Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Bellamy Foster - The Ecological Revolution, Making Peace with the Planet

No one has done more than John Bellamy Foster over recent years to reassert an ecological aspect to Karl Marx's thought. In a series of books, Foster has explored the ecological core of Marx's thought and used this to develop a devastating critique of capitalism and its relationship to the natural world.

In an earlier work Marx's Ecology, Foster explored the origins of Marx's materialism to argue that Marxism had far more to offer the ecological movement than many would give credit for. Further books, The Vulnerable Planet and Ecology Against Capitalism have developed these arguments further.

This latest book, is perhaps best seen as the coming together of much of Foster's previous work. It summarises much of his earlier work and adds some new material. Foster shows how both Marx and Engels were enthused by leading scientists of the day, in particular, the German soil chemist, Justus von Liebig, who were developing a critique of industrial agriculture.

At the time there was a growing crisis in agriculture, due to the removal of essential nutrients as food was taken to the towns and cities. Marx took this starting point and using the concept of species metabolism, came up the theory of "metabolic rift". For Marx, human metabolism was human Labour. Hence Capitalism, by increasingly separats human society from nature, through a process of production that alienates and isolates the worker. This creates a "rift" between society and what helps make us human - our ability to shape the natural world. This rift, could only be healed by creating a new world based on a sustainable relationship with the environment.

This idea that capitalism, through it's methods of organising production, it's short term, irrational, un-planned nature, is what is destroying the planet is a thread that runs through the book. For Foster, what is important is that this understanding can help shape the types of movement that can create and alternative to capitalism.

There are some problems. The book's origin in other works means that it needed better editing. Several quotations are repeated verbatim, as are several key ideas (notably the explanation of Liebig's importance to Marx, which we read about at least five times).

This is minor though, a more important criticism, is that Foster ignores the opportunity to present a more rounded argument about what a democratically planned economy might look like. In the face of those who argue planning isn't possible, or can only end up like the bureaucratic East European states, it is a major opposition.

Foster instead offers us some isolated "islands of hope" - localised practices in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia which he suggests show the potential for sustainable society. He himself recognises that these islands exist in a hostile sea - a capitalist world that only organises production for profit. So in a way this argument is undermined by the rest of the book.

These criticisms aside, Foster's reassertion of the centrality of revolutionary change in order to save the planet is one that must not be lost on a new generation of socialist activists, engaging and building an environmental movement for the 21st Century.

Related Reviews

Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth

Further resources

There is an audio file of John Bellamy Foster discussing the 21st Century Environmental Revolution at Marxism 2008 available here.


Andrew Blackman said...

Sounds good - I haven't read John Bellamy Foster before, but sounds as if I should give him a try. I don't tend to like books pieced together from other books, though - I prefer something more coherent, even if not as complete or up-to-date. I read your other reviews, and think I might try Vulnerable Planet first. Or do you have a recommendation of a good place to start?

Resolute Reader said...

Vulnerable Planet would be a good start - though it is slightly dated and doesn't have anything that Foster develops later on, with his work on alienation and metabolic rift, which is perhaps the most interesting. I do think that the collection of essays in Ecology Against Capitalism is a good read too though. The essays are nice and self contained and not too long.