Capitalism in the face of the ecological crisis : How the economic system can incorporate this constraint

Eve Chiapello, Professor of Accounting and Control Management - February 15th, 2012
suspended dollars - ecological crisis

Capitalism has always been criticized, and, over time, it has integrated some of the ideas of reform movements. This has allowed it to continue to develop. But can thecurrent ecological critique — which, in some ways, seems to call capitalismfundamentally into question — find its place in the dynamics of the marketeconomy?

Eve Chiapello ©HEC Paris

Eve Chiapello taught economic sociology, qualitative research methods, and history of criticisms of business at HEC Paris from 1994 and 2013. She cocreated HEC’s major in (...)

The history of capitalism is intimately linked to the history of its criticisms. And periods of crisis have always been privileged times to incorporate the ideas of reform movements. Usual practices no longer work and new ones must be found. The market economy has adopted some of the ideas of critical movements, but only those that did not call into question profit-seeking and the pursuit of its objectives. The ecological criticism, which in some ways seems to fundamentally call into question capitalism, could change all that.


Capitalism does not spontaneously rectify the social or environmental problems that it creates. Criticism keeps it in line. By forcing capitalism justify its practices, criticis mallows it to either strengthen its legitimacy or evolve to address some of the issues it raises. “The strength of capitalism lies in its ability to incorporate objections and attacks. This is probably what has ensured its robustness,” says Eve Chiapello. “Some reform ideas were incorporated into managerial practices because they were sources of profit, they served to motivate employees to accept certain changes sought by companies, or because they were the only means to silence a wave of criticism that could shake the economy. On the other hand, if reform proposals are too expensive, companies are reluctant to integrate them. If pressure to change is too high, they will be tempted to reorganize their means of production to find other sources of profit.”


From its conception, criticism has taken four forms, says Chiapello. Conservative criticism denounces the immorality of capitalism but supports the idea that power should be concentrated in the hands of the most capable, who thus have a social responsibility. Artistic criticism reproaches capitalism’s oppression and inauthenticity. It calls for creativity, freedom, and autonomy. As for social criticism, it denounces exploitation by the ruling class that generates poverty and inequality. Finally, ecological criticism highlights the interdependence between generations and species as well as the irreversible and deleterious effects of human activity on the planet. It rejects the idea of unlimited economic growth and questions the ability of the capitalist system to ensure the survival of humanity.


As long as growth in GDP is seen as the only path towards human progress and job creation, ecological criticism will run up against social questions. “But a connection between social and ecological criticisms is not impossible because they share the rhetoric of exploitation, according to which profits are partially derived from the fact that all contributors (employees for social criticism; nature and the planet for ecological criticism) are not recognized in company accounts based on their level of contribution,” explains Chiapello.Moreover, ecological criticism gradually wins over its audience because it is based on scientific studies that demonstrate the risks and damage generated by the economic machine. 


Chiapello imagines three different scenarios on a global, local, and governmental scale to attempt to overcome the ecological crisis.
• Green capitalism: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) incorporates ecological criticism by defining principles of security (sustainable development) and justice. It motivates employees by giving them the satisfaction of working for the common good and gives capitalism newfound legitimacy. This scenario changes society the least. “It remains to be seen if companies, on their own, will be able to make the necessary investments quickly enough to avoid a deep ecological crisis while the objectives of short-term profitability still dominate decisions,” says Chiapello.
• Development of a solidarity-based, local, and sustainable economy, which is concerned with meeting basic needs instead of producing and selling the superfluous. If such initiatives, like the localization of production close to consumption, are not favored in the competitive arena by market regulations, this scenario is unlikely to be a vehicle for major change.
• Strengthening the state’s ability to force capitalism to respect the environment. Many standards and regulations are in the pipeline but the power of states in the economic system is weaker now than it was before. “As it stands, such a process will take a long time. Negotiations on the climate show how just how long and difficult the road is,” says Chiapello.

“We will not overcome the current ecological problems without substantial changes. They will likely occur through these three channels. Initiatives and agents of change grow in the three directions, which need to be seen as complementary,” concludes Chiapello.

Based on an interview with Eve Chiapello and a chapter in the forthcoming book "New spirits of capitalisms (Oxford U.P) edited by Glenn Morgan and Paul du Gay.


Economic, political, and tradeunion leaders are advised to be attentive to signs of criticism to anticipaterisks. Management practices evolve almost always due to external contributions.Numerous ideas, like job enrichment and the development of autonomous teams in the1970s and 1980s, were developed under the pressure of key players. They alsoserved the goals of companies. The ecological footprint is not just a companyby-product; it can also be a working tool.


EveChiapello analyzed a very large body of literature criticizing capitalism,produced over 150 years. She sought to piece together ideas throughout historyand to dissect criticisms. Her ideas were developed in a book cowritten withLuc Boltanski, The new spiritof capitalism,  which coveredthe 1970s through the 1990s. Her current research led to her generalize a modelto trace the history of management since the late 19th century and to take intoaccount a greater number of criticisms of capitalism.