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The Ecology of Destruction

This article is based on talks delivered in the state of Santa Catarina in Brazil on November 21–23, 2006, at the Regional University of Blumenau and the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Florianópolis. These presentations were part of the third annual Bolivarian Days Conference organized by the Institute of Latin American Studies in Brazil.

I would like to begin my analysis of what I am calling here “the ecology of destruction” by referring to Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 film Burn!.1 Pontecorvo’s epic film can be seen as a political and ecological allegory intended for our time. It is set in the early nineteenth century on an imaginary Caribbean island called “Burn.” Burn is a Portuguese slave colony with a sugar production monoculture dependent on the export of sugar as a cash crop to the world economy. In the opening scene we are informed that the island got its name from the fact that the only way that the original Portuguese colonizers were able to vanquish the indigenous population was by setting fire to the entire island and killing everyone on it, after which slaves were imported from Africa to cut the newly planted sugar cane.

Sir William Walker (played by Marlon Brando) is a nineteenth-century British agent sent to overthrow the Portuguese rulers of the island. He instigates a revolt amongst the numerous black slaves, and at the same time arranges an uprising by the small white colonial planter class seeking independence from the Portuguese crown. The goal is to use the slave revolt to defeat Portugal, but to turn actual rule of the island over to the white planter class, which will then serve as a comprador class subservient to British imperialists.

Walker succeeds brilliantly at his task, convincing the victorious army of former slaves and their leader José Dolores to lay down their arms after the Portuguese have been defeated. The result is a neocolony dominated by the white planters—but one in which the de facto rulers, in accordance with the laws of international free trade, are the British sugar companies. Walker then departs to carry out other intelligence tasks for the British admiralty—this time in a place called Indochina.

When the film resumes in 1848 ten years have passed. A revolution has again broken out on Burn led by José Dolores. Sir William Walker is brought back from England as a military advisor, but this time as an employee of the Antilles Royal Sugar Company, authorized by Her Majesty’s government. His task is to defeat this new rebellion of the former slaves. He is told by the oligarchy ruling the island that this should not be difficult since only ten years have passed and the situation is the same. He replies that the situation may be the same but the problem is different. In words that seem to echo Karl Marx he declares: “Very often between one historical period and another, ten years suddenly might be enough to reveal the contradictions of a whole century.”

British troops are brought in to fight the insurgents, who are waging a relentless guerrilla war. To defeat them Walker orders the burning down of all the plantations on the island. When the local representative of the British sugar interests objects, Walker explains: “That is the logic of profit….One builds to make money and to go on making it or to make more sometimes it is necessary to destroy.” This, he reminds his interlocutor, is how the island Burn got its name. Nature on the island has to be destroyed so that labor can be exploited on it for hundreds of additional years.

My intention here is not of course to recount Pontecorvo’s entire extraordinary film, but to draw out some important principles from this allegory that will help us to understand capitalism’s relation to nature. Joseph Schumpeter once famously praised capitalism for its “creative destruction.”2 But this might be better seen as the system’s destructive creativity. Capital’s endless pursuit of new outlets for class-based accumulation requires for its continuation the destruction of both pre-existing natural conditions and previous social relations. Class exploitation, imperialism, war, and ecological devastation are not mere unrelated accidents of history but interrelated, intrinsic features of capitalist development. There has always been the danger, moreover, that this destructive creativity would turn into what István Mészáros has called the “destructive uncontrollability” that is capital’s ultimate destiny. The destruction built into the logic of profit would then take over and predominate, undermining not only the conditions of production but also those of life itself. Today it is clear that such destructive uncontrollability has come to characterize the entire capitalist world economy, encompassing the planet as a whole.3

The Earth Summits: 1992 and 2002

It is a characteristic of our age that global ecological devastation seems to overwhelm all other problems, threatening the survivability of life on earth as we know it. How this is related to social causes and what social solutions might be offered in response have thus become the most pressing questions facing humanity. The world has so far convened two major earth summits: in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 and Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. These summits took place a mere ten years apart. Yet, they can be seen as lying in the dividing line separating one historical period from another, revealing the contradictions of an entire century—the twenty-first.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, organized by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, represented the boundless hope that humanity could come together to solve its mounting global ecological problems. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a period in which the global ecological crisis penetrated the public consciousness. Suddenly there were grave concerns about the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, and the rising rate of species extinctions resulting from planetary destruction of ecosystems. In June 1988 James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, presenting evidence of global warming due to the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That same year the United Nations set up a new international organization, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to address global warming.

A new ideology of world unity pervaded the Rio summit. The Gulf War of 1991 and the demise of the Soviet Union later in the same year had given rise to the then dominant rhetoric of a “new world order” and of “the end of history.” The world, it was said, was now one. The recent passage of the Montreal Protocol, placing restrictions on the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, seemed to confirm that the world’s economically dominant countries could act in unison in response to global environmental threats. The site chosen for the Earth Summit, Brazil, home to the Amazon, was meant to symbolize the planetary goal of saving the world’s biodiversity. The summit’s principal document, known as Agenda 21, was intended to launch a new age of sustainable development for the twenty-first century.

The mood of the second earth summit, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, could not have been more different than the first. Rio’s hope had given way to Johannesburg’s dismay. Rather than improving over the decade that had elapsed, the world environment had experienced accelerated decline. The planet was approaching catastrophic conditions, not just with respect to global warming, but in a host of other areas. Sustainable development had turned out to be about sustaining capital accumulation at virtually any ecological cost. All the rhetoric ten years earlier of a “new world order” and the “end of history”—it was now clear to many of the environmentalists attending the Johannesburg summit—had simply disguised the fact that the real nemesis of the global environment was the capitalist world economy.

The site of the Johannesburg summit had been chosen partly to symbolize the end of apartheid, and hence the advent of significant world social progress. Yet, critics at the second earth summit raised the issue of global ecological apartheid, emphasizing the destruction wrought on the environment by the rich nations of the North in ways that disproportionately affected the global South. The ecological imperialism of the center of the capitalist world economy was symbolized by Washington’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gas emissions generating global warming. Significantly, U.S. President George W. Bush declined to attend the earth summit. Instead, at the very moment that debates were taking place in Johannesburg on the future of the world ecology, the Bush administration seized the world’s stage by threatening a war on Iraq, ostensibly over weapons of mass destruction—though to the world’s environmentalists assembled in Johannesburg it was clear even then that the real issue was oil.4

In fact, a new historical period had emerged in the ten years since the Rio summit. Economically, the world had witnessed what Paul Sweezy in 1994 called “the triumph of financial capitalism” with the transformation of monopoly capital into what might be called global monopoly-finance capital.5 By the end of the twentieth century capitalism had evolved into a system that was if anything more geared to rapacious accumulation than ever before, relatively independent from its local and national roots. Global financial expansion was occurring on top of a world economy that was stagnating at the level of production, creating a more unstable and more viciously inegalitarian order, dominated by neoliberal economics and financial bubbles. Declining U.S. hegemony in the world system, coupled with the demise of the Soviet Union, induced repeated and increasingly naked U.S. attempts to restore its economic and political power by military means.

Meanwhile, global warming and other crucial environmental problems had crossed critical thresholds. The question was no longer whether ecological and social catastrophes awaited but how great these would be. For those (including myself) in Johannesburg in 2002, watching the U.S. president prepare for war in the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf while the planet was heating up from the burning of fossil fuels, the whole world seemed on fire.

The Destruction of the Planet

In the almost five years that have elapsed since the second earth summit it has become increasingly difficult to separate the class and imperial war inherent to capitalism from war on the planet itself. At a time when the United States is battling for imperial control of the richest oil region on earth, the ecology of the planet is experiencing rapid deterioration, marked most dramatically by global warming. Meanwhile, neoliberal economic restructuring emanating from the new regime of monopoly-finance capital is not only undermining the economic welfare of much of humanity, but in some regions is removing such basic ecological conditions of human existence as access to clean air, drinkable water, and adequate food. Ecologists who once warned of the possibility of future apocalypse now insist that global disaster is on our doorstep.

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, declared in his article “The Debate is Over” in the November 17, 2005, issue of Rolling Stone magazine that we are now entering the “Oh Shit” era of global warming. At first, he wrote, there was the “I wonder what will happen?” era. Then there was the “Can this really be true? era. Now we are in the Oh Shit era. We now know that it is too late to avert global disaster entirely. All we can do is limit its scope and intensity. Much of the uncertainty has to do with the fact that “the world…has some trapdoors—mechanisms that don’t work in straightforward fashion, but instead trigger a nasty chain reaction.”6

In his book, The Revenge of Gaia, influential scientist James Lovelock, best known as the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, has issued a grim assessment of the earth’s prospects based on such sudden chain reactions.7 Voicing the concerns of numerous scientists, Lovelock highlights a number of positive feedback mechanisms that could—and in his view almost certainly will—amplify the earth warming tendency. The destructive effect of increasing global temperatures on ocean algae and tropical forests (on top of the direct removal of these forests) will, it is feared, reduce the capacity of the oceans and forests to absorb carbon dioxide, raising the global temperature still further. The freeing up and release into the atmosphere of enormous quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas twenty-four times as potent as carbon dioxide) as the permafrost of the arctic tundra thaws due to global warming, constitutes another such vicious spiral. Just as ominous, the reduction of the earth’s reflectivity as melting white ice at the poles is replaced with blue seawater is threatening to ratchet-up global temperatures.8

In Lovelock’s cataclysmic view, the earth has probably already passed the point of no return and temperatures are destined to rise eventually as much as 8° C (14° F) in temperate regions. The human species will survive in some form, he assures us. Nevertheless he points to “an imminent shift in our climate towards one that could easily be described as Hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive.”9 He offers as the sole means of partial salvation a massive technical fix: a global program to expand nuclear power facilities throughout the earth as a limited substitute to the carbon-dioxide emitting fossil fuel economy. The thought that such a Faustian bargain would pave its own path to hell seems scarcely to have crossed his mind.

Lovelock’s fears are not easily dismissed. James Hansen, who did so much to bring the issue of global warming to world attention, has recently issued his own warning. In an article entitled “The Threat to the Planet” (New York Review of Books, July 13, 2006), Hansen points out that animal and plant species are migrating throughout the earth in response to global warming—though not fast enough in relation to changes in their environments—and that alpine species are being “pushed off the planet.” We are facing, he contends, the possibility of mass extinctions associated with increasing global temperature comparable to earlier periods in the earth’s history in which 50 to 90 percent of living species were lost.

The greatest immediate threat to humanity from climate change, Hansen argues, is associated with the destabilization of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. A little more than 1° C (1.8° F) separates the climate of today from the warmest interglacial periods in the last half million years when the sea level was as much as sixteen feet higher. Further, increases in temperature this century by around 2.8° C (5° F) under business as usual could lead to a long term rise in sea level by as much as eighty feet, judging by what happened the last time the earth’s temperature rose this high—three million years ago. “We have,” Hansen says, “at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”—if we are to prevent such disastrous outcomes from becoming inevitable. One crucial decade, in other words, separates us from irreversible changes that could produce a very different world. The contradictions of the entire Holocene—the geological epoch in which human civilization has developed—are suddenly being revealed in our time.10

In the Oh shit era, the debate, McKibben says, is over. There is no longer any doubt that global warming represents a crisis of earth-shaking proportions. Yet, it is absolutely essential to understand that this is only one part of what we call the environmental crisis. The global ecological threat as a whole is made up of a large number of interrelated crises and problems that are confronting us simultaneously. In my 1994 book, The Vulnerable Planet, I started out with a brief litany of some of these, to which others might now be added:

Overpopulation, destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, extinction of species, loss of genetic diversity, acid rain, nuclear contamination, tropical deforestation, the elimination of climax forests, wetland destruction, soil erosion, desertification, floods, famine, the despoliation of lakes, streams, and rivers, the drawing down and contamination of ground water, the pollution of coastal waters and estuaries, the destruction of coral reefs, oil spills, overfishing, expanding landfills, toxic wastes, the poisonous effects of insecticides and herbicides, exposure to hazards on the job, urban congestion, and the depletion of nonrenewable resources.11

The point is that not just global warming but many of these other problems as well can each be seen as constituting a global ecological crisis. Today every major ecosystem on the earth is in decline. Issues of environmental justice are becoming more prominent and pressing everywhere we turn. Underlying this is the fact that the class/imperial war that defines capitalism as a world system, and that governs its system of accumulation, is a juggernaut that knows no limits. In this deadly conflict the natural world is seen as a mere instrument of world social domination. Hence, capital by its very logic imposes what is in effect a scorched earth strategy. The planetary ecological crisis is increasingly all-encompassing, a product of the destructive uncontrollability of a rapidly globalizing capitalist economy, which knows no law other than its own drive to exponential expansion.

Transcending Business as Usual

Most climate scientists, including Lovelock and Hansen, follow the IPCC in basing their main projections of global warming on a socioecnomic scenario described as “business as usual.” The dire trends indicated are predicated on our fundamental economic and technological developments and our basic relation to nature remaining the same. The question we need to ask then is what actually is business as usual? What can be changed and how fast? With time running out the implication is that it is necessary to alter business as usual in radical ways in order to stave off or lessen catastrophe.

Yet, the dominant solutions—those associated with the dominant ideology, i.e., the ideology of the dominant class—emphasize minimal changes in business as usual that will somehow get us off the hook. After being directed to the growing planetary threats of global warming and species extinction we are told that the answer is better gas mileage and better emissions standards, the introduction of hydrogen-powered cars, the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere, improved conservation, and voluntary cutbacks in consumption. Environmental political scientists specialize in the construction of new environmental policy regimes, embodying state and market regulations. Environmental economists talk of tradable pollution permits and the incorporation of all environmental factors into the market to ensure their efficient use. Some environmental sociologists (my own field) speak of ecological modernization: a whole panoply of green taxes, green regulations, and new green technologies, even the greening of capitalism itself. Futurists describe a new technological world in which the weight of nations on the earth is miraculously lifted as a result of digital “dematerialization” of the economy. In all of these views, however, there is one constant: the fundamental character of business as usual is hardly changed at all.

Indeed, what all such analyses intentionally avoid is the fact that business as usual in our society in any fundamental sense means the capitalist economy—an economy run on the logic of profit and accumulation. Moreover, there is little acknowledgement or even appreciation of the fact that the Hobbesian war of all against all that characterizes capitalism requires for its fulfillment a universal war on nature. In this sense new technology cannot solve the problem since it is inevitably used to further the class war and to increase the scale of the economy, and thus the degradation of the environment. Whenever production dies down or social resistance imposes barriers on the expansion of capital the answer is always to find new ways to exploit/degrade nature more intensively. To quote Pontecorvo’s Burn!, “that is the logic of profit….One builds to make money and to go on making it or to make more sometimes it is necessary to destroy.”

Ironically, this destructive relation of capitalism to the environment was probably understood better in the nineteenth century—at a time when social analysts were acutely aware of the issue of revolutionary changes taking place in the mode of production and how this was transforming the human relation to nature. As a result, environmental sociologists of the more radical stamp in the United States, where the contradiction between economy and ecology nowadays is especially acute, draw heavily on three interrelated ideas derived from Marx and the critique of capitalist political economy dating back to the nineteenth century: (1) the treadmill of production, (2) the second contradiction of capitalism, and (3) the metabolic rift.

The first of these, the treadmill of production, describes capitalism as an unstoppable, accelerating treadmill that constantly increases the scale of the throughput of energy and raw materials as part of its quest for profit and accumulation, thereby pressing on the earth’s absorptive capacity. “Accumulate, Accumulate!” Marx wrote, “that is Moses and the prophets!” for capital.12

The second of these notions, the second contradiction of capitalism, is the idea that capitalism, in addition to its primary economic contradiction stemming from class inequalities in production and distribution, also undermines the human and natural conditions (i.e, environmental conditions) of production on which its economic advancement ultimately rests. For example, by systematically removing forests we lay the grounds for increasing scarcities in this area—the more so to the extent that globalization makes this contradiction universal. This heightens the overall cost of economic development and creates an economic crisis for capitalism based on supply-side constraints on production.13

The third notion, the metabolic rift, suggests that the logic of capital accumulation inexorably creates a rift in the metabolism between society and nature, severing basic processes of natural reproduction. This raises the issue of the ecological sustainability—not simply in relation to the scale of the economy, but also even more importantly in the form and intensity of the interaction between nature and society under capitalism.14

I shall concentrate on the third of these notions, the metabolic rift, since this is the most complex of these three socio-ecological concepts, and the one that has been the focus of my own research in this area, particularly in my book Marx’s Ecology. Marx was greatly influenced by the work of the leading agricultural chemist of his time, Justus von Liebig. Liebig had developed an analysis of the ecological contradictions of industrialized capitalist agriculture. He argued that such industrialized agriculture, as present in its most developed form in England in the nineteenth century, was a robbery system, depleting the soil. Food and fiber were transported hundreds—even in some cases thousands—of miles from the country to the city. This meant that essential soil nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, were transported as well. Rather than being returned to the soil these essential nutrients ended up polluting the cities, for example, in the degradation of the Thames in London. The natural conditions for the reproduction of the soil were thus destroyed.

To compensate for the resulting decline in soil fertility the British raided the Napoleonic battlefields and the catacombs of Europe for bones with which to fertilize the soil of the English countryside. They also resorted to the importation of guano on a vast scale from the islands off the coast of Peru, followed by the importation of Chilean nitrates (after the War of the Pacific in which Chile seized parts of Peru and Bolivia rich in guano and nitrates). The United States sent out ships throughout the oceans searching for guano, and ended up seizing ninety-four islands, rocks, and keys between the passage of the 1856 Guano Islands Act and 1903, sixty-six of which were officially recognized as U.S. appurtenances and nine of which remain U.S. possessions today.15 This reflected a great crisis of capitalist agriculture in the nineteenth century that was only solved in part with the development of synthetic fertilizer nitrogen early in the twentieth century—and which led eventually to the overuse of fertilizer nitrogen, itself a major environmental problem.

In reflecting on this crisis of capitalist agriculture, Marx adopted the concept of metabolism, which had been introduced by nineteenth-century biologists and chemists, including Liebig, and applied it to socio-ecological relations. All life is based on metabolic processes between organisms and their environment. Organisms carry out an exchange of energy and matter with their environment, which are integrated with their own internal life processes. It is not a stretch to think of the nest of a bird as part of the bird’s metabolic process. Marx explicitly defined the labor process as the “metabolic interaction between man and nature.” In terms of the ecological problem he spoke of “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,” whereby the conditions for the necessary reproduction of the soil were continually severed, breaking the metabolic cycle. “Capitalist production,” he wrote, “therefore only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

Marx saw this rift not simply in national terms but as related to imperialism as well. “England,” he wrote, “has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”

This principle of metabolic rift obviously has a very wide application and has in fact been applied by environmental sociologists in recent years to problems such as global warming and the ecological degradation of the world’s oceans.16 What is seldom recognized, however, is that Marx went immediately from a conception of the metabolic rift to the necessity of metabolic restoration, arguing that “by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and spontaneous fashion, it [capitalist production] compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social reproduction.” The reality of the metabolic rift pointed to the necessity of the restoration of nature, through sustainable production.

It is this dialectical understanding of the socio-ecological problem that led Marx to what is perhaps the most radical conception of socio-ecological sustainability ever developed. Thus he wrote in Capital:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].

For Marx, in other words, the present relation of human beings to the earth under private accumulation could be compared to slavery. Just as “private property of one man in other men” is no longer deemed acceptable, so private ownership of the earth/nature by human beings (even whole countries) must be transcended. The human relation to nature must be regulated so to guarantee its existence “in an improved state to succeeding generations.” His reference to the notion of “good heads of the household” hearkened back to the ancient Greek notion of household or oikos from which we get both “economy” (from oikonomia, or household management) and “ecology “(from oikologia or household study). Marx pointed to the necessity of a more radical, sustainable relation of human beings to production in accord with what we would now view as ecological rather than merely economic notions. “Freedom, in this sphere,” the realm of natural necessity, he insisted, “can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy.”17

The destructive uncontrollability of capitalism, emanating from its dual character as a system of class/imperial exploitation and of enslaver/destroyer of the earth itself, was thus well understood by Marx. With regard to the film, Burn!, we saw how the exploitation of human beings was tied to the destruction of the earth. Relations of domination changed but the answer remained the same: to burn the island as a means of winning the class/imperial war. Today a few hundred people taken together own more wealth than the income of billions of the world’s population. To maintain this system of global inequality a global system of repression has been developed and is constantly put in motion. And along with it vast new systems of destructive exploitation of the earth, such as modern agribusiness, have evolved.

Social Revolution and Metabolic Restoration

Pontecorvo’s film Burn! about revolution in the Caribbean reaches its climax in the year 1848, a revolutionary year in real-world history. In 1848 Marx famously observed in his speech on free trade: “You believe perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugar cane nor coffee trees there.”18 Much of what we take as natural is the product of capitalism. Indeed, we are brought up believing that capitalist market relations are more natural, more incontrovertible, than anything within nature. It is this way of thinking that we have to break with if we are to restore our relation to the earth: if we are to invert the metabolic rift. The only answer to the ecology of destruction of capitalism is to revolutionize our productive relations in ways that allow for a metabolic restoration. But this will require a break with capitalism’s own system of “socio-metabolic reproduction,” i.e. the logic of profit.19

What such a revolutionary break with today’s business as usual offers is of course no guarantee but the mere possibility of social and ecological transformation through the creation of a sustainable, egalitarian (and socialist) society. Lovelock’s “revenge of Gaia”—what Frederick Engels, in the nineteenth century called the “revenge” of nature, now writ large on a planetary scale—will not be automatically overcome simply through a rupture with the logic of the existing system.20 Yet, such a rupture remains the necessary first step in any rational attempt to save and advance human civilization. Burn is no longer an island; it stands for the entire world, which is heating up before our eyes.

At the end of Pontecorvo’s film José Dolores is killed, but his revolutionary spirit lives on. The strategy of destroying nature to enslave humanity, we are led to believe, will not work forever. Today Latin America is reawakening to the revolutionary spirit of Bolivar and Che—a spirit that has never perished. But we now know—what was seldom understood before—that a revolutionary transformation of society must also be a revolutionary restoration of our metabolic relation to nature: equality and sustainability must coevolve if either is to emerge triumphant. And if we are to survive.


  1. The late Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo (1919–2006) was a Marxist and anti-imperialist, most famous as the director of the classic film of revolutionary insurgency, The Battle of Algiers (1966). Burn! was made in response to Vietnam and intended as an allegory on the war—but one that extended to a critique of capitalism itself.
  2. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), 81–86.
  3. István Mészáros, Socialism or Barbarism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 61.
  4. For a more detailed analysis of the two earth summits see John Bellamy Foster, “The Failure of Global Environmental Reform,” Monthly Review 54, no. 8 (January 2003), 1–9.
  5. Paul M. Sweezy, “The Triumph of Financial Capital,” Monthly Review, 46, no. 2 (June 1994), 1–11; John Bellamy Foster, “Monopoly-Finance Capital,” Monthly Review 58, no. 7 (December 2006), 14.
  6. Bill McKibben, “The Debate is Over,” Rolling Stone, November 17, 2005, 79–82.
  7. The quasi-religious Gaia hypothesis, which claimed that life on earth always keeps the surface conditions of the planet favorable to the ensemble of organisms, conflicted with Darwinian evolution, and has now been abandoned in its original form by Lovelock himself. It helped inspire, however, the development by numerous scientists of a more holistic earth system science that seeks to understand the earth as a single self-regulating system, in which the biosphere and the geosphere constitute one dialectical unity. Lovelock now adheres to what he calls the “Gaia theory,” which conforms to the basic tenets of earth system science, but nonetheless clings teleologically to the idea that the “goal” of the continual reproduction of conditions favorable to the ensemble of life is somehow an “emergent” property of the living earth system. The “revenge of Gaia” is a revenge on civilization, which is threatened as Gaia suddenly flips to a new equilibrium in response to human-induced climate change. See James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 23–25, 147, 162.
  8. Lovelock, Revenge of Gaia, 34–35; John Atcheson, “Ticking Time Bomb,” Baltimore Sun, December 15, 2004.
  9. Lovelock, Revenge of Gaia, 55–59, 147; Bill McKibben, “How Close to Catastrophe?,” New York Review of Books, November 16, 2006, 23–25.
  10. Jim Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” New York Review of Books, July 13, 2006, 12–16; Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “NASA Study Finds World Warmth Edging Ancient Levels,” September 25, 2006,
  11. John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 11.
  12. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 742. The treadmill of production theory emerged in the work of Allan Schnaiberg. See Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); John Bellamy Foster, “The Treadmill of Accumulation,” Organization & Environment 18, no. 1 (March 2005), 7–18.
  13. The second contradiction theory originated with Marxian political economist James O’Connor. See O’Connor, Natural Causes (New York: Guilford, 1998). For some limitations to this notion see John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction,” Monthly Review 54, no. 4 (September 2002), 6–16.
  14. Marx’s theory of metabolic rift is discussed in detail in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). See also Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics (Boston: Brill, 2006), 204–07, 292–93.
  15. Jimmy M. Skaggs, The Great Guano Rush (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
  16. Brett Clark & Richard York, “Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift,” Theory and Society 34, no. 4 (2005), 391–428; Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology: An Analysis of the Oceanic Crisis within Capitalist Production,” Organization & Environment 18, no. 4 (2005), 422–44.
  17. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 283, 290, 636–39, 860; Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 911, 959.
  18. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1973), 223.
  19. The analysis of capital as a system of “socio-metabolic reproduction” is developed in István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 39–71.
  20. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 25, 460–61.
2007, Volume 58, Issue 09 (February)
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