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Review of The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth

by Brock Tiernes (The University of Kansas)


Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. 2010. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press. Paperback $14.20.

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York make the case for ecological Marxism in The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010). The authors argue that Marx’s work addresses the climate crisis with sufficient force, and all other “climate solutions” allow capitalist production to continue and do not attack the heart of the matter, capitalist growth is at the center of the environmental crises:

The essential problem is the unavoidable fact that an expanding economic system is placing additional burdens of a fixed earth system to the point of planetary overload…The whole problem can be called ‘the global ecological rift,’ referring to the overall break in the human relation to nature arising from an alienated system of capital accumulation without end (17-18).

The authors are consistent in holding on to Marxism and provide an astonishing number of links from Marx’s writings to the ecological rift. They continually defend Marx as an environmentalist and refer to his framing of nature as the envelope for all human activity and the ultimate source of all material wealth (102, 228). Foster, Clark, and York hammer on Marx’s discussions of the capitalist contradictions page after page, particularly the notion that “Sustainability in relation to the earth was a requirement of production in general for Marx, but one that capitalism was compelled to violate” ([emphasis added] 287). The somewhat repetitious tone of the book can be found while the authors cover a few themes, such as capital’s inherent contradictions, particularly that of the growth imperative. Time after time the argument is made that capitalism has the sole aim of accumulation and does not recognize environmental limits.

The authors argue environmental social science shifted towards ecological modernization and market-based solutions or “green markets” (19). Foster, Clark, and York claim that environmental social sciences profess ‘sustainable growth’ because the discipline parallels mainstream environmentalism (which, for the authors, too often leans towards ecological modernization [20, 37-38, 200]). Foster, Clark, and York therefore state there is an “ecological crisis of social science” (19) because it relies on new “green markets” saving the day. According to the authors, the real objective of market-based solutions is to enhance economic growth—not to seriously address the climate crisis. It is this growth imperative that the authors attack, and argue that social scientists are delusional (or perhaps not standing up for themselves [see page 31]) if they think this problem will be sufficiently addressed by ecological modernization. The Ecological Rift emphasizes that mainstream economics is responsible for the popularity of market-based climate solutions in both academics and politics. In the third chapter (which has the biting title “Capitalism in Wonderland,” 89-106) the authors argue that economics has been dominated by those who accept “the capitalist status quo and…value the natural world only in terms of how much short-term profit can be generated by its exploitation” (89).

The Ecological Rift therefore details its grievances with ecological modernization more than nearly any other environmental school. Just as Marx described the contradictions inherent in capitalism, so too do Foster, Clark, and York point out the dilemmas of ecological modernization (see the passages and chapters on the Jevons Paradox [139-42, 169-91] or the Environmental Kuznets Curve [139-40, 253]). They view ecological modernization as a danger because it not only fails to address systemic capitalist contradictions of accumulation, but because it is a stance which allows no wiggle room for non-capitalist alternatives—and therefore does not address the problem of economic growth (see 29, 42, 53 among other pages).

The authors cite specific examples that reveal the shortcomings of ecological modernization. This environmental school argues that the development of ‘green’ technologies should replace older, less efficient ones in the name of environmental consciousness. While this sounds great in theory, The Ecological Rift argues that it does not work in reality. One illustrative example that Foster, Clark, and York use is their short analysis of the automotive industry’s failure in the United States to reduce gasoline consumption despite improvements in engine fuel efficiency. They accredit this paradox to the noticeable expansion in the size of vehicles, and the investment in fuel efficiency was implemented in order to sell larger vehicles rather than reduce the fuel consumption of the average vehicle (188).

It is clear that the authors are critical of nearly anyone who is not named “Marx” or “Engels.” Foster, Clark, and York state that other popular environmental writers—including Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and Paul Hawken—still promote technological fetishism and suffer from a “strategy of denial” that is often “coupled with a form of market fetishism” (427). Any serious attempt to address the ecological crisis by sweeping social transformations is not needed or considered in the eyes of mainstream environmental writers. For the authors, one of the most popular manifestations of green-market fetishism is in the cap and trade system—carbon trading in a government-created market. As expected, the authors disagree with this and consider it a half-measure.

The authors continue to target other environmental schools. Even ‘treadmill of production’ scholars, who are considerably more radical than the ecological modernists because they question the social drivers of ecological degradation and often adhere to more functionalist Marxism, are occasionally corrected. Early in the book, The Ecological Rift argues that the treadmill of production school avoids critiquing capitalism “as a historical mode of production, [and prefer] to pose the problem simply in mechanistic terms—as if the metaphor of an economic treadmill was an adequate substitute for the historical reality of capitalism” (30). The authors go on to suggest that the popular “treadmill of production” put forth by Schnaiberg is focused on the wrong treadmill, and in order to understand the inherent dangers of capitalism, scholars should reconceptualize this theory as a “treadmill of accumulation” rather than production (195, 201).

The authors also criticize deep ecologists, who often have significant overlap with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis (which argues that the entire earth is essentially an organism). Deep ecologists assume a natural harmony, which, according to the authors, “is not consistent with a critical historical understanding of nature.” They continue to ask, “Why would there be a grand balance in nature? Natural history is a record of drastic changes and discontinuities in the biophysical world” (260). Deep ecology is made problematic here because the authors disagree with the romanticism that nature is an ideal functional system that exists in magnificent equilibrium, but they agree with deep ecology’s views that humans have arrogantly molested the planet, and that the ecological rift is a menace born of unfettered capitalist growth. It is a rare portion of the book that finds some common ground with non-Marxist ecological views, so it is noteworthy.

The Ecological Rift targets several of the well-known commentaries on climate crisis. For the most part, the authors disagree with anyone who is not a Marxist or not in favor of a shift to socialist ecology. While James Speth has recently chastised modern capitalism’s environmental destruction in a number of publications, Foster, Clark and York note that a socialist solution goes “too far” for Speth, and argue that his suggestions are not serious enough (158-64).

By gripping the Marxist lens so tightly, the authors treat the climate crisis with a level of significance that others do not. To them, anything short of a revolution is not an adequate way to address climate change, and this tone comes off as belittling to any other environmental writings not suggesting the end of capitalist accumulation. Foster, Clark, and York dare suggest what several scholars view as too extreme or uncompromising. While it would obviously be politically suicidal for someone like Al Gore or James Speth to suggest an outright rejection of capitalism, Foster and his colleagues push that envelope. By doing so, this book points at nearly all (non-Marxist) environmental works and questions mainstream environmentalism’s willingness to address the issue. This is an effective method, because most environmental literature claims that changes at some level need to be accomplished—be it merely using efficient light bulbs and vehicles, reinvesting in the nation’s supergrid, or creating stronger environmental policy regulations. But most authors do not touch the end of markets. Those former suggestions are certainly important, but they still do not significantly address the capitalist mode of production.

Foster, Clark, and York are committed to taking a hard look at climate change in a way that few are. While several environmental writers acknowledge the severity of this crisis and the urgency with which it must be addressed, The Ecological Rift claims that anything short of a complete departure from capitalist expansion is a half-measure. It throws a critical light on most of the mainstream environmental literature (which is mostly non-Marxist) and in a sense “calls them out” for providing inadequate blueprints for solving the climate crisis. I strongly recommend this book and consider it a “must-read” for anyone interested in environmental literature because it not only summarizes the arguments of several mainstream publications, but it also dwells on their blind spots by not embracing ecological Marxism.

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