Economic Modernity: What Does It Mean For The Environment?

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In a landscape where society is viewed as market and all resources as commodities, the destruction and exploitation of the environment is inevitable.

Environmental issues are more often portrayed as the dark side of globalization, with the environment as one of the victims of ongoing neoliberal globalization. Increasing liberalization of trade and investment, decreasing control by nation-states of what is happening within their territories, the growing power of transnational companies – all these factors contribute to a rather apocalyptic view of the environment in globalization debates.

Before we delve into a greater understanding of neoliberalism and globalization, it is important to ponder upon the emergence of the modern economy. Previously, the economy used to be an aspect of society, amongst a terrain of other factors. People were engaged in commercial activities, earning, and exchange. With the emergence of modernity, the economy shifted from something that was managed by people to something that governs society. 

The emergence of economic modernity and its meaning is set by the ambitions of the Westerners just as globalization and modernization are Eurocentric. With the expansion of the colonial project in the name of exploration, the Europeans started to import a bulk of goods and agricultural outputs of the colonized state into their own country. This not only incremented their wealth, capital, and lifestyle but also increased the demand for technologies that facilitate the import-export commute.

As the lives of people transformed, imported goods like tea, coffee, sugar became popular in Britain. In the 18th century, the drinking of tea and use of teapots became significant in the colonies as highlighted in the protests against the ‘Townshend Act’ or ‘Boston Tea party’ – both political movements concerning taxation on imported tea. 

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the economic system shifted to ‘capitalism’ – an economic model characterized by self-interest and the free market. In 1776, Adam Smith laid down the core concepts associated with capitalism in his book “Wealth of Nations.” It is important to note here that capitalism does not exist in absolute, there are degrees to capitalism, and the notion of capitalism along with its understanding is articulated through events in history.

Affected by the Great Depression and often economic disasters, theorist Keynes brought up the idea that markets are not self-regulatory and in any case, if markets fail to work efficiently, the state must intervene and boost the economy through imposing efficient fiscal policies. 

The making of the market coupled with technological advancements boosted capitalism throughout the world. This economic system fueled the orientation of world powers towards maximization and profit. Countries began to generate massive capital from wars and exploitation. A trend of unequal economy appeared between advanced capitalist countries and the industrialized developing countries.

By the end of the 19th century, the share of agriculture fell below 10 percent and the share of commerce and industry amounted to around two-thirds of the national output. This trend became the model of a ‘modern’ economy and the abundance of the commerce sector marked the post-industrial society. 

While developed capitalist counties were again setting standards of ‘progress’ for peripheral states through ‘modern’ trends in the economy, they were also engaged in efforts to defeat the ideological rivalry ‘Communism’ from influencing peripheral states. In doing so, strong states were developing the Third World, stabilizing their economy for productivity and technology, disorienting them from Communism and Marxist ideologies. 

In 1970 the capitalist giant US faced stagflation – a period of steady growth and inflation which was against the popular assumption that inflation and unemployment have inverse relations. It raised questions regarding the Keynesian notion of state intervention and fiscal policy.

At this time, the ideology of Fredrick Von Hayek resurfaced and Milton Friedman advocated for “Neoliberalism” – which was centered on freeing the market from political constraints. Neoliberalism gained popularity and was a ‘revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history’ (Harvey).

Society was transformed in the image of a market, and states were ‘marketised.’ This reconfiguration amended the public goods and welfare of people. Market logic shifted to ‘optimal’ outcomes and became indifferent to poverty, social and economic justice, and resource depletion (environmental justice). This logic derived the urge of ‘commodification’ which proved not only detrimental to the environment and ecology but also commodified human values and relations.

This competitive relation reduced the society to human capital as critiques point out that Neoliberalism was a global project to restore the class power of the elite and concentrate wealth in a few hands. Now, the modern economy has modern catastrophes in the shape of climate change.

The logic of capitalism and the advent of the modern economy is the reason for the emergence of Anthropocene – a geological epoch characterized by the environmental disaster and climate crisis that had never occurred before in entire history.

It is not difficult to see why the human being has adopted such an indifferent attitude towards the environment and its resources when we reimagine the cosmos through a capitalist lens: the techno-structure ‘Age of Capital’ where the strong states (the US and Britain thus ‘Anglocene’) exploited not only the economy, lifestyle of the peripheral countries but did unprecedented harm to the environment just to obtain optimal outcomes. 

The emergence of Anthropocene was not when James Watson invented the steam engine, it started long ago with profit-oriented motives and actions of capitalists. Previously, demand was the determinant factor of invention, but it evolved to the maximization of self-interest. Records show that two-thirds of the growth of Western industrial countries have been simply due to the increasing use of fossil fuel.

Energy efficiency in technological advancement is complex to analyze, but it is evident that it was outbalanced by economic growth. The efficiency of steam engines was also achieved by becoming more economic with coal, which increased the national coal consumption and machines became more profitable. Secondly, the British Empire was founded on ‘free trade’ and coal exports were used by ships leaving England which contributed to massive profits of the British merchant navy.

Inefficient choices were made which were only proved detrimental to the environment, for instance, Robert Fogel concluded that ‘social profit’ of construction of railways compared with other available alternatives was only 0.6 percent and 1 percent of GDP and there would not have been any impact on economic growth and development of US economy – except for few months slower. Similarly, the social profit of the steam engine represented was very little. Great Britain was responsible for 80 percent of the world’s emission by 1825.

This economic growth and global domination of western powers would not have been possible without the unequal exchange and unequal ecology. After the second wave of the industrial revolution, marked by automobile and organic chemistry, there was a demand for resources and organic material from peripheral countries – for example, tin from Malaysia.

The strong capitalist states like the US and Britain then turned towards extraction from peripheral states which not only provided then raw material but also cheap labor. There was no need for products from peripheral countries until 1940. The unequal world-ecology came about with the popularity of industrialization and capitalism.

While the infrastructure of economic globalization and advanced capitalism was being established, strong states were also engaged in efforts to defeat the rival camp of “Communism.” These Developed countries started assisting the Third World countries to distract them from Communist ideology.

Many regard the 1960 Green Revolution also as a fight against Communist influence, in which the US set out to modernize the agriculture of Asian countries like (Pakistan, India) and ensured food security by the massive production of wheat, rice, and maize. But this agricultural model was not helpful for the poor public because it increased the disparity of wealth – it only boosted GDP. On the contrary, it left adverse effects; the soil was salinized and compacted, water tables were exhausted, etc. These ecological advancements were motivated on the political spectrum; by the tension between Leftist and Right winged ideologues. 

The inefficient energy choices, exploitation and exhaustion of land, rise in acidification of marine life (up to 26 percent since the eve of industrialization), regarding other energy-efficient renewable resources as an alternative to coal, destruction of biodiversity by urbanization, and increasing greenhouse gasses emission along with CO2 emissions all occurred parallel to marketization and integration of local economies into world trade, and within the political, social and economic scenario of capitalism (lately radicalized by neoliberalism).

In a landscape where society is viewed as market and all resources as commodities, the destruction and exploitation of the environment is inevitable. There is no limit to this maximization of profit, similarly, the extent to which these ecological harms can be imposed by advancing capitalist economies is also unpredictable. 

In the current phase of Anthropocene, it’s not an irony that we are facing outbreaks of global pandemic COVID 19, Amazon wildfires or Australian bushfires, locust swarm attacks (in South Asian countries), or humanitarian crises in Third world counties i.e. Yemen! After all, it’s a boomerang of what humans have been doing to the environment to fulfill self-interest.


The Ecological Modernization of the Global Economy. Arthur P. J. Mol MIT press, 2001.

Formations of Modernity by Stuart Hall, 1992.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, 2005.

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