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Marx & Ecology: Review of two books by John Bellamy Foster

Michelle Robidoux
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature
John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press, 2000

Ecology Against Capitalism
John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press, 2002

Anyone who has watched in horror as Bush and the captains of the world’s oiligarchy conspire to sabotage the mild measures of the Kyoto Protocol will find a much-needed antidote of hope in John Bellamy Foster’s most recent books.

In Marx’s Ecology, Foster delivers a comprehensive study of the origins and development of Karl Marx’s materialist conception of nature and society. In the process, he debunks a series of misconceptions about Marx’s ideas. One of these myths is that Marx was a proponent of a form of Prometheanism (i.e. pro-technology and anti-ecological) and that while he theorized the exploitation of one class by another, he failed to address the exploitation of nature by humanity.

Foster also challenges the idea that there is a divide between Marx’s early writings (seen to be more in tune with ecological concerns) and his later work. He shows that what is today understood as ecological thinking was central to Marx’s work, from his doctoral dissertation on Epicurus, to his early writings on the wood theft laws, and on to Capital. Throughout, Marx grapples with the central question of the relationship of human beings to the natural world.

In Capital, Marx uses the concept of “metabolism” to define the labor process as “a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” Yet an “irreparable rift” had emerged in this metabolism as a result of capitalist relations of production and the antagonistic separation of town & country.

Social relations

Far from this rift being a result of some fixed human nature, Marx shows how it is the product of specific social relations that can be changed through human activity. Under the “society of associated producers” (socialism) human beings’ ability to “govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way” would be possible in a way it isn’t under capitalism.

While Marx’s Ecology traces Marx’s thought on the question of the human relationship to nature, Ecology Against Capitalism delves into contemporary debates and puts dialectical materialism into practice. Foster covers a wide range of issues, from the Kyoto Protocol to the pressing question of the relationship between workers’ struggles and ecological campaigns. Because the essays in this volume span almost a decade (1992-2001), it affords the reader an interesting glimpse at the development of both theory and practice in the struggle to stop capitalism’s destruction of the planet.

In this period, the question of hope and agency in transforming the world are back on the agenda in a big way. Foster’s contribution of unearthing and synthesizing ideas that can make a difference is outstanding. And there is more to come. An upcoming volume will pick up where Marx’s Ecology left off and explore the development of a materialist understanding of nature and ecological crisis after Marx’s death.

With oil and business interests marching us off to another war for oil, these books can help us not only address the “why” of this insanity, but also the ever-important question, “what is to be done?”