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Planetary Boundaries Afire: John Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Critique of Capitalism

by on November 1, 2011

Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster has been forewarning of the disastrous environmental consequences of capitalism for years. His most recent warning was addressed to Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zucotti Park on 23 October 2011.1 Having reviewed the startling findings of the Stockholm Resilience Center regarding the breach or near-breach of nine “planetary boundaries,” Foster properly concludes that such scientific findings should lead us not immediately to economic concerns but instead to social concerns.

Simultaneously addressing this central social question and also targeting the central concern of his “99 percent” audience, Foster says this: “It [the environmental dilemma] is an issue of social conditions and social agency. We live in a capitalist society in which the accumulation of capital, i.e. economic growth carried out primarily on the terms of the 1 percent at the top (the ruling capital class), is the dominant tendency. It is a system that accumulates capital in one phase simply so that it can accumulate still more capital in the next phase – always on a larger scale.” The current economic downturn, he says, is, in a sense, good for the environment, in that it forces environmental exploitation to slow temporarily. He also says, though, that such an economic downturn is “terrible for human beings, particularly the bottom portion of the 99 percent, faced with rising unemployment and declining income.”2

From this point regarding both the 99 percent, Foster hastily moves back to the enigma of capitalist expansion in a limited, finite environment. I say “hastily” because he does not directly state what seems to be his implicit point by developing his argument as he does: in today’s economic downturn, the 99 percent is experiencing what the environment has been experiencing for decades. The two—the workforce and the environment—are not dynamic equivalents, but the recession nonetheless must function as a wake-up call for the majority to renew its concern for capitalism’s exhausting the environment, possibly to an irreparable degree.

Foster’s tactic here differs from the head-on approach he takes against Western governmental policy in his 2001 article “Ecology Against Capitalism.” There he directly confronts the Bush administration’s disavowal policy regarding brewing and imminent environmental catastrophes. Foster discusses America’s rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as well as foreboding reports made by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); the reasons for rejecting these concerns are twofold: such resolutions as those promulgated by the Kyoto Protocol “would have a negative economic impact [on the U.S. economy] with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers,” as well as the “unfair” exclusion of developing countries like China and India from the protocol’s jurisdiction. The first of these two reasons leads Foster to conclude that, in the eyes of the presidential administration, the cost of making environmental adjustments is “simply too high a price to pay.”3

Ten years after the publication of “Ecology Against Capitalism,” Foster remains dismayed at serious interest in geoengineering techniques, such as the implementation of carbon markets. His opinion of geoengineering is much the same as in his earlier piece (2001) discussed here, in which he classifies such interest as “sci-fi technological solutions.”4 Instead, Foster today (2011) believes the proper solution to the pending environmental catastrophe is an immediate shift from a capitalist to a socialist society. For him, such a shift would effectively eliminate the materialist commodity culture, which has fueled capitalist society for decades; this shift, he claims, will also aid Occupy Wall Street demands at the redistribution of wealth by short-circuiting the channels to wealth which the top one percent maintains and enjoys.5

While I certainly agree with the need to move away from wasteful packaging and the supplemental marketing aimed at creating demand for unnecessary commodities, I cannot but wonder if the instillation of socialism, even if it were to happen, would really take hold fast enough to derail the imminent environmental catastrophe. At the end of his address (2011), Foster explains his vision of a more environmentally-sound socialist society and world:

It is not primarily a technological problem, because the goal here would no longer be the impossible one of expanding our exploitation of the earth beyond all physical and biological limits, ad infinitum.  Rather the goal would be to promote human community and community with the earth.  Here we would need to depend on organizing our local communities but also on creating a global community — where the rich countries no longer imperialistically exploit the poor countries of the world.6

The goals of human community and community with the earth are certainly commendable and notable. However, the extent of community is far-reaching due to the impact of factors ranging from urban sprawl to globalization. Perhaps two of the most representative examples of this are food and transportation. In the same year Foster published “Ecology Against Capitalism” (2001), Weekly Reader found that methane (under which food falls) made up 9 percent of U.S. gas emissions, and carbon dioxide (under which fossil fuel consumption and cement production both fall) account for a staggering 84 percent.7

Surely these statistics have altered to some extent, but they nonetheless point to the reality that the luxurious dimension of capitalist society is not necessarily the primary woe debilitating the environment today; instead, two touchstones of civilization and globalization, food and transportation, pose serious hurdles to any call for local communities. Our very diets and our livelihoods are much, much harder to alter than simply eradicating useless expenses on commodities (which, for many, has been happening out of necessity due to the world-wide economic downturn, even if those expenses are beginning to reemerge for the upper echelons of society).

Such changes to food and transportation seem far off. Peter Singer and Jim Mason have notably documented the various issues involved—surmountable, but also daunting–in the local food movement. A recent BBC study indicates that, due to the current recession, many Americans are having to travel further distances and for longer durations of time in order to get to and from work.8 I will not say that Americans’ survival depends upon these two things, for such a statement would be easily characterized as exaggerated; I will, however, say that the financial stability and well-being of many necessitates that such emissions continue to be made.

So, yes, the eradication of unnecessary expenditures is certainly in order, but deeper-reaching reform is in order. Most will agree with the conclusion of Foster’s address to Occupy Wall Street protesters (2011) that local and biospheric communities are desperately needed, but the implementation of such communities will require far more from us than Foster suggests in his uplifting conclusion.

The revised version of Foster’s talk, entitled “Capitalism and Environmental Catastrophe” is available on the Monthly Press website.

2 Foster, n. pag.

3 John Bellamy Foster, p. 8, in “Ecology Against Capitalism,” Monthly Review Oct. 2010: 1-15

4 Foster, p. 13

5 Foster, n. pag.

6 Foster, n. pag.

7 “Causes of global warming,” Current Events, Weekly Reader 23 April 2007, p. 8

8 Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2007; Franz Strasser, “America’s commutes start earlier and last longer,” BBC News 11 Oct. 2011.

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From → Archives, C. Ryan

  1. Ryan,

    In a previous comment, I mentioned that profit and economies will always win out over human rights. Such a conclusion can be extended to the environment as well. What isn’t mentioned in Foster’s piece is that nearly everyone at the Occupy Wall Street protest is guilty of partaking in a consumerist lifestyle. One only need look around at the cell-phones and laptops, which can only be made with rare elements which are mined at the expense of the environment and human rights, that populate the hands of so many of the protestors.

    I could go on and point out the multitude of other products that the protestors, and I’m sure Foster as well, use every day that have a negative impact on the environment. My point is not to point out hypocrisy, but to show that we are all complicit in a economic/environmental system that is tilted towards cheap products rather than the environment. The world has deemed the opportunity cost of cheap wares to be worth the (possible) sacrifice of the environment.

    There are those who live outside of such a system, but the lifestyle is not what most people aspire to reach. The intentional community movement within Christianity is one such lifestyle that eschews the consumerist model in favor of the environment, but you hardly see the masses flocking to such places as inner-city Philly where the Simple Way have called home for years.

    What’s more is that the Simple Way, even though it is a Christian-based group of people, their ideals for a revamped world mesh almost perfectly with what the spokespeople of the Occupy movement want as well. The difference is a place like the Simple Way actually lives out their hopes for the world, while the protesters, well, protest for such a change.

    So Foster can preach to the petit-bourgeois crowd, but the impact will be minimal, because few are willing to make the sacrifices needed to choose the environment and global human rights over cheap goods.

  2. C. Ryan Knight permalink

    Well, I won’t mince words here. I find the criticism about protesters’ hypocritical use of technology distasteful and a cross-pollenation of ad hominem with red herring. If anything, I think their use of such technology is symbolic of their situation: having done what they were supposed to, bought what they were supposed to–and having little more than savvy devices to show for themselves.

    One can criticize anyone all day long for participating in consumerism while simultaneously criticizing it. Yet those critical of consumerism literally cannot escape it, even if they hate it. Even if (imagine such a thing!) the protesters literally wanted to demolish Wall Street. Would they not have to (hypocritically) use a Caterpillar or some such company product to do so?

    Now if the protesters were to leave the protests, go home, and buy a new Apple or some such thing on their parents’ bill, then I think we would have a problem with hypocrisy. But to use products they already own to counteract or subvert a problematic culture of consumerism? Is this not something to celebrate rather than mock?

    I get what you’re saying about the Simple Way, but criticizing protesters for not going to places like inner-city Philadelphia risks ignoring the purpose of the protests. The whole idea behind going to major public (and symbolic) places like Wall Street is to directly confront the government and the financial giants.

  3. Ryan,

    A distasteful cross-pollenation of ad hominem and red herring? Now that’s the blog-debating spirit! Except I think you missed the line in my response where I said, “My point is not to point out hypocrisy, but to show that we are all complicit in an economic/environmental system that is tilted towards cheap products rather than the environment.”

    While your rebuttal veers away from the environmental aspect of my comment (which was also the focus of your post), you are bringing up a vital point about the protesters not being able to escape consumerism. I used technology as but one of a multitude of examples to show their complicity and your rebuttal proves my point of complicity when you say that the protestors did “what they were supposed to, bought what they were supposed to.”

    The protesters didn’t/don’t hate consumerism, they only hate the fact that it is no longer working in their favor. Where were these protestors 2, 5, 10 years ago? The protestors weren’t going “to directly confront the government and the financial giants” over the environment then because they were on the winning side at that point. I am not mocking the protesters, I am merely pointing out that until the tables turned, the protestors were content to consume because they could afford such a lifestyle.

    Though you think I may view the protesters as hypocritical, I actually don’t think the protesters could be hypocritical because that would mean they understand the consumerist system completely and it is very obvious they did not and still do not fully understand that their current economic state is the end product of our consumerist system and the larger global capitalist system.

    I also feel you miss the point of my reply concerning the Simple Way as well. Just as my criticism of the protestors complicity in a consumeristic system was illustrated by one example (cell phones and lap tops) so too was the Simple Way just one illustration as a way of leaving such a system. It is possible to live out a life of intentional community/communal living that does away with consumerism wherever one resides, but it just isn’t popular because people like what a consumerist system provides. It is easier to resist the current state of a system the protesters would like to have back than it is to advance a new type of system that offers people emancipation from the consumerism.

  4. C. Ryan Knight permalink

    I did see your statement (or “line”). Considering, though, that it appears only after you say hypocrisy is not the point after making the point about their hypocrisy, it (the line) looked like an empty gesture to me. Sorry if I wrongly pigeonholed you.

    I see your point about the Simple Way, too. I just don’t think that small-scale communities are what’s sought in this situation. Spiritually, something like the Simple Way is perhaps rewarding and productive (or beautiful, to use Shane Claiborne’s term for, well, virtually anything and everything). Politically, though, such small-scale communities are marginal and probably viewed as a post-60s hippie version of the Amish. All that to say: I think the protesters aren’t aimed at escapism from the political sphere but rather the transformation of it to make space for them.

  5. It was definitely not an empty gesture on my part. I only used the word hypocrisy once in my initial comment and it was to show that the protestors weren’t hypocritical but were instead complicit in the system that now threatens to exclude them.

    I agree that the protesters aren’t aimed at escapism or seeking small, self-contained communities, but I don’t believe they want a transformation of the political sphere so much as a reset of the system they find themselves on the outside of these days. I say this because so many of these people were at one point on the “inside”, because the system was working for them, hence your line about the protesters “having done what they were supposed to, bought what they were supposed to” but coming up short.

    We will see if the protests bring about any transformation, but considering the near silence of politicians on the protests (beyond those who are trying to co-opt it) as well as the way that business as usual goes on around the protest encampments, I doubt any fundamental change takes place beyond the excuse for more authoritarian police measures to be put in place, ostensibly for the “safety” of the people.

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