This piece was originally published in French at http://revueperiode.net/guide-de-lecture-le-marxisme-ecologique/
1. Starting off
Many people on the Left – myself included – were for a long time in the habit of shrugging off issues of ecology as secondary matters, peripheral to the real struggle. Indifference or lukewarm commitment to environmentalism sometimes still characterise Marxist intellectuals (consult, for instance, the last one hundred or so issues of New Left Review). Thankfully, however, many have experienced the materialist epiphany and realised that literally everything is at stake in the ecological crisis. There are lots of books for the general reader to stimulate such insights and jolt her into a state of shock, fear, desperation and anger at what’s happening on this planet, but this reading guide does not list them; rather, it presupposes an interest in matters of the Earth. For Marxists and other socialists with a newfound ecological curiosity, however, a good starting point is some recent literature that spells out, with brilliant clarity and popular appeal, the basic contradiction between capitalism and sustainability. I have the two following titles foremost in mind:
Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (London: Allen Lane, 2014). This tome deserves its status as the Bible of the radical climate movement and a basic reference point in ecosocialist debates. Mandatory reading.
Ashley Dawson: Extinction: A Radical History (New York: OR Books, 2016). This short essay very effectively surveys the biodiversity crisis – arguably the only aspect of the ecological crisis that can match climate change in severity and magnitude – and identifies capitalism as the culprit.
2. Marx and ecology
So, did Karl Marx himself have any insights into problems of environmental degradation? It turns out he did: research over the past two decades has reconstructed a highly significant strand of ecological thinking in the oeuvre of Marx (and Engels!), surprisingly useful for understanding our contemporary predicament. An analysis of the ecological destructivity of capitalism can gain massively from engagement with the founding fathers. The two classics in the field of eco-marxology, dense with quotations but analytically clear and relatively easy to follow, are:
John Bellamy Foster: Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014 [originally published in 1999])
Long before Foster and Burkett, a precocious, striking study of Marx’s view of nature was written by Alfred Schmidt: The Concept of Nature in Marx (London: Verso, 2014 ).
3. The metabolic rift school
Together with their colleagues, the abovementioned Foster and Burkett have become the leading proponents of ‘the metabolic rift’ school of ecological Marxism. Building on this concept from Marx, they argue that many environmental problems can best be understood as the results of ecological cycles and webs being torn apart by capital accumulation, which is itself based on a primordial separation or ‘rift’, namely that between the direct producers and the means of production. The social rift leads to multiplying ecological rifts. Some key titles:
John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York: The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010). A wide-ranging collection of articles that brings out the power of metabolic rift theory (but beware of repetitive restatements of the core arguments).
Paul Burkett: Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009 ). Drawing on his previous work, Burkett here contrasts Marxism to more mainstream approaches in ecological economics. A sophisticated but occasionally somewhat technical work.
Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark: The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries and Aquaculture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015). An excellent empirical case study, demonstrating the utility of the metabolic rift theory for explaining ecological crises, in this case the catastrophic decline in fish stocks around the world.
John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett: Marx and the Earth (Chicago: Haymarket 2017). This book represents perhaps the highest stage of eco-marxology, in that it goes to extraordinary length to defend Marx as a green prophet against anyone who has criticised him (and by extension Foster and Burkett) for lacunae or blind spots. For the reader with a very strong interest in the details of Marx’s environmental thinking, who can put up with occasional deification of the father.
4. Earlier ecological Marxism
Marxists engaged with ecology long before the present millennium. The new Left of the 1960s and 1970s had to relate to the emerging green movement and revisit its political agenda in the light of the environmental issues of their day, and this encounter generated some work that is still of great value.
Ted Benton (ed.): The Greening of Marxism (New York: The Guilford Press, 1996). This anthology brings together a set of classical texts from what is sometimes referred to as ‘the first generation of ecological Marxism’. It includes Arran Gare’s quite sensational essay on the pioneering ecological initiatives in Bolshevik Russia prior to the Stalinist takeover, as well as several articles on the relation between Marxism and Malthusian environmental thinking focused on ‘natural limits’ – don’t miss the pathbreaking text by Ted Benton – and early pieces on red-tinted ecofeminism.
James O’Connor: Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: The Guilford Press, 1998). The ‘first generation’ was much influenced by James O’Connor’s theory of ‘the second contradiction of capitalism’. It says, in short, that capital has a tendency to produce crises not only through the mechanisms long studied by Marx and his followers, but also through the tendency to damage and destroy ecosystems; since these are the foundations of all economic activities, capital thereby undermines its own basis and induces a fall in the rate of profit. The theory fell out of favour with the rise of the metabolic rift school (see e.g. the critique of it in Foster’s The Ecological Revolution, chapter 10), but it remains a key moment in the development of ecological Marxism and has recently been resuscitated by Jason W. Moore. Some of the central texts on the theory of the second contradiction are included in Greening Marxism; this book is for the reader interested in learning more about the perspectives of O’Connor.
5. The world ecology school
In 2017, debates on ecological Marxism to a great extent revolve around the figure of Jason W. Moore. Seeking to overturn the metabolic rift paradigm, of which he is fiercely critical, he has developed ‘world-ecology’ as an alternative approach. He claims that it overcomes the ‘Cartesian dualism’ of earlier eco-Marxist theory and better integrates nature in the operations of capital as a whole. Hugely controversial, hardly an easy read, his Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015) is a book that red-green intellectuals (but perhaps not so much activists) need to have a position on. The ensuing debate can fairly easily be followed by some googling.
6. Feminism and ecology
Not only capitalism is implicated in ecological destruction: so is patriarchy. This realisation animates ecofeminism, which has produced some work that is also aligned to Marxism, although much more needs to be done in this sphere. One classic of this current, which also stand as one of the best books of radical environmental history ever written, is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Fransisco: Harper, 1990 ). A stunning materialist analysis of ideas, it shows how aggressively dominating attitudes towards nature – and women – grew out of the capitalist property relations that first took hold in England. Other prominent ecofeminists with various degrees of Marxist commitment are Val Plumwood and Ariel Salleh. (See also Soper below.)
7. The political ecology of the world-system
Capitalist destruction of ecosystems clearly emanates from the Northern core, while peoples in the Southern peripheries carry the bulk of the burden. World-systems theory has consequently proved amenable to ecological deployment. The most original, highly idiosyncratic theory in this field has been developed by Alf Hornborg, who argues that modern technology is built on the appropriation of labour and land from the peripheries; all talk of progress or development or technical ingenuity simply masks the ecologically unequal exchange on which the Northern machines are based. The first half of his classic The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (Walnut Creek: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) lays out the theory. Its most recent iteration is Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Hornborg is the leader here, but far from alone: to mention just one more book: J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks: A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007). Much of it can be skipped, but chapters four and five offer a superb overview of the global injustices of climate change – caused by the Northern core, suffered by the Southern peripheries – anchored in world-systems theory.
8. Energy and capitalism
The relation between energy – more particularly of the fossil kind – and capitalism is a truly urgent topic. How to cut this knot? Several notable works have been published in recent years, among them:
Bruce Podobnik: Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006). A promising attempt to situate the successive waves of expansion of fossil energy supplies in the pattern of long – or ‘Kondratieff’ – waves of capitalist development, which ends with a rather naively optimistic scenario for the future.
Timothy Mitchell: Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011). Highly acclaimed, thought-provoking account of how and why capitalist states shifted from coal to oil as the preeminent fossil fuel and the political consequences of this shift, particularly in the Middle East.
Matthew H. Huber: Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). A brilliant Marxist-Foucauldian analysis of how and why oil has become so central to life – including working-class life – in the United States, with applicability far beyond its borders.
My own Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016). An attempt to understand the historical origins of the climate crisis, focusing on the contradictions that prompted early British capitalism to abandon traditional energy sources – notably water – and turn to coal and steam.
Also look out for Materialism and the Critique of Energy, a volume edited by Brent Ryan Bellamy and Jeff Diamanti from http://www.mcmprime.com
There are a thousand facets of the climate crisis that call for Marxist analysis. Gratifyingly, the field seems to be undergoing rapid development. Some outstanding titles from the past decade:
David Ciplet, J. Timmons Roberts and Mizan R. Khan: Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2015). A masterful analysis of the epochal failure of the UN climate negotiations, running up to COP21 in Paris. Draws on the theories of Antonio Gramsci to explain international climate politics as a form of global class struggle.
Christian Parenti: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011). Largely journalistic in nature, written by a leading Marxist climate scholar, this dispatch from some of the tropical frontiers of global warming paints a very gloomy picture of the conflicts likely to intensify as temperatures rise: between poor and rich, but perhaps also between different ethnic groups and communities. Scary and sobering.
Kari Marie Norgaard: Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2011). How can people continue to live as usual even while having full knowledge about the climate crisis – indeed, even as they experience it first hand? Why do they do so very little? To understand this, a bit of psychology is necessary. This trailblazing study keeps its Marxism low-key, but through an analysis of the political and emotional economy of the petrostate of Norway, it very powerfully illuminates the social production of denial of the climate crisis – not as in explicitly denying the science, à la Trump, but precisely as in living in denial.
Also look out for Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, forthcoming from Verso in October 2017. Judging from their Antipode article with the same name, this will be an agenda-setting Marxist study of climate politics.
10. Philosophy of nature
Undoubtedly the most beautifully written book in the eco-Marxist canon, Kate Soper’s What is Nature?: Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995) is also a treasure trove of rigorous philosophical observations on the relations between culture, society, gender, power and nature. A book to read and reread and reread.
Ecocriticism, or the study of nature in literature, is an exciting and rapidly developing field of inquiry. A very fine work with affinities to Marxist approaches is Rob Nixon: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Nixon reads several fiction and non-fiction writers from the global South and shows how they render the ‘slow violence’ of environmental degradation visible.
12. The Frankfurt school
The classical thinkers of the Frankfurt school were intensely preoccupied with human domination of nature as a source of all sorts of social, political and ecological ills. Apart from reading works such as The Dialectic of Enlightenment through an eco-Marxist lens, one can now engage with a not insignificant secondary literature:
Deborah Cook: Adorno on Nature (Durham: Acumen, 2011). A close study of Adorno’s ideas on nature and their potential uses for ecological theory.
Andrew Biro (ed.): Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crisis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). An anthology with texts of uneven quality and varying views, including some piercing critiques of the ideas about environmental degradation found in Adorno and Horkheimer.
Steven Vogel: Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: Suny Press, 1996). An environmental philosopher offers his quirky, provocative reading of Western Marxism, issuing in the conclusion that nature does not exist other than as a reified category: we construct nature through our labour and should face up to it.
Simon Hailwood: Alienation and Nature in Environmental Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). A brilliant philosophical analysis of how and why we are alienated from nature (reaching conclusions opposite to those of Vogel).
13. Reactionary environmentalism
There is far too much reactionary, nationalist, xenophobic green though swirling around for red-greens to feel comfortable. Two hard-hitting critiques of this current are Ian Angus and Simon Butler: Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), and, in a more academic vein, John Hultgren: Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-Immigrant Politics in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
14. Marxist biology
There is a very rich tradition of cutting-edge biological research rooted in Marxist dialectics, which sheds light not only on evolution and ecosystems and the workings of the biosphere as a whole, but also on the Marxist method. The modern classic is Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin: The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985). The great master is Stephen Jay Gould, whose lifework is summed up in the enormous, 1500-pages, wonderfully written The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). Not for the faint-hearted!
15. Some other resources
The main house organ of ecological Marxism remains the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. Proponents of the metabolic rift school publish regularly in Monthly Review. Eco-Marxist stuff can be found in the pages of journals such as Historical Materialism and Capital and Class, while the blog Climate and Capitalism (climateandcapitalism.com) fans the flames of ecosocialist debates with a tie to the climate movement. And there is much more out there!