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Erin Balser, Capital Accumulation, Sustainability and Hamilton, Ontario: How Technology and Capitalism can Misappropriate the Idea of Sustainability

One response to the environmental crisis–to climate change, natural resource depletion, species extinction, deforestation and a myriad of other ecological problems–is the idea of ‘sustainability’. Sustainability is often defined as inter- and intra- generational equity in the social, environmental, economic, moral and political spheres of society (Meadows 7). Ideologically, sustainability is a communal concept. However, in practice, the attempt to engage in sustainable lifestyles and make environmentally conscious decisions has largely fallen to the individual and through technology. As a result, the environmental crisis isolates and ostracizes various populations who cannot afford to become sustainable. By engaging in an analysis of the environmental crisis, the intersection between sustainability and capitalization, I will demonstrate how this intersection between sustainability and capitalism is potentially causing harms to communities, by examining how the emergence of environmental technologies has further oppressed the poor. This phenomenon is occurring globally and locally. The BIOX bio-diesel production plant that was recently built in Hamilton, Ontario demonstrates and its impact on the surrounding community demonstrates this.

Karl Marx developed the idea of capital accumulation in his work Capital. Capital accumulation is the constant conversion of products into means of production (715). Originating in both trade and expropriation, it arises from the constant need to realize surplus value. According to Marx and more recently, Rosa Luxemburg, this cycle perpetuates social inequality and instability. Marx scholars David Harvey declares that “market liberalization- the credo of the liberals and the neo-liberals- will not produce a harmonious state in which everyone will be better off. It will instead produce ever greater levels of social inequality” (144) and “produce serious and growing instabilities cumulating in chronic crises of overaccumulation” (144). This process begins at the point called private accumulation. For Marx, this was the initial divorce of labourers from the means of production (716). It was not the start of capital accumulation, but an external point which mechanized it. Every new market or commodity that capital accumulation subsumes can be traced back to this point of primitive accumulation.

Capitalism is constantly looking for new things to commodify. Either by subsuming not-capital markets or by intensifying internal markets, capitalism thrives on creating, then subsuming the other. Capitalism is constantly expanding, capital accumulating is never-ending. Marx states “a precondition of production based on capital is therefore the production of a constantly widening sphere of circulation, whether the sphere is directly expanded or whether more points within it are created as points of production” (407). Capitalism is not a simplistic linear system in which subsumes singular items. Rather it’s a diverse web that is continuously expanding and trapping things. These crises can vary in size, expression and materialization.

This supposition insinuates the notion of crisis. In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri declare that “crisis indicate[s] a passage, which is the turning point in every systematic cycle of accumulation, from a first phase of material expansion (investment in production) to a second phase of financial expansion (including speculation)” (238). With every crisis, it appears as if this cycle of capitalization reaches its limit. Yet, the reinvention of capitalization ensures that this is not the case. The environmental crisis is no different, it exists at a threshold in which constant new technologies, policies or ideas push it past these limitations, and deferring the apocalypse for yet another day. This construction of crisis only further perpetuates the cycle of capitalization. Hardt & Negri recognize this inherent contradiction when they declare “it is logical to assume that there would come a time when these two moments of the cycle of accumulation, realization and capitalization, come into direct conflict and undermine each other” (227). They do feel however, that “this contradictory tension is present throughout the development of capital, but it is revealed in full view only at the limit, at the point of crisis- when capital is faced with the finitude of the humanity and the earth” (228; my emphasis). Thus, the only crisis which might destroy this cycle is one of environmental origin, when the social constructions of humanity finally reared head against the limitations of the earth’s natural resources. While this has been the threat for decades, the environmental crisis has continually evaded this and reinvented itself along the lines of the cycle of capitalization and commodification. Instead of ending this cycle, it has only perpetuated it.

While sustainable practices existed for centuries in indigenous cultures and traditional agriculture (Hawken 22), sustainability as an environmental buzzword is relatively new. The most common definition of sustainability is from Brundtland Commission’s Our Common Future: “sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (9). The Commission developed two key concepts: “the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which the overriding priority should be given” and “the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs” (11). While these concepts supposedly establish sustainable practices, they remain dependant on defining these ‘limitations’, which are determined by ‘technology and social organization’. Thus, sustainability is the interrelationship between ‘human needs’ and ‘human productive capacities’ (Norton 21). Where does the environment fit into this definition? Are there any limitations on these ‘human productive capacities’? Is technological innovation the only limitation? The environment is a passive element; it seemingly imposes no limitations that cannot be overcome by ‘technology and social organization’. What the Brundtland Commission resulted in a vague, human centered definition that does not recognize the external limits on the human systems. To return to Hardt & Negri for a moment, crisis occurs at the moment such limitations are realized. Yet these crises are a natural component to the process of capitalization. They declare that “capital does not function within the confines of a fixed territory and population, but always overflows and internalizes new spaces” (Hardt & Negri 221). By reinventing sustainability as a technological issue, internalizing these new spaces becomes a simple process of technological innovation, through which human needs are met.

Donella Meadows attempts to address the Bruntland Commission’s limitations in her book, Limits to Growth: “a sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is far- seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or social systems of support” (Meadows 8). This definition, too, recognizes the importance of intergenerational equity. The inherent difference between Meadows and the Bruntland Report is that one recognizes how external systems- namely the finite nature of environmental resources- influence human’s capacity to build technology, infrastructure and bolster the current economic system. However, recognizing these physical limitations has not hindered the technological reinvention of sustainability.

Paul Hawken wrote The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability and Natural Capital in an attempt to respond to these issues. Both of these works adamantly claim that we cannot escape capitalism. Hawken declares

No ‘pla
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