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Ecology

February 2016 (Volume 67, Number 9)

Notes from the Editors, February 2016

From mainstream news reports, one might easily conclude that the Paris climate agreement, presented to the world on December 12, 2015, was a complete triumph. The Guardian headlined it as “The World’s Greatest Diplomatic Success.” However, by any meaningful criteria, the Paris climate change agreement was fraudulent, based on a fabric of illusion. Moreover, the distorted media coverage of the climate deal, presenting it as a historical agreement virtually without shortcomings, was made possible in large part by the French government’s banning of the mass climate protests, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. With radical protestors silenced and their demands marginalized, the global power elite could make virtually any public claims it wished, without acknowledging any other public voice or alternative view.

Marx’s Ecological Notebooks

This article will be published on February 15th.

Karl Marx has long been criticized for his so-called ecological “Prometheanism”—an extreme commitment to industrialism, irrespective of natural limits. This view, supported even by a number of Marxists, such as Ted Benton and Michael Löwy, has become increasingly hard to accept after a series of careful and stimulating analyses of the ecological dimensions of Marx’s thought, elaborated in Monthly Review and elsewhere. The Prometheanism debate is not a mere philological issue, but a highly practical one, as capitalism faces environmental crises on a global scale, without any concrete solutions. Any such solutions will likely come from the various ecological movements emerging worldwide, some of which explicitly question the capitalist mode of production. Now more than ever, therefore, the rediscovery of a Marxian ecology is of great importance to the development of new forms of left strategy and struggle against global capitalism.… Yet there is hardly unambiguous agreement among leftists about the extent to which Marx’s critique can provide a theoretical basis for these new ecological struggles.… This article… [takes] a different approach… [investigating] Marx’s natural-scientific notebooks, especially those of 1868, which will be published for the first time in volume four, section eighteen of the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe(MEGA).

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Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

Forthcoming in May 2016

Thanks to breakthroughs in production and food science, agribusiness has been able to devise new ways to grow more food and get it more places more quickly. There is no shortage of news items on the hundreds of thousands of hybrid poultry—each animal genetically identical to the next—packed together in megabarns, grown out in a matter of months, then slaughtered, processed, and shipped to the other side of the globe. Less well known are the deadly pathogens mutating in, and emerging out of, these specialized agro-environments. In fact, many of the most dangerous new diseases in humans can be traced back to such food systems, among them Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, and a variety of novel influenza variants.

In Big Farms Make Big Flu, a collection of dispatches by turns harrowing and thought-provoking, Rob Wallace tracks the ways influenza and other pathogens emerge from an agriculture controlled by multinational corporations. With a precise and radical wit, Wallace juxtaposes ghastly phenomena such as attempts at producing featherless chickens with microbial time travel and neoliberal Ebola. Wallace also offers sensible alternatives to lethal agribusiness. Some, such as farming cooperatives, integrated pathogen management, and mixed crop-livestock systems, are already in practice off the agribusiness grid.

While many books cover facets of food or outbreaks, Wallace’s collection is the first to explore infectious disease, agriculture, economics, and the nature of science together. Big Farms Make Big Flu integrates the political economies of disease and science to derive a new understanding of the evolution of infections.

In Big Farms Make Big Flu, Rob Wallace stands boldly on the shoulders of giants in clearly expressing the problems with our agroindustrial system that so many already see but far too few are willing to say. With mordant wit and a keen literary sensibility, Wallace follows the story of this dysfunctional—and dangerous—system wherever it may lead, without regard to petty concerns of discipline or the determined ignorance of the commentariat and mainstream research institutions. Big Farms Make Big Flu shows the power, possibility, and indeed, absolute necessity of political ecology, lest we not only fail to properly understand the world, but fail to change it.”

—M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D., Senior Staff Scientist, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

These essays put you in the company of a delightful mind. Wallace is filled with curiosity, deep learning, and robust skepticism. In his company, you’ll learn about phylogeography, clades and imperial epizoology. He can also weave a mean story, with the kinds of big picture analysis that puts him alongside minds like Mike Davis’s. Who else can link the end of British colonial rule in China or the devaluation of the Thai Baht to the spread of bird flu? This collection is a bracing innoculant against the misinformation that will be spewed in the next epidemic by the private sector, government agencies and philanthropists. My copy is highlighted on almost every page. Yours will be too.

—Raj Patel, Research Professor, University of Texas at Austin, author, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

Rob Wallace received a Ph.D. in biology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and did post-doctorate work at the University of California, Irvine, with Walter Fitch, a founder of molecular phylogeny. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is both a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Global Studies, University of Minnesota, and a deli clerk at a local sandwich shop.

Marxism and Ecology

Common Fonts of a Great Transition

To link Marxism and ecological transition may seem at first like trying to bridge two entirely different movements and discourses, each with its own history and logic: one having mainly to do with class relations, the other with the relation between humans and the environment. However, historically socialism has influenced the development of ecological thought and practice, while ecology has informed socialist thought and practice. Since the nineteenth century, the relationship between the two has been complex, interdependent, and dialectical.… This essay unearths the deep ecological roots of Marx’s thought, showing how he brought an environmental perspective to bear on the overarching question of social transformation. From there it traces the evolution of Marxian ecology, illuminating its profound, formative link to modern ecological economics and systems ecology. It concludes with the wider project of building the broad and deep social movement required to halt and reverse ecological and social destruction.

Laudato Si—The Pope’s Anti-Systemic Encyclical

Pope Francis’s “ecological encyclical” is an event which—whether taken from a religious, ethical, social, or political point of view—is of planetary importance. Considering the enormous influence of the Catholic Church worldwide, it is a crucial contribution towards the development of a critical ecological consciousness. It was received with enthusiasm by the true defenders of the environment; however it aroused uneasiness and rejection among religious conservatives, representatives of capital, and ideologues of “market ecology.” It is a document with a great richness and complexity, one that proposes a new interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a rupture with the “promethean dream of dominion over the world,” and a profoundly radical reflection on the causes of the ecological crisis. Many aspects of liberation theology…can be seen as a source of inspiration here, particularly the inseparable.… In the following brief notes, I am interested in emphasizing the aspect of the encyclical that explains the resistance it has found in the economic and media establishment: its anti-systemic character.

Reconstructing Marx’s Critique of Political Economy from His London Notebooks

Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (London: Routledge, 2015), 218 pages, $160, hardback.

In 2012, the second section of the new historical-critical edition of Marx and Engels’s complete writings, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), was finally completed, and all the editions and manuscripts of Capital became available in order to trace Marx’s own theoretical development and Engels’s editorial works. The remaining three sections are, however, only halfway completed, and it will likely take at least another twenty years before all the work is finished.… What is more, a great number of them are Marx’s journal fragments and excerpts, which have not yet been published in any language. In this sense, the distinct importance of continuing the MEGA project is the further publication of these unknown notebooks, which promise to reveal Marx’s unfinished undertaking, the critique of political economy.… It is therefore no coincidence that a new trend has emerged in the last few years of scholars studying Marx’s notebooks. Works like Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender, and my own article on Liebig in Monthly Review have shown the underestimated theoretical dimensions of anti-colonialism, gender, and ecology in Marx’s thought.

The Great Capitalist Climacteric

Marxism and "System Change Not Climate Change"

Humanity today is confronted with what might be called the Great Capitalist Climacteric. In the standard definition, a climacteric (from the Greek klimaktēr or rung on the ladder) is a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of an individual or a whole society. From a social standpoint, it raises issues of historical transformation in the face of changing conditions. In the 1980s environmental geographers Ian Burton and Robert Kates referred to “the Great Climacteric” to address what they saw as the developing global ecological problem of the limits to growth…. I will use the term the Great Capitalist Climacteric here to refer to the necessary epochal social transition associated with the current planetary emergency. It refers both to the objective necessity of a shift to a sustainable society and to the threat to the existence of Homo sapiens (as well as numerous other species) if the logic of capital accumulation is allowed to continue dictating to society as a whole. The current world of business as usual is marked by rapid climate change, but also by the crossing or impending crossing of numerous other planetary boundaries that define “a safe operating space for humanity.”

Cotton: The Fabric of Death

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014), 640 pages, $35, hardback.

For four years following the 2008 mortgage crisis, I worked as a cotton merchant for one of the “big four” trading firms—ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. These shadowy giants, two of them privately held, maintain oligopoly control of agricultural commodity markets. From desks in Memphis, my colleagues and I purchased mountains of cotton in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, warehoused it, speculated on it, and sold it back to mills on those same continents.… We sat at the pinnacle of a web of political and economic forces that funneled cotton into facilities we owned and cash into our accounts, but nowhere in the office was there a visible sign of the violence that made it all possible.… Too often liberal histories focus on a single period, territory, or class perspective, and end up obscuring the truth, severing the threads that tie a moment to its historical roots. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is different. Although a liberal historian, Beckert refuses to limit his scope in the traditional way. Instead, he follows the movement of cotton across time, space, and class, bringing forward the threads that bind the objects of an otherwise distorted past.

Method in Ecological Marxism

Science and the Struggle for Change

In the short time available to me in this talk it is impossible to go too far with a discussion of the state of ecological Marxism as I understand it. However, I plan to discuss briefly a significant feature of the program of ecological Marxist analysis and practice of which I consider myself a part. Specifically, I will discuss the methodological commitments responsible for much of the strength and insight of the ecological Marxism associated with what John Bellamy Foster has called the “third stage of ecosocialism research…in which the goal is to employ the ecological foundations of classical Marxian thought to confront present-day capitalism and the planetary ecological crisis that it has engendered—together with the ruling forms of ideology that block the development of a genuine alternative.” This, I believe, will interest scholars and activists working toward a deeper understanding of the world with the ultimate goal of changing it, and should interest those involved in debates regarding Marxian theory and praxis.

Interview with Bill Gallegos

As we veteran activists of the 1960s and early ’70s enter our años del retiro, it is time for reflection, summation, and most importantly sharing what we have learned with those reaching to grab the baton. Many of us, now grandparents, are getting questions from our grandkids and kids about our lives in the “golden age” of U.S. social movements. … Bill Gallegos has been an activist since the 1960s, when he became involved in Crusade for Justice, a revolutionary Chicano nationalist organization. He has since emerged as a leading socialist environmental justice activist, and is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.

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Remarks on Capitalism and the Environment It Produces

“Remarks on Capitalism and the Environment It Produces” is a recently discovered draft paper of Harry Magdoff’s. The exact date and location of its presentation is unknown; however the occasion was quite clearly a panel on economist Michael Tanzer’s The Sick Society (1971). We can therefore assume that it was written in 1971 or 1972. It is provided here in its original form with only minor copyediting. The title has been added. In our view, the chief importance of the paper is Magdoff’s early development of ecological ideas, ideas that are now much more common on the left.

—The Editors, Monthly Review

When Did the Anthropocene Begin…and Why Does It Matter?

The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene. There is even a heavy metal album called The Anthropocene Extinction. Rarely has a scientific term moved so quickly into wide acceptance and general use.… Behind what might appear to be just a trendy buzzword are important scientific discussions that have radical implications for the future of life on Earth.

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