Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Capitalism against ecology (2010)


Book Review from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Ecological Revolution – making peace with the planet by John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press N.Y. 2009.

Recalling the goals of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the principal document – Agenda 21 – was intended to launch a new age of sustainable development for the 21st century. But a decade later at the second summit in Johannesburg, it 'had turned out to be about sustaining capital accumulation at virtually any ecological cost.'

The book is a compilation of earlier articles, mostly from Monthly Review of which Foster is the editor, or from talks given at various venues around the world, e.g. the Marxism Conference 2002 in London, the Climate Change, Social Change Conference 2008 in Sydney, and adapted for this edition. As a consequence there is some recurrence of themes, however the repetition of key points in different contexts tends to reinforce their significance overall.

Organised in three sections, The Planetary Crisis, Marx's Ecology and Ecology and Revolution, Foster lays out the most up to date information and statistics on climate change and peak oil, etc from credible sources. One recurring theme is that society needs to be reorganised, 'away from the imperatives of accumulation, exploitation and degradation of the natural environment' and that 'the necessary change must be revolutionary in nature.' A reference in chapter 7, A Planetary Defeat, is to The Johannesburg Memo, written by 16 environmentalists who pointed to the abject failure of governments which, after committing to curb environmental decline etc., continued supporting policies which are gradually making all things worse. Again, the Johannesburg Memo, 'as long as corporations' long and short term interests diverge from the public interest no tinkering, reforms, regulations, or World Summits will change the status quo.'

The chapters of part one cover the workings of capitalism, the reasons the blame lies there and Foster's explanations of why things won't change without a system change. Part two is an analysis of various interpretations of Marx's connection to or disconnection from ecology and how different interpretations have tended to be uppermost at different periods of time. In the longest chapter, Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift, Foster discusses what he sees as renewed emphasis on Marx and Liebig's treatment of soil fertility and ecological implications from agronomists and ecologists, especially regarding soil science and the struggles over agribusiness v. organic agriculture. He also points to Marx and Engels's emphasis on 'the need for the movement to address the alienation of nature in the attempt to create a sustainable society.' According to Foster the essential starting point for a truly revolutionary social ecology should be Marx's 'Good Ancestor' analogy. 'More than ever the world needs what Marx and others called for – the rational organisation of human metabolism with nature by freely associated producers.'

Part three contains Foster's argument that only a socialist revolution will suffice to generate conditions of equality, sustainability and human freedom and would necessarily draw its major impetus from the struggles of the working populations and communities at the bottom of the global hierarchy. Basic human needs must be ahead of all other needs and wants. 'There is the need for a revolt from below in support of social and ecological transformation, pointing beyond the existing system.' 'The transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.'
Janet Surman