Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Essays on Marxist Ecology

The following constitutes an extensive selection of twenty essays from the pages of Monthly Review.

The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction
John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

Today orthodox economics is reputedly being harnessed to an entirely new end: saving the planet from the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist expansion. It promises to accomplish this through the further expansion of capitalism itself, cleared of its excesses and excrescences. A growing army of self-styled “sustainable developers” argues that there is no contradiction between the unlimited accumulation of capital—the credo of economic liberalism from Adam Smith to the present—and the preservation of the earth. The system can continue to expand by creating a new “sustainable capitalism,” bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. In reality, these visions amount to little more than a renewed strategy for profiting on planetary destruction.…

November 2009

The Urban Agriculture of Havana
Sinan Koont

Over the last fifteen years, Cuba has developed one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world. Havana, the capital of Cuba, with a population of over two million people, has played a prominent, if not dominant role, in the evolution and revolution of this type of agriculture. The phrase “urban agriculture in Cuba” has a somewhat different meaning, simultaneously more and less restrictive than might appear at a first glance. It is more inclusive, as it allows for large expanses, urban fringes, and suburban lands.…

January 2009

Rifts and Shifts
Getting to the Root of Environmental Crises
Brett Clark and Richard York

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…

November 2008
Ecological Crises and the Agrarian Question in World-Historical Perspective
Jason W. Moore

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…

November 2008

Ecology and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism
John Bellamy Foster

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…

November 2008

Capitalist and Socialist Responses to the Ecological Crisis
Victor Wallis

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…

November 2008

The Oceanic Crisis: Capitalism and the Degradation of Marine Ecosystems
Brett Clark and Rebecca Clausen

The world ocean covers approximately 70 percent of the earth. It has been an integral part of human history, providing food and ecological services. Yet conservation efforts and concerns with environmental degradation have mostly focused on terrestrial issues. Marine scientists and oceanographers have recently made remarkable discoveries in regard to the intricacies of marine food webs and the richness of oceanic biodiversity. However, the excitement over these discoveries is dampened due to an awareness of the rapidly accelerating threat to the biological integrity of marine ecosystems…

July-August 2008

Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism
Minqi Li

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…

July-August 2008

The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels
Fred Magdoff


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…

July-August 2008

Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism
John Bellamy Foster

The rise in overt militarism and imperialism at the outset of the twenty-first century can plausibly be attributed largely to attempts by the dominant interests of the world economy to gain control over diminishing world oil supplies.1 Beginning in 1998 a series of strategic energy initiatives were launched in national security circles in the United States in response to: (1) the crossing of the 50 percent threshold in U.S. importation of foreign oil; (2) the disappearance of spare world oil production capacity; (3) concentration of an increasing percentage of all remaining conventional oil resources in the Persian Gulf; and (4) looming fears of peak oil…

July-August 2008

Ecology: The Moment of Truth - An Introduction
John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York

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.”1 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.2 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…

July-August 2008

The World Food Crisis
by Fred Magdoff

An acute food crisis has struck the world in 2008. This is on top of a longer-term crisis of agriculture and food that has already left billions hungry and malnourished. In order to understand the full, dire implications of what is happening today it is necessary to look at the interaction between these short-term and long-term crises. Both crises arise primarily from the for-profit production of food, fiber, and now biofuels, and the rift between food and people that this inevitably generates…

May 2008

Rachel Carson’s Ecological Critique
by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

Rachel Carson was born just over 100 years ago in 1907. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published in 1962, is often seen as marking the birth of the modern environmental movement. Although an immense amount has been written about Carson and her work, the fact that she was objectively a “woman of the left” has often been downplayed. Today the rapidly accelerating planetary ecological crisis, which she more than anyone else alerted us to, calls for an exploration of the full critical nature of her thought and its relation to the larger revolt within science with which she was associated…

February 2008

Healing the Rift: Metabolic Restoration in Cuban Agriculture
by Rebecca Clauson

As John Bellamy Foster explained in “The Ecology of Destruction” (Monthly Review, February 2007), Marx explored the ecological contradictions of capitalist society as they were revealed in the nineteenth century with the help of the two concepts of metabolic rift and metabolic restoration. The metabolic rift describes how the logic of accumulation severs basic processes of natural reproduction leading to the deterioration of ecological sustainability. Moreover, “by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism,” Marx went on to argue, “it [capitalist production] compels its systematic restoration as a regulating law of social reproduction”—a restoration, however, that can only be fully achieved outside of capitalist relations of production…

May 2007

The Ecology of Destruction
John Bellamy Foster

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…

February 2007

Natural History and the Nature of History
by Richard York and Brett Clark

Over 500 million years ago, Pikaia, a two-inch-long worm-like creature, swam in the Cambrian seas. It was not particularly common, nor in anyway would it have appeared remarkable to a hypothetical naturalist surveying the fauna of the time. Pikaiais the first known chordate, the phylum to which Homo sapiens and all other vertebrates belong. As the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary theorist, and dialectical biologist, posited in one of his most renowned books, Wonderful Life(1989), an exceptional level of human arrogance is necessary to argue that Pikaia was superior to its many contemporaries who either went extinct or, through the vagaries of history, dwindled to obscurity. Yet, despite the absurdity of it, bourgeois thought is so deeply committed to portraying history as a march of progress leading inexorably to the present…

December 2005

II. Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction
by John Bellamy Foster

The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism’s internal laws of motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and everything within it as a result of capital’s relentless expansion. How to understand capitalism’s ecological contradictions has therefore become a subject of heated debate among socialists. Two crucial issues in this debate are: (1) must ecological crisis lead to economic crisis under capitalism?, and (2) to what extent is there an ecological contradiction at the heart of capitalist society?

September 2002

I. Capitalism’s Twin Crises: Economic and Environmental
Freg Magdoff

History has provided us with numerous examples of economic stagnation and breakdown, as well as environmental degradation caused by human activity, even before capitalism existed. But capitalism’s central characteristic—the incessant drive to invest and accumulate wealth—gives birth to never-ending economic and environmental crises…

September 2002

Ecology Against Capitalism
John Bellamy Foster

In a 1963 talk on “The Pollution of Our Environment” Rachel Carson drew a close comparison between the reluctance of society in the late twentieth century to embrace the full implications of ecological theory and the resistance in the Victorian era to Darwin’s theory of evolution…

October 2001

Does Ecology Need Marx?
Martha E. Gimenez

Does ecology need Marx? I wonder, at this point, what ecology is, for it seems to be an umbrella term, like sexism or racism, which covers a variety of macrolevel and microlevel phenomena produced by different causes and lends itself to the development of a wide variety of conflicting ideologies and theoretical frameworks. I would prefer to change the question to the following: Are Marx and Marxism contingent or essential in the struggles against environmental degradation and all forms of exploitation and oppression? Although in the eyes of environmental activists, they may seem irrelevant in the context of day-to-day struggles, the need for an all-encompassing theory capable of illuminating the necessary connections between seemingly separate problems will emerge in time, as activists learn from their experiences that there are capitalist structural barriers to the effectiveness of their individual behavioral changes and legal and political successes. This is why it is important…

January 2001

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