Friday, December 7, 2012

Marx's Ecology: An Oxymoron

Conservation Plans

There is no doubt that environmentalism is a hot topic; and there is no shortage of ideas, debate and discussion surrounding the issue of how best to sustain our planet. That is the goal after all. Even so, groups defending a position often bring in particular articles of faith into their scientific arguments. Lorna Salzman writes about one example of many: "Foster and Hedges present, regrettably, the notion that ONLY socialism can be the vehicle for achieving this model. Thus, he has tripped himself up ideologically; he has accurately described a model that is indeed the only one that can save the earth, while simultaneously promoting socialism, his own a priori political agenda, as the only solution, without providing any empirical evidence for this position except his personal faith."

by Lorna Salzman

I read Marx's Ecology by John Bellamy Foster some years back, when it was the only socialist concession to ecology ever made. For this it deserved commendation.

Similarly, Foster's conclusion about the incompatibility of growth (the sine qua non of capitalism) and the integrity of the earth's systems may also be one of the first acknowledgements of the truth that environmentalists arrived at in 1970s, reinforced by the publication (not acknowledged by the left) of The Limits to Growth and the Blueprint for Survival (published by the UK journal The Ecologist), both of which appeared in 1972.

After these studies were published—when my own environmental career was beginning—the response from the left was a defense of growth as the only means of ending inequality and poverty, accompanied by hostile attacks on environmentalism as being the white middle class and power structure defending their positions of privilege.

Much of my time was spent responding to the left's refusal to examine the roots of environmentalism, much less acknowledge the problems that the movement was addressing. It was joined by people of color in urban areas and the southwest, who shared the superficiality of the left's position and further claimed that environmentalism was a way of ignoring the "real" problems of racism and inner city poverty.

Foster is an informed academic and could hardly ignore the reality of environmental problems, especially today when the climate change issue has shed bright light on the direct connection of growth, affluence, over-consumption, inequality and the impact of these on the poor and the less developed countries. But he has not forsaken the ideological doctrines of socialism; far from it, he is reasserting the same articles of faith that they proclaim: that only a worker-dominated socialist society/economy can save the earth.

Obviously if you really believe this, everything you prescribe is going to be dictated by this ideology, and everything will be squeezed into that Procrustean bed regardless of evidence to the contrary. The only difference between the old time socialism and Foster's new breed is that he is incorporating a no-growth component into the mix.

That is his privilege of course but, as with all socialist dogmas, it leaves no room for the possibility that other non-socialist (and non-capitalist) models are possible. In this respect he ends up being as dogmatic as any Wall St. corporation or financier in their defense of economic growth and the so-called "free market". In his camp, incidentally is journalist Chris Hedges, whose encomiums for socialism are getting tiresome but not persuasive.

In order to escape potential criticism about the dangers of centralized planning and control which have plagued socialist regimes past and present, he posits the notion of socialized ownership. But note that this assumes that everyone involved in production will be of good will and good intentions and willing to sacrifice and share for the common good.

So in both of these respects—socialized ownership and participant integrity—he is relying on wishful thinking as well as Utopian idealism which has yet to be realized in the real world. Thus he is papering over some important questions: who will oversee and enforce the necessity for sustainability? Who will insure that individuals, institutions and economic entities shape their objectives for sustainability, equity and the common good? Apparently he seems wary of suggesting that a central government may be needed... at least until we have a perfect socialism replacing capitalism. I am not holding my breath.

What has been smudged over here is the difficulty of replacing the present model of greed, accumulation and exploitation (of resources, markets, and people) with a model in which people readily accept, without coercion, a reduction in consumption, profits and economic expansion. This is of course precisely the model that the Blueprint for Survival offered and which most environmentalists, ecologists and bioregionalists have been promoting since Earth Day 1970, without success, it must be added.

Foster and Hedges present, regrettably, the notion that ONLY socialism can be the vehicle for achieving this model. Thus, he has tripped himself up ideologically; he has accurately described a model that is indeed the only one that can save the earth, while simultaneously promoting socialism, his own a priori political agenda, as the only solution, without providing any empirical evidence for this position except his personal faith.

This is a cyberfaith at best. Certainly all the past and present examples of socialism give us no reason to believe in it, neither the example of Chavez or Lula and other South American "leftists" or least of all the Soviet example. Not one of the new "democratic" regimes in Latin America or elsewhere has, in theory or practice, categorically rejected the extant economic growth model.( At one time many years ago Tanzania had a president who did so, but he didn't last long).

Ex-president of Brazil Lula and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and their Latin America neighbors are famous for their denunciations of the "Washington consensus" (neo-liberal globalization and financial prescriptions), the IMF and WTO, but they show no sign of abandoning the classic capitalist growth model or of withdrawing from the international development pattern. The Latin American drawing boards are replete with schemes for offshore oil drilling, new oil and gas pipelines, ecologically destructive dams, rapacious mining, uncontrolled cutting of forests, construction of nuclear power plants, and the cultivation of genetically modified crops, all done in the name of helping the poor and getting out from under the grip of the USA, the IMF and the World Bank. In effect they have said: we don't need them to destroy our resources; we can do it just fine by ourselves. Spare us from this kind of socialism....

The height of Foster's blind fealty to an absurd ideology is when he says that only socialism can bring together the ecological awareness with a class consciousness. Again, this notion that a class consciousness must be the foundation for a revolution hits us like a wet dirty mop. Will we never be rid of this antiquated, moth-eaten shroud with the image of 19th century Marx, a shroud that is as credible as the Shroud of Turin?

I find it remarkable but depressing that an informed academic like Foster and a world-travelling journalist like Hedges have not been able in this day and age to entertain even a shred of doubt about socialism. They remain devout worshippers at this shrine, no less deluded than the worshippers at churches, mosques and synagogues who unquestioningly accept the faith and doctrines of their ancestors. The secular faith of socialism seems as unshakeable as organized religion. But it deserves no more public credulity.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at


  1. Never have I seen any place on earth as polluted as China. A free press and the right to organize are the greatest enemies of pollution. Marxism is about thought control, not economics. China has embraced Marxist capitalism, after all. Free speech is good for the environment.

    1. Yes,you're right;the best friend of humanity is free speech and the right to dissent from official policy. Too many nations lack both.


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