Ecological ruin or ecological revolution? - Book Review

John Clarke
Planet over profit - Wikimedia Commons

May 22, 2023

‘Capitalism in the Anthropocene’ provides essential knowledge and insight for today’s ecosocialist movements

John Bellamy Foster
Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution

Monthly Review Press, 2022

reviewed by John Clarke
Counterfire, May 18, 2023

The subtitle of this book is Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution, and this is no careless formulation. John Bellamy Foster meticulously examines the driving forces within the capitalist system that are taking humanity towards environmental catastrophe. He also makes a thorough and convincing case for the proposition that an ecologically focused socialism is the only viable means of re-establishing a sustainable relationship between human society and the natural world.

The book rests on the proposition that the foundational works of Marxism provide the basis for such an ecosocialist outlook. It also shows how this understanding has developed, in the context of a process of environmental degradation Marx and Engels couldn’t have fully anticipated.

Foster considers how struggles on the ecological front can be part of a broader challenge to capitalism. He draws conclusions around immediate efforts to stay the destructive hand of the system, while making the case for a socialist society that could set a different ecological course. He takes a critical but hopeful look at environmental struggles that have emerged and does so from a perspective that gives due weight to the vital role of the Global South.

This is probably not a book to select as an introduction to the issues it considers. It is a thick volume of almost five hundred pages that doesn’t shy away from complexity. Though it has been reworked for publication, it remains a collection of essays written over an extensive period. This means a certain level of repetition, as arguments are developed in different chapters.

The size and enormous range of this study make it hard to capture its arguments and conclusions. Still, it is important to convey, even if very selectively, a sense of how Foster goes about presenting his case. A lot of the essential elements can be found in the early chapters, with key conclusions drawn toward the end of the book, and I focus attention on these.

Metabolic rift

Chapter one begins with the proposition that the “rediscovery this century of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift has given renewed force to the critique of capitalism’s destructive relation to the earth.” This, Foster asserts, has made it possible to transcend ‘the divisions between natural and social science’ and reach a clearer understanding of how “the system of capital accumulation is generating environmental crises and catastrophes.”

Yet this process of recovery has generated controversy. Foster responds to various critical perspectives and, in doing so, seeks to “highlight what I consider to be the crucial importance of Marx’s ecological materialism in helping us to comprehend the emerging Great Rift in the earth system.”

Foster challenges the notion “that the dialectic applied only to society and human history, and not to nature independent of human history.” In his view, a dismissal of the ideas developed by Engels in his Dialectics of Nature flows from a broader rejection of dialectical materialism. He considers this a misguided attempt to avoid “reducing Marxism to mere conformity to objective natural laws.” Such positions, however, impede a deeper exploration of ecological questions within a Marxist framework.

Foster explores “the actual ecological dimensions of Marx’s thought,” and his efforts “to ground his critique of political economy materialistically in an understanding of human-nature relations emanating from the natural science of his day.” Marx examined a process of environmental degradation that was already apparent in his day. Accordingly, he was able to “develop his major ecological critique, that of a metabolic rift.”

Marx explored “the disruption of … the everlasting dependence of human society on the conditions of organic existence. This represented, in his view, an insurmountable contradiction associated with capitalist commodity production, the full implications of which, however, could only be understood within the larger theory of nature-society metabolism’ (p.49).

This contradiction arises out of the particular way in which capitalism goes about transforming the natural world through collective labor. Any society “extracts its natural-material use values” from nature, but “in a capitalist commodity economy this realm of second nature takes on an alienated form, dominated by exchange value rather than use value, leading to a rift in the universal metabolism.” This leads to a “rupture by capitalist production of the “eternal natural conditions,” constituting the “robbery” of the earth itself.”

The second chapter charts the enormity of the developing climate crisis and stresses that this is only one element of a broader environmental catastrophe. “The world economy has already crossed or is on the brink of crossing a whole set of planetary boundaries” that flow from the assault on the natural world. Since these interlocking crises result from “the historical constitution of human society, necessitating a social revolution, we must turn to social science as a guide.”

Foster traces the development of ecologically rooted socialist thinking in the latter part of the previous century. In the 1970s and 80s, a “first-stage ecosocialism” largely rejected Marxism and attributed to it an ‘productivist’ perspective. In the 90s, however, “socialist theorists proceeded to dig into the very foundations of classical historical materialism and its value-theoretical framework.” The vital contribution of Marxism to an understanding of environment degradation was re-established and taken forward as a second stage.

Based on this, Foster suggests that several conclusions can be drawn “about the ecological and social revolution that is now necessary ….” Firstly, “the problem threatening the global environment is the accumulation of capital under the present phase of monopoly-finance capital, and not just economic growth in the abstract.” It is suggested that “the ecological value-form associated with capitalism in [this] phase [is] geared to the promotion of economic and ecological waste as a stimulus to accumulation.”

Foster points to a need for “continual value expansion and commodity consumption, with increasing throughputs of energy and materials.” He asserts that it “is this irrational system of artificially stimulated growth, economic waste, financialized wealth, and extreme inequality that needs to be overturned if we are to create a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality.”

The second conclusion is that “capitalism is suffering from an epochal crisis – both economic and environmental.” The second element of this is generating “ecological rifts and disruptions, both within each and every ecosystem and on the level of the planet as a whole.” Since this process is “largely invisible to the value accounting of the capitalist system,” it will likely continue “as long as the logic of capital prevails.”

Thirdly, Foster argues that “if accumulation or economic growth is to be halted in the rich countries, even temporarily, out of ecological necessity, this would require a vast new system of redistribution.” This will mean “a vast redirection of society’s social surplus to genuine human requirements and ecological sustainability as opposed to the giant treadmill of production generated by the profit system.” Such a transformation can only occur in “a society directed to use value rather than exchange value.”

Flowing from this, the necessity arises for “a model of socialism as one of sustainable human development.” This would “shift power to the associated producers, who, acting in accord with science and communal values, will need to regulate the complex, interdependent metabolism between nature and society.”

Lastly, the force that can create “an ecological and social revolution” is, in Foster’s view, already emerging. He characterizes this as an “environmental proletariat,” defined as “a broad mass of working class humanity who recognize, as a result of the crisis of their own existence, the indissoluble bond between economic and ecological conditions.” He sees evidence that: “Traditional working-class politics are thus co-evolving and combining with environmental struggles.”

Revolutionary struggles

At this point, Foster, sets out a notion of a “revolutionary struggle in these circumstances [that] will need to evolve in two phases.” The first is an “ecodemocratic phase” in which there is a mass struggle to “demand a world of sustainable human development.” This goes over to a ‘more decisive, ecosocialist phase of the revolutionary struggle.”

Foster holds the view that the initial round “would create the conditions for an ecosocialist phase.” I did feel that this was presented as an almost natural process and that it rather understated the degree to which socialist ideas would have to fought for in the course of the struggle around broad ecological and social demands. Still, Foster is clear that, if we can’t create a “more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet … humanity will surely die with capitalism.”

As the book proceeds, Foster examines a wide range of the theoretical contributions and debates that have contributed to the development of an ecosocialist view rooted in Marxist theory. He continues to explore scientific evidence, to challenge various concepts of sustainability under the profit system, and to defend the central importance of a revolutionary perspective. Succeeding chapters return to elements of these questions, deepening the analysis and, in the third section of the book, “The Future of History,” several major questions are developed in important ways.

In chapter sixteen, Foster tackles the contradictions within degrowth theories. He asks: “Is degrowth possible in a capitalist grow-or-die society – and if not, what does this say about the transition to a new society?” He then challenges the notion of “eco-compatible capitalism” and the folly of putting the emphasis on “the abstract concept of economic growth, rather than the concrete reality of capital accumulation.”

Foster also takes issue with the contention of theorists like Serge Latouche that degrowth “must apply to the South as much as the North.” He argues against the idea that the “notion that degrowth as a concept can be applied in essentially the same way to both the wealthy countries of the center and the poor countries of the periphery.” The issue, he suggests, is one of “overcoming imperial linkages, transforming the existing mode of production, and creating sustainable-egalitarian productive possibilities.” The present world order, of course, hardly lends itself to such a transformation.

Foster stresses that a challenge to relentless capitalist accumulation and destructive forms of consumption shouldn’t be compared to the imposition of austerity measures at the present time. He suggests that “the satisfaction of genuine human needs and the requirements of ecological sustainability could become the constitutive principles of a new, more communal order, aimed at human reciprocity, allowing for qualitative improvement, even plenitude.”

In the next chapter, Foster reinforces this notion by drawing out the staggering scale of wasteful and needless consumption in capitalist societies. He suggests that, while waste has always been a feature of this system, with the development of monopoly capitalism, it has now reached new and unimaginable levels.

Today, a vast proportion of productive activity is devoted to the “sales effort” in one way or another: “the United States in 2005, spent over $1 trillion, or around 9 percent of GDP, on various forms of marketing.” A situation has been reached where “sales and production efforts interpenetrate to such an extent as to be virtually indistinguishable.” This has “served to reorder the relations of consumption – altering the use value structure of capitalism and enlarging the waste incorporated within production.”

Foster argues that the distortion of consumption has reached the point where “the concrete use value aspect of the commodity, has now become transformed under monopoly control into a specifically capitalist use value (constituting) the almost complete subordination of use value to exchange value in the development of the commodity.”

Age of the Anthropocene

Though Foster sets out his concept of the Anthropocene earlier in the book, it is in the twenty-first chapter that he develops it fully. The argument is that, after World War Two, we entered a new period within the geologic time scale in which “Earth System change as represented in the stratigraphic record is now primarily due to anthropogenic forces.’ Though the relevant international body hasn’t yet “formally adopted” this notion, this “understanding has now been widely accepted by science.”

With the advent of the nuclear age and the growth of other factors with huge environmental consequences, Foster argues that “humanity emerged as a force capable of massively affecting the entire Earth System on a geological scale of millions (or perhaps tens of millions) of years.” The Holocene Epoch has given over to the Anthropocene.

Foster argues that there is no reversing the qualitative change whereby humanity has the power to massively impact nature. The question is whether an exploitative and environmentally destructive class society can be replaced by one capable of living in harmony with nature. He asserts that the ‘”designation of the first geological age of the Anthropocene as the Capitalinian is, we believe, crucial, because it also raises the question of a second geological age of the Anthropocene Epoch.”

The perpetuation of the Capitalinian age might lead to a short-lived Anthropocene and “the collapse of industrial civilization and a vast die down of [the] human species.” However, the alternative to this catastrophic outcome, is “a radically transformed set of socioeconomic relations, and indeed a new mode of sustainable human production, based on a more communal relation of human beings with each other and the earth.” He continues, “We propose that this necessary (but not inevitable) future geological age … be named the Communian, derived from communal, community, commons.”

The book concludes by reiterating its concept of revolutionary transformation through the agency of an “environmental proletariat’” in which those who are most impacted by the exploitation and environmental degradation engendered by capitalism will be in the front ranks of the struggle.

The last paragraph asserts that in “the dire conditions of the Anthropocene Epoch, there is no answer for the human world that does not address the triple threat of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.” This means that: “Hundreds of millions of people have now entered actively into the struggle for a world of substantive equality and ecological sustainability, constituting the fundamental meaning of socialism and the future of history in our time.”

Capitalism in the Anthropocene is framed around a clear understanding that humanity has crossed a threshold in terms of its capacity to impact the natural world. This has taken place, however, under a social and economic system that is incapable of proceeding either rationally or sustainably. The mass of people is exploited and nature itself is treated as a “free gift” to be depleted or polluted as needed.

Foster develops a detailed and wide-ranging case for revolutionary transformation and the creation of a social system that can function on the basis of social and global equality. This will, of necessity, require a simultaneous and interwoven drive for harmony with nature.

The book, however, doesn’t settle for vague notions of egalitarian objectives and environmental stewardship. It argues for ecosocialism by way of a careful appraisal of foundational Marxist works and the enormously important ecological insights they provide. It goes on to trace subsequent developments in ecosocialist thinking that reflect the intensifying destructive power of capitalism and the worsening environmental degradation this has generated.

The developing climate catastrophe and the other elements of capitalism’s assault on the natural world are of incomparable seriousness and have massive implications in terms of how the class struggle will unfold. The development of ecosocialist theory and practice is a necessity that we must face in our time. In this regard, Capitalism in the Anthropocene is a great source of knowledge and insight to take into this struggle.

John Clarke was a leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty from 1990 until his retirement in 2019. He now teaches Social Justice at York University, in Toronto.

[Top photo: Wikimedia Commons]