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How to save the planet, and ourselves

By: 
Bradley Hughes

May 21, 2012

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York

reviewed by Bradley Hughes

This book is an all-encompassing review of how to understand the relationship between humans, nature, and capitalism, and what to do about it.

The authors start with a review of the dire straits we are in. In at least seven key areas of our relationship with the planet, we have passed or are approaching “planetary boundaries,” the point at which our disruption of natural cycles becomes so great that “irreversible environmental degradation” is a likely result.

After more than 400 pages, they conclude that only an ecological revolution can possibly save us. We need a revolutionary change in our relations to one another and the planet. Currently all our interactions are mediated by capitalism, a “system of unsustainable development.”

Between the start and the finish, they exhaustively cover all the ways in which human and environmental degradation is built into the DNA of capitalism. Along the way there is a discussion of the relationship between science and the society it is embedded in, the limits of capitalist agriculture, the limits of reforms, a defense of dialectical materialism, the history of ecology, a short course on economics, and, it seems, some mention of everyone who has ever written on the environment, ecology, or capitalism.

The ecological rift of the title refers to an updated and expanded version of Marx’s idea of a metabolic rift. Marx observed that we are a part of the world, and through eating and breathing, the world is a part of us. This metabolic interaction with nature means that nature is the part of our bodies outside of ourselves.

Under capitalism, this metabolism is disrupted. In Marx’s time this was most evident in capitalist agriculture. Food and fiber (clothes, rope etc) take up nutrients from the soil. Then after being shipped to cities (sometimes around the world) those nutrients are wasted in sewage and landfill where they become pollution. At the same time as the soil is depleted of nutrients, artificial fertilizers need to be produced and shipped over long distances to replenish the soil. Capitalist agriculture exists on an overdraft, using non-replenishable resources to make up for those it wastes.

This separation produces a metabolic rift. With the expansion of capitalism to cover the whole planet, we see more and more of these rifts.

Fossil fuels are created from dead plants over millions of years. The energy they contain came originally from the sun. Since capitalism is depleting these resources much faster than they could be replaced, we are living on an energy overdraft.

Wood is taken out the forests at a rate much greater then it can grow back, another overdraft.

There is a clear parallel between theses resource overdrafts, and the global economic crash that was triggered after years and years of debt financing of everything from houses, to cars, to factories.

This is one of the best books on how to save the planet you can find.

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