The Robbery of Nature
John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark
(Monthly Review Press)
The earth is dying and capitalism is to blame. Facing this, one can opt for hope, as Marxist ecosocialists do, or one can succumb to pessimism fed by dark thoughts on human nature and the intractable, deadly persistence of our economic system of exploitation. Human nature has a destructive and murderous side, while capitalism, expressing that side with its endless growth, endless greed, blights the planet like cancer. Yet Marxist ecosocialists do not let this drag them down to despair. They talk about fixing what humanity has wrought, about drastically cutting carbon emissions, about mitigating the sixth mass extinction, about decreasing plastics and other environmental toxins and doing so while providing for the necessities of life, including, as John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in their newly published “The Robbery of Nature,” “love, family, community, meaningful work, education, cultural life, access to the natural environment and the free and equal development of every person.”
Such ecosocialism differs vastly from the technocratic ecomodernism espoused by, say “Jacobin” magazine. Technocratic approaches to the climate catastrophe are very popular these days, even on the left. To demolish them, Bellamy and Clark cite “Jacobin’s” summer 2017 issue, “Earth Wind Fire.” They argue that the “socialist” magazine did far worse than miss the boat; it steered it in the wrong direction, by touting technological fixes to global warming and pollution, as well as rapid growth in production, population control and the magic of the global free market. This doesn’t sound like any socialism I’m familiar with, and indeed one idiotic “Jacobin” writer opined: “You CAN actually have infinite growth on a finite world.” Uninhabitable earth – here we come!
This writer also adds, “our skyscrapers are not separate from nature, they ARE nature.” As Bellamy and Clark argue, by this logic, “so are nuclear weapons.” Another “Jacobin” contributor supports the astonishingly dangerous geoengineering of injecting “sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun’s rays.” Many scientists have warned that this could be a calamity. Bellamy and Clark also critique carbon capture and sequestration plans, advocated by Christian Parenti in this “Jacobin” issue. The problem is one of scale. Bellamy and Clark quote one energy analyst: “In order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions, we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storage took generations to build.”
Ecosocialists have a more straightforward approach. They start by pinpointing the problem – capitalism. Bellamy and Clark argue Marx’s ecological bona fides convincingly, by detailing his concern about a “metabolic rift.” They quote Marx that capitalism creates an “irrevocable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” Much of “The Robbery of Nature” debunks leftists who have dismissed Marx’s environmentalism; but Marx asserted that capital loots nature as a “free gift.” This, the ecosocialists argue, is the problem of capital’s relation to the earth: plunder and deadly “externalities,” i.e. pollution. According to Bellamy and Clark, Marx “emphasized that capital accumulation, through its rapacious expropriation of nature, inevitably promoted ecological destruction.” He also wrote that capital’s seizures of common people’s property is “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
“The Robbery of Nature” also argues that Marx was a proto-feminist and a food theorist. “The unhealthy and even poisonous contents of the Victorian working class diet was thus a key concern of Marx’s food analysis.” The book also documents Marx’s views on alienated speciesism and his horror at capitalist animal abuse; one can only imagine his abhorrence of modern factory farming. But he never lost sight of the human impact of animal abuse: he noted that between 1855 and 1866, “1,032,694 Irishmen [were] displaced by about one million cattle, pigs and sheep.”
The core of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it undermines “the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” That is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century. Leftists, like the “Jacobin” writers that Bellamy and Clark cite, who do not argue for halting endless capitalist growth, who swoon over the magic of the global free market, are not socialists. Leftists who blame impoverished people for humanity’s carbon footprint and advocate population control, instead of targeting the real carbon criminals, namely the affluent West, they are hardly socialists either. We have seen where endless growth leads: a poisoned atmosphere, an overheated planet and billions reduced to destitution. The ecosocialists argue that capitalism is a death cult. They are correct.