The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet

John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).

In The Ecological Revolution, John Bellamy Foster further develops his continuing project of a contemporary Marxist ecology that is definitively based in Marx the ecologist and resolutely committed to socialist revolution. Not confined to exegesis of the ecological and environmental content of the Marx-Engels corpus, this work is partly a continuation of Foster’s previous work in The Vulnerable Planet, Marx’s Ecology¸ and Ecology Against Capitalism, and partly a call to action and a green Marxist manifesto.

The book’s premise is that a major ecological collapse is possible, with survival of the human species thrown so severely into question that the relationship between humanity and the earth “is now either revolutionary or it is false” (7), and “an ecological revolution – a massive and sudden change in the relation of humanity to the earth – is necessary” (11). Foster distinguishes two basic responses to this crisis. One is the call for a new eco-industrial revolution, using advanced technological means and energy efficiency as the basis for a sustainable capitalism. The other is the much more radical eco-social revolution that Foster advocates. The latter approach, though also advocating alternative and energy-efficient technologies, ultimately envisages a process of sustainable human development, emphasizing “the need to transform the human relation to nature and the constitution of society at its roots” (12). It is a revolutionary approach that promotes a decisive break with the dominant logic of capital and the “economics of exterminism,” and calls for the restoration of a communally oriented human/nature metabolism that has been torn asunder by the unending accumulation of capital.

Following and expanding upon his seminal work in Marx’s Ecology, Foster’s ecological critique is derived from Marx’s observation that the material contradictions of capitalism arise from the organization of labor in possessive-individualist society. Anchoring his criticism explicitly in Marx’s own critique of capitalist political economy, Foster elaborates the three most ecologically prescient concepts taken from Marx and later Marxist writings that play a significant role in contemporary attempts to develop a radical Marxian ecology: 1) the treadmill of production; 2) the second contradiction of capitalism; and 3) the metabolic rift. The treadmill of production refers to the unceasing pursuit of profit and capital accumulation which results in an increasing and accelerating need for energy and materials at the expense of maintaining the regenerative capacity of the earth. But the second contradiction of capitalism and the metabolic rift occupy more of Foster’s present discussion.

Foster summarizes the second contradiction of capitalism noting that, “in addition to its primary economic contradiction stemming from class inequalities in production and distribution, [capitalism] …also undermines the human and natural conditions (i.e., environmental conditions) of production on which its economic advancement ultimately rests…. This heightens the overall cost of economic development and creates an economic crisis for capitalism based on supply-side constraints on production” (48). Foster questions an overemphasis on the second contradiction, but he does not dismiss the issues it refers to. Rather, he emphasizes the concept of metabolism and metabolic rift present in Marx’s attention to ecological problems and in Marx’s focus on “the rational regulation of the metabolism of human society and nature (through the organization of human labor)” that is central to the building of a communist society (210).

Marx’s theory of metabolic rift was previously and extensively outlined in Marx’s Ecology, but is more thoroughly contextualized in The Ecological Revolution. The concept of social-ecological metabolism is central to Foster’s ecology and to Marx’s analysis of “capitalist ground rent” and “large-scale industry and agriculture.” Foster draws attention to Marx’s usage of “metabolism” to describe the human relation to nature through labor as a process where the human species acts, regulates, mediates, and controls the metabolism between nature and itself. This human/nature metabolism is a complex and interdependent process, and its balance is achieved through the rational organization of production and society in accordance with the basic conditions of sustainability. Marx’s critique connected the rift in this metabolism to the organization of capitalist production, and specifically to the issue of how large-scale industry and large-scale agriculture exploited (i.e., robbed) the soil of its nutrients just as it impoverished the worker.

Foster’s emphasis on the utility of Marx’s concepts of metabolism and metabolic rift is present throughout The Ecological Revolution. Their importance and explication are stressed to such a degree as to appear repetitive at times, particularly when accompanied by the requisite textual evidence from the first and third volumes of Capital. Editorial concerns aside, however, this meticulously crafted and compelling presentation reclaims metabolism and metabolic rift as conceptual tools of materialist dialectical analysis, empowering a clear perspective on human ecology that situates people as one organism among many carrying out an exchange of energy and matter with nature that is integrated with our own internal life processes, and clearly presenting nature and society not as diametrically opposed categories but as interdependent and co-evolutionary. We thus find an intimate connection between dialectical analysis and a materialist conception of nature, allowing for a Marxist ecology that links broad environmental awareness with critical political economy.

Where The Ecological Revolution differs from Foster’s previous works on Marxian ecology is in its concise application of elucidative theory to contemporary issues. The work is largely divided between an updated restatement of the ecological theory presented in Marx’s Ecology, and contemporary commentaries on specific topics such as peak oil, military planning to confront resource scarcity, the legacy of Rachel Carson, the continued failure of global environmental reforms, and eco-imperialism. In addition, Foster offers an informative critique of mainstream economists who favor either eco-industrial revolution or myopic acceptance with ad hoc adaptation to inevitable ecological catastrophe. Yet, the work is also framed as a manifesto of action that resoundingly calls for an eco-social and socialist revolution emphasizing sustainable human development and showing that in order to transcend alienation from nature one must also transcend social alienation. Foster thus holds that “ecological and socialist revolutions, if carried to their logical conclusions, are necessary and sufficient conditions of each other” (34).

The specifics of how to achieve a socialist eco-social revolution are necessarily and admittedly vague. Foster touches briefly upon steps taken in areas of the global South – including “the greening of Cuba,” Venezuela under Cha´vez and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, the embattled socialist current in Bolivia under Evo Morales, plus the regional model of Kerala (India) and the urban examples of Porto Alegre and Curitiba in Brazil – but he provides little in the way of explicit measures to initiate or further the revolutionary form so compellingly argued to be necessary for our survival. In the end, the reader is provided with a cogent analysis as well as a strong Marxian base for the furtherance of critical ecological political economy, but ultimately left still seeking concrete guidance on how to accomplish a seemingly insurmountable but urgent task.

2010 Noah Eber-Schmid
Rutgers University

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