Economic roots of the environmental crisis

RECENTLY, PRESIDENT Obama rejected the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline—a 1,700-mile oil pipeline that would have run from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. This is undoubtedly a huge victory for the environmental movement. However, Bill McKibben—activist and founder of 350.org—was quick to give away the credit: “This isn’t just the right call, it’s the brave call. The knock on Barack Obama from many quarters has been that he’s too conciliatory. But here, in the face of a naked political threat from Big Oil to exact ‘huge political consequences,’ he’s stood up strong.”

McKibben did go on to give credit to the thousands of grassroots activists who are the real brave ones working for environmental justice. However, they are presented as a partner to the president, working together for a common goal against an intransigent Republican, big business, and oil companybased opposition. McKibben seems to have discovered, in his estimation, the form that victories can take in the battle for the environment, and it is an inside-outside strategy that is as old as the hills and has far more failures than victories. This focus on form and strategy precludes any discussion of what is at the root of the environmental catastrophe—our economic system.

As any good activist knows, the ultimate goals of the movement should guide the strategy and tactics. This is why it is so important to correctly identify the problem, else your solutions will be ineffective or actually counter-productive.

This is where the new book by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, shines.

The book was adapted from an article originally published in Monthly Review magazine under the same title. Readers of Monthly Review or other leftwing environmental sources will be familiar with most of the issues and problems explored in this book. Despite this, the book is still very useful. For those not as familiar with the current environmental problems, things are worse than you think.

Between climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, global freshwater use, loss of biodiversity, and chemical pollution our planet and all life on it is in big trouble unless things change—and change soon. In addition to the problems, the authors discuss and ultimately discount various mainstream environmental solutions. These  include both those proposed in corporate boardrooms and those proposed by well-meaning and committed activists. What all these solutions have in common, though, is that they are wholly inadequate or incapable of dealing with the problem of global climate change. The reason these solutions will not work is all a function of their inability (or in some cases, specific unwillingness) to identify and confront capitalism as the source of all environmental ills. 

A real positive with this book is that while it debunks what it calls “utopian reformist” solutions (like technocratic solutions or personal consumption choices), it does so without insulting the generally well-meaning people who care deeply about the problem and truly believe those are the solutions. This is valuable because it is important not to alienate or unnecessarily antagonize those struggling for environmental justice now who can be won to an anticapitalist view later.

The main drawback with the book is that it is somewhat disorganized. There is no fault with the information, but if you are looking for a clear explanation of the specific environmental problems and/or an in-depth look at why mainstream solutions will not work then there are better books for that—some even by Foster and Magdoff. 

Where this book stands out, though, is in the prescriptions for action provided at the end.

What has been lacking in some Marxist discussions of the environment are real, tangible medium-term goals or issues to work behind. Commonly, the argument for why capitalism is the problem is very compelling, but the overly simple solution of socialist revolution, while correct, can be too intangible for environmentalists new to Marxism.

Foster and Magdoff do the heavy lifting of convincing the reader that capitalism is the problem, but they don’t just stop at “organize for socialism.” They provide a veritable laundry list of things to get involved in, all with the ultimate goal of replacing capitalism—a barbaric system based on exploitation and destruction—with a socialist society based on cooperation and sustainability. 

This list of issues and ideas is clear and easy to understand and could even be used as an organizing tool to launch a specifically anticapitalist environmental activism group that could work around specific local and national issues, while always keeping an eye on fighting against and ultimately replacing the capitalist system. It could also be a valuable primer or discussion tool within the Occupy movement where environmental issues as well as anticapitalist politics have both received a positive reception.

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know is useful for people who care about the environment but don’t know what to do or where to look for the root problems, as well as for Marxists looking to plug into environmental struggles in their own community.