Brian Tokar: Myths of Green Capitalism




An article from the Winter 2014 issue of the journal New Politics, based on a presentation at the 2013 Left Forum in New York City. Tokar examines the political and ideological origins of “market-oriented” approaches that aim to substitute permit-trading regimes for environmental regulation:

The theoretical origins of carbon trading go back to the early 1960s, when corporate managers were just beginning to consider the consequences of pollution and resource depletion. Since the work of Arthur Pigou at the University of Cambridge in the 1920s, economists were aware of environmental pollution as an economic “externality” that could be addressed through a variety of taxes and fees. Chicago School economist Ronald Coase published a paper in 1960 that directly challenged this view and instead suggested a direct equivalence between the harm caused by pollution and the loss of business that could result from regulating pollution. “The right to do something which has a harmful effect,” argued Coase, “is also a factor of production.” He proposed that measures to regulate production be evaluated on par with the value of the market transactions that those regulations aim to alter, arguing that the market should always determine the optimal allocation of resources.

Tokar concludes:

All these approaches, however, serve to obscure the inherently anti-ecological character of capitalism. A system that concentrates political and economic power in the hands of those who pursue the accumulation of capital without restraint is going to continue to demand expansion and growth, however skilled we may become at measuring our ecological footprint. The imperative to grow and accumulate in turn redoubles the economy’s impacts on the earth’s threatened ecosystems. While environmentalists continue to work toward feasible near-term solutions to pollution, biodiversity loss, and the destabilization of the climate, it is also essential to look forward toward a genuinely ecological and democratic alternative both in economics and politics.

The full article can be found at