Interview with Fred Magdoff

Capitalism puts profits first, but an ecological society will serve humanity

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Fred Magdoff: “Decisions made about production and consumption will emphasize on positive effects on humans and the health of the broader environment, rather than the profits and wealth of a few”

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Decisions made about production and consumption will emphasize on positive effects on humans and the health of the broader environment, rather than the profits and wealth of a few

Fred Magdoff,  a professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the new Monthly Review Press book Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformationshares his vision of how we could move toward such a world. 

This interview is reprinted, with permission, from Truthout, August 20, 2017.

Mark Karlin: In summary, what would an ecological society look like to you?

Fred Magdoff: We know an incredible amount about how to use ecologically sound ways to produce what we need for a good life. Although we will learn even more as time goes on, we already know such things as how to grow high yields of food and how to create healthy soils using ecologically sound practices (without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) and how to produce cleaner energy using renewable sources and how to store energy from intermittent sources such as wind and solar. We know how to build appropriate and flexible-use structures (making for easy repurposing), how to better recycle human wastes uncontaminated with industrial pollutants back to farmland and to raise farm animals humanely, how to harvest ocean fish sustainably and how to use aquifers sustainably.

Under capitalism, people are at the service of the economy, as workers and consumers of goods and services. In contrast, the economy of an ecological society will be at the service of humanity and its needs, which of course includes a biodiverse and clean environment with fully functioning natural flows and cycles. Instead of [being based on] the profit motive, decisions made about production and consumption of material goods will place emphasis on having positive effects on humans and the health of the broader environment.

The details of an ecological society will have to be worked out by the people as they are engaged in the struggle and the transition to a new society. But my vision is one in which people live in harmony with each other and the rest of the natural world. It is one of substantive equality and profound democracy, in which the people together decide what is needed for a good life and then ensure that everyone has access to these needs — quality housing, food, clothing, health care, public transportation, sanitation facilities, clean water, clean air and so on. And we can’t leave out access to varied educational, cultural and recreational possibilities, which, combined with meeting material needs, allow all people to fulfill their human potential, wherever their interests lead them.

Workers will control the farms, factories, distribution centers, hospitals, etc. and, together with the surrounding communities, will decide what to produce and how to produce it, utilizing ecologically sound methods of interacting with the rest of the natural world.

It will be critical to operate in ways that maintain an egalitarian and democratic society. Transparency and openness need to be maintained. There are a variety of methods to help make that happen, such as simple processes for recall of unsatisfactory persons in positions of authority and regular rotation of positions within economic units and within social structures, such as community, regional and multi-regional councils.

Continuing efforts will take place in schools and society at large to encourage pro-social traits needed in a cooperative society — cooperation, reciprocity, sharing, empathy, treating all people equally and fairly (no favoritism) — and to work to minimize the expression of traits emphasized and rewarded by capitalism (especially, greed, selfishness and individualism) and to eliminate the deep scourges of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

How does capitalism impede the development of an ecological society?

By its very nature capitalism operates in ways that harm people and the broader environment. The purpose of capitalism is to produce something (a good or a service) using hired labor, raw materials and machinery and sell it for more than the production cost. The motivating and driving force of the system is making more and more money by producing and selling commodities. As [Richard] Levins wrote, “Agriculture is not about producing food but about profit. Food is a side effect. Health service is a commodity, health a by-product.”

If some peoples’ needs are met because they have a good income, that’s how the system is supposed to work. But for the poor and near poor, always present in capitalist societies, their needs for food or health care or decent housing or clean water, etc. are not met, forcing them to rely on mostly inadequate government programs and charity. That is also the way the system is supposed to work.

Class stratification of society is integral to capitalism and is considered “natural.” Unemployment, racism, oppression of native peoples, oppression of women and other forms of discrimination cause stress, illness and frequently, shortened lives. For example, African-American men have a high incidence of hypertension. But while scientists search for genes to explain this, the fact that Africans living in Africa do not have particularly high blood pressure indicates that the high rate of hypertension among African-Americans is a result of stresses suffered while living in a racist and competitive dog-eat-dog society. Workers laboring in insecure and contingent jobs feel considerable stress, leading to diseases such as ulcers, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Regarding the environment, there is nothing built into the system, no formal procedures or mechanisms, to rationally regulate human interaction with the rest of the natural world. This means that environmental damage is part of the very fabric of capitalism: overfishing of the seas, pollution of air, water, soil and life, including people. According to a 2009 report of the President’s Cancer Panel, we are even born “pre-polluted” with a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Mines, factories and refineries are operated with little regard for the environment. And cleaning up abandoned mines, factories and waste dumps is normally left to society to take care of — we all pay twice, by living with damaging pollution and by paying for cleanup costs.

Social scientists refer to these negative social and environmental effects of capitalism as “externalities.” But in reality, they are logical outcomes of a system in which decisions are made based on the profit motive. Although laws are sometimes passed to deal with some of the “externalities,” they are usually watered down to make them acceptable to business and regulations are not rigorously enforced. These are the equivalent of small band-aids placed on a patient suffering from a variety of life-threatening ailments who desperately needs multiple operations.

The ideology developed through our educational systems and media gives the false impression that capitalism is natural, just the right fit for our “human nature.” Thus, any other system is just not possible because it goes against the basic nature of humans. So, there are both practical and ideological impediments thrown up by capitalism to make it very difficult to change the economic/political/social system.

Explain the biosphere and its cycles of life.

The biosphere encompasses all living organisms and the places where they live, including much of the atmosphere, the oceans, fresh water, soils and deep into the earth. Living organisms are in a constant interaction with the non-living environment, taking in substances from their surroundings and give off waste products. But organisms are also in a constant interaction with other organisms, frequently taking the form of cooperation, such as the symbiotic relationship between nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules in the roots of legume plants. Another telling example is the human biome, the myriad organisms living on our skin and in our digestive system, enabling our bodies to live and function well.

All organisms go through a life cycle, being born (or hatched), growing to maturity, reproducing and then dying. But where do they get their energy and nutrients from in order to live? Almost all life depends either directly or indirectly on the sun’s energy, which is captured by plants and used to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, together with over a dozen other nutrients (mostly from soils), into starches, proteins and other organic materials needed for life.

There are a variety of “foodwebs” in which the primary producer (of energy and life), normally a plant, is then consumed by a “secondary” producer (an animal), which is then consumed by a “tertiary” consumer (another animal), etc. Animals either eat plants (cows, plant-feeding insects, humans) or eat animals that eat plants (a crocodile eats a wildebeest that fed on grasslands, humans consume chickens fed with corn and soy). Waste products are excreted, and after death, the residue of all organisms become food sources for smaller organisms such as bacteria and fungi.

Thus, the multitude of organisms comprising our biologically diverse biosphere participate in cycles of life and death, foodwebs, cooperation (among and between species), as well as antagonism between species, as when humans are attacked by a bacterial disease or intestinal parasite. It is the rich diversity of organisms, interacting with one another and with the nonliving natural world, which helps maintain a balance in nature that helps minimize outbreaks of widespread disease that would decimate a species or upset the delicate balance of life.

In what way is equality a biological fact?

We are a very young species: Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years. (Although a recent finding may push that back to 300,000 years, from an evolutionary point of view that’s still a blink of an eye.) For most of the time Homo sapiens lived in Africa, with groups leaving beginning around 70,000 years ago, eventually populating all continents except Antarctica.

Various superficial characteristics evolved during this short period of time in which human populations have been separated, but there has not been sufficient time for true “subspecies” or “races” to develop. This is the explanation for the very small genetic differences between randomly selected people, about 0.1 percent. People in South Africa, Congo and Ethiopia have more genetic variation between them than each group does compared to Europeans.

Within any large group of people there are differences in abilities and capacity that result from a variety of factors. Genes play an important part, as do the chemicals on the genes that result from a number of factors and control their expression (epigenetics), life experiences (social environment, education and other stimulation, and encouragement), physical environment (exposure to pollutants). All these combine in individuals to influence their interests, talents and abilities.

However, there is no evidence whatsoever of differences in intellectual prowess or moral character between groups of people — men, women, those with different skin pigmentation, those whose ancestors lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, or Oceana. No group is smarter or more ethical than another.

As the paleontologist and evolutionary scientist Stephen J. Gould explained, “Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not given a priori; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way.”

What strategies would make your plans for an ecological society move beyond an intellectual movement and become a goal of the middle class?

For a revolutionary transformation to an ecological society, the goal of the majority of working people, including those in the working class and the middle class, must be for establishing a society that’s equitable, democratic and ecologically sustainable. This will take a long-running multipronged effort at organizing, educating and struggling for gains small and large.

Persons in the middle class, although in a privileged position relative to poor, often feel that something isn’t quite right with society and their lives. They feel the effects of environmental degradation, although not nearly as much as the poor. But still, they frequently breathe polluted air or live in coastal communities that because of sea level rise (resulting from global warming) and more intense storms are flooding more regularly. Their bodies are polluted with flame retardants and plasticizers and pesticides, just like other people’s. Their economic positions are not as secure as they once were, as robots and algorithms take over well-paying jobs. After losing homes during the great financial crisis, many now feel especially left out. Middle-class women are also affected by sexism, and a variety of forms of oppression. People in the middle class are also concerned about the economic and environmental conditions that their children and grandchildren will inherit.

Thus, there are reasons to believe that working-class and middle-class people can eventually unite around issues of good jobs for everyone, social justice and a healthy environment.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties. The system uses an array of strategies to keep people from uniting, such as endemic racism and fostering the deep ideological belief that the people in the various economic strata deserve to be where they are: If you want to get ahead, just work harder and make better life choices. But if you fall behind and are poor it’s just your fault and not the fault of society for failing to provide well-paying jobs, good educational experiences and health care for the poor.

However, we are born with the instinct to want to be treated fairly and have others treated fairly. The movement needs to emphasize that instinctual feeling, continually demonstrating that people born into poverty or an oppressed group are not treated fairly and are not able to compete on an equal footing with those from wealthier families in capitalism’s game. Many people sort of understand that the game is rigged, but they need to be shown how incredibly rigged it actually is. Once they deeply understand that it is the way the society functions that creates these problems, they might be open to considering a different way of organizing the economy and society.

How would a revolutionary transformation be achieved?

This, of course, is the hardest question of all. The vast majority of people must move from an acceptance of current conditions, or a quiescence about them, to a recognition that such a transformation is needed for ecological reasons as well as to promote an equitable society free of discrimination and oppression.

For years, the left has been weak, split into countless organizations and NGOs, each pursuing its own very important issue, such as anti-racism and oppression of Indigenous peoples, supporting a healthy environment (against fracking, oil and gas pipeline expansion, reliance on fossil fuels, release of toxic materials into the environment, etc.), extending quality health care for all, preventing hunger, building and supplying affordable housing, growing food without relying on massive amounts of fossil fuels and toxic and polluting chemicals, and so on.

All these and many not listed are worthy causes! But we won’t get anywhere until [all] the people affiliated with and dedicated to each of these worthy progressive causes come to see their primary issue as related to all the others. They can only be solved together. People must come to see that the struggle for a just and ecologically sound society is one struggle and requires a massive mobilization of people over the long term.

Whether a coalition of organizations or a single organization is formed, a strategy needs to be developed to engage in a long and difficult struggle. This will entail what Jane McAlevey refers to as “deep organizing.” This is the type of struggle that was common in the union movement in the 1930s and 1940s. Individual actions, such as demonstrations and occupations, strikes, and voting and petition drives become the means to explore people’s concerns, constantly enlarge the base of activists, and to develop local leaders. While every campaign is important, each needs to be viewed in the broader context of movement building.

The forces in favor of the status quo are formidable and will be used to try to suppress united mass movements seriously working to create a humane, egalitarian and environmentally rational society. Only a large majority of the people, using their power to stop working and to engage in civil disobedience and other forms of struggle, can mount a force sufficiently strong to counter the power of capital.


  • Very nice article. The final paragraphs are the most important ones. Unless all the various movements join hands and push forward the agenda of replacing capitalism with social democracy, there is little hope for the near future. It is by dividing the masses that the elites are able to rule.

  • Often underestimated is the power of the working class to withdraw its collective labor and bring capital’s system to a thudding stop.