Marxism versus ‘Anxiety-Driven Ecological Catastrophism’?

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From “Notes from the Editors” in the March 2007 Monthly Review.

Our friends Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, editors of the Socialist Register, have recently published Coming to Terms with Nature: Socialist Register, 2007 (Monthly Review Press, 2006), which includes contributions by a distinguished group of analysts addressing crucial environmental issues—dealing with everything from “fossil capitalism” to eco-localism.In their preface to this latest volume of the Register Panitch and Leys caution that,

“[I]t is important to try to avoid an anxiety-driven ecological catastrophism, parallel to the kind of crisis-driven economic catastrophism that announces the inevitable demise of capitalism. A more complex understanding of the role and nature of crises and contradictions is required….[W]e need to recognize the dynamism and innovativeness generated by capitalist competition and accumulation—‘value in motion’—that could yet allow capitalism to ‘prevail’ (as one of our essays puts it). Indeed capital is already feeding on ‘the environmental crisis,’ from carbon trading under Kyoto, to the garbage industry’s ‘green commerce,’ to the way corporate agriculture privileges biotechnological solutions over existing food cultures or land reform….This means that if capitalism ‘prevails’ it will be more and more authoritarian, because people will resist the kind of inequality that will be generated, threatening as it will their access to the basic requirements of life.”

Is this our view as well? The answer is that we see things somewhat differently. It is true that Marxian political economists have long rejected the old, crude economic breakdown theories of capitalism that pointed to mechanical collapse due to accumulation crises. Rather than assuring an absolute breakdown of the system, economic crises and stagnation are principally important because they affect the system’s dynamics and the class struggle. Moreover, Marx and Engels never failed to point out that such crises of accumulation reveal the historically limited and transitory character of capitalism. Although there is no purely economic reason that capitalism as a system might not continue indefinitely despite its manifest failures and contradictions, this is not to deny that a revolutionary break with the system remains possible and even necessary.

If all of this is true should we then follow Panitch and Leys in dismissing “anxiety-driven ecological catastrophism” as “parallel” to earlier crude theories of mechanical economic breakdown, and equally indefensible? Here we differ with our friends in our understanding of the environmental problem. The very fact that capitalism is not likely to collapse of itself and may “prevail” for some time to come is precisely why the planet is in such absolute peril. Today’s global ecological crisis is principally a product of the logic of capital, which treats the environment as an “externality” that does not enter directly into its system of valuation. Consequently, the global economy is increasingly on a collision course with the biosphere. An ecological collapse of life as we know it induced by present-day “business as usual” (that is, capitalism) is a threat that is increasingly imminent, inevitable if the world doesn’t change course, and irreversible. It represents a historic problem for which capitalism itself has no possible answer (see “The Ecology of Destruction,” MR, February 2007).

Faced with immense and growing environmental, economic, and social problems, capitalism, as Panitch and Leys rightly suggest, is showing signs of shifting towards increased authoritarianism. However, the advent of a more barbaric system is no longer the worst of our worries. It is the threat to the planet itself that constitutes our most dire challenge.

In an attempt to highlight just how perilous present trends have become, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in mid-January 2007 moved its symbolic “doomsday clock” two minutes forward—now set at five minutes to midnight, twelve minutes closer to midnight than in the early 1990s. In doing so it included for the first time global environmental change as a source of potential planetary catastrophe on top of the already existing nuclear danger. Scientists are warning that 50 percent or more of all species may be extinguished in this century.

There is a way out of this trap but it requires that the world move decisively away from a system that puts profits before sustainability and that perpetuates social inequality through ecological destruction. But for such a sharp break with “business as usual” to occur, there needs to be massive socioecological pressure from the bottom of society of a truly revolutionary character. Otherwise we will be be faced with a different world—one in which life on the planet will be massively degraded on a scale not seen for tens of millions of years.

Despite our differing viewpoints on the nature of the environmental crisis, we believe there is much to be learned from Panitch and Leys’s preface to Coming to Terms with Nature—especially their insistence on the need for ecological planning and the centrality of environmental issues for the socialist project. The new edition of the Socialist Register brings together a valuable collection of articles, many of which explore the dynamics of social and environmental change. How this problem is addressed will more than anything else determine the future of socialism—and of life itself. Historical materialists need to take ecology as seriously as the economy and to recognize the dialectical relations between the two.



  • While the ecological crisis is of a preeminent importance I would have to agree with the Register on this one. The MR conclusion that capitalism cannot solve the ecological crisis is true, however as Marx taught us that while capitalism cannot solve the contradictions that it creates, it does transfer them to other social locations. This I beleive can already be witnessed in the biofuels being promoted by Bush and other pro-growth environmentalists [sic]. The move towards biomass fuels is one example of many that reveals how capitalism will transfer this contradiction to another social location and maintain its growth oriented trajectory. It will transfer the ecological contradiction of capitalism onto the price of food, thereby effectivly doing what it always does in times of crisis, namely stick it to the most vulnerable of society to pick up the slack. I myself used to also believe that the ecological crisis would be the terminal crisis of capitalism but alas I have realized the undialectial nature of such pronouncements. Capitalist development happens in a dialectial unfolding of its self created contradictory antagonisms. The contradiction in question- ecological limitations and growth requirements- is also unfolding dialectically. That is, the mutual penetration of the subjective (captialist society) and the objective (ecological balance), and as such is begining to develope a systhisis that begins in quantitative changes towards sustainable growth but will eventually lead to qualitative changes through the aforementioned displacement of the contradiction elsewhere. This does not mean the capitalism contains the ability to overcome every crisis, nor should the opposite conclusion be reached, that there is an inevitable crisis of the system that will bring it down without revolutionary praxis. It is only through the recognition of the displacement of the contradiction and by constructing a alternative hegemony that grasps the true nature of the contradiction and articulates to the broader public the equally problamatic impact of its displacement. What is needed is a clear understanding of the situation and a reluctancy to scream ‘the sky is falling’ once again. Only through an acurate Marxist analysis, one that includes the possible continuation of capitalism through the displacement of the ecological crisis, will we be able to offer the correct alternative to ecological crisis that is only available in a post-capitalist social order. Brad B.

  • Believers in consumption growth to make jobs abound in spite of the obvious limits to growth in consumption. Pro-growth, even in industrial economies, is supported by almost everyone. Why not step-up and take a position on this important issue?Barry Brooks…)During the depression, there was a struggle within the Roosevelt Administration over whether to fight unemployment by reducing work hours or promoting growth. Initially, Roosevelt supported the Black-Connery bill, which would have reduced the work-week to 30 hours. Virtually everyone believed that this bill was just a first step, that work hours would inevitably become even shorter in the future as technology continued to become more efficient. Labor supported this bill, with AFL president William Green in the lead, but business leaders resisted the bill fiercely and said that we should fight unemployment by promoting what they called “the new gospel of consumption.” Because of business opposition, the Roosevelt administration changed its position and, as a compromise, backed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which reduced the work-week to 40 hours – not really a reduction for most workers, since the average work-week had declined to 33 hours because of the Depression. Roosevelt also promised more funding for public works projects to stimulate the economy and provide everyone with a 40-hour job.(…)See a more radical view.Barry Brooks