Book Review: John B. Foster, Marx' Ecology and the Ecological Revolution

by Lorna Salzman

I read "Marx's Ecology" some years back, when it was just about the only socialist concession to ecology that had been made in the decades following Earth Day 1970. For this it deserved some commendation.

Similarly, Foster's conclusion below about the incompatibility of growth (the sine qua non of capitalism) and the integrity of the earth's systems may also be one of the first acknowledgements of this truth that environmentalists arrived at in 1970s, reinforced by the publication (not acknowledged by the left) of The Limits to Growth and the Blueprint for Survival (published by the UK journal The Ecologist).

After both of these were published - at the very moment that my own environmental career was beginning - the response from the left was a defense of growth as the only means that could end inequality and poverty, accompanied by hostile attacks on environmentalism as being nothing more than the white middle class and power structure defending their position of privilege.

A good deal of my time was spent responding to the left's refusal to examine the roots of environmentalism, much less acknowledge the problems that the movement was addressing. It was joined by people of color in urban areas and the southwest, who shared the superficiality of the left's position and further claimed that environmentalism was a way of ignoring the "real" problems of racism and inner city poverty.

Foster is an informed academic and could hardly ignore the reality of environmental problems, especially today when the climate change issue has shed bright light on the direct connection of growth, affluence, inequality and the impact of these on the poor and the less developed countries. But he has not forsaken the ideological doctrines of socialism; far from it, he is reasserting the same articles of faith that they proclaim: that only a worker-dominated socialist society/economy can save the earth.

Obviously if you really believe this, everything you analyze and prescribe is going to be dictated by this ideology, and everything will be squeezed into that Procrustean bed regardless of evidence to the contrary. The only difference between the old time socialism and Foster's new breed is that he is incorporating a no-growth component into the mix.

That is his privilege of course but, as with all socialist dogmas, it leaves no room for the possibility that other non-socialist (and non-capitalist) models are possible. In this respect he ends up being as dogmatic as any Wall St. corporation or financier in their defense of economic growth and the so-called "free market".

In order to escape potential criticism about the dangers of centralized planning and control which have plagued socialist regimes past and present, he posits the notion of socialized ownership. But note that this is accompanied by the notion that everyone involved in production is assumed to be of good will and good intentions and willing to sacrifice and share for the common good.

So in both of these respects - socialized ownership and participant integrity - he is relying on wishful thinking as well as utopian idealism which has yet to be realized in the real world. Thus he is fudging the issue: who will oversee and enforce the necessity for sustainability? Who will insure that individuals, institutions and economic entities shape their objectives for sustainability, equity and the common good? Apparently he seems wary of suggesting that a central government may be needed... at least until we have a perfect socialism replacing capitalism. I am not holding my breath.

What has been smudged over here is the difficulty of replacing the present model of greed, accumulation and exploitation (of resources, markets, and people) with a model in which people readily accept, without coercion, a reduction in consumption, profits and economic expansion. This is of course precisely the model that most environmentalists, ecologists and bioregionalists have been promoting since Earth Day 1970, without success, it must be added.

The notion that Foster presents, regrettably, is that socialism and ONLY socialism is the vehicle for achieving this model. Thus, he has tripped himself up ideologically; he has accurately described a model that is indeed the only one that can save the earth, while simultaneously promoting socialism, his own a priori political agenda, as the only solution..without providing any empirical evidence for this position except his personal faith.

This faith is indeed a cyberfaith at best. Certainly all the past and present examples of socialism give us no reason whatsoever for this faith, neither the example of Chavez or Morales, whom he mentions, for that matter, or least of all the Soviet example. Not one of the more "democratic" regimes in Latin America or elsewhere has, in theory or practice, categorically rejected the extant economic growth model.( At one time many years ago Tanzania had a president who did so, but he didn't last long).

Morales and his Latin America neighbors are famous for their denunciations of the "Washington consensus" (neo-liberal globalization and financial prescriptions), the IMF and WTO, but they show no sign of abandoning the classic capitalist growth model or of withdrawing from the international development pattern. The Latin American drawing boards are replete with schemes for offshore oil drilling, new oil and gas pipelines, ecologically destructive dams, rapacious mining, uncontrolled cutting of forests, construction of nuclear power plants, and the cultivation of genetically modified crops, all done in the name of helping the poor and getting out from under the grip of the USA, the IMF and the World Bank. In effect they have said: we don't need them to destroy our resources; we can do it just fine by ourselves. Spare us from this kind of socialism....

The height of Foster's blindness and fealty to an absurd ideology is when he says that only socialism can bring together the ecological awareness with a class consciousness. Again, this notion that a class consciousness is and must be the foundation for a revolution hits us like a wet dirty mop. Will we never be rid of this antiquated, already-shredded shroud with the image of 19th century Marx, a shroud that is no more credible than the Shroud of Turin with Christ's image?

I find it remarkable but depressing that an informed academic like Foster has not been able at this period in time to entertain even a shred of doubt about socialism. He is indeed a devout worshipper at this shrine, no less deluded than the worshippers at churches, mosques and synagogues who unquestioningly accept the faith of their ancestors, a faith founded on nothing but rumor and hearsay. The secular faith of socialism seems as unshakeable as organized religion. But it deserves no more public credulity.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.