‘The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth’ reviewed by Matthijs Krul

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The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010. 544pp., $17.95 pb
ISBN 9781583672181

Reviewed by Matthijs Krul

About the reviewer

Matthijs Krul is a PhD student in economic history at Brunel University, studying the role of …


In the last few decades, there has been a renewed interest in exploring issues of ecology and sustainability from a Marxist perspective. Partially inspired by the ecological movement more widely, partially by the revival of Marxist economic theory since the 1980s, the topic of ‘Marx and ecology’ has been given wide attention in a range of publications in recent years. All three of the authors of the present book have earned their stripes in this field of research, and in particular John Bellamy Foster has been influential in putting ecological questions on the agenda of socialist politics, a tradition that had hitherto often been hostile to the claims of (middle class) ‘green’ campaigners. That capitalism is incompatible with the demands of our ecosystem and the existence of a self-sustaining environment free from exploitation is now taken for granted by socialists of whatever kind in most of the world, even in China; and yet this is a thought that had largely lain dormant since the period of the Second International. Its revival in recent years is in many ways for a significant part due to the above authors, and this book can be seen as the culmination of their efforts in the theoretical development of the implications of Marxism for understanding what Marx called the ‘metabolism’ between mankind and nature (45, 46). The ‘metabolic rift’ that capitalism has opened is, according to the authors, due to the incompatibility of the drive for perpetual growth and accumulation with the requirements of the environment as the basis for life (85).

This disruption or rift in the metabolism between humans and the earth, the ‘regulative law of social production’ (124), expresses itself in three ways in the current-day catastrophic environmental feedback loop: first, the decline in the natural fertility of the soil, which has to be compensated for by transferring nutrients over long distances to new locations; second, the increase in the intensity of the exploitation of nature, extending and expanding the ‘ecological rift’ qualitatively and quantitatively; and third, the transformation of the earth in the capitalist production process into harmful waste and pollution (125). In the course of the book, the authors examine each of these in their historical development as well as in the findings of climatologists and other natural scientists regarding the current-day situation, underlining the scope and threat of the looming ecological disaster. This includes not only discussions of such politically familiar subjects as climate change and the carbon cycle, but also for example the impact of computer technology and electronic storage on the consumption of paper. The authors use not only Marx’s understanding of the nature and expansion of capital to underline their argument, but also explore how the ecological degradations caused by capitalism despite its renowned ‘efficiency’ can be seen as a specific application of the famous Jevons Paradox – a study by the famous nineteenth century economist Jevons of changes in the consumption of coal with the introduction of more energy-efficient technologies, which contrary to all expectation led to an increase, rather than decrease, in the consumption and extraction of this nonrenewable good. As the authors are well aware, many of the liberal punditry and the political class today who are aware of the real dimensions of this ecological rift put their faith in capitalism’s ability to achieve greater efficiencies by the introduction of new technology, and hope to avoid the impact of the ecological crisis in this way. But the Jevons Paradox and what the authors call the ‘Paperless Office Paradox’ (191) demonstrate why this cannot happen. Indeed, since the 1970s the energy consumption per unit of GDP of the United States has more than halved, but this has not in the least diminished the American over-consumption of energy resources relative to the rest of the world and the planet’s carrying capacity. In a system based on limitless accumulation for its own sake, any savings in energy efficiency will only allow an expansion in economic activity based on the energy source, negating the environmental benefit from the new technology. This is the Jevons Paradox in action, and as the authors emphasize, capitalism shows this pattern time and again.

Despite the familiarity of the average economist (presumably) with the Jevons Paradox, the reality and consequences of the ecological rift are not much recognized by modern-day economists, who are loath even at the worst of times to say anything against the system of unlimited accumulation of value. The authors summarize the mainstream economic view of the ecological aspects of capitalism as threefold again: first, a belief in universal substitutability, in which no aspect of nature is in principle irreplacable; second, what they call ‘demateralization’, which is the belief or hope that the real production of goods can by technology somehow be decoupled from the use of resources, leading to a ‘weightless economy’; and finally, the conversion of nature into natural capital, which although for the first time giving an economic weight to nature, at the same time equalizes it as a commodity with all the others, and denies its qualitative significance (112). This attitude is well summed up by a quote from Robert Solow, the Nobel Prize-winning growth economist: ‘if it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no “problem”. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe.’ (122) Of course, in reality capitalism has found it much less easy than the economists have hoped to very easily substitute technology for the metabolism with nature. Unfortunately, given its importance, these excursions into non-Marxist economic theory and the ways in which it has dealt and still tries to deal with the ecological rift is very brief. The discussion of ‘ecological modernization theory’ takes up just a few pages (251-258). One would have wished the authors had expanded on this more generally, also in order to contrast more effectively the Marxist approach with the modern-day neoclassical one at the theoretical level, not just at the level of capitalism’s practical incompatibility with the ecosystem.

Another large section of the book is dedicated to ‘dialectical ecology’, which the authors identify as the line of thought extending from Engels’ work on the dialectics of nature to Soviet applications of this thought to contemporary ecological questions. The authors, against the anti-Engelsian school of thought (e.g. Peter Thomas) and the general hostility towards the Dialectics of Nature by older interpretations of Marxist thought in the West, defend this approach as being not only shared by Marx and Engels alike, but also the cornerstone of their thought about the metabolism with nature and the creation of the ecological rift (241). To justify this, they contrast a Western tradition of critics of this dialectics, such as Lukacs and Gramsci, with a more sympathetic tradition within Marxist-oriented natural science, such as the works of J.D. Bernal, J.D.S. Haldane, and Hyman Levy as well as a similar current in the Soviet Union with Vernadsky, Oparin, and Hessen (241-243). The authors locate the roots of this dialectical way of thought about nature, that is nature as historically developing in its interaction with mankind and therefore always being in a state of ’emergence’ (240), in Engels’ work on dialectics as well as the Grundrisse. In this reading, the Marxist approach to ecological questions understands nature as being a historical (by which they presumably mean path-dependent) process, in which humanity since its existence has constantly come up against ecological boundaries to its social relations, which it can only overcome by reorganizing society to accord a better ‘fit’ with nature’s laws (240). They contrast this view not just with the ‘green’ defenders of capitalism, who put their faith in technology, but also with holist systems such as that of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (260) and the views of the South African General and architect of apartheid Jan Christiaan Smuts, who used a crude social Darwinism to justify the oppression of blacks (318). In what is perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book, or at least the most original territory for a Marxist discussion of ecological questions, the authors use the chapter ‘The Sociology of Ecology’ to trace the historical development of notions of ‘nature’ and its ‘laws’. They examine this through the lens of what they call the ‘double transference’ common to bourgeois thought about nature and biology: the reading of particular patterns from ecology as analogous with those of bourgeois society, and then the re-application of these ideas as modified by the bourgeois self-understanding to the domain of nature, in which they are raised to the level of eternal laws (309). The authors wisely note this double transference as being the foremost trap to be avoided in a political-economic thinking about ecological questions, and note how Marx and Engels opposed both the tendency to read capitalist competition into ecology as an eternal law as well as theories of limitless cooperation as a natural example for socialists and anarchists (311). Here, again, the material would allow for a much greater exploration of these issues, although it must be noted John Bellamy Foster has already done so to a limited extent in his earlier work Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Foster 2000), on which much of the present volume is based. Something of an omission is the authors’ lack of interest in exploring the question of the idea of an ‘ecosystem’ as such (other than the reference to Lovelock), and its historical basis in the development of ‘systems theory’ and ‘operations science’, itself major political and intellectual influences on the development of neoclassical economics and neoliberal thought about man and society. I believe a very fruitful and interesting connection could be made here with the work in the history of economic ideas on these subjects by Philip Mirowski (e.g. Mirowski 2002). But given the length of the work, this can be readily accepted as being material for further research.

The last section of the book is dedicated to exploring the interrelation between these questions of capitalism’s ecological rift and imperialism, taken in a broad sense. The authors tell the familiar tales of the guano rush in Peru, the ecological impact on the rest of the world of mass consumption in the West, and the use of outsourcing to the developing world as a way of ‘greenwashing’ production in the First World. This leads to the authors making the case for revolution, unsurprising perhaps in a work dedicated to a Marxist understanding of capital. But this revolution is to be as much ecological as it is socialist (at least when that term is understood traditionally): relying on the thought of István Mészáros, they very justifiably state that the influence of mankind’s activities is now of such scope and degree that no part of nature is unaffected by it, implying that a total overcoming of capitalism is simultaneously a total overcoming of its anarchic alienation from nature, and vice versa (422). The authors plausibly suggest that the source of this transformation may well be found in capitalism’s recent development of a ‘new environmental proletariat’ in Asia and Africa, particularly in places most likely to be affected by the coming ecological crisis in a direct, physical way (440). Exploring fully the impact of capitalism’s shift towards the east and the divide between the Third and the First World is clearly beyond the scope of this book as well, being after all an admirably complete overview of the ecological question in Marxism as it stands. It is precisely that this work opens so many new avenues of further Marxist thought and research, together with its intelligent analysis and the historical erudition of its authors, that makes it a highly recommended read for all interested in Marxist thought on capitalism and the environment.

1 September 2011


  • Foster, John Bellamy 2000 Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press).
  • Mirowski, Philip. 2002 Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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