John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York are among the leading writers on climate change in the US, and no one reading this latest collection of their essays could leave it in any doubt of the seriousness of the situation in which unchecked climate change is now placing us.

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (Monthly Review Press 2010), 544pp.

It’s enough, the authors argue, to place us in a whole new geological era, no longer the Holocene, the period of benign climate in which human civilisation developed, but the Anthropocene, the age of human-created climate. Beyond the lunatic fringe of climate change denial, this sombre message is little disputed, and the essays here do not spend much time on a recitation of the horrors awaiting the world without urgent action. The importance of this book lies in its discussion of how the workings of capitalism have created this situation, and of what we could do to change it.

There is a vast literature by environmental social scientists on climate change, but as Bellamy Foster et al. show, the mainstream is dominated by ‘ecological modernisation’: the view that the processes of capitalism can be harnessed to implement sustainability, using the power of the market to stimulate the development of new technology, change consumer behaviour and so on. This propensity of members of the elite in a capitalist society to believe and propagate the dominant ideas of capitalism may not seem particularly surprising. It is nevertheless worth noting how much less traction these arguments seem to have in the wider movement after the economic crisis presented a vivid demonstration that the market is not, in fact, infallible. The authors here show, however, that the existence of the ecological modernisation argument is too important for us to dismiss with a ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.’

For Bellamy Foster et al., the ecological modernisation view arises from a specific tradition in the social science approach to environmentalism that sees human society as fundamentally separate from nature. Indeed, in this approach, nature is considered only in terms of how it is defined and constructed by our views of it, not as a system with its own objective reality in which human society exists. Ultimately produced by our alienation from nature under capitalism, this style of thinking is both important and little discussed. In explaining it, the authors provide a fascinating discussion of the formation of ecology as a discipline by people like General Smuts, also the founding father of apartheid, whose idealist conception of ecology saw black Africans as primitively embedded in nature, whereas the ‘more developed’ whites had risen above it.

Even apart from this grotesque example, the development of environmental studies shows very clearly the need for a dialectical understanding of nature and society. It is the lack of such a dialectical approach which enables the proposal of solutions to climate change using the very structures of capitalism which are responsible for the problem in the first place. Ecological modernisation would not address the inherent destructiveness of capitalism.

The authors have written widely on Marx and ecology, and this book contains further essays on the dialectics of nature, and an especially interesting piece setting the dialectical materialism of Marxist scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin against the attempts of the ecological modernisers to develop green capitalism. The discussions here of Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift also build on earlier work but are nonetheless valuable for that. The essay on imperialism and ecological metabolism in particular brings out the brutality of capitalism’s expropriation of natural resources, not only to ‘nature’ but inevitably to human societies as well. The authors never allow the reader to forget the human cost of capitalist production. The cost of the nineteenth-century guano trade from south America to Europe for fertiliser was not just in the metabolic rift created – transferring nitrogen from Peru to become a pollutant in Europe – but also in the destroyed lives of the mostly Chinese workers harvesting the guano, who worked in virtual slavery at a job so appalling that some were driven to commit suicide when they could no longer bear the smell.

Peruvian guano was superseded in the later nineteenth century by the development of chemical fertilisers, but is now back in vogue as an organic alternative. However, it is a perfect demonstration of the full effect of capitalism’s metabolic rift. Over-fishing the anchovies which fed the seabirds has reduced their numbers from a nineteenth-century height of 60 million to only 4 million today, and the 150 foot high guano deposits have in some places shrunk to less than a foot tall. As the authors comment, it is ‘the natural end state of ecological imperialism’ (p.371).

While the effects of capitalism on the environment are very clear, what a truly sustainable world would look like is less so, and it is here that the book’s origin in disparate essays means that the argument is not always as plain as would be expected in a monograph. While none of the essays disagree on the destructiveness of capitalism, there are real differences between the different pieces, which perhaps reflect differences of emphasis among the three authors. Even though it is agreed that capitalism is the problem, the question of how to replace it with something better, and of how many people, and with what standard of living, could be supported under an alternative system is a real one, and one which here receives a contradictory answer.

In the essay on carbon metabolism and global capital accumulation (pp.121-150), capitalism is the problem because it enabled industrialisation. The difference between capitalism’s destructive power and that of previous modes of production is essentially one of scale: the way that mechanisation allows resource extraction at a much faster rate than could be managed by the unaided labour power of those being sustained by the resources. Destructiveness here is a problem for other human societies as well: ‘Soviet-type societies caused immense environmental deterioration’ (p.132). The reason for studying capitalism’s effect on the environment is not that it is the most damaging system, but simply that it is the system we are in. Leaving aside the question of whether the Soviet Union can legitimately be described as ‘not capitalist’, the key message of this essay seems to be that even a truly socialist society would not necessarily be any better for the environment if it continued to embrace industrialised production. The post-capitalist world would here also have to be a post-industrial one, with attendant implications for all our living standards and indeed for possible population size.

This is not an uncommon argument within the green movement, but it is one which fails to understand fully the way in which the nature of capitalism, rather than simply its scale, has enabled it to threaten environmental destruction in a way that the ruling class of any other mode of production could not do. In fact, the argument appears to be contradicted at various points in the other essays: in the essay on the treadmill of accumulation, for example (pp.193-206), the authors argue that the problem of capitalism is not simply quantitative, but qualitative. Capitalism has indeed enabled large-scale industrial production, but the real problem is that the nature of capitalist profits means that it is easier for capitalism to grow through producing depleted uranium shells than food to feed the hungry.

The conclusion that the problem is industrial civilisation leads all too easily to the idea that it is the behaviour of all of us as individual consumers which is at its root. Despite the occasional contradictions, the strength of this impressive collection is its overall insistence on a systemic, not an individual understanding of the source of climate change. If we believe that climate change is caused by our existence and our personal consumption, the idea of change can seem a depressing and self-defeating one, what George Monbiot has called a campaign against ourselves. (George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Allen Lane 2006), p.215). Bellamy Foster, Clark and York here remind us that a dialectical understanding of how capitalism is destroying the planet can on the contrary free us to fight for a better world for nature and society.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.