Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Reclaiming Marx and Engels for environmentalism, John Bellamy Foster sees capitalism as the ultimate cause of climate change – and an ecological revolution as essential to any solution. Derek Wall reviews his ecological manifesto.
This is one of the best books I have read on climate change and the worsening environmental crisis. John Bellamy Foster is a professor of sociology, but don’t let that put you off – he writes with clarity and great flair. This book, like his others, is a product of very detailed scholarship. It puts the case that unless we have ecological revolution based on fundamental change, environmental problems will lead to catastrophe. He argues that environmental problems have social causes, that ever-increasing economic growth is unsustainable on our planet and that the ultimate cause of climate change is capitalism.
Critics of such a view argue that with economic growth, cleaner technologies develop and greater efficiency allows us to overcome environmental problems. Foster responds to this argument with a discussion of the ‘Jevons paradox’. Jevons, a 19th-century economist, created the marginal analysis that economists today use when describing supply and demand within the price mechanism. He was also interested in diminishing resources.
His paradox is based on the fact that when we use a resource more efficiently, rather than using less of it in total we use more. For example, if cars become more fuel-efficient any gain to the environment is cancelled out by the fact that car use tends to grow. The idea that left to the market more efficient energy solutions will emerge, and such solutions will solve the climate change crisis, are thus misplaced.
Foster argues in great detail that the present global framework for dealing with climate change is largely fraudulent. Global agreements on climate change such as the one at Kyoto have been shaped by powerful industrial interests and are having no real impact on reducing emissions. He is highly critical of carbon trading and other capital-friendly environmental policies, which are used to allow coal mining, oil extraction and airport building to continue.
This brings him back to his central theme: ‘My premise in this book is that we have reached a turning point in the human relation to the earth: all hope for the future of this relationship is now either revolutionary or false.’ The book is produced to encourage such an ecological revolution.
John Bellamy Foster, who edits the journal Monthly Review, is best known for his early book Marx’s Ecology. In it he argues that far from being enemies of nature, Marx and Engels were keen environmentalists. This assertion, surprising to many even on the left, is based on their exhaustive writings on air pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and a series of other serious environmental problems. Marx and Engels’ environmental concern is a key element of this new book too. Foster argues that insights from their work, especially Marx’s notion of a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and the rest of nature, are key to achieving ecological sanity.
Foster makes his case convincingly and on the way reveals much fascinating detail. For example, he relates the story of Britain’s fertiliser imperialism in the 19th century, when guano (bird shit to be precise) was transported from Peru to farms in Britain. His account of the Brando film Burn! from the director of The Battle of Algiers is also fascinating as an example of green left popular culture.
Foster finishes by identifying the advance of socialist governments in Latin America committed to ecological policies as a source of hope. Cuba’s commitment to permaculture and renewable energy, along with similar policies in Venezuela, are noted. However, Foster argues that the ecological revolution must be made at the centre of the global system in countries in North America and Europe.
Yet there is little discussion of practical efforts to build eco-socialism at the heart of the book, though there could have been. In Australia in the 1970s, the trade union leader Jack Mundy led his building workers union into green bans, where they refused to construct environmentally destructive projects. In the UK, nuclear waste dumping at sea was halted in the 1980s by trade union action, and more recently workers occupied the Vestas wind turbine plant threatened with closure on the Isle of Wight.
The foundation of an Ecosocialist International Network is a sign of the embrace of ecosocialism by both traditional socialist groups and currents within Green parties. Climate Camp, in Britain and elsewhere, has social justice and a rejection of capitalism built into its analysis, and we’ve seen the advance of indigenous struggle globally, which is both radically green and based on demands for socialism.
Greater analysis of these kinds of developments could have made The Ecological Revolution even stronger. Nonetheless this is a wonderful book which should be on the must-read list of all serious reds and greens.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun