Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Ecological Rift

The Ecological Rift: Capitalisms War on the Earth

John Bellamy Foster
Brett Clark
Richard York
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 544
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Ecological Rift
    Book Description:

    Humanity in the twenty-first century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the earth are headed for a fateful collision - if we don't alter course.In The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth environmental sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York offer a radical assessment of both the problem and the solution. They argue that the source of our ecological crisis lies in the paradox of wealth in capitalist society, which expands individual riches at the expense of public wealth, including the wealth of nature. In the process, a huge ecological rift is driven between human beings and nature, undermining the conditions of sustainable existence: a rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature that is irreparable within capitalist society, since integral to its very laws of motion.Critically examining the sanguine arguments of mainstream economists and technologists, Foster, Clark, and York insist instead that fundamental changes in social relations must occur if the ecological (and social) problems presently facing us are to be transcended. Their analysis relies on the development of a deep dialectical naturalism concerned with issues of ecology and evolution and their interaction with the economy. Importantly, they offer reasons for revolutionary hope in moving beyond the regime of capital and toward a society of sustainable human development.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-389-8
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 7-12)
  4. INTRODUCTION: A Rift in Earth and Time
    (pp. 13-50)

    The termAnthropocenewas coined a decade ago by the Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to mark the coming to an end, around the time of the late-eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution, of the Holoceneepoch in planetary history.Holoceneliterally means “New Whole.” It stands for the stable, interglacial geological epoch, dating back 10,000 to 12,000 years, in which civilization arose. Anthropocene, in contrast, means “New Human.” It represents a new geological epoch in which humanity has become the main driver of rapid changes in the earth system.³ At the same time it highlights that a potentially fatal ecological rift...

  5. PART ONE Capitalism and Unsustainable Development

    • 1. The Paradox of Wealth
      (pp. 53-72)

      Today orthodox economics is reputedly being harnessed to an entirely new end: saving the planet from the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist expansion. It promises to accomplish this through the further expansion of capitalism itself, cleared of its excesses and excrescences. A growing army of self-styled “sustainable developers” argues that there is no contradiction between the unlimited accumulation of capital—the credo of economic liberalism from Adam Smith to the present—and the preservation of the earth. The system can continue to expand by creating a new “sustainable capitalism,” bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and...

    • 2. Rifts and Shifts
      (pp. 73-88)

      Humans depend on functioning ecosystems to sustain themselves, and their actions affect those same ecosystems. As a result, there is a necessary “metabolic interaction” between humans and the earth that influences both natural and social history. Increasingly, the state of nature is being defined by the operations of the capitalist system, as anthropogenic forces are altering the global environment on a scale that is unprecedented. The global climate is rapidly changing due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. No area of the world’s ocean is unaffected by human influence, as the accumulation of carbon, fertilizer runoff, and overfishing...

    • 3. Capitalism in Wonderland
      (pp. 89-106)

      In a 2008 essay inNature, “Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution,” physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, a researcher for an investment management company, asks rhetorically, “What is the flagship achievement of economics?” Bouchaud’s answer: “Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises.”¹ Although his discussion is focused on the current worldwide financial crisis, his comment applies equally well to mainstream economic approaches to the environment—where, for example, ancient forests are seen as non-performing assets to be liquidated, and clean air and water are luxury goods for the affluent to purchase at their discretion. The field of economics in the United...

    • 4. The Midas Effect
      (pp. 107-120)

      Climatologist James Hansen warns that global climate change today constitutes a “planetary emergency.” Existing trends threaten to set in motion irreversible climate transformations, proceeding “mostly under their own momentum,” thereby fundamentally transforming the conditions of life on earth.¹ It is becoming increasingly evident that capitalism, given its insatiable drive for accumulation, is the main engine behind impending catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, mainstream economics, although now acknowledging the importance of environmental issues, remains hamstrung by its adherence to the existing system of economic relations. It therefore relies increasingly on what can be called transmutation myths—referred to here as “the Midas...

    • 5. Carbon Metabolism and Global Capital Accumulation
      (pp. 121-150)

      The capacity of humans to transform nature in detrimental ways has long been known. However, it is only recently that the long-term survival of human civilization has been called into question, given the scale of environmental problems and the crossing of planetary ecological boundaries.¹ One of the most pressing environmental challenges is global climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the observed increases in average global temperatures are unequivocally due to human activities, such as fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, leading to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.² Climate scientists stress that “business as...

    • 6. The Planetary Moment of Truth
      (pp. 151-166)

      It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of “business as usual” with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major “tipping point,” leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change.¹ Other ecological crises—such as species extinction, the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty, desertification, deforestation, air pollution, water shortages and pollution, soil degradation, the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions), and a chronic world food crisis—all point...

  6. PART TWO Ecological Paradoxes

    • 7. The Return of the Jevons Paradox
      (pp. 169-182)

      The nineteenth century was the century of coal. It was coal above all else that powered British industry, and thus the British Empire. But in 1863 the question was raised by industrialist Sir William George Armstrong, in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as to whether Britain’s world supremacy in industrial production could be threatened in the long run by the exhaustion of readily available coal reserves.¹ At that time, no extensive economic study had been conducted on coal consumption and its impact on industrial growth.

      In response, William Stanley Jevons, who would become...

    • 8. The Paperless Office and Other Ecological Paradoxes
      (pp. 183-192)

      At the core of the broad program aimed at achieving environmental sustainability is a concern with how the dynamics of economic systems can be brought into harmony with ecosystems. One major challenge for this program is to understand the dynamics of market economies with respect to natural resource consumption. In particular, it is important for environmental social scientists to assess whether some modern economies are dematerializing—reducing the absolute quantity of natural resources they consume—and, if so, why.¹ Here we discuss two ecological paradoxes in economics that call into question whether the dematerialization of economies can be achieved through...

    • 9. The Treadmill of Accumulation
      (pp. 193-206)

      In 1994 one of us (John Bellamy Foster) was invited to give a keynote luncheon address to “Watersheds ’94,” a conference organized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 10, to be held in September of that year in Bellevue, Washington. The invitation was to provide a full analysis of the planetary ecological crisis and its social causes, but there was one catch: it was crucial, the organizers made clear, not to name the system; all explicit references to capitalism needed to be left out.

      This restriction created a dilemma. A serious ecological critique necessarily involves a critique of the...

    • 10. The Absolute General Law of Environmental Degradation under Capitalism
      (pp. 207-212)

      Capitalism is a system of contradictions. Here we briefly reflect on what has been termed, by James O’Connor, the “first and second contradictions” of capitalism. The first contradiction, following Marx, can be referred to as “the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.”¹ The second contradiction may then be designated as “the absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism.” It is characteristic of capitalism that the second of these “absolute general laws” derives its momentum from the first; hence it is impossible to overthrow the second without overthrowing the first. Nevertheless, it is the second contradiction rather than the first...

  7. PART THREE Dialectical Ecology

    • 11. The Dialectics of Nature and Marxist Ecology
      (pp. 215-248)

      For the philosophical tradition of “Western Marxism” no concept internal to Marxism has been more antithetical to the genuine development of historical materialism than the “dialectics of nature.”¹ Commonly attributed to Frederick Engels rather than Karl Marx, this concept is often seen as thedifferentia specificathat beginning in the 1920s separated the official Marxism of the Soviet Union from Western Marxism. Yet as Georg Lukács, who played the leading role in questioning the concept of the dialectic of nature in hisHistory and Class Consciousness, was later to admit, Western Marxism’s rejection of it struck at the very heart...

    • 12. Dialectical Materialism and Nature
      (pp. 249-274)

      What is the nature of Nature? Although for the most part scholars in the environmental social sciences do not directly examine the natural environment or explicitly struggle with this question, their (often implicit) assumptions about the natural world can have a substantial influence on their analyses of human-environment interactions. There are two common conceptualizations of the natural world. One, especially prominent among economists, views nature as fundamentally mechanical and maintains an optimism about the ability of human societies to tinker with its machinery so as to improve its utility (for those in power, at least). Another, common in environmentalist circles,...

    • 13. Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecology of Capitalism
      (pp. 275-288)

      InThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”¹ The material circumstances or conditions he was referring to here were the product of both natural and social history. For Marx, production was a realm of expanding needs and powers. But it was subject at all times to material limits imposed by nature. It was the tragedy of capital that its narrow logic propelled...

    • 14. The Sociology of Ecology
      (pp. 289-344)

      A key dividing line within environmental sociology—even more perhaps than in sociology in general—is the question of “realism” versus “constructionism.” To what extent is nature independent of human action and even conceptions, and to what extent is it constructed by society and human thought processes? Realists within environmental sociology tend to materialism and think in terms of nature’s ontological independence of human action and conceptions. They emphasize natural limits to human action. In this view, nature can be successfully altered to meet human needs up to a point—but only if nature’s laws and limits are first recognized...

    • 15. Imperialism and Ecological Metabolism
      (pp. 345-374)

      The concept of ecological imperialism is seemingly unavoidable in our time. Obvious cases are all around us. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was, at least in part, over oil. Instances of ecological imperialism do not, however, stop with Iraq. Whether it is the renewed scramble for Africa, the flooding of the global commons with carbon dioxide, or biopiracy aimed at third world germplasm, ecological imperialism is endemic within a global economy predicated on accumulation. While the appropriation of resources from distant lands has taken place throughout human history, the origins and ongoing growth of capitalism are dependent upon further...

  8. PART FOUR Ways Out

    • 16. The Ecology of Consumption
      (pp. 377-400)

      Environmentalists, especially in wealthy countries, have often approached the question of environmental sustainability by stressing population and technology, while deemphasizing the middle term in the well-known IPAT (environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) formula. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. Within capitalist society, there has always been a tendency to blame anything but the economic system itself for ecological overshoot. Yet if the developing ecological crisis has taught us anything, it is that even though population growth and inappropriate technologies have played important roles in accelerating environmental degradation, the ecological rift we are now facing...

    • 17. The Metabolism of Twenty-First Century Socialism
      (pp. 401-422)

      One of the most important aspects of Marxist scholarship in recent decades has been the recovery and subsequent development of Karl Marx’s argument on social and ecological metabolism, which occupied a central role in his critique of political economy. So central was this that Marx defined the labor process itself in metabolic terms. As he wrote inCapital: “Labour is . . . a process between man and nature, a process by which man . . . mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”¹ Such a conception was two-sided. It captured both the social character of labor,...

    • 18. Why Ecological Revolution?
      (pp. 423-442)

      It is now universally recognized within science that humanity is confronting the prospect—if we do not soon change course—of a planetary ecological collapse. Not only is the global ecological crisis becoming more and more severe, with the time in which to address it fast running out, but the dominant environmental strategies are also forms of denial, demonstrably doomed to fail, judging by their own limited objectives. This tragic failure can be attributed to the refusal of the powers that be to address the roots of the ecological problem in capitalist production and the resulting necessity of ecological and...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 443-530)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 531-544)