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The Ecological Rift

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Humanity in the twenty-first century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the earth are headed for a fateful collision--if we don't alter course.

In The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth environmental sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York offer a radical assessment of both the problem and the solution. They argue that the source of our ecological crisis lies in the paradox of wealth in capitalist society, which expands individual riches at the expense of public wealth, including the wealth of nature. In the process, a huge ecological rift is driven between human beings and nature, undermining the conditions of sustainable existence: a rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature that is irreparable within capitalist society, since integral to its very laws of motion.

Critically examining the sanguine arguments of mainstream economists and technologists, Foster, Clark, and York insist instead that fundamental changes in social relations must occur if the ecological (and social) problems presently facing us are to be transcended. Their analysis relies on the development of a deep dialectical naturalism concerned with issues of ecology and evolution and their interaction with the economy. Importantly, they offer reasons for revolutionary hope in moving beyond the regime of capital and toward a society of sustainable human development.

544 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 2010

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About the author

John Bellamy Foster

91 books154 followers
John Bellamy Foster is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, editor of Monthly Review and author of several books on the subject of political economy of capitalism, economic crisis, ecology and ecological crisis, and Marxist theory.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
2 reviews1 follower
February 17, 2011
Powerful and cogent analysis of our current climate change and environmental dilemmas, i.e. our ongoing ecological breakdown between humanity and nature and the impossibility of solving this coming planetary catastrophe within the historically rapacious global capitalist system.

As the authors write, "Ironically, most analyses of the environmental problem today are concerned less with saving the planet or life or humanity than saving capitalism--the system at the root of our environmental problems." They quote Derrick Jensen, "When most people in this culture ask, 'How can we stop global warming?' that's not really what they are asking. They're asking, 'How can we stop global warming without significantly changing this lifestyle [or death style, as some call it] that is causing global warming in the first place?" The answer is that you can't. It's a stupid, absurd, and insane question."

As Annie Leonard, author and host, The Story of Stuff says: "This book is desperately needed, because it ends any illusion that we can solve our pressing environmental crises within the same system that created them. With tweaking the system--using incremental market-based strategies--off the table, we can put our efforts into genuine, lasting solutions."

And this review comment by Derrick Jensen, author, Endgame and The Culture of Make Believe: "This important book treats industrial capitalism as the globally destructive force that it is, and powerfully points the way toward, as the authors put it, 'universal revolts against imperialism, the destruction of the planet, and the treadmill of accumulation.' We need these revolts if we are to survive. This book is a crucial part of that struggle."

130 reviews10 followers
August 5, 2011
This book is sure to have many foes as it argues for a socialist response to our current evironmental crisis. There is no question that our capitalist system is responsible for the degredation of the environment so we need an economic solution to ecological disaster. The main point this book makes is we cannot rely on the same system that got us into this situation to get us out.
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
January 2, 2012
Some notes: I've been skimming or skipping some of the chapters that seem like jargon-heavy, name-dropping intra-disciplinary quibbling (Dialectics of Nature and Marxist Ecology, Sociology of Ecology, etc). Perhaps those chapters are in some way different from the rest of the book, but I'm not interested or qualified to give them a fair shake at this point.

I was really excited when I found this book at the London Review Bookshop. I had heard Naomi Klein accolade JB Foster's works before, and noted that this book has accolades on the covers from Klein, Jensen, and Annie Leonard, which to me makes this an unusually star-studded book jacket. I was even considering applying to U of Oregon to study with the dude, before even reading the book. Some of the reason I was so excited: there are essays in this book that treat soil erosion from a Marxist perspective, and that just seemed too good to be true.

Maybe it was. There are a lot of things I really enjoy about this book. Like the only other work of env. sociology I've read, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Foster, Clark, and York come up with a ton of great imagery and pithy names for the socio-ecological phenomena they describe - the Metabolic Rift, the Treadmill of Accumulation, the Midas Effect, etc. There are also just a few tremendously enlightening concepts - the Jevons Paradox and the Paperless Office Paradox not least among them. These concepts illustrate precisely why capitalism (or industrial civilization itself, potentially) will not become sustainable through so-called "dematerialization" - eco-friendly substitutes and efficiency improvements.

However, I also found a lot of things to take issue with about this book. Rather than a book in its own right (which it very definitely sells itself as), The Ecological Rift is more of a collection of modified essays that had been written for other things in the past. Which might have been a fine choice, except that the essays were not sufficiently modified to make them make any sense as a book. Many concepts are introduced as though the reader were entirely unfamiliar with them in chapter after chapter, making for a lot of redundant, simplistic explanation and a relative paucity of in-depth exploration of any concepts.

This seems to be a problem to some extent endemic in sociology. The authors are enamored with theory and find it acceptable to write at length about theory without demonstrating their theories with any substantial case studies. This is rather annoying to me. For this reason, I've avoided the most explicitly theoretical sections. The passages about Marx in particular often seem to stand uncomfortably in Marx's shadow rather than on his shoulders.

Potentially for the same reason, Foster et al's arguments also become dangerously thin and shallow at times. When they are critiquing a position they disagree with (which is often), they often simply mock their opponents, writing as though the arguments they were critiquing were patently absurd to their readers, so much so that they didn't even need to point out how so. This was tolerable when he was dealing with mainstream economists (yes, saying that a 50% loss in agricultural production would be anything but catastrophic is absurd), but using the same approach on people like Paul Hawken, James Lovelock, and deep ecologists (he refrains from naming Derrick Jensen) made me lose a substantial amount of respect for the authors. I may or may not agree with Foster et al's critique of positions like Hawken's, but it's kind of hard for me to say, since their critique is not well-developed. And to me, as a deep ecologist, his shallow "critique" of that system of thought seemed to caricature it grossly.

Profile Image for Andrew.
1,992 reviews699 followers
March 7, 2019
An important concept -- but oh how I wish it had been delivered better. This isn’t so much a sustained argument as a rather scattershot assemblage which includes some very interesting stories -- like Jan Smuts and the relationship between holism and the apartheid state -- that don't necessarily cohere. And when they talk about fixes... oh boy. The Venezuelan petro-state might not be something to necessarily aspire to, especially given the way it's gone tits up since the book was written (admittedly largely due to outside forces, but something to take heed of nonetheless). Yes, capitalism is by its very definition unsustainable and some kind of ecological socialism will probably be necessary for the survival of the human race, and Foster et al have some good ideas, but this topic deserves a far more empirical analysis with less dialectical navel-gazing.
92 reviews1 follower
February 26, 2016
Wow, really important. This book is a Marxist perspective on ecological crises, showing how it all comes down to capitalism's mania for profit at any cost. The "rift" in the title is Marx's observation that because of industrialization, Britain's agricultural land was becoming depleted of nutrients. (People were kicked off the land to work in factories. Vegetables were being sent to the cities and reduced to waste that became pollution. Normally that waste would replenish the soil. With the soil being depleted, industrialists had to find supplies of Nitrogen elsewhere in the world and basically steal it. Thus a rift in the natural cycle by which the land is replenished.) The authors also point out another 19th century theory that shows how advances in the efficiency of coal-burning furnaces didn't save any coal at all. They actually cause more coal to be used. (Like the way WalMart claims to be going "green" by saving energy in their stores... which savings they invest in building more stores so even more energy is used than before.) Capitalism is built on the false notion that the earth and its resources are a "free gift" and in principle inexhaustible. Therefore, these costs don't ever make it into the equation. Plus, current capitalism dismisses the surplus theory of value, and reduces all use value to exchange value, thus further blinding itself to the true costs of doing business. There are some parts of tough-going through the details of theory. But on the whole the book is readable and informative. The conclusion is that without a revolution we are toast. They depend on exploited workers in the Third World for this. My read on this is... we are toast.
Profile Image for Tom Green.
11 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2023
The “ecological (or metabolic) rift” is a very helpful sociological tool that provides a critical understanding of the relationship of capitalist society to the non-human world. It is not only a theory, but also a tool that is used today in different types of sociological research, in different geographical locations. The “ecological rupture” can thus bring a deeper understanding of how various economic activities can destroy nature on a large scale. It can explain the destruction of vast parts of forests through mass logging and coal extraction, as well as the enslavement and murder of non-human animals in factory farms, oceans or intensive aquaculture.

“Ecologically, the system draws ever more destructively on the limited resources and absorptive capacity of nature, as the economy continually grows in scale in relation to the planetary system. The result is emerging and expanding ecological rifts that are turning into planetary chasms. The essential nature of the problem resides in the fact that there is no way out of this dilemma within the laws of motion of a capitalist system, in which capital accumulation is the primary goal of society.”

The Ecological Rift also presents other interesting ideas. For example, an explanation of Marx's anthropocentrism (this is the part where the authors do not give a satisfactory answer to the biocentric objections), a critique of other environmental sociological currents or mainstream economists...

“If we cannot rely on orthodox economists to avert crises in financial markets, an area that is supposedly at the core of their expertise, why should we rely on them to avert ecological crises, the understanding of which requires knowledge of the natural environment that is not typically covered in their training?”

... and their proposals for solving environmental problems.

“The most ambitious schemes [of establishment economists] involve massive geoengineering proposals to combat climate change, usually aimed at enhancing the earth’s albedo (reflectivity). These entail schemes like using high-flying aircraft, naval guns, or giant bal loons to launch reflective materials (sulfate aerosols or aluminum oxide dust) into the upper stratosphere to reflect back the rays of the sun. There are even proposals to create “designer particles” that will be “self-levitating” and “self-orienting” and will migrate to the atmosphere above the poles to provide “sunshades” for the Polar Regions. Such technocrats live in a Wonderland where technology solves all problems, and where the Sorcerer’s Apprentice has never been heard of. All of this is designed to extend the conquest of the earth rather than to make peace with the planet.”

The book, of course, contains many other stimulating theoretical and practical ideas or insights. Through these, it shows how shallow the struggle for a “greener” world (whatever that means) can be when it is not accompanied by an effort to change the current economic system.


„Ekologická (alebo metabolická) trhlina“ je veľmi nápomocný sociologický nástroj, ktorý poskytuje kritické porozumenie vzťahu kapitalistickej spoločnosti k mimoľudskému svetu. Nejde len o teóriu, ale aj o prostriedok, ktorý je dnes využívaný v rôznych typoch sociologických výskumov, v rôznych geografických lokalitách. „Ekologická trhlina“ tak dokáže priniesť hlbšie porozumenie tomu, ako rôzne ekonomické činnosti dokážu vo veľkom rozsahu ničiť prírodu. Je ňou možné vysvetliť deštrukciu obrovských častí lesov prostredníctvom masovej ťažby dreva a uhlia, ale i zotročovanie a vraždenie mimoľudských zvierat v priemyselných veľkochovoch, oceánoch či intenzívnych akvakultúrach.

„Z ekologického hľadiska systém stále deštruktívnejšie čerpá z obmedzených zdrojov a absorpčnej kapacity prírody, keďže ekonomika neustále rastie vo vzťahu k planetárnemu systému. Výsledkom sú vznikajúce a rozširujúce sa ekologické trhliny, ktoré sa menia na planetárne priepasti. Podstata problému spočíva v tom, že v rámci zákonov pohybu kapitalistického systému, v ktorom je akumulácia kapitálu hlavným cieľom spoločnosti, neexistuje žiadne východisko z tejto dilemy.“

Kniha Ekologická trhlina prináša aj iné zaujímavé myšlienky. Napríklad vysvetlenie Marxovho antropocentrizmu (ide o časť, v ktorej autori nepodávajú uspokojivú odpoveď na biocentrické námietky), kritiku iných environmentálne sociologických prúdov či mainstreamových ekonómov...

„Ak sa nemôžeme spoľahnúť na ortodoxných ekonómov, že zabránia krízam na finančných trhoch, teda v oblasti, ktorá je údajne jadrom ich odbornosti, prečo by sme sa na nich mali spoliehať, že zabránia ekologickým krízam, ktorých pochopenie si vyžaduje znalosti o prírodnom prostredí, ktoré zvyčajne nie sú súčasťou ich vzdelávania?“

... a ich návrhov na riešenie ekologických problémov.

„Najambicióznejšie plány [mainstreamových ekonómov] zahŕňajú masívne geoinžinierske návrhy na boj proti klimatickým zmenám, zvyčajne zamerané na zvýšenie albeda (miery odrazivosti) Zeme. Medzi tieto návrhy patrí používanie lietadiel lietajúcich vo vysokých výškach, námorných diel alebo obrovských balónov, ktoré by vypúšťali reflexné materiály (sulfátové aerosóly či prach z oxidu hlinitého) do horných vrstiev stratosféry, aby odrážali slnečné lúče. Existujú dokonca návrhy na vytvorenie "dizajnérskych častíc", ktoré sa budú "samé vznášať" a "orientovať" a budú migrovať do atmosféry nad pólmi, aby poskytli "slnečné clony" pre polárne oblasti. Takíto technokrati žijú v krajine zázrakov, kde technológia vyrieši všetky problémy a kde o Čarodejníkovom učňovi nikdy nepočuli. Toto všetko je určené skôr na rozšírenie dobývania Zeme než na dosiahnutie mieru s planétou.“

Kniha, samozrejme, obsahuje množstvo ďalších podnetných teoretických i praktických myšlienok či poznatkov. Prostredníctvom nich poukazuje na to, aký plytký dokáže byť boj za „zelenší“ svet (nech to znamená čokoľvek), keď s ním ruka v ruke nekráča snaha o zmenu súčasného ekonomického systému.
Profile Image for Mihai Pop.
91 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2021
Some ideas in the book are worth a lot of our effort to understand and implement, but others are spoiling them to a degree that gives the book a strange bi-polar sense. I would still recommend to read the book, but the with a strong advice to think about the conditional reasoning.
Profile Image for Daniel Saunders.
9 reviews13 followers
November 13, 2020
This is an important book which leads the way for an explicitly Marxist, eco-socialist critical theory of the connected crises of capitalism and climate change, both of which, of course, have only worsened since this was published. For those who can persevere to the end, this book offers a wealth of insights on the dynamic connections, or “metabolism,” between nature and the social relations of production, and the “metabolic rift” between society and nature which capitalism drives. Although it is heavy on theory, it does have a few suggestions for a practical/political way forward—if an ecological revolution can effectively challenge the “juggernaut of capital” in time to save the planet.

Some of the best chapters are those which offer trenchant rebuttals to the “ecological modernization” arguments of mainstream economists and social scientists, those who seek to solve the climate crisis by “attempting to bend nature even more to our will, to make it conform to the necessities of our production.” These “solutions”—whether in the form of “discounting” future liveability, advocating “green” or “sustainable” consumption, or staking everything on a technological miracle fix, do nothing to address the destructive logic and limitless accumulation inherent to capitalism itself. A radical ecology, by contrast, “involves an analysis that examines the social drivers of ecological degradation, illuminating the contradictions of the social order,” and highlights the necessity of a socialist system which would establish “a new relation to the earth.”

With this focus on metabolism and natural limits, the authors have developed a really interesting positive theoretical framework for eco-socialism, one that revitalizes Marx and Engels’ writings to show the necessity of overcoming social-productive and environmental alienation under capitalism. Despite its Marxist roots, this outlook overlaps with many non-Marxist approaches (some bits reminded me specifically of Wendell Berry) and thus it has the potential for a broad appeal. A non-alienated society, in which social metabolism is brought in line with natural metabolism, would be oriented toward the qualitative improvement of human activity by restoring the wealth of labor and nature to all; or to use Evo Morales’ formulation, society would be ordered for the goal of “not living better, but living well.”

The primary difficulty of this book, as others have noted, is its poor assemblage and occasional recourse to esoteric debates in the field of environmental sociology (90% of the chapters were previously published as academic articles, which explains these shortcomings). This gives rise to the absurd situation of encountering concepts and arguments repeatedly as if they were new, despite having been introduced to them in multiple chapters.

Nevertheless, there is a lot here to think about, especially for those adventurous enough to delve into some of the philosophical and sociological debates on the nature of ecological science itself. While some of it is abstruse, I found the section on “dialectical ecology” to be illuminating, especially in its exposition of a robust materialism which fuses a Marxist historical critique with evolutionary science. This "revolutionary materialist dialectics" aims to create “not simply a new social praxis, but a revived natural praxis—a reappropriation and emancipation of the human senses and human sensuousness in relation to nature.”
Profile Image for EJ.
7 reviews1 follower
June 27, 2021
good content, but very repetitive. it cpuld have been 1/3 shorter and would be a great book
27 reviews
September 12, 2021
A great look at Marxism and ecology. Marx correctly warns of the damage done by capitalism to our planet and he did that 150 years ago!
Profile Image for Rui.
90 reviews
March 7, 2017
This book gives me a reason to prefer economics over ecology. The authors called up big names, attached big institutions to them, and then mocked them with Trump words. The books flow one name to another name. Endless names and titles. Instead, they could've given a great deal of evidence, solid analysis, or even real-life stories. Disappointed.
Profile Image for Reading.
505 reviews8 followers
February 1, 2022
Despite my frustration with the repetitive nature of this book (collection of essays) I learned a fair amount but (unfortunately?) was left feeling fairly pessimistic about the possibility of the most living things having a remotely soft landing.

Hey, this book was written in 2010 and I couldn't help reflecting on the lack of progress we have to show for the past 6 years. A country and world divided by fear and misinformation. Large segments of the population crashing from the false hope 'high' after Sanders ultimate surrender to Clinton. The largely disillusioned mass of Americans and frightened and disbelieving nations of the world looking on as the US faces a choice between two evils, while the hottest years on record, destructive mega storms, etc... Yup, not a lot to be optimistic about, in fact we're worse off with basically "time's up" left on the clock.

Still, back to this book and some good news, there are excellent insights regarding Marx's dialectical views along with legitimate & powerful strategies to free the world from capitalism and it's destructive consequences - OK, maybe not so legitimate given that it's highly unlikely the they will be peacefully adopted. Still, it's a worthy read but be sure to take a break on occasion and try to take a walk in the park/nature, hug a loved one, join a community action or group, learn a new skill, start a garden, dance...
20 reviews
November 1, 2018
A compendium of articles explaining a Marxian perspective on human-driven disruptions to the Earth's natural systems, and the consistent inadequacy of political responses.

The third chapter poignantly explains the vertigo-inducing discrepancy between the perspective of natural scientists on climate change, and the perspective of social scientists - and economists in particular. Immensely clarifying.
Profile Image for Yanick Punter.
267 reviews35 followers
October 23, 2016
Interesting overview of thought. I did not find the part with dialectics profound or really necessary. The solutions put forward in the book, I feel fall short. And I do not know any good solutions to the issues at hand in any way.
I would still recommend this book however.
Profile Image for Raul Duma.
16 reviews
November 13, 2017
interesting book about ecology, capitalism, political economy, dialectical materialism and obviously about Marx.
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