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Institute of Advanced Study

IAS/St Mary's College Fellow's Public Lecture

Speaker: Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski

Date: 1 November 2011

Time: 8.30pm

Venue: St Mary's College

Title: Can the environmental crisis save capitalism?

When the environmental movement emerged in the early 1970s, the dominant assumption was that economic growth and environmental protection were incompatible: you could be in favour of one, or the other, but not both.  However, there later arose a set of ideas that seemed to offer the promise of harmony between concern for profit and for the planet.  This new 'eco-capitalist imaginary' involved a number of moves. Firstly, it mobilised the idea of a new technological revolution, in which technologies such as computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology would allow growth to continue by sidestepping the natural limits that threatened to impede earlier economies: that capitalism can be saved from the environment.  Secondly, it was argued that if environmental considerations were internalised into economic systems, the power of markets could be harnessed to the task of enhancing rather than degrading environmental quality: capitalism can save the environment.  More recently, however, we have seen the rise of a third element to this discourse, in the context of concerns about long-term, internal problems of capitalist economies.  Pressures such as climate change and peak oil, it is argued, can create the conditions where capitalism can innovate a putative 'sixth wave' of environmental technologies oriented to resource efficiency, shift to a radically new material base, and thereby reverse a long-term decline in profit rates, restart growth and create employment: the environmental crisis can save capitalism.  In this lecture I will explore the rise of this 'eco-capitalist' imaginary and why we might want to be sceptical about it.