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The Ecological Rift reviewed in Journal of World-Systems Research


Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. 2010. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press. 544 Pages, ISBN: 978-1-58367-218-1 Paper ($17.95).

by Kirk S. Lawrence

Research Assistant, Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California, Riverside

Ecological degradation is the elephant in the room for many people; they are aware of its presence yet would prefer to ignore it rather than be forced to consider both its severity and possible remedies. This practiced ignorance occurs despite numerous problems, such as global climate change, species extinction, deforestation, overfishing, and dramatic disasters such as the recent oil “spill” from offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the radiation releases from nuclear power plants in post-tsunami Japan. This elephant is enormous, destructive, and cannot be imagined away.

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York have been taking on the elephant for years. Foster is renowned for his editorship at the Monthly Review and for his work in political economy and as an environmental sociologist, having published popular books such as The Vulnerable Planet. Clark and York are also well respected and broadly-published in the same areas. Together, they are a formidable trio whose work is influential and innovative. Their publication of The Ecological Rift was therefore a welcome event.

The book is quite large, with almost 450 pages of text and nearly 90 pages of footnotes, many of the latter providing additional commentary along with the references. The range of scholarship is extensive, with nods to luminaries such as Aristotle, Darwin, Epicurus, Gould, Hegel, Lakatos, Lukács, and Marx, of course. The book contains a number of chapters that have been adapted from or are “extensively rewritten” versions of previously published articles and book chapters. Those quite familiar with the authors’ prior work will find The Ecological Rift to be, shall I say, partially recycled from post-consumer content. To be sure, there is a wealth of new material here. For example, the introductory chapter presents a cogent argument for the necessity of overcoming the limitations of the social sciences and humanity’s harmful relationship with the environment by entering a “Holoanthropocene” epoch of the “New Whole Human” (p. 49) and there is a nice section on the ecology of consumption (Chapter 16). More broadly, the synthesis of prior thought generates additional insights; therefore even the most ardent readers of Foster, Clark, and York will be rewarded by acquiring a single volume that unites the disparate pieces. For those unfamiliar with the work of Foster et al., the book presents an excellent single-source culmination and expansion of an impressive and important line of sociological thought on the political economy of the environment. Regardless of background, the book should be of interest to a wide audience.

The main argument is that capitalism, and imperialism in its service, is irreparably and inevitably destructive of the biosphere due to its operational necessity of expansion and its thirst for cheap raw materials, both of which ignore or abuse the requirements for nature to survive. This creates an “ecological rift” between the global political economy and the Earth and its inhabitants since the life support system for the latter is being destroyed by the former. In the absence of ecological revolution that replaces capitalism with a mode of production that is aligned with natural laws—socialism—the current system will continue on its calamitous path until sustainable solutions are no longer possible and future generations face a bleak existence, if any at all.

This is an ominous message, but one that is indeed warranted. Foster et al. present myriad statistics and sources demonstrating the severity of the damage to the biosphere. Global climate change receives a large part of the focus, but species loss, deforestation, diminishing fresh water supplies, chemical pollution, and alteration of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles are also pointed to as indications of the perilous situation in which we currently live and the dim prospects for the future. As they and others have argued, each of the known ecological problems are alarming if considered on their own; taken together they are an overwhelming array of concerns. And there are likely many more unknown threats. These problems likely have positive feedback loops and tipping points, creating thresholds that, when crossed, can produce rapid accelerations in the scale of known and unknown damages and become increasingly more difficult to remedy—if they are not irreversible. Moreover, extant “solutions” create additional problems, such as the application of chemical fertilizers to increase food production lead to dead zones in the water into which the fertilizer drains. We are left trying to plug increasing numbers of holes in a dam that should not have been built in the first place….

Read the entire review in the Journal of World-Systems Research [PDF]

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