Marx and ecology: a vision for saving the world

March 6, 2010

John Bellamy Foster is a renowned Marxist economist and ecologist. He is the editor of the US socialist journal Monthly Review and is the author of Marx's Ecology and The Ecological Revolution (published by Monthly Review Press. Foster will be a featured speaker at the Climate Change — Social Change conference in Melbourne in November (see ad on page 13 for more details).

This interview, by Aleix Bombila, is abridged from .

* * *

You argue that Marxism has a lot to offer to the environment movement. What joint work can Marxists and ecologists do?

It important to recognise that Marxists and ecologists are not entirely different groups. It is not uncommon for the two to overlap and increasingly converge. Many socialists are environmentalists and many environmentalists are socialists.

Marxism and ecology tend to lead to the same conclusion. For Marx, the goal was the creation of a society in which the metabolic relation between humanity and nature (i.e. production) was rationally regulated by the associated producers. [My book is called] Marx's Ecology because of the depth of Marx's ecological conceptions — for a rational regulation of the metabolic relationship between humans and nature

A critical Marxist approach requires ecology, while a critical ecology requires an anti-capitalist and ultimately socialist orientation.

In terms of united work, I would say in social justice and environmental sustainability: saving humanity and saving the Earth. You can't expect to achieve one without the other, and neither is possible under the existing system.

Probably the world's strongest single voice for the environment is Bolivia's socialist (and indigenous) president, Evo Morales. And [former Cuban president] Fidel Castro said after the failure of the December Copenhagen climate summit that we used to think we were in a struggle simply to determine the society of the future, but we now know we are in a struggle for survival.

Socialists are taking global leadership in defining the ecological needs of humanity.

The struggle against climate change looks kind of abstract at first sight. How can we organise campaigns against climate change with a real impact?

The planetary ecological crisis is the greatest threat humanity has ever confronted. We are facing, if we don't change course, the demise of the Earth as a habitable planet for most of today's living species.

But it seems abstract. People can't feel it because it is not reflected consistently in short-term weather conditions. It is not a problem that grows gradually and smoothly, but rather one that will accelerate with all sorts of tipping points, causing irreversible changes.

Time is extremely short and it requires a certain degree of education about what is happening. Scientists are almost unanimous on the threat, but they do not have a direct line to the population.

There are very few authoritative global warming deniers and their scientific claims have been refuted repeatedly. But because of the power of the capitalist class, which sees any action to avert the problem as a threat to its immediate interests, the denial view is constantly amplified in the corporate media.

Ordinary people are left uncertain what to think. Besides, they face material problems that seem more immediate. Workers are seeing their standard of living decline and they are worried about their jobs.

So it is hard to concentrate on something as seemingly nebulous as climate change.

I believe the needed massive revolt from below will emerge first at the periphery of the capitalist world. The most oppressed, who have nothing to lose, are to be found predominantly in Third World regions.

Some areas, like the low-lying delta of China's Pearl River, correspond to the areas of fastest industrial development and of the sharpest class contradictions. So the epicentres of environmental and class struggle may overlap.

There are signs — as in the water, hydrocarbon, and coca wars in Bolivia, which helped bring a socialist and indigenous-based political movement to power — that social struggles are increasingly raising all-encompassing issues.

Even in the centre of the system [the First World], there are a lot of ongoing struggles by environmentalists, and particularly the youth-based climate justice movement. There is hope that community-based, labour-environmental struggles will generate a new context for change.

The dual contradictions of the system's economic and environmental failures can only be brought together in an effective way by socialists. These are not separate issues, but have a common basis in the capitalist mode of production.

I think we are increasingly seeing a convergence of socialist and ecological visions of the future, leading in a much more revolutionary direction than we have ever seen before.

But we should not be blindly optimistic. This requires organisation. And there are great dangers, such as the delaying tactics of those in power.

How can we foster environmental justice without prejudicing the working class?

How can we not foster environmental justice without prejudicing the working class?

One of the first works on environmental justice was Frederick Engels' 1845 classic The Condition of the Working Class in England, which focused on how the working class was subject to toxic living conditions and the consequences in terms of health.

Such concerns were part of the working-class struggle in the beginning.

Environmental injustice in the United States is related to race, since its greatest impact is on those individuals and communities that are subject to environmental racism. Toxic wastes are more commonly dumped in communities of colour.

But, of course, the US working class is predominantly made up of so-called minority races. Environmental justice is thus a race and class (and indeed a gender) issue.

Are taxes on polluting industries a solution?

If you mean the ultimate solution, no,

The only real solution is to get rid of capitalism and put an egalitarian, sustainable society, run by the associated producers, in its place.

But the environmental crisis is accelerating. This is a question of survival for humanity and most species on the earth.

The time in which to act if we want to avoid irreversible environmental decline is incredibly short, with only a generation or so in which to implement a drastic change of course. That is what science is telling us.

Under these circumstances, we need both short-term radical responses and a longer-term ecological revolution. The first needs to help promote the conditions for the second.

The immediate, short-term response requires a carbon tax of the kind proposed by US climate scientist James Hansen: a progressively increasing tax imposed at well head, mine shaft, or point of entry with 100% of the revenue going back to the population on a monthly basis.

The point is to make sure that the carbon tax is imposed as much as possible at the point of production and falls on those with the largest carbon footprints (mostly the rich), with the majority of the population gaining from the distribution of the revenue from the tax, since they have less-than-average per-capita footprints.

Neither capital nor the governments controlled by capital would have their hands on the revenue, which would flow directly to the population.

Implementing this in the kind of society that exists would be difficult. But once it was understood it would help protect the earth (by making the price of carbon higher) and redistribute income toward those at the bottom of the society, it would gain strong popular support.

More direct political forms of regulation should be used as well. For example, we need to ban the building of coal-fired plants and existing coal-fired plants need to be rapidly phased out.

To accomplish this on the necessary scale, however, requires an ecological revolution affecting what we produce and consume and how our society is organised.

If the alternative to capitalism is a democratically planned economy, how should this work so as to include environmental issues?

Marx's notion of "communism" was one of sustainable human development.

Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, has defined the struggle for socialism in the 21st century in terms of "the elementary triangle of socialism".

According to this view, derived from Marx, socialism consists of: (1) social ownership [of the economy]; (2) social production organised by workers; and (3) satisfaction of communal needs.

In my view, one can also speak of an "elementary triangle of ecology", derived directly from Marx, which takes the struggle to a deeper level. This can be defined as: (1) social use, not ownership, of nature; (2) rational regulation by the associated producers of the relationship between human beings and nature; and (3) the satisfaction of communal needs — not only of present but also future generations.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.