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.
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry