The Epochal Crisis, Unequal Ecological Exchange, and Exit Strategies

John Bellamy Foster: My talk is called “The Epochal Crisis.”  The term “epochal crisis” was introduced by Jason Moore to deal with periods in which economic and ecological crises intersect or merge.  We are certainly in the greatest epochal crisis in the history of the world. . . .  Now, we can also talk about this in terms of unequal exchange — unequal ecological exchange.  The global South is being exploited ecologically much more severely than anywhere else.  This is very systematic and this is part of it.  Howard Odum, who is the greatest systems ecologist in the twentieth century, the greatest systems ecologist of all time, devoted the last decade of his life, basically two decades, to developing a theory of unequal ecological exchange rooted in Marx’s analysis, and he wrote works like “An Energy Systems View of Karl Marx’s Concepts of Production and Labor Value” and explained how, particularly in Latin America, they were being robbed of their environmental resources systematically.  There is unequal exchange in trade and in production: there is, essentially, embodied energy being withdrawn from the global South to the benefit of the global North. . . .  García Linera calls this unequal exchange problem “extraterritorial environmental surplus value,” and certainly that is what is going on.  So, these problems are most severe in the global South.

We have to talk about exit strategies.  One set of exit strategies has to do with Popular Front strategies.  One Popular Front strategy is going after the 1%, the attack on the 1%.  In a sense the 1% are the new fascists, the new basis for creating a Popular Front strategy.  I think this is very important although it often leaves the issue of capitalism and some of the more fundamental questions out of the picture.  Another Popular Front strategy in the ecological realm is to attack the fossil fuel industry.  And that is very important strategically to go after the fossil fuel industry.  But ultimately we have to recognize that we have to deal with the system.  More fundamental approaches focus on ecological social revolution and try to bring together the issues of class and the environment.  We have to recognize that the future demands ecological sustainability and we can’t have that without substantive equality.  Bolívar said equality is the law of laws.  And these two things have to go together.  We need a new materialism where we recognize that materialism isn’t just about economic relations — it’s about ecological relations too.  We need new social control and planning over production.  Recently I’ve talked a lot about an environmental proletariat.  Engels — when he wrote The Condition of the English Working Class, if you look at it, it’s mostly about the environmental conditions of the working class, not about their factory conditions.  In fact it was understood in the nineteenth century that in the working-class movement there was no real separation between environmental conditions and factory conditions — they were blended.  We need to get back to that perspective.  It’s understood more in the global South and indigenous movements than elsewhere that we have to bring together the struggles over ecology and working conditions at the same time.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon.  His latest book, written with Robert W. McChesney, is The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Creates Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).  This talk was given as part of the Closing Plenary of Left Forum 2013 (with Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera, Tadzio Muller, and Catherine Mulder) on 9 June 2013.  Video by Deep Dish TV.  The text below the video is an edited partial transcript of the talk.  See, also, John Bellamy Foster, “The Great Rift: Capitalism and the Metabolism of Nature and Production” (MRZine, 7 August 2013); and John Bellamy Foster, “The Epochal Crisis” (Monthly Review, October 2013).

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