Natural’s not in it

Issue: 130

Martin Empson

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, (Monthly Review Press, 2010), £14.95

The failure of the world powers to reach a substantial agreement on carbon emissions at the Cancún summit in Mexico at the end of 2010 tells us much about the real priorities of the capitalist system. It is possible that there will be no binding international agreement on climate change to replace the Kyoto protocol in 2012. This is despite overwhelming evidence for global warming, the increasingly extreme weather worldwide and genuine fear from leading climate scientists that we are heading for a tipping point that could lead to runaway climate change.

In this context more radical arguments about the relationship between the natural world and human society will increasingly get a hearing. Those critiques that locate the problem within the capitalist system and urge a revolutionary solution to the problem are particularly useful.

As with many of their previous books, the authors do not shrink from arguing that international summits have failed because of the nature of the capitalist system. Rather than criticising particularly obnoxious multinationals or governments for whom “change becomes a matter of adjusting values and developing the proper eco-ethics”, the authors discuss how ,”since the late 15th century, an economic system propelled by the accumulation of capital has been the dominant force shaping human society” (p261).

This drive to accumulate, Marx argued “gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear: ‘Go on! Go on!” (p203). In this analysis, society’s ecological problems are not simply ethical, nor are they technological. Rather the problems exist because the system’s “treadmill of production” can only exploit the world’s natural resources for raw materials, or use it as a dumping ground for the waste of the production process. The authors argue that we can only begin to develop solutions to this problem by building on Marx’s work. For them, a “full understanding of nature is best realised through a materialistic, dialectical and historical lens” (p261).

The capitalist system doesn’t simply destroy the natural world in the interest of production for production’s sake; it also creates a “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature. This concept is explored in depth, starting with Marx’s studies of the German chemist Liebig’s work on soil degradation in the 19th century.

The authors also demonstrate how technological solutions alone cannot solve environmental crises. For instance, the Jevons Paradox has been known since the 1860s when the economist William Stanley Jevons explained how improved efficiency in the burning of coal in steam engines made it more cost effective as a fuel and hence more desirable. “Greater efficiency in resource often leads to increased consumption of resources” (p141). This has parallels with modern times where increasingly efficient petrol engines do not reduce the amount of fuel burnt by road vehicles. So calls for efficiency do not necessarily help reduce carbon emissions.

There are other related issues in a useful section looking at the “Paperless Office Paradox”. The authors show how introduction of computer technology actually increases the requirements for older technology. Consumption of office paper in the US for instance, increased by almost 15 percent between 1995 and 2000 (p189). The conclusion is that the development of a substitute for a resource can lead to an increased use of the original resource. This means that purely technical solutions—such as the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy—may not result in a reduction of carbon emissions from the burning of coal and oil, particularly in the short term.

The authors should be congratulated for producing an accessible introduction to these ideas. Unfortunately there are problems. Some of the chapters, particularly the one on “The Sociology of Ecology” seem needlessly academic and refer, often without explanation, to ideas and writers which the lay reader may not have encountered. This reflects the origin of most of these chapters in articles from other publications—only two of the 18 chapters are original, the others are abridged or revised articles from elsewhere. This shouldn’t be a problem, since many of these sources are obscure journals, but it also leads to duplication and repetition—for instance, the Jevons paradox is explained seven times.

That aside, there is much to be gained from reading this book. All the arguments point towards the urgent need for revolutionary solutions to the question of climate change. Here, however, lies the problem. The authors call for an ecological revolution to stop capitalism destroying the world. Yet their vision of revolution seems to be flawed and limited. They seem to be moving away from a classical Marxist explanation of where change can come from.

What is needed, they argue, is “the organisation on socialist principles of an ecological and social counter-hegemony, deriving its impetus from various social actors. A new ecological materialism arising in the revolt against the global environmental crisis must merge with the old class-based materialism of socialism…. Such a new historic bloc…would draw on various classes and class fractions (including the critical intelligentsia), but would depend fundamentally on the working class(es)—though not so much today on the industrial proletariat as such, but on a wider environmental proletariat” (p398).

Nowhere is there any detailed explanation of what the “wider environmental proletariat” is. Elsewhere they argue that the “main historic agent and initiator of a new epoch of ecological revolution is to be found in the Third World masses most directly in line to be hit first by the impending disasters” (p440). But while the developing world will be initially hit hard by climate change, the impacts on the more developed world will not necessarily just come later—witness the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. We must argue against the implication that workers living in the developed world have less to fear from climate catastrophe.

According to the authors, the proletariat was the revolutionary agent because it had “nothing to lose” (p439). But, for Marx, the working class can bring about socialism both because it has the economic power to overthrow capitalism and because in the process it can “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.1 This is particularly important if we are looking at building a sustainable world—workers will have to re-evaluate their conception of the natural world and production within it.

This weakness on the question of agency persists with the authors looking solely to developments in South America as a model. There is no doubt that the governments of Chávez and Morales have made important steps in moving towards a more sustainable society. The mass movements that have developed in the region have ecological questions at their core, but to narrow down the question of ecology and socialism to what is going on there limits the excellent analysis developed by the authors.

This is a useful book, but if we are to put ecological questions at the centre of the struggle for revolution today we need to develop an alternative linked to a vision of a different kind of society. In part this requires the raising of transitional demands, such as the call for “One Million Climate Jobs” in Britain, which can form a bridge between the struggles against austerity and wider social transformation.2

But ultimately we need to re-examine the way in which revolutionary movements of the past have thrown up mass democratic organisations that can place the organisation of production in the hands of the producers. This mass involvement of workers and peasants in the revolutionary transformation of society is the only way we can start to heal the metabolic rift.


1Karl Marx, The German Ideology,