Healing the rift

Issue: 125

Martin Empson

John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2009), £13.95

The conclusion of John Bellamy Foster’s latest book is one that may not strike a chord with many traditional environmentalists—”today, the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.”

Foster has been at the forefront of rescuing and reasserting a Marxist critique of capitalism in the context of environmental destruction over the last decade. The Ecological Revolution is the coming together of much of that work. Capitalism is an “unstoppable accelerating treadmill that constantly increases the scale of the throughput of energy and raw materials as part of its quest for profit and accumulation, thereby pressing on the earth’s absorptive capacity”.

Foster spends the greatest part of his book developing the notion of the “metabolic rift”. This concept was at the heart of Foster’s most important book, Marx’s Ecology, which examined the way in which Karl Marx’s understanding of human society’s relations to the natural world developed. The metabolic rift “suggests that the logic of capital accumulation inexorably creates a rift in the metabolism between society and nature, severing basic processes of natural reproduction. This raises the issue of the ecological sustainability…of the interaction between nature and society under capitalism”.

Marx came to this concept in part by looking at the greatest environmental question of his own time—the crisis of capitalist agriculture caused by declining soil fertility as farming became more and more intense. He was greatly influenced by the chemist Liebig who was developing a critique of the methods of industrialised agriculture that were systematically stripping the soil of nutrients. Scientists such as Liebig saw life as based on metabolic relationships between organisms and the natural world around them. Marx in turn defined the “labour process” as the “metabolic interaction between man and nature”. Capitalism had thus created an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”.

Foster points out that in recent years this concept is increasingly understood by environmentalists and scientists, even if they don’t locate its origin within the thoughts of Karl Marx. But Marx took things a step further, showing how the precondition for healing this rift was the replacement of capitalism with a socialist society.

Today the ecological impact of almost every area of capitalist production has its critiques. Many of those at the forefront of campaigns today owe a debt to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, a devastating attack on the chemical industry and the pesticides it introduced to agriculture.

Foster draws our attention to her “wider, ecological critique, challenging the whole nature of our society”. Foster dwells on this because he sees Carson as part of larger, growing revolt by scientists and intellectuals. Scientists who saw themselves as socialists directly influenced Carson’s critique. For instance, the concept of an ecosystem—the interacting plants and animals of a particular natural area—had been introduced by a Fabian socialist, Arthur Tansley. Tansley himself learnt his trade from the Darwinian biologist Ray Lankester who had been a friend of Marx.

This link from the modern environmental movement back to the original thoughts of Karl Marx is important, particularly as socialists today are often accused of coming late to the debate on ecological destruction.

Foster fills in the intervening years with examples of other Marxists who had developed ecological aspects to their arguments. Karl Kautsky published The Agrarian Question in 1899, further developing Marx’s criticism of capitalist agriculture. This work influenced both Lenin and Bukharin, the latter developing a further critique of the relations between society and nature in the 1920s.

The Ecological Revolution is an important work but it is not without faults. Whole chunks are lifted wholesale from other writings. This in itself isn’t a problem, but it leads to regular repetition.

But my biggest criticism of the book is the conclusion. Despite developing a critique of capitalism that points to the madness resulting from irrational, unplanned, undemocratic production, there is no attempt to explore how a rational, democratically planned economy could help solve the metabolic rift, at the same time as providing for the needs of the world’s population. Despite these reservations, The Ecological Revolution is a book that should be essential reading for socialists.