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Capitalism, Markets, and Natures

Sat, March 28, 8:30 to 10:00am, Delta Ottawa City Centre, Floor: Conference, Richelieu

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


The role of the environment in economic development, long neglected in both developing and developed countries, has become a central area of inquiry in recent decades. This shift in perceptions—and sometimes in economic and environmental policy—has not always translated into a unified understanding of the links between growth, development, and ecological change. Today, opinions diverge surrounding the ways financial systems and cultures in capitalist economies have shaped—and will shape—environmental outcomes. Optimists claim that so-called “green” technologies will bring about both growth and sustainable development. Others counter by calling for zero growth, or “de-growth” movements, highlighting a more foundational dichotomy between economic development and environmental protection. These tensions are today at the center of debates regarding the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

This roundtable claims that what these divergent views share is a lack of attention to the complex historical processes through which the expansion of free-market, neoliberal capitalism has reshaped human-nature interactions. Debates over how best to structure socioeconomic and environmental policy will no doubt become more heated. Scholars of both capitalism and the environment stand to play an important role in shaping these discussions.

Bringing together historians of capitalism and the environment, resource geographers, and science and technology scholars working on the history of environmental economics, this roundtable asks: How have free-market ideas and practices shaped contemporary discussions about growth, risk, inequality, and environmental protection? What role has neoliberal economic thought played in establishing the limits and potential of current environmental solutions? In what ways, and in which contexts, have experts and policymakers displaced heterodox economic approaches to nature, development, and sustainability? Finally, how might historical analysis help reconcile foundational tensions between economic development and sustainability in contemporary capitalist societies?

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