Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Marx's Ecology: revolutionary environmentalism

Marx's Ecology
By John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press, 2000

Although Marxists have taken part in the environmental movement, especially since its rapid rise in the 1970s, there has always been suspicion among some in the movement that the left is “intervening” for its own interests (such as recruitment to left groups) and really doesn't care about the environment.

Such prejudices have not been helped by the ecological devastation perpetrated by the Stalinist former regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the name of “communism”. Many academics spread the view (also held by many Marxists) that Marxism advocates the technological “domination” of nature.

Some critics say Marxism is simply out of date on environmental questions. Others even suggest that it is fundamentally anti-environment. Both views are on a shaky footing if a serious examination of the ideas of Karl Marx is made. John Bellamy Foster does this in his book, Marx's Ecology.

Marx developed his political and economic critique of capitalism during the middle of the 19th century. The industrial revolution was shaking the political and economic structure of society. This was the central focus of Marx's studies and his political activity — but many forget that the natural sciences were also undergoing a revolution.

That economics and politics are intimately connected with the environment was obvious to Marx, who avidly followed the latest scientific discoveries in many fields.

“Within contemporary Green thought a strong tendency has developed to attribute the entire course of ecological degradation to the emergence of the scientific revolution”, Foster writes. But a concern for the environment (centred on problems of soil fertility and population pressure) permeated the scientific world of the 19th century. In fact, some scientific advances were made partly in response to the damage and problems that capitalist industry (not science) had brought about.

Of course, there are many trends of thought within the environmental movement, and Foster does not attempt to reconcile Marx with all of them. For some, nature (or “wilderness”) is seen first as something to be treasured for its spiritual (or cultural) value. Some supporters of this romantic view even present it as a non-anthropocentric, objective view of nature (when in fact it is highly anthropocentric and laden with subjective values).

Marx, however, saw threats to nature as a product of humans' separation from nature. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Friedrich Engels call for abolishing the distinction between city and country. Often interpreted as an attack on the cultural backwardness of rural society, this was as much an expression of Marx's understanding of environmental problems, such as soil fertility.

The rise of modern cities meant that food, grown in the countryside, had to be transported to the city. The mineral components of the food were then flushed into rivers as sewage rather than returned to the soil as natural fertiliser.

In the modern era, not all problems (such as deforestation) are so easily reducible to a division between city and country. However, Marx's view of this “metabolic rift” is a crucial part of any modern environmental strategy, and points to his broader method which views society as necessarily a part of the environment.

Finding the roots of the environmental crisis is more complicated than equating exploitation of nature with exploitation of workers. Saying that capitalism exploits the environment because it can make money is so simplistic as to be trivial, and in terms of solutions, points no further than to reformist regulation.

It is necessary to consider in more depth. How does the problem arise? What aspects of capitalist social organisation really cause the destruction of our environment?

A socialist society that aims to avoid the ecological disasters of Soviet agriculture and industry has to grapple with these questions, the answers to which point inexorably toward fundamental changes to society, well beyond the political level.

Foster sets out to demonstrate that ecological thought is central to Marxism. This he achieves admirably. Having demonstrated this, the question is, what to do next? A history of ideas does not a Marxist ecological movement make. As US socialist Louis Proyect has written on the Marxism List (see ): “Foster is correct to state that the analysis of the ecological crisis must be rooted in Marxist materialism, but — after having stated this — it is still a task that remains unfulfilled.”

Anyone — scientist or activist — who wishes to rise to this (long overdue) challenge could do worse than start with a reading of Foster's book. Just because Marx did not have to deal with radioactive waste or the greenhouse effect doesn't mean his ideas and approach have no relevance to modern environmentalists.

This review was originally printed in Green Left Weekly no. 548,
6 August 2003

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