By Lynne Chester, Review of Radical Political Economics, July 2014
The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York; New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis. Robin Hanhel; Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2011.
Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs: Essays in Honour of Ted Benton. Sandra Moog and Rob Stones (eds); Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Chris Williams; Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010.
There is a burgeoning inter-disciplinary discourse on the causes, consequences, and solutions to capitalism’s contemporary ecological crisis. Four publications are strongly illustrative of the spectrum of perspectives and points of differentiation concerning the contributions of growth and population to ecological degradation, the specificity of the human-nature relation, and if the ecological crisis is inherent or not to capitalism. These four works are: Foster, Clark, and York’s The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, Hahnel’s Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis, the edited collection by Moog and Stones Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs: Essays in Honour of Ted Benton, and Williams’s Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.
Abstract philosophy is the genre within which Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs very much falls whereas the other three works are more directed towards solutions to urgently address the global nature and unparalleled extent of ecological degradation. These solutions range from reforming capitalism or changing it to another form of economic and social organization.
Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs is a festschrift honoring the work of the British sociologist Ted Benton whose scholarship, over four decades, has spanned the philosophy and sociology of science, social theory, Marxism, and ecological sociology.1 The book’s structure reflects this breadth being divided into four parts: Realism, Naturalism, and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences; The Continuing Relevance of Marxism; Philosophical Anthropology and Human Needs; and Ecology, Society and Natural Limits. Benton himself contributes an insightful well-reasoned conclusion commenting on each of the preceding nine chapters and weaving threads between. The editors, Sandra Moog and Rob Stones, also provide an excellent introduction for those less familiar with Benton’s oeuvre and particularly his stratification of reality which asserts that:
higher-level entities . . . are partly explained by their lower-level constituents . . . [but] their emergent . . . distinctive properties and powers result from the effects of their structural combination on the behavior of their constituent elements [and] can exercise a downward causality. (8-9, original emphasis)
This approach endeavors to determine the conditions under which these influences are exercised and relationships between entities.
Benton started his working life as a high school science teacher and the “subsequent shift to philosophy and sociology took with it a continuing respect for the intellectual achievements, methodological rigour, and revelatory character of the natural sciences” (209). Highly influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s work, Benton champions the exceptional capacity of “scientific understand- ing to inform our thinking about our place in the wider world” (210) whilst acknowledging its fallibility and provisional nature. It is this view of science, and commitments to naturalism and realism, which has informed Benton’s “green” historical materialism approach.
Chapters by Sandra Moog and Kate Soper herald Benton’s insightful analysis of what needs to change if the contemporary ecological crisis is to be addressed. Moog’s chapter “Ecological Politics for the Twenty-first Century: Where Does Nature Fit in?” demonstrates the argument of some radical ecologists that environmental problems stem from Western anthropocentrism which views humans as separate from nature. If this is accepted, changing “our very idea of nature” becomes critical to addressing the ecological crisis but “which nature should we get back to . . . finding a solution to our problems cannot be as simple as looking back to recover an earlier and less alienated stance, a less corrupted definition” (154-55). Benton’s approach to this issue is to transcend traditional sociological dualisms, such as humans and animals, and investigate the ongoing dynamic relations between culture and nature. Moog contends that investigation of these complex relationships between different organizational strata or levels, including “the multiple causal networks which encompass nature – non-human and human, internal and external” (164), is facilitated by Benton’s stratified conceptualization of the world, his stratified reality.
Soper’s chapter “Realism, Naturalism and the Red-Green Nexus” extends Moog’s discussion to focus on Benton’s contribution to ecological theory through his distinction “between what is and is not changed when human beings modify nature – in other words, between nature conceived as causal powers and processes and the ‘nature’ which is the outcome of our own interventions” (174) i.e. between “deep” and “surface” natures. Natural laws regulate natural processes and thus, according to Benton, set natural limits “as products of the articulation of specific socio-technical relations and dynamics with the various naturally and socially ‘given’ conditions, resources, and media upon which they rely” (225, original emphasis). Moreover this deep-surface distinction avoids the misleading conceptualization of nature “as that which is untouched by human beings but . . . by reference to parts of the environment that have clearly been modified by us” (174).
An abstract philosophical work from a sociological perspective, this festschrift nevertheless provides discussion of issues about how we can understand the organization of nature and the relationships between humans and nature, and humans as part of a social and natural environ- ment. This discourse is a necessary precursor to positing the transformation of human-nature relationships if our objective is to decrease ecological degradation.
A more empirically grounded work is Hahnel’s Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis which offers an ecological economics perspective of the environmental crisis. Methodologically pluralist, ecological economics is distinguishable from mainstream environmental economics through inter alia its: condemnation of reliance on technology to solve the problems of scarcity and waste; respect for the complexity and holism of natural systems; scientific approach; use of key ecological concepts such as capacities for assimilation, regeneration, and carrying; vision of the earth as being thermodynamically closed; valuing of nature in bio- physical terms; and, an emphasis on issues of distribution and justice. Ecological sustainability is the primary objective and the approach of ecological economics can be broadly described as to:
First, establish the ecological limits of sustainable scale and establish policies that assure the throughput of the economy stays within these limits. Second, establish a fair and just distribution of resources using systems of property rights and transfers . . .. Third, once the scale and distribution problems are solved, market-based mechanisms can be used to allocate resources efficiently. (Costanza, Perrings, and Cleveland 1997: 83)
So, despite differences with mainstream environmental economics in explaining the economic- environment relation and the current crisis, ecological economics advocates the use of mainstream policy measures – property rights and market-based mechanisms – to achieve ecological sustain- ability. 2 In other words, the ecological destruction of capitalism will be overcome by the “reform” of capitalism using the same policy measures that have accelerated that destruction.
This approach is well reflected in Green Economics which, in many respects, is a fusion of earlier publications (e.g. Hahnel 2002, 2007; Hahnel and Sheeran 2009) and some chapters have subsequently been published albeit in a revised form (e.g. Hahnel 2012a, 2012b). This perhaps explains some of the disjointedness which the reader experiences with the order of material and unfolding of the argument.
Over ten chapters, Hahnel sets out his reasoning for an “environmental economic paradigm” which deploys “insights from mainstream environmental economics . . . that help explain why the economic system puts the environment at risk” (75). A critique, of sorts, is offered of the mainstream’s obsession with the environmentally destructive “growth imperative” and “free- market environmentalism” (chapters 5 and 6), and the values embedded in its highly prized technique of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) (chapter 2). These critiques provide the foundations for his approach to “real-world environmental policy” (chapter 7) to prevent “cataclysmic climate change.” Basically Hahnel advocates tackling climate change with the mainstream policy mea- sures (after a few tweaks) of regulation, taxes, and tradeable permits using property rights, zon- ing, transfer development rights, and community management, and “when we feel safe, it makes sense to engage in CBA” (32). Chapters 9 and 10 focus on the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol and “five concrete changes that would make a post-Kyoto cap-and-trade climate treaty more effective, efficient, and equitable” (195).
Despite not being convinced by Hahnel’s argument that the use of adapted mainstream policy measures can effectively and equitably deal with climate change, there are parts of the book which I think warrant attention. The historical and institutional details of international climate change negotiations and the Kyoto Protocol are very well-documented in chapters 8 and 9. The chapter 3 discussion “What on Earth Is Sustainable Development?” is worthy of a read because it highlights the problem of contested conceptualizations which are critical to the ecological cri- sis debate. The book’s conclusion also exemplifies some of the weaknesses inherent to advocacy of capitalist reform as the solution to widespread entrenched social and economic problems.
Hahnel posits that a political coalition is needed which is “determined enough and powerful enough to implement these policies” (229). But herein lies a key weakness in the plausibility of his argument. How are the conflicting interests to be reconciled within his coalition of those most environmentally harmed and those who stand to gain the most from the conversion to renewable energy sources? No explanation is provided. Perhaps it is assumed that fundamental conflicts will be put aside in order to protect the environment. Given the state which society has reached this seems pretty improbable. The plausibility of Hahnel’s argument that policy switches will be sufficient is further weakened when he states that “every policy to reduce pollution or increase environmental protection . . . is merely a stopgap attempt to correct for some destructive dynamic that is an intrinsic part of the way we go about our daily economic business” (232). Now he inti- mates that there is something fundamentally wrong with capitalism but stops short of advocating change to its social relations.
On the contrary, in Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, Bellamy Foster, Clark, and York argue there must be fundamental changes to the social relations of capitalism if the ecological crisis is to be transcended. This tome, written from a Marxist sociological perspective and running to nearly 550 pages including 87 pages of detailed footnotes and a great deal of repetition, comprises a 40-page introduction and 18 subsequent chapters. Sixteen chapters are revi- sions, some extensive, of previously published journal articles and book chapters which for me, as someone familiar particularly with Bellamy Foster’s scholarship and debates in the Monthly Review, is somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, there is much to commend.
First, Ecological Rift reinforces the potent message from the Stockholm Resilience Centre Project (Rockström et al. 2009) that climate change, the headline-grabbing hallmark of contem- porary environmental concern, is but one of nine “planetary boundaries” critical to “maintaining an earth-system environment in which humanity can exist safely” (14). The other boundaries are: chemical pollution, land use change, global freshwater use, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorous levels cycles (that impact soil fertility and thus food production), and atmospheric aerosol loading. The project drew from scientific knowledge to quantify boundaries. For aerosol loading and chemical pollution, there are as yet insufficient physical measures; for the other seven, the project concluded that three boundaries have been breached – climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle – and the remainder are on the brink (Rockström et al. 2009).
The mapping out of planetary boundaries in this way gives us a better sense of the real threat to the earth system [sic]. Although in recent years the environmental threat has come to be seen by many as simply a question of climate change, protecting the planet requires that we attend to all these planetary boundaries, and others not yet determined. The essential problem is the unavoidable fact that an expanding economic system is placing additional burdens on a fixed earth system to the point of planetary overload. . .. Business-as-usual projections point to a state in which the ecological footprint of humanity will be equivalent to the regenerative capacity of two planets by the mid-2030s. (17-18)
Second, Marx’s conceptualization of a metabolic rift between humanity and the environment is central to the book and well-articulated for which Bellamy Foster must take much credit. Using the example of soil robbed of nutrients through agricultural intensification and the use of chemi- cal fertilizers, which were transferred to urban areas though food and fiber and contributed to pollution, Marx demonstrated the ruptures created by capitalism in the ecosystem’s regenerative capacities, and thus the never-ending chasm between human society and the natural conditions needed to sustain life. Ecological Rift extends Marx’s analysis to explain the depth and breadth of the contemporary ecological crisis as well as the spatial and technological shifts of capitalism in response to rifts in metabolic relations. It is this analysis which underpins the book’s argument that advanced capitalism’s insatiable quest for growth, through the accelerated use of fossil fuels and serviced by imperialism, directly threatens survival of the human species.
Third, this book discusses in some detail, and effectively rebuts using well-reasoned argument and evidence, mainstream views and “ecological modernization theory” which have become embedded in the responses of nation-states to the growing ecological legacy of capitalism. Yale economist William Nordhaus, a prominent climate change analyst, exemplifies, for the authors, the lack of understanding of the true cost of ecological degradation because of reliance on measuring wealth with the limited concept of GDP and placing little value (through high discount rates) on the welfare of future generations. The different positions of Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern, and the implications of their respective policy prescriptions towards an ecologically unsustainable target, are well-documented through the six chapters forming part one Capitalism and Unsustainable Development.
Using the analogies of the Jevons and paperless office paradoxes – technological efficiencies leading to greater not less resource use – part two of the book, Ecological Paradoxes, argues that
improvements in the efficiency of use of a natural resource and the development of substitutes for a natural resource may not lead to reductions in consumption of that resource – in some circumstances they may even lead to an escalation of consumption of that resource. (191)
Part three is devoted to Dialectical Ecology (chapters 11 to 15) which reads, in part, as a jus- tification of their thinking about the rupturing of metabolic relations and creation of the ecologi- cal rift. Identified as an extension of Engels’s application of the dialectical method beyond society to nature, the authors build the case for their argument by way of contrast with critics such as Lukács. These chapters are akin to the philosophical discussion of Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs and one, “The Sociology of Ecology,” arguing for realism and materialism, pro- vides an interesting adjunct to the earlier discussed contribution by Soper.
Ways Out forms the book’s part four and final three chapters. Not surprisingly, “technological fixes” and “green-market fetishism” are given short shrift. Given the scale and pace of change needed to address the global ecological crisis and its inexorable relationship with capitalism’s incessant drive to accumulate, “what is required is an ecological revolution that would need to be also a social revolution” (426). A social revolution is needed to create a just and sustainable soci- ety. An ecological revolution, it is posited, requires short-term strategies such as leaving fossil fuels in the ground, reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible to near zero, direct intervention of the state through expenditure and regulation, and “contraction and convergence” in greenhouse gas emissions between the North and the South. “The long-term strategy for eco- logical revolution throughout the globe involves the building of a society of substantive equality – the struggle for socialism” (441). Sustainable human development, the restoration of harmony between humans and nature and thus elimination of the ecological rift, so the book’s argument goes, will only be achieved through [a] social ownership and social use of nature, [b] social pro- duction organized by workers and regulation of the metabolic relation between humans and nature, and [c] satisfaction of present and future communal needs.
Despite its strengths, this lengthy book does suffer from repetition and bringing into being a “universal revolt” against capitalism is not explained. The arguments are set forth forcefully and with passion (as well as considerable empirical supporting evidence). Not quite a political manifesto but perhaps undercurrents thereof which appear somewhat more explicitly in Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to the Capitalist Ecological Crisis.
Like Hahnel’s Green Economics, Chris Williams’s book treats climate change as the epitome of the contemporary ecological crisis despite the passing reference to problems such as ocean acidification. The first four chapters cover the science of climate change, debunk the overpopulation myth, and argue the reasons why capitalism is unsustainable development. These are well- written and structured, supported by the author’s obvious strong scientific knowledge. The same does not describe the remaining four chapters which are lacking in coherence, contain contradictory statements, and poorly express a view of socialism. The discussion of immediate “real solu- tions” is somewhat superficial and the rhetoric would raise little objection from those concerned with addressing the ecological crisis. But this is where Williams creates confusion. “Real environmental reforms can and have been won under capitalism . . . when we collectively demand, organize and fight for them” (147). So then why “only a socialist future holds out the hope of a sustainable one for the planet” (238)? Williams does not reconcile these statements and leaves the impression he is unsure if reform of capitalism or its change to socialism is the preferred strategy. Generally speaking, this book adds little to the contributions of the pioneering ecoso- cialists (e.g. Bellamy Foster 2002, 2009; Kovel 2007).
The notion that capitalism is hostile to the environment is not new and now generally well- accepted. All four books agree that the ecological crisis of capitalism is global and vast in scope, and all share a sense of urgency to either reform or change capitalism. The common weakness of all four books lies in the lack of attention to, or cursory consideration of, what is entailed in the necessary transition that capitalism must undergo to be a reformed or changed society, if the ecological crisis is to be overcome. The need for political activism is acknowledged by all but, in the words of Ted Benton, “there is much work to be done in thinking through the sorts of feasible institutional forms that might take us into a more convivial and sustainable future” (Moog and Stones 2010: 243).
1Benton is also renowned for his political activism and being a field naturalist with particular expertise in the lives of bumblebees, dragonflies, and butterflies.
2For those seeking an introduction to the fundamental concepts and approach of mainstream environmental economics, Goodstein (2011) and Harris (2006) provide two excellent starting points.
Bellamy Foster, J. 2002. Ecology against capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bellamy Foster, J. 2009. The ecological revolution: Making peace with the planet. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bellamy Foster, J. 2009. The ecological revolution: Making peace with the planet. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Costanza, R., C. Perrings, and C.J. Cleveland. 1997. The development of ecological economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.Goodstein, E. S. 2011. Economics and the environment, 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Hahnel, R. 2002. The ABCs of political economy: A modern approach. London: Pluto Books.
Hahnel, R. 2007. The case against markets. Journal of Economic Issues 41(4): 1,139-1,159.
Hahnel, R. 2012a. Left clouds over climate change policy. Review of Radical Political Economics 44(2): 141-159.
Hahnel, R. 2012b. Desperately seeking left unity on international climate policy. Capitalism Nature Socialism 23(4): 83-99.
Hahnel, R., and K. Sheeran. 2009. Misinterpreting the Coase theorem. Journal of Economic Issues 43(2): 215-237.
Harris, J.M. 2006. Environmental and natural resource economics: A contemporary approach, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Harris, J.M. 2006. Environmental and natural resource economics: A contemporary approach, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kovel, J. 2007. The end of capitalism: The end of capitalism or the end of the world?, 2nd ed. London: Zed Books.
Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer,
C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2). Available at: http://www .ecologyandsociety.org/issues/article.php/3180
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2012. The emissions gap report 2012. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi. Available at: http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/emissions gap2012/
Lynne Chester is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on energy and the environment, electricity and carbon derivatives, markets for goods and services previously provided direct by government, and Australia’s institutional architecture.