The Ecology of Socialism


Solidair/Solidaire, the weekly journal of the Workers Party of Belgium (PVDA-PTB), interviewed John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review, 26 April 2010

Solidair/Solidaire: Many green thinkers reject a Marxist analysis because they think that the Marxist approach to the economy is a very productivist one, focused on growth and seeing nature as “a free gift” to mankind.  You contradict that idea.

John Bellamy Foster: Productivism has of course been the dominant perspective for the last two centuries or more, cutting across the ideological spectrum.  In many ways, though, Marx, who was hands down the most sophisticated social analyst of the environmental predicament in the nineteenth century, constituted an exception.  He argued that what was needed was the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature in such a way as to promote the highest levels of individual and collective human fulfillment at the lowest cost in terms of the expenditure of energy.  This was the end point of his critique of capitalism and at the same time a crucial part of his definition of communism.  He pointed to the “irreparable rift” in the metabolism between humanity and nature caused by the capitalist production.  Marx presented the most radical vision conceivable of sustainable human development, arguing that individuals didn’t own the earth, that all the countries and peoples on the planet did not own the earth, that it was our responsibility to maintain and if possible improve the earth for succeeding generations (as good heads of the household).  Some later Marxists (e.g. William Morris) followed Marx in these ecological views.  Others adopted a narrow productivism reminiscent of capitalist society, reinforcing a tragic legacy in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s on.  Nevertheless, Marxists, and socialists more generally, played pioneering roles in the development of the modern ecological critique.  All of this is explained in Marx’s Ecology and in my more recent book The Ecological Revolution.

The claim that Marx believed that nature was a “free gift” to humanity is a statement that one hears over and over, but is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.  All the classical economists — Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Say, J.S. Mill, Marx — referred explicitly to nature as a “free gift.”  It was part of classical economics and was inherited by neoclassical economics.  Neoclassical economists, even mainstream environmental economists, still include this same notion in their textbooks.  Marx, however, was distinctive in that he was writing not about economic laws in general but about the laws of motion of capitalism as a historically specific system, and from a critical standpoint.  He therefore argued, quite correctly, that nature was treated as a “free gift” for capital.  Its non-valuation was built into capitalism’s law of value.  He argued that while under capitalism only labor produced (exchange) value, that this merely reflected the distorted character of the system, since nature, he insisted, was just as much a source of real wealth (use values) as was labor.  Indeed, labor was itself at bottom a natural agent.  This was not a minor matter for Marx.  He started off the Critique of the Gotha Programme with this very point, criticizing those socialists who failed to recognize that nature and labor together constituted the sources of wealth, with nature as its ultimate source.  Marx argued that capitalism promoted private profits in part by destroying public (natural) wealth.  I have written repeatedly on this, most recently in “The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction” (coauthored with Brett Clark) in the November 2009 issue of Monthly Review.

On the one hand you say that “slow growth or no growth is a disaster for working people.”  People will lose jobs.  Indeed, how can one be against growth given hunger, poverty, and unemployment in the world?  But, on the other hand, you seem to accentuate the need for a zero growth.  You write: “What needs to be reduced is not just carbon footprints, but ecological footprints, which means that expansion on the world level and especially in the rich countries need to be reduced, even cease.”  That is not a very pleasant message for the working people in those rich countries.  How do you reconcile those two viewpoints and in which way your viewpoint is different from environmentalists that are pleading for décroissance,” negative growth, blaming the production and not the system of production?

Well, this is certainly a contradiction, but it is not a contradiction of mine, but one engendered by capitalist society.  In capitalism you have an economic crisis whenever there isn’t economic growth or it slows down significantly (more specifically when the growth of profits and accumulation turns negative or stagnates).  It is a grow-or-die system.  Whenever there is an economic crisis it poses, like I said, “a disaster for working people,” since they are ultimately forced to bear the cost.  We are experiencing that right now in a very big way.  But it is also true that the ecological footprint of humanity is now too big, and we are crossing all sorts of physical boundaries of the system.  This too is a reality, and one that will only worsen with continued exponential growth.

How do we deal with this double economic-ecological contradiction, which is built into capitalism?  I think the answer should be obvious: we need to struggle against the system itself.  People need jobs and security, as well as all the basic requirements of life.  They also need opportunities for human development.  But this cannot be accomplished any more by doing everything possible to expand the total level of production endlessly, with the promise (almost invariably not kept) that significant crumbs will fall to those below.  Instead we have to focus on essential needs, on equality, and on human development.

The critique of the labor of “getting” as the nature of human existence goes back to Epicurus (who Marx deeply admired) in ancient times.  “Nothing is enough,” Epicurus wrote, “for those for whom enough is too little.”  Socialism arose originally as a view emphasizing an egalitarian approach to the satisfaction of human needs, through rational production, and collective human development.  In contrast to capitalism, there is no inherent conflict between socialism and a concept of “enough.”

Isn’t it possible that capitalists will become conscious of the urgency of the climate problem and put pressure on governments for green policies?  After all, they are not helped with increasing energy costs, rising prices of raw materials, losses from ecological disaster, social upheaval, etc.

Some capitalists are becoming conscious of it.  But of course as actual capitalists, that is, as personifications of capital (the system of self-expanding value), their task is to expand their profits, capital, wealth.  It is the fiduciary responsibility of a corporate CEO to promote the interests of stockholders above all else, which means expanding the company.  One could of course imagine a case in which a corporate head became so deluded as to think that the environment came before profits in the operations of his/her firm.  As long as this delusion was confined to the realm of thought probably no one would care, but the moment that executive went so far as to act on the basis of such a delusion he/she would be removed by angry shareholders.  Corporations are machines for accumulation.  It is as simple as that.  There is nothing in the nature of rising ecological costs that will alter this in the slightest.  The system can profit off of high resources costs (e.g. rising oil prices).  Faced with increased costs corporations will undoubtedly shift their things around to ensure continued profitability.  But the idea that they will reduce their overall ecological footprints goes against everything we know about the nature and logic of capital.

You say in “Why Ecological Revolution?” that “for the anti-imperialist movement, a major task should be creating stepped-up opposition to military spending . . . and ending government subsidies to global agribusiness.”  Under capitalism that will inevitably result in layoffs and other job losses in developed countries, again among poorer people.  How can Marxists make this a class issue and not just a middle-class concern?

I don’t believe that this is just a middle-class concern, or even primarily a middle-class concern.  We live in a global system.  Most of the global working class is in the periphery and is kept in its place by the militarism and imperialism of the center countries.  So opposition to the military machine and the other organs of imperialism, most notably multinational corporations, is fully in the global working-class interest.  It is this global proletariat that is the most revolutionary force in the world today, as witnessed by ongoing struggles in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  One can’t realistically talk about the working class today simply in narrow national terms.  The present system of imperial power (ultimately backed up by force) holds down the wages and working conditions of workers in the periphery, which in turn pulls down wages in the United States and other rich countries.  In the case of the United States, the soldiers who carry out these tasks, and who risk their lives, are recruited primarily from the poorer parts of the population, i.e. they are working-class and disproportionately racial/ethnic minorities, often with sympathy for the struggles of people of color worldwide.  They may conclude, as they have not infrequently in the past, that while they are willing to die for the country they are not willing to die for imperialist corporations.  Working people in the United States desperately want alternative forms of employment that are not present now.  What are needed are new work opportunities, not in such destructive areas as war and imperialism but in areas that are related to human development, community welfare, protection of the environment, etc.  To be sure, workers are frequently told that, if they don’t support military spending, or if they go against environmental exploitation (by opposing, for example, the opening up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction), they will lose their jobs.  But this has to be called what it is — “job blackmail” — and fought against.

Agribusiness can’t be said to increase overall employment.  It clearly decreases it on a global level by dispossessing peoples in the third world and adopting labor-saving technologies, while also promoting the maximum environmental destruction.  It sometimes cheapens food but only by imposing enormous social and environmental costs, which are treated as “externalities” and therefore left off the books.  Agribusiness has been proven to be a very ecologically inefficient way of providing food, while an excellent way of enriching those at the top of the food industry, which is of course its primary purpose.

Many people pin their hope on technological solutions for the climate problem: increased energy and carbon efficiency in production and consumption, environmental-friendly house appliances, green energy sources.  What is your response to this?

Energy efficiency and carbon efficiency are of course in themselves good things.  But there are very severe limits imposed by the system in this respect, at least at the macro level.  Most of what we produce in monopoly capitalism is junk, and we use up vast resources (energy and raw materials) in producing it.  There is also the problem that, even if we do reduce the energy per unit of output, the object of the system is to increase the overall output, so the increase in scale overwhelms the ecological benefits derived from any savings in inputs per item.  William Stanley Jevons in the 1860s was puzzled by the fact that each new steam engine was more efficient than the one before so that less coal was needed to produce a given level of output, and yet the demand for coal kept on accelerating.  This was because every increase in efficiency was used to expand accumulation.  So more efficient steam engines led to the production of more and bigger steam engines.  In the aggregate that translated into more demand for coal and hence greater coal production.  This is known as the “Jevons Paradox,” which is inescapable under capitalism.

There are also wilder, futuristic technological scenarios that are circulating as increasing the reflectance of sunlight back into space (by putting white islands in the sea or with satellites), or taking CO2 out of the air with carbon sequestration schemes and ejecting it into the earth, or fertilizing the oceans with iron so as to stimulate algal growth to absorb carbon.  What do you think of that kind of solution?

This is capitalism’s pseudo-revolutionary technological alternative to the needed socio-ecological revolution.  Those in charge are increasingly aware that the system in its normal workings under business as usual cannot solve climate change and other environmental threats.  But rather than turn to a change in social relations of production — that is, accept the need for an ecological revolution that would transcend the fundamentals of the system — the vested interests turn instead to grand technological ploys.  To understand the danger of such forms of geoengineering, one has to appreciate the complex nature of the earth system itself, beyond our capacity fully to understand.  Some, for example, have said we can put iron filings in the ocean to promote algae and absorb carbon dioxide.  But this could lead to other consequences such as expanding dead zones in the ocean (ocean anoxia).  If we try to geoengineer the planet we are inevitably going to create bigger, more threatening forms of what Marx called metabolic rifts, with all sorts of complex, unpredictable effects.  This is the road to insanity: the sorcerer’s apprentice raised to the level of master of the entire planet.  Nobel-prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen says we could dump sulfur in the atmosphere via cannons or aircraft, in order to block some of the solar radiation from reaching the earth.  But if the economic system keeps on growing, we would have to increase the sulfur dumped into the atmosphere exponentially year after year, and we have no real idea what the repercussions would be if we tried to intervene in the earth system in this way on such an enormous scale.  Carbon sequestration, if the technology ever got off the ground, might help.  But it would not solve the underlying problem.

Cap and trade (carbon emissions trading) systems are for some ecologists the magical solution for the climate problem (on the condition that the emission permits are auctioned and not distributed freely).  That system was part of the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.  The idea is to define a maximum level of, or place a “cap” on, total greenhouse gas emission so that those companies that pollute more would have to purchase the emission rights from those who pollutes less, or else compensate for their increased emissions by investing in green projects in developing countries.  Due to the imposition of a definite limit on emissions, this seems to be an effective instrument, or is it not?

Cap and trade or a system of trading emission permits has proven to be ineffective in controlling greenhouse gas emissions where it has been adopted.  It has not served to reduce emissions in the European Union.  A cap is theoretically a ceiling on emissions (but it works even more as a floor, so that if some individual or corporation cuts carbon emissions this simply allows some other party to increase its emissions, as long as the overall cap is not exceeded).  Cap and trade is supposed to ensure that the emissions will not exceed the cap.  But since there are all sorts of “offsets” that operate like medieval indulgences the official “cap” is an illusion.  The cap is in effect raised by the offset amount.  All of this encourages endless sleights of hand by corporations and governments.  Regulation of it is extremely difficult.  There is no mechanism, and probably can be no mechanism, to regulate offsets related to projects in third world countries.  In the cap and trade legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2009, there are numerous exceptions made, for example, for the coal companies.  The manipulation involved and almost baroque complexity is dramatized by the fact that the actual legislation is 2000 pages long. The U.S. approach also wouldn’t use auctioning but would hand out the emission permits to companies based on past emissions, a kind of grandfathering in.  Since this is a market-based approach, it tends to be aimed at promoting accumulation first and foremost, and in this area it is somewhat successful, enhancing profits and pointing to what is called a “subprime carbon market.”  This in fact explains some of the support for cap and trade in business circles.  But in terms of addressing global warming it is, as James Hansen, the leading U.S. climatologist, says, “the temple of doom.”

Remarkably you argue for a carbon tax and a steady increase in the price of fuel.  Many socialists see this as a very socially unjust measure because carbon taxes are direct taxes and not progressive taxes related to income.

We obviously have to do something now given the accelerating climate change crisis — if we believe that saving the planet and humanity is worthwhile.  One of the most effective ways to curtail carbon emissions in the present system is to increase the price of carbon through taxation.  I think Hansen has by far the best proposal on this, one that reflects a class perspective.  He calls it “fee and dividend.”  It is a fee (or tax) imposed on fossil fuels at the wellhead, mineshaft, or point of entry into the country (i.e. on corporations at the point of production).  In his proposal 100% of the revenue collected would be given to the public as a dividend on a monthly basis, without any of it falling into the hands of the state (which is prey to financial interests) or capital.  Since most people have below average per capita carbon footprints, the dividends that they would receive would exceed the price increases that corporations would pass on from the tax.  Also such an approach would encourage conservation by providing immediate net gains to anyone at any level in the society who reduced his/her carbon footprint.  The tax rate would be ratcheted up over time.  Hansen believes that the simplicity and transparency of this approach, and the fact that the great majority of the population would clearly gain, would ensure the needed strong public support for the measure.  A very wealthy individual like Al Gore, with a mansion, etc. (not to mention a real magnate of capital like Bill Gates) would get back a dividend (issued on a per capita basis) that was miniscule in comparison to his carbon footprint.  Ordinary working people, in contrast, would find their dividend large in relation to their carbon footprints.  The overall effect would therefore be progressive redistribution (i.e., from the rich to the poor).

Echoing Malthus, some people simply think that there are too many humans on this planet.  We should radically stop making children and reduce population to an acceptable level that does not endanger the planet.  What do you make of that?

I think you give far too much credit to Malthus in this respect, who, legend notwithstanding, had absolutely no concern for the environment and never used the word “overpopulation,” which would have contradicted his theory (which was about the necessary equilibrium between population and food supply).  His concern was to provide a justification for the class system of his day.  Nevertheless, there are certainly “neo-Malthusians” today who argue in the fashion you describe.

It stands to reason that the more people there are on the planet, the more burden there is (all other things being equal) on the planet’s carrying capacity.  Population stabilization and even reduction, taken by itself, would generally be a good thing.  Most of the wealthier countries have passed through the demographic transition leading to low (close to replacement level) population growth that occurs at a certain level of economic development.  But most poorer countries have not reached this stage, because of their impoverished living standards — arising from the fact that so much of their economic surplus is expropriated by the rich countries through unequal exchange.  Still, some poor countries, notably Cuba, have passed through the demographic transition at lower levels of economic wealth because of greater emphasis on education, equality, and women’s reproductive and other rights.

However, what is absolutely critical to recognize is that population growth isn’t even close to being the main driver of ecological degradation.  UN demographers expect world population to stabilize this century somewhere short of twelve billion.  But economic output growth, which has been occurring around seven times as fast as population growth, and which isn’t expected to stabilize, is a far bigger problem that population.  It is the increasing scale of the economy that constitutes the main threat to the planet.

In response to those who would place exaggerated emphasis on population, it is important to lay stress on the effects of inequality.  A baby born to a rich family in the United States consumes infinitely more of the world’s resources than a baby born to a poor family in Bangladesh.  The combined wealth of the two richest men in the United States (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) far exceeds the total annual income of the 160 million people in Bangladesh.  To look at the ecological problem by simply counting heads is therefore to miss the central issue.

In Europe it is mostly the general public which is blamed for global warming — “everybody should take their responsibility in reducing greenhouses gasses” is the motto of policy makers — and required, by a mixture of threats and incentives, to take measures (like sorting garbage or installing double glazing) which are a) obviously totally insufficient in view of the situation and b) least accessible to people with low incomes.  What can the public really do?

The notion that we are all in the same boat and equally responsible would only make sense if we all had equal say over the use of resources and the mode of production.  But this is obviously not the case.  In the United States the combined wealth of the 400 richest individuals (all billionaire) is about equal to that of the bottom half of the population, some 150 million people.  The wealth of the former consists largely of capital assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., i.e. ownership of the means of production), while that of the latter consists almost exclusively of equity in their homes.  It is easy to see the enormous gap in economic power and over the direction of society that this creates.

The public, as you say, makes decisions on how it handles its own garbage (whether it recycles or not).  But municipal solid waste, largely consisting of household waste, is estimated to be only 2.5 percent of the waste disposal in U.S. society.  The rest is all industrial waste, construction and demolition waste, and so-called “special waste,” such as mining waste.  (See Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff [New York: Free Press, 2010]).  This helps dramatize the fact that the key decisions of the society affecting the environment are made mainly in what Marx called “the hidden abode of production,” outside the public realm and beyond the control or even knowledge of the vast majority of the population.  People can find ways to be somewhat more “green” in how they consume and dispose of goods.  But the relations of consumption in our society are largely dependent on the relations of production, rather than the other way around.  This is what is known as the Galbraithian “dependence effect.”  And that means that the problem of production has to be raised if these issues are going to be seriously addressed, which inevitably raises the question of socialism.

Is a transition to a carbon poor economy possible on the short term?  Greenpeace believe it is and is working on a 100% non-carbon fuel energy production for 2050.  A socialist economy is necessary, but what should and could the state do in the short term?

The Greenpeace initiative is important.  We are in the dire situation in which in order to reach 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (necessary to prevent a catastrophic climate change tipping point) the rich countries will need at this point to cut their carbon emissions to around zero and even achieve negative emissions (by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere through reforestation and sustainable land use).  But unfortunately as things stand this can’t be done under the present system.  A transition to a carbon-free economy is simply not possible under present-day capitalism, i.e. with anything like the given composition of output and economic growth/profit requirements of the system.  Technology alone can’t accomplish it within the current parameters set by capital/private property.  This has been demonstrated, I think quite definitively, by economist Minqi Li in a number of publications, most recently in a 2009 article in the journal Development and Change.  Social relations (the mode of production) would have to change.  What we need to promote instead is an ecological revolution aimed at sustainable human development and protecting the planet, making it clear that if capitalism can’t save the earth — and in fact continues as the main driver destroying it — then capitalism itself must go.  One has to remember that climate change is only one small part of the current overall threat to the earth system.  It is accompanied by many other threats, such as ocean acidification, soil depletion, desertification, freshwater shortages, mass extinctions, toxic chemical pollution, the rifts in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, etc.  All of these find their common cause in our current mode of production.  Capitalism’s only solution to the ecological problem is Samson’s: to bring down the temple of civilization on top of itself.  The only genuine alternative resides in the ecology of socialism.

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