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Catastrophe capitalism: climate change, COVID-19, and economic crisis: An interview of John Bellamy Foster

In the backdrop of the ravaging coronavirus pandemic, John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review, the famous socialist magazine, discusses the pandemic in relation to the present condition of capitalism and economic crisis in the following interview conducted by Farooque Chowdhury in late-March, 2020. Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and author of numerous books on political, economic, and ecological issues, relates the pandemic to the capitalist economy, its crisis and climate change.

You have long analyzed and elaborated Karl Marx’s concept of metabolic rift. Today, in view of this coronavirus pandemic, how do you find the situation in view of your analysis?

John Bellamy Foster: Obviously, the situation associated with the sudden appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic is grim all over the world. Both the causes and the consequences are closely related to capitalist social relations. Marx’s theory of metabolic rift was a way of looking at ecological or metabolic relations, and particularly at the complex interdependent relations of nature and society, from a systemic approach long before the development of systems ecology, which in fact arose on similar bases. Marx, building on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, focused on the rift in the soil metabolism. The shipment of food and fiber hundreds and even thousands of miles from the country to the city resulted in the loss of essential soil nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which were not returned to the soil but ended up polluting the cities. This, however, had a wider application in regard to how capitalist production with its linear accumulation generated rifts or ruptures in what Marx called “the universal metabolism of nature.”

The metabolic rift standpoint, which is really the standpoint of radical systems ecology as it applies to social (and particularly) capitalist relations, is critical for understanding the current coronavirus pandemic. Evolutionary biologist, epidemiologist, and phylogeographer, Rob Wallace, the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016), has argued, together with his team of scientific colleagues, that both the origin and spread of COVID-19 can be seen as related to the circuits of capital (Wallace, et. al., “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, published online March 27, 2020). Capitalism itself is the main disease vector. Wallace has explained that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and other recent novel viruses has been the more intensive agribusiness penetration into natural systems, creating rifts in ecosystems and in/between species that allow for the emergence of potential global pandemics. In “Notes on a Novel Coronavirus” (MR Online, January 29, 2020), he argues that the structural solution is the forging of “an ecosocialism that mends the metabolic rift between ecology and economy and between the urban and the rural and wilderness, keeping the worst of these pathogens from emerging in the first place.”

It is important to understand that this ecological/epidemiological critique is not new. The youthful Frederick Engels dealt extensively with diseases and epidemiological conditions prevalent at the time of the Industrial Revolution, particularly their class aspects, in his Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845. Engels pointed thereto the “social murder” that such conditions entailed. Much of this was also treated in passages in Marx’s Capital. More than a century ago, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protégé and Marx’s close friend, the zoologist Ray Lankester, warned in a chapter called “Nature’s Revenges” in his Kingdom of Man (1911), that all modern epidemics could be traced to human modifications of ecological conditions. “In his greedy efforts to produce large quantities of animals and plants,” he wrote, “… man has accumulated unnatural swarms of species in field and ranch and unnatural crowds of his own kind in towns and fortresses.” The result was the growth of new diseases associated with parasites, viruses, and bacteria. For Lankester, a sharp critic of capital, the problem ultimately lay in “markets” and “cosmopolitan dealers in finance.” (For a more detailed discussion of this, see my new book The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology [Monthly Review Press, 2020].)

Lankester’s warnings on “Nature’s Revenges” were, however, largely ignored. Thus, writing in Monthly Review in September 2000, in “Is Capitalism a Disease?,” Richard Levins argued that the failure to understand the growing threat of disease pandemics was due to the fact that “conventional public health failed to look at world history, to look at other species, to look at evolution and ecology.” In this respect, Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu was an important contribution, explaining that the entire structure of imperialist agribusiness needed to be overturned if such emerging epidemics were to be stopped.

There can be no doubt today in the Anthropocene that capitalism is creating anthropogenic rifts in species, ecosystems, and the atmosphere, generating a social-ecological crisis in our time, ultimately traceable to the contradictions of the accumulation system. The same regime of capital creates wide class and imperial disparities, ensuring that the worst environmental perils bear down on the poorest and most vulnerable, while the rich are relatively safe: giving new meaning to Engels’s charge of “social murder.”

While discussing the economic history of this world’s environment, your book, The Vulnerable Planet, tells about the way the capitalist economy demolishes our planet’s environment and ecology and threatens all life on this planet. The system has sacrificed science on the altar of profit. It has engaged medical science, natural science in the service of accumulation of capital. Human habitats have been organized in irrational, inhuman ways. How do you find today’s reality–loss of so many lives in countries due to this pandemic?

When I wrote The Vulnerable Planet (Monthly Review Press, 1994) more than a quarter of a century ago the motivation for writing it lay in concerns over climate change, global species extinction, world deforestation, and the destruction of the ozone layer. It seemed clear that we could only address the seriousness of the planetary ecological crisis if we were to comprehend the political economy of capitalism that lay behind it. A central argument was that “as the world economy continued to grow, the scale of the human economic processes began to rival the ecological cycles of the planet, opening up as never before the possibility of planet-wide ecological disaster” (108). Moreover, this was worsened by a system of waste and synthetic (toxic-ridden) production. At bottom was a narrow, linear logic, concerned only with accumulation, that constituted the structural reality of monopoly capitalism. The collision between capitalism and the environment spelled, therefore, nothing but catastrophe in the twenty-first century, unless humanity could suddenly change course.

To me the logic of this seemed fairly obvious at the time and was backed by an emerging scientific consensus. But while the book acquired a considerable reputation in left ecological circles, I was surprised by the determined resistance to its thesis in parts of the socialist left. For example, Marxist geographer David Harvey criticized my book in his Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Distance (Blackwell, 1996, 194-96), pointedly contending that the “apocalyptic proclamation that ecocide is imminent has had a dubious history.” Arguing that notions of global environmental peril were exaggerated, Harvey added: “the worst we can do is to engage in material transformation of our environment so as to make life less rather than more comfortable for our own species being.” This led to a debate between Harvey and myself in the April 1998 issue of Monthly Review.

Yet, looking back at The Vulnerable Planet today after all of these years, my main self-criticism, running opposite to Harvey’s objection, is that, rather than exaggerating the ecological danger that threatened if society continued on the capitalist path, the book—as a result of certain methodological weaknesses, which I will not go into now—failed to encompass the full gravity of the impending planetary rift. It was not until five years later in my September 1999 article on “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” in the American Journal of Sociology that I arrived at a more developed historical-materialist critique based on the rediscovery and elaboration of Marx’s ecological analysis, opening the way to a more thoroughgoing understanding of the collision between capitalism and the planet.

In fact, what was most important about metabolic-rift analysis from the start was that it allowed us more fully to understand the negative dialectic of capitalism and the environment. This led to a systematic investigation, carried out by numerous ecological Marxists, including such figures as Ian Angus, Paul Burkett, Brett Clark, Rebecca Clausen, Ryan Gunderson, Hannah Holleman, Stefano Longo, Fred Magdoff, Andreas Malm, Kohei Saito, Eamonn Slater, Del Weston, and Richard York, into the materialist dialectics underlying climate change, species extinction, deforestation (dustbowlification), industrial animal abuse, fossil capital, and a host of other issues, including what E.P. Thompson had called “exterminism.” (For an extensive bibliography see Ryan Wishart, et. al. “The Metabolic Rift: A Select Bibliography,” Monthly Review Online.)

Nevertheless, it would be a serious error simply to substitute a theory of the ecological contradictions of capitalism for a theory focusing on the system’s economic contradictions. Rather, it is important to understand that the planetary ecological crisis and the faltering of the global capitalist economy are dialectially interconnected elements of the structural crisis of capital that defines our age.

The world humanity has never faced such a situation. What’s the way-out?

The only answer, as Bertolt Brecht (Tales from the Calendar, Methuen, 1961) declared long ago, is to exit the burning house. It is commonly said today on the left that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. As a result of climate change, COVID-19, and the developing financial crisis of global capitalism, this is now finally being reversed. It has suddenly become easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world, and indeed the former would likely preclude the latter.

The capitalist system has failed. Now humanity, in line with freedom as necessity, will have to move on to the struggle to build a new more sustainable, more egalitarian world, relying on the material means at hand together what is new and creative that we can bring to bear in a more collective order. But this will not happen automatically. It will require what Samir Amin in The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2013, 146) called “audacity, more audacity, always audacity.” It will necessitate a revolutionary break not only with capitalism in the narrow sense, but also with the entire structure of imperialism,which is the field in which accumulation operates today. Society will have to be reconstituted on a radically new basis. The choice before us is stark: ruin or revolution.

Thank you for shedding light on today’s burning issues.