Climate change is bad enough without this lot

September 24, 2016

After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval
By John Foster
Routledge, 2015
230pp, $53.95

Just thinking about the global ecological crisis is enough to make you worry. So what is it like when a professional philosopher, theologian and academic starts mulling it over?

Unfortunately, what results is this utterly despondent book by Lancaster University’s John Foster. It is, however, a sophisticated work and activists will no doubt encounter people quoting it in years to come.

Foster begins by saying that arguing for sustainable development is insufficient to save the world from ecological destruction. His reasoning is that theorising about sustainability has not made the juggernaut change direction, so the roots of the problem must be deeper.

So far, so good. But after this he goes seriously haywire.

The problem is the ideology of “progressivism” that, Foster says, seized hold of the Western world in the 16th century. The tragic, internally contradictory progressivist idea has created technology that has simultaneously advanced civilisation while undermining its basis in nature.

Missing is the vital element that it is the internally contradictory nature of capitalism, which produces both the technology and its misuse for private profit regardless of social cost. For Foster, the problem is human civilisation itself, based on a defect in human beings.

There are bleak chapters on Foster’s theory of the self, in which he says: “The living ground of our being is necessarily dark to us.”

But if humans cannot know themselves then how can Foster know us so well that he can theorise that nature? Is he not human, too?

Foster appears to be channeling — and dressing up in philosophical drag — ideas from the Dark Mountain Project blog, a US survivalist think tank.

Dark Mountain explicitly rejects “the faith” that the world’s ecological and economic crises can be described as a set of “problems” for which there are technological or political “solutions”. Dark Mountain, and Foster, call for a return to “wildness” and “uncivilisation”.

Foster goes all the way towards eco-fascism. His book ends stating that people have no fundamental right to live and that “areas where survival and retrieval may be possible will need to be actively defended by their inhabitants”.

This is not a way out of the ecological crisis and there is a perfectly intellectually coherent alternative. There is the Marxist understanding of how capitalism has raised productive forces, but put it to destructive ends.

In this understanding, the point is not to do away with civilisation, but save it from the irrationality of capitalism. An ecosocialist society would organise the economy and society rationally according to the needs of people and planet.

John Foster’s outlook is very poetic, but smells of suicide.

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