Capitalism's war on the planet

The Ecological Revolution:

Making Peace with the Planet

A new book by socialist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster could not come at a more opportune moment. As 2009 began, the great green promises of the Obama presidential campaign were already dissolving in the acid bath of economic crisis. As the year unfolded, American resource imperialism in the Middle East grew more and more savage. And as 2009 ended, the world’s dominant economies descended on Copenhagen to scuttle a binding global agreement on carbon emissions, despite the outraged opposition of more than 100 nations of the global South.

In this context, nothing could be more welcome than Foster’s clear analysis, which he first laid out in The Vulnerable Planet (1999), of capitalism as a system that, in its relentless pursuit of profit, wages war simultaneously on human beings and the Earth.

The Ecological Revolution is a collection of essays published over the last decade in Monthly Review and in professional journals in the academic field of environmental sociology. The essays do three main kinds of work: recovering the history of socialist thinking about the environment, exploring current examples of capitalism’s ecologically destructive tendencies, and critiquing the contemporary current environmental movement.

First, in several chapters, Foster expands the argument he made in Marx’s Ecology (2000); he shows that, far from ignoring the question of nature, Marx “developed an understanding of the nature-society dialectic that constitutes a crucial starting point for understanding the ecological crisis of capitalist society.” One of Marx’s most central insights was that capitalism, especially through the industrialization of agriculture, has radically disrupted the most basic physical processes in the interaction between humans and the Earth, creating a deep “metabolic rift” that threatens the most fundamental conditions of life on the planet. In The Ecological Revolution, Foster moves beyond Marx’s ecology, though, showing that over the last century, socialists and other radicals like William Morris, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Christopher Caudwell, Arthur Tansley, Rachel Carson, and Barry Commoner “have contributed in fundamental ways, at all stages, in the development of the modern ecological critique.”

Second, in addition to recovering this rich history, Foster also writes about more recent phenomena that illustrate the irreconcilable contradiction between capitalism and environmental sustainability—the role of peak oil in accelerating energy imperialism, the Pentagon’s bloodthirsty response to the prospect of sudden climate change, and the corporate sabotage of the global climate conferences at Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg.

Finally, Foster condemns the mainstream environmental movement’s surrender to the ideology of neoliberalism. Over the last decade, environmentalists, especially in the U.S. and Europe, have fallen for the myth of “natural capitalism,” which looks for a solution to the energy and climate crises in a green revolution in technological efficiency led by multinational corporations competing in free markets. Foster counters this techno-utopian position with the Jevons Paradox, the historical fact that “increased efficiency in using a natural resource, such as coal, only generated increased demand for that resource, not decreased demand as one might expect.”

After giving readers a powerful set of tools for understanding the nature of the global environmental crisis, Foster sets out in his last two chapters to fulfill the promise of the book’s title. Strangely, the first of these two concluding chapters is little more than a critical review of the Global Scenario Group’s influential 2002 Great Transition report. After ridiculing the report’s conclusions as utopian, Foster concludes by merely asserting his position in the most abstract terms:

[A] global ecological revolution worthy of the name can only occur as part of a larger social—and I would insist, socialist—revolution. Such a revolution, were it to generate the conditions of equality, sustainability, and human freedom worthy of a genuine Great Transition, would necessarily draw its major impetus from the struggles of working populations and communities at the bottom of the global capitalist hierarchy.

This may be true, but what would such a revolution really look like? The Ecological Revolution does not attempt to answer that question in any detail. Instead, in his final chapter, “Ecology and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” Foster rightly argues that the environmental crisis demands a new kind of society dedicated to the principle of “sustainable human development.” But then he wraps up with vague praise of experiments in ecosocial planning in Cuba, Venezuela, the green cities of Porto Alegre and Curituba in Brazil, and the state of Kerala in India. These state-organized efforts do sometimes produce impressive results, but they remain necessarily isolated and incomplete, since their ambitions are limited to local changes. Unlike more grassroots and oppositional movements, such as the Cochabamba Water Wars or the Save the Narmada Movement in Central India, Foster’s examples of state-led reforms offer no insight into the crucial problem of confronting state power and global capitalism.

In the end, The Ecological Revolution is a thought-provoking, but uneven book. Foster claims that he has arranged the collection so that the parts add up to “a single, coherent, argument.” But the sequence of essays is badly disjointed; far too many points are made through mere repetition; and the writing overall is stiff and heavy with jargon. In part, Foster simply fails to unify a disparate sheaf of articles that were published across a full decade of rapid evolution in the politics of global warming and the environment.

 More fundamentally, the book’s abstractness reflects the unevenness and inconsistency of environmental politics and struggle during the last decade, when the confrontational stance of the global justice movement was replaced by the conciliatory theory of natural capitalism. So, while Foster may not provide a clear view of the way forward, he does provide useful historical resources and a clear analysis of some contemporary issues for socialists and environmentalists who hope to overcome a system that thrives by destroying the lives of workers and their planet.

Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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