What Would an “Eco-Socialist” Politics Look Like?

Thoughts on The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York


As many Americans prepare to observe Earth Day this year, democratic socialists who are paying attention might want to contemplate two possibly disagreeable questions.

The first is:  what if anything can we contribute to the understanding of climate change and other urgent environmental problems that countless green activists haven’t already discovered themselves – and long before us?  The second is:  what unique contribution can socialists make – if any – toward fixing what’s wrong?

When around 17 million Americans attended the first Earth Day events some 43 years ago, an easy answer to both questions was: “not much.”

With some exceptions, socialists and others on the U.S. left gave environmental issues little heed, and some in fact denounced pollution concerns as “petit bourgeois” compared to, say, the urgency of halting the Vietnam War or combating police brutality towards black youth in the cities.

Also, with a few exceptions, most leaders of the U.S. environmental movement in 1970 were lukewarm or antagonistic to socialism.  In fact some green critics charged – with some justification — that the style of “socialism” embodied by the old Soviet bloc was a worse environmental nightmare than western capitalism. 

The 1970s incubated radical and indeed “revolutionary” movements for change, but most leftists charged – with some justification – that the style of “socialism” embodied by the old Soviet bloc was a worse environmental nightmare than western capitalism. 

Socialism in western Social Democratic guise, the critics further noted, seemed addicted to what leading green thinkers considered ecologically ruinous forms of economic growth.  And many critics argued that socialism’s environmental flaws were hardly accidental, but instead rooted in Marx’s radically mistaken loyalty to a “labor standard of value” – although both the critics of the “labor theory” and some of its self-styled Marxist defenders were often rather vague on what exactly it meant.

For these and other reasons, including disputes over the legacy of population theorist Thomas Malthus and the mainstream environmental lobby’s understandable search for political respectability in Washington, open cooperation between American environmentalists and American socialists was rare in 1970.  It continues to be extremely rare today, although eco-anarchist and eco-feminist ideas seem to have flourished in the U.S., while new movements combining green and socialist perspectives have emerged in other societies.

Despite this problematic history, a variety of socialists have struggled for the past generation to address the global environmental challenge, both politically and theoretically And on the occasion of Earth Day 2013, democratic socialists who haven’t followed their debates too closely may want to familiarize ourselves with an increasingly impressive green socialist literature.

One theoretically interesting, but sometimes frustrating, place to start our reading is a recent book from Monthly Review Press, The Ecological Rift:  Capitalism’s War on the Earth.  Coauthored by John Bellamy Foster, current editor of Monthly Review magazine, and two fellow environmental sociologists, Brett Clark and Richard York, Ecological Rift is arguably a bit too ambitious in its scope.

Addressing climate activists as well as socialists, taking sides in complex academic debates within both environmental sociology and biological ecology, and striving to integrate Marx’s intellectual legacy with recent environmental reports by global scientific bodies, this book sprawls at times.  Several of its chapters (closely based on previously published journal articles) also are somewhat repetitive.  It’s not a book that most people will read in one sitting, or in two.

A major strength of Ecological Rift, however, is that it rescues Marx’s reputation from misunderstandings about the labor theory of value and in fact demonstrates how Marx’s acceptance of Adam Smith’s earlier distinction between the “exchange values” – monetary values – of commodities and their physical “use values” helps to explain why capitalist societies are chronically driven to plunder the planet, for nothing more solid than mere money.

The authors also employ Marxist economics to explain how the compulsion to “accumulate” capital, by repeatedly investing money to generate profits, then reinvesting the proceeds in the search for even higher profits, drives capitalist economic systems to expand beyond all conceivable social and natural boundaries – towards long-term ecological ruin.

A third major environmental flaw in capitalism, as the book’s title suggests, is the geographical “rift” it has historically made in natural ecological processes, notably the circulation of nutrients between human civilization and the soil. 

As famed German chemist Justus von Liebig observed in the 1850s and as Marx noted afterwards in Capital, early industrial capitalism, by uprooting rural peasants and converting them into a landless “proletariat” in large industrial cities where they depended on food imported from the countryside, broke the traditional pattern of nutrients being returned to their places of origin through human excretion. 

Capitalist agriculture instead “robbed the soil” by extracting minerals like nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium from place A and transporting them long distances to city B, von Liebig and Marx note.  There they eventually reentered the environment in the form of water pollution – thus perpetuating environmental destruction at both ends of the food chain.

The development of a huge artificial fertilizer industry since Marx’s day means today agribusiness doesn’t destroy soil productivity nearly as fast as it once did, but severe pollution of lakes, rivers and even “dead spots” in the ocean from excessive fertilizer runoff has become a global problem, if not a crisis.  And this “ecological rift” created by agribusiness seems likely to worsen as global capitalism ships foodstuffs increasingly long distances from the growers to the ultimate consumers.

Unfortunately the global “rift” in nutrient recycling and the crisis in global emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases represent just two out of 11 different ways in which today’s civilization is pressing dangerously past key environmental boundaries, the authors report. The acidification of the oceans from excessive CO2 levels in the air, increasing extinction rates leading to global losses in biodiversity, excessive levels of freshwater use and the conversion of natural landscapes to other uses are some of the other effects of our capitalist global economy and its relentless expansionary drives.

Yet many existing and proposed environmental reforms aimed at curbing the global crisis are almost certain, because of the laws of capitalist growth and accumulation, to make it worse, according to The Ecological Rift.

The authors at the end of this long book then go on to outline the kind of eco-socialist revolution that they believe is ultimately necessary to stop the damage, through the “associated producers” (to quote Marx’s words in Capital Vol. 3) governing “the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control … accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

The strategy by which Foster, Clark and York believe an “ecological proletariat” can accomplish this revolutionary goal is too complex (and in places fragmentary) to summarize easily here and is likely to strike at least some DSA members as unsatisfactory.  The book suggests, for example, that Asian peasants with Maoist politics and South American followers of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador are likely to be more pivotal to eco-socialist transformation than European-style social democrats. 

Whether or not socialist history – including the checkered history of Leninism – truly justifies this focus on more Third World revolt is debatable.  In any event, it’s to be hoped that democratic socialists will find some ways to make a global eco-transformation attractive to unionized US workers as well, even including some older white men, or the book’s vision of eco-socialist revolution could be a little too late in arriving to avert global disasters. 

Yet regardless of whether all socialists agree with each detail in The Ecological Rift, the book represents a bold advance in progressive attempts to grapple with the theoretical causes as well as practical consequences of global environmental crisis.  It will be good if DSA members can read it and learn from it in that light.

Andy Feeney is a member of the Metro Washington DC Chapter of DSA.