In a recent essay, “Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution,” in one of the leading scientific journals, Nature, physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, a researcher for an investment management company, asked rhetorically, “What is the flagship achievement of economics?” Bouchaud’s answer: “Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises.” Although his discussion is focused on the current worldwide financial crisis, his comment applies equally well to mainstream economic approaches to the environment—where, for example, ancient forests are seen as non-performing assets to be liquidated, and clean air and water are luxury goods for the affluent to purchase at their discretion. The field of economics in the United States has long been dominated by thinkers who unquestioningly accept the capitalist status quo and, accordingly, value the natural world only in terms of how much short-term profit can be generated by its exploitation. As a result, the inability of received economics to cope with or even perceive the global ecological crisis is alarming in its scope and implications.
The transition from capitalism to socialism is the most difficult problem of socialist theory and practice. To add to this the question of ecology might therefore be seen as unnecessarily complicating an already intractable issue. I shall argue here, however, that the human relation to nature lies at the heart of the transition to socialism. An ecological perspective is pivotal to our understanding of capitalism’s limits, the failures of the early socialist experiments, and the overall struggle for egalitarian and sustainable human development
Humans depend on functioning ecosystems to sustain themselves, and their actions affect those same ecosystems. As a result, there is a necessary “metabolic interaction” between humans and the earth, which influences both natural and social history. Increasingly, the state of nature is being defined by the operations of the capitalist system, as anthropogenic forces are altering the global environment on a scale that is unprecedented. The global climate is rapidly changing due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. No area of the world’s ocean is unaffected by human influence, as the accumulation of carbon, fertilizer runoff, and overfishing undermine biodiversity and the natural services that it provides. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment documents how over two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are overexploited and polluted. Environmental problems are increasingly interrelated. James Hansen, the leading climatologist in the United States, warns that we are dangerously close to pushing the planet past its tipping point, setting off cascading environmental problems that will radically alter the conditions of nature
The global ecological crisis sprang forth full-blown at roughly the same historical moment that global capital—welcoming the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the decay of the revolutionary process in China—was claiming a definitive victory over socialism. The irony of this historic convergence lies in the fact that there could be no more decisive a refutation of capitalist precepts than their long-term incompatibility with species-survival
We are here to talk about the Agrarian Question, or rather, Agrarian Questions. The plural is important. We live in a modern world-system of unprecedented unevenness and complexity. This much, we all know. At the same time, it is no less important, I should add, to see this diversity from what Lukács once called the “point of view of totality.”1 The Agrarian Questions are not exclusive but rather mutually constitutive. However, they are not constitutive of each other in the fashion that has gained such widespread circulation these days within critical social science—that the local shapes the global no less than the other way around. Yes, local-regional transformations have always generated powerful contradictions that shaped in decisive ways the geography and timing of world accumulation and world power. The parts shape the whole. The whole shapes the parts. But never equally so
This number of Monthly Review is a special issue on “Ecology: The Moment of Truth,” edited by Brett Clark, John Bellamy Foster, and Richard York. In the present issue we concentrate on the planetary environmental emergency. In a later special issue, to appear this fall, the magazine will address the social and economic regime change that is necessary to save the earth as we know it
It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Nearly fifteen years ago one of us observed: “We have only four decades left in which to gain control over our major environmental problems if we are to avoid irreversible ecological decline.” Today, with a quarter-century still remaining in this projected time line, it appears to have been too optimistic. Available evidence now strongly suggests that under a regime of business as usual we could be facing an irrevocable “tipping point” with respect to climate change within a mere decade. Other crises such as species extinction (percentages of bird, mammal, and fish species “vulnerable or in immediate danger of extinction” are “now measured in double digits”);3 the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty; desertification; deforestation; air pollution; water shortages/pollution; soil degradation; the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions); and a chronic world food crisis—all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived
The huge increase in oil and other fuel prices over the last few years and a concern that we have reached (or will soon reach) peak oil—after which oil extraction begins to decrease—have created renewed interest in alternative sources of energy. These include solar, wind, ocean wave and tidal flow, geothermal, and biofuels. Sometimes lip service is given to the need for greater energy efficiency, changes in lifestyles (including the ecologically irrational over-reliance on automobiles and living far from one’s job), the need to redesign economic activity from the factory floor to office buildings and homes, and the need for affluent societies to move away from ever higher levels of consumption. However, a radical analysis of actually putting these into effect would lead to questioning the very basics of how capitalism works
The 2007 assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that it is virtually certain that human activities (mainly through the use of fossil fuels and land development) have been responsible for the global warming that has taken place since the industrial revolution. Under current economic and social trends, the world is on a path to unprecedented ecological catastrophes. 1 As the IPCC report was being released, new evidence emerged suggesting that climate change is taking place at a much faster pace and the potential consequences are likely to be far more dreadful than is suggested by the IPCC report
The three water crises—dwindling freshwater supplies, inequitable access to water, and the corporate control of water—pose the greatest threat of our time to the planet and to our survival. Together with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, the water crises impose some life-or-death decisions on us all. Unless we collectively change our behavior, we are heading toward a world of deepening conflict and potential wars over the dwindling supplies of freshwater— between nations, between rich and poor, between the public and the private interest, between rural and urban populations, and between the competing needs of the natural world and industrialized humans
The introduction to this book, the last part to be completed, was sent to the printer in New York City only days before the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and was first published in October 2001 in Monthly Review. Since then the world has witnessed a continuing war by the United States for control of the oil-rich Middle East and an acceleration of the global ecological crisis—symbolized above all by global warming. The opening years of the twenty-first century can therefore be viewed as marking a new stage in the war of capitalism on the planet.
Humanity in the twenty-first century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the earth are headed for a fateful collision—if we don't alter course.