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Marxist Ecology

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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.


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.

Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis

Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and ’40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of “ecocide,” symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution. On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world’s most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests.

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.

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.

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.

Winstanley’s Ecology

The English Diggers Today

Beginning in 2011 a festival in honor of the seventeenth-century radical Gerrard Winstanley has been held annually…commemorate[ing] the life and ideas of…Winstanley, leader of the Digger, or True Leveller, movement of the English Revolution (1640–1660). Largely forgotten for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the communist thought of Winstanley was rediscovered by German and Russian Marxists in the late nineteenth century… From the socialists of the late nineteenth century to participants in the Wigan Festival in the early 2000s, Winstanley and the Diggers have provided inspiration for radical leftists for more than a hundred years.… What accounts for the lasting popularity of a relatively marginal social movement and its main theorist in the middle of seventeenth-century England? More importantly for present purposes, why have Winstanley and the Diggers held a prominent place for modern activists concerned with environmental issues and consumerism?