Capitalism versus the planetRenfrey Clarke
19 April 2008
John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and an editor of the prestigious US-based socialist journal Monthly Review (<http://www.monthlyreview.org>), was a featured speaker at Green Left Weekly’s April 11-13 Climate Change — Social Change conference in Sydney. He spoke to GLW’s Renfrey Clarke.
Is humanity going to pull through this environmental crisis? If it is, what are the changes that are necessary?
Well, I think there are a couple of ways you could answer that question — one way would be that, as Noam Chomsky has answered it, it’s a question of optimism or pessimism, and in some way that’s a psychological issue. The really important thing is not what we think the chances are, but what we’re going to do. So if you think that there’s a 1% chance that we’re not going to destroy the planet, and practically speaking, all living species, what matters is not that you think there’s only a 1% chance, but whether you’re on the side of the 1% or not. So what matters is what we do. Certainly there are ways that we can get out of this crisis.
I do think that under capitalist system, if the logic of capital is predominant — that our society has as its primary motivation the accumulation of capital and profits at the expense of nearly everything else — the chances of the world getting our of this alive are very, very dim. But it’s within the power of humanity to pull us away from the logic of capital.
This invites the question of a social system which is something quite different.
We won’t get there all at once, but every radical thrust away from it gives us more of a chance, so we need to prioritise human needs and decrease human waste. We have to prioritise human access to water, food and those basic things that human beings really need. And we have to move away from those goods and processes and commodities that exist only so that corporations can make a profit.
Eventually, we have to politically transform our system and transform our production. The reason we have to transform production is because that is the human relation to nature, its metabolism with nature. The only way we can deal with the ecological problem is to change the way in which we relate to nature through our production, and that is precisely what the existing system won’t allow us to address. So that’s where the real problem is buried.
You’re really talking about a quite different ideological basis for society. Now you’re known as an academic Marxist, so what did Karl Marx have to say about environmental questions that might be relevant to us today?
In a way the answer to that question could take hours, because Marx had a great deal to say about the environment and this isn’t understood. I think he was actually the most advanced social ecological thinker in the 19th Century; in many ways his thinking on environmental issues was way ahead of anything we run into today, whether in the greens or in the socialist movement and so on. The reasons for this are complex: first of all you have to understand that Marx is the greatest critic of capitalism and of a system geared to the accumulation of capital and the exploitation of human labour. So this makes him a very significant figure in history. He’s the greatest advocate of socialism, of a system that would be governed by the associated producers governing … a system in which the freely associated producers would govern their own metabolism with nature. So he’s an advocate of socialism in a very radical sense.
But for him, this was ecological as well. So he was concerned with exactly that: altering our human relation to nature as much as our human relation to society. He had some critical ideas in this respect: he was very influenced by the German agriculturalist, Justus Von Liebig, an agricultural chemist who argued that we were robbing the soil of its nutrients and sending these nutrients in the form of food and fibre to the cities, and thereby polluting the cities at the same time and breaking the ecological cycle — he called it a robbery system.
And Marx built on that analysis and talked about an irreparable rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature — the metabolism being our labour or production process, which is the relationship to nature in the very process. Marx believed that, under capitalism in particular, we were creating a rupture or a rift in our metabolism to nature, and that this required, in his words, the restoration of our relationship to nature. He argued for what we now call sustainability or sustainable development in the most radical terms that it’s ever been developed: he said that no human being owns the Earth, no country as a whole owns the Earth — not even all the people on Earth own the Earth — that all we have is use of it and we need to maintain and improve it for future generations.
This was Marx’s own argument, and it’s probably the most radical statement on sustainability that we’ve ever had.
So Marx is talking about sustainability and supporting sustainability. At the same time he was analysing capitalism, and one of the central points of his analysis of capitalism was that the system has to grow. How is this contradiction being worked out today?
We talk typically about economic growth, and to talk about economic growth is oftentimes to talk in very abstract terms. What we have to understand is that the real substance of it in a capitalist system is the accumulation of capital. That’s why economic growth is necessary; it has nothing to do with wealth of nations per se or the promotion of human welfare. It has to do with the expansion of capital, the accumulation of capital in ever larger amounts, and the growth of profit.
In order to have profits, you really have to “expand the pie” of the economy. If you don’t expand the pie you can’t get profits. The only way you can get profits in a pie that’s not growing is to change the share, which has been done in recent years. But, basically, profit comes from growth. Anytime the economy doesn’t grow, you have a crisis under capitalism because the accumulation of capital, profits, aren’t being generated. When the world economy doesn’t grow by at least 2.5%, they call that a world recession. It’s considered to be a world crisis of capitalism, and this is built into the system.
It’s not only Marx who argued that, there are many other economists. The greatest economist of the last hundred years, Joseph Schumpeter, said that the notion of capitalism without growth or accumulation was a contradiction in terms. John Maynard Keynes argued essentially the same.
It’s always been understood by economists that capitalism as a system has to expand — in fact, that’s what they celebrate capitalism for. But recently they’ve created abstract models of the economy where they take out the class dimensions, say, abstract from accumulation, and then they create this artificial notion of a market economy and say we can have somehow within a market system a non-growing system.
Of course, this is complete nonsense that can only be manufactured by an academic economist; no corporate leader, no-one in the business community would give it the slightest attention.
There are billions of people today who live in really horrible circumstances. How are they going to be provided for? Particularly in circumstances where we can’t use more fossil fuels that we’re doing at the moment — in fact, we need to use much less.
Well, the people of the world are not being provided for now — and in fact their conditions are deteriorating — and it has to do with the system itself, and so they have nothing really to lose. Three billion people on the planet suffer some kind of food deprivation or food deficiency and the numbers are growing every year. The numbers aren’t not growing due to ecological factors or lack of food, first and foremost. It has to do with the nature of capitalism, the concentration of wealth and access to resources, and even food.
Food becomes a commodity like any other, that nobody has a right to — only what you can purchase. You have a situation where half the population really doesn’t have adequate food or adequate nutrition and it’s getting worse all the time. Basic grain prices have doubled in the last couple of years; you have food riots all over the world. It isn’t really because of ecological factors or population or anything, it has to do with what’s happening economically, fundamentally.
Well we can see plenty of cases of countries where the environmental needs are simply not being served. Is there anywhere where you can see hope?
The Living Planet Report said that there was only one country in the world that was high on the human development index of 0.8% or higher and that also had a lower than average per capita ecological footprint. Only one country is really conforming to sustainable human development, that is promoting both human development and ecological sustainability. According to the Living Planet Report that country is Cuba. Ecologists, even ecologists that are not socialists but are very deeply concerned with ecology, like Bill McKibben, have recently pinpointed Cuba as the country that has been most successful in dealing with ecological problems.
From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #747 23 April 2008.