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Capitalism and the Commodification of Salmon

From Wild Fish to a Genetically Modified Species

On February 25, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the public comment period for the environmental assessment of the AquAdvantage Salmon. Their review of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.” Numerous fishermen, consumer safety advocates, public health officials, ecologists, and risk assessment experts submitted comments that directly challenged this finding. Despite the opposition, it is very likely that the FDA’s approval of this genetically engineered salmon and precedent-setting regulatory process is imminent.… The aquaculture industry and corporate investors are championing this recent development in food biotechnology. They propose that this “invention” will yield ecological benefits, such as preserving wild salmon, while enhancing efficiency.… Unfortunately, the discussion of fisheries and oceans is constrained by ideological justifications that prevent a comprehensive assessment.… [The alternative approach presented here focuses on] how the logic of capital has shaped production and commodification processes. It also highlights how the most recent case of biotechnology in relation to salmon serves the needs of capital by increasing control of biological and ecological systems in order to better conform to economic dictates. The genetic modification of salmon is part of a biological speedup, whereby natural processes are transformed to achieve faster rates of return in the food marketplace.

Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature Fifteen Years After

Every book more than a few years old needs to be seen within the historical context in which it was written—works of social science most of all. Re-reading Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature today, nearly a decade and a half after its first publication, reminds me of how different in some respects the historical context was then, at the end of the twentieth century, from what we face today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.… A decade and a half ago the contribution of Marx and Marxism to the understanding of ecology was seen in almost entirely negative terms, even by many self-styled ecosocialists. Today Marx’s understanding of the ecological problem is being studied in universities worldwide and is inspiring ecological actions around the globe.… These changes are of course connected. As the environmental problems engendered by capitalist society have worsened, the necessary movements of ecological defense have radicalized and spread across the face of the planet.

Notes from the Editors, November 2014

November 2014 (Volume 66, Number 6)

Notes from the Editors

On September 20, 2014, while corporate and government officials arrived in New York City for the UN Climate Summit, organizers and activists from around the world participated in a peoples’ summit called the NYC Climate Convergence (organized by the Global Climate Convergence and System Change Not Climate Change). The NYC Climate Convergence featured as the lead keynote speaker Naomi Klein, who presented the analysis of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Her concluding chapter, significantly, is entitled “Leap Years: Just Enough Time for the Impossible.” Monthly Review readers will be interested that Klein observes in her book: “Karl Marx… recognized capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with the ‘natural laws of life itself’”. Later she refers to “global capitalism’s voracious metabolism”.

The Ecological Civilization Debate in China

The Role of Ecological Marxism and Constructive Postmodernism—Beyond the Predicament of Legislation

China is facing many serious environmental issues, including pollution in the air, groundwater, and soil. These problems have increased since China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy—and in spite of the Chinese government’s 2007 proposal to build an “ecological civilization,” and writing “ecological civilization” into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constitution in 2012. Take air pollution as an example; not long ago, cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai witnessed record-breaking smog. Concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) reached more than forty times recommended safety levels. In China, up to half a million die each year because of air pollution, according to Chen Zhu, the former health minister of China.… What caused these serious environmental problems? A prevailing explanation is that China “lacks the rule of law”—especially environmental law.… Besides the legal issue, there are three factors responsible for China’s severe ecological crisis: (1) seriously underestimating the power of interest groups and the harmful consequence of capital; (2) the worship of growth or development; (3) an anthropocentric worldview.

The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture

Ecological Insights from His Excerpt Notebooks

While he was preparing for his critique of political economy, Marx produced an enormous quantity of excerpt notebooks. Sometimes accompanied by his own comments, they largely consist of direct quotes from various books, journals, and newspaper articles that attracted his attention. Although they were neglected among Marxist scholars for quite a long time without publication in any languages, these notebooks, in addition to the manuscripts and letters, constitute an invaluable original source for understanding Marx’s thinking process.… Marx’s notebooks record his ceaseless efforts to grasp the totality of capitalism, and, since Capital remains unfinished, they provide useful hints for speculating how Marx would have completed his project of critique of political economy.… As an attempt to comprehend the development of Marx’s theory through his notebooks, this paper analyzes his excerpts from books by two agricultural chemists, Justus von Liebig and James F.W. Johnston, in order to reveal a significant modification in regard to Marx’s attitude towards modern agricultural practice, which led his to study the natural sciences even more intensively in his late years.

An Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy

Two weeks ago I returned from my fiftieth class reunion at Oberlin College in Ohio. The brief discussions I had there with environmental faculty and students left me feeling a bit dazed. So many good and intelligent people, so concerned, and doing what they think and hope will help heal the environment—this college has one of the best environmental education programs in the country. However, I was left disappointed and profoundly discouraged by the lack of discussion—or even interest in having a real continuing discussion and debate—regarding the root causes of our environmental disasters. Not just climate change, but also pollution of the air, water, soil, and living organisms, the loss of biodiversity both aboveground and in the soil, the extinction of species, and the overuse and misuse of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.

China’s Grain Production

A Decade of Consecutive Growth or Stagnation?

China’s official statistics showed that the country’s grain production declined from 512 to 431 million tons between 1998 and 2003. However, according to the Chinese government, since 2004 it has achieved “ten years of consecutive growth” in grain production. According to the official statistics, China’s grain production reached 602 million tons in 2013, nearly 40 percent above the 2003 level.… While the official statistics claim grain production has grown rapidly, China’s surging imports of cereals and soybean suggest that its grain production has struggled to catch up with demand.… This article argues that China’s actual grain production levels may be substantially lower than the officially reported levels; in fact, grain production has stagnated since the late 1990s.

Australian Coal: Should It Be Left in the Ground?

Many Australians view themselves as living in a “lucky country” because it has an abundance of mineral resources. James Goodman and David Worth, however, maintain that the mining boom has been a “curse” in disguise. It has sharpened socioeconomic and community divisions, contributed to political conflict, and resulted in “ecological mal-development” with serious environmental consequences. This applies to coal in that it not only contributes to air and water pollution, but is also a major source of carbon dioxide emissions and thus a major contributor to climate change.

Plastic Plague

Charles Moore with Cassandra Phillips, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 358 pages, $16, paperback.

Four decades ago, when most greens were blaming pollution on population growth and personal consumption, socialist-environmentalist Barry Commoner showed that neither could account for the radical increase in pollutants since the end of the Second World War. In The Closing Circle, he argued that “the chief reason for the environmental crisis…is the sweeping transformation of productive technology since World War II.” In particular, he pointed to dramatic increases in the production and use of materials not found in nature, such as synthetics that do not degrade and therefore become permanent blights on the earth.… Bottles and bags—together with blister packs, polystyrene tubs, foam peanuts, bubble wrap, styrofoam trays, candy wrappers, and a multitude of other forms of packaging—now account for a third of the plastic produced each year worldwide. It is a bizarre and extremely irrational process: producing products that are designed to be thrown away but are made from materials that never die. The second of Barry Commoner’s famous Four Laws of Ecology is: everything must go somewhere.… In his remarkable book Plastic Ocean, Charles Moore (with Cassandra Phillips) reports on the part of the “unstoppable avalanche of nonessentials” that ends up in the oceans, where it chokes and poisons fish, mammals, and birds, and endangers human life.

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 9 (February 2014)

February 2014 (Volume 65, Number 9)

» Notes from the Editors

A comparison of the present state of the natural sciences with that of the social (or human) sciences cannot but give rise to a disquieting sense of the relative poverty of the latter. Although natural scientists are raising the alarm with regard to the planetary environmental emergency and are demanding social solutions, social scientists have largely failed to take up the challenge. To be sure, there has been a vast upsurge in recent years of social-scientific discussions of climate change. But most of this work has remained confined within the narrow boundaries of mainstream social science, relying on such amorphous, dehistoricized concepts as human behavior, organizations, institutions, government, economic growth, industrialization, modernization, the market, energy efficiency, public opinion, and the like—variables that can be treated in purely technical, “non-normative” terms, divorced from historical context, social relations, and social agency.… Conspicuously missing from conventional social science is any serious consideration of the actual social system in which we live and which clearly constitutes the root of the problem: namely, capitalism. Also excluded are such fundamental issues as accumulation, class (including its gendered and racialized forms), the state, the cultural apparatus, imperialism, monopolistic corporations, economic stagnation, financialization, Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift—and indeed all the other major historical realities of our time.

Three Cheers (Almost) for Gus Speth

Gus Speth, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 272 pages, $18, paperback.

The phrase “you’ve come a long way, Gus” kept bouncing around in my head as I read Gus Speth’s surprising new book America the Possible (Manifesto for a New Economy). The man whom Time called the “ultimate insider” tells how he was arrested in front of the White House in August 2012 and spent a couple days in the District of Columbia jail for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.… There is little that is completely new in America the Possible for long-term Monthly Review readers, but Speth’s breathtaking admission of the futility of expecting change from working inside the establishment is totally believable. Who, after all, could be better qualified to say “Been there, done that?” What is the most useful in Speth’s book is the detailed catalogue of specific proposals which, if implemented, would revolutionize (not Speth’s word) U.S. society from top to bottom.

Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature

The rediscovery over the last decade and a half of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift has come to be seen by many on the left as offering a powerful critique of the relation between nature and contemporary capitalist society. The result has been the development of a more unified ecological world view transcending the divisions between natural and social science, and allowing us to perceive the concrete ways in which the contradictions of capital accumulation are generating ecological crises and catastrophes.… Yet, this recovery of Marx’s ecological argument has given rise to further questions and criticisms.