Saturday, 11 May 2013


TITLE: The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth
AUTHORS: John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York.
PUBLISHER: Monthly Review Press
PUBLISHED: January 2011, soft cover, pp544, £14.95

It may come as a surprise to modern readers to be told that Karl Marx was an ecologist, largely because of the conspicuous environmental devastation committed in his name in the former Soviet Union and the Chinese People's Republic. Yet that is precisely the message of this important collection of essays by three US Marxist sociology professors. Making their case involves the authors in a deep examination of what is meant by Marxism, by "in the name of" and even by ecology itself. Bellamy Foster, Clark and York are all affiliated to the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review  (founded in New York at the start of the Cold War in 1949 by Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, and broadly anti-imperialist in outlook, without sectarian entanglements). They make their case most convincingly in certain crucial respects, though are perhaps inevitably less convincing with practical recommendations.
The main thesis of The Ecological Rift is derived from original research by Bellamy Foster which demonstrated that Marx, an admirer of the great German biological chemist Justus von Liebig, formulated early in his career a theory of the "metabolic" relationship between human beings and their natural environment. The development of this theory spans the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, through the Grundrisse and right up into Volume 1 of Capital. In essence the argument runs roughly thus: in pre-capitalist societies people consume the produce of the land where they live and their waste products are returned directly to that land, but the division of labour under capitalism moves most of the population into towns and cities, to where most produce (food, clothing fibres, building materials) gets transported and consumed. The waste is no longer returned to the land which results in depletion of the soils together with pollution of the cities. 
This is a structural characteristic not only of capitalism but of any urbanised industrial economy, so it's not altogether surprising that gross environmental despoilment accompanied the industrialising drives of the Chinese and Soviet states. What is however characteristic of capitalism is an imperative toward continual growth. The pursuit of profit requires companies to continually expand production, seek greater productivity to reduce the share of labour, and seek new geographically remote markets. This imperative to perpetual growth combines with the metabolic "ecological rift" to guarantee that capitalist economics must eventually use up all the resources of the planet, which are limited by its finite size. Reconnecting the metabolic cycle by returning all waste to the land is not feasible, for the economic reason that it can never be made profitable, and for technological reasons, such as plastic not making good fertiliser. This argument is propounded and analysed in great detail, for example in chapter 15, Imperialism and Ecological Metabolism, which traces the depletion of European soils during the Industrial Revolution; the discovery of Chilean guano fertiliser deposits in the early 1800s and the imperial wars they triggered; and Fritz Haber's discovery, just before WW1, of an industrial process to fix atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilisers and explosives. That discovery linked the fertility of the land to the energy sources required by the Haber process, which meant oil, so triggering another set of imperial wars that continue to this day. During this historic sequence not only was the metabolic rift not closed, but the ecological cycles being disrupted spread out from solely the nitrogen cycle to the carbon and water cycles too, digging up fossil fuels and burning them into atmospheric carbon dioxide. 
Foster and co. are making a radical political point, that there can be no stable solution to our environmental crisis based on capitalist relations of production. With the rise of the BRIC economies we're currently living through a climactic phase of the spread of capitalist production methods across the whole planet. There are no farther geographical markets left so growth can only be via greater intensity, with environmental consequences that – according to reputable scientific opinion, and notwithstanding orchestrated campaigns of scepticism – will very likely render the planet uninhabitable. 
In earlier chapters the authors argue that neo-classical economists inadvertently conceal the urgency of our plight by treating the environment as being without market value, distorting our metabolic relationship to nature by treating raw materials only as inputs and products as outputs (which tempts a false belief in their inexhaustibility). A complete analysis regards raw materials also as outputs from nature and products as inputs back into nature. Other chapters make detailed criticisms of various reform proposals such as the UK's Stern report, of various strains of environmental sociology, and of various "holistic" ecological theories like James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and the racist ecology of Jan Christian Smuts. 
In their analysis no remedy that involves market forces – such as carbon trading – can ever succeed, because it does not and cannot inhibit the inexorable growth of the market. In support of this position they draw on two famous paradoxes of classical economics. "Lauderdale's Paradox" was the observation that private wealth can be created by destroying public wealth (eg. the enclosure of common land; charging for water supply; speculative restriction of supply of, for example, foodstuffs, diamonds or metals to increase their price), while "Jevon's Paradox" is the observation that under capitalism increasing the efficiency of utilisation of some resource almost invariably leads to more of it being consumed rather than less, thanks to expansion of the market.  
Such a brief summary may suggest a return to strict Marxist orthodoxy, but that would be misleading: in their criticisms of opposing ecological positions, the authors deploy various revisions that set them apart from most current Marxism. In two central and rather difficult chapters they discuss materialist ontologies, suggesting that previous strands in Marxism can be divided between "naive realists" – Leninists and Maoists – and those social constructionist "Western Marxists", including most French post-structuralist and post-modernist schools, whom they see as verging on idealism. (They quote with approval Kate Soper’s aperçu that “it is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer”).
Proper understanding of the metabolic rift demands a more rigorous materialism that transcends realism and idealism, something close to the "critical realism" of Roy Bhaskar or late Santayana (we do perceive real external objects, but filtered, perhaps imperfectly, through our mental apparatus). The authors embrace the nuanced Darwinism of Stephen Jay Gould, the sociology of science of Robert K. Merton and Imré Lakatos, and Thorstein Veblen's idea that capitalist marketing "produces customers" rather than goods. In this reviewer's opinion they might profitably have gone further still in this direction. Veblen, in The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers (1907), criticised the Marxists of his time for indulging in romantic Hegelian teleology, namely the "historic inevitability of socialism" with all its quasi-religious millenarian implications – the rejection of all teleology is a constant theme of this book. Perhaps replacing more still of Marx's Hegelian terminology – say "dialectic" and "quantity versus quality" – with more scientific causal descriptions drawn (cautiously) from evolutionary biology and systems/information/complexity theory might diminish the opacity and vagueness displayed by so much of today's radical writing. To be fair, Foster et al are positively readable compared to many current theorists, and in the introduction they apologise for any excessive repetition in this book due to its being a compilation of edited and extended papers and magazine articles.
Bellamy Foster, Clark and York make an entirely convincing case that the crises we face over climate change and resource depletion cannot be tackled by any reforms that fall short of breaking the capitalist market's mindless dependency on uncontrolled growth, but they’re less successful in delineating plausible routes to achieve such an enormous transformation of human organisation. While quoting from Keynes with approval in several places, they’re more approving of István Mészáros’ theory of transition to socialism and the political achievements of his follower Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. In particular they quote Chavez's three-part "triangle of socialism" as the precondition for any effective solution to the ecological rift:

1) social use, not ownership, of nature.
2) rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between humans and nature.

3) the satisfaction of communal needs of both present and future generations.

Worthy as these aims are, terms like "rational regulation", "associated producers" and "communal needs" are worryingly vague and result in a formula sufficiently ambiguous, in the wrong hands, to justify a Pol Pot. Notable by its absence is the equally problematic term "democracy", toward which they display a rather unwise old-Marxist reticence that grates particularly since this review is being written in the midst of March 2011's "Arab Spring" and Libyan uprising. It would have been good to see Lula's Brazil considered alongside Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, and some discussion about the extent to which the muscular, radical-Keynesian social democracy advocated by James K. Galbraith could fulfill these conditions. This book is nevertheless a very important contribution to environmental politics, and a powerful antidote to the illusions of moralistic green activists and opportunistic green capitalists alike.

Dick Pountain, March 2011

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