The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet

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John Bellamy Foster’s new book is a call for urgent action and an intervention into the debates about the kind of action needed to win this “race” for the future.

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The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, by John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press, 2009.

reviewed by Simon Butler

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously urged the world’s workers to unite because they had a world to win, and nothing to lose but their chains. Today, the reality of climate change and worsening environmental breakdowns globally adds a further vital dimension to this strident vision of human liberation. We still have a world to win – but we also have a world to lose.

With books such as Marx’s Ecology and The Vulnerable Planet, John Bellamy Foster, editor of the US-based socialist journal Monthly Review, has earned a reputation as one of the English-speaking world’s most persuasive voices arguing for fundamental social change to tackle the looming ecological catastrophe.

His new book, The Ecological Revolution, could not have been published at a more timely moment. It argues a solution to the ecological crisis “is now either revolutionary or it is false.” It is a call for urgent action and an intervention into the debates about the kind of action needed to win this “race” for the future.

The dwindling band of climate change deniers aside, general awareness of the extent of environmental decay is more widespread than ever – even among the world’s elites. The upshot is that two distinct versions of ecological revolution have emerged.

The first tries to paint business as usual economics green. The second, following Che Guevara’s maxim, holds it must be a genuine eco-social revolution or it’s a make-believe revolution.

“The conflict between these two opposing approaches to ecological revolution,” writes Foster, “can now be considered the central problem facing environmental social science today.”

The dominant view says the a new green industrial revolution can unleash the technological changes to allow sustainable capitalist development and end environmental destruction.

In its typical variations, the driving force of sustainable change are not the goals of preserving life, improving society or allowing for the full development of human potential, but the profit motive.

Foster advances an alternative approach that puts ecological concerns before capital accumulation. We need “a more radical, eco-social revolution, which draws on alternative technologies where necessary, but emphasizes the need to transform the human relation to nature and the constitution of society at its roots.”

The goal of such as revolution must be “to return to a more organic, sustainable social-ecological relations [requiring] a civilization shift based on a revolution in culture, as well as economy and society.”

He argues that a key point of difference between ecological revolution and a green industrial revolution is the involvement and mobilization of ordinary people in the process of change.

“Green industrial revolution is conceived … as a top-down attempt at a technological shift … The goal of the vested interests is to keep social change in relation to the environmental challenge contained within the limits acceptable to the system, even at the risk of endangering the entire planet …

“In contrast, a genuine ecological revolution … would be associated with a wider social, not merely industrial, revolution, emanating from the great mass of the people.”

Many environmentalists who recognize the need to break from business as usual responses to global warming still hesitate to draw this more radical conclusion. Changing the whole system seems too big a task.

The shrinking timeframe we have left to prevent runaway climate change has led some activists to try to separate climate change from social change. The idea is that we can fix the environment first, and then, as long as we succeed, move on to broader social goals.

In many ways, this strategy reflects a mistaken hope that the world’s elites will ultimately decide to change course as the evidence of ecological distress becomes undeniable and the climate movement grows.

In contrast, Foster argues that if we are to make peace with the planet we have to take political and economic power away from the privileged minority who now hold it. Otherwise, they will lead us all to oblivion in a vain attempt to preserve their system. Sustainable development is only viable if we open the road to sustainable human development as well

“A revolutionary turn in human affairs many seem improbable. But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible – if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained.”

Foster describes modern capitalism as a system of ecological imperialism.

“At the planetary level ,ecological imperialism has resulted in the appropriation of the global commons (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans) and the carbon absorbtion capacity of the biosphere, primarily to the benefit of a relatively small number of countries at the centre of the capitalist world economy.”

He predicts that as the ecological crisis mounts and natural resources become more scarce, the system will become even more barbarous. The relentless drive to increase profits is incompatible with humane, people-centred responses.

“The new energy imperialism of the United States is already leading to expanding wars, which could become truly global, as Washington attempts to safeguard the existing capitalist economy and stave of its own hegemonic decline.”

The US-led invasion and occupation of oil-rich Iraq is one horrendous outcome of this response. The British medical journal the Lancet estimated that more than 1 million Iraqis have died since the 2003 invasion.

“Any attempt to impose the main burden for global warming on underdeveloped countries in accordance with past imperialist policies, will inevitably fail. To the extent that the United States and other advanced capitalist nations promote such a strategy, they will only push the world into a state of barbarism, while catastrophically undermining the human relation to the biosphere.”

One revolution

The entire thrust of The Ecological Revolution is that “the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has advanced what he calls an “elementary triangle of socialism” to explain the goals of 21st century socialism. These are: 1) social ownership; 2) social production organized by workers; and 3) the satisfaction of communal needs.

Fosters says an “elementary triangle of ecology” must also lie at the root of this revolutionary outlook. He summarizes these as: 1) social use, not private ownership, of nature; 2) democratic and rational regulation of the metabolism between nature and human beings; and 3) the satisfaction of communal needs – of present and future generations.

“The goal must be the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth.”

He underscores the responsibility that lies with movements for social and ecological justice in the advanced capitalist countries, such as Australia and US, to make the revolutionary transition to a just and sustainable society in time.

“It is only through fundamental change at the center of the system, from which the pressures on the planet principally emanate, that there is any genuine possibility of avoiding ultimate ecological destruction.”

The Ecological Revolution is a valuable and important contribution to this essential task.

Simon Butler writes on environmental issues for Green Left Weekly.

More information about The Ecological Revolution, including a sample chapter, can be found on Reading from the Left.


  • I totally agree with the view expressed in this book (and Cuba is a reasonable role model for the change). However, as always, it is a question of whether the global population will accept how radical the change must be in time or not. We did not manage to do so when there was time for a gradual low cost change, and it is probably just an idealistic projection to think the above change can occur before tipping points are reached. Sadly, its a fantasy to think the obvious is in fact obvious to those who make the decisions.

  • I’d agree that change has to emanate from the center. We can’t expect people of the periphery to do all the hard work. I think that capitalism can find its own answers to climate change but the majority of people wouldn’t like the outcome…