theorize as a biophysical surplus of geological origin that capital tries to escape the ecological limits to growth, only to find itself confronted with geological change in the form of the climate crisis. The book explores how this shift accompanied the rise of monopolistic global corporations. Today they largely control the extraction and circulation of the mass throughput by fixed capital formation accumulated along the 4 points of the linear flow modelled above. Compelled to grow, capital accumulation under their control drives the upscaling of the throughput process and shapes the form and nature of extractive and dissipative ecological relations to nature in capitalism.

A Social Ecology of Capital provides in a rough and still incomplete manner both a description and explanation of capitalist growth, it highlights how the drivers of capitalist growth are relations of social domination and exploitation, how these are mediated by extractive and waste relations to nature. It argues that material growth and the economic growth and power of monopolistic corporations are structurally coupled in capitalist metabolism. Finally, it argues that overcoming or limiting growth and its environmental consequences cannot result from individual efforts to live simply or consumer less, nor could a metabolic descent occur inside a capitalist society.

“To break out of this growth treadmill not only must the corporate institution, capitalist property and production relations in general, be broken up and unwound, but much of the fixed capital accumulated as machines and fossil-based infrastructures will have to be dismantled and replaced.”

Breaking out the capitalist treadmill of growth

And this brings us to the last objective of the book, its perspective on socio-ecological change or ecological revolution. A Social Ecology of Capital is first and foremost a systematic treatise on the nature and drivers of growth both as a biophysical and socio-economic process. My hope is that it will contribute to the development of a new critical language that can engage with the materiality of advanced capitalism, its dependence on exploitative and unsustainable extractive and dissipative flows. This language I think, is already implicit in many of the socio-ecological struggles against capital across the world. I humbly think that the language of social ecology can help those involved in these struggles understand the wider forces they are mobilized against, as I did in struggles around pipeline projects in Québec. This language is also necessary, I think, for reflections on the material contours of a postgrowth, postcapitalist society. As indicated by the title of the books’ conclusion “Emancipation Amid the Ruins of Fossil Metabolism” , the books ends with the idea that a postgrowth society will have to shift to a new “organic” metabolic regime that will have profound implications in terms of modes of living, production and reproduction. Degrowth seems to be the social movement and political option most seriously engaged in thinking this transition.

I wish to conclude this presentation with a short note on the relationship between the Social Ecology in A Social Ecology of Capital and the approach to Social Ecology developed in America by Murray Bookchin. During the last century Social Ecology has known many incarnations and distinctive developments. Though in this work the concept is used in the way it has been developed in Europe by scholars and researchers mostly based in Vienna, at the Institute of Social Ecology at BOKU University, my work can also be seen as a continuation of the approach development by Murray Bookchin and his colleagues of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vermont.

The foundations are remarkably similar, the need to develop a material and ecological critique of domination and advanced capitalism relevant to social movements is an imperative that I have learnt from Murray, having studied at the Institute on 1988. Murray’s mobilization of the category of social metabolism in his opus magnum “The Ecology of Freedom”, is strikingly similar to the way the concept has been developed by my colleagues in Vienna. And finally Murray’s “communalist” political sensibility, implying the decentralization and democratization of the way societies govern themselves and most of all their economic process and metabolic relation to nature, his strong sense of the political and the need to institutionalize political life in democratic face to face deliberative structures, his belief that a new organic society will imply a radically transformed division of labour, all of these aspects of his thought strongly resonate with Degrowth politics today. The one strong divergence between my work and Bookchin’s resides in the way he mobilizes ecological science and his naturalism. Examining this divergence requires a publication in and of itself and it is something I wish to undertake now that A Social Ecology of Capital has been published.

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As a Degrowth scholar I wrote A Social Ecology of Capital because I saw a need for a synthesis between the analysis of economic growth as a biophysical process (material flows and stocks) and as an accumulation process. Social Ecology as developed in Vienna provided what seemed to be the most robust framework to understand the biophysical aspect of social metabolism and monopoly capital theory provided a robust and relevant framework to understand social metabolism as accumulation. I brought these two together in a dialectical model and theory of the ecology of capital– something that had not been attempted yet in systematic fashion. I also drew on empirical material to represent the current scale of the economic process of capital and put into historical perspective the biophysical scale of capitalist growth in the last century.

To sum up the contribution of A Social Ecology of Capital in three points:

  • The book explores in a systematic fashion the materiality of capitalist economies (by focusing on the composition and scale of the biophysical throughput of the economic process) and provides a model of capitalist metabolic regimes;
  • I argue that social ecology provides the basis for a robust and renewed ecological materialism relevant to the environmental struggles of our time (by focusing on the social and natural relations that come together in the metabolism of capitalist economies);
  • It provides a dialectical alternative to current constructivist approaches to extractivism and to the analysis of the ecological contradictions and nature / society relations of capital.


Photo by Adrian Schwarz on Unsplash

Éric Pineault

Éric Pineault is professor at the Environmental Sciences Institute of the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), president of its scientific committee as well as professor at the department of sociology at UQAM. He teaches ecological economics and environmental sociology. His recent research has focused on the structure and economic dynamics of extractive and fossil capital in Canada. He also works with civil society organizations on socio-ecological transition in a degrowth perspective. A Social Ecology of Capital results from study and discussions during a yearlong sabbatical as fellow of the Postwachstum Kolleg in Jena, Germany.