The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet

The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet
John Bellamy Foster, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009, 328 pages.

Do you ever suspect that there is something fundamentally wrong with our capitalist society? Have you wondered what advice Karl Marx would give to the modern environmentalist? If so, The Ecological Revolution by John Bellamy Foster may interest you.

A professor of sociology at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Foster begins the book in no uncertain terms, arguing that humans need to revolutionize their relationship with Earth, or else suffer many dangerous consequences. He believes that this revolution must be a socialist one, and uses the bulk of The Ecological Revolution to explain why.

The book draws heavily on the work of Karl Marx to demonstrate that socialism’s strong ecological foundations make it an alternative to capitalism, which is deemed to be fundamentally opposed to sustainability. For example, Foster explains how the work of agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig inspired Marx to develop his critique of capitalist society’s relationship with the land that feeds it. As interesting as this example is, Foster evokes it five times, and the repetition, useful as it may be to drive his idea home, pushes the reader to the edge of insult.

Marx’s shadow looms so large that one wonders if the book’s development is perhaps too dependent on poor Karl. Is socialism really so airtight that a worldwide revolution would mark the end of society’s turbulent relationship with the Earth? Foster seems to undermine this idea, stating, “There is simply no indication anywhere in Marx’s writings that he believed that a sustainable relation to the Earth would come automatically with the transition to socialism.”

What is necessary on top of the revolution, argues Foster, is better planning and more rational management. Socialist thinkers, unhitched from an obligation to make profits, would supposedly be able to manage natural systems in ways that have eluded the capitalist bourgeois for centuries. The striking lack of humility underlying this unsubstantiated idea does no favours for the book’s agenda.

Humans are complex creatures, and despite the great insights provided by Marx and other socialist thinkers, socialism cannot possibly be the catch-all solution that prevents environmental catastrophe. Many concepts within the socialist paradigm can and should be adopted, but does that mean that all market-based solutions (or “mechanistic and market-fetishizing arguments,” as Foster calls them) are anathema to sustainability? Hardly. A complete and nuanced transition to sustainability requires ideas from myriad sources.

Foster is not overly convincing in his suggestion that an eco-socialist revolution is our best bet to save the planet and ourselves. The book may pique one’s interest in socialist thought, but the overdependence on Marx’s writings is off-putting, as is Foster’s assumption that socialism is the best of all possible systems. Moreover, his use of language is inconsistent such that many parts of the publication read like academic treatises thinly disguised as innocent trade book chapters.

You may learn a lot from The Ecological Revolution, but you will probably not be inspired to revolt against capitalism. Ultimately, you will likely end up right back where you started, except you’ll know a great deal more about Justus von Liebig.

An environmentalist based in Toronto, Kurtis Elton completed his master’s of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!

3 thoughts on “The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet

    1. Nice…
      A complicated topic just gets more complicated!

      A related book we would like to review on the GBR is The Global Fight Climate Justice by Canadian Ian Angus (…

      Here’s just the first sentence from its summary on the publisher’s website:

      “As capitalism continues with business as usual, climate change is fast expanding the gap between rich and poor, and between and within nations, as well imposing unparalleled suffering on those least able to protect themselves.”

      …check it out and let us know what you think.


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