accumulation of capital, biospheric communities, capitalism, ecological catastrophe, Ecology Against Capitalism, environment, geoengineering, greenhouse emissions, John Bellamy Foster, Occupy Wall Street, planetary boundaries, socialism
Planetary Boundaries Afire: John Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Critique of Capitalism
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.
1 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.