By John Bellamy Foster
Fundamental to the ecological critique of capitalism, I believe, is what world-historian William McNeill called the law of “the conservation of catastrophe.” For McNeill, who applied his “law” to environmental crisis in particular, “catastrophe is the underside of the human condition—a price we pay for being able to alter natural balances and to transform the face of the earth through collective effort and the use of tools.” The better we become at altering and supposedly controlling nature, he wrote, the more vulnerable human society becomes to catastrophes that “recur perpetually on an ever-increasing scale as our skills and knowledge grow.” The potential for catastrophe is thus not only conserved, but it can be said to be cumulative, and reappears in an evermore colossal form in response to our growing transformation of the world around us.
In the age of climate change and other global planetary threats McNeill’s thesis on the conservation of catastrophe deserves close consideration. Rather than treating it as a universal aspect of the human condition, however, this dynamic needs to be understood in historically specific terms, focusing on the tendency toward the conservation of catastrophe under historical capitalism. The issue then becomes one of understanding how the exploitation of nature under the regime of capital has led over time to the accumulation of catastrophe. As Marx explained, it is necessary, in any critique of capitalism, to understand not only the enormous productive force generated by capital, but also “the negative, i.e. destructive side” of its interaction with the environment, “from the point of view of natural science.”
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