John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique

 (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 326 pp., $149

With the increased threat of climate change and the growing recognition that business as usual responses cannot adequately deal with it, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett’s Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique makes important contributions to Classical Marxism’s understanding of environmental degradation under capitalism. This book is written against the backdrop of a number of criticisms against Marx and Engels’ work, both from eco-socialists and non-Marxist ecological economists. Addressing these criticisms is the primary way by which the authors advance ecological thought in Classical Marxism.

The authors characterize their exposition of Marx and Engels’ work on the relationship between capitalism and the environment as an anti-critique in the spirit of Engels’ Anti-Duhring. Their anti-critique examines critical assessments of Marx and Engels’ work while reconstructing that work to develop, systematically, Marx and Engels’ ecological critique of capitalism. To that end Foster and Burkett wind up resuscitating the ecological perspective that undergirds Classical Marxism’s critique of political economy. The authors emphasize the ontological and epistemological category of “social metabolism” in which the labour process mediates between humanity and nature. Under capitalism’s endless drive to accumulate, a metabolic rift between humanity and nature occurs which is described by the authors as “the absolute general law of environmental degradation” (6). The book furthers our understanding of the relations among humanity, labour, and nature by providing a structural account of how capitalist labour processes degrade nature and further alienate humanity from nature. The results of the authors’ exposition of Classical Marxism’s ecological views is the recognition that capitalism’s specific social relations must be supplanted by an alternative that is based on a sustainable relation between humanity and nature, what the authors term “sustainable human development” (239) in the book’s conclusion.

In the first chapter the authors take up how Marx’s dialectic of organic and inorganic relations can heal the rift in much of Western thought between the science of ecology, which deals with relations between organisms and their environment, and the philosophy of ecology, which uses concepts of interdependence and holism, while arguing against Marx’s critics who acknowledge that Marx indeed embraced holism but attributed a mechanistic and deterministic understanding of human relations with nature.

In Chapters 2 to 5, the authors direct their attention to criticisms that bear directly on the relationship between Classical Marxism and contemporary ecological economics. In Chapter 2, the authors provide a thoroughgoing critique of Marx and Engels’ negative response to Sergei Podolinsky. The authors argue that Podolinsky’s attempt to establish a thermodynamic basis for the labour theory of value is incompatible with Marx and Engels’ open system perspective on human production, capitalism, and the environment. Far from outright dismissal, Marx and Engels took Podolinsky’s work seriously enough to offer reasoned critiques of his energy accounting and energy reductionism. Chapter 3 extends the arguments made in Chapter 2 by demonstrating how Marx incorporated energy flows and thermodynamic conceptions (as they were understood in his time) into the volumes of Capital. In Chapter 4 the authors defend Engels from the contention that he rejected the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In Chapter 5 the authors address the criticism that, in Volume 2 of Capital, Marx disregards the role of nature in the production process, as well as the deleterious impacts on nature resulting from capitalist production processes. In their conclusion, the authors state how and why Marx’s dialectical analysis of the interrelation between humanity and the environment under capitalism is relevant today and is, in fact, needed to sufficiently understand this relation so as to develop an alternative to capitalism based on sustainable human development.

The authors’ anti-critique spans a sizeable gamut of criticism, made mostly by some well- known eco-socialists and ecological economists, regarding the perceived lack of engagement with ecological concerns in Marx and Engels’ work. The particular character of these criticisms forces the authors to flesh out the basis of the criticisms, going into great detail in each chapter.  The criticisms include the following claims: that Marx’s description of nature as man’s inorganic body demonstrates Marx’s instrumental anthropocentrism; that in rejecting Sergei Podolinsky’s linking of the labour theory of value to energetics Marx and Engels display an anti-ecological world view; relatedly, that Marx and Engels rejected the second law of thermodynamics; that Marx’s reproduction schemes (in Volume 2 of Capital) ignore material flows; that Marx does not make the distinction between fossil fuels and renewable forms of energy; and that Marx’s critique of capital is indifferent to nature’s holism and intrinsic value.

I will limit myself to an examination of the relation of historical materialism with the laws of thermodynamics, as expounded by the authors, because of its importance in the field of ecological economics. Juan Martinez-Alier accuses Marx and Engels of inadequately incorporating the laws of thermodynamics into their system. Foster and Burkett go to great lengths to refute this claim and show how Marx indeed did incorporate thermodynamics into his system.

According to the authors, there are at least two facets to Marx and Engels’ opposition to Podolinsky. The first is that Podolinsky relies on a closed system approach in arguing for the incorporation of energetics (energy accounting) into the production process. Closed system approaches are at odds with Marx’s concept of social metabolism, an open system approach to human production and the relation between humanity and nature. The second is Podolinsky’s energy reductionism, because actual production processes also include, for example, chemical processes not reducible to energy. Thus, Podolinsky’s argument is at odds with Marx and Engels’ ecological viewpoints. As stated by Foster and Burkett:

In this conception, the relation between human beings and nature cannot be reduced to the closed thermodynamic model of nineteenth-century physics, that had to be seen in terms of an open, dissipative system in which the human metabolic relation fed upon nature — and not simply in terms of quantifiable energy but also more qualitative elements, such as specific soil nutrients. Marx’s analysis highlighted the emergence of a metabolic rift as human beings robbed the environment that constituted the basis for human production, undermining the conditions of sustainability. The analysis of living systems, including human society, as metabolic systems was to be the key to the development later on of ecosystem ecology, which was never reducible to pure energetic. (134-135).

Additionally, Foster and Burkett show how thermodynamics enters into Marx’s analysis in Capital, mostly by way of the following: labour power and its value; energy and surplus value; capitalist industrialization and thermodynamics; and entropy and ecological crisis, including the metabolic rift. These considerations illuminate the presence of thermodynamics in Marx’s analysis by grounding thermodynamic processes in the material processes of capitalist production. Marx’s analysis incorporates the dialectical relation between a given energy form and the nature of the (capitalist) production process he investigates. 

The authors argue that a keen understanding of the dialectical relationship between use value and exchange value is needed to see how Marx addresses conditions related to political economy and physics. Use value includes the physical conditions of production required in any social form of production. Exchange value is concerned with the historical specificity of capitalist production, whose primary aim is the endless accumulation of capital. Marx’s materialist dialectic includes both sides analyzed as processes developing in contradiction. In my view, the authors do a fine job of excavating the various ways in which thermodynamics enters into Marx’s analysis in Capital, mainly by showing how Marx used the works of various natural and physical scientists of the time (Buchner, Liebig Hermann, etc.).   

In my view, this is a well written and penetrating book whose greatest value lies in the serious efforts of the authors to both rescue Marx from off-the-mark criticisms while tackling foundational ideas in ecological economics, thus cementing Marx and Engels’ position within the field. The one shortcoming is that they do not attempt to ground their insights in current debates. For example, the debate over pluralism in ecological economics has gained renewed traction over the last few years. While their anti-critique does not touch on these debates, mostly because the topics with which they deal do not broach them, the implications of their anti-critique could be used to make a case for a dialectical approach to human economy-ecosystems interactions based on Marx’s materialist analysis of such interactions. As such, Foster and Burkett’s insights provide food for thought for debates over pluralism and proper methodologies for ecological economics and equip the next generation of Marxist scholar-activists with the tools needed to enter these debates and carve out a space for Marxist analysis of capitalism’s unsustainable relation with nature, and the praxis needed to usher in an alternative socioeconomic order founded on sustainable human development.

Reviewed by Dennis Badeen
Marie Curie International Research Fellow
Global Sustainability Institute
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK

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