The Ecological Rift

Why do we continue with business as usual when we know that it is leading us to disastrous climate change? According to the authors of The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth it is because our capitalist economic system is driven by forces which cannot stand back and weigh the consequences of their drive. The blind accumulation of private wealth at the expense of the environment has enormous momentum which the system is not geared to control.

The authors, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York are all sociology professors. They write from the broadly Marxist standpoint exemplified by the Monthly Review magazine of which Foster is the current editor. As might be expected, their attack on capitalism is not limited to its environmental devastation but also takes in its exploitation of human labour for private profit. One of the interests of the book, for me with only a superficial acquaintance with Marx’s thought, was its explanation of the unity which Marx saw in nature and society and which western Marxism failed to sustain. The authors point, for example, to Marx’s interest in soil science and awareness of the nutrient depletion accompanying a more industrialised agriculture. Nature as well as human society needed to be protected from the capitalist juggernaut.

The first thing I always look for in social science writing on climate change is whether there is a full recognition of the seriousness of the physical science. There is in this book. James Hansen is the climate scientist the authors most frequently refer to when facing up to the dangers ahead, and they accept 350 ppm concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as the threshold beyond which it is unwise to allow the build-up to continue.  Early in the book they acknowledge the “planetary boundaries” project of the multi-disciplinary team led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and what it portends for the human future. There is no glossing over of the peril in which we stand if business as usual continues.

However the authors see little possibility of changing our current direction without radically changing the economic organisation of society. This is where they part company with those who consider capitalism can be manoeuvred into decarbonising the economy. They are scathing of cap-and-trade schemes which they see as full of holes to pacify the interests of capital, though they welcome James Hansen’s robust advocacy of a simple carbon tax with the proceeds returned to the population at large.

Capitalism rampant is no respecter of the environment, and the book is surely right to point out how orthodox economics shows itself seemingly incapable of taking ecological costs into account in its championing of economic growth as the key to prosperity.  I found its chapter on “capitalism in wonderland” a welcome relief from the endless stream of discussions in mainstream media of how to get growth back into the economy, with never a mention of ecological constraints. Their discussion of the position of economist William Nordhaus, while acknowledging that he accepts climate change is under way and will need to be addressed in due course, highlights his apparent failure to grasp just how fundamentally that change will impact on the economy of future societies if not abated by early steps to rein in emissions. They tend to lump Nicholas Stern in the same category, which I thought failed to allow for the sensitivity he has shown to the science and the consequent developments in his thinking. They do partly acknowledge this, but ultimately see him as remaining in the capitalist world and hesitating to enter the socialist-oriented landscape necessary for an adequate tackling of the ecological challenge.

…there seems little likelihood of our forsaking a market economy – or, for that matter, little indication that a viable alternative is shaping…

This is something of a nub of the book for readers whose concern is whether we will meet the challenge of climate change. Few would argue with Marx’s declaration that the earth cannot be regarded as the private property of individuals any more than human slaves can. Even societies or nations are not its owners. “They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].” The question is whether a capitalist economy can be tempered to conform to this underlying vision or whether the treadmill of capitalism will not allow any deflection from treating nature as a resource to be plundered for profit without pause or measure. It’s an important question because there currently seems little likelihood of our forsaking a market economy – or, for that matter, little indication that a viable alternative is shaping. The socialism of Chavez or even Morales is hardly compelling, though they are the two national leaders to whom the book points.

To accuse Bill McKibben of market fetishism or Nicholas Stern of establishment timidity or Al Gore of denial because of his advocacy of sustainable capitalism strikes me as sectarian.  I favour a broad church approach, taking assistance wherever it is offered and being content with a degree of muddle provided we end up with sufficient regulatory constraint to prevent the worst dangers of business as usual.

However, that said, the book offers many valuable insights into the workings of untrammelled capitalism and the ways in which the increase of private wealth tells against the social and ecological good. The case for a stationary state of no-growth economies is interestingly made. Those who hope that it may still be possible to put the brakes on reckless capital accumulation from within the capitalist system have to reckon with the strength of the accumulation drive, which in the striking words of Marx, “gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear ‘Go on! Go on!’”

The book is a substantial collection of the authors’ writing over a period of years which has been added to and in some cases partly reshaped for the purposes of the book. This review has concentrated on the climate change issue and doesn’t reflect the full scope of the book which explores many aspects of Marxist thinking in relation to the environment and more generally, sometimes quite technically. There is plenty to engage the reader interested in understanding what a Marxist approach has to offer by way of analysis of the present and hope for the human future.

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6 thoughts on “The Ecological Rift”

  1. Thanks Bryan.

    Let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re going to hold that Bill McKibben is the enemy – we just end up in that world of the eternal denunciation of ‘splitters’ ably parodied by Monty Python in the Life of Brian. This isn’t so much a species of Marxism as of Autism!

    Also, in anticipating any kind of Socialist revolution in the First World you just might as well have hoped that the expansion of Roxby Downs to allow the construction of the biggest hole in the ground ever created by humanity here in SA would be halted (finally fully-approved last week) simply because it’s such a crap, problematic idea.

    Politics is the realm of the possible; the Australian electorate, for example, is closer to embracing some Tea Party style gonzo fascism than any egalitarian program. Wishing it were otherwise – and who doesn’t? – won’t make it so. Perhaps the ‘Occupy’ movements really are a sign of some sort of Arab Spring for the West – God knows the pendulum swing away from bloated, selfish hyper-individualism is decades overdue – but ‘populism’ in the affluent world at the moment is generally a sewer of mindless, reactionary xenophobic malcontents. Sound familiar?

    These guys’ analysis ain’t necessarily wrong, it’s just wrong-headed. The sad reality is we’re going to have to muddle through with an imperfectably lumpen population and the best(ish) or least-worst solutions we can manage. Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good, or even the ‘not dreadful’ if ‘dreadful’ is the only other option on offer…

    (And, I suggest, if you were poor in Venezeula or Bolivia you might well see Chavez and Morales rather differently… )

  2. A great analysis here (abstract): “A high and sustainable quality of life is a central goal for humanity. Our current socio-ecological regime and its set of interconnected worldviews, institutions, and technologies all support the goal of unlimited growth of material production and consumption as a proxy for quality of life. However, abundant evidence shows that, beyond a certain threshold, further material growth no longer significantly contributes to improvement in quality of life. Not only does further material growth not meet humanity’s central goal, there is mounting evidence that it creates significant roadblocks to sustainability through increasing resource constraints (i.e., peak oil, water limitations) and sink constraints (i.e., climate disruption). Overcoming these roadblocks and creating a sustainable and desirable future will require an integrated, systems level redesign of our socio-ecological regime focused explicitly and directly on the goal of sustainable quality of life rather than the proxy of unlimited material growth. This transition, like all cultural transitions, will occur through an evolutionary process, but one that we, to a certain extent, can control and direct. We suggest an integrated set of worldviews, institutions, and technologies to stimulate and seed this evolutionary redesign of the current socio-ecological regime to achieve global sustainability.”

    Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies

  3. Bryan astutely asks:

    “The question is whether a capitalist economy can be tempered to conform to this underlying vision or whether the treadmill of capitalism will not allow any deflection from treating nature as a resource to be plundered for profit without pause or measure.”

    It’s hardly news that after decades of talk about the need for sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership.

    For the first time, a condensed & balanced triple-bottom-line set of defining articles, collectively entitled The Fractal Frontier – Sustainable Development Trilogy, is now available for your review. The trilogy examines the reasons for our past failures, a new scientific basis for the essence of achieving sustainable development in the future, the nine universal principles that must be built into any sustainable project, ways to educate, plan and lead teams to achieve sustainable results, and much more…

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    How do we design a sustainable civilization?

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