John Bellamy Foster: `We can't shop our way out of the ecological crisis'

John Bellamy Foster Interviewed by Max van Lingen

[This article first appeared at MRZine. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the December issue of the Dutch newspaper The Socialist. The entire interview appears in Dutch at the website of The Socialist. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. To read more by John Bellamy Foster, click HERE.]

Max van Lingen: Consciousness about climate change has increased enormously; however, it also seems as if there is a lack of criticism of business and government actions. Instead it appears as if people are thinking: it doesn't really matter why people act, as long as they act.

John Bellamy Foster: I think people on the left often try to be "practical", which they interpret as somehow trying to accommodate themselves to the status quo, so as to make minor improvements. Often this is a kind of desperation to effect change. However, Copenhagen is already a dead deal before it begins. The United States and the other leading powers have indicated that there will be no binding agreements, no significant changes, and no non-market solutions.

James Hansen, arguably the world's greatest climate scientist, has called the latest US climate legislation passed by the House of representatives "worse than nothing" in that it locks in a "temple of doom." The changes, if we are to avoid planetary collapse, need to be much more massive and need to come from below. Hansen himself has called for mass "civil resistance" and has been arrested while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.

The climate justice movement, which tends to be more radical, is where to take one's stand at present. The truth is that we need some extremely strong, short-term solutions to be followed by a long-term strategy of ecological and social revolution. I have written about this in my new book Ecological Revolution and in an article to appear in the January 2010 Monthly Review.

At the same time people are making ``green'' choices, which are sometimes much more expensive. There is a lot of criticism from this group towards people who are opposed to environmental measures because they are afraid they are going to lose their jobs. Does this contradiction stand in the way of a solution?

There is no doubt that the growing need to make lifestyle changes is important and critical. A great deal is being learned in this process, which could play into an ecological revolution of the whole society -- as part of a total revolutionary dialectic. Seeking to have a smaller ecological footprint is important on an individual as well as a social level. But divorced from fundamental economic and political change, such individual, voluntaristic changes, primarily in the realm of consumption, are limited. We cannot shop our way out of these problems.

What matters right now is if people are willing to block coal-fired plants, whether we are engaged in a struggle for climate justice, etc. In many ways it is extremely difficult if not impossible for working people in our society to make the right environmental choices as long as the structures of production, consumption, transportation and urban development, along with the dominant systems of profit, accumulation and finance, are left intact. So it is primarily a question of collective struggle and creating a wider movement and culture for ecological and social revolution.

It stands to reason that trade unions in our society, which have become increasingly business unions, would demonstrate a lot of hostility to environmental regulations, insofar as this threatens jobs. People who are worried about losing their means of subsistence, their livelihood and their homes, as are most working people, will necessarily struggle to retain these. In capitalist society, being a wage worker means that you are divorced from the means of production, including the land. Your entire existence in the society is dependent on your wage, mediated usually by a corporation. What has to be done is to eliminate the job blackmail whereby people lose their jobs and income if environmental regulations are introduced. It is worth recalling that workers have historically been involved in environmental struggles related to toxic wastes in plants and sometimes in their communities. I think also that working people and unions are capable of rising up to protect future generations.

And yet, besides the fear of losing jobs and income, there also seems to be a fear that government intervention will limit the freedom of the individual.

I think that one of the tragedies of our society is that freedom has been reduced to the freedom to shop and perhaps the freedom to drive. We are invited to enjoy Pepsi Freedom or Coke freedom. This is nothing but the alienation of human freedom, which sometimes seems non-alienated only because it feeds distorted fantasies of individual self-expression and escape.

Today we advertise ourselves via the corporate logos on our clothing. But we disappear behind those corporate logos. Genuine freedom is what Marx once called "freedom in general".  It is indivisible: "The free development of each is the basis of the free development of all." It can only be truly achieved and enjoyed in a social context. It has nothing to do with commodity fetishism. It has everything to do with collective action and political organisation.

With Marx' Ecology you have delivered an enormous statement when it comes to the relation between socialism and ecology. However, critics, like Joel Kovel, have been pointing at the absence of ecological thinking within the socialist movement and say there have only been ``recent attempts'' to adjust this. What do you think about this? Has the socialist movement neglected ecological issues?

In some ways consistent ecological thinking is quite new (at least in the modern world), so one might argue that all traditions of modern thought have neglected ecology. I am impressed, however, by how deep the ecological thinking was in the work of socialists of one kind or another. An underlying ecological perspective was evident not only in the work of Fourier, Marx and Engels, but also Bebel, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Bukharin and Vavilov. Sergei Podolinsky, often considered the founder of ecological economics, considered himself a Marxist and was in touch with Marx and Engels (who were in many respects more ecologically advanced that he was).

In Britain there were strong socialist ecological figures such as Henry Salt (an animal rights theorist) and William Morris. Marx was very close to the socialist scientific materialist E. Ray Lankester, the leading Darwinian biologist in Britain in his time and one of the greatest ecological critics (a pioneering opponent of species extinction).

Among Marxian critical theorists ecological thinking is present in the work of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Alfred Schmidt, Ernst Bloch and Rudolf Bahro.

Scott Nearing, one of the great socialist intellectuals in the United States, and a columnist throughout the 1950s for Monthly Review was a pioneering environmental thinker. Paul Sweezy wrote important pieces on ecology from the 1970s on, beginning with his "Cars and Cities" and later extended to essays on "Capitalism and the Environment" and "Socialism and Ecology". The list could go on and on.

One can of course point to the tragic anti-ecological perspective adopted in the Soviet Union from the 1930s on (resulting in the purging of many ecologists) and the fact that socialists were, like their bourgeois counterparts, often more committed to economic growth than the preservation of nature. Both left and right in the early twentieth century adopted productivist visions. But none of this changes the fact that socialists have frequently been at the forefront in the development of ecological analysis. Marx's own ecological vision went beyond anything that we can find today -- insofar as we are looking at the social-environmental relation.

Kovel also argues in his book Enemy of Nature that we need a new form of socialism, ecosocialism, in order to change our society. I've read a lot of your articles and books and you seem to be very reluctant to use this term. Is this a conscious decision?

You are right that I generally avoid the term "ecosocialism", especially when this is seen as related to a movement, as opposed to a form of interpretation. This does not reflect a major area of dispute, since my views overlap with many of those who characterise themselves as "ecosocialists" and I am happy to be in alliance with them.

But it does reflect a difference in emphasis. To me the objectives of socialism and ecology are ultimately the same, but their starting points and to some extent their histories are different. So it is an organic, dialectical relation, not one that can be approached by grafting one upon the other. I like to think that I am in the tradition of Marx who was a socialist and ecologist. Indeed, Marx is probably the figure who best exemplifies the principles of ecosocialism. But to see him as such almost negates the term, since Marx was clearly an unhyphenated socialist.

The closer we get to Copenhagen, the clearer it becomes that the summit will fail. Thus the question arises: Are we doomed?

Copenhagen has already failed. Its failure was declared in advance. It is a victory for the powers that be, who are concerned more with capitalism than the planet. But it may be a Pyrrhic victory because it will signal to the world that what we need is not an elite-led process but an ecological revolution, i.e. a world mobilisation from below.

We are still being fed the illusion that these problems can be solved by technological fixes and market mechanisms without a fundamental overturning of our whole system of production and accumulation. But the reality is that the leading capitalist powers and the vested interests have no intention of addressing the problem on the scale necessary. So the issue has to be forced from below. I have been impressed by the recent meteoric rise in climate justice mobilisation, much of which is willing to question the system itself. A merging of climate justice and socialist struggles is crucial. All of this suggests that the leadership in the climate struggle has to come from below.

Right now we need to find ways to keep most of the remaining fossil fuels (especially coal) in the ground. Government regulation of carbon dioxide emissions also has to be considered. Internationally, there has to be a recognition of carbon imperialism and ecological imperialism in general, and measures taken to alleviate the devastating burdens on the global South.

Longer-term solutions mean ecological (and socialist) revolution. They are likely to emerge first where the human and environmental devastation is greatest, in the global South, but also becoming universal, with climate justice struggles hopefully expanding in the global North as well. Marx called for the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolic relation between human beings and the earth, in such a way as to conserve energy and promote the full development of human beings. Ultimately, there is no other way.

[John Bellamy Foster is the editor of the socialist magazine Monthly Review and teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. He has written on numerous subjects, from political economy to Marxist theory, including the just-published The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace With the Planet. Max van Lingen is a student of political philosophy and modern history at the University of Amsterdam and a journalist for the Dutch monthly The Socialist.]