Guest Essay Nature and the Market Revolution

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Guest Essay

Nature and the Market Revolution

Donald Worster
Donald Worster is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and one of the founders of the new field of environmental history. His books include Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas; Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s; Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West; The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History, the Ecological Imagination, and a biography of scientist and explorer John Wesley Powell. He has held numerous fellowships, lectured widely in the United States and abroad, and served on the board of the Land Institute and other environmental organizations. He believes that a fuller understanding of the history of the human relationship to nature is essential to effective policy making and social change.
Rapid economic growth over the past few decades has produced a rush of good feeling. The rich industrial nations feel liberated from the gloomy mood of the 1960s and 1970s, when ominous signs of environmental collapse appeared at home and abroad. Some political and economic leaders now regularly insist that there is no deep or real conflict between the ecology of the planet and the economy of industrial capitalism. But the conflict is real, and it will not go away soon.

Hope, uncritical and unbounded, has been a persistent emotion throughout the modern period. The market, or capitalist, revolution, which began in earnest in the 18th century, came on a floodtide of extravagant promises. To be sure, it spoke the language of hard-headed realism, practical problem solving, and careful bookkeeping, but underneath that language was a powerful utopian impulse that would not die.

The new economics promised unlimited wealth and happiness. It maintained that humans are capable of mass-producing their way to earthly paradise. Even greed, which the Judeo-Christian religion and others had singled out as the root of all evil, went through a miraculous transformation into virtue. This new virtue would lead to new wealth—a wealth that would flow first to the most virtuous citizens and then to every other member of society.

It is not a big leap from that historical revolution in values and institutions to the current panaceas of "free-market environmentalism." Now we are told that the market economy offers the perfect solution to all resource depletion and pollution. If left unfettered, it will bring us greater efficiency and more benign substitutes: wood fibers that get recycled a hundred times or more, automobiles without tailpipes, and crops that need no pesticides.

Private property, we hear repeatedly, is the best remedy for the tragedy of the commons, in which community property relations supposedly leads to land abuse. Privatizing all land, including national parks and forests, as well as the more elusive water or the ubiquitous air will lead to environmental responsibility. More wealth, the promise goes, will turn everybody into environmentalists. As money accumulates, societies will save their endangered species or clean up their streams. Poor people do not care about the earth; wealthy people do.

Those beguiling claims are based on a too casual reading of modern history, which shows a more troubled, complicated relationship between environmentalism and economic growth. Environmental reform generally has not come from those who have been most successful in the market: the Fortune 500 top executives in the present and their counterparts in the past.

Like many reform movements, environmentalism has spread through increasing education and economic security. However, all along it has encountered unbending resistance within the business community, which even today bankrolls heavily the anti-environmental lobby. Environmentalists have tried to reform, restrain, or even overthrow the market economy because they have realized that its dominant ethos of acquisitive self-interest is a threat to the natural world.

A careful reading of history shows that capitalism was not created to save the earth; it was created to turn nature into wealth, as fast and thoroughly as possible. Only a utopian would think that it can now be turned easily from exploitation to preservation or that eventually, by its own dynamics, without change or reform, it will lead us into an environmental Garden of Eden.

We did not reach our current condition of widespread ecological crisis and degradation by a single, universal cause. Yet one fact is striking: A vast acceleration in environmental change, much of it very damaging, began in the 18th century, exactly during the period when the market revolution was gathering momentum.

That revolution did not reach the United States in full force until 1830. From that point on, we can easily trace its bad effects. Air and water pollution began to show up, first in the larger cities and then across the country. Vast populations of plant and animal life diminished or even disappeared. Resource consumption shot up dramatically. Soils washed away at an unprecedented rate. Behind that acceleration of destructive change lay the rise of capitalism, its free-market ideology, and its cornucopian vision of endless wealth.

Since the work of economist Adam Smith, nature has not been included in the accounting system of capitalism. Capital has referred only to the money an entrepreneur could amass and invest. It has not included the natural capital of the planet, the diverse ecosystems on which all life depends.

Consequently, most people accumulating wealth do not believe that they owe anything to nature, to the vast and intricate web of life, and to future generations. That narrowing of value and obligation lies at the very core of modern economic culture. This culture has been astonishingly powerful and creative but also profoundly disruptive to both society and the natural world.

We can argue over whether the market revolution has, on balance, been good or bad for people. Some of its promises have been realized; others have not. We can see around us an extraordinary increase in consumer goods, from foodstuffs to telephones, spreading even into the poorest households. We can also see an increase in social ills, caused largely by huge disparities of income and power that have resulted.

But whether the revolution has been a curse or blessing for humanity, for nature it has been a disaster. The costs have far outweighed the benefits. After more than two centuries of growth, the world has lost an immense portion of its natural capital—soils, groundwater, forests, grasslands, and species—and is sure to lose more.

Largely because of the market revolution, the human population has increased more than sixfold; the impact of those numbers has turned large stretches of the planet into a wasteland. For all the material gains it has brought to our species, the market revolution is unsustainable ecologically.

The giddy mood we are experiencing today will not last, nor will the notion of the market, privatization, or business profit as a panacea. When the current mood passes, we will get back to hard reality and tough choices. It will become obvious once more that only a profound change in the nature of capitalism will make it more environmentally friendly—a change so profound as to constitute another revolution.

Critical Thinking

Explain why you agree or disagree with the viewpoint presented by the author of this essay.

Copyright ©2005 Brooks/Cole, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc. Thomson Learning is a trademark used herein under license.

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