John Bellamy Foster
The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet
Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009. 288pp., $17.95 pb
Reviewed by Ted Benton
Ted Benton is professor of sociology at the University of Essex and is involved with the Red-Green Study Group’s attempts to realign green and socialist thought and practice (email@example.com).
This book is a major achievement. It combines enormous breadth of scholarship with consummate theoretical integration to produce a powerful political argument. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of humanity and the planet – that is, everyone! I do have some disagreements, but these take the form of an agenda for future dialogue rather than substantive criticisms.
The book consists largely of papers that have been published before, but revised substantially to make a coherent overall argument. It is divided into three parts. The first includes a series of chapters that draw on a range of sources, each pointing to the depth of our global ecological crisis, and the (necessary) failure of attempts to render the existing framework of globalizing capitalism sustainable. Part two is ostensibly concerned with reviewing and demonstrating the explanatory power of Marx’s historical materialism and his critical theory of capitalist production. Central to this is the concept of socio-natural ‘metabolism’, and the ‘metabolic rift’ engendered by capitalism’s relentless drive to accumulate at the expense of the earth’s life support systems. The notion has its classic source in Marx’s later concern with the consequences of capitalist agriculture and the urban/ rural division for soil fertility. However, as Foster and his associates, notably Paul Burkett, have shown us, the ecological concerns of Marx, Engels and their correspondents were much more diverse than this suggests.
The thesis here is that Marx and Engels had an ecological vision at the core of their analysis, and had already developed the concept of sustainable development as key to their conception of the socialist future. One difficulty for this is that the historically dominant readings of Marx and Engels (by sympathisers and opponents alike) have been ‘Promethean’, in the sense that they have been held to premise future human liberation on the ever-advancing human mastery of the forces of nature. The environmental record of the state-centralist regimes that legitimated themselves by reference to the Marxian heritage was dire, but the European socialist and social democratic parties that originally grounded their political projects in Marxism also fought centrally for higher material living standards for organised labour on the basis of state support for economic growth – often at great environmental cost. In much of the organised left until that last couple of decades talk of ecological issues was derided as a ‘middle class diversion’.
Foster does not seek to deny this. Instead he effectively re-writes the history of Marxian and socialist thought since Marx and Engels by bringing to prominence a subaltern tradition of ecologically radical socialist thought and action: early Russian pioneers of ecology and the attempts prior to the ascendancy of Stalin to put Soviet development on an ecological footing, the work of thinkers such a William Morris and Raymond Williams in Britain, and so on. I think this is a very valuable exercise and essential to a renewal of green left politics. However, the historical dominance of the ‘Promethean’ legacy does need to be addressed. Partly this is because it stands as a deep obstacle to productive dialogue between greens and socialists, but partly, also, because it is a reasonable interpretation of much that Marx and Engels actually wrote. Foster, for example, devotes some space to contesting my ‘Promethean’ reading of Engels’s remark in Anti-Dühring that in the future society ‘man for the first time becomes the real conscious master of Nature’. Although, as Foster admits, Engels used this phrase, apparently his ‘intent’ was something different. In Foster’s view (217) Engels was merely arguing that a social revolution is necessary ‘to allow humans to avoid being simply prey to natural forces’. My own reading is that Engels certainly thought a social revolution was necessary to transform human/natural relations, but his repetition of the expression ‘mastery of nature’ is quite unequivocal, and means something quite different from merely avoiding being at the mercy of natural forces. Building flood defences, for example, is something different from attempting to control the ocean currents and tides.
The third part of the book takes us to the clear political implication of the formidable accumulation of evidence and argument presented in parts one and two. If we are set on a course to socio-ecological catastrophe on a global scale, and if the principal dynamic taking us there is a capitalist juggernaut incapable of effective reform, then the only possibility of avoiding destruction of human civilization and much of life on earth is a revolutionary overthrow of the prevailing world-system. Foster is clear at the outset of the book that it is grounded in the ‘principle of hope’: on the face of it, this is not a very hopeful conclusion! It has been said, with some justification, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The two, indeed, may be very closely linked. However, Foster takes some grounds for hope in the radicalisation of much of Latin America and the Caribbean – most especially Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian’ revolution and the astounding achievements of the Cubans. Elsewhere in the ‘periphery’, too, populations most gravely damaged by the depradations of ecological and economic imperialism are resisting and also developing prefigurative alternatives. Foster’s book was written before the full force of the current global financial crisis and ensuing economic recession was felt – but this, too, adds to the sense that capitalism is more vulnerable than many had assumed.
Notwithstanding the coherence and power of Foster’s book, it is open to question in some respects. In particular, it seems to me it suffers from a certain ‘sectarianism’. By this I mean that in places the emphasis is on making differences into divisions in ways that cut off possibilities of constructive dialogue and mutual learning. I have in mind two such ‘divisions’:
First, Foster’s commitment to demonstrating the ecological credentials of Marx and Engels has its benefits: he, Burkett and others have brought to our attention an important and hitherto relatively neglected dimension of that legacy. However, others who also situate themselves within the Marxian materialist tradition have seen that legacy as indispensable, but at the same time incomplete and to some extent contradictory. They have seen a need to re-work key ideas to provide an adequate framework for today’s green left. Thinkers as important as James O’Connor and Joel Kovel come into this category. Unfortunately Foster’s concern to defend an unreconstructed Marx seems to require him to engage in a critique of their conceptual innovations that is rather one-sided and un-generous. Despite the personal tribute to O’Connor, the treatment of his valuable concept of the second contradiction of capitalism has this character.
A second site of what seems to me sectarian is the treatment of deep ecological or ‘ecocentric’ traditions of green thought and politics. This tradition is virtually ignored, in favour of some powerful critical arguments against ‘mainstream environmentalism’. In view of the reactionary turn of some of the bearers of the ecocentric tradition in the USA, this is quite understandable, but thinkers such as Arne Naess, Val Plumwood and Robyn Eckersley represent currents of thought that have much to offer. Foster’s only explicit encounter with ecocentric thought is in his critique of the work of pioneering US environmental sociologist Riley Dunlap, but in this it seems to me that Foster conflates normative and analytical issues. There is general agreement among ecological Marxists and serious environmental sociologists that the focus of analysis should be the complex dynamic interactions between human social practices and their conditions in nature. What is left out of account, though, are questions to do with normative and value-relations between humans and the rest of nature. Arguably what has been most significant in the thinking of ecocentric theorists is their insistence on the ‘intrinsic’ value of non-human beings and our relationships to them.
At no point in the book does Foster explicitly address this value-frame, but the final chapters suggest that his own thinking has been little influenced by this tendency in green thought and feeling. In chapters 13 and 14 Foster gives a clear, if still abstract, account of socialism as constituted by freely associated labour, but adds that central to it must be a ‘rational regulation’ of our metabolism with nature. Drawing on Morrison’s work, he argues that a future sustainable socialism must put provision of basic human needs – clean air, safe food, sanitation etc. - ‘ahead of all other needs and wants’. This is the sort of position that Eckersley characterises as ‘human welfare ecology’: that is, the central purpose of rational management of our relation to nature is the enhancement of human well-being. This is, to my mind, an entirely defensible strand of ecological socialism. However, I think it can be both broadened and deepened by dialogue with more radical traditions of green thought that strive for a qualitative transformation in our subjective relation to nature – psychologically, emotionally, aesthetically, cognitively, culturally and, in Marx’s sense, ‘spiritually’. In his later work Marcuse wrote of the revolutionary implications of the way aesthetic sensibilities can give rise to new needs that cannot be met within the existing order. Without such deep-level shifts at the subjective and cultural level, it is hard to see from where will come the forms of popular mobilisation that will be needed if we are to get the ecological revolution Foster correctly argues for. It may be that there are hints at this in Foster’s references to Arendt’s notion of ‘world alienation’, and in the inclusion, in the penultimate sentence of the book, of the needs of ‘life as a whole’ as an object of socialist management of the earth.
I think these latter points are worth further dialogue and development, but this does not detract in any way from the excellence and indispensability of this book.
6 March 2010