Capitalism is not sustainable

April 22, 2010

A book of writings on the environmental crisis by John Bellamy Foster outlines a Marxist approach, while making sense of the latest science, writes Erik Wallenberg.

AS 2009 came to an end, the world's most powerful governments demonstrated their determination to ignore the issue of climate change with their actions at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen--even as we daily see further confirmation of impending climate chaos.

There is a growing body of literature addressing ways to confront this crisis--from the decidedly tepid promotion of individual acts (think Al Gore and calculating your individual carbon footprint) to more radical and even revolutionary critiques.

John Bellamy Foster, editor of the socialist journal Monthly Review, released a book last year that compiles much of his writings on the environmental crisis from the past decade. He includes essays outlining a Marxist approach to the environment, addressing the twin crises of the economy, and all the while illuminating the best climate science we have.

Foster argues that "the split between natural-physical science and social science...has been one of the main alienated intellectual products of bourgeois society." By contrast, he says:

A region of melting permafrost north of the Hudson Bay in Canada
A region of melting permafrost north of the Hudson Bay in Canada (Steve Jurvetson)

The ultimate strength of Marxist analysis has never resided chiefly in its economic crisis theory, nor even in its analysis of class struggle as such, but lies much deeper in its materialist conception of history, both human and natural--understood, as this only truly can be, as a dialectical and endlessly contingent process.

Foster's book does just this, combining the best in scientific thought with the necessary understanding of the social system we live under and its connection to our natural history.

He begins by laying out in broad strokes the havoc humanity is imparting on the planet, and thus our future. Global climate change isn't the whole story, but rather one of the largest and all-encompassing challenges we face--from the contamination of water and destruction of fisheries to nutrient degradation of the soil and extinction of species.

That said, Foster addresses the latest findings in climate science. For instance, with arctic temperatures rising, new sources of climate-changing gases are entering the atmosphere. The release of methane from the warming and melting of the permafrost in Arctic regions will speed up the process of global warming, as the temperatures rise and engage in a positive feedback cycle, with no clear end in sight.

Daily, we get further confirmation of this process--for example, the journal Science reported last month that methane releases from the Arctic soils under the Siberian Sea are at higher levels than previously thought.

From the opening pages in which Foster argues that technology will be helpful in solving our environmental crisis, he also argues that technology alone can do no such thing. Instead, we need a transformative social approach to the climate crisis.

He argues against those who would say capitalism can be "greened": "Aside from technology, virtually nothing in the social organization of society will change in this vision. The commitment to unlimited accumulation of capital and to an order that places artificially generated private wants over individual and social needs is unaltered."

In order to begin developing new technology that isn't driven by the market and the profit motive, but rather by the need to create a sustainable world, people must first be freed by a social revolution that can harness humanity's potential for just such a task.

THIS COLLECTION is a great introduction to eco-socialist ideas. Readers will find a streamlined version of Foster's argument, made in his previous book, Marx's Ecology, that at the heart of Marx's analysis and writings on capitalism is an understanding of the interconnected relationship between human civilization and the environment.

Foster shines a light on the origins of Marx's ecological thinking from his doctoral writings on Epicurus. Also included are essays arguing that the fight for socialism and environmental sustainability cannot be separated, and his writings on the origins of the environmental movement in the U.S. with the publishing of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The most compelling part of Foster's historical work is how he illuminates the roots of "ecological thought" in unlikely places. We are given a glimpse of the flourishing of scientific understanding in early Soviet history--for example, in 1919, the first nature preserve aimed at the scientific study of nature was established in the southern Urals of the USSR.

Foster also provides fascinating re-readings of iconic environmentalist figures. Foster's analysis of Rachel Carson takes as its starting point that she is "better understood if we recognize that she was not simply an isolated figure...but was part of a larger revolt among scientists and left thinkers in the 1950s and 1960s arising initially from concerns over the effects of nuclear radiation."

The environmental catastrophe that is war--specifically for the control of oil--is also covered in this book. Readers are taken back to the "oil crisis" of 1970 and reminded that as of 2001, U.S. oil production had fallen by 39 percent from the peak 1970 level. Foster takes us through a basic lesson on the "peak oil" debate and leaves us with a clear understanding that the heart of the problem lies with U.S. imperialism, and its struggle to maintain its role as sole world superpower.

Similarly, an entire chapter is dedicated to the Pentagon's climate change report, which confirms environmentalist and socialist views that the U.S. empire isn't concerned about human and ecological well-being so much as "The narrow safeguard Fortress America at all costs."

In this sense, the Pentagon is "concerned" about climate change because it will benefit them to be able to project "which countries are likely to be hit hardest ecologically, economically and socially, and thus will be propelled in the direction of war" in order to better prepare the U.S. war machine.

FOSTER MAKES the case, as he has done elsewhere, that environmental exploitation is a central part of Marx and Engels' thinking on the contradictions of capitalism--and that with the dawn of capitalism, there developed a "metabolic rift" between the nutrients being taken from the earth in the countryside and the dumping of great amounts of "waste" in the industrializing cities, where the working class was becoming concentrated in great numbers.

In an example relevant for anyone living in the U.S. today, Foster notes that the agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig, whose work Marx was familiar with, "observed that there were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles in the United States between the centers of grain production and their markets. The constituent elements of the soil were, thus, shipped to locations far removed from their points of origin, making the reproduction of soil fertility that much more difficult."

As Foster points out, "All life is based on metabolic processes between organisms and their environment," so when this relationship is broken, ecological catastrophe ensues.

In relation to this argument, Foster makes a compelling case that Marx was a promoter of "sustainability." He quotes a letter from Marx, writing about what a sustainable world would look like: "[S]ocialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control."

Importantly, Foster addresses the debates within the Marxist tradition on whether environmental destruction will inherently cause economic crisis, and exactly how much ecological destruction figured into Marx and Engels' analysis. Foster explains the work of James O'Connor, a Marxist economist who pioneered the idea of "the second contradiction of capitalism."

The idea is that the "first contradiction" is the economic contradiction arising from class inequality and the economic crisis generated by overproduction and "underconsumption." The "second contradiction" is that the pillaging of environmental inputs--which in part generates capital, and thus profits--ultimately destroys the very natural world on which capitalism depends for survival.

As Foster explains, "Capitalism as a world economy...embodies a logic that accepts no boundaries on its own expansion and its exploitation of its environment. The earth as a by definition limited. This is an absolute contradiction from which there is no earthly escape."

O'Connor suggests that there is a natural limit past which capitalism cannot or will not pass. Foster takes a different view--as he writes:

We should not underestimate capitalism's capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation and to continue to destroy the earth at the point of no return--both for human society and for most of the worlds living species.

In other words, the dangers of a deepening ecological problem are all the more serious because the system does not have an internal (or external) regulatory mechanism that causes it to reorganize. There is no ecological counterpart to the business cycle.

In other words, capitalism as a system of unpaid costs will lead to barbarism in the form of ecological collapse, unless there's a movement for a different kind of system.

READERS WILL find interesting perspectives on these debates in eco-socialist circles around Marx's understanding of environmental crisis and its relation to the contradictions and crises of capitalism. Foster argues that Marx believed that a socialist society will need to regulate for sustainability. He writes:

There is simply no indication anywhere in Marx's writings that he believed a sustainable relation to the earth would come automatically with the transition to socialism. Rather, he emphasized the need for planning in this area.

This brings us to the last section of his book, which is both the least developed and the least convincing. While Foster ends by noting that "only through fundamental change at the center of the system [can there be] any genuine possibility of avoiding ultimate ecological destruction," his focus of this last chapter is "alternatives" to the capitalist model, primarily in Latin America.

The alternatives he presents, though, including for Venezuela and Cuba, are very short on specifics. One has to wonder how an economy based on oil wealth, as Venezuela's is, can be a model for a sustainable society.

This isn't to say that the changes in Chávez's Venezuela aren't to be applauded and understood as reforms. But pointing to the model of state-run capitalism as genuine socialism--instead of socialism from below, in which working people run society--makes little sense after he spends the preceding 250 pages indicting the unplanned capitalist system.

It is a real problem for socialists today that there has been nearly a century of distorted ideas about what socialism is. Foster makes this point in one paragraph, but unfortunately, that's it. There's no attempt to expand on the need to begin a fight for a different kind of world, and an idea of socialism that's different from the top-down version.

Foster's book also has too few connections to actual struggles. A better starting place might have been the fighting union traditions in much of Europe that won their share of environmental reforms.

One concrete example he raises that is worth considering is the case of the extensive urban agricultural programs in Cuba. The necessity of feeding a society when oil is out of reach is no easy problem to solve. Foster provides a glimpse of an urban agriculture system that does sustain Cuban society and that seems to bridge the gap between town and country. But he doesn't explore these questions in depth, and thus leaves unanswered the question of whether this can be a model for the rest of the world.

Ultimately, the book's message is that we need to put an end to the profit system if we are to heal the "metabolic rift" that has been a product of capitalism. Foster rightly argues:

Much of what we take as natural is the product of capitalism. Indeed, we are brought up believing that capitalist market relations are more natural, more incontrovertible, than anything within nature. It is this way of thinking that we have to break with, if we are to restore our relation to the earth.

That's an argument for revolution--a socialist and an ecological revolution on a worldwide scale.

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