Forwarded from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro

John Bellamy Foster jfoster at
Fri Apr 5 11:15:14 MST 2002

Some thoughts on what Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro's comments

I find the whole argument that since Marx died near the end of the
nineteenth century his ideas on ecology can only have very limited
relevance today rather odd--to say the least. If it is meant to indicate
that we stand on the shoulders of giants, giving us a"higher" vantage
point, as Newton said, there is no questioning it. Obviously no one has to
be told that ecological conditions have changed in the century or so since
the death of Marx (and Darwin). Marx didn't know about PCBs or nuclear
radiation. But to assume on this basis that Marx has nothing to teach us in
the area of ecology and capitalism would, I think, be a big mistake--and
one all too frequently made. The gravest weakness in contemporary
ecological analysis has been the failure to understand the significance of
capitalism for ecological problems. Not only is Marx able to teach us
crucial things about this, but his method in doing so remains of enduring
significance. It is far superior to most contemporary ecosocialist analysis
that simply consists of arbitrarily grafting red on green or green on
red--absent any meaningful historical-materialist critique. Still, Marx is
at best a starting point (though one might argue an essential one). Even in
those areas in which his work was most profound, it can constitute no more
than a set of guidelines for inquiry for us today. This goes without saying.

As for the rest, Engel-Di Mauro's reference to "metabolic balance" is a bit
of a misnomer, since this was not Marx's term, and the concept of "balance"
in this crude sense was not emphasized in MARX'S ECOLOGY. Marx did not
refer to "the balance of nature." That concept, however, has been heavily
used by modern ecologists, most famously Rachel Carson in SILENT SPRING.
Marx's notion of metabolism was as a complex, systemic concept--the same
with his notion of metabolic rift. There is nothing simple about
metabolism/metabolic relations. This concept was to be fundamental in the
development of ecology in the twentieth century and has become one of the
chief ways of conceiving ecological-social relations down to the present
day. As for Marx just being "superimposed on ecological analysis" I agree
with Engel D-Mauro that this is the wrong way to proceed. A historical
materialist would attempt to understand the material conditions involved in
capitalism's degradation of the environment, the origins of ecological
critique, the relation of this to Marx's (and all revolutionary) thought,
the further development of ecological problems and critiques after Marx
down to the present, the current strategic context in this realm, etc. This
is the critical vein in which I was working in MARX'S ECOLOGY, and it is
only a start (fortunately there are others who have been carrying out
related projects, such as Paul Burkett in MARX AND NATURE and Elmar
Altvater in THE FUTURE OF THE MARKET). In the end, What surprises me most
about Engel Di-Mauro's set of comments here (and in his CNS pieces) is that
he says that Marx needs to be "updated"--but on what basis? How can you
"update" unless you know what you are updating? There seems to be no
concern for foundations, no deep critique of Green theory as it has emerged
in our time under the dominion of capital--no genuine questioning even of
Marxism itself.

John Bellamy Foster.

At 08:47 AM 4/5/02 -0500, Louis Proyect wrote:
>this is in response to Louis Proyect's rather gratuitous comment in
>January, which I have just had the pleasure to read, regarding our
>critique of Foster's book (published in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism
>with Maarten de Kadt). Louis places words in our mouths when claiming
>that we suggest Marx could not predict the nuclear threat or PCBs and
>by placing these kinds of words makes us look rather like imbeciles
>who have never read Marx. i sincerely hope that was not the intent.
>the problem as we tried to show is not regarding Marx's applicability
>to ecological principles but his limits of scope. here is a direct
>quote from what we wrote:
>"Thinking about nature was then [during Marx's time] at an early
>stage and, because of advances in natural and social science, is
>qualitatively different now than it was then. Such thinking could not
>have been able to consider the scale, accumulation, and breadth of
>humans' interaction with the rest of nature that characterizes
>present ecological conditions."
>this says nothing about whether or not Marx's work is applicable to
>the present or not. i believe it certainly is, but must be modified
>beyond thinking in terms of metabolic balances, for instance, when it
>comes to soil conditions. soils are complex systems in
>non-equilibrium and such concepts of "balance of nature" are not very
>useful anymore analytically; again, this does not mean Marx's
>dialectical approach per se is inapplicable, but it must be updated
>rather than just superimposed on ecological analysis, as Foster
>unfortunately does. though i agree with comrade Louis'
>counter-critiques to some extent, i would not wish the readership to
>get the impression that we found Foster's work of no value. this
>could not be further from the truth and I at least praise his
>efforts, though we are critical of his interpretive take on Marx and
>ecological principles.
>Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 04/05/2002
>Marxism list:

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