25 Feb 2010

'Marxists and ecologists are not entirely different groups'

Interview by Aleix Bombila, for *En Lucha

Spain), of John Bellamy Foster, editor of
*Monthly Review *, and author of Marx's
* and The Ecological

*En Lucha**: In your book Marx's Ecology you argue that Marxism has a lot to
offer to the ecologist movement. What kind of united work can be
established between Marxists and ecologists? *

*JBF: *I think it is important to recognize that Marxists and ecologists are
not entirely different groups. Of course it is true that there have been
Reds who have been anti-ecological, and Greens who have been anti-Marxist.
But it is not uncommon for the two to overlap, and increasingly to
converge. Many socialists are environmentalists and many environmentalists
are socialists. Indeed, there is a sense in which Marxism and ecology, both
classically and today, lead to the same conclusion. For Marx, the goal was
the creation of a society in which the metabolic relation between humanity
and nature (i.e. production) was rationally regulated by the associated
producers. The original title of my book that you refer to was supposed to
be *Marx and Ecology*, but I changed it to *Marx's Ecology *because of the
depth of Marx's ecological conceptions.

I would argue that a critical Marxist approach, especially in our time,
requires an ecological worldview, while a critical human ecology requires an
anti-capitalist and ultimately socialist orientation (i.e., a Marxist one).
In terms of united work that Marxists and ecologists can share, I would say
social justice and environmental sustainability: saving humanity and saving
the earth. You can't expect to achieve one without the other, and neither
is possible under the existing system. Probably the strongest single voice
for an ecological relation in the world today is Evo
the socialist (and indigenous) president of Bolivia. After the failed
Copenhagen conference on climate change, Fidel Castro said that we used to
think we were in a struggle simply to determine the society of the future,
but we now know we are in a struggle for survival. We have reached a point
where historical materialists are taking global leadership in defining the
ecological needs of humanity.

*En Lucha**: The struggle against climate change looks kind of abstract at
first sight. How can we organize campaigns against climate change with a
real impact? Who should promote them?*

Climate change, and the planetary ecological crisis as a whole, which is
much bigger, is the greatest material threat that civilization, and indeed
humanity, has ever confronted. We are facing, if we don't change course,
the demise of the earth as a habitable planet for most of today's living
species. But, as you say, it seems abstract. People can't feel it because
it is not reflected consistently in the short-term weather conditions they
experience on a daily or even a seasonal basis. Moreover, it is not a
problem that grows gradually and smoothly, but rather one that will
accelerate with all sorts of tipping points, issuing in irreversible
changes. So time is extremely short, and it requires a certain degree of
education as to what is happening. Scientists are now almost unanimous on
the threat, if not on all the details, but they do not have a direct line to
the population. There are very few actual authoritative global warming
deniers and their scientific claims, such as they are, been refuted again
and again, but because of the power of the capitalist class, which sees any
action to avert the problem as a threat to its immediate interests, the
denial view is constantly amplified in the corporate media. Ordinary people
are thus left uncertain as to what to think. Besides, they are hit with
other material problems that seem more immediate: economic stagnation, the
current extreme downturn, and the destructive effects of neoliberal policy.
Workers are seeing their economic standard of living decline and are
worried about their jobs; increasing numbers are unemployed and in poverty.
So it is hard to concentrate on something as seemingly nebulous as climate

If we are looking for a massive revolt from below in this area I believe
that it will emerge first not at the center but at the periphery of the
capitalist world.
his studies of history used to talk about an internal and an external
proletariat. On climate change, as well as in the revolts against
capitalism in general, it is the external proletariat in the periphery of
the capitalist world economy that will undoubtedly take the leading role. I
have pointed in recent writings to the possibility of what I have
called an "environmental
proletariat" -- for whom
resistance to environmental conditions broadly, and not simply industrial
conditions, is the defining struggle. Those most oppressed in the world,
who have nothing to lose, are to be found predominantly in third world
regions. So this is where the environmental proletariat also is mainly to
be found. This is especially evident in the effect that sea level rise will
have on the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh and India and on the
low-lying fertile areas of the Indian Ocean and China Sea -- Kerala in
India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia. Some areas, like the low-lying delta
of the Pearl River in China, correspond to the areas of fastest development
(in this case Guangdong industrial region from Shenzhen to Guangzhou), and
some of the sharpest class contradictions. So the world epicenters of
environmental and class struggle may overlap. There are all sorts of signs
-- as in the water, hydrocarbon, and coca wars in Bolivia, which helped
bring a socialist and indigenous-based political movement to power -- that
the material bases of social struggle is being transformed, raising issues
that are more all-encompassing.

Even in the center of the system (the internal proletariat), there are a lot
of ongoing struggles by environmentalists, and particularly the youth-based
climate justice movement. Although there is no sign of a revolt from below
from workers at present, and even though the labor movement seems to be
entirely dormant in the United States in
particularin the
context of worsening economic (and environmental) conditions, there
is hope that community-based, labor-environmental struggles will generate a
new context for change. It is to be hoped that something like an
environmental proletariat will eventually emerge in the center too. If one
reads classic works like Engels's *The Condition of the Working Class in
*one gets the sense in which environmental struggles were crucial to the
making of the English working class in the classical era, in ways that belie
a narrow productivist vision.

The truth is that when it comes to the dual contradictions represented by
the economic and environmental failures of the system, it is only socialists
that are able effectively to bring these issues together. Only historical
materialists fully embody a theory and a practice that recognizes that these
are not separate issues but have a common basis in the capitalist mode of
production. Indeed, I think we are increasingly seeing a convergence of
socialist and ecological visions of the future, in a way that leads in a
much more revolutionary direction than we have ever seen before. But we
should not be blindly optimistic. This also requires organization. And
there are great dangers, such as the growth of ecofascism, and the delaying
tactics of those in power that could spell "the common ruin of the
contending classes."

*En Lucha**: How can we foster environmental justice without prejudicing the
working class?*

One might as well ask: How can we *not* foster environmental justice without
prejudicing the working class? One of the first works on environmental
justice, as I have already suggested, was Engels's *The Condition of the
Working Class in England*, which focused on how the working class was
subject to toxic living conditions and the consequences in terms of health,
looking at how this has affected class divisions and urban structure. Such
concerns were part of the working-class struggle in the beginning.
Environmental justice also includes health and safety within factories --
and in a broader sense than this is usually understood, encompassing such
issues as length of working day, intensity of hours, etc. It is only the
growth of a business-oriented trade union movement, and its segmentation
from other working-class issues under contemporary capitalist systems of
legal/political regulation, that has allowed people to think that the labor
movement in particular and class struggle in general centers on a very
restrictive set of issues, separated from environmental justice, which is in
reality the measure of how inequality affects people in the multiple
material domains of life.

Of course environmental injustice in the United States is understandably
seen as related to race perhaps even more than class, since its greatest
impact is on those individuals and communities that are subject to
environmental racism. Toxic wastes, as is well known, are more commonly
dumped in communities of color. One then sometimes runs into the
misconception that this is a race and not a class issue for that very
reason. Often implicit in this is the false notion that the working class
is white, and so, if the problem is one that primarily affects American
Indians, blacks, Latinos, Asians, then it is not a class issue. But of
course the working class in the United States is predominantly made up of
so-called "minority races." There is no sense in which the working class is
a white working class, as is commonly supposed (and as contemporary
whiteness studies teach us the whole issue of "white" needs examination).
Environmental justice is thus a race and class (and indeed a gender) issue.
It raises issues that the contemporary labor movement, with its limited
"bargaining" position and the racial divides that it has often helped
perpetuate, is not very well equipped to deal with, but that a socialist
working-class movement could much more easily address.

*En Lucha**: Are taxes on polluting industries a solution? *

If you mean an ultimate solution, the answer is No. The only real solution
is to get rid of capitalism and put an egalitarian, sustainable society, run
by the associated producers, in its place. But we have to face the fact
that the environmental problem, including climate change, is accelerating,
that this is a question of survival for humanity and most species on the
earth. The time in which to act if we want to avoid irreversible
environmental decline is incredibly short, with only a generation or so in
which to implement a drastic change of course. That at least is what
science is telling us at present. Under these circumstances we need both
short-term radical responses and a longer-term ecological revolution. The
first needs to help promote the conditions for the second. The immediate,
short-term response requires, I am convinced, a carbon tax of the kind
proposed by James
a progressively increasing tax imposed at well head, mine shaft, or point of
entry with 100 percent of the revenue going back to the population on a
monthly basis. The point of this set-up, as Hansen says, is to make sure
that the carbon tax is imposed as much as possible at the point of
production and falls on those with the largest carbon footprints (mostly the
rich), with the majority of the population gaining from the distribution of
the revenue from the tax, since they have less-than-average per-capita
footprints. Neither capital nor the governments controlled by capital would
have their hands on the revenue, which would flow directly to the
population. Implementing this in the kind of society that we have would of
course be difficult. But once it was understood as having the effect of
both protecting the earth (by making the price of carbon higher) and
generally redistributing income toward those at the bottom of the society,
it would gain strong popular support.

The truth is that as long as we are in a capitalist society a key means of
controlling a pollutant -- and carbon dioxide has unfortunately become that
-- is going to be increasing its price. More direct political forms of
regulation should of course be used as well. For example, we need simply to
ban the building of coal-fired plants as long as sequestration technology
doesn't exist (and at present there are all sorts of obstacles), and
existing coal-fired plants need to be rapidly phased out. To accomplish
this on the necessary scale, however, requires a general ecological
revolution affecting what we produce and consume and how our society is

*En Lucha**: Is a collective solution to the ecological crisis possible
within this system (renewable energies, improvement of public transport,
cessation of big infrastructures, etc.)? *

Again, there is no collective solution *within the system*. But we can
promote collective solutions *from within the system*, which, going against
its logic, will play a part in the transition to another, people-controlled
system. The new society will emerge from the womb of the old. Fred Magdoff
and I have discussed the problem of capitalism and the environment in detail
in an article that is appearing in the March 2010 issue of *Monthly Review*,
entitled "What Every Environmentalist Should Know about Capitalism." The
basic point, which needs elaboration of course, is the fact that the regime
of capital is one of self-expanding value. Capitalism requires for its very
existence constant economic growth and, more explicitly, accumulation of
capital. Such a system can clearly be very effective up to a certain point
in promoting production and economic development. But it also is very
exploitative and ultimately leads to the destruction of the environmental
conditions of existence. The only real social and ecological solution is a
society not focused on accumulation or economic growth per se, but on
sustainable human development. No matter what measures you introduce to
modernize capitalism ecologically, the system requires a constant growth of
the treadmill of production. If we substitute public for private
transportation, introduce renewable energies, and adopt other collective
measures, it can help. But these themselves tend to be limited by the
accumulation goal of the system. Reliance on renewable resources, for
example, is important. But it requires a system that uses them only at the
level at which they can be renewed. Capital pushes beyond all such

What this means is not that we back off from promoting more social,
collective, public solutions. But we need to recognize that going in that
direction invariably means going against the logic of the system, so it
requires radical organization. What we are talking about is trying to
create, in part from within capitalism, the infrastructure for a different
kind of society. With constant pressure from below some things can be
achieved, as long as they don't impinge substantially on the accumulation
drive of the system. But if accumulation itself is threatened capital
fights back, and small victories are likely to be reversed. The only answer
-- no longer to be seen simply as a question of justice but also one of
survival -- is to push beyond what capital is willing to accept, i.e., to
promote human and collective needs beyond the so-called "market system." In
that case, you are talking, if you take it far enough to make a real
difference, about an ecological and social revolution and the transition to
another kind of society.

*En Lucha**: Some social movements believe it is possible to live apart from
capitalism. Do you think this is possible, or does it just lead to the
atomization of the opposition? *

The U.S. socialist Scott
who wrote a regular column for many years in *Monthly Review*, was one of
the leaders of the self-sufficiency and back-to-the-land movement. There is
no doubt that this kind of separation of oneself from the main logic of the
system and its effects (a kind of living apart from the system) constitutes
a form of passive resistance (still a form of resistance). Throughout
history human beings, faced by repressive systems, have returned to the
land, and cultivated their own gardens, so to speak. This can be a way of
healing, regrouping, etc. Many of those who have gone in this general
direction have pioneered in alternative forms of agriculture, including
organic farming, community-supported agriculture. We should not
underestimate the degree to which such actions can sometimes create
alternatives crucial to the development of a new society, within the various
interstices of the system. But the real struggle to create a new society
requires in addition an active resistance and political organization: a
direct revolt against the existing relations of production. So the new
strengths that were gained during a period of retreat have to become a part
of an active resistance. Complete withdrawal in a globalized capitalist
system is largely an illusion. It is interesting how Nearing himself
combined his life of self-sufficiency with continual, active resistance. He
worked it from both ends. Today we need people who are active in their
resistance. If they can combine this with various ways of freeing
themselves from the rat race, so much the better.

*En Lucha**: The degrowth movement champions individual and collective
initiatives in the search for alternatives to capitalism. What is your
opinion about it? How can we decrease globally within the capitalist
system? *

Decrease globally *within* capitalism? We *can't*. Capitalism is all about
accumulation. It is a grow-or-die system and on an increasingly global
scale. When economic growth, particularly the growth of profits, is not
taking place, the system goes into a crisis, as at present. This results in
massive unemployment. There are a lot of good things to be said about the
"degrowth movement," as articulated particularly in Paris in April
But it is based on a voluntaristic approach to decrease consumption, and on
the unreal assumption that you can have a stationary state (that is a
no-growth economy), as envisioned by John Stuart
Millin the
nineteenth century, somehow in the context of the present system.
This is simply a misunderstanding as to the nature of capitalism. As
Joseph Schumpeter wrote, a no-growth capitalism is a *contradictio in
*. It is certainly true that we need a new economic structure focused on
enough and not more. An overall reduction in economic scale on the world
level, particularly in the rich countries, could be accompanied by progress
in sustainable human development, improving the real conditions of humanity
by moving from possessive individualism to non-possessive
humanism-collectivism. But this would require a socialist economy to make
it possible (not inevitable).

*En Lucha**: If the alternative to capitalism is a democratically planned
economy, how should this work so as to include environmental issues? *

I think we need to remember Marx's warning in *Capital *about writing "recipes
for the cook-shops of the
future." It
would be a mistake to try to write an actual blueprint for a socialist
society, including one that incorporated environmental issues. Yet, I think
that Paul Burkett has demonstrated in a brilliant article on "Marx's Vision
of Sustainable Human
Development"in the
October 2005 issue of
*Monthly Review *that Marx's notion of communism was one of sustainable
human development, and that it is indeed only in those terms that we can
understand what Marx's conception of a society of freely associated
producers regulating their metabolism with nature was all about. Hugo
Chávez has defined the struggle for socialism in the twenty-first century in
terms of "the elementary triangle of
According to this view, derived from Marx, socialism consists of: (1)
social ownership; (2) social production organized by workers; and (3)
satisfaction of communal needs. In my view, one can also speak of an
"elementary triangle of ecology," derived directly from Marx, which takes
the struggle to a deeper level. This can be defined as: (1) social use, not
ownership, of nature; (2) rational regulation by the associated producers of
the metabolism between human beings and nature; and (3) the satisfaction of
communal needs -- not only of present but also future generations. All of
this is spelled out in detail at the end of the introduction to my book *The
Ecological Revolution*, as well as in the final chapters of that book.

*En Lucha**: Finally, why should we read your last book, The Ecological
Revolution? *

The opening words of the preface to *The Ecological Revolution *state: "My
premise in this book is that we have reached a turning point in the human
relation to the earth: all hope for the future of this relationship is now
either revolutionary or it is false."

The reason to read the* Ecological Revolution *is to begin to approach this
question, which is now obviously the most important question facing humanity
as we go forward into the future.

1 comment:

tim said...

This is one of the best concise pieces on ecosocialism I have read in some time. Foster really nails it here.

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