Recently, we were talking about the environment to a well-known sociologist and got into a fairly heated debate about the ecological effects of capitalism. He insisted that capitalism has nothing to do with it. All human practices, he said, inevitably affect the natural environment and have done so since the dawn of history. This seemed to us a pretty simplistic and ahistorical argument.
No one can deny that in their interactions with nature, in the process of securing the conditions of their own survival and reproduction, human beings never leave the environment untouched and unchanged, and no doubt many human practices throughout history have been ecologically destructive. But it seems self-evident that a system driven by market imperatives and the commodification of all social life will have a historically unique and systematic tendency to wasteful production and ecological degradation.
It’s not just that capitalism is uniquely capable of damaging the environment because of its revolutionary development of productive forces. The main point is that capitalism is driven to use those productive forces in wasteful and destructive ways, because it’s a necessary condition of capitalist survival that every human value be subordinated to the requirements of profit-maximization, capital accumulation, and “growth” defined as the self-expansion of capital.
There is also an obvious contradiction between the short-term perspective of capital in its ceaseless quest for profit and the longer, wider view required to protect the environment. Even industries that have to look ahead must, sooner rather than later, satisfy the demands of investors, bond-holders, and banks. Only a society organized on very different principles and answering to different needs—a socialist society truly controlled by and for the people—could confront the long-term issues of sustainable production, the rational organization of space, transportation, and so on.
It has always been a mystery to us why this seemingly obvious point about capitalism and its historically unprecedented threat to ecological balance isn’t self-evident to everyone. It’s especially mysterious when people on the left—like many progressive environmentalists—don’t see the connections between capitalism and environmental crisis. Maybe part of the answer is that people have had reason to associate not just capitalism but socialism with environmental destruction.
We all know, for instance, that the Communist regimes weren’t noted for their ecological health. We could simply say that in these cases environmental destruction was just a sign of failure, that it wasn’t caused by socialism itself but, on the contrary, by a deficit of socialist values and practices. The environmental concerns of many revolutionary leaders in the early days were soon overtaken by the principles of what amounted to a war economy, and the needs of the population were subordinated to the interests of privileged strata promoting their own vested interests. In capitalism, by contrast, ecological damage is less an index of failure than a mark of success, not a departure from capitalist principles but, on the contrary, their inevitable by-product, a response to the imperatives of capital accumulation.
But the association of socialism with ecological degradation has gained credence from the ideas of some Marxists, which seem to suggest that the object of socialism is just to improve on capitalist development and “progress,” promoting a form of development still driven by the imperatives of accumulation. These ideas have been vulnerable to charges of “productivism” and “Prometheanism.” They have given people little basis for distinguishing between socialism and capitalism as generators of unsustainable growth and ecological disaster.
That interpretation of Marxism doesn’t, of course, represent our own understanding of Marxist theory or socialist practice, but we do acknowledge the prevalence of such views and the need to counter them. More importantly, we certainly acknowledge the pressing need to make it clear that socialism is, at its very core, a commitment to a sustainable relationship between humanity and the natural environment. There’s nothing more important that a socialist intellectual can do in advancing the socialist project than to explain how socialism is directly antithetical to the logic of capitalism, to its imperatives of profit and accumulation, and therefore to the human, material, and ecological degradation that goes with the capitalist organization of life.
MR readers certainly know that no one has done more to accomplish this vital task than John Bellamy Foster in his groundbreaking work on Marxist ecology, especially in the pages of this magazine and in his books published by Monthly Review Press—for instance, his book, The Vulnerable Planet, which has recently appeared in its second edition, and the volume he co-edited, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (an enlarged and revised version of MR‘s Summer 1998 issue), which has just been published by MRP. So we’re especially pleased to announce MRP’s publication this month of his new book, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature.
John challenges conventional interpretations of Marx on ecological questions, both by analyzing his well-known works and by looking at his more neglected writings on capitalist agriculture and soil ecology. But the book isn’t just a major scholarly study of Marx’s writings. It explores the relations between Marx’s materialist philosophy and his views on nature, finding there the basis of a theoretical framework for a vital and creative sociology of the environment. John builds on that foundation to present his own original approach to the current environmental crisis and, in place of what he calls the spiritualism of the modern Green movement, lays a theoretical foundation for more lasting and sustainable solutions. A very important achievement.
Some time ago, we mentioned in these Notes that we would occasionally run more extended debates, on topics of major importance. We emphasized that we have no intention of abandoning MR‘s long-standing commitment to clarity and brevity (one guiding principle has been that our articles are generally short enough to read in one sitting) but suggested that from time to time we might stretch our space limits a bit in order to advance an important debate. We asked readers for their views on this suggestion, and those of you who wrote to us at the time responded favorably. So, while we still want this to be the exception rather than the rule, we hope readers will find something useful and interesting in the occasional exception.
In the June issue, John Foster and David McNally launched such a debate with their assessments of Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence, an analysis of the long economic downturn which has been the subject of much discussion in socialist journals in various parts of the world as well as on the internet. In this issue, we continue that debate with Brenner’s extended reply to both his critics. John Foster intends to reply in a forthcoming issue.
We are sorry to report the death in September of two members of the expanded Monthly Review family. Renato Constantino was a leading critical journalist and essayist who was widely considered the Philippines’ most important historian and intellectual. He combined his talents of journalist and academic to educate and participate in the struggle for full independence of his country from the heavy hand of the United States, and for social changes to benefit the poor and oppressed. We are proud to have been the U.S. publishers of his original and stimulating book, A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War.
Joyce Sparer Adler was a founding member of the faculty of the University of Guyana, which was established when Cheddi Jagan was Prime Minister. She wrote extensively on Guyanese literature and Melville. Her book, War in Melville’s Imagination, provided a novel interpretation of Melville as a rebel and social critic.
Best wishes to Jakob Moneta, who celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday on November 11, and in whose honor a conference was held on Thanksgiving weekend. Moneta was a major figure in the West German trade union movement, and editor of the metalworkers’ newspaper and journal in the 1960s. In 1990, he entered the PDF and was expelled from the SDP.
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