Essential Debates

John Bellamy Foster answers five questions about Marxism and ecology

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Can Marxism strengthen our understanding of ecological crises? The author of Marx’s Ecology replies to a critic on metabolic rift, sustainable human development, degrowth, population growth, and industrialism.

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Can Marxism strengthen our understanding of ecological crises? The author of Marx’s Ecology replies to a critic on metabolic rift, sustainable human development,  degrowth, population growth, and industrialism. 

Introduction: The Indian website Ecologize recently published John Bellamy Foster’s Foreword to Ian Angus’s book Facing the Anthropocene. Commenting on Foster’s article, journalist and activist Saral Sarkar,  who describes his views as eco-socialist, raised questions that challenge the usefulness of Marxist analysis in understanding the global ecological crisis. Foster’s reply was posted by Ecologise on March 26.

The exchange, republished below, addresses important questions about Marxist perspectives on the global ecological crisis. C&C welcomes further discussion.

C&C has added paragraph breaks to both articles to improve on-screen readability.


by Saral Sarkar
Ecologise, March 17, 2017

Prof. Bellamy Foster is a renowned scholar. If his scholarship is also meant to serve the cause he espouses, he may be requested to please reply to the following questions/comments of a reader of this article:

Of what use is it to replace the commonly used and well understood term “great ecological crisis” through the hardly known and not well understood long Marxian term “metabolic rift in the human relation to the earth?”

There are some more statements/phrases in the article that throw up critical comments: e.g.”Creating a world of sustainable human development …” This caused me to raise my eyebrows. “Sustainable development” has since the 1980s been the buzzword of capitalist development economics. But the term meant nothing new. It was like dehydrated pure drinking water. Of course, Bellamy Foster is using the additional attribute “human”. But “human development” has also been around for long. Doesn’t it mean in plain English sustainable economic growth?

A straightforward question: Doesn’t Bellamy Foster think that Eco-Socialism’s immediate goal should be to initiate a policy of de-growth, a contracting economy, and a contracting population? And the long-term goal a socialist steady-state economy at a low level?

We know how much ecological havoc the socialist Soviet Union and other “socialist” countries of Eastern Europe wreaked. It is therefore not right to say, I think, “It is capitalism … that constitutes our “burning house.” Isn’t it better, because truer, that it is industrialism that constitutes for the last two hundred years our burning house, capitalism and “socialism” being merely two political variants of the same industrial way of living?


by John Bellamy Foster
Ecologise, March 26, 2017

I appreciate Saral Sarkar’s questions regarding my Foreword to Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene. I will attempt to answer his queries as briefly as I can and in the order in which they were asked. I have numbered my responses for the convenience of the reader.

(1) There is no sense in which Marx’s concept of an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” (or metabolic rift), as this concept is employed by ecosocialists today, can be seen as a substitute for the notion of global ecological crisis. Marx’s development of a socioecological systems approach (rooted in the notion of metabolism) grew out of the natural-scientific discussions of his time and prefigured the rise of the ecosystem concept and later Earth System analysis. It is closely connected to our current scientific understanding.

Thus, an article in Scientific Reports in March 2017 refers to the “metabolic rift,” citing Marx’s Capital, in an attempt to address some of our contemporary human-ecological problems. Similarly, scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group define the Anthropocene as an “anthropogenic rift” in the Earth System (or Earth metabolism). Indeed, rather than displacing the notion of global ecological crisis, Marx’s metabolic rift can be seen as adding clarity to our understanding of that very real crisis, and particularly the dialectical interconnections between its social and ecological aspects.

(2) The concept of “sustainable human development” was highlighted in Paul Burkett’s now classic essay, “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development,” published in the October 2005 issue of Monthly Review. Marx in volume 3 of Capital presented what is undoubtedly the most radical conception of sustainability ever introduced, arguing that individuals don’t own the earth; that even all the people in all the countries of the world don’t own the earth, but that they simply hold it in trust for future generations and must maintain it and even improve it as good heads of the household. He defined socialism as a social formation in which the associated producers rationally regulate their metabolism with the earth in such a way as to promote genuine human needs, while at the same time economizing on the expenditure of energy.

It is certainly possible, therefore, on the basis of classical historical materialism, to develop a revolutionary conception of “sustainable human development”—one which is radically opposed to “sustainable development” as defined by neoclassical economics. Sustainable human development, cannot be taken as meaning sustainable economic growth—a term which from an Earth system perspective is a contradictio in adjecto.

Surely it would be a fatal error for the left to disarm itself intellectually by abandoning contested concepts like sustainability and ecology—or, for that matter, equality, democracy, and freedom—simply because they have been appropriated and distorted in various ways by the dominant ideology. We need to fight for our own perspectives.

(3) Degrowth, in the form in which it is usually presented today, cannot be the principal organizing objective of the ecosocialist movement, since it neither addresses the immediate ecological threat nor engages with the need for structural change in the capital system. Given the planetary emergency, the ecological movement’s primary goal at present has to be one of mitigating climate change, which however cannot be separated from a host of other social and ecological problems.

In the Anthropocene, we are faced with the eventual prospect, if society continues to follow the path of business as usual, of the end of civilization (in the sense of organized human society) and even potentially of the human species itself. But well before that hundreds of millions of people will be affected by increasing droughts, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events of all kinds.

This requires a radical change in the “political and economic hegemony,” as Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research puts it. Anderson also insists on an immediate moratorium on economic growth and on all attempts to spur growth at the expense of the environment. Conservation is needed as well as shifts in resource use, technology, and use values. Fossil fuels have to be kept in the ground.

All of this is in line with what is argued by degrowth theorists. But the whole concept of degrowth has been distorted by the fact that it is generally used to put the dominant concept of economic growth on its head, arguing simply for downsizing the system, or putting it in reverse, without engaging in a full critique of capitalism or the promotion of the revolutionary structural changes that would be needed in confronting the capital system. There is certainly no question that we need to move toward a steady-state economy in Herman Daly’s sense of no net capital formation. The weight of the economy in the rich countries of the advanced capitalist world needs to be reduced.

But we should not make the error of seeing this as just an issue of scale as degrowth theorists commonly do. The entire structure of the capital system itself needs to be overcome and replaced by a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability. Failure to address revolutionary structural change is the main weakness of the degrowth perspective, which has not yet escaped the ideology of capital. Thus, leading degrowth thinkers like Serge Latouche insist that degrowth in their terms is somehow compatible with capitalism.

(4) It is true that all other things being equal increased population places more burdens on the carrying capacity of the earth. But crude Malthusian perspectives are not at all useful in addressing the ecological problem. It is capital accumulation, not population increase, that is the major factor in climate change. Although carbon emissions have to cease everywhere on earth within the next few decades—i.e., the world has to reach zero net emissions by 2050—the biggest reductions in emissions will necessarily have to occur in the rich countries, where per capita carbon emissions are highest.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the wealthy countries, which have the highest per capita carbon emissions, are not those countries with the highest rates of population growth. Indeed, the poorest countries with the highest population growth rates tend to be those countries with the least per capita impact on the climate.

Population growth in capitalism is a dependent variable. It is dependent on conditions of capitalism and imperialism in a given state or region, and on such factors as employment, health, education, women’s rights, etc. An excellent book on this topic is Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Too Many People?

(5) The question of whether it is industrialism rather than capitalism that is the source of our “burning house” is an odd one for someone with a connection to ecosocialism to ask. The argument that Sarkal presents here is that because the Soviet Union too did damage to its environment, and it was industrialized but non-capitalist, that we should therefore move away from analysis of historically specific social formations, like capitalism (or formerly “actually existing socialism”), and instead we should just attribute the whole problem to the more general, abstract notion of industrialization.

The same logic if carried farther would lead one to argue that, since pre-industrial societies also destroyed their environments, industrialization is not a sufficient explanation. We should therefore attribute the environmental problem to human society in general. And, then, since humans are social animals, society itself can be considered an insufficient explanation, so we should attribute the ecological problem to the very existence of human beings. Ergo there are simply too many people.

Such an approach is not very helpful in that it removes all the crucial historical elements of the problem, and also our ability to act in rational ways. What is beyond question is that capitalism is a system dedicated to capital accumulation above all. As Marx put it, the capitalist only knows “Go on, Go on” (Grow, Grow), i.e., M-C-M´… M-C-M´´… M-C-M´´´, ad infinitum. In its increasingly irrational attempts to expand, capital (the capitalist corporations) commodifies everything in existence, endangering humanity and the entire planet. In less than a generation under business as usual this process will take us over the climate cliff.

There is only one possible conclusion: System Change, Not Climate Change!

1 Comment

  • Some new questions or rather comments to John Bellamy Foster and Saral Sarkar

    There is a need for drastic changes in the strategic understanding of the environmental movement. Both Saral Sarkar and Foster contributes to this debate. Still some remarks can be made. As an environmentalist my basis for argument is not the left. At the end I explain why.

    On point 1: It is indeed useful to maintain the concept global ecological crisis (I do not know if it really is better to add great) and it is indeed good that we can use the thoughts of Marx to further deepen this notion together with other thinkers as Elin Wägner, Gandhi etc.

    On point 2: Foster’s argument “Surely it would be a fatal error for the left to disarm itself intellectually by abandoning contested concepts” lacks clarity as it gives a green light to any word. Popular movements who are struggling today do not have time for such a principle that gives no limitations for endless intellectual discussion.

    The notion in itself is trivial. Of course not all concepts should be abandoned. But certainly it is necessary to abandon some. How else could we move forward or at times avoid going fast backwards.

    Main concepts of the environmental movements have been e.g. stop environmental destruction, or at the system level showing how the food chain connects wild life and human beings thus bringing health and nature conservation together in the new concept environment. The local direct democracy group Alternativ Stad in Stockholm made a booklet in 1973 calling to a low energy society to stop nuclear energy but explicitly also climate change. Standard ideology in these day in broad mobilizations was environment is more important than short term profit for companies, a clear conflict perspective used with success many times at local and national level.

    Sustainable development was the main ideological tool used as an attack against the environmental movement to destroy the understanding of the environmental crisis as a conflictual issue. Instead SD was presented as a win-win solution sugared with extreme expansion of professional careers in both GONGOs (NGOs following the SD ideology mainly funded by governments), governments and corporations.

    The way to swallow the concept was antiintellectually contradictory thus making it even more destructive. On the one hand SD was presented as something for all without a theoretical basis. On the other hand in the main ideological tool to introduce the concept, Our Common Future issued by the Brundtland commission it was specifically defined as sustainable growth. The theoretical basis for stating SD=SG and SG is proved to be possible was the change from open fires to tiled stoves thus fourfolding the energy efficiency. The environmental activists Thomas Wallgren who is rather a Gandhian than leftist showed that this lacked a theoretical basis as a shift from one technology is not a technical change but a social, cultural, economical etc. Furthermore what can be possible for one type of technology does not prove that the whole technosphere could be changed in the same manner. Thus SG has no theoretical foundation, what is left is a misch masch concept to destroy the understanding of environmental issues as questions concerning conflicts and not only cooperation.

    For academicians it may be useful to endlessly discuss every concept delinked from the social reality were they are used, for movements struggling for system change this is impossible. Foster seems unaware of the historically destructive role of the sustainable development concept. One do not need any greater effort to find out that a drastic change took place in the public discourse on environment once SD became introduced and soon enough gained hegemonic status. It is not acceptable to avoid this social reality of this concept which is anti system change.

    At times movements have of course to use concepts that are ambiguous. Foster’s argument is valid in some cases. Sustainability does not necessary have a anti system notion built into the history and content of the concept. It is precisely the combination of sutainability and development which is the tool to destroy the understanding of environmental issues as conflictual in need for system change.

    Development may or may not be a useful concept. The left has often seen it as useful. This has been questioned since 1992 when the indigenous movements in Americas split from left wing developmentalism during the 500 year is enough campaign. Since Truman used the concept to destroy the understanding of the social divide and power relations replacing this with developed and under developed nations development has been often a tool for imperialism and global domination by the rich. Built into the concept there are notion of time and social neutrality making it highly questionable and for certain not useful in connection with solving the global ecological crisis. For some odd reason Foster miss precisely this concept when he defends the need for using concept in our own way.

    Now there has been a simple solution to the problem. The Brazilian Liberation Theologist Leonardo Boff says sustainable society, a kind of concept also used 1972 when a group in Stockholm called for low energy society, a concept as useful today as then.

    On point 3: The social neutrality of the degrowth concept makes it useless. Since 1973 it has not been used by the democratic environmental movement in Sweden except when discussing at an aggravated global level and then together with an analysis of social power. It is true that individualization of environmentalism away from democratic organizing at time makes this kind of degrowth intellectualism separated form social struggle popular. Similar trends can be seen around concepts as anticapitalism, green liberalism etc. But this is rather trends among political consumerism than part of democratic collective struggle for system change. True at times very visible, but less to do with actual strategic choices and concepts necessary for these choices which collective democratic actors have to make.

    Concerning scale I could patly agree with Foster but also question a to shallow understanding of the problem with scale, but I will come back to this on the point of industrialism.

    On point 4: The populations issue was dealt with at the very beginning of the first encounter when different strands in the global environmental movement met in Stockholm 1972. The effort by anglo american ideologists and ecofascists together with corporate interests to put the blame on number of people was dealt a blow from which they never could regain their up till then dominating role in the global public discourse. it was a combination of Swedish popular movements and activists from the first who demolished the arguments by people like Paul Ehrlich. The third world activists were diminished as tools for Barry Commoner and the head of the Swedish statistical agency, a social democrat, was in US academic literature afterwards presented falsely as a left wing extremists using propaganda against the scholar Ehrlich.

    In democratic environmental movements this idea never have gained influence again. But it pops up every time now and again. Much due to the still influential cultural Anglo American imperialism.

    On point 5: Once more Foster takes the easy way out. By only focusing on the present dominant historical social formation two problems arise. Essential problems with this formation is put under the carpet linked to industrialisation. So is formations that could be seen as possible to replace the dominant formation at the moment.

    Capitalism cannot acknowledge ecology, nether did the planned economy based on industrial principles. Here the problems of scale is essential. Agriculture, fishery, forestry and some other nature extraction forms of economy have not the scale advantages which is the reason for the success of industrial economy.

    Anticapitalism as ideology is a favorite among leftists which can easily hide everything and nothing. Pink governments in Latin America hide their extractive capitalism behind anticapitalist and antiimperialist rhetoric.

    Anticapitalists do not see how industrialistic economic hegemony have been a main tool for left movements and governments to come to power. They destroy their own roots. They commit political suicide by wiping out the historical block at the foundation of their reformist or revolutionary project. They murder those peasants both literally and figuratively that once started the revolution from which they granted their power in the country of the revolution or in countries afraid of the revolution.

    This is unacceptable to the social ecological movement. It was the peasants in Kharkov and Poltava oblast that started the Russian revolution in 1902, not the left wing party or workers. It was the peasant that stared the Mexican revolution under leaders as Zapata and so on. Today Via Campesina is the main uniting force in the climate justice and many other global mobilizations. With less and less peasant voters, less and less part of the formal economy, a more and more marginal cultural role in the urbanizing society the peasant as Samir Amin pints out are essential. I claim that their role is growing in spite of their diminishing role in numbers, money economy and mass media. For two simple reasons. Firstly formal numbers are less important than material conditions, we all have a stomach (except the left it seems quite often). You can’t eat money. Secondly ecological realities have a growing importance. This in spite of that they are not measurable in formal economy, mass media or voter quota in countries privileged by economical, military and political ways in the present world order thus able to oppress others. There is no way to solve the global ecological crisis without the direct producers in the non-industrial, non-urbanized economy. The left as far as I have experienced then are not aware of the limitations in their theories. Instead they try to instrumentalize environmental issues and especially those that are “hot” at the moment in their attempts at positioning themselves against opposing ideologies. Which is a pity.

    Tord Björk


    There is a long history of the left opportunistically using the environmental issue to strengthen an ideological agenda instead of contributing to radical struggle. As the left have much more intellectual resources than democratically organized popular movements this history goes mainly unnoticed. At every important conjuncture when decisive radicalization could have taken place the left have been a hinderance. From the emergence of the global environmental movement in connection to the UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972 to the Climate Summit in 2009. The way the left today splits up in seemingly to opposing blocs stops the climate movement from adopting the antineoliberal global popular movements agenda of Via Campesina, Friends of the Eath International and like minded movements. The opportunistic left starts or join climate action initiatives together with and other organizations that oppose confronting the system and refuse to say no to carbon trading and other neoliberal solutions. Other leftists set up sectarian initiatives were you have to agree to an anticapitalist ideology to be part of the struggle. People like Naomi Klein is in some way able to be part of these two contradictory trends at the same time, legitimizing the antiradical position of while at the same time fuelling leftists claim of being the leading intellectuals of the climate movement. Everyone is told that now is the time to read Marx and understand that leftists organizations is the place were radical ideas about system change is discussed, not in popular democratic movements opposing greenwashing of climate issues. Challenging the vested interest of the leftist institutions while mainly uniting the ecological movement with the rural class struggle thus enabling the reemergence of a historical bloc for system change including criticism of the industrial norma for all economy beyond the controversy between Sarkal and Foster is what we need now.