Ecology Against Capitalism

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“An ecological approach to the economy is about having enough, not having more.” — John Bellamy Foster

Who says Marx wasn’t green?

John Bellamy Foster. Ecology Against Capitalism.
Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002. 160 pages.

reviewed by William Bowles

‘For the first time … nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. [my emph. WB]’ — Karl Marx, Grundrisse

For some of us on the Left it appears that confusion reigns in much of what’s left of the Left, caught up as it is in its own largely petty squabblings, mostly about who said what to whom and when, thus when a book comes along like Ecology Against Capitalism, I feel damn well vindicated!

For make no mistake, Foster’s take on things is rooted in Classic Marx, it’s us who have gotten it wrong for the past 150 years. Why this is so important to our current situation is made apparent all the way through this book, whether it’s his analysis of the economics of capitalism, or the fundamental importance of basic values like humility, respect and justice not only for each other but for our home, the Earth.

‘It’s not that people value money more but that they value everything else so much less—not that they are more greedy but that they have no other values to keep greed in check.’ — Dee Hock, former head of Visa bank card

First off, with lucid logic and prosaic prose, Foster shows why and how the very nature of capitalism, the ‘genetic code’ of capitalism, is the source and the cause of our current predicament, and most importantly, that no amount of ‘tinkering’ with the system will solve things and in fact, ‘tinkering’ will in all likelyhood, increase the speed of the slide toward catastrophe through the simple expedient of delaying dealing with the inevitable consequences of an economy that can only survive by expanding its markets or as it’s euphemistically known, ‘growth’.

It’s the Capitalist Economy Stupid

There are several issues that need to be understood for anybody who cares enough about what’s happening to our world, that Foster unpacks, the first of which is the fundamental role that economics plays, for without understanding the nature of the capitalist economy, it’s impossible not only to realise just how perilous our situation really is or, to take the necessary steps needed to transform our world.

Foster quotes from a confidential memo from Lawrence Summers, then chief economist for the World Bank, written in 1991 and leaked to the Economist and published in an article entitled ‘Let them eat pollution’, which sums up the attitude of the class of capitalists and those who serve them,

‘Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:‘1) The costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity [death] and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic [my emph. WB] behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

‘2) … I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City…’

‘3) … The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-five mortality is 200 per thousand .… While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air [my emph. WB] is non-tradeable. The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral rights, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) [is that they] could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.’ (pps. 60-61)

Too right Mr Summers! Nothing like telling it like it is. The Economist thought that Summers’ language was “objectionable” but “his economics was hard to answer” once again reinforcing the view that morality and ethics under capitalism are very fluid concepts determined first and foremost by the demands for the accumulation of capital. The Economist of course recognised that for capitalism, Summers was stating the real deal but merely objected to his spelling it out in such stark terms.

When the ‘bottom line’ is measured purely in terms of profit and if the victim is essentially unable to defend herself against the ravages of international capital, then the views of people like Summers will dominate. Note too the use by Summers of the term ‘liberalization’, the buzzword for the ‘neo-liberals’ since the 1970s, in other words, a free-for-all.

Backing up this view of the world is the notion, prevalent since the grossly misnamed Age of Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries is the idea that the inhabitants of our planet are no more than cogs in a giant wheel,

‘Our present social order is entrapped in a mechanistic view of human freedom, and of the human relationship to nature, that is directly at odds with ecological imperatives. This mechanistic emphasis in our culture dates back to the emergence of the modern scientific worldview, which arose along with the capitalist world economy’ (p.52)

What emerges as a result, and what makes the struggle so difficult, is a veneer of ‘science’ and a view of ‘human nature’ that purports to be objective and based in fact but Foster points out that,

‘Discoveries in such sciences as physics and have ecology have undermined Newtonian mechanics, which has not yet however been replaced by any other equivalent worldview’ (p.53)

Quoting the great physicist David Boehm,

‘Values … have significance behind them … If the universe signifies mechanism and the values implicit therein, the individuals must fend for themselves. With mechanism, individuals are separate and have to take of themselves first. We are all pushing against each other and everyone is trying to win. The significance of wholeness is that everything is related internally to everything else, and therefore, in the long run, it has no meaning to ignore the needs of others. Similarly, if we regard the world as made up of lots of little bits, we will try to exploit each bit and we will end up by destroying the planet. At present, we do not adequately realize that we are one whole with the planet and that our whole being and substance comes out of it.’ (p.53)

Until such time as a wholistic and relativistic worldview replaces the outdated mechanistic interpretation of reality,

’The struggle for material welfare among the great mass of the population, which was once understood mainly in economic terms, is increasingly taking on a wider, more holistic environmental context. Hence, it is the struggle for environmental justice—the struggle over the interrelationship of race, class, gender, and imperial oppression and the depradation of the environment—that is likely to be the defining feature of the twenty-first century.’ (p.40)

Foster makes it demonstrably clear that an economy based upon endless production and consumption (of mostly unwanted and unneeded) goods, is structurally incapable of taking the necessary steps needed to stop the impending catastrophe.

‘Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs.’ — K. William Kapp, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise

And in the process of unpacking the nature of the capitalist economy, Foster explodes many of the major myths including the fallacy that technological ‘fixes’ to capitalism are a solution, for example finding ‘sinks’ for the excess carbon dioxide industry is generating or the equally fallacious idea that that by applying the ‘laws’ of the market to nature, the ‘market’ will, all on its ownsome, resolve the problem of global warming.

‘Much of environmental economics thus aims at the creation of markets to solve problems of pollution and environmental degradation .… Particularly popular among neoclassical environmental economists and policy makers is the use of the state to establish market-based incentives such as tradeable pollution permits.‘… The entire neoclassical [economic] view, it should be clear beyond any doubt at this point, rests on turning the environment into a set of commodities. Further, the goal is quite explicitly one of overcoming the so-called market failures of the environment by constructing replacement markets for environmental products. If environmental degradation and pollution are evident, the economist reasons, it must be because the environment has not been fully incorporated within the market economy, and does not operate according to the laws of economic supply and demand. Yet the faulty character of neoclassical environmental economics becomes evident when one realizes that this entire methodology is based on the utopian myth that the environment can and should become part of a self-regulating market system.’ — (pps. 29-30)

And predictably this is exactly what corporations and governments are doing with all kinds of products and services now being sold to us as ‘green’. But as Foster points out,

‘Nature is not a commodity produced to be sold on the market .… Nor is it a market organized according to laws of individual consumer preferences … the commodification of nature.’ [my emph. WB].

The other myth of classical economists, the concept of ‘dematerialisation’, that is, the emergence of the so-called knowledge economy, what the ‘experts’ call a ‘weightless’ economy is also revealed as a fantasy, for in absolute terms, the sheer volume of production has been increasing regardless of the fact that we can do ‘more for less’, which in any case has always been the case for as long as the human species has been around.

‘[C]apitalism’s inherent anti-environmental character, drawn from the case of global warming, stands in stark contrast to the views of those who in recent years have advanced the notion that capitalism is not a threat but rather contains within itself the solution to global environmental problems.’ (p.22)

Thus capitalism,

‘represents … the alienation of nature from society in order to develop a one-sided, egoistic relation to the world.’(p. 31)

Foster goes on to say,

‘From an ecological standpoint, insofar as the diversity of life is an objective, the market is extremely inefficient compared with nature itself .… turning forests into commodities has led to their degradation (i.e., extreme simplification), thereby diminishing rather than enlarging the domains of organic nature in this sense.’ (pps.33-34)

Capitalism has responded to the crisis that confronts us by attempting to commodify everything, a process that is as old as capitalism and now includes the human genome and human reproduction and even our brains (what the ecological-socialist economist Martin O’Connor calls “the ecological phase of capital”).

Quoting O’Connor further, we read,

‘the relevant image is no longer of man acting on nature to ’produce’ value, henceforth appropriated by the capitalist class. Rather, the image is of nature (and human nature) codified as capital incarnate, regenerating itself through time by controlled regimes of investment around the globe, all integrated in a ‘rational calculus of production and exchange,’ through the miracle of the price system extending across space and time. This is nature conceived in the image of capital [my emph. WB].

There is so much more to this book than I have referred to here but for anyone who calls him- or herself a socialist or who is searching for explanations and an alternative, this is the book to read. Foster’s logic is, as his humanity, inescapable.

There is one final aspect of this book that I have to bring to the reader’s attention, and it is perhaps this aspect that is the most relevant to our condition, what Foster calls the “global treadmill of production,” a treadmill which we are all on.

Foster breaks it down into six elements:

  1. The increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid.
  2. The longer term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production.
  3. The competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. (my emph. WB)
  4. Wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more.
  5. Government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of “social security” for at least a portion of its citizens.
  6. The dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values. (pps. 44-45)

Foster calls it a “giant squirrel cage” in which most of us are imprisoned including investors and managers who are driven to expand their scale of operations or see their corporations die. It’s a question of running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

‘Looked at in this way, it is not individuals acting in accordance with their own innate desires, but rather the treadmill of production on which we are all placed that has become the main enemy of the environment.’ (p.45)


  • True, true Jeff. In the Hegelian dialectic the subject must be made into an object before the two can synthisis. Nature was made into the object of human enlightenment but must now be synthesised with the human social system.I think the name is very good- Ecology Against Capitalism- and it may also be a twist on Ellen Meiksins Wood’s ‘Democracy Against Capitalism. Both reveal the antithetical nature that capitalism develops with other limiting entities, social or natural (as if these are two seperate spheres).

  • I haven’t yet read this particular book of Foster’s, but I would be surprised if he agrees with the reviewer that the “Age of Enlightenment” was “grossly misnamed.” In fact, as Foster has pointed out in his book Marx’s Ecology, Karl Marx was himself a product of the Enlightenment. In any event, compared with the historical periods that preceded it, the Enlightenment marked an intellectual revolution in the way humans defined their relationship to the rest of nature. Much of it of course formed the basis for bourgeois liberalism, but to deny the historically progressive role of the Enlightenment would be a mistake, IMNSHO. Ecology Against Capitalism is also the title of an article Foster wrote in Monthly Review in 2001. It was mainly about how capitalism has resisted even the modest reforms proposed in the Kyoto Protocol.