Economics, empire, and the environment

See update for October 24, 2021, at end of post.

In his latest, George Monbiot really reprises a theme[1] I first saw in John Bodley’s Victims of Progress. The critique specifically is that our system of social organization, being dependent upon resource extraction is environmentally unsustainable, and must expand—colonizing, building empires— to survive.[2] Monbiot attributes this, however, to capitalism, rather than the entire political and economic system.[3]

Monbiot’s vision is too narrow on this point: Bodley shows that unsustainability is inherent to our centralizing authoritarian system of social organization, which we adopted or had imposed upon us in greater proportions of the world population beginning with the neolithic, where settled agriculture predominated, freed a large portion of the population from the previous necessity of hunting and gathering, and enabled economic specialization, where individuals would specialize in the talents they were allegedly best suited for, trade more efficiently produced products and services, including—hence the ‘allegedly’ qualifier—a ruling class.[4]

My own critique has leaned heavily on power relationships inherent to systems of economic exchange.[5] But all of it—the centralization of authority, the empire-building, the trade—precedes the social science, economics, which I have called the “evil stepchild” of human science,[6] and economics, as a discipline, really cannot be seen apart from the context of its founding; hence, I am realizing, economics cannot be seen as separate from the ideology, capitalism, it rationalizes, in part through its longstanding attempts to separate itself from the intertwined environmental and social calamities our socioeconomic system engenders.[7]

Diane Coyle attempts to claim that critiques such as this of economics as a discipline are largely old “straw men,” that the discipline has recognized these faults, even as her evidence shows it, and especially the political use of it, has not yet moved on from them.[8] I rather strongly suspect that the discipline is foundationally incapable of moving on from them: The problems of social inequality and environmental extraction—including, by the way, that of non-human animals[9]—are inherent to the context in which economics established itself, indeed inherent to our system of social organization.

William Borroughs’ thesis seems to be that the climate crisis we now face may, like the one that engendered the neolithic,[10] compel us to reorganize yet again.[11] If the COVID-19 pandemic is any example, we will surely fail, hence my pessimism for the future of the human species as the climate crisis that we are abjectly failing to respond to may well render earth uninhabitable.

Ideology, such as that by which our socioeconomic system is organized, is a tragic thing. It may well be that, as I have previously noted, “[w]e will perish not because of we cannot do but because of what we will not do.”[12]

Update, October 24, 2021: George Monbiot pushes back against climate fatalism by pointing to the U.S. mobilization for World War II: Taxes and rationing were imposed; car production and housing construction were banned so resources could be diverted to the war effort. We did it then, he argues; we can do it now, against the climate crisis.[13]

This analogy is obviously strained because we cannot manufacture our way out of our wider environmental crisis the way we manufacture arms. The crisis requires instead that capitalism—indeed our entire system of social organization—be replaced. And indeed that might happen. The question is whether it will happen in the time we have before the planet becomes uninhabitable.[14]

  1. [1]George Monbiot, “Fire Front,” October 11, 2021,
  2. [2]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: Altamira, 2008).
  3. [3]George Monbiot, “Fire Front,” October 11, 2021,
  4. [4]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William James Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2005); Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999); Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Human Science: The mother of the social sciences,” Not Housebroken, n.d.,
  7. [7]Diane Coyle, “What Critics of Economics Get Wrong,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 5, 2021,; Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).
  8. [8]Diane Coyle, “What Critics of Economics Get Wrong,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 5, 2021,; Paul Krugman, “Doing Economics as if Evidence Matters,” New York Times, October 11, 2021,
  9. [9]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146; pattrice jones, “Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 137-156.
  10. [10]It is possible that comet impact may have sparked these climatic changes: University of Edinburgh, “Comet strike may have sparked civilisation shift,”, June 24, 2021,
  11. [11]William James Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2005).
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The final refusal,” Not Housebroken, September 24, 2021,
  13. [13]George Monbiot, “Miracle of Reduction,” October 24, 2021,
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Economics, empire, and the environment,” Not Housebroken, October 12, 2021,

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