An ecological manifesto

The Ecological Revolution by John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review Press, 2009), reviewed by Derek Wall

November 22, 2009
5 min read

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.