Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Capitalism and Market Failure in All Over Creation and The Collapse of Western Civilization

amanda.simone's picture

Through their science fictional essay, the authors of The Collapse of Western Civilization argue that people of the Western world are not taking action against climate change, despite having complete knowledge of its existence and causes, because of belief in capitalism and market fundamentalism. Resistance to government regulation of any kind means resistance to government regulation of industries and products that harm the environment. This resistance and the prioritizing of short term economic benefits over future concerns is preventing Western nations from enacting time sensitive economic measures to finance clean energy infrastructure.

How do the economics of farming GMOs and the manifestations of capitalism in All Over Creation compare to this model?


The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

“The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism (35).”

“Market fundamentalism—and its various strands and interpretations known as free market fundamentalism, neoliberalism, laissez-faire economics, and laissez-faire capitalism—was a two-pronged ideological system. The first prong held that societal needs were served most efficiently in a free market economic system. Guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace, individuals would freely respond to each other’s needs, establishing a net balance between solutions (“supply”) and needs (“demand”). The second prong of the philosophy maintained that free markets were not merely a good or even the best manner of satisfying material wants: they were the only manner of doing so that did not threaten personal freedom (38).”

“Perhaps because of the horrible violence in the East, many Western intellectuals came to see everything associated with communism as evil, even— and crucially for our story—modest or necessary forms of intervention in the marketplace such as progressive taxation and environmental regulation... (42).”

“When environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary (43).”

“The toxic effects of DDT, acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, and climate change were serious problems for which markets did not provide a spontaneous remedy. Rather, government intervention was required: to raise the market price of harmful products, to prohibit those products, or to finance the development of their replacements. But because neoliberals were so hostile to centralized government, they had, as Americans used to say, “painted themselves into a corner.” The American people had been persuaded, in the words of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (r. 1980–1988), that government was “the problem, not the solution.” Citizens slid into passive denial, accepting the contrarian arguments that the science was unsettled. Lacking widespread support, government leaders were unable to shift the world economy to a net carbon-neutral energy base. As the world climate began to spin out of control and the implications for market failure became indisputable, scientists came under attack, blamed for problems they had not caused, but had documented (44-45).”

“The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention…  the development that the neoliberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place (48-49).”

“capitalism  A form of socioeconomic organization that dominated Western Europe and North America from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, in which the means of production and distribution of goods and services were owned either by individuals or by government-chartered legal entities called ‘corporations.’ Typically these entities were operated for-profit, with the surplus value produced by workers funneled to owners, managers, and ‘investors’ third parties who owned ‘stock’ in a company but had liability neither for its debts nor its social consequences. The separation of work from ownership produced a concentration of wealth amongst a tiny elite, who could then purchase more favorable laws and regulations from their host governments. One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself (54).”

“carbon-combustion complex The interlinked fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and combustion industries, financiers, and government ‘regulatory’ agencies that enabled and defended destabilization of the world’s climate in the name of employment, growth, and prosperity (54-55).”

“external costs In capitalist economic systems (see capitalism; invisible hand), prices for goods and services were based upon what the market ‘would bear’ (i.e., what consumers were willing and able to pay), without regard to social, biological, or physical costs associated with manufacture, transport, and marketing. These additional costs, not reflected in prices, were referred to as ‘external’ because they were seen as being external to markets and therefore external to the economic system in which those markets operated (see market failure). Economists of this era found it difficult to accept that one could not have an economy without the resources provided by this ‘external’ environment (56-57).”

“invisible hand A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were ‘balanced’ by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand (sometimes also called the invisible hand of the marketplace) formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism (see capitalism; external costs; market failure; market fundamentalism) (59).”

“market failure The social, personal, and environmental costs that market economies imposed on individuals and societies were referred to as ‘market failures.’ The concept of market failure was an early recognition of the limits of capitalist theory (see external costs; invisible hand) (59).”

“market fundamentalism A quasi-religious dogma (see invisible hand) promoting unregulated markets over all other forms of human socioeconomic organization. During the Penumbra, market fundamentalists tended to deny the existence of market failure, thus playing a key role in the denial of the changes that were already under way and therefore in the catastrophes that ensued (59).”


All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki 

“Will was anticipating some problems selling off his NuLifes, Cass had told me. There were boycotts of genetically engineered products in Europe that were eroding the market, and prices were down. McCain, the largest Canadian potato processor, had decided to go GE free, and Frito-Lay had followed suit. Will was saying to Geek, ‘I’m not going to plant them if people don’t want to buy them… Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid potato but, but I ran the data, and I can’t see any appreciable gain in yields. I’m betting there won’t be much savings in inputs either’ (411).”

“‘Heard there’s an organic dairy moving in over by Idaho Falls that might mean a new market for hay. Thought I might check it out.’ He was saying, ‘Philosophically speaking, I’ve got nothing against growing organic, you know. Problem is, you can’t eat philosophy’ (411).” 

“So will shrugged his shoulders and stated flat out, ‘It’s not like any of us are in love with chemicals, but you can’t operate three thousand acres any other way. If I had a choice, I’d farm without them.’ Geek straightened his back a turned to face Will. ‘You got a choice, dude. We’ve all got choices. Lots of them. Every single second of the day we’re making choices. You’ve just been making bad ones, is all’ (412).” 

“‘You’re not hearing what I’m saying! We don’t have time! Don’t you see? It’s all moving too fast. Life itself is on the line here, and unless we can slow down the machine, none of this is going to survive!’ (408).


Ideas, Thoughts, Analysis

If Ozeki is indeed coming out against genetically modified crops through this novel, the ending of her book seems to suggest that free markets in the United States will reject what is unhealthy for the environment. The decreased demand for GMO potatoes that Will Quinn describes forces him to meet the demand for organically grown crops, which have less of a detrimental effect on the environment. This would be considered a market success. This does not align with the argument that Oreskes and Conway are making, in which the demand is increasing for something that is directly polluting the environment: oil and coal. One difference is in the effectiveness of the public movements. It can be presumed that Ozeki’s Seeds of Resistance and other similar activists groups were vocal enough to cause consumers to be wary of GMOs. This forced the food processing companies to respond by rejecting GMOs as well. Unfortunately, in The Collapse of Western Civilization, scientists and environmental movements are unable to convince citizens to demand clean energy from the industries and corporation, in part due to the carbon-combustion complex which silences scientific evidence to protect its economic profits.

Both texts do, however, attest to the power of corporations to silence science in order to protect their markets. The PR firm in All Over Creation undermines any expression of doubt about Cynaco’s GE products the same way the carbon-combustion complex uses think tanks to counteract scientific evidence of climate change.

For Will, the primary concern is not whether he is growing organic or GMOs, but whether he is able to make a living. For farmers, the short term economic benefits are a crucial priority. The authors of The Collapse of Western Civilization show that capitalism allows this to be the primary and only priority when value is exclusively economic and not social and environmental as well. The energy industries only focus on short term gain because capitalism doesn’t recognize environmental value.

In one of my interviews today, the produce distributor told me how in their business, the sustainable/environmentally conscious thing to do is often the smart business decision as well because of energy. Working to get more organic and local produce is advantageous because that’s what consumers want. Sourcing local foods cuts down on carbon footprint and saves money on transportation.


Anne Dalke's picture

Glad to see you going exploring in the direction we sketched out in your writing conference. And it’s very satisfying to see two texts intersecting with your long-term project on the BMC food supply chain!

You’ve certainly gathered more than a wealth of quotes from Oreskes and Conway; I think there are lots of other passages in AOC that might be of help to you: for example, what does Lloyd say about market shares? What does Geek say about monoculture (while walking w/ Cass and Will)?

You have pulled out two interesting points of contrast here: that the texts both “attest to the power of corporations to silence science in order to protect their markets,” and/but differ in their representation of “the effectiveness of the public movements” to counter this power. You also note that capitalism allows “short term economic benefits” “to be the primary and only priority”; I’m wondering how economics lands differently for the poor, the wealthy, and farmers, such as Will, who are trying to make a living. What are his options, in a capitalist system? Is the only option, as our next text will argue, a revolutionary structural overhaul of modern civilization? Or is there a way to help folks (and their governments, and the corporations who supply them) to factor in long-term costs when making economic decisions?

I’ll be curious to see where you land with this on Friday—convinced that “free markets in the United States will reject what is unhealthy for the environment,” that “the sustainable/environmentally conscious thing to do is often the smart business decision as well because of energy”? Or increasingly skeptical of market solutions….?

As I posted elsewhere, the questions you raise here have been given a particular emphasis this week, with Trump’s choice of a “climate contrarian” to lead the transition @ the EPA: /oneworld/changing-our-story-2016/climate-contrarian