Before starting John Bellamy Foster's The Ecological Revolution, I had just read A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting. Ponting's historical account of ecological degradation is frighteningly insightful. While reminding us that humans have been destroying their environments for millennia, Ponting rightly emphasizes the threat to the biosphere as a whole posed by continued economic growth. Though he doesn't speak about it in terms of capitalism, Ponting pulls no punches when criticizing the dominant logic of economic growth and its environmental impact. Yet, what I thought was interesting, and relevant for a review of Foster's The Ecological Revolution, was that Ponting ends his illuminating history with no alternative vision, but a rather pessimistic outlook on human society's future relation with nature. Meanwhile, the goal of Foster's book is to lay the groundwork for developing an alternative vision based on the positive transcendence of capitalism.
In comparison to Foster, it is plausible that Ponting's one-sided forecast for the future of human sustainability stems from his misrepresentation of Karl Marx's environmental awareness. He clearly is in the camp, as described by Foster, of "those who contend that Marx's thought was anti-ecological from beginning to end and indistinguishable from Soviet practice" (p. 167). Therefore, despite the fact that Ponting deeply understands the scale of the modern environmental problem, he cannot see any hope past the problem, I argue, because he denies an intellectual and historical legacy that would allow him to do so. Although he emphasizes that capitalist tendencies (accumulation with inequality, uninterrupted economic growth, etc.) are the primary drivers of modern environmental degradation, Ponting RARELY calls the system by its name. I believe that these are the reasons Ponting leaves us with little hope while Foster does the opposite thus giving us hope. Not oblivious to the challenges ahead, The Ecological Revolution's hope lies in its ability to appreciate Marx's environmental insights, which then helps us put the focus specifically on capitalism's unsustainable relationship with nature.
Ironically, there are some people who say that Foster's analysis offers no hope to our understanding of the relationship between human society and the environment (See End note 3 for the Preface). But, The Ecological Revolution gives us a revolutionary environmental outlook, which is, in my opinion, inherently hopeful. The structure of the book reinforces this perspective. There are three main sections. The first section gives us an overview of the environmental problem we currently face. This is based not only on a close reading of what natural scientists have been saying about the health of the planet but also delivers a critical appraisal of environmental reform efforts which are largely based on mainstream economics.
The second section then provides the foundation for understanding the social (i.e., political-economic) causes of the planetary crisis. This is mostly based on Foster's research into Marx's environmental insights. Foster shows not only that former critics of Marx were misguided in saying that the classical political economist wore "ecological blinders". But, in fact, Marx (and Engels) examined a range of ecological issues, including deforestation, soil depletion, the division of town and country, urban pollution, and other environmental problems we continue to face today. It is also important to point out that in this section Foster distinguishes between different "Marxist" approaches to environmental sociology. For example, the second contradiction of capitalism developed by James O'Connor focuses on the ability of capitalism to undermine the environmental conditions of production upon which it depends for growth. Consequently, capitalism threatens to cut into its profits by destroying the environment. Foster disagrees with this assessment. He writes, "We should not underestimate capitalism's capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation (for example through the growth of the waste management industry)..." (p. 206).
With an understanding of the environmental crisis and the social forces driving it, the third and final section discusses the need to transition away from capitalism to socialism. But, as Foster clarifies, this revolution does not automatically entail an ecologically rational society. Rather, what is needed is "the creation of a society of associated producers rationally regulating their metabolic relation to nature, and doing so not only in accordance with their own needs but also those of future generations and life as a whole" (p. 277). Drawing on contemporary examples from Cuba, Porto Alegre(Brasil), Kerala (India), Bolivia, and Venezuela, a socialist revolution, Foster argues, needs to consciously take into account the natural world. But, in this section, Foster doesn't jump into the positive transcendence of capitalism as a possible future relationship between human society and the environment. He first discusses a more mainstream assessment of this topic as developed by the Global Scenario Group's publication The Great Transition (2002). The Great Transition highlights different ways the relationship between human society and nature may develop, even including as a future outcome what they call eco-communalism (the outcome most closely related to a Marxist political economy). Nevertheless, The Global Scenario Group sees as the only viable future an ecologically modernized version of capitalism. This group (like most environmental reform efforts) cannot envision a clear break from capitalism. They wish to simply inject a soul into the institutions (i.e., private corporations) of an otherwise soulless system.
Meanwhile, Foster's vision, distinct from that offered by the Global Scenario Group, and even Ponting, allows us to see beyond an ecologically modernized capitalist future. One possible reason for this is his emphasis on radical critique; he seeks not only to get at the roots of the social system but also human understanding. Ponting couldn't located Marx's ecological consciousness perhaps because he didn't find Epicurus' ancient environmental insight. In the third section Foster quotes from Epicurus: "Poverty, when measured by the natural purpose of life, is great wealth; but unlimited wealth is great poverty" (p. 264). This ancient vision is antithetical to the dominant capitalist ideology today. So, a new social system is needed, which as Marx wrote, "starts with the self-government of the communities" (p. 264). This self-government needs to recognize sustainable human development, which means taking care of humans now without sacrificing the ability of future generations to do so. Only then could we say: "Nothing human is alien to me" AND "Nothing of this earth is alien to me." (p. 273).