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Marxist Ecology

Harmony and Ecological Civilization

Beyond the Capitalist Alienation of Nature

When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.… | more…

Marx’s Ecology and the Understanding of Land Cover Change

The spread of humans worldwide, especially in the last two hundred years, has been associated with the growing human domination of the earth…. Such domination of the environment is expressed by… (1) the change in the flux of elements and substances on Earth…; (2) the growing threat of species extinction; and (3) the huge land cover change (LCC)—the substitution of natural habitats such as forests, swamps, and grasslands by cropland, pasture, roads, and urban areas. Modern natural sciences have made enormous inroads in understanding both ecological problems and the social drivers of LCC. However, they have been unable to generate a systematic understanding of how the regime of capital has governed LCC. Karl Marx developed more than 150 years ago, in the context of a social-science critique, an unparalleled theoretical approach to environmental crisis based on two concepts: differential land rent and the metabolic rift. Here, these concepts will be applied to the understanding of LCC.… | more…

Ecological Marxism in China

Chinese interest in ecological Marxism has grown increasingly in the past twenty years. Amazingly, it has even become, to some extent, an important part of contemporary Marxism in China. But why has it been so well received? This paper will offer some reasons for this and also point out the challenges now facing ecological Marxism in China.… | more…

Marx and Engels and ‘Small Is Beautiful’ & A Response

I am a regular reader of Monthly Review. I read with interest the recent articles on ecology and Marxism…. It is true that Marx and Engels conceived that capitalism engenders a “metabolic rift” in nature and society. But both of them emphasized that the industrial growth that socialism would produce is beyond imagination under capitalism…. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was impossible for Marx and Engels to envisage the ecological catastrophe that a constantly expanding industrial society can ensue.… | more…

Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe

Over the next few decades we are facing the possibility, indeed the probability, of global catastrophe on a level unprecedented in human history. The message of science is clear. As James Hansen, the foremost climate scientist in the United States, has warned, this may be “our last chance to save humanity.” In order to understand the full nature of this threat and how it needs to be addressed, it is essential to get a historical perspective on how we got where we are, and how this is related to the current socioeconomic system, namely capitalism.… | more…

The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy

It is no secret today that we are facing a planetary environmental emergency, endangering most species on the planet, including our own, and that this impending catastrophe has its roots in the capitalist economic system. Nevertheless, the extreme dangers that capitalism inherently poses to the environment are often inadequately understood, giving rise to the belief that it is possible to create a new “natural capitalism” or “climate capitalism” in which the system is turned from being the enemy of the environment into its savior. The chief problem with all such views is that they underestimate the cumulative threat to humanity and the earth arising from the existing relations of production. Indeed, the full enormity of the planetary ecological crisis, I shall contend, can only be understood from a standpoint informed by the Marxian critique of capitalism.… | more…

Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress

A question of central importance in the interpretation of patterns of evolution is whether history had to turn out the way it did. From before Charles Darwin’s time up to the present it has been commonly assumed that history, both human history and the history of life in general, unfolded in a somewhat deterministic manner, that the present was inevitable, either ordained in Heaven or, in the scientific view, mechanically produced by deterministic natural laws. This view contrasts with that of the historian: that the quirks, chance events, and particularities of each moment make history, and that the world could have been other than it is.… The renowned paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould.…developed a sophisticated and nuanced position that recognized both the importance of general laws and the role of contingency.… If contingency played little part in how history turned out, if the present was inevitable, then it makes little sense to challenge the status quo. However, if contingency dominates history, the future is open, and the world can be another way, as radicals of all varieties have long believed.… | more…

Ecological Civilization

Given the overwhelming harm being done to the world’s environment and to its people, it is essential today to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization—one that exists in harmony with natural systems—instead of trying to overwhelm and dominate nature. This is not just an ethical issue; it is essential for our survival as a species and the survival of many other species that we reverse the degradation of the earth’s life support systems that once provided dependable climate, clean air, clean water (fresh and ocean), bountiful oceans, and healthy and productive soils.… There are numerous ways to approach and think about the enormous harm that has been done to the environment. I will discuss the following: (1) the critical characteristics that underlie strong ecosystems; (2) why societies are not adequately implementing ecological approaches; and (3) how we might use characteristics of strong natural ecosystems as a framework to consider a future ecological civilization… | more…

Capitalism and Degrowth: An Impossibility Theorem

[A]lmost four decades after the Club of Rome raised the issue of “the limits to growth,” the economic growth idol of modern society is once again facing a formidable challenge. What is known as “degrowth economics,” associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement in 2008 with the historic conference in Paris on “Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity,” and has since inspired a revival of radical Green thought, as epitomized by the 2010 “Degrowth Declaration” in Barcelona.… Ironically, the meteoric rise of degrowth (décroissance in French) as a concept has coincided over the last three years with the reappearance of economic crisis and stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The degrowth concept therefore forces us to confront the questions: Is degrowth feasible in a capitalist grow-or-die society—and if not, what does this say about the transition to a new society?… | more…

Capitalism and the Curse of Energy Efficiency

The Return of the Jevons Paradox

The curse of energy efficiency, better known as the Jevons Paradox—the idea that increased energy (and material-resource) efficiency leads not to conservation but increased use—was first raised by William Stanley Jevons in the nineteenth century. Although forgotten for most of the twentieth century, the Jevons Paradox has been rediscovered in recent decades and stands squarely at the center of today’s environmental dispute… | more…

Time to Pay the Piper

Ariel Salleh, ed., Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology (New York: Pluto Press, 2009), 324 pages, $34.00, paperback.

In 2001, Wilma Dunaway wrote that the “tentacles of the world-system are entwined around the bodies of women.” Yet her literary analysis revealed a profound silence about the role of women in reproductive labor, subsistence households, and commodity chain analysis. Dunaway characterized this omission as, “the greatest intellectual and political blunder” in her field.…Nearly ten years later, Ariel Salleh has answered this unspoken call with the resounding voices of seventeen feminist scholars who address transdisciplinary issues of global political ecology.… | more…

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December 2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”… | more…