What environmentalists needs to know about capitalism

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism

By Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster

Monthly Review Press, 2011

Paperback, 187 pages

ISBN-13: 978-1-58367-241-9

Review by Ben Courtice

Working on issues of renewable energy it can seem like the tides of history are turning in our favour. Worldwide investment in renewable energy has outstripped investment in fossil fuels for several years. Yet greenhouse emissions are at record levels too. Something is wrong with this picture.

Magdoff and Foster provide an excellent backgrounder in capitalist economics and how they affect the planet's ecology. Soberingly, they point out that climate is just the most pressing of nine identified planetary boundaries we are at risk of crossing (or have already crossed).

The boundaries are: climate change; ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone depletion; the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles; global freshwater use; change in land use; biodiversity loss; atmospheric aerosol loading; and chemical pollution.

Capitalism is an all-pervasive system because it must continue to grow in order to exist. Many ecologists realise that endless growth on a finite planet is an impossibility. But at the same time the pressures to conform to market policies to just get a small step forward places many of us in an invidious position.

How can we reconcile our hope for a truly ecological economy, not based on endless growth, with the fact we are forced for now to deal with an economy that is run that way? Those who work within the system often deride radicals – "this is too important to wait for the revolution" – but both sides often fail to find any ways to transcend the unfortunate situation we are in.

Magdoff and Foster look at questions like, can we have zero-growth capitalism? This would in fact not be capitalism, by their definition. When we talk of "capitalism" we must remember that the system is in fact composed of real "capitals" or corporate interests. They won’t submit to ending their competition for growth and profits without a fight.

The arguments proceed with a nod to particular Marxist writers, principally Marx and Engels. But the main material in the book is refreshingly compiled with examples and quotes from the contemporary world. They manage a socialist critique of capitalism that does not devolve into convoluted abstraction or stale dogma. It is concise and readable.

And this book is aimed at active environmentalists, not academics or policy wonks. Not only does it provide a thorough exposé of the irrational heart of capitalism. It tries to give pointers for how to get out of the mess of the market economy. And here I will let the authors speak for themselves.

"There are things that have been done and that can be done even within capitalist society to lessen the system's negative effects on the environment and people. Much more can be accomplished, however, if we focus on what needs to be done, rather than on the limits the system imposes. ... We must push the capitalist system to its bottom line in terms of sustainability criteria − and then cross that bottom line: putting people and the environment before profits.

"History teaches that although capitalism has at times responded to environmental movements − without which the system might have by now completely destroyed the environment − at a certain point, at which the system's underlying accumulation drive is affected, its resistance to environmental demands stiffens."

This quote is quickly followed by a long list of practical reforms for which environmentalists can, and should, fight for. Most of them are conceivably reconcilable with capitalism, but taken together it is unlikely that capitalism could survive should they all be enacted. Campaigning for such reforms is one practical way to spur the "ecological revolution" that we need.

Readers well versed in the arguments here might have particular disagreements with the specific, socialist political theory the authors put forward. It is not some attempt at a comprehensive roadmap, but all the same this book is fundamentally practical. Its value goes well beyond preaching to the red choir: greenies of all stripes need to give it a read and think through its arguments.

A long article on the same theme by Magdoff and Foster is online at tiny.cc/twsegw