The Ecological Rift

By Bryan Walker 25/10/2011

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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