Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > Review: Switala on A Social Ecology of Capital by Eric Pineault

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

Review: Switala on A Social Ecology of Capital by Eric Pineault

Friday 25 August 2023



Reviewed by Leon Switala

A Social Ecology of Capital
by Éric Pineault

Pluto Press
2023. 176 pp.
Paperback ISBN: 9780745343778
eBook ISBN: 9780745343792

In a recently held presentation, the Canadian sociologist Éric Pineault stated that he was writing his book to show that on a theoretical and empirical basis ‘there is nothing between degrowth and green growth’. He gives systematic arguments that neither position for a growth perspective seems to be convincing. A Social Ecology of Capital is a dense and interdisciplinary book on the interconnectedness of biophysical processes and ‘ecological contradictions of advanced capitalism’ (4). Presenting a far-reaching new thesis or broadly discussing the validity of arguments on the topic is not the goal of the book, but rather about bringing together the interdisciplinary knowledge on the current form of capitalism, its biophysical implications and consequences.

In the introduction, Pineault is distancing himself from the ecological Marxist approaches of John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, Kohei Saito and colleagues, because they do not go beyond concepts of nature and biophysical processes as Marx considered them in the nineteenth century. ‘That Marx today would have probably been an “ecologist” and that he would have developed a radical environmental critique of capitalism is an interesting speculative proposition.’ (4) Obviously, this isn’t the case, therefore Pineault sees the need to generate a critical understanding of the current form of advanced capitalism beginning ‘100 years’ ago. Generally speaking, Pineault’s social ecology of capital is interested in the ‘structural constraint of economic surplus absorption’ and the ‘expansive metabolism’ beyond Fordism. Advanced capitalism, as the object of the book, supplements the ‘relations of economic exploitation’ through the ‘imperative that a significant segment of the subordinate classes absorb, consume and waste the very surplus they produce.’ (16) We will return to the scope of the object but for now, let us trace how the theory of metabolism is designed.

Methodologically, Pineault develops his arguments through a rough orientation to the style of Capital. He begins with the most abstract, then proceeding with its specific capitalist mediation and finally arrives at the broader dynamic. The first of three central concepts in the book is the abstract term ‘throughput’ (4). Throughput stands for the entire energetic and material flow in the capitalist accumulation process, the underlying concept of nature he is defining as terrestrial, biochemical and biophysical. Following Andreas Malm, the society-nature-relation is epistemically captured through the lens of critical realism ‘as a duality of properties and not of substances’ (20). In doing so, he distances himself from Marxist approaches like Jason W. Moore. He adopts a flat ontological perspective following Donna J. Haraway and others. In Pineault’s sense, the social ecology of capital can be captured as a historically distinct form, where nature always is socially ‘directed and mediated by significant practices.’ (3) Consequently, throughput is the broadest and fundamental concept in the social ecology of capital to grasp the whole and differentiated aspects of the process of capitalist accumulation and its society-nature-mediations. ‘The object of social ecology, and of this inquiry, is the material throughput out of which this output is drawn, on which it is based and the ecological relations that develop along its flow.’ (24) Throughput is thus a concept which represents the materiality of every distinct aspect in the economic process. Following Pineault, one has to theoretically go beyond the mere ‘economic output’ to capture the materiality and flow of matter and energy in the whole economic processes (5). The economic process from ‘the perspective of the social ecology of capital is a four-point process of extraction, production, consumption and dissipation held together by an irreversible linear throughput flow.’ (35) Pineault here goes beyond a two-point economic process and terminologically tries to bring into scope its underlying materiality. So far so good, but now the question arises how to think of the biophysical terminology which is necessary to make the effects of economic processes visible. The linking point is that capitalist economies have a constant material structure. ‘From a material accounting perspective, stocks can be defined as “ordered and interrelated biophysical entities created and reproduced by the continuous flows of energy and materials.”’ (36) Conceptually, Pineault then connects the raw biophysical stocks with economic processes through drawing on the famous work of the ecological and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. Since Pineault is building on a critical realist understanding of nature, from a biophysical perspective the ‘throughput flow of capitalist societies is a thermodynamic process’ and ‘the economic process is subjected to the two laws of thermodynamics’ (46). As a result, Pineault is developing a sharp argument to connect the economic dimension of capitalism with thermodynamics and the flow of matter. We now have the conceptual tools to understand how capitalist metabolism leads to climate crisis. Since the ‘entropic economic process is also embedded in ecosystems and planetary biogeochemical cycles’, with John Bellamy Foster, ‘we can speak of an ecological rift when the coupling of economic processes and ecological relations destabilizes the integrity and viability of ecosystems and forces Earth processes into zones of dramatic non-linear change or tipping points.’ (53)

After a short historic reconstruction in chapter three, Pineault addresses the question of how the current form of capitalism mediates its relation to its stocks. This leads to a second central concept, that is, the fossil-based metabolic regime. This regime, Pineault argues, overcomes certain limits of the agrarian regime by setting free a lot of energy through mechanical appropriation of fossil materials and energy. This is made possible through ‘shifting the basis of the production of the biophysical surplus from ecologically determined flows to geologically formed stocks’ (72). Once the machines or artefacts are efficient enough to extract more fossil material, a treadmill process is implanted. To give expression to this, Pineault builds on the rule of growth by historian E. A. Wrigley: ‘A fossil-based industrial economy has lowering marginal costs as output grows because of the social metabolic relations that arise around machinery. This machine capacity opened up […] new extractive frontiers that were previously inaccessible to society’ (86). Consequently, lower costs and more available energy can be used to develop and improve effective forms of extraction, leading to an exponential growth pattern. Thus ‘the structural limits to growth of this regime are source depletion and sink saturation.’ (90) So far, Pineault is showing that economic processes have a clear material basis and therefore fossil-based capitalism has biophysical barriers to its growth pattern. The last point to clarify relates to the question of how appropriation of stocks is integrated in a broader capitalist dynamic.

This leads to the third concept: capital accumulation as a regime. Here Pineault draws especially on the work of Rosa Luxemburg and Maria Mies, since through a feminist lens an important element of accumulation becomes visible. ‘Accumulation, as a regime, is a conceptual tool that captures this expanded reproduction of capital as a totality and as a societal trajectory. It models the macroeconomic structure of a capitalist economy as system of social relations mediated by monetized production, investment and consumption practices.’ (15) Since accumulation describes the specific organisation of capitalism, Pineault develops an interesting understanding of the term ‘regime’ itself. More abstract, a metabolic regime not only has a specific and dominant metabolic base around which it is organised. Beyond that, its ‘metabolic rate’ can be measured as ‘the annual throughput mobilized’ by a certain regime. Therefore, it is ‘possible to characterize the metabolic types according to their energy throughput.’ (60) The current fossil accumulation regime, for Pineault, finds most likely expression in bigger companies like the mining corporation Glencore from Canada and its investment projects. To keep the metabolism running, these corporations need to open up options for extraction – especially through investment in future stocks. The ‘power to command “future social wealth” is the power to command future flows and the building up and use of future stocks in the abstract.’ (96) In order to survive, expanded reproduction not only appropriates stocks beyond the core (re-)production process of capital accumulation, but corporations are also always planning with stocks in the future to sustain their growth. Therefore, to focus on the investment of bigger (fossilist) companies is central to understand their ‘socio-ecological power in the sense that he who invests in extensive or intensive forms constructs and determines the economic and metabolic future of society’ (100). Pineault here gives a systematic argument on how certain influential and powerful actors in society are not only the main driver of climate change, but also how they narrow the possibilities future generations have for action to fight the climate crisis. Next to this politico-ethical observation, the focus on the investment of accumulation regimes opens an interesting perspective on the future of capitalism itself. ‘Capital’s reaction to metabolic constraints since the origins of the fossil-industrial regime has been to accumulate precisely at those points where these limits and constraints appear.’ Against many authors, for example, Kohei Saito as well as authors of the social boundary concept, who at least implicitly argue for the insurmountability of the climate crisis through capitalism, Pineault here stresses the point that ‘planetary boundaries does not mean that from the standpoint of capital these appear as unsurmountable.’ (104) Finally, with the focus on corporations vis-à-vis states, he privileges the combined perspective of national and international accumulation regimes, an approach recently also took by Martín Arboleda in Planetary Mine.

Pineault strives for a general understanding of the social ecology of capital and clearly managed to show in a sharp and dense manner how the throughput of fossil capitalism and the appropriation of biophysical stocks are mediated through accumulation regimes. He does so by bringing together a wide and interdisciplinary range of research from the last decades. With his metabolic framework he systematically interlinks the current accumulation regime of capitalism with the climate crisis by using social and natural sciences, a step which up to now has often only been carried out either descriptively or by privileging a social-theoretical approach. Especially with the degrowth debate following Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan’s The Future Is Degrowth, the critique of capitalism has advanced many steps forward. Yet one could wonder where is the state in these approaches? Through the general scope applied by Pineault, it could be argued that the question of the state has to be the next step of theorisation.
In short, A Social Ecology of Capital is a must read for those serious about theorising ecological relations mediated by capitalist accumulation. The actualised concepts of nature and ecology make it particularly possible to systematically address, measure and understand today’s material flow of capitalism under conditions of climate crisis.

2 August 2023

(Reviewer: Leon Switala is a Master’s student of Political Science at University of Vienna. From a Marxist perspective, he works on the development of climate crisis and human-nature relations)

[This review from Marx and Philosophy Review of Books is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.