The planet and the profit system

THE SCHOLARSHIP of John Bellamy Foster has arguably done more than anybody else’s to unearth the ecological insights of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Through his articles in Monthly Review and previous books such as Marx’s Ecology and The Ecological Revolution, Foster has brought Marxist thinking on ecology to a broad audience.

This is extremely important for a number of reasons. Foster, along with other Marxist writers such as Paul Burkett, has effectively dispelled the commonplace notion that Marx was dismissive of the environmental crimes of capitalism or that he didn’t consider the seriousness of the ecological problems of his day. On the contrary, Marx didn’t simply denounce the individual acts of ecological vandalism practiced by capitalism but went much further. Marx espoused a theory of the “metabolic rift” that he developed as capitalist agricultural practices “robbed the soil” without restoring its fertility or organic content. This theoretical point undergirds the argument that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological; it exploits and degrades nature just as surely as it does ourselves. It is not just that “food miles” lead to extra pollution and energy use. Soil degradation is built into capitalist farming and thereby forces the requirement for artificial fertilization.

Foster’s latest book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet, co-authored with Brett Clark and Richard York, deepens and extends the theoretical basis of his earlier work as well as Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift to encompass the operation of capitalism as a whole. While mostly a compendium of previously published articles alongside some new material, it serves to bring together the full range of the Marxist critique of capitalist ecological damage and why it occurs in an extremely useful and cogently argued single-volume work.

Albert Einstein originally conceived of the universe as stable, without beginning or end, a universe that was, to use a later term, in a “steady state.” The revelations of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s illustrated beyond doubt, however, that the universe was in fact constantly expanding, and Einstein came to regard this as his “biggest blunder.” Many people, critical of capitalism for its environmental destructiveness, continue to cling to the idea that a “steady state” for the system is possible and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, continual growth is not necessary. They are then hamstrung; once capitalism has been delinked from incessant expansion, it’s feasible to believe that, with some adjustments and reorientation, the system can be retained more or less intact. One of the key arguments of The Ecological Rift is to debunk the idea that there is any possibility for an environmentally sustainable form of capitalism.

Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and campaigner behind the creation of, argues in his latest book Eaarth for maintaining a realigned capitalism that is against growth, citing the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. James Gustave Speth, someone billed as “the ultimate insider” for his connections to governmental power, wrote in his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, a devastating critique of capitalism that nevertheless ultimately holds out the hope of a more environmentally benign, sustainable capitalism that eschews constant growth. If you refuse to question the continuation of capitalism, or doubt its need for constant expansion, you trap yourself in a spiraling argument about how capitalism can be sustainable and how technology or limited changes to the market or individual lifestyles can together bring about the necessary changes to reverse course.

The central thrust of Foster’s book is to explain exactly why this is a utopian belief. The book convincingly argues for the centrality of the concept of the metabolic rift as a way of understanding why capitalism is anti-ecological to its core. The operation of capital has opened up an ever-growing fissure between nature and human society that has now grown so large it threatens the stability of the entire biosphere. The relentless expansion of capital is addressed through examining Marx’s notion, taken from Hegel, of barriers and boundaries. As far as capital is concerned, any boundary can only be seen as a barrier—something to be surmounted, overcome, and broken through. The recognition that there can be any limit beyond which the system cannot push is as alien to the inner laws of motion of capitalism as snow on a summer day. Following Aristotle, the “efficient cause” of our ecological rift with nature, argues Foster, is capitalism.

This explains why the efforts to ameliorate environmental degradation or the solutions offered to do so are more about how to continue with the system relatively unchanged than taking effective action to reverse the problem. The answer to environmental degradation from capitalists, politicians and large environmental non-governmental organizations is…more capitalism. Conversely, to take effective action on environmental sustainability immediately brings you into conflict with the operation of the system.

Technological change in and of itself is not an answer. In the first place, the technologies put forward—carbon capture and storage (CCS), agro-fuels, nuclear power—are all flawed. CCS doesn’t yet exist, agro-fuels cause as much damage as fossil fuels and undermine food supplies, and nuclear power is expensive and actively dangerous. Second, even seemingly benign and worthwhile ideas, such as energy-efficiency measures, are twisted under capitalism to create yet more capital, leading to further rupture of the ecological rift. Companies that save money by taking energy efficiency measures simply use the extra cash to invest and expand production. Even taking the decision to cut your own individual consumption, in events like Buy Nothing Day or perhaps by emulating No Impact Man, can be used by the system to expand production. Whatever money you manage to save is presumably kept where we are all forced to keep our meager savings—in a bank. Banks use your savings money to invest and expand production. Within the system, there really is no way out.

Some people hope that the reality of encroaching environmental destabilization will impinge on those who make the world’s big economic and political decisions to the point where they consider the impact on corporations’ ability to make profit. They will thereby be forced to take an alternative path, change government regulations, and move investment toward non-carbon-based energy sources, and so on. But, as Foster argues, this is almost certainly a forlorn hope as environmental destruction will just open up new areas for capital accumulation as business opportunities are created in pollution trading and amelioration, waste management, water shortages, and so on. The concept of scarcity, either real or artificially created by the market, is, after all, key to making the capitalist system go.

For anyone seeking a comprehensive theoretical and historical account of the conflict between capital and the environment, Foster’s book is a must-read. But it is not always an easy read. Sections of the book delve into the ongoing theoretical debate between two major wings of environmental sociology: those in the ecological modernization wing who, to put it crudely, see essentially no problem with continuing with capitalism, and those more associated with a critical-realist constructivist outlook, such as the authors. Foster, Clark, and York take up this debate most fully in Part III of the book. While this section is extremely interesting and informative—covering the historical roots of environmental sociology, the divergence between the two schools, the evolution of Marxist ecological thought, and historical examples to illustrate the different approaches, such as the guano and nitrate wars involving Bolivia, Peru, and Britain—it can also be heavy going for those not familiar with the terminology and debates.

Nevertheless, The Ecological Rift is a highly rewarding book full of insights into the anti-ecological operation of capitalism. It points us toward the conclusion that

[t]he future of humanity and the earth…lies with the formation of a labor-environmentalist alliance capable of confronting [capitalism]. The forging of such an alliance would mark the rise of socialist ecology as a world-historical force—and the onset of the struggle that is likely, more than any other, to define the course of the twenty-first century.

Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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