In MRZine, Simon Butler reviews John Bellamy Foster’s new book, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with Our Planet. Butler begins,
The ecological crisis is not simply the result of poor planning or bad decisions. Nor is it an unforeseeable accident. It’s the inevitable outcome of an unjust economic and social system that puts business profits before all else — even as it undermines the natural basis of life itself.
Any neo-Marxian take on pretty much anything is going to present some (should I say?) inconvenient truths, and by Butler’s account, it seems Foster’s book it no different.
The Ecological Revolution is a call for urgent action and an intervention into the debates about the kind of action needed to win this “race.” […]
The upshot is that two distinct visions of ecological revolution have emerged.
The first tries to paint business as usual economics green. The second, following Che Guevara’s maxim, holds it must be a genuine eco-social revolution or it’s a make-believe revolution.
“The conflict between these two opposing approaches to ecological revolution,” writes Foster, “can now be considered the central problem facing environmental social science today.”
Probably my favorite parody of the first approach is found in an episode of 3o Rock, in which General Electric attempts to push a corporate-friendly “green” message with the character Greenzo, who turns out to be a more rogue, deep green version of what was expected. Of course, beneath the surface of this first approach is a “green industrial revolution,” in which,
the driving force of sustainable change is not the goal of preserving life, improving society, or allowing for the full development of human potential, but the profit motive…
All assume that economic growth, the expansion of markets, and the unlimited accumulation of capital can continue…
As a way to deal with the planetary emergency, such market-based responses are absurd, irrational, dangerous, self-defeating, and destined to fail. They have also been warmly welcomed by the world’s capitalist governments and provide much of the basis of false responses to climate change such as carbon trading and “clean coal.”
John Bellamy Foster aptly sums up the capitalist economics of a market-based green industrial revolution as “the economics of exterminism.” He advances an alternative approach that puts ecological concerns above capital accumulation. We need “a more radical, eco-social revolution, which draws on alternative technologies where necessary, but emphasizes the need to transform the human relation to nature and the constitution of society at its roots.”
Probing socio-economic relations, Foster writes,
‘At the planetary level, ecological imperialism has resulted in the appropriation of the global commons (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans) and the carbon absorption capacity of the biosphere, primarily to the benefit of a relatively small number of countries at the center of the capitalist world economy.’
Foster also draws on two concepts from Marx:
The treadmill of production refers to capitalism’s core impulse to expand production without regard to natural limits to growth set by the biosphere. This impulse makes the process of capital accumulation inherently unsustainable and anti-ecological…
The metabolic rift refers to Marx’s theory that capitalist production necessarily creates a sharp break in the relationship — the metabolism — between nature and human society. Marx used the concept of metabolism to describe the complex and co-dependent union between humanity and the environment.
So what’s the key Marxian insight for ecology?
Unlike mainstream economic approaches, Marxists hold that private ownership of natural resources is the major barrier to dealing with environmental problems. In the third volume of Capital, Marx even compared the relationship between nature and humanity under capitalism to slavery.
And the goal?
“The goal,” Foster says, “must be the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth.”
So it’s not surprising that Foster writes that the solution “is now either revolutionary or it is false.”