Ecological revolution for our time


The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the PlanetBy John Bellamy FosterMonthly Review Press, 2009328 pages, $37.95

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously urged the world's workers to unite because they had a world to win, and nothing to lose but their chains.

Today, the reality of climate change adds a further vital dimension to this strident vision of human liberation. We still have a world to win — but we also have a world to lose.

With his previous books such as Marx's Ecology and The Vulnerable Planet, John Bellamy Foster established a reputation as one of the most persuasive voices arguing for fundamental social change to tackle the looming ecological catastrophe.

His new book, The Ecological Revolution, argues that a solution to the ecological crisis "is now either revolutionary or it is false".

Foster draws on the warnings from leading environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, James Hansen and Lester Brown among others.

General awareness of the extent of environmental decay is more widespread than ever — even among the world's elites. The upshot is that two distinct versions of ecological revolution have emerged.

The first tries to paint business as usual economics green. The second, following Che Guevara's maxim, holds it must be a genuine eco-social revolution or it's a make-believe revolution.

"The conflict between these two opposing approaches to ecological revolution," writes Foster, "can now be considered the central problem facing environmental social science today."

The dominant view says a new green industrial revolution can unleash the technological changes to allow sustainable capitalist development and end environmental destruction.

Foster looks at the work of some of the most well-known promoters of a green industrial revolution including the US economist William Nordhaus and the British economist Nicholas Stern.

The Australian government's main advisor on the economics of climate change, Ross Garnaut, also fits into this broad category.

All assume continued economic growth, the expansion of markets and the unlimited accumulation of capital.

As a way to deal with the planetary emergency, such market-based responses are absurd, irrational, dangerous, self-defeating and destined to fail. They have also been warmly welcomed by the world's pro-capitalist governments and provide much of the basis of false responses to climate change such as carbon trading and "clean coal".

Foster aptly sums up the economics of a market-based green industrial revolution as "the economics of exterminism".

We need "a more radical, eco-social revolution, which draws on alternative technologies where necessary, but emphasises the need to transform the human relation to nature and the constitution of society at its roots", Foster says.

The goal of such as revolution must be "to return to a more organic, sustainable social-ecological relations [requiring] a civilisational shift based on a revolution in culture, as well as economy and society".

He argues that a key point of difference between ecological revolution and a green industrial revolution is the involvement and mobilisation of ordinary people in the process of change.

"Green industrial revolution is conceived … as a top-down attempt at a technological shift ... The goal of the vested interests is to keep social change in relation to the environmental challenge contained within the limits acceptable to the system, even at the risk of endangering the entire planet …

"In contrast, a genuine ecological revolution … would be associated with a wider social, not merely industrial, revolution, emanating from the great mass of the people," Foster says.

Foster argues that if we are to make peace with the planet we have to take political and economic power away from the privileged minority who now hold it. Otherwise, they will lead us all to oblivion in a vain attempt to preserve their system.

"A revolutionary turn in human affairs many seem improbable", he says. "But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible — if human civilisation and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained."

Foster describes modern capitalism as a system of ecological imperialism.

"At the planetary level, ecological imperialism has resulted in the appropriation of the global commons (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans) and the carbon absorption capacity of the biosphere, primarily to the benefit of a relatively small number of countries at the centre of the capitalist world economy."

Along with the stark prospect of new wars and invasions, imperialism's response to climate change has been to try to push most of the costs of climate change onto the global South.

This analysis is important for environmental movements in the developed world. The politics of the movement against climate change must be anti-imperialist, anti-war and demand the repayment of the ecological debt to the Third World, if it is to succeed.

In the landmark work Marx's Ecology, Foster explored Marx's often neglected contributions to ecological thought. The Ecological Revolution includes several chapters that further build on an understanding of Marx as one of the most perceptive environmental thinkers of the 19th century. His insights are of lasting significance today.

The two core ecological concepts in Marx's writings are the "treadmill of production" and the "metabolic rift".

The treadmill of production refers to capitalism's impulse to unlimited expansion without regard to natural limits on growth set by the biosphere. This impulse makes the process of capital accumulation inherently unsustainable and anti-ecological.

The metabolic rift refers to Marx's theory that capitalist production necessarily creates a sharp break in the relationship — the metabolism — between nature and human society. Marx used the concept of metabolism to describe the complex and co-dependent union between humanity and the environment.

In Marx's time, the rift was most apparent in the biggest ecological crisis of the 19th century: the depletion of soil fertility by large-scale capitalist agriculture.

Foster argues Marx used the concept of the metabolic rift more broadly than just agriculture. The task of healing the rift and building a truly sustainable society was a central goal in Marx's vision of a democratic socialist future.

The entire thrust of The Ecological Revolution is that "the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one".

[A longer version of this review is published at]

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