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The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment

Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    The Vulnerable Planet
    Book Description:

    From reviews of the first edition (1994): "Extraordinarily well written . . . "--Contemporary Sociology "A readable chronicle aimed at a general audience . . . Graceful and accessible . . . "--Dollars and Sense "Has the potential to be a political bombshell in radical circles around the world."--Environmental Action The Vulnerable Planet has won respect as the best single-volume introduction to the global economic crisis. With impressive historical and economic detail, ranging from the Industrial Revolution to modern imperialism, The Vulnerable Planet explores the reasons why a global economic system geared toward private profit has spelled vulnerability for the earth's fragile natural environment. Rejecting both individualistic solutions and policies that tinker at the margins, John Bellamy Foster calls for a fundamental reorganization of production on a social basis so as to make possible a sustainable and ecological economy. This revised edition includes a new afterword by the author.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-399-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
    (pp. 7-10)
    (pp. 11-33)

    Human society has reached a critical threshold in its relation to its environment. The destruction of the planet, in the sense of making it unusable for human purposes, has grown to such an extent that it now threatens the continuation of much of nature, as well as the survival and development of society itself. The litany of ecological complaints plaguing the world today encompasses a long list of urgent problems. These include: overpopulation, destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, extinction of species, loss of genetic diversity, acid rain, nuclear contamination, tropical deforestation, the elimination of climax forests, wetland destruction,...

    (pp. 34-49)

    Beginning with the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, all forms of the social organization of production have contributed to the destruction of the environment. Nevertheless, the human relation to nature has not been a uniform one. As production has developed, the relation between nature and society has changed. It is thus possible to distinguish broad “ecohistorical periods”—periods in which “human activities have led to (relatively) uniform changes in nature over vast areas.”¹ Such ecohistorical periods can be distinguished by the extent to which human beings have “freed themselves” from subjugation to their environment, on the one hand, and...

    (pp. 50-68)

    The mercantilist period saw the development of a commercial, agrarian, and mining capitalism in England, which by the eighteenth century had replaced the Netherlands as the most advanced capitalist economy. The proceeds from the trade in spices, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, gold, furs, and slaves fed profits into a post-feudal English social order that was manifested in the rural areas by what Raymond Williams called “the country-house system of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.”

    This system, in which landlords in great houses owned vast estates run by tenant farmers and worked by agricultural wage-laborers, had been made possible by the...

    (pp. 69-84)

    The conservation movement that arose in the late nineteenth century—most notably in the United States—was, according to noted natural-resource economists Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse, “an American part of a major revolution in thought throughout the Western world against the then-dominant social philosophy of the self-regulating market. Marxism was another European part of that same revolution in ideas.” Just as socialists challenged the idea that labor should be looked upon as a mere “factor of production” in the operation of a competitive capitalist economy, so conservationists came to challenge the dominant notion of land as a mere economic...

    (pp. 85-107)

    From its very earliest beginnings in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, capitalism has always been a world system, dividing the globe into center and periphery. The existence of such a hierarchy has meant that the people and the ecosystems of the periphery have been treated as appendages to the growth requirements of the advanced capitalist center. Each stage of capitalist development—mercantilism, early industrial capitalism and monopoly capitalism—has seen the expansion of this imperialist relation to the planet.

    Parts of the Americas were fully integrated as dependent peripheries within the world economy by the seventeenth century, but...

    (pp. 108-124)

    In the period after 1945 the world entered a new stage of planetary crisis in which human economic activities began to affect in entirely new ways the basic conditions of life on earth. This new ecological stage was connected to the rise, earlier in the century, of monopoly capitalism, an economy dominated by large firms, and to the accompanying transformations in the relation between science and industry. Synthetic products that were not biodegradable—that could not be broken down by natural cycles—became basic elements of industrial output. Moreover, as the world economy continued to grow, the scale of human...

    (pp. 125-142)

    The history of ecological struggle over the last thirty years presents us with a clear picture of what can and cannot be expected of ecological reform within the confines of the system. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring, which raised the alarm about the poisonous effects of pesticides, represented a turning point in the U.S. environmental movement. Soon large sections of the population were waking up to a host of ecological dangers symbolized by DDT, L.A. smog, toxic wastes in Love Canal, the death of the Great Lakes, acid rain, the energy crisis, oil spills, the Three...

    (pp. 143-150)

    The Vulnerable Planetwas published only six years ago, and it might be said that a new edition is hardly warranted. The main data and trends are still pertinent, despite such changes as a growth in world population to 6 billion from the 5.5 billion of the early 1990s. The central argument seems more relevant than ever. The reception to the book has more than fulfilled my own wish as an author that it would play a role in inspiring individuals to join the struggle for a sustainable and just society. It is with some trepidation, then, that I approached...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 151-164)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 165-168)