neoliberalism: the downfall of green innovation? discussing the potential futures of sustainable development
by ashley layo masing, 2nd year sociology student at LSE
Quite recently, there has been a breakthrough in the field of bioengineering regarding the discovery of a certain type of bacteria capable of digesting plastics into water. As someone who identifies with eco-socialism and is heavily invested in the social life of STEM research, I couldn’t help but question the implications of this work. Within a capitalist framework, innovation is driven by profit and commodification, where one’s ability to generate capital is not only an indicator of success but is necessary for survival. In our neoliberal era, this has only become exaggerated with governments actively working to protect private interests over public welfare. With this in mind, how feasible is it to dedicate time, energy, and resources into ecologically crucial developments if they can’t churn out capital?
The students who are currently researching the bacteria were granted $400,000 to start developing it into a product. At the time of writing this, it is unclear as to whether the two women would be selling the bacteria to a company for distribution, or whether it would become publicly owned and distributed — and it is precisely this ambiguity that bothers me: what would happen if one of the few solutions to one of the most pressing issues of our time was controlled by private interests?
According to Lave, Mirkowski and Randalls (2010), under our current neoliberal order, the production of scientific knowledge has become entangled with the prioritisation of the needs of commercial actors. The neoliberalisation of the market has ultimately transformed scientific knowledge into a commodity that can become valued commercially (ibid). We can see this reflected in the “aggressive promotion and protection of intellectual property,” an attempt in commercialising scientific research to serve private interest (ibid:666). This was the case with the distribution of PrEP in the US.
I think by now most of us have seen the video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez confronting Gilead for the over-pricing of Truvada in the US, the only FDA approved drug for the prevention of HIV (approximately costing $2000 per month). Despite the fact that the development of the drug was publicly funded, it is patent protected in the US but is generic everywhere else, causing most of the revenue to be funnelled into Gilead and not the federal government, which issued $50 million in grants.
This is an unfortunate consequence of the neoliberal conception of knowledge; not only is the ‘scientific author’ attributed to the research privatised, so is the research itself (Sismondo, 2009). As such, what could’ve been a publicly available necessity has become a privately owned commodity. Although this specific case may not be directly linked to questions of sustainability, it is possible to imagine a scenario in the field of green technology that parallels this. Who’s to say a similar situation wouldn’t befall the development of the potentially world saving bacteria?
This is especially more concerning given the neoliberalisation of our higher education systems. According to Lave, Mirkowski, and Randalls (2010), universities themselves have become commercialised under our neoliberal regime, and as such, private investments into STEM research are encouraged:
Industry, science and education are no longer detached — in fact, I would argue that they have become intrinsically entangled. As the researchers attached to the discovery of this bacteria, alongside many other developers of green innovations, are associated with a university, they may not be exempt from this phenomenon. Although I acknowledge this may not be applicable to all countries, since our global economic order is structured around neoliberalism, this maybe the case for most.
Without even making reference to case studies or structural analyses, we can observe the entanglement of education and capitalist participation within the discourses that have become instilled into us since birth: that a good education would lead to us to a successful career, defined by our ability to generate capital and receive a pretty paycheque. I have known so many students that have chosen STEM degrees as a means to succeed financially, reiterating the idea that having a background in science will make you desirable in the job market. This further exemplifies the commercial fetishisation of scientific knowledge under neoliberalism that I previously discussed.
I myself am no exception to this rule. I know full well that I chose to attend a prestigious, globally renowned university with the hopes of becoming conventionally successful — most of us did. But how many of us have been told that choosing non-profit, charity, grassroots political work as a career path is a risky choice, that we will never go far in life down this route? It is difficult to unlearn something that we have been socialised into, especially when capitalism requires us to prioritise money-making over collective action purely as a means of survival. There are so many bright young minds that have the capacity to innovate for global change, but are ultimately hindered by a capitalist system that punishes defiance. I will not be surprised if the students who discovered the plastic-digesting bacteria will end up selling their research to a private company for distribution, though I hope I will be proven wrong.
It is interesting, and terrifying, to consider the ways that a system predicated on the need to generate capital could potentially stifle crucial innovations in environmental sustainability. However, there might be hope. Recently, LEGO has announced that the company will be committed to using 100% renewable energy. This is definitely a step in the right direction — but could you imagine if innovations in green (bio)technology were publicly owned and subsidised by governments around the world? In the right hands (i.e. public ownership), there could even be potential to write in new policies calling for the mandatory implementation of these sustainable / renewable technologies, which could put the 100 companies responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions under pressure.
Needless to say, revolutionising our economy to suit the needs of the people and the planet over profit may just be a key step in saving science, and by extension, the world.
Lave, R., Mirowski, P. and Randalls, S., 2010. Introduction: STS and neoliberal science.
Sismondo, S., 2009. Ghosts in the machine: publication planning in the medical sciences. Social Studies of Science, 39(2), pp.171-198.