John Foster Bellamy answers his critics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Sep 6 13:02:22 MDT 2002

A while back on the Marxism list, I replied to critics of John Bellamy 
Foster's "Marx Ecology" who had "piled on" in the pages of James O' 
Connor's journal "Capitalism, Nature and Socialism". The constraints put on 
Foster's rejoinder convinced him it was not worth the effort to reply 
there. Paul Burkett did, however. I also had my own take on his critics 
that can be found at:'connor.htm. Foster 
finally has answered them in the pages of MR. The article is online at: John's reply is more 
substantial, but mine has better jokes.

Capitalism and Ecology:
The Nature of the Contradiction

by John Bellamy Foster

This talk was presented to the Socialism 2002 conference in Chicago on June 
15, 2002.

The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. 
These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism’s internal laws of 
motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to 
the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and 
everything within it as a result of capital’s relentless expansion. How to 
understand capitalism’s ecological contradictions has therefore become a 
subject of heated debate among socialists. Two crucial issues in this 
debate are: (1) must ecological crisis lead to economic crisis under 
capitalism?, and (2) to what extent is there an ecological contradiction at 
the heart of capitalist society?

What is at issue here can be best understood if we turn to Marx. One of the 
key elements in Marx’s ecological analysis, as I explained in Marx’s 
Ecology, is his theory of metabolic rift. Marx employed the concept of a 
rift in the metabolic relation between human beings and the earth to 
capture the material estrangement of human beings within capitalist society 
from the natural conditions that formed the basis for their existence. One 
way in which this manifested itself was in the extreme separation of town 
and country under capitalism, which grew out of the separation of the mass 
of the population from the soil.

Nineteenth century agricultural chemists, most notably Justus von Liebig, 
had discovered that the loss of soil nutrients—such as nitrogen, 
phosphorus, and potassium—through the exportation of food and fiber to the 
city—was disrupting the soil nutrient cycle and undermining capitalist 
agriculture, while burying cities in waste. Rather than constituting a 
rational form of production, British high farming (the most advanced 
capitalist agriculture of the day) could be best described, according to 
Liebig, as a “robbery system” because of its effects on the soil. The 
historical answer of the system to this declining soil productivity was, 
initially, importation of vast quantities of bones from the Continent and 
guano (bird droppings) from Peru, and, later, the development of synthetic 
fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers, however, created further problems. Thus 
arose an ever widening and more complex metabolic rift, leading to the 
severe disarticulations in the nature-society relation that characterize 
contemporary agriculture and industry.

Marx recognized that this metabolic rift represented a problem of 
sustainability. In an oft-quoted passage he remarked that capitalism sapped 
the vitality of the everlasting sources of wealth—the soil and the worker. 
Nor was the problem of the metabolic rift confined simply to the soil. Marx 
developed an account of sustainability—the conservation and if need be 
“restoration” of the earth so that it could be passed on in an equal or 
“improved” state to the succeeding chain of human generations—that directly 
addressed such issues as soil nutrient recycling, pollution, sanitary 
conditions, deforestation, floods, desertification, climate change, 
recycling of industrial wastes, diversity of species, the commodification 
of species, and other issues. His closely related studies of evolutionary 
theory led him toward notions of coevolution. His conflict with Malthus 
forced him to consider the historical (rather than natural) sources of 
“overpopulation” (a term Marx used while Malthus did not). Marx’s analysis 
of primitive accumulation pointed to the separation of workers from the 
land as the formative contradiction of capitalism. His critique of 
political economy highlighted the commodification of all of life and the 
dominant role played by accumulation without end, rooted in exchange value 
as opposed to use value. Quoting Thomas MFCntzer, the revolutionary leader 
of the sixteenth century German Peasants War, Marx observed: it is 
intolerable that “‘all creatures have been made into property, the fish in 
the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth—all living things 
must also become free’” (MFCntzer, Collected Works, p. 335; Marx and 
Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 172).

Nevertheless, it has become the fashion in certain ecosocialist circles to 
stress not so much the wealth of ecological insights that Marx provided, as 
to focus on what are characterized as major shortcomings of Marx’s analysis 
that prevented him from developing a full-fledged ecological Marxism. 
Writing in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, the leading journal of 
ecosocialism edited by James O’Connor, Alan Rudy has contended that a 
“limitation to Marx’s ecology is that Marx did not theorize the ‘metabolic 
rift’ as an important moment in the crisis tendencies of capitalism.” This 
point has been enunciated more fully by O’Connor, who has argued that, 
while Marx recognized the existence of “ecologically destructive methods” 
within agriculture, “he never considered the possibility” that ecological 
degradation “might threaten economic crisis of a particular type, namely, 
underproduction of capital,” due to the impairment of the natural 
conditions of production. Hence Marx, O’Connor states, failed to “put two 
and two together” so as to develop a theory of how increasing ecological 
costs contributed to decreasing profitability and accumulation crisis. His 
analysis thus fell short of the conceptual framework that O’Connor has 
labeled “ecological Marxism.”*


Louis Proyect

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