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Synthesis/Regeneration 57   (Winter 2012)

Capitalism’s War on Nature

by R. Burke

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, Monthly Review Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-58367-218-1, $17.95.

The Ecological Rift is a collection of essays previously published in the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review. These articles were extensively re-written for the book itself. The authors provide a brilliant critique of capitalism as an inherently ecologically destructive system which is incapable of attaining environmental sustainability. Their work is undermined, however, by arguments for a philosophical materialism whose relevance to environmental issues is questionable. These excesses can be excused if taken in the spirit of Paul Sweezy’s preface to Monopoly Capital as “an essay, not a treatise” with no pretense to comprehensiveness. The value of The Ecological Rift lies in the way it calls attention to the class basis of our ecological predicament.

The book’s title is derived from Marx’s writings about the effect of capitalist agriculture on the soil. By providing food for growing industrial urban areas, Marx pointed out, a metabolic rift had been opened up whereby essential nutrients and fiber were no longer being returned to the soil. Thus the soil was being depleted while these materials were ending up in cities as waste, causing pollution.

In the first section, “Capitalism and Unsustainable Development,” Bellamy, Clark, and York develop this rather organicist concept of a metabolic rift as the basis for a Marxist ecology. They point to a number of planetary boundaries, the crossing of which endangers the environment necessary for human life. Three of these boundaries have already been crossed: climate change, the nitrogen cycle (due to its removal from the atmosphere for fertilizers), and biodiversity loss. This damage, they demonstrate, is the work of the capitalist world system. This destructiveness is structural and not accidental.

The reason for this is capitalism’s pursuit of the endless accumulation of monetary wealth and productive growth. Capitalism could not exist without these. By its own logic, the capitalist system is driven to cross these planetary boundaries, thus imperiling the survival of the human race. Capitalism has no concept of “enough,” and any serious attempt to preserve the environment calls for its replacement by a socialist, steady state economy.

Capitalism has no concept of “enough.”

A particularly interesting aspect of their work is the authors’ defense of the labor theory of value. This concept, once accepted by classical economists, is no longer in vogue with today’s economic profession. Bellamy, Clark, and York, however, demonstrate that Marx’s version of the labor theory is a necessary tool which highlights the difference between real wealth, conceived as natural and human resources, and monetary value. For practitioners of neoclassical economics there is no wealth other than monetary value. Capitalism’s “treadmill of accumulation” is its ultimate rationale. In the process, the sources of real wealth are destroyed.

Bellamy, Clark, and York call attention to two paradoxes in the capitalist system. One is the Lauderdale paradox, which states that the increase of private wealth leads to the impoverishment of public wealth. By enriching the few capitalism decreases the wealth available to the larger society. One of the public goods thus lost is the natural environment. The other is the Jevons paradox, by which increases in efficiency lead to the greater use of the resource thus economized. Section three, “Ecological Paradoxes,” is devoted to exploring this topic. The Jevons paradox has been demonstrated time and again, for example in the fact that transportation in the US since the 1970s has become more efficient in its use of energy, while at the same time consumption of petroleum, and carbon emissions, have also increased.

The authors place this paradox in a macro-economic context, showing that it derives from the inherent tendencies of capitalism for accumulation and growth. The point they make is that relying on technological fixes will not halt environmental devastation. Gains in efficiency will ultimately be used for further growth. Nothing less than radical systemic change can stop the juggernaut.

Unfortunately in section three, “Dialectical Ecology,” the authors devote an inordinate amount of space to defending a dialectical materialist view of nature. Writers in the philosophical current of Western Marxism are criticized for their rejection of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. The authors, however, admit that Marx himself did not develop a dialectics of nature, but confined himself to dialectical interactions between humanity and the natural world. The rationale given for accepting Engels’ views on this subject are unconvincing, and seem to stem from a desire to present Marxism as a “theory of everything.” Properly speaking, dialectics involves conscious practice. Thus a dialectics of nature is possible only for a philosophy which recognizes mind as fundamental to the natural world, which is what materialism denies. A dialectics of nature is possible for a process philosophy such as that found in Anne Fairchild Pomeroy’s Marx and Whitehead, a superlative work which deserves greater recognition and study.

The problem here is that Foster, Clark and York engage in precisely the same “double transference” that they accuse others of. That is, they project certain philosophical/political agendas onto nature, and then turn around and claim science supports those same agendas. Thus Marxist scientists are praised for their supposedly superior insights into the natural world (the name Lysenko is conspicuous for its absence from their pantheon), while competing views are dismissed with politically charged epithets such as “idealist.” In a chapter entitled “The Sociology of Ecology” Jan Smuts’ holism is criticized for its implicit racism, but when Ernst Haeckel (inventor of the term ecology, no less) is mentioned in passing, the fact that he too was a racist and a forerunner of the Nazis goes unmentioned.

This no doubt is because Haeckel was also a materialist, and it would be inconvenient for their argument to admit this. Constant reference is made to classical Greek materialist thinkers, but the fact that the progress of physics since the end of the 19th century has totally demolished their concept of the atom is ignored. The sub-atomic realm with its surrealistic behavior bears no resemblance to the solid, indivisible atoms hurtling through the void of Democritus and Epicurus.

The authors cavalierly dismiss the views of those such as Kropotkin, who call attention to cooperation, mutual aid, and symbiosis in nature. In doing so, they confirm a criticism of Marxists made by Lewis Mumford in Interpretations and Forecasts for ignoring these aspects of the natural world in favor of a view which stresses conflict and struggle. Ironically they quote Mumford, himself heavily influenced by Bergson and Whitehead, approvingly in another context in the final pages of the book. The authors attempt to justify their approach by Imre Lakatos’ concept of “degenerating” and “progressive” research programs. However, as Paul Feyerabend points out, Lakatos’ criteria are contradicted by the actual history of science—a fatal flaw for a Marxist!

Also to be considered is that a dialectical-materialist view of nature was and is Marxist Leninist orthodoxy. Societies where Marxist Leninists hold power have not historically been environmentally friendly, while Western Marxists such as Marcuse and Gorz were the ones to call attention to the revolutionary potentials of environmentalism. This section of The Ecological Rift is an example that the Western Marxist critique is more than justified. The chapter on ecological imperialism, however, does constitute a saving grace.

They…make a convincing argument against purely consumerist analysis of, and solutions to, the environmental crisis…

Bellamy, Clark and Ford are far more convincing in the fourth and final section, “The Way Out.” Here, too, we occasionally find their assertions of fidelity to dialectical materialism repeated, this time implying a specifically superior ethics to materialism, which makes one wonder if they’ve ever heard of De Sade or Ayn Rand. The authors assert a remarkably idealized version of materialism. The conflict between materialist and idealist is a fight between half truths, and a product of western bourgeois society. They do make a convincing argument against purely consumerist analysis of, and solutions to, the environmental crisis, showing that these, too, leave the central issue of capitalist social relations untouched. The authors make reference to Istivan Meszaros’ insight that maintenance of capitalism produces ever-greater destructiveness in a world incapable of political integration, an insight that raises the question of the necessity for a movement for a post-capitalist society to actively promote some form of world federalist government as part of its political program.

The judgment that capitalism has ceased to be a rational system is justified. What is required is a new world system in which growth not only stops but reverses in the advanced industrialized world. Here the authors draw on the concept of the “elementary triangle of socialism,” proposed by Hugo Chavez, who is particularly influenced by Meszaros’ ideas, and expanded upon by Michael Lebowitz in The Socialist Alternative. This triangle consists of social ownership, social production organized by workers, and satisfaction of communal needs.

This is complemented by the authors’ own elementary triangle of ecology: “social use, not ownership, of nature,” “rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between human beings and nature,” and “the satisfaction of communal needs—not only of present but future generations.” They discuss the efforts towards sustainability made by the countries in ALBA, the “Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America:” Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba. While much more needs to be done, the efforts of this alliance are a step in the right direction. Only a global ecological revolution can halt planetary ecological catastrophe.

Thus about three quarters of The Ecological Rift; Capitalism’s War on the Earth is a brilliant Marxist analysis of the capitalist world system’s production of ecological crises. About one quarter displays the dualistic and undialectical habit of splitting reality into mind and matter and then reducing the world to one or the other. Read the Ecological Rift with a very large grain of salt—but by all means read it!

R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[2 dec 11]

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