Book Review: The Ecological Rift

Published online 30 December 2011.

Book review: John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York: The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth.  New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

Some beginning assumptions: this book, having been written by marxists in a marxist press, is for marxists.  Also: the reviews at the top of the Google search for reviews of this book all have to deal (in one way or another) with that marxist background.  The complaints that “The Ecological Rift” is written in jargon are, however, exaggerated — the text is clear and understandable, if perhaps too long.

Essentially, this is one version of the beginning course: this is what they’re trying to hide from you.  There are indeed non-marxist versions of the beginning course, which one may read elsewhere: this is the marxist one, and no less valuable as such.  Some material from the beginning course has made it past the media blackout into the public consciousness — serious holes have been poked in the standard framework, starting with James Hansen’s thesis on abrupt climate change, which the authors here recognize and endorse.  This book goes a long way toward a real presentation of the current predicament.

The fundamental core of it all is that capitalism is destroying planetary ecosystem integrity, exemplified principally by the climatic changes to be wrought by abrupt climate change, and that if we really want to save any portion of it we ought to think about putting an end to capitalism and instituting a “new social metabolic order” (page 85) that can adjust its relations to the natural world to avoid wiping it out.

The simplest version of the “ecological rift” was presented some time ago in a short book by the late Teresa Brennan.  Capitalist production, production by large-scale firms competing for market share, tends to “speed up” past the point of the natural world’s ability to regenerate, and so there is simply no way capital can incorporate any ecosystems consciousness into its process sufficient to overcome the out-of-control capitalist market.  There is a version of that argument here.

One of the greatest virtues of this long (442 pp. without the notes) book is that it offers a convincing and meaningful explanation of how inherent tendencies of capitalism insure its perpetration of widespread ecosystems destruction.  Most simply put:

The social metabolic order of capitalism is inherently anti-ecological, since it systematically subordinates nature it its pursuit of endless accumulation and production on ever-larger scales. (74)

The strongest point of this book is that it a convincing and meaningful explanation of why “green capitalism” will not solve capitalism’s problems — the authors rely heavily upon “Jevons’ Paradox,” the argument that increases in efficiency and new technologies only increase the speed of the system’s consumption of planet Earth, so that even with greener technology we still get a capitalist system with a wider net.  The authors also examine the corporate philosophy of “ecological modernization,” to conclude:

The central problem with this perspective (ecological modernization) is that the reproduction of the environment does not act in accord with “the rules of the market.”  A forest cannot be reproduced at the same pace that it can be cut and transformed into commodities.  Furthermore, we cannot assume that once an ecosystem has been drastically altered, such as when a forest is cut down, it will simply return to the previous state. (257)

In short, the ecological interactions which propel the growth of a forest (or some other such natural entity) cannot be assimilated to the logic of capital accumulation which governs corporate management.  (The authors assume, moreover, that the operations of capital cannot be “dematerialized,” as there must be something to accumulate.)  So, in the end,

Given the global operations of capital and its short-term focus on profit, which exculdes any serious consideration of the environment, there is no means within capital’s operations to stop the ruin of ecosystems, short of global collapse.  (257)

One limitation of this book is that, in discussing issues of capitalism and ecology, it brings up further questions (how shall we end capitalism?  What should replace it? — these are what constitute what I’m calling the “advanced class”) that are the domain of other books, rather than this one.  This book, on the other hand, makes itself liable to the objection that (as one reviewer pointed out):

there currently seems little likelihood of our forsaking a market economy – or, for that matter, little indication that a viable alternative is shaping. The socialism of Chavez or even Morales is hardly compelling, though they are the two national leaders to whom the book points.

So what do we do about that?  See below the fold.

Most of what counts as positive suggestion in this book is in the last chapter, titled “Ways Out.”  First, O’Connor, Clark, and York clear the air of the notion, popularized by organizations such as Worldwatch, of the “if we all just consumed less” pseudo-solution.  The problem with this notion, the authors argue, is that the calculations for the ecological toll take by “consumption” do not take into account the consumption decisions made by investors, which take an ecological toll which far outweighs the toll calculated for mere “consumption.”

The authors then take aim at the idea of corporate “sustainable business models.”  The one presented in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2010 and attributed to Wal-Mart, they show to be a joke.  The problem, then, is production — since production is already most of real consumption, we need to focus upon production, and upon how the investor class is not really going to cut productive consumption despite its green initiatives.

A genuine ecology of consumption — the creation of a new system of sustainable needs-generation and satisfaction — is only possible as part of a new ecology of production, which requires for its emergence the tearing asunder of the capitalist system, and its replacement with a new human whole.  The goal would be a society that is mindful of natural limits in which production and consumption would be focused on collective needs and human development.  (395)

As previous reviewers have pointed out, the authors do not have a concrete plan from getting from here to there, and no doubt many readers are going to be wary of any plan that does not show how we are to avoid the sort of contender-state economy that we saw in the USSR.  The book’s shining counter-example to a national economy of capitalist contradiction is Venezuela, and Venezuela manages to extract respect from the capitalist world by supplying it with crude oil, of which it today has much in reserve in the form of Orinoco River tar sands.  (It might also be important to understand Venezuela’s peculiar history, in which a popular third-party candidate (Hugo Chavez) with military ties (thus making a coup more difficult) attained the Presidency.  It’s really difficult to see how such a pattern could be followed everywhere.  Sure, the authors are also interested in Bolivia and Ecuador and other nations — it’s just that “21st century socialism” htere doesn’t seem to have the solid foundation evident in Venezuela.)

The authors suggest, wisely, that we will need a “new ecological hegemony” if we are to overcome the capitalist one, and then they take a step further:

But from whence is this new ecological hegemony to arise?  The only conceivable answer is through the organization on socialist principles of an ecological and social counter-hegemony, deriving its importance from various social actors.  (398)

Perhaps the authors are correct here — but what they say isn’t at all obvious, and merits a demonstration.  Much of what continues is instead a refinement of what they’d like to see in a new society:

One way to understand this interdependent relation between ecology and socialism is in terms of what Hugo Chavez has called “the elementary triangle of socialism” (derived from Marx) consisting of (1) social ownership: (2) social production organized by workers: and (3) satisfaction of communal needs.  All three components of the elementary triangle of socialism are necessary if socialism is to be sustained.  Complementing and deepening this is what could be called “the elementary triangle of ecology” (derived even more directly from Marx): (1) social use, not ownership, of nature: (2) rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolic relation between humanity and nature: and (3) satisfaction of communal needs – not only of present but also future generations (and life itself). (441)

One difficulty in making the authors’ vision real will be in squaring such a set of principles with the history of domination as it has transpired so far.  Historically, socialism has been the most significant proposed alternative to life in capitalist societies based upon the alienation of labor and the commodification of things.  Its 20th-century promoters created state-society complexes (see e.g. the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China) which were characterized by authoritarianism in a spirit of nationalist resistance to the then-expanding capitalist system.  Such complexes did not sink deep community roots, and neither did they survive the global triumph of capitalism as they (and it) got older.

21st-century socialism,” on the other hand, has embedded egalitarian forms of community organization into liberal-oligarchic places (with sympathetic governments) like Venezuela.  The project appears to be in a very early stage, as its proponents Foster, Clark, and York here laboriously explain why more capitalism won’t solve the ecological problem.

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