Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York
Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010. 544pp., $17.95 pb
Reviewed by Matthijs Krul
Matthijs Krul is studying for an MSc in Economic History at the London School of Economics (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the last few decades, there has been a renewed interest in exploring issues of ecology and sustainability from a Marxist perspective. Partially inspired by the ecological movement more widely, partially by the revival of Marxist economic theory since the 1980s, the topic of ‘Marx and ecology’ has been given wide attention in a range of publications in recent years. All three of the authors of the present book have earned their stripes in this field of research, and in particular John Bellamy Foster has been influential in putting ecological questions on the agenda of socialist politics, a tradition that had hitherto often been hostile to the claims of (middle class) ‘green’ campaigners. That capitalism is incompatible with the demands of our ecosystem and the existence of a self-sustaining environment free from exploitation is now taken for granted by socialists of whatever kind in most of the world, even in China; and yet this is a thought that had largely lain dormant since the period of the Second International. Its revival in recent years is in many ways for a significant part due to the above authors, and this book can be seen as the culmination of their efforts in the theoretical development of the implications of Marxism for understanding what Marx called the ‘metabolism’ between mankind and nature (45, 46). The ‘metabolic rift’ that capitalism has opened is, according to the authors, due to the incompatibility of the drive for perpetual growth and accumulation with the requirements of the environment as the basis for life (85).
This disruption or rift in the metabolism between humans and the earth, the ‘regulative law of social production’ (124), expresses itself in three ways in the current-day catastrophic environmental feedback loop: first, the decline in the natural fertility of the soil, which has to be compensated for by transferring nutrients over long distances to new locations; second, the increase in the intensity of the exploitation of nature, extending and expanding the ‘ecological rift’ qualitatively and quantitatively; and third, the transformation of the earth in the capitalist production process into harmful waste and pollution (125). In the course of the book, the authors examine each of these in their historical development as well as in the findings of climatologists and other natural scientists regarding the current-day situation, underlining the scope and threat of the looming ecological disaster. This includes not only discussions of such politically familiar subjects as climate change and the carbon cycle, but also for example the impact of computer technology and electronic storage on the consumption of paper. The authors use not only Marx’s understanding of the nature and expansion of capital to underline their argument, but also explore how the ecological degradations caused by capitalism despite its renowned ‘efficiency’ can be seen as a specific application of the famous Jevons Paradox – a study by the famous nineteenth century economist Jevons of changes in the consumption of coal with the introduction of more energy-efficient technologies, which contrary to all expectation led to an increase, rather than decrease, in the consumption and extraction of this nonrenewable good. As the authors are well aware, many of the liberal punditry and the political class today who are aware of the real dimensions of this ecological rift put their faith in capitalism’s ability to achieve greater efficiencies by the introduction of new technology, and hope to avoid the impact of the ecological crisis in this way. But the Jevons Paradox and what the authors call the ‘Paperless Office Paradox’ (191) demonstrate why this cannot happen. Indeed, since the 1970s the energy consumption per unit of GDP of the United States has more than halved, but this has not in the least diminished the American over-consumption of energy resources relative to the rest of the world and the planet’s carrying capacity. In a system based on limitless accumulation for its own sake, any savings in energy efficiency will only allow an expansion in economic activity based on the energy source, negating the environmental benefit from the new technology. This is the Jevons Paradox in action, and as the authors emphasize, capitalism shows this pattern time and again….
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