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This seminar was founded to study the most compelling questions of the day which then related to the war in Southeast Asia, its causes, and consequences. Today the seminar continues to examine vital current issues with an emphasis on their economic, political, and philosophical dimensions. Such issues have included welfare policy, homeless­ness, and strains in multicultural democracies, and violent conflicts within and across nation-states. The underlying nature and structure of the political economy giving rise to these issues are also considered. In this regard, sessions have addressed the extension of democ­racy to economic enterprises, refashioning American government, developments in welfare states, and new principles of income distribution. Theories oriented to deepening democracy and realizing human rights both in the US and abroad are also an ongoing focus.

Omar Dahbour

Carol Gould

Christian Alexander Jensen

Meeting Schedule

10/12/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:30 PM
A Discussion of Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis
Carl Wennerlind, Barnard College


Modern economics presumes a particular view of scarcity, in which human beings are innately possessed of infinite desires and society must thereSfore facilitate endless growth and consumption irrespective of nature’s limits. Yet, this vision of scarcity is historically novel and was not inevitable even in the age of capitalism. Rather, it reflects the costly triumph of infinite-growth ideologies across centuries of European economic thought―at the expense of traditions that sought to live within nature’s constraints.

The dominant conception of scarcity today holds that, rather than master our desires, humans must master nature to meet those desires. This idea was developed by thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Samuel Hartlib, Alfred Marshall, and Paul Samuelson, who laid the groundwork for today’s hegemonic politics of growth. Yet proponents of infinite growth have long faced resistance from agrarian radicals, romantic poets, revolutionary socialists, ecofeminists, and others. These critics―including the likes of Gerrard Winstanley, Dorothy Wordsworth, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt―embraced conceptions of scarcity in which our desires, rather than nature, must be mastered to achieve the social good. In so doing, they dramatically reenvisioned how humans might interact with both nature and the economy.

Following these conflicts into the twenty-first century, I will argue that we need new, sustainable models of economic thinking to address the climate crisis. Scarcity is not only a critique of infinite growth, but also a timely invitation to imagine alternative ways of flourishing on Earth.

02/29/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:30 PM
Planetmaking: Nature as Capital
Alyssa Battistoni, Barnard College


Life on Earth relies on the activities of a huge range of nonhuman beings, from plants which absorb carbon dioxide to microbes which break down soil contaminants. Yet these “planetmaking” activities present a paradox: while they are vital for the continuation of both human and nonhuman life, most are economically worthless. As the economist Partha Dasgupta observes, “the value[s] of natural entities such as mangroves, wetlands, and coral reefs…don’t appear in the marketplace.” Efforts to rectify this disparity have often sought to “price nature in order to save it,” typically by redescribing ecosystems as providers of “services” or “natural capital.” Critics, by contrast, insist that nature is priceless and cannot be captured in monetary valuation. Instead of joining the debate about commodification, I argue that both strategies have largely failed, and ask what these failures tell us. While projects to put a price on nature are condemned for wrongly commodifying nature, ecosystem services have proved remarkably resistant to commodification: natural capital is still, for the most part, valued at “zero.” Critiques of pricing, meanwhile, have failed to establish nature as truly priceless, in the sense of invaluable. What is most interesting in debates about “pricing nature” is not what they reveal about the worth of “nature” per se, but what they reveal about capitalist valuation: diagnoses of the gap between what nature’s value should be and what it is index a critique of capitalism’s form of value even where it is not invoked directly. They also suggest a need to consider a different set of questions: instead of debating the morality of commodification, we might think of planetmaking activities in terms of “ecosystem public services,” asking what work they do and for whom.

03/28/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:30 PM
The Frontiers of Green Capitalism
Thea Riofrancos, Providence College


Will green capitalism save us from the climate crisis? "Clean" technologies and renewable energy are certainly growing sites of capitalist investment, with government policies playing a key role in making these sectors profitable. But the supply chains that produce the technologies pose vexing dilemmas for the energy transition. These dilemmas are most dramatic at the extractive frontiers of green capitalism: where the natural resources needed to manufacture electric vehicles and build windmills are extracted. In this talk, we will unpack these challenges through the lens of lithium, a so-called "critical mineral" essential for its role in decarbonizing one of the most polluting sectors: transportation. With forecasters predicting an enormous surge in lithium demand, exceeding existing supplies, Global North governments and downstream firms scramble to "secure" lithium, resulting in a new state-corporate alliance and the return of vertical integration. Meanwhile, environmental and Indigenous movements contest the rapid expansion of extraction, defending ecosystems, livelihoods, and waterways already under pressure from global warming from a new boom in mining. It is in the play of these forces, unfolding amidst geopolitical rivalry and economic turbulence, that the energy transition will be forged. To conclude, we will explore the possibility of a less mining-intensive pathway to zero carbon transportation.

04/25/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:30 PM
Whose growth in whose planetary boundaries? Decolonizing planetary justice in changing climates
Farhana Sultana, Syracuse University


The geopolitics of planetary environmental injustice demonstrates the need for systems change to address climate breakdown and unsustainable economic growth. By centering Global South perspectives, prevailing ideologies promoting hyperconsumption, overproduction and waste are interrogated, highlighting the incompatibility of socioecological justice with extractive and exploitative growth paradigms. The breaches of planetary boundaries and their harmful socio-ecological consequences further underscore the urgency of decolonizing colonial-capitalist ideologies and practices, necessitating the fundamental reformulation of paradigms to envision a more just and sustainable future that dismantles oppressive systems and fosters justice-oriented praxis.