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The Ecological Rift reviewed in Science & Society

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010. Paper, $17.95. Pp. 544.

Reviewed by Philip Lauro

Humanity is on the precipice of an ecological catastrophe that will undoubtedly challenge the stability of modern civilization. While climate change often dominates any discussion of environmental problems, the authors of The Ecological Rift remind us that it is merely one planetary boundary that we are crossing. Other serious issues, including the rapid loss of biodiversity and changes in the nitrogen cycle, are becoming irreparable while disastrous tipping points in a variety of other issues are quickly approaching.

Marxist ecologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York compellingly argue that our perpetual ecological crises are a direct product of global capitalism. The relationships of dominance within capitalism are the main obstacle to ecological sustainability. At over 400 pages in length (and an additional 90 pages in footnotes alone), The Ecological Rift uses the disciplines of political economy, human ecology and sociology to mount a powerful indictment of capitalism’s destructive effects upon our fragile ecosystems.

The first section of the book tackles mainstream economics’ inability to deal with the realities of ecological crises. The authors provide a devastating critique of those who believe capitalism can be “greened” and fitted to solve our dire environmental problems. The few neoliberal economists who have tackled the climate crisis frequently display a disturbing pattern of putting profits and growth before sustainability. The carbon emissions limits advocated by orthodox “environmental” economists are often far higher than the limits advocated by climate scientists, and would produce disastrous sea-level rise, mass extinctions, and global desertification. These economists are afraid that setting the emissions limits mandated by scientists might negatively impact the growth of the economy. By exposing the shallowness of this position, Foster, Clark, and York deepen their critique of green capitalism.

In the second section, the authors discuss the naivete of technological fixes as a long-term solution. The authors use the Jevons paradox to refute the arguments of ecological technocrats who seek an accommodation with capitalism. The Jevons paradox observes that increases in energy efficiency often result in greater amounts of total waste. As efficiency improves and less of the energy commodity is needed, the result is a drop in price. The energy commodity becomes cheaper, its use increases, and total net waste eventually increases after the initial efficiency improvement. The paradox was initially observed in coal usage during the 19th century, but the authors apply it to U. S. national energy production, fuel efficiency in automobiles, and the recent efforts to “go paperless” at modern offices. While technological innovation is an important short-term solution, in the long run energy usage and waste are bound to increase. These pages provide some of the

most fascinating material in the book.

The book’s third section moves on to more theoretical topics: Marxism, ecological holism, and the social orders embedded within capitalism. Readers expecting more ofthe practical criticism from previous chapters will find an abrupt shift towards theory, with each branch of discussion eventually coming back to Marx. The authors successfully redeem Marx as an ecologist, who is often unfairly associated in mainstream ecology with Victorian productivism and the poor environmental record of state socialist bureaucracies. The authors use the Grundrisse and The German Ideology to provide strong counterarguments against this view. Marx believed that capitalist alienation was not only between humanity and production, hut also between humanity and its natural-material conditions. The authors analyze Marx’s concept of the “metabolic rift,” the disturbance between the material exchanges between nature and humanity under capitalism. This concept ties directly into the central theme of the book…

Read the entire review in Science & Society, Vol 77. No. 2, April 2013

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