The Crisis Has a Gorilla

A review of The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth.

Our most pressing climate change challenge isn’t what you might think, and according to a new book, there is not one but a growing number of planetary emergencies. Respected scientists James Hansen and Johan Rockström warn that climate change is only one of nine “planetary boundaries,” or crucial processes that allow the earth’s environment to let us live in safety.

Many societies have arrived at a point in which we have crossed over three of the planetary boundaries upon which all life depends, say scientists. These boundaries are soil (nitrogen) cycle depletion, species’ extinction and climate carbonization.

And the culprit for this lethal attack on our ecology? Modern capitalism’s incessant drive to expand. It’s the 800-pound gorilla, also called “the market,” the authors aim to wrestle with in this provocative book. A critique of this grow-or-die system of production, distribution and consumption that began in Western Europe nearly two centuries ago is the special focus of John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York’s book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth.

The trio of writers first revisit Karl Marx’s notion of a “metabolic rift,” a crack that he believed separated man from nature. Marx studied ecology deeply, and came to understand the import of a breach in how people live and work to create the world around them in a capitalist society. This rift upends for reasons of private profit the most basic relations of human beings: those between themselves and the land.

The authors then move to unpack four basic areas of inquiry. (The curious reader will enjoy the challenging sections, but I suspect progress is also going to require a few extra bumper stickers.) One is the unsustainable development of capitalism. In simple terms, this is the system’s built-in drive to generate radical imbalances of personal wealth. Enabling this process are the assumptions and conclusions of mainstream economists. They love math, so all the better to monetize Mother Nature and give her a price in the marketplace. These economists’ dominant approaches take on a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” mentality, for those of us who haven’t forgotten our childhoods. The authors argue this “Wonderland” is a danger to us and the planet.

Foster and his fellow writers also take on ecological paradoxes that are not headline news. Take the work of British economist and logician William Stanley Jevons. Jevons focused on coal, the essential fuel to power British industrialization a century and a half ago and created the Jevons Paradox which says, “That the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption.” Just the opposite was and is the case now, Foster, Clark and York explain. To this end, they survey current efforts to economize on the use of fossil fuel, and explain how and why such efforts net unintended consequences. “The result is the production of mountains upon mountains of commodities, cheapening unit cost and leading to greater squandering of material resources.” Their Marxian approach is counter-intuitive to say the least.

A section, the book’s longest, on the dialectics (study of change) of nature returns us to Marx’s writings as an environmentalist. This is perhaps the most complex part of the book, but those who stick with it will gain nuanced insights concerning the interrelatedness of nature and society. (One thing is certain. The book’s more than 90 pages of notes offer vital information to address the planetary emergency.)

The authors offer no blueprints for a transition, rather, it’s about “us” as imperfect people finding common ground and beginning the difficult work of creating a more civilized and sustainable way of living and working.

Call it the intersection of informed study and capitalist anarchy. The latter won’t stop on its own. That’s up to us.

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, ISBN: 978-1-58367-218-1, $17.95 paperback, 544 pp., October 2010, Monthly Review Press

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, California.

Image: Some Driftwood