Review: What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism

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Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster. What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism: A citizen’s guide to capitalism and the environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011

reviewed by Liam Flenady
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 25, 2011 –

— Resolving the ecological crisis is incompatible with capitalism. We must build a movement that works against capitalist logic with the aim to overcoming it in favour of a properly sustainable and egalitarian form of society. This is the contention persuasively presented by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster in their recently published book What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism.

Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of soils in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. He has written a number of books on sustainable agriculture and on the economic crisis. John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and author of a prolific output of books on Marx and ecology, Marxian economics, capitalism and crisis, imperialism and the ecological revolution.

The Australian situation at the time of writing this article is a very bleak one: massive expansions of the gas industry in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (with the proposed explosion from 4000 to 40,000 coal-seam gas wells in Queensland alone over the next few years), as well as in Western Australia; a bid by BP for exploration for deep-sea oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight; the stillbirth of much of the renewable energy industry, especially with state and federal governments cutting subsidisation of solar, and the NSW and Victorian governments’ large-scale rejection of wind power; and a proposed carbon tax that could well represent a backward step.

Government projections themselves indicate that – even if the carbon tax is effective – by 2020, coalmining will increase by 45%, gas mining by 100% and iron-ore mining by 104%; by 2050, coal production will be 109% higher than in 2010, gas production will be 155% higher and iron-ore production will be a whopping 408% above today’s levels. Moreover, because much of the “emissions reductions” will be achieved by various (overseas) “carbon offsets”, government modelling shows that under the carbon tax Australia’s domestic emissions will go up by about 12% on 2000 levels by 2020 and will be only barely reduced by 2050! 

Probably the most disturbing aspect of the Australian context is the weakness of our green movement, much of which has been co-opted directly or indirectly into the “Say Yes!” mindset, in which the carbon tax is seen as a win. Some of this has to do with a general demoralisation of the movement as a whole, but it is also influenced in part by less than innocent funding sources.

Climate change

Let’s examine the extent of the planetary environmental crisis. While this information may not be new to readers, nonetheless we must insist on presenting this reality over and over, at every point possible. In the ideological terrain that we inhabit it is very easy to forget, to repress, or to be confused about the situation in which we find ourselves.

The scientific community is in broad consensus over the essentials of global warming: climate change is happening, it is getting worse, it is caused mostly by human activity in the form of greenhouse gases, and it is a threat to the stability of the global ecosphere as we know it. No scientific body in the field opposes this. The fact that there is still debate in the scientific community over other minor and major questions shows that this community is as rigorous as ever and that consensus is to be trusted, not dismissed.

The Fourth Assessment report of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change claims that the likely range of average global temperature increase by 2100 is between 2.4 and 4.6 degrees Celsius if things go ahead as they are now. That in itself should be enough to spark mass panic: even if it stays at little more than 2 degrees, this would still result in much of the summer sea-ice of Greenland and the west Antarctic melting, causing the sea level to rise by anywhere between 1.4-3.8 metres by the end of the century, a very likely increase in the occurrence of hot extremes, in cyclone intensity, in desertification of subtropical land regions, and so on.

But this is the highly unlikely best-case scenario. According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen, at 384 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere, we have already passed the safe threshold of 350 ppm emissions to see a 2 degree rise by the end of the century, and now must reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere, rather than add more (Hamilton, 2010, pp. 12-13).

In a 4.6 degree warmer world, we would see a much greater sea-level rise (likely driving hundreds of millions of people from their homes), greater desertification of whole regions, decreases in crop yields, an increase in severity and frequency of droughts, immense acceleration of the rate of mass extinction of species, and so on.

Most alarming is that many scientists now believe that limiting to warming to 2 degrees Celsius is not nearly safe enough, since this is enough to trigger a number of “positive feedback loops” that may see the warming process speed up out of control, such as: melting the Arctic permafrost, releasing millions of tonnes of the 20-times-more-greenhouse-intensive methane into the atmosphere; massive die back of the Amazon forests releasing more carbon; reduction of the reflective ice-sheets, decreasing the “albedo effect”; soils and ocean being less capable of storing or even beginning to release carbon dioxide.

Planetary boundaries

It is not simply global warming. This is something that Magdoff and Foster make very clear throughout What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism: the full extent of the ecological crisis has to do with the concept of “planetary boundaries”. In this view, there are nine thresholds of the Earth system as we know it (which, more or less sustain human life):

“1) climate change; 2) ocean acidification; 3) stratospheric ozone depletion; 4) the bio-geochemical flow boundary (the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles); 5) global freshwater use; 6) change in land use; 7) biodiversity loss; 8) atmospheric aerosol loading; and 9) chemical pollution.”

As Magdoff and Foster explain: “Staying within each of these boundaries is considered essential to maintaining the relatively benign climate and environmental conditions that have existed during the last 12,000 years (the Holocene epoch)” (p. 13). According to the science, reported by Magdoff and Foster, we have already crossed three of these: climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle. A number of others are in danger of being crossed in the near future: ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in land use and the phosphorous cycle.

These various ecological issues are closely interrelated. For instance, the destruction of tropical forests, which is destroying biodiversity and displacing Indigenous people, is also estimated to be the cause of 25% of all human-induced release of CO2 emissions (Magdoff and Foster 2011, p. 21); ocean acidification is a direct result of global warming; and so on.

When the scientific community says that these crises are caused by “human activity”, Magdoff and Foster contend that the real cause is capitalism.

False solutions

Let’s first examine some other diagnoses and proposed solutions that do not attempt to escape the capitalist framework. InEnvironment, Capitalism and Socialism (1999), Dick Nichols identifies three of the most prominent broad arguments in contemporary debates as to the root cause of climate change: population growth, overconsumption and technology.

Each misses the point.

  • Population fails to take into account the fact that, as Stephen Pacala of Princeton Environmental Institute says, “the 3 billion poorest people … emit essentially nothing” and “the development of the desperately poor is not in conflict with solving the climate problem”, whereas “the rich are really spectacular emitters … the top 500 million people [about 8 per cent of humanity] emit half the greenhouse emissions” (Magdoff and Foster 2011, pp. 32-33). Population growth cannot be examined apart from the economic system in which it arises. For instance, if population growth were to be stopped or become negative across the world, this would pose serious problems for an economy “always in search of new markets for its goods and requiring a continual expansion of the labor force” (ibid., p. 31) and of the “reserve army” of the unemployed whose existence keeps wages down. Unfortunately, the population argument is used so often for nationalistic and racist purposes that are aimed at “preserving our way of life”.
  • The overconsumption argument fails by assuming that people’s consumption habits are not ultimately born from a societal structure, not a result of a profit-driven model of business that requires the people to consume more in order to expand the market for commodities.
  • Seeing technology itself as the problem, as many “ecomystics” or utopians do, and promulgating a return to local, communal, agrarian, sustainable ways of life – a return to simpler times – misses the fact that technology has played an important role in liberating humankind from enslavement to nature and need not be used totally in an unbound Promethean hubris of technological domination of nature. Again, the question is: how might technology function if its development and implementation were not driven by the desire for profit?

None of these explanations deal with the economic system that determines the way production and consumption are structured, or the way that technology is used.

A similar economic naivety, wilful or otherwise, is found in the majority of solutions proposed by governments, lobbyists, policymakers, and represented in the mass media. Of course renewable energies are at the top of the list, but then there are many other solutions on offer: eco-consumerism, carbon offsets, carbon taxes, carbon trading and geo-engineering. There are others, of course, but this cannot be dealt with in the space of this article.

  • Eco-consumerism has such a limited capacity to make any difference that it is barely worth considering as anything more than a very supplementary solution. While corporations’ sole focus is on profit, any claims of “greenness” should be met with suspicion. Overemphasising the importance of green consumerism is already subverting people’s understanding of the necessity for real action to be taken.
  • Carbon offsetting is even more perverse. It allows high-emitting industries to go on emitting precisely at the point when we should be stopping all emissions. While we can guarantee that when something is not emitted it is not emitted, how can we guarantee that when something is emitted its effects are sufficiently offset? Magdoff and Foster point out that one of the most popular carbon offsets is one in which Chinese companies are paid to destroy the one-thousand-times-worse-than-CO2 HFC-23 that is produced during the creation of refrigerants. However, the authors point out, “there is evidence that some plants in China have been producing more refrigerant than they can sell in order to have more HFC-23 that they can be paid to destroy” (2011, p. 119). No doubt we’ll hear more similar stories emerge in the future.
  • carbon tax is not necessarily something to oppose in principle. The one proposed by the Australian government is another matter. A carbon tax needs to be designed to resolutely achieve task and not make concessions to industry – a very difficult feat given the power corporations wield over governments. It would also have to not be simply passed on to consumers through price hikes, which under monopoly capitalism is all too easy.
  • Carbon trading on the other hand is something to oppose in principle. If we look, for instance, at the European emissions trading scheme, we see just how much money corporations stand to make without reducing their pollution. The general idea behind this is that of the possibility of capitalism internalising the cost of what mainstream economists call “externalities” – that is, the unpaid social and environmental costs of production. The argument is that if monetary prices are set to accurately reflect the actual social and environmental costs of an industry, the industry will look to reduce these costs in order to be competitive. This would supposedly drive investment to more eco-friendly industries. In response to this idea, Magdoff and Foster make the following, simple, but persuasive argument:

“The contradictions and complexities of actually implementing a new way to price commodities, in a system in which the profit is the only god, and power rests in the hands of people who have no interest in doing this, makes all of this an insurmountable task. As David Harvey has said: ‘If capitalism is forced to internalize” all of the social and environmental costs it generates “it will go out of business. That is the simple truth.'”(Magdoff and Foster, 2011, p. 97).

  • The more bizarre solutions of geo-engineering are truly Machiavellian. Religiously assuming that things will go on the way they are currently, that is endless growth and environmental destruction, some people are calling for “solutions” such as loading the stratosphere with sulphur dioxide in order to increase its reflective capacities or filling the oceans with iron filings to increase its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. We don’t have to believe in some transcendental Gaia to recognise that everything is environmentally linked on this planet in ways that science is a long way off fully comprehending. They are very, very risky endeavours. And who would impose them, the United States, the UN? Also, even if these solutions are capable of mitigating climate change they do nothing for the other eight planetary boundaries. One would be forgiven by being reminded here of the old nursery rhyme, “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly”.

A considerably more benign technological fix, renewable energies is certainly one to support. Especially when we are repeatedly told that they are not economically viable. Demanding 100% renewables within the next 10 years is a valiant thing to do, and we all must do it. Certainly, without the move to 100% renewables, the planet is doomed. However the point about technology is simply this: it won’t be enough. There will be no technological silver bullet. This is summed up by a point made in a New Yorker article from last year, quoted by Magdoff and Foster:

“[limiting warming] to a 2-degree [Celsius] rise: “would require building the equivalent of all the following: a hundred square metres of new solar cells, fifty square metres of new solar-thermal reflectors, and one Olympic swimming pool’s volume of genetically engineered algae (for biofuels) every second for the next twenty-years; one three-hundred-foot-diameter wind turbine every five minutes; one hundred-megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours; and one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week.” All of this new construction would of course mean a huge, if temporary, increase in energy demands.” (2011, pp. 121-122).

De-growth capitalism?

One of the most compelling points to come out of What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism is that it is not enough simply to reduce emissions and move to renewable energy as quickly as possible. If we want to avoid crossing practically all of the nine planetary boundaries (from catastrophic climate change to ocean acidification to loss of fresh water to biodiversity loss), a major change in the way our society functions has to be effected. We have to move to a system based on non-growth: a “steady-state” economy.

But is it possible to have a capitalist economic system that does not grow?

Magdoff and Foster make the point, and it is a fundamental point of Marxian economics, that capitalism requires growth – it is defined by growth. They sketch a basic outline of why this is the case:

  • Often capitalism is depicted as a structure of simple exchange, where a commodity (C) is sold for an amount of money (M), which in turn is used to buy another commodity (C). So it is seen as a C-M-C structure: commodity sold for money spent on another commodity.
  • Economists in the Marxian tradition fundamentally disagree with this analysis of capitalism’s essential structure. What it rather looks like is the following: an initial amount of money (M) is used to purchase the means of producing a commodity (C), which is then sold for a larger sum of money than the initial amount (M’). So it is best represented as an M-C-M’. This extra money is then reinvested. And so it goes on. This surplus value is created in the stage of production, and relies on the worker being paid a lower amount of money than the value they create. The essential point from the point of view of the ecological crisis is that the mere act of gaining profit is the purpose and goal of the system, not the production of anything useful.
  • Moreover, even if a company decided to work against this logic, out of a sense of duty to the environment or community, it would soon go out of business due to iron-law of competition. Once in the logic, you can’t get out. Also, if the system as a whole remained capitalist and tried to work against this logic (that is move to “de-growth”) there would be mass unemployment and social crises, since everyday people do not have the means to live without work, and if the industry does not have the extra capital to invest in more production, these people do not have a job.
  • When growth is slow, capitalism will always seek to expand into new areas for investment, this usually means mass privatisation – privatisation of what was once the common good, nature itself no exception. While the environment may be thrown some concessions when the capitalist economy is booming, in times of economic crisis, among the first things to go out the window are environmental regulations, since they tend to inhibit the “smooth functioning” of the capitalist system.
  • Due to capitalism’s relentless drive to expand, an entire cultural structure of consumerism that goes well beyond marketing proper is erected in order to persuade common people to believe that owning more commodities brings more fulfilment. So the growth structure of capitalism has a considerable degree of consent from the population, despite not being a response to their genuine social demands.

What is clear from all the above, and from Magdoff and Foster, is that “what every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism” is that: 1) it is the root cause of the environmental crisis, 2) capitalism is incapable of solving it, either by going green or by becoming non-growth.

What people see as the failure as particular governments or a particular arrangement of big business and regulation is in fact ineradicable from the capitalist system. It must be admitted that this is a depressing reality. The full magnitude of it can be overwhelming.

An ecological revolution!

This is why we must develop a radical program for action that shows people the achievability and necessity of an ecological revolution. As the final chapter of Magdoff and Foster’s What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism is titled: “An ecological revolution is not just possible—it’s essential”. But what would this ecological revolution look like? Certainly not a destruction of all technology and a return to sustainable agrarian society, and not an eco-fascist coup. These would require terror on a mass scale and the destruction of so much human life to be enacted.

Environmentalism is not beyond ideology, but always sits within a political paradigm – the belief that green politics is “neither left nor right but out in front” is indefensible. The point made by Dick Nichols rings true: “ecology as such carried with it no new political insight or method” (Nichols 1999, p. 93). One or another pre-existing political ideology (conservatism, reformism, liberalism, anarchism, socialism and so on) is always the framework in which an ecological position is put forward. It is not folly to proclaim oneself a socialist with regard to the environment, or to be publicly pushing the socialist cause for the environment, even if this may be difficult at times.

This does not necessarily mean that to be a “proper” environmentalist, you must necessarily be a socialist – or at least go under that label. However, it is clearly time to get realistic within the ecological movement proper.

As environmentalists we must make our starting point and the whole horizon of our debate the full extent of the problem, and make demands based faithfully on the most rigorous diagnosis of the problem (both its nature and cause); not the other way around, which is the tack of the major political parties (and many green groups, unfortunately), that is, to propose solutions achievable without major alteration to the existing framework and then tailor the image of the problem to suit these solutions.

The prominence of this kind of attitude shows just the extent to which we live in a topsy-turvy world, what Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay are quoted in What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism as calling “the inversion of what is real”. The clearest example of this is when someone is described as a “realist” for proposing incremental steps that will be insufficient to avert ecological catastrophe: they are faithful to the real of capital, and not the real of the environment.

Facing up to the radical nature of the problem can only lead to radical, even revolutionary politics. This will lead to a “co-revolutionary” situation, where a revolution for global equality develops alongside a revolution for ecological sustainability.

This means that we should be aiming at making radical demands, and thrusting them into the public view. These would have the dual role of a) shifting the centre of the ideological debate, and b) forcing the gap between what must be done and what is being done (can be done under capitalism) to reveal itself.

John Bellamy Foster has said that while “there is no collective solution within the [capitalist] system” we can and should “promote collective solutions from within the system [that work] against its logic.”

What are some examples of these radical demands? Magdoff and Foster outline more than 20 toward the end of What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism (pp. 126-131). I’ll give a few, in no particular order. Of course, none of these is meant to be sufficient in and of itself:

  • Block all new coal-fired plants, and close down old dirty ones – in the short term! This is radical, but absolutely necessary.
  • Block all new coal-seam gas or shale gas and tar sands oil industries.
  • Institute a robust carbon tax in which 100% of the money raised is redistributed equally to the entire population. This would mean that, as the industry raises its prices, those using less energy will benefit most from the tax, driving consumers to be somewhat less power-heavy, and driving industry away from emissions.
  • Demand mass public transport, including high-speed rail for between cities, and light rail and buses in cities. The huge subsidies for the automobile industry should be redirected so that public transport is cheap, or free.
  • Move to 100% renewable energy within the soonest possible time frame. In Australia, Beyond Zero Emissions provide a pretty good starting point for this.
  • Institute binding international agreements to limit the fishing industry to sustainable levels.
  • Create new jobs for those displaced from mining and manufacturing plants – green jobs.
  • Reverse the privatisation of freshwater sources and make access to freshwater a right of all people.
  • Stop the “revolving door” between government and the fossil fuels and mining industries and lobby groups.
  • Cut military spending, and all imperial expenditure. End the subsidies of all fossil fuel industries.

Only with these radical demands can we begin to address a radical problem. If we lose sight of the problem and its fundamental cause and obstacles to solutions, in favour of focussing on short-term and ineffective “wins”, we simply have no chance in solving it. That is the true realism of the John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff.

Liam Flenady is a Brisbane activist with the socialist youth organisation Resistance, which is affiliated with the Socialist Alliance. This article is based on a talk he presented.



  • Sure, capitalism contains inherent contradictions and competition among different capitalists and among different sectors of capital, but to suggest capitalism’s “internal logic” no longer exists is fantasy.

    The “logic of capitalism” is the appropriation of surplus value into private hands. Get back to us when that stops, and we can all talk about the capitalist mode of production’s being history.

  • The authors and the reviewer of this book speak of the logic of capitalism as if it still prevailed but in fact the logic of capitalism is no longer capable of reliably reproducing the complexity of real / material economic / use-value life, and that would remain the case no matter what economic policies were devised with the aim of revising and then supporting capitalist market regulation. We are in fact in transition away from capitalism and moving towards economic and ecological collapse and the economic policies of the state implicitly acknowledge this fact by supporting a footloose casino capitalist oligarchy as it operates to further undermine rather than to support capitalist industry and thus the capitalist mode of production.