An absurd attack on Naomi Klein and John Bellamy Foster

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Are the authors of ‘This Changes Everything’ and ‘Marx’s Ecology’ undermining the fight for radical social and environmental change?

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The charge of catastrophism has returned, under a new name.

Larry Lohmann, who has previously written excellent critiques of carbon trading and the fallacies of green capitalism, recently published a broadside accusing everyone who warns about catastrophic climate change of apocalypticism. He not only says that such warnings cause “despair and indifference,” but also claims that they “hide the complexities of current conflicts involving imperialism, racism and capitalism,” and so prevent activists from understanding the problem and building an effective movement.

Bizarrely, his list of apocalypticist sinners includes John Bellamy Foster, who has done more to analyse and explain the connections between environmental destruction and capitalism than anyone else I know, and Naomi Klein, whose recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, has been widely hailed as a major contribution to building a radical climate movement.

The editors of Monthly Review published a short but powerful comment on Lohmann’s criticisms of Klein and Foster, in their “Notes from the Editors” column in December. They have kindly given me permission to republish it.

In the past we have found the Corner House (UK) website to be a useful source of climate change information. Corner House describes itself as supporting “democratic and community movements for climate and social justice.” We were therefore surprised to see a recent article by one of its directors, Larry Lohmann, criticizing both MR editor John Bellamy Foster and Nation columnist and climate activist Naomi Klein for their ecological critiques of capitalism.

Entitled “Fetishisms of Apocalypse,” Lohmann’s piece throws scorn upon the suggestion that with the continuation of business as usual the world is facing the prospect of a series of immense, irreversible environmental catastrophes on a planetary scale — the view advanced by today’s scientific consensus — as, in his terms, promoting “apocalyptic obsessions.” Arguing from an ostensibly left position, Lohmann states:

“Although they can hardly be accused of drawing back from analyzing the dynamics of capital, some flavour of this approach lingers on even among some thinkers on the left such as John Bellamy Foster and Naomi Klein, who contemplating apocalypse, are tempted to fall back on creating Cartesian slogans according to which not only does capitalism act on a wholly separate Nature (‘Capitalism’s War on the Earth’), but Nature itself somehow acquires that long-coveted ability to overthrow Capitalism.”

(Lohmann’s references here are to the subtitles of two books: John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.)

Reading this, we rubbed our eyes in disbelief. Lohmann seems to think that capitalism and the larger world of nature of which it is a part are so inextricably linked that to separate them from each other, even for critical analysis — referring as Foster, Clark, and York do to Capitalism’s War on the Earth — represents a capitulation to Cartesian dualism. He does not stop to think that complex, dialectical thinking is aimed at precisely these kinds of oppositions/contradictions.

It is an elementary fact of today’s world that capitalism is in an antagonistic, alienated relation to its natural environment on a planetary scale. Any attempt to deny this can only serve to reinforce the position of those who have a vested interest in opposing fundamental social change, even when the future of humanity is at stake.

No less startling was Lohmann’s contention that by depicting capitalism as at odds with the earth (including the climate) Foster and Klein were somehow saying that the “long-coveted ability to overthrow Capitalism” now came from “Nature itself.” Yet no reader of their books could fail to see that the genuine hope that they provide for the future is based not on some abstract notion of nature’s revenge, but on the carrying out of meaningful, radical social change.

Klein’s final chapter is entitled “The Leap Years: Just Enough Time for Impossible.” This is a call to action on a global scale of a kind unprecedented in human history, in response to a planetary crisis that is equally unprecedented. Can humanity rise to the challenge? We believe it can.

Apart from introducing a new label and absurdly attacking two leading left-green writer-activists, Larry Lohmann’s article adds nothing to the catastrophism debate that hasn’t been said and refuted many times. For previous C&C articles on this subject, just enter “catastrophism” in the Search box at the top of this page.


More from my Notebook …



  • I wish Larry Lohmann had taken the time to explain his problem with Foster and Klein in more detail — either that, or leave out the offending sentence altogether. Because frankly, apart from that one sentence, I found his article quite sensible and compelling.

    To me, it’s undeniable that there are those in the environmental movement who lack a class analysis, and dismiss any suggestion that social revolution against capitalism is a necessary part of the long-term solution to planetary ecocide. These often left-liberal elements, conscious of the overwhelming technical and statistical case proving runaway AGW, but too limited in their political thinking, insist that technological, eco-capitalist solutions are all we have time for. They support the usual menu of reformist “fixes” like geoengineering schemes, carbon sequestration, electric cars, veganism, fracked gas as a “transitional fuel” to replace coal, nuclear energy in the longer term, and capitalist-market schemes like cap-and-trade, carbon consumption taxes, and REDD. Social justice questions, for them, are to be postponed to the indefinite future.

    Lohmann is quite correct to place the IPCC/UNFCCC in this camp, along with Al Gore, Jared Diamond, Garrett Hardin, and to a lesser extent, the contemporary “survivalist” movement in the US. He could have mentioned many others. I only wish his criticisms of Klein and Foster had been less of a drive-by effort.

    Whatever your opinion of Lohmann, it’s undeniably clear that he speaks from an appreciation of the absolute necessity of an activist, democratic politics of transformation as central to the way forward.

  • I have never felt despair reading Bellamy Foster or Klein. Far from it. As a college teacher and activist I never once met any young person over the course of more than 4 decades who became paralyzed as a consequence of being exposed to what some might term catastrophically bad news about the environment but I can tell you that listening to certain members of Leninist/Trotskyist groups or of the left academy misdirect their energies in the attempt to frighten us with the specters of apocalypticism or catastrophism is quite discouraging. You would like to think that the left has a better grasp of what is going on in the world around them than to advance such silly ideas or to buy into them. Did this all start because the recruitment drive of some obscure left group failed to meet its objectives and some wag offered this as an off the cuff explanation?