“Notes on Exterminism” for the Twenty-First-Century Ecology and Peace Movements / by John Bellamy Foster

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park | photo credit: nippon.com

Originally published in Monthly Review

In 1980, the great English historian and Marxist theorist E. P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class and leader of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, wrote the pathbreaking essay “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization.”1 Although the world has undergone a number of significant changes since, Thompson’s essay remains a useful starting point in approaching the central contradictions of our times, characterized by the planetary ecological crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, New Cold War, and current “empire of chaos”—all arising from features deeply embedded in the contemporary capitalist political economy.2

For Thompson, the term exterminism referred not to the extinction of life itself, since some life would remain even in the face of a global thermonuclear exchange, but rather to the tendency toward the “extermination of our [contemporary] civilization,” understood in its most universal sense. Nevertheless, exterminism pointed to mass annihilation and was defined as consisting of those “characteristics of society—expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity, and its ideology—which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.”3 “Notes on Exterminism” was written eight years before climatologist James Hansen’s famous 1988 testimony on global warming to the U.S. Congress and the formation that same year of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Hence, Thompson’s treatment of exterminism focused squarely on nuclear war and did not directly address the other emerging exterminist tendency of contemporary society: the planetary ecological crisis. Yet, his perspective was a deeply socioecological one. The tendency toward exterminism in modern society was thus seen as directly opposed to “the imperatives of human ecological survival,” demanding a worldwide struggle for a socially egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world.4

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the nuclear threat that had loomed over the post-Second World War world seemed to subside. Consequently, most subsequent considerations of Thompson’s exterminism thesis have considered it primarily in the context of the planetary ecological crisis, itself a source of “the extermination of multitudes.”5 But the advent over the last decade of the New Cold War has brought the threat of nuclear holocaust back into the center of world concerns. The 2022 Ukraine War, the origins of which date back to the 2014 U.S.-engineered Maidan coup and the resulting Ukrainian Civil War fought between Kyiv and the breakaway republics of the Russian-speaking Donbass region in Ukraine, has now evolved into a full-scale war between Moscow and Kyiv. This took on an ominous worldwide significance on February 27, 2022, with Russia, three days into its military offensive in Ukraine, placing its nuclear forces on high alert as a warning against a direct NATO intervention in the war, non-nuclear or nuclear.6 The potential for a global thermonuclear war between the leading nuclear powers is now greater than at any time in the post-Cold War world.

It is necessary therefore to address these dual exterminist tendencies: both the planetary ecological crisis (including not only climate change but also the crossing of other key planetary boundaries defining the earth as a safe home for humanity) and the growing threat of global nuclear annihilation. But in approaching the dialectical interconnections between these two global existential threats, emphasis must be placed today on updating the historical understanding of the thrust toward nuclear exterminism as it metamorphosed in the decades of U.S. unipolar power, while the world’s attention was directed elsewhere. How is it that the threat of global thermonuclear war is once again hanging over the globe, three decades after the end of the Cold War and at a time when the risk of irreversible climate change looms on the horizon? What approaches need to be adopted within the peace and environmental movements to counter these interrelated global existential threats? To answer these questions, it is important to address such issues as the nuclear winter controversy, the counterforce doctrine, and the U.S. quest for global nuclear supremacy. Only then can we perceive the full dimensions of the global existential threats imposed by today’s catastrophe capitalism.

Nuclear Winter

In 1983, in the midst of the nuclear buildup of the Ronald Reagan administration, associated with the Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as Star Wars) and the growing threat of nuclear Armageddon, teams of atmospheric scientists in both the United States and the Soviet Union produced models, appearing in the major scientific journals, predicting that a nuclear war would lead to a “nuclear winter.” The outcome of a global thermonuclear exchange resulting in megafires in a hundred or more cities, it was discovered, could enormously reduce the average temperature of the earth by pushing soot and smoke into the atmosphere and blocking solar radiation. The climate would be altered much more abruptly and in the opposite direction from global warming, introducing a rapid global cooling causing global (or at least hemispheric) temperatures to drop by several degrees or even “several tens of degrees” Celsius in a matter of a month, with horrific consequences for life on Earth. Thus, although hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion or more people, would be killed by the direct effects of a global thermonuclear exchange, the indirect effects would be far worse, annihilating most people on the planet, even those not caught up in the direct effects of nuclear firebombs, via starvation. The nuclear winter thesis had a powerful effect on the nuclear arms race that was then occurring and played a role in getting the U.S. and Soviet governments to pull back from the brink.7

The nuclear winter model, however, was seen within the power elite in the United States as a direct attack on the nuclear armaments industry and the Pentagon, aimed at the Star Wars program in particular. It therefore led to one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, although the controversy was more political than scientific, since the scientific results were never really in doubt. Although claims were made that the initial nuclear winter models from NASA scientists were too simple, and studies were produced pointing to effects less extreme than originally envisioned—“nuclear autumn” rather than nuclear winter—the nuclear winter thesis was validated again and again by scientific models.8

Nevertheless, if the initial response of the public and political leaders to the nuclear winter studies helped to create a powerful movement to dismantle nuclear weapons, contributing to nuclear arms control and the end of the Cold War, this was soon countered by powerful military, political, and economic interests behind the U.S. nuclear war machine. Thus, the corporate media together with political forces launched various campaigns meant to discredit the nuclear winter thesis.9 In 2000, the popular science magazine Discover went so far as to list nuclear winter as one of its “Twenty Greatest Scientific Blunders in the Last 20 Years.” Yet, the most that Discover could claim in this respect was that the key scientists behind the most influential nuclear winter study in the 1980s had pulled back by 1990, claiming that the average temperature reduction as a result of a global nuclear exchange was estimated to be somewhat smaller than originally conceived and would at most constitute a 36°F (20°C) drop in average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere. This, however, remained apocalyptic on a planetary level.10

In one of the greatest instances of denialism in the history of science, surpassing even the denial of climate change, these scientific findings on nuclear winter were widely rejected out of hand within the public sphere and within the military, based on the charge that the original estimate had somehow been “exaggerated.” The exaggeration charge was then used in ruling circles for decades down to the present to downplay the full effects of nuclear war. In the case of Pentagon capitalism, such denial was clearly motivated by the reality that, if the scientific results on nuclear winter were allowed to stand, the strategic planning aimed at fighting a “winnable” nuclear war, or at least one in which one’s own side would “prevail,” would be senseless. Once the atmospheric effects were considered, the global devastation could not be confined to a particular nuclear theater, but the devastating effects would, within several years of the global thermonuclear exchange, destroy all but a tiny fraction of the population of the earth, going beyond what was even envisioned by mutual assured destruction (MAD).

In some ways, the devastating effects of nuclear war had always been downplayed by the nuclear planners. As Daniel Ellsberg points out in The Doomsday Machine, the “estimates of fatalities” from all-out nuclear warfare provided by U.S. strategic analysts were a “fantastic underestimate” from the start, “even before the discovery of nuclear winter,” since they deliberately omitted the firestorms in cities resulting from nuclear blasts, the largest impact on the overall urban population, on the questionable grounds that the level of devastation was too difficult to estimate.11 As Ellsberg writes:

Yet even in the sixties the firestorms caused by thermonuclear weapons were known to be predictably the largest production of fatalities in a nuclear war. Moreover, what no one would recognize…[until the first nuclear winter studies emerged some twenty-one years after the Cuban Missile Crisis] were the indirect effects of our planned first strike that gravely threatened the other two thirds of humanity. These effects arose from another neglected consequence of our attacks on cities: smoke. In effect, in ignoring fire the [Joint] Chiefs [of Staff] and their planners ignored that where there’s fire there’s smoke. But what is dangerous to our survival is not the smoke from ordinary fires, even very large ones—smoke that remained in the lower atmosphere and soon would be rained out—but smoke propelled into the upper atmosphere from the firestorms that our nuclear weapons were sure to create in the cities we targeted.

Ferocious updrafts from these multiple firestorms would loft millions of tons of smoke and soot into the stratosphere, which would not be rained out and would quickly encircle the globe, forming a blanket blocking most sunlight around the earth for a decade or more. This would reduce sunlight and lower temperatures worldwide to a point that it would eliminate all harvests and starve to death—not all but nearly all—humans (and other animals that depend on vegetation for food). The population of the southern hemisphere—spared nearly all direct effects from nuclear explosions, even from fallout—would be nearly annihilated, as would that of Eurasia (which the Joint Chiefs already foresaw, from direct effects), Africa and North America.12

Worse than the original pushback against the nuclear winter thesis, according to Ellsberg, writing in 2017, was the fact that, over the decades that followed, nuclear planners in the United States and Russia have “continued to include ‘options’ for detonating hundreds of nuclear explosions near cities, which would loft enough soot and smoke into the upper stratosphere to lead [via nuclear winter] to death by starvation of nearly everyone on earth, including, after all, ourselves.”13

The Memorial Cenotaph at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Credit: Balon Greyjoy

This denialism built into the Doomsday Machine—or the thrust to exterminism entrenched in Pentagon capitalism—is all the more significant given that not only were the original nuclear winter studies never disproven, but twenty-first-century nuclear winter studies, based on computer models more sophisticated than those of the early 1980s, have gone on to show that nuclear winter can be set off at lower levels of nuclear exchange than envisioned in the original models.14 The importance of these new studies is symbolized by Discover magazine, which in 2007, only seven years after it had included nuclear winter in its list of the twenty “greatest scientific blunders” of the previous two decades, carried an article on “The Return of Nuclear Winter,” essentially repudiating its earlier piece.15

The most recent studies, motivated in part by nuclear proliferation, demonstrated that a hypothetical nuclear war between India and Pakistan fought with one hundred fifteen kiloton (Hiroshima-sized) atomic bombs could produce direct fatalities comparable to all deaths in the Second World War. However, the long-term effect would be global famine. The atomic explosions would immediately ignite firestorms of three to five square miles. Burning cities would release some five million tons of smoke into the stratosphere, circling the earth within two weeks, which could not be removed by rainfall and might remain for more than a decade. By blocking sunlight, it would decrease food production globally by 20 to 40 percent. The stratospheric smoke layer would absorb warming sunlight, heating the smoke to temperatures near water’s boiling point, resulting in an ozone layer reduction of 20 to 50 percent near populated areas and generating UV-B increases unprecedented in human history, such that fair-skinned individuals could get severe sunburns in around six minutes and levels of skin cancer would go off the charts. Meanwhile, it is estimated that up to 2 billion people would die of famine.16

The new series of nuclear winter studies, published in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, beginning in 2007 and continuing to the present, however, did not stop there. They also looked at what would happen if there were a global thermonuclear exchange involving the five leading nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom. The United States and Russia alone, accounting for most of the world’s nuclear arsenal, have thousands of strategic nuclear weapons with an explosive power ranging from seven to eighty times that of the Hiroshima bomb (although some thermonuclear weapons developed in the 1950s and ’60s were a thousand times as powerful as the atom bomb). A single strategic nuclear weapon hitting a city will ignite a firestorm covering a surface area of 90 to 152 square miles. Scientists calculated that the fires from a full-scale global thermonuclear exchange would propel into the stratosphere 150 to 180 million tons of black carbon soot and smoke that would remain for twenty to thirty years and would prevent up to 70 percent of solar energy from reaching the Northern Hemisphere and up to 35 percent with respect to the Southern Hemisphere. The noonday sun would end up looking like a full moon at midnight. Global average temperatures would fall below freezing every day for one or two years, or even longer, in the main agricultural regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Average temperatures would dip below those experienced in the last Ice Age. The growing seasons of agricultural areas would disappear for more than a decade, while rainfall would decrease by up to 90 percent. Most of the human population would die of starvation.17

In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, RAND Corporation physicist Herman Kahn presented the notion of the “doomsday machine” that would, in the event of a nuclear war, kill everyone on Earth.18 Kahn did not actually advocate building such a machine, nor did he contend that either the United States or the Soviet Union had done so or were then seeking to do so. He merely suggested that a mechanism that would ensure no survivability from nuclear war would be a cheap alternative with which to achieve complete and irrevocable deterrence on all sides and take nuclear warfare off the table. Set against Kahn’s analysis, as Ellsberg, himself a former nuclear strategist, has remarked—in line with scientists Carl Sagan and Richard Turco who helped develop the nuclear winter model—today’s strategic arsenals in the hands of the dominant nuclear powers constitute an actual doomsday machine. Once set in motion, the doomsday machine would almost certainly annihilate directly or indirectly most of the population on the planet.19

Counterforce and the U.S. Drive to Nuclear Primacy

From the 1960s, when Moscow achieved rough nuclear parity with Washington, until the demise of the Soviet Union, the dominant nuclear strategy during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on the notion of MAD. Nuclear parity translates into MAD, usually seen as utter devastation on both sides, including the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. However, as nuclear winter studies indicate, the consequences of an all-out nuclear war would go far beyond even this, extending to the destruction of almost all human life (as well as most other species) on the entire planet. Still, ignoring the nuclear winter warnings, the United States, with far more resources than the Soviet Union, sought to transcend MAD in the direction of U.S. “nuclear primacy,” so as to restore the level of U.S. nuclear preeminence of the early Cold War years. Nuclear primacy, as opposed to nuclear parity, means “eliminating the possibility of a retaliatory strike,” and thus is also referred to as “first strike capability.”20 In this respect, it is significant that Washington’s official defense posture has consistently included the possibility of the United States carrying out a first strike nuclear attack on nuclear or non-nuclear states.

In addition to introducing the doomsday machine concept, Kahn, as one of the leading U.S. strategic planners, also coined the key terms countervalue and counterforce.21 Countervalue refers to the targeting of enemy’s cities, civilian population, and economy, aimed at complete annihilation, thus leading to MAD. Counterforce, in contrast, refers to the targeting of the enemy’s nuclear weapons facilities to prevent retaliation.

When the counterforce strategy was originally introduced by U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara in the John F. Kennedy administration, it was seen as a “no cities” strategy that would attack the opponent’s nuclear weapons rather than civilian populations, and it has sometimes been fallaciously justified in those terms since. McNamara, however, soon realized the flaws in the counterforce strategy, namely that it provokes a nuclear arms race directed at achieving (or denying) nuclear primacy. Moreover, the notion that a “preemptive” counterforce strike did not involve attacks on cities was incorrect from that start, as targets included nuclear command centers in cities. He therefore abandoned the effort shortly after, in favor of a nuclear strategy based on MAD, which he saw as the only true approach to nuclear deterrence.22

This U.S. nuclear strategy for most of the 1960s and ’70s was characterized by the acceptance of rough nuclear parity with the Soviet Union and thus of MAD. This broke down in the final year of the Jimmy Carter administration. In 1979, Washington strong-armed NATO into allowing the siting in Europe of nuclear-armed cruise and Pershing II missiles, both counterforce weapons aimed at the Soviet nuclear arsenal, a decision that ignited the European antinuclear movement.23 In the subsequent U.S. administration under Ronald Reagan, Washington adopted the counterforce strategy in full force.24 The Reagan administration introduced Star Wars, aimed at the development of a comprehensive antiballistic missile system capable of defending the U.S. homeland, subsequently abandoned as impractical, but leading to other antiballistic missile systems in later administrations.25 In addition, the United States in the Reagan administration pushed the MX (later Peacemaker) missile, viewed as a counterforce weapon able to destroy the Soviet missiles before they were launched. All of these weapons threatened the “decapitation” of Soviet forces in a first attack and the ability through antiballistic missile systems to intercept what few Soviet missiles survived.26 Counterforce weapons required greater accuracy since they were no longer conceived as city-busters as in “countervalue” attacks, but rather as precision targeting of hardened missile silos, mobile land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and command-and-control centers. It was here, in counterforce weapons, that the United States had a technological advantage.

It was this major nuclear arms buildup beginning in 1979, with the planned deployment in Europe of missile delivery systems carrying nuclear warheads, that generated the great nuclear war protests of the 1980s in Europe and North America and Thompson’s critique of exterminism, as well as the scientific research into nuclear winter. Nevertheless, today, more than four decades later, in the words of Janne Nolan of the Arms Control Association, “counterforce remains the sacrosanct principle of American nuclear strategy,” aimed at nuclear primacy.27

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, Washington immediately commenced, beginning with the February 1992 Defense Policy Guidance issued by undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in 1992, the process of translating its new unipolar position into a vision of permanent U.S. supremacy over the entire globe.28 This was to be enacted through a geopolitical expansion of the areas of Western dominance to areas formerly part of the Soviet Union or within its sphere of influence, in order to thwart the reemergence of Russia as a great power. At the same time, in a climate of nuclear disarmament and with the deterioration of the Russian nuclear force under Boris Yeltsin, the United States sought to “modernize” its nuclear weapons, replacing existing weapons with more technologically advanced strategic weaponry, with the object not of enhancing deterrence, but rather of achieving nuclear primacy.29

The U.S. pursuit of nuclear primacy in the post-Cold War world by continuing to promote counterforce weapons was known as the “maximalist” strategy in the debates over nuclear policy at the time, and was opposed by those who advocated a “minimalist” strategy simply relying on MAD. In the end, the maximalists won, and the New World Order came to be defined by both the enlargement of NATO, with Ukraine seen as the ultimate geopolitical and strategic pivot, and by the U.S. pursuit of a maximalist goal of absolute nuclear dominance and first strike capability.30

In 2006, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press published a landmark article, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council of Foreign Relations. In their article, Lieber and Press argued that the United States was “on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy,” or first strike capability, and that this had been its aim since at least the end of the Cold War. As they put it, “the weight of evidence suggests that Washington is, in fact, deliberately seeking nuclear primacy.”31

What placed such first strike capability seemingly within Washington’s reach was the new nuclear weaponry, associated with nuclear modernization, which, if anything, accelerated after the Cold War. Weapons such as nuclear-armed cruise missiles, nuclear submarines able to fire their missiles near the shore, and low-flying B-52 stealth bombers carrying both nuclear armed cruise missiles and nuclear gravity bombs could more effectively penetrate Russian or Chinese defenses. More accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles could fully eliminate hardened missile silos. Improved surveillance could allow for the tracking and destruction of mobile-land based missiles and nuclear submarines. Meanwhile, the more accurate Trident II D-5 missiles being introduced on U.S. nuclear submarines carried larger-yield warheads to use on hardened silos. More advanced remote sensing technology in which the United States has had the lead has greatly enhanced its ability to detect mobile land-based missiles and nuclear submarines. The ability to target the satellites of other nuclear powers could weaken or eliminate their nuclear missile delivery capacity.32 The siting of strategic weapons in countries recently admitted to NATO and near or on Russian borders—the Aegis ballistic missile defense facilities that the United States established in Poland and Romania are also potential offensive weapons capable of launching nuclear-armed tomahawk cruise missiles—would serve to enhance the speed with which nuclear weapons could strike Moscow and other Russian targets, giving the Kremlin no time to react.33 Nuclear missile defense facilities, mainly useful in the case of countering retaliation to a first strike by the United States, could shoot down the limited number of missiles that had survived on the other side. (Such “missile defense systems” would be ineffective in the face of a first attack by the other side since they would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of missiles and decoys.) In recent decades, the United States has developed large numbers of high-precision, non-nuclear aerospace weapons to be used in a counterforce strike aimed at enemy missiles or command-and-control facilities that, due to precision targeting based on satellites, are comparable to nuclear weapons in their counterforce effects.34

According to Lieber and Press, writing in 2006, “the odds that Beijing will acquire a survivable nuclear deterrent in the next decade are slim,” while the survivability of the Russian deterrent was in question. “What our analysis suggests is profound: Russia’s leaders can no longer count on a survivable nuclear deterrent.” As they wrote, the United States is “seeking primacy in every dimension of modern military technology, both in its conventional arsenal and its nuclear forces,” something known as “escalation dominance.”35

The signing of the New START Treaty between the United States and Russia in 2010, while limiting nuclear weapons, did not prevent a race toward modernization of counterforce weapons to destroy the other side’s weapons. In fact, the limits on numbers made a counterforce strategy, in which the United States had the upper hand, more feasible, since one of the three primary bases for survivability of a nuclear retaliatory arsenal (along with hardening of land-based missile sites and concealment) is the sheer number and thus redundancy of such weapons.36 With nuclear primacy as the goal set in Washington, the United States began unilaterally to withdraw from some of the main nuclear treaties established in the Cold War. In 2002, under the George W. Bush administration, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In 2019, under the Donald Trump administration, Washington withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, claiming that Russia had violated the treaty. In 2020, again under Trump, the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty (which placed limits on reconnaissance flights over other countries), followed by Russia’s withdrawal the following year. There is little doubt that withdrawal from these treaties was favorable to Washington in expanding its counterforce options in its quest for nuclear primacy.

Given U.S. pursuit of overall nuclear dominance, Russia has attempted to modernize its nuclear weapon systems over the last two decades, but it is at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the United States with respect to counterforce capability. Its fundamental nuclear strategy is therefore determined by fears of a U.S. first strike that could effectively eliminate its nuclear deterrent and its ability to retaliate. Thus, it has strived to reestablish a credible deterrent. As Cynthia Roberts of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace at Columbia wrote in “Revelations About Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy” in 2020, Russians perceive further U.S. improvements to strategic forces, both conventional and nuclear, as part of a continuous effort to “stalk Russia’s nuclear deterrent” and deny Moscow a viable second-strike option, effectively eliminating its nuclear deterrent altogether, through “decapitation.”37 While the United States has adopted a maximum nuclear “defense” posture of threatening “nuclear first use and phased escalation” in which it retains dominance at every level of escalation, this compares to Russia’s approach of “all-out war once deterrence fails” through which it continues to rely primarily on MAD.38

However, in recent years, Russia and China have leaped ahead in strategic weapons technology and systems. In order to counter Washington’s attempts to develop first strike capability, neutralizing their nuclear deterrents, both Moscow and Beijing have turned to asymmetrical strategic weapons systems designed to neutralize U.S. superiority in missile defense and high-precision targeting. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are vulnerable because, while they reach hypersonic speeds—usually defined as Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound or greater—when they reenter the atmosphere, they follow an arc that constitutes a predictable ballistic path, like a bullet. They thus lack surprise; their targets are predictable, and they can theoretically be intercepted by antiballistic missiles. Hardened missile silos housing intercontinental ballistic missiles are also distinct targets, and today are far more vulnerable given U.S. high-precision, satellite-guided missiles, nuclear and non-nuclear. Confronted with these counterforce threats to their basic deterrents, Russia and China have pushed ahead of the United States in developing hypersonic missiles that can maneuver aerodynamically in order to dodge missile defenses and prevent the adversary from knowing the ultimate intended target. Russia has developed a hypersonic missile called the Kinzhal that is reputed to reach Mach 10 or more on its own, and another hypersonic weapon, Avangard, that, boosted by a rocket, can reach the astounding speed of Mach 27. China has a “waverider” hypersonic cruise missile that reaches Mach 6. Borrowing from Chinese folklore, it is referred to as an “assassin’s mace,” a weapon effective against a much better-armed adversary.39 Russia and China, meanwhile, have been developing antisatellite “counterspace” weapons designed to remove the U.S. advantage of high-precision nuclear and non-nuclear weapons.40

Though Washington has sought so-called nuclear primacy, it has remained just beyond its grasp, given the technological prowess of the other leading nuclear powers. Moreover, a nuclear arms race spurred by a counterforce strategy is fundamentally irrational, threatening a global thermonuclear conflagration with consequences far greater than even those envisioned by the MAD scenario, with its hundreds of millions of deaths on both sides. Nuclear winter means that, in a global nuclear exchange, the entire planet would be engulfed by the smoke and soot circling the stratosphere, killing off almost all of humanity.

Given this reality, the U.S. nuclear posture, which is based on the notion of prevailing in an all-out nuclear war, is particularly dangerous, since it denies the role of firestorms in cities and thereby the effects of smoke lofted up into the upper atmosphere and blotting out most of the rays of the sun. The search for nuclear primacy, therefore, leads from MAD to madness.41 As Ellsberg writes, “The hope,” entertained by U.S. strategic planners—who alone, in their denialism and sense of approaching nuclear primacy, could envision such a possibility—of “successfully avoiding mutual annihilation by a decapitating attack has always been as ill-founded as any other. The realistic conclusion would be that a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviets[/Russians] was—and is—virtually certain to be an unmitigated catastrophe, not only for the two parties but for the world,” triggering nuclear winter and “global omnicide.”42

The New Cold War and the European Theater

In “Notes on Exterminism” and his general stance as a leader of European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, Thompson presented the nuclear arms buildup in Europe then occurring as the product of military machines and technological imperatives largely acting on their own. This was part of a strategy of uniting the peace movements of the West and East against their respective establishments, based on the premise that nuclear buildup was equally a product of both sides. However, in this regard, he belied his own evidence, which pointed to Washington’s aggressive nuclear buildup of counterforce weapons and the placement of strategic weapons in Europe targeting the Soviet Union. In an article on “Nuclear Chicken” in the September 1982 issue of Monthly Review, Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy challenged this part of Thompson’s argument, pointing not only to the strategic expansions of NATO under the United States, but also to the fact that the U.S. imperial order was heavily dependent on credible threats of nuclear first strikes directed at other countries, both nuclear and non-nuclear.43

In a 1981 introduction to the U.S. edition of Protest and Survive edited by Thompson and Dan Cohen, Ellsberg listed a long series of documented instances where the United States used threats of nuclear first strikes, beginning in 1949, to pressure other countries to back down and achieve its imperial ends.44 Today, the list of such documented cases has risen to twenty-five.45 In this sense, the use of nuclear warfare as a threat is built into U.S. strategy. Development of nuclear primacy through counterforce weapons held out the possibility that such threats could once again be credibly directed even at major nuclear powers such as Russia and China. Magdoff and Sweezy called this whole approach a game of “nuclear chicken,” in which the United States was the most aggressive player.

Nuclear chicken did not end with the end of the Cold War. The U.S. national security state, influenced by key figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor and one of the principal architects of the post-Cold War NATO expansion, continued to seek ultimate U.S. geopolitical hegemony over Eurasia, referring to this as the “grand chessboard.” Checkmate, according to Brzezinski, would constitute bringing Ukraine into NATO as a strategic-nuclear alliance (though Brzezinski carefully excluded the nuclear aspect in presenting his geopolitical strategy), spelling the end of Russia as a great power and possibly leading to its breakup into various states.46 This would mark U.S. supremacy over the entire globe. This attempt to turn U.S. unipolar power after the Cold War into a permanent global empire required the expansion of NATO to the east, which commenced in 1997 during the Bill Clinton administration, gradually annexing to the Atlantic Alliance all the countries between Western Europe and Ukraine, with the latter as the ultimate prize and a dagger at Russia’s heart.47 Here there was a kind of oneness exhibited between the U.S.-directed strategy of NATO expansion and Washington’s drive for nuclear primacy, which proceeded in almost lockstep.

The fact that Russia was compelled to consider the question of its own national security in the face of NATO’s attempt to expand militarily into Ukraine should hardly surprise anyone. A decade into the NATO expansion, which already encompassed eleven nations formerly either in the Warsaw Pact or previously part of the Soviet Union, and only a year after near U.S. nuclear primacy was highlighted in Foreign Affairs, Russian president Vladimir Putin startled the world by unequivocally declaring at the Munich Security Conference that “the unipolar world was not only unacceptable but impossible in today’s world.”48 Nevertheless, consistent with its long-term strategy to extend into what Brzezinski had called the “geopolitical pivot” of Eurasia, thereby fatally weakening Russia, NATO in 2008 declared outright at its Bucharest Summit that it intended to bring Ukraine into the military-strategic (nuclear) alliance.

In 2014, the Maidan coup in Ukraine, engineered by Washington, deposed the democratically elected president of Ukraine and imposed in his place a leader chosen by the White House, putting Ukraine in the hands of right-wing, ultra-nationalist forces. Russia’s response was to incorporate Crimea into its territory, after a popular referendum that gave the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimean population, who regarded themselves as independent and not part of Ukraine, a choice as to whether to remain in Ukraine or join with Russia. The coup (or “color revolution”) led to the violent repression by Kyiv of the populations in the Russian-speaking Donbass region of Ukraine, resulting in the Ukrainian Civil War between Kyiv (supported by Washington) and the breakaway Russian-speaking Donbass republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (supported by Moscow). The Ukrainian Civil War, which initially resulted in more than 14,000 deaths, continued at a low ebb over the following eight years despite the signing of the Minsk peace agreements in 2014, which were meant to end the conflict and give autonomy to the Donbass republics within Ukraine. In February 2022, Kyiv had massed 130,000 troops on the borders of Donbass in eastern Ukraine firing on Donetsk and Luhansk.49

As the Ukrainian crisis worsened, Putin insisted on a number of “red lines” for Russia, referring to its essential security needs, consisting of: (1) adherence to the previous Minsk agreement (worked out by Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany, and supported by the UN Security Council) guaranteeing the autonomy and security of Donetsk and Luhansk, (2) an end to NATO’s militarization of Ukraine, and (3) an agreement that Ukraine will remain outside NATO.50 All of these red lines continued to be crossed with NATO, urged on by the United States, providing increased military aid to Kyiv in its war on the Donbass republics, in what Russia interpreted as a de facto attempt to incorporate Ukraine into NATO.

On February 24, 2022, Russia intervened in the Ukrainian Civil War on the side of Donbass, attacking the military forces of the Kyiv government. On February 27, Moscow put its nuclear forces on high alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War, confronting the world with the possibility of global nuclear holocaust, this time between competing capitalist great powers. Figures in Washington, such as Senator Joe Manchin III (Democrat, West Virginia), have backed the idea of U.S. imposition of a no-fly zone in Ukraine, which would mean shooting down Russian planes, in all probability escalating into a Third World War.51

Exterminism in Two Directions

It is common today to recognize that climate change represents a “global existential threat” that places in jeopardy the very survival of humanity. Today we are faced with a situation in which the continual expansion of capitalism based on the burning of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels points to the possibility—even probability, if the system of production is not altered radically in a matter of decades—of the downfall of industrial civilization, placing the survival of humanity in question. This is the meaning of environmental exterminism in our time. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), net zero carbon dioxide emissions must be reached by 2050 if the world is to have a reasonable hope of keeping global average temperatures below a 1.5°C, or even a 2°C, increase over preindustrial levels. Not to accomplish this is to invite the devastation of the earth as a safe home for humanity and innumerable other species.

Climate change is part of a more general planetary ecological crisis associated with the crossing of planetary boundaries in general, including those—beyond climate change itself—related to species extinction, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, loss of ground cover/forests, declining fresh water sources associated with desertification, atmospheric aerosol loading, and the introduction of novel entities (new synthetic chemicals and new genetic forms).52 To this should be added the emergence of new zoonoses, as in the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting principally from the agribusiness transformation of the human relation to the environment.53

Yet, there is no doubt that climate change is at the center of the current global ecological crisis. Like nuclear winter, it poses a threat to civilization and the continuation of the human species itself. Even now, the IPCC tells us in its most recent reports (2021–22) on the physical science of climate change and its impacts that the most optimistic scenario, though warding off irreversible climate change, is still one of growing global catastrophe in the decades ahead, and requires immediate action to protect the lives and living conditions of hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, of people who will be exposed to extreme weather events of a kind that global civilization has never seen before.54 To counter this requires the greatest movement of workers and peoples the world has ever seen in order to restore the conditions of their existence, which have been usurped by the regime of capital, and to reestablish an ecologically sustainable world rooted in substantive equality.55

Ironically, the latest IPCC report, which was meant to draw world attention to the catastrophic nature of today’s climate crisis and the rapidly worsening prospects for humanity if revolutionary-scale changes are not made, was published on February 28, 2022, four days after the Russian entry into the Ukrainian Civil War in defiance of NATO, resulting in growing concern over the possibility of a global thermonuclear exchange. Hence, the world’s attention was drawn away from considering one global existential threat, endangering all of humanity, namely carbon omnicide, by the sudden reemergence of another, nuclear omnicide.

Still, even as the world turned its attention to the possibility of war between the leading nuclear powers, the full planetary scale of the nuclear threat, as understood by science in terms of nuclear winter, was absent from the picture. Global warming and nuclear winter, though arising in different ways, are closely connected in climate terms, demonstrating that the world is on the brink of destroying most of the inhabitants of the earth, in one direction or another: global warming over decades leading to a point of no return for humanity, or the death of hundreds of millions by nuclear fire, followed by global cooling in days and months, exterminating most of the rest of the world’s population through starvation. Just as the full destructive implications of climate change threatening the very existence of humanity are in large part denied by the powers that be, so are the full planetary effects of nuclear war, which scientific research into nuclear winter tells us will effectively annihilate the population of every continent on Earth.56

Today we are confronted with a choice between exterminism and the human ecological imperative.57 The causal agent in the two global existential crises now threatening the human species is capitalism and its irrational quest for exponentially increasing capital accumulation and imperial power in a limited global environment. The only possible response to this unlimited threat is a universal revolutionary movement rooted in both ecology and peace, turning away from the current systematic destruction of the earth and its inhabitants, and providing as its alternative a world of substantive equality and ecological sustainability, namely socialism.

  1.  P. Thompson, “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization,” New Left Review 121 (1980): 3–31. Citations to this essay in the present article are taken from the slightly revised version in E. P. Thompson, Beyond the Cold War (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 41–79. See also Edward Thompson et al., Exterminism and the Cold War (London: Verso, 1982); E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, ed., Protest and Survive (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981).
  2.  Thompson, Beyond the Cold War, 55; Samir Amin, Empire of Chaos (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992).
  3.  Thompson, Beyond the Cold War, 64, 73.
  4.  Thompson, Beyond the Cold War, 75–76.
  5.  Rudolf Bahro, Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster (Bath: Gateway Books, 1994), 19–20; John Bellamy Foster, Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 27–28; Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 178–81.
  6.  For a brief discussion of the events leading up the present Ukraine War, see The Editors, “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review 73, no. 11 (April 2022).
  7.  Stephen Schneider, “Whatever Happened to Nuclear Winter?,” Climatic Change 12 (1988): 215; Matthew R. Francis, “When Carl Sagan Warned About Nuclear Winter,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 15, 2017; Carl Sagan and Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race (New York: Random House, 1990), 19–44.
  8.  Malcolm W. Browne, “Nuclear Winter Theorists Pull Back,” New York Times, January 23, 1990.
  9.  Steven Starr, “Turning a Blind Eye Towards Armageddon—U.S. Leaders Reject Nuclear Winter Studies,” Public Interest Report (Federation of American Scientists) 69, no. 2 (2016–17): 24.
  10.  Judith Newman, “20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years,” Discover, January 19, 2000.
  11.  Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 140. The failure to include the foremost cause of death from thermonuclear weapons directed at cities in the form of firestorms is deeply ingrained in the Pentagon. Thus, the declassified practical guide on nuclear weapons stockpile and management published by the U.S. Department of Defense for 2008 includes more than twenty pages on the effects of a nuclear weapons explosion in a city, without a single mention of firestorms. See U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Matters: A Practical Guide (Washington: Pentagon, 2008), 135–58.
  12.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 141–42.
  13.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 18, 142.
  14.  Owen B. Toon, Allan Robock, and Richard P. Turco, “Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War,” Physics Today (2008): 37–42; Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering (New York: Scientific American, 2009).
  15.  Emily Saarman, “The Return of Nuclear Winter,” Discover, May 2, 2007.
  16.  Starr, “Turning a Blind Eye Toward Armageddon,” 4–5; Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Geeorgiy L. Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences,” Journal of Geophysical Research 112 (2007) (D13107): 1–14.
  17.  Starr, “Turning a Blind Eye Toward Armageddon,” 5–6; Robock, Oman, and Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited”; Joshua Coupe, Charles G. Bardeen, Alan Robock, and Owen B. Toon, “Nuclear Winter Responses to Nuclear War Between the United States and Russia in the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model Version 4 and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (2019): 8522–43; Alan Robock and Owen B. Toon, “Self-Assured Destruction: The Climate Impacts of Nuclear War,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68, no. 5 (2012): 66–74; Steven Starr, “Nuclear War, Nuclear Winter, and Human Extinction,” Federation of American Scientists, October 14, 2015.
  18.  Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), 145–51.
  19.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 18–19; Sagan and Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought, 213–19. Here, the doomsday machine is not to be confused with the version of the doomsday machine in Stanley Kubrick’s film Strangelove. Yet, Kubrick’s film drew on Kahn’s notion and retains a concrete significance in the context of contemporary nuclear reality. See Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 18–19.
  20.  Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs (2006), 44.
  21.  Sagan and Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought, 215.
  22.  John T. Correll, “The Ups and Downs of Counterforce,” Air Force Magazine, October 1, 2005; Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 120–23, 178–79.
  23.  Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “Nuclear Chicken,” Monthly Review 34, no. 4 (September 1981): 4; Richard J. Barnet, “Why Trust the Soviets?,” World Policy Journal 1, no. 3 (1984): 461–62.
  24.  Correll, “The Ups and Downs of Counterforce.”
  25.  Steven Pifer, “The Limits of U.S. Missile Defense,” Brookings Institution, March 30, 2015.
  26.  Cynthia Roberts, “Revelations About Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy,” War on the Rocks (Texas National Security Review), June 19, 2020; Correll, “The Ups and Downs of Counterforce.”
  27.  Janne Nolan, quoted in Correll, “The Ups and Downs of Counterforce.”
  28.  “Excerpts from Pentagon’s Plan: Preventing the Re-emergence of a New Rival,” New York Times, March 8, 1992.
  29.  Lieber and Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” 45–48.
  30.  Richard A. Paulsen, The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the Post-Cold War Era (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 1994), 84; Michael J. Mazarr, “Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War,” Washington Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1992): 185, 190–94; Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 46.
  31.  Lieber and Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” 43, 50.
  32.  Lieber and Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” 45.
  33.  Jack Detsch, “Putin’s Fixation with an Old-School U.S. Missile Launcher,” Foreign Policy, January 12, 2022; Jacques Baud (interview), “The Policy of USA Has Always Been to Prevent Germany and Russia from Cooperating More Closely,” Swiss Standpoint, March 15, 2022; Starr, “Turning a Blind Eye Toward Armageddon.” Estonia has cruise missiles supplied by Israel: David Axe, “Estonia’s Getting a Powerful Cruise Missile. Now It Needs to Find Targets,” Forbes, October 12, 2021. Russia is also concerned with the possible reintroduction of Pershing II intermediate ballistic missiles in Europe.
  34.  Jaganath Sankaran, “Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapons: An Asymmetrical Response to U.S. Aerospace Superiority,” Arms Control Association, March 2022.
  35.  Lieber and Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” 48–49, 52–53; Karl A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017). A key element of Beijing’s nuclear deterrent is reducing the acoustic signature or noise level of its nuclear submarines. In 2011, it was believed that it would take China decades to reduce the acoustic signature of its submarines enough to survive a U.S. first strike. However, in less than a decade, China made significant advances toward that goal. Lieber and Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 47; Caleb Larson, “Chinese Submarines Are Becoming Quieter,” National Interest, September 10, 2020; Wu Riqiang, “Survivability of China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Forces,” Science and Global Security 19, no. 2 (2011): 91–120.
  36.  Lieber and Mann, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 16–17.
  37.  Roberts, “Revelations About Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy”; Sankaran, “Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapons.”
  38.  Alexey Arbatove, “The Hidden Side of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Confrontation,” Arms Control Association, September 2016; Brad Roberts, The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
  39.  Richard Stone, “National Pride Is at Stake: Russia, China, United States Race to Build Hypersonic Weapons,” Science, January 8, 2020, 176–96; Dagobert L. Brito, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Michael D. Intriligator, “The Case for Submarine Launched Non-Nuclear Ballistic Missiles,” Baker Institute, January 2002.
  40.  Sankaran, “Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapons.” The development of “countermeasure” strategies and technologies to elude counterforce attack on a nation’s nuclear deterrence is emphasized by Russia and China, given the U.S. lead in counterforce. See Lieber and Mann, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 46–48.
  41.  See Diane Johnstone, “Doomsday Postponed?,” in Paul Johnston, From Mad to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear Planning (Atlanta, GA: Clarity, 2017), 272–86.
  42.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 307. Today, there is once again increased discussion in U.S. strategic circles of a “low-casualty” or “decapitation” first-strike capability on the part of the United States, which would seem to make nuclear firestorms less likely. See Lieber and Man, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 27–32.
  43.  Magdoff and Sweezy, “Nuclear Chicken,” 3–6.
  44.  Daniel Ellsberg, “Introduction: Call to Mutiny,” in Thompson and Smith, ed., Protest and Survive, i–xxviii. It was reprinted as “Call to Mutiny,” Monthly Review 33, no. 4 (September 1981): 1–26.
  45.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 319–22.
  46.  Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, 46, 92–96, 103.
  47.  Editors, “Notes from the Editors.”
  48.  Diana Johnstone, “Doomsday Postponed?,” 277.
  49.  Editors, “Notes from the Editors”; Diane Johnstone, “For Washington, War Never Ends,” Consortium News 27, no. 76 (2022); John Mearsheimer, “On Why the West Is Principally Responsible for the Ukrainian Crisis,” Economist, March 19, 2022.
  50.  Mark Episkopos, “Putin Warns the West to Heed Russia’s Redlines in Donbass,” National Interest, December 21, 2021; “Russia Publishes ‘Red Line’ Demands of US and NATO Amid Heightened Tension Over Kremlin Threat to Ukraine,” Marketwatch, December 18, 2021.
  51.  “U.S. Lawmakers Say They Are Largely Opposed to a No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine,” New York Times, March 6, 2022.
  52.  Will Steffen et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347 no. 6223 (2015): 736–46.
  53.  See Rob Wallace, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020).
  54.  UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers,” Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability (Geneva: IPCC, 2022). See also “Summary for Policymakers,” Climate Change 2021.
  55.  This conclusion is in fact consistent with the third part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, in the form of the mitigation report to be published in March but leaked by scientists in advance. See the “Summary for Policy Makers” of Part III of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change.
  56.  Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, 18. Global warming and nuclear winter are related in another respect. If global warming increases to the extent that global civilization is destabilized, something that natural scientists predict could happen if global average temperatures increase by 4°C, competition between capitalist nation states will increase, thereby enhancing the risk of a nuclear conflagration and thus nuclear winter.
  57.  Thompson, Beyond the Cold War, 76.

John Bellamy Fosteris an American professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and editor of the Monthly Review. He writes about political economy of capitalism and economic crisis, ecology and ecological crisis, and Marxist theory.

Monthly Review, May 1, 2022, https://monthlyreview.org/

Existing climate mitigation scenarios perpetuate colonial inequalities / by Jason Hickel and Aljoša Slameršak

As Myanmar experiences more extreme weather events, a roadmap that lays the context, analysis, and options on how to tackle climate change is highly essential. (Photo: IRRI)

Originally published: The Lancet on July 20, 2022


The challenge of climate mitigation is made more difficult by high rates of energy use in wealthy countries, mostly in the Global North, which far exceed what is required to meet human needs. In contrast, more than 3 billion people in poorer countries live in energy poverty. A just transition requires energy convergence—reducing energy use in wealthy countries to achieve rapid emissions reductions, and ensuring sufficient energy for development in the rest of the world. However, existing climate mitigation scenarios reviewed by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do not explore such a transition. On average, existing scenarios maintain the Global North’s energy privilege at a per capita level 2·3 times higher than in the Global South. Even the more equitable scenarios perpetuate large energy inequalities for the rest of the century. To reconcile the Global North’s high energy use with the Paris Agreement targets, most scenarios rely heavily on bioenergy-based negative emissions technologies. This approach is risky, but it is also unjust. These scenarios tend to appropriate land in the Global South to maintain, and further increase, the Global North’s energy privilege. There is an urgent need to develop scenarios that represent convergence to levels of energy that are sufficient for human wellbeing and compatible with rapid decarbonisation.

Read the Full Article Here

Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics. He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, works as Policy Director for /The Rules collective, sits on the Executive Board of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) and recently joined the International Editorial Advisory Board of Third World Quarterly.

Aljoša Slameršak contributed to data collection, methodology, data analysis, writing, editing, and drawing up the figure.

MR Online, July 22, 2022, https://mronline.org/

The capitalist solution to ‘save’ the planet: make it an asset class & sell it / by Lynn Fries

John Bellamy Foster explains the ‘solution’ master-minded by global finance to resolve the imminent environmental crisis: create a multi-quadrillion dollars’ worth of assets on the back of everything nature does and expropriate it from the global commons to make a profit. Worse still: it is already happening.

LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. Today’s guest is John Bellamy Foster.

He’ll be talking about the financialization of the earth as a new ecological regime. A regime where the rapid financialization of natureis promoting a Great Expropriation of the global commons and the dispossession of humanity on a scale that exceeds all previous human history. And which is accelerating the destruction of planetary ecosystems and of the earth as a safe home for humanity. All in the name of saving nature by turning it into a market.

Our guest’s Monthly Review articles: The Defense of Nature: Resisting the Financialization of the Earth and Nature as a Mode of Accumulation: Capitalism and the Financialization of the Earth detail this argument.

Joining us from Oregon, John Bellamy Foster is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and Editor of Monthly Review. He has written widely on political economy and is a major scholar on environmental issues. He is author of numerous books including Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. A forthcoming book, Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution, is coming soon from Monthly Review Press. Welcome, John.

JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER: Glad to be here.

The Financialization of Nature

FRIES: We will be talking about your thoughts on how the financialization of nature is capitalism’s most catastrophic regime to date, a new ecological regime. And I take it; you think this was at the heart of what came out of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference negotiations in Glasgow.

FOSTER: Yeah. Ironically, during COP 26 in Glasgow everybody was watching that to sort of see, well, would governments and the powers that be take action to protect the earth. And the main thing that came out of Glasgow was actually these plans for the financial takeover of the earth, in the name of saving nature. The entire conservation sector globally has now bought into these policies of financialization.

This was really the main product of the Glasgow meetings all being done by capital with support of governments. But there is no public discussion anywhere of this. There is no country where this has been subjected to democratic processes or even conversations. There’s no dialogue on this.

Capital is just proceeding to buy up ecosystems services. To create structured financial vehicles where they’ll be able to control natural capital to accumulate on the basis of it. And to run natural services on this basis with the idea of accumulating wealth.

FRIES: Connect the dots from capital’s need for a new asset class around 2009, around the peak of the Great Financial Crisis, to the current trajectory of the financialization of nature as a new ecological regime.

FOSTER: The world went through a global financial crisis in 2007 to 2010. One of the problems in terms of financial instability, obviously, is that there are not enough underlying assets to support the financial expansion of the system, which is going on at extreme levels. So we’re piling up debt in relation to the world economy. But the debt doesn’t really have sufficient material foundations, revenue streams underlying it.

So capital is searching for new revenue streams. And after the 2007 to 2010 financial crisis, they started looking increasingly at ecosystem services (what we could call nature and nature’s services) as a basis, as a material basis for financialization.

So there’s this very rapid ongoing financialization of nature that is now occurring. Where natural services, ecosystem services, are being turned into forms of exchange value that can be the basis of financialization. All in the name of saving the global environment.

There was a big change that occurred in the fall of 2021, between September and November in the context of the UN climate negotiations, where three new initiatives were introduced or brought to the forefront.

One is the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which brings together all the big financial corporations. All the big banks and hedge funds and so on all came together combining let’s say $130 trillion in assets. These are all basically the Western banks and hedge funds. And they claimed that they were going to organize, to financialize nature in order to produce a net zero carbon economy globally.

The month before, the New York Stock Exchange together with the Intrinsic Exchange Group introduced a new asset class on the New York Stock Exchange called Natural Capital Assets. That really had to do with this process of creating structured financial vehicles to create revenue streams from ecosystem services. That could then be financialized and debt built upon them and so on. All in the name of again, saving nature.

And finally in the climate negotiations itself, they basically agreed on a plan for a world carbon trading mechanism that had been introduced in 2015 Paris Agreement but all the details hadn’t been worked out. So this established at least the basis for a global carbon trading mechanism, which would again, financialize nature.

This has resulted in a huge expansion just in the last few months of attempts to financialize the earth. To turn ecosystem services, really basic ecosystem services like photosynthesis and the production of oxygen in the environment and things like that into monetary asset exchange value that capital can own. Or at least maybe nation states will own and capital will essentially manage and this can turn into financial assets.

Essentially, corporations would own what nature does, not just owning land. The governments would still probably own the land but capital would own the services that nature provides. And would manage it for enormous amounts of money. This is big accumulation as the Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG) said, in their view: if discounted over the century, ecosystem services are worth four quadrillion (or $4,000 trillion) dollars all for the taking.

FRIES: And we should also note these initiatives target the Global South. As you say basically because financial gains from the expropriation of the earth in the name of management of natural capital and offsets are the greatest in the Global South.

Your articles detail ways this targeting is done. For example, the 2021 Glasgow Alliance for Net Zero initiative declared up front that carbon-mitigation financing to be made available for developing countries comes with strings attached. So financing will depend on a developing country willingness to fully open their economies to global capital.

In the case of the agreed plan for carbon trading and in the designs to promote a world market in offsets, the $100 billion developed countries promised to direct to the Global South is subject to debt leverage by multinational monopoly-finance capital

So John, just to clarify what we are talking about here with the financialization of nature and accumulation of nature are you saying that, in general, this involves the creation of financial claims so titles over natural assets and ecosystems, environmental services of various kinds that can then be traded and leveraged? Is that basically what you mean by the financialization and accumulation of nature?

FOSTER: Finance is really based on the promotion of debt. And from one perspective, money itself is a debt. But finance is based on the promotion of debt. And that means liens on the future revenue streams from underlying assets. What the debts represent or what the creditors get is revenue streams into the future.

So essentially, it means you’re selling whatever nature provides or revenue streams well into the future. In a lot of these proposals, it’s selling off what nature would produce or the revenue that it would generate if it’s reduced to exchange value over the next century or two.

And it is very dangerous. If you look back to 2007- 2010, the Great Financial Crisis, the whole financial system was really in danger of collapsing. And the structural changes that occurred at that time, and this is related to economic stagnation, are really still there.

The financialization, the growth of the debt economy, is in many ways at a much more extreme level then it was in 2007. And we’re looking at other financial crises that could occur, another conceivable Great Financial Crisis. This is because we create these debt bubbles, which expand the economy, but eventually the bubble bursts. The consequences are there.

Our economies are growing slowly but we are also expanding the debt bubble at the same time. So we’re in this sort of stagnation/financialization trap.

Well then if you try to financialize the whole of nature and try to run ecosystem services under capitalist principles regulated by structured investment vehicles, you’re basically bringing nature into this financial bubble.

But it’s absurd. Because the laws of nature (and we can talk about the laws of nature as the scientific world does meaning the biogeochemical processes of the Earth System) do not operate like capitalist markets. And actually attempts to monetize nature and treat it as a financial asset, as an economic asset, a stream of income in which we can impose debts and this will create revenue according to the innate power of capital and at the same time save nature, it’s really a fairy tale.

I mean, it’s worse than a fairy tale. It’s a complete fetish of capital and nature.

John Maynard Keynes once said that we’re in trouble when the underlying productive economy becomes a bubble on the financial system. But we’re now creating a situation where the earth itself is going to be turned into a bubble on the financial system which itself is a speculative enterprise.

There’s a famous statement by a 19th century chartist, Dunning, in his book on the trade unions that Marx quotes in Volume One of Capital. Where Dunning says: that capital we’ll do such and such for a 12% rate of return. And it’ll do even more; it will transgress laws for say a 50% rate of return. But for a 300% rate of return, it will lie and destroy and it’s willing to sell off humanity and the earth itself. And he points to the slave trade.

And I think that’s what we’re in the situation of. The returns are so great that capital is really mesmerized by this notion that ecosystem services discounted and projected over this whole century are worth four quadrillion dollars [$4000 trillion]. And then they can go in and have a piece of this. The fact that this is so destructive is ignored.

Also what they’re doing is taking ecosystem services not from the population of the earth as whole even, but more immediately they’re taking nature away from indigenous populations. In Africa, for example, it’s claimed that 90% of the land is essentially untitled, which capital can take over and reap the natural capital and ecosystem services.

The reason for this is it’s a legacy of colonialism. So that, after the colonial period and the post-colonial period, it was sort of recognized that indigenous communities had common rights to the land that they lived on throughout history. But they didn’t have any actual title. They just had sort of vague common rights.

While the governments were given, like every government was seen as actually having the final right to all of the land in a country. And what’s happening is that the indigenous claims to the land are being kind of removed. They are not treated as having the same basis as private property. And so these lands can be expropriated in land grabs.

A lot of this is now in order to gain hold of natural capital and ecosystem services. And it is ripe for corruption. My article starts out with a massive case of corruption in Malaysia’s state of Borneo, Sabah. So we’re seeing struggles of indigenous people over this financialization of the earth as well.

FRIES: John, I’ll quickly round off for viewers on points you just made about the struggle of indigenous peoples and the innate power of capital. First, on the fairy tale of the innate power of capital and so liens on the future production of the economy, as the ecological economist Herman Daly has put it to cite a few lines from your Defense of Nature article : “…the capitalist growth economy, while continuing to profit in the course of its creative destruction, is ultimately faced with physical limits of an Earth System, which does not, like compound interest, increase exponentially. Real physical wealth emanating from nature and ultimately derived from solar energy is subject to the entropy law and cannot generate endless rapid growth as in the case of ‘symbolic monetary debt!’The conflict between finance-based economic expansion and the ecological basis of society is thus inevitable.”

In the context of struggles of indigenous peoples to cite the same article : “This struggle is occurring on all three continents of the Global South and in regions of the Global North an indication of how close the ties are between neocolonialism and the natural capital juggernaut.”

As you say in these articles, the financialization of the earth is promoting a Great Expropriation of the global commons and the dispossession of humanity on an unprecedented scale. Give us now some big picture context and also historical context on your ecological critique of how financialization is also an expropriation.

FOSTER: Well, Karl Marx once said and this is a paraphrase but it’s very close to what he said. He said: Nobody owns the earth. Not even all the people on the planet, own the earth. We hold it in trust as good heads of the household for future generations, for the entire chain of human generations. You know, in terms of humanity, if anyone has a right to the earth, to the planet, it’s all of us together. Or certainly, we hold it in trust for the future. To sell it off to private services is another matter altogether.

Karl Polanyi, the great economic anthropologist, once said that: converting nature into real estate was the most extreme invention of our ancestors. But now we’re going a step further. It’s not about ownership of land, but it’s the selling off and integration into the financial world of all that nature does, all of its ecosystem services across the planet. And parceled out and turned into debts and derivatives and revenue streams which will be owned by capital.

Things that were previously considered the free gifts of nature will now be owned by financial interests and private financial interests. That means a few will own ecosystem services and the rest of the population of the earth will be dispossessed.

FRIES: Speaking now in the context of a system of production, explain more about the term expropriate. So, what exactly does that mean?

FOSTER: Expropriate basically means taking without return. We have to take from nature in our production. And there’s nothing wrong with the free appropriation of nature on behalf of humanity as a whole. There is a problem when nature is treated as a free gift to capital as nothing but a means to capital accumulation.

There’s a problem when the appropriation of nature doesn’t occur in a sustainable way. That is, there’s no reciprocity. There’s no giving back in any way. So that it becomes a form of robbery. You’re taking without replacing and that always results in destruction. And our system basically, does that.

Now, there are resources that are irreplaceable. That can’t be replaced. Herman Daly set out how we can use all resources sustainably. And we have to conform to those rules or we’re really destroying the ecological basis of our own existence.

Ecologists talk about the tap and the sink. The tap refers to what we extract from nature. We also have the problem of the sink. That is where do we dispose of the waste from production. And carbon dioxide emissions are basically a waste from production.

Which on a small scale wouldn’t really be very important there. I mean carbon dioxide is part of our own respiratory system. But on the scale in which emissions are occurring today and concentrating carbon in the atmosphere, we’re producing climate change, which is threatening civilization and the very systems of humanity.

When we think about production, we have to think about not only the tap that is the extraction; we also have to think about the sink where the wastes go. And there are rules in terms of sustainability and how we can live on the planet with these limitations. But capitalism is not geared to anything like that. It has one goal and that’s the profit motive or accumulation of capital or the increase in stockholders’ equity however you want to look at it.

That’s what drives capital. It really doesn’t see anything else. And in the process of growing, even as our economy grows, we’re destroying the natural system around us which the very basis of our existence.

FRIES: You point out that in Marx’s view it was necessary in any critique of capitalism to understand not only the enormous productive forces generated by capital but also the negative destructive side of capitalism’s interaction with the environment. And for this, Marx placed an emphasis on natural science.

This emphasis can be seen in his treatment of capitalist agriculture where Marx was the first major economist, as you say, to incorporate concepts like metabolism and the science of thermodynamics into the analysis of production.

Your argument being ecological thought has deep roots in the 19th century and the influence of Karl Marx. Talk about those deep roots of present day ecological thinking.

FOSTER: In the beginning of 19th century around 1815, I think, the natural scientists working mainly in physiology started to develop analyses of cell metabolism. And so this was very important in the development of biology, physiology and so on. And Marx had a friend, Roland Daniels, who was a physician, physician scientist.

Many of the scientists in those days came out of being physicians. And Daniels wrote a book called the Mikrokosmos which had only one reader and that was Karl Marx. It wasn’t actually published until the 1980s in Germany, I think, but Marx read it.

Daniels had used the concept of metabolism in a broader ecological sense to look at the systemic relations between plants and animals and the earth. So he was using metabolism as a systems ecology concept; beginning to do that.

At the same time, the concept of metabolism was also being used in the development of thermodynamics. Especially the first law of thermodynamics on the conservation of energy. So metabolism was being used in that sense.

Justus von Liebig, who was the leading German chemist and very influential agricultural chemist, introduced the notion of metabolism in looking at the disruptions that were occurring in agriculture at the time, as a result of industrialized agriculture.

At any rate in the 1850s, really under the influence of Daniels, Marx began to use the concept of metabolism as a systemic concept. And he introduced the notion of social metabolism. And he developed this analysis in his Critique of Political Economy and in Capital. So he was the one who introduced the notion of social metabolism.

Social metabolism was really related to the labor and production process. So that in engaging in the labor process and in production, human beings were transforming their relation to the earth. They were taking what nature provided and transforming it. And in the production, of course, transforming themselves and society.

But Marx made this powerful socio-ecological connection unlike any other thinker in his time or maybe even in our own. Where the understanding of production with his whole class analysis and so on, his whole social analysis was unified with ecological analysis through the concept of social metabolism.

And not only that, he introduced the concept called the universal metabolism of nature. Marx didn’t talk just about nature. He talked about natural processes in terms of metabolism. And he talked about the universal metabolism of nature. Basically, what we would call earth system processes today.

Under capitalism, he argued that the social metabolism was alienated. So we had a destructive relation to nature. The social metabolism came in conflict with the universal metabolism of nature. And in those cases, what happened was a rift between human beings and nature.

Marx wrote of the irreparable rift in the interdependent social metabolism between humanity and nature. And we call this the metabolic rift. And his theory of ecological crisis, which was very pronounced and connected to his whole critique of the social system, is really defined by this analysis of the metabolic rift.

Marx’s usage of metabolism actually influenced other thinkers in his time and afterwards. For example, the leading British natural scientist, the leading British biologist really a zoologist E. Ray Lancaster (Darwin and Huxley’s protégé) was also a close friend of Marx. Lancaster was the leading developer of an ecological crisis analysis in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This same ecological systems approach, which was rooted in metabolism, gave rise to the concept ofecosystems, which is our main ecological concept. And that was developed by Lancaster’s student, the botanist, Arthur Tansley. And working in conjunction with systems theory developed by the Marxist mathematician, Hyman Levy, but building on this conception of metabolism.

This all goes forward from there. So that we now speak of the earth system metabolism. So Marx’s approach is completely integrated with science. Ecological science down to the present day operates with these same conceptions.

FRIES: I’ll have another stab at some of your essential argument on how financialization is also an expropriation and relate it to the robbing of natureyou referred to earlier. So take us through the 19th century concept of robbing the soil into the present where as you write in the Defense of Nature article that : “The Original Expropriation has metamorphosed into a planetary juggernaut, a robbery system encompassing the entire earth, leading to a more universal dispossession and destruction.”

And with respect to the Original Expropriation to cite the Nature as a Mode of Accumulation article : “The expropriation of the commons, its simplification, division, violent seizure and transformation into private property constituted the fundamental precondition for the historical origin of capitalism. What Karl Marx referred to as the original expropriation of the commons in England and in much of the world (often involving the expropriation of laborers in various forms of slavery and forced labor) generated the concentrations of wealth and power that propelled the late 18th and early 19th century’s Industrial Revolution.”

So in a nutshell, from the Original Expropriation to the Great Expropriation, explain this reference to the robbery of nature.

FOSTER: In the book The Robbery of Nature that Brett Clark and I wrote together, we connected the issue of the rift, the metabolic rift to the issue of the robbery of nature. Going back to Marx and his discussions in Capital and elsewhere and to Justus von Liebig and others we argued that the rift, the metabolic rift, or the rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature was a product of the robbery of nature. Not addressing the need for reciprocity and sustainability in the relation to nature.

So, taking from nature and not giving back is a form of theft or robbery, expropriation in fact. So expropriation is a form of robbery, stealing. But not just nature, it is expropriation of human bodies in many cases. We look at slavery. We look at the oppression of women, problems of social reproduction.

These kinds of issues, the oppression of women, slavery, the super-exploitation of people in the Global South are all issues of robbery. And the seizure, of course, the financialization of nature, land grabs, these are all forms of expropriation that then create the basis of private property and capital accumulation.

Capitalism constantly seeks to expropriate people, resources, land, and nature in order to expand its system. So the robbery of nature is integral to the problem of the metabolic rift.

Metabolic rift Marx explained originally in terms of the soil crisis in England and elsewhere in the 19th century. Where industrial capitalist agriculture was intensively removing nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from the soil in the food and fiber that was being exported to the urban center with a concentrated industrial population.

The nutrients, which were being, shipped hundreds, maybe thousands of miles to the cities did not return to the soil again. So they had to try and get bones from the Napoleonic battlefields and the catacombs of Europe to have natural fertilizer for the soil. And guano from Peru establishing the whole massive guano trade where they used Chinese labor, basically expropriating their bodies and killing them off very rapidly. In order to get the guano (the bird droppings) to fertilize the soil in England which was being depleted by industrial agriculture.

This kind of robbery of the soil is a model of how capitalism robs resources and land everywhere. Taking without putting back. Not following ecological principles, ignoring permaculture, building monocultures and basically destroying the earth.

So the robbery is the source of really the metabolic rift itself. And that rift between human beings and nature is how we can understand ecological crisis. It’s all rooted in the system of production, the capitalist system of production which has now been globalized and financialized and is really driving the world to the wall.

FRIES: The capitalist system of production, as we all know, is based on commodity production for exchange value and endless capital accumulation. So a treadmill of exchange, profit and accumulation.

Your Monthly Review articles clarify how the concept of natural capital originally arose as a defense against the capitalist system of production for exchange value. Briefly explain that then the related concept of the Lauderdale Paradox.

FOSTER: You have to go back really to the 19th century and the concept of natural capital was introduced by socialists and radicals in opposition to the expropriation of nature in their time, the turning of nature into exchange value. Which in our terms was at a fairly crude level. But land was being taken over and turned into exchange value, being turned into capital.

The concept of natural capital was opposed to the turning of all of nature (and in those days they were thinking simply of land and raw materials) into cash, into exchange value, into the cash nexus. They argued that we had a natural capital stock that we had to protect that. And they saw it in use value terms. That is natural material use value terms. We had to protect this stock of nature.

They argued that if nature which was the essential basis of human existence (material nature and the land and the resources and the forests and so on) were brought into the system of exchange value under capital (which they were seeing happening in their day and land turned into real estate markets and so on private real estate markets) that this would destroy the basis of a natural existence on which we depend.

You see figures like Ebenezer Jones in his famous book on the land in England. And figures like Karl Marx arguing for a conception of natural capital that’s based on use value and not exchange value. Marx later abandoned the notion of natural capital because he thought that it led to a notion of the naturalization of capitalism. And so he adopted a different vocabulary distinguishing between earth matter for nature and earth capital that is when capital takes over nature and turns it into exchange value.

And there’s a notion known as the Lauderdale Paradox named after the Earl of Lauderdale in the early 19th century. He developed this notion that capitalism, he didn’t use the term capitalism but it was implicit. I mean the term did not really exist at that time. He was talking about natural material use values constituting public wealth like the water, the forests, crops.

He argued that capitalism or the system of private exchange, since it depended on exchange it depended on scarcity. That things only really had value or could be marketed if they had a price. And price depended on scarcity.

So that water that was freely available and abundant did not have a price, had no exchange value. And the air had no exchange value because it was abundant, freely available. And you could apply this to other aspects of nature and they were actually kind of free gifts.

Capitalism came in and one of the things that it does in order to make an exchange value economy and profit off it is they want to make these resources scarce. And one way you make them scarce is just by creating private ownership and private monopolies, which then can restrict the access of others to the resources. If there are wells for water, if somebody comes in and takes it over and it becomes a private monopoly, they can charge money for water.

So the private economy works at destroying public wealth in various ways. And systematically works at that in order to create private markets. And Ebenezer Jones in The Land Monopoly talked about: what would happen if the air in the vicinity of London were turned into a private market? He was writing in the early 19th century, so this wasn’t really the case but we can understand it now.

All of these thinkers argued that nature had to be seen as a natural material use value, the basis of our existence. And it could not be reduced to exchange value, to the cash nexus of the market, without destroying the basis of our existence. And that was how the concept of natural capital arose. The emphasis was on natural. That this was a stock within nature and a permanent stock on which we depended.

FRIES: As you write in your Nature as a Mode of Accumulation article this concept of natural capital rooted in use value : “Was reintroduced into the economic discussion in the 1970s and 1980s beginning with Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, to highlight the‘liquidation’of ‘natural capital’ stock as a failure of the first order of the modern economic system, representing the view of ecological economics.”

You also explain, in a thermodynamic based tradition, ecological economists initially inspired by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s 1971 publication, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process also embraced this notion of natural capital. And wedded it, as you say, to the notion of “critical natural capital” in conformity with what’s known as the strong sustainability postulate.

An approach which established limits to growth and determined sustainability in biophysical, so use value terms. And critical to this were the three principles of sustainability introduced by Herman Daly, that you referred to earlier. The first principle was for renewable sources, the second for a non-renewable source and third for a pollutant.

You go on to write in this same article that : “The basic elements of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamic critique of neoclassical economics were accepted from the start by Marxists economists and viewed as consistent with Marxian tradition, though lacking a social critique.”

So talk now about the neoclassical response to all this and other approaches inspired by other prominent like-minded figures like Howard Odum, for example. In other words, talk now about the neoclassical response to an ecological economics tradition in which the concept of natural capital was rooted in use value terms.

FOSTER: Neoclassical economists worked on turning this into an exchange value concept. In the beginning of this century, neoclassical economics sort of took over ecological economics to a large extent, which had been a dissident tradition. And reduced the natural capital concept to a concept of exchange value that is to be measured as capital, in monetary terms, to be a monetized asset.

The notion of use value, of nature as constituting use value, really isn’t present at all in neoclassical economics, which doesn’t use the concept of use value. So basically, there was this switch.

Part of the switch was associated with the calculations they made of ecosystem services and of natural wealth. And once those calculations were made on largely bogus grounds, because they were turning into hypothetical markets things that weren’t markets at all, but once they put a price tag on it then capital started to see, well, how can we actually make these into markets that we can then capitalize on.

FRIES: Talk about how these calculations that put a price tag on nature were arrived at.

FOSTER: If you look at how this happened, there was actually a big debate about this in ecological economics. But those who wanted to reduce nature to exchange value or at least to calculate this won out. And the primary figure in this was Costanza who was also Editor of Ecological Economics.

In 1997, they came out with the first calculation of what the world ecosystem services we’re worth in monetary value. Now you have to understand that these are not actual markets. So they did all sorts of fancy maneuvering to convert what nature does into markets.

So they divided what nature does globally into 17 ecosystem services occurring all over the planet. And they came up with values for each of these ecosystem services based on methods like hedonic pricing, which is basically a way of just attributing a value to nature based on comparisons with current practices.

So they use these kinds of techniques and they use what they call contingent valuation where they draw up hypothetical markets and then survey consumers on what they’re willing to pay. They use these kinds of techniques to value some particular ecosystem. And then they extrapolate the studies to that ecosystem globally and come up with values. They did this for like 17 different ecosystem services globally and that becomes then the value of ecosystem services throughout the planet.

They ostensibly did this in order to put a value on nature so that that people would protect it. But the moment this started to happen, and it was predictable, capital began to see that these ecosystem services could be turned into markets. Valued and turned into markets and financed through debt, that ends up purchased and a basis for financial accumulation.

This same group under Costanza came out with another estimate of the world ecosystem services, which was even higher. And you had all of these massive meetings of corporations and the establishment of natural capital protocols and various ways of organizing and studying and figuring out how to create markets out of these ecosystem services that emerged in which all of the giant corporations were directly involved.

FRIES: Give us more of an idea of the ramifications of this switch in ecological economics.

FOSTER: In the 21st century, nature is now treated as capital, as exchange value, as a source of exchange value. And if you look at the concept of natural capital that is seen in this new kind of neoclassical…the dominant economic perspective, natural capital is used for the underlying natural asset, which is now seen as ecological capital.

But all of the estimates and projections and all the financialization is based on the concept of ecosystem services, which is seen as the revenue stream provided by nature. When nature does things like photosynthesis, it’s providing a service supposedly to the world economy.

Nature doesn’t know it’s doing that, as you know, we might say. But in their theory, nature is providing an ecosystem service to the world economy, which like any revenue stream can be capitalized on.

Basically once they figure that there is a revenue stream here from ecosystem services derived from the underlying asset of natural capital, they can then take that revenue stream and divide it by the discount rate and multiply it by a hundred percent to get an expected stream of revenue way into the future. Say into a century in the future and then they can impose debt on the basis of that revenue stream and financialize nature and make huge profits.

FRIES: Talk more specifically on how natural capital defined in exchange value terms came to stand for and represent the view of ecological economics.

FOSTER: If you look at Ecological Economics, the journal, which was associated with the International Association for Ecological Economics, they actually had a battle between Howard Odum, one of the chief developers of systems ecology in the world, and Robert Costanza over whether the journal was going to go the route of seeing nature as exchange value or whether ecological economics was going to have a deep conception of ecology based on use value.

Howard Odum and the other scientists that he was associated with that had been in part of the founding of Ecological Economics, the journal, were basically thrown out. That is sort of the beginning of ecological economics becoming something different, captured by or recaptured by neoclassical economics.

You have people like Robert Solow, the most prestigious neoclassical growth theorist said that if natural resources could be substituted for, then effectively they don’t matter and can be left out altogether.

That actually is what was done with the neoclassical production function. Labor and capital are the only factors of production and nature and land is excluded altogether. The whole notion of use value in nature is excluded altogether. Everything, absolutely everything is reduced to exchange value.

Then that provided the kind of theoretical basis for weak substitutability, which is the notion that nature doesn’t really matter. That markets can substitute for natural resources and whatever in nature does. And that connected up with the development of the estimates like Costanza’s and others of world ecosystem services.

Pretty soon we have these notions of the financialization of the earth. Not simply in an academic sense, now transferred from the academic world into the world of capital where corporations and governments began to put into plans the policies, calculations, methods, structures for actually turning ecosystem services everywhere on the planet into economic markets which capital can finance and accumulate on the basis of.

FRIES: So, John, we have been talking about the argument you put forward that this financialization of the earth as a new ecological regime is accelerating the destruction of planetary ecosystems and of the earth as a safe home for humanity. Talk for a moment about how even before this new ecological regime, you warned of an accelerating pace of devastation compared to earlier periods of capitalism.

Among examples of this, you write about how Darwin in his time had been struck by how European colonization turned the ecology of the island of Saint Helena into a desert in just three centuries. The island of Saint Helena having been made famous by the voyage of the Beagle. Yet in the current stage of capitalism, the biogeochemical processes of the entire Earth System were altered in just two generations.

FOSTER: I wrote about this in my book The Vulnerable Planet in 1994 where I was explaining how we were crossing the thresholds of the biogeochemical processes of the planet and threatening the whole earth system. But what struck me, and what I wrote about then, is the speed with which it’s occurring. The speed was in terms of climate change.

We’ve seen massive geological changes in the history of the earth. But we haven’t seen anything that occurs with this speed. This is one of the reasons why we can point to the anthropogenic causes and the anthropogenic rift in the earth system, which is how we define the coming of the Anthropocene Epoch in earth system history. And it’s really the speed of the change.

The scientific reports although the IPCC have tried to keep up with this, but all of their reports I think all the way along have underestimated the speed with which we are transforming nature. And this is under the pressure of a system of capital accumulation geared to exponential growth.

At this point, we generate vast, vast amounts of economic and ecological waste. Things that people neither need nor really want. We have a marketing system, a massive multi-trillion dollar marketing system, geared to getting people to buy more and more. And our system is geared to the fastest growth possible. And in order to compound that even in periods of economic expansion, we draw more and more on extracting from natural systems.

This is a high-energy intensive system. It doesn’t take care of people’s needs. The wealth created is not going to the populations. And in the dominant ideology, they don’t even talk about trickle-down anymore, which they talked about in my youth, because everyone knows that that’s false.

So we are creating a system that doesn’t benefit the human population economically, while we’re actually destroying the entire earth. And the motor of this is a capital accumulation process. That is now highly financially and globalized and has become the enemy of humanity and the planet. We put profits before people and the planet in all cases in this society. You can’t solve things that way.

Capital wants to say: well, technology will solve the problem because they don’t want social transformation. They want to say: well, we can do it with technology. And the population falls for that because they have cell phones in their pockets and they think: oh, technology is absolutely wonderful.

But no matter how wonderful cell phones are that communication technology and other technologies we have do not allow us to transcend the laws of physics. And we’re right up against that today. And, it spells an unimaginable crisis really for the population of the earth.

FRIES: The Anthropocene Epoch you referred to is of course a reference to geological time. To cite the flyer from your forthcoming book the Anthropocene Epoch marks “a changed reality in which human activities are now the main geological force impacting the earth as a whole, generating at the same time an existential crisis for the world’s population.”

Talk more about the issue of the capitalist argument that technology can save humanity from ecological ruin. So things like geoengineering.

FOSTER: Well, it’s not just geoengineering but things like carbon sequestration methods and direct air capture. But it’s interesting in the Sixth Assessment Report, AR6 of the IPCC, the mitigation part of the report, Part III by Working Group Three was published in April of this year. But the actual scientific consensus report, the report as written by the scientists themselves, was completed in August 2021.

Governments in the IPCC process have the right to come in and rewrite the scientific report, the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). They rewrote the science report entirely. Practically every line in the scientific consensus report was censored by governments. And in some places turned into the direct opposite.

We know this because Scientist Rebellion in August 2021 leaked the scientific consensus report on mitigation which we posted on the Monthly Review website. So you can compare what the scientists decided, to the published Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) from governments.

We find that in the scientific consensus report they said: these technologies are not available. Won’t work, cannot play a major role in keeping us below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even below 2.0 degrees Celsius. And they said other things like coal-fired plants had to be eliminated globally this decade. And what we need is basically, low energy solutions, which can improve societies’ conditions. As that report said: improve the conditions of everybody on earth but also using less energy in the process.

FRIES: Back in 2019 in writing on how capitalism has failed and asking what’s next you argued that :“Once sustainable human development, rooted not in exchange values, but in use values and genuine human needs, comes to define historical advance, the future, which now seems closed, will open up in a myriad ways, allowing for entirely new, more qualitative, and collective forms of development.”

So, what’s coming across loud and clear in all this is how, the way you see it, the underlying structure of capital accumulation itself is what’s standing in the way of real solutions to the ecological crisis.

FOSTER: The irony is that capitalism has created this ecological crisis and is generating it. And the answer of capital (and this is typical of the system) is that we just need a more intensive, a more extreme form of capital accumulation. The answer to the ecological crisis created by capital is to turn all of the world ecology into capital. To make the entirety of nature conform to economic laws essentially. And the economists and the capitalists say this is the answer.

The reason why that sells, despite the illogical nature of it, is that for capital that’s always the answer. If there is a crisis, the crisis is because there’s too little capital, not too much. From capital’s standpoint, the answer to every crisis, let’s say an economic crisis is to redistribute income from the poor to the rich, that is increase the power of capital. If there’s a problem, an ecological crisis, the answer is to increase the power of capital markets and expand it into nature.

Paul Hawken argues and others with him in his book Natural Capitalism argues we don’t really have capitalism until all of nature is part of capital, is part of capitalism. But that’s absurd.

We live within a planet. Capitalism exists within the planet. Human society exists within the planet. Human beings live within the planet. We can’t turn the entire planet earth into some kind of attribute of the capitalist market system without destroying the world. But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The solution to the ecological crisis that they’re advocating doesn’t involve taking energy efficiency and turning it into conservation like you see in Cuba. They take energy efficiency and turn it into a greater expansion of the economic system. And that doesn’t help. That’s what we call the Jevons Paradox. That the more efficient we are in the use of resources, the more resources we use. Because the object is not to conserve but it’s to expand the economy and the accumulation of capital. Well in such a system, you’re headed towards destruction.

Now the destruction is very close upon us. We’re very close now to the 1.5 degree increase in global average temperature. And the latest IPCC report (AR 6, the physical science basis) in their most optimistic scenario we will hit 1.5 degrees Celsius in 2040. That would require a kind of revolutionary scale social transformation to accomplish.

More likely we’re going to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius this decade, in this decade, in just a few years. We’re headed over the edge of the cliff in terms of the tipping point for the climate where we will reach irreversible climate change.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, we’re facing major catastrophes in the next few decades. But if we don’t take the action that prevents irreversible change, we will be threatening civilization itself in the broadest sense and the human species and billions of people on earth.

We have to have a different method. Sixty years we’ve known about climate change (accelerated climate change or accelerated global warming) and all we’ve done is promote capitalist solutions that have gotten us closer to the edge of the cliff. And we’re now on a runaway train. It’s time to pull the emergency brake.

FRIES: There is a lot more behind this and a lot more to come in your forthcoming book on Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution but for today we are going to have to leave it there. John Bellamy Foster, thank you.

FOSTER: Thank you.

FRIES: And from GPEnewsdocs in Geneva, Switzerland thank you for joining us.

John Bellamy Foster, is an American professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and editor of the Monthly Review. He writes about political economy of capitalism and economic crisis, ecology and ecological crisis, and Marxist theory.

MR Online, July 12, 2022, https://mronline.org/

With clenched fists, they spend money on weapons as the Planet burns / by Vijay Prashad

MR OnlineDia Al-Azzawi (Iraq), Sabra and Shatila Massacre, 1982–⁠83.

Two important reports were released last month, neither getting the kind of attention they deserve. On 4 April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group III report was published, evoking a strong reaction from the United Nations’ Secretary General António Guterres. The report, he said, ‘is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world’. At COP26, the developed countries pledged to spend a modest $100 billion for the Adaptation Fund to assist developing countries adapt to climate change. Meanwhile, on 25 April, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) issued its annual report, finding that the world military spending surpassed $2 trillion in 2021, the first time it has exceeded the $2 trillion mark. The five largest spenders–the United States, China, India, the United Kingdom, and Russia–accounted for 62 percent of this amount; the United States, by itself, accounts for 40 percent of total arms expenditure.

There is an endless flow of money for weapons but less than a pittance to avert planetary disaster.

Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World (Bangladesh), The resilience of the average Bangladeshi is remarkable. As this woman waded through the flood waters in Kamalapur to get to work, there was a photographic studio ‘Dreamland Photographers’, which was open for business, 1988.

That word ‘disaster’ is not an exaggeration. UN Secretary General Guterres has warned that ‘we are on a fast track to climate disaster… It is time to stop burning our planet’. These words are based on the facts contained in the Working Group III report. It is now firmly established in the scientific record that the historical responsibility for the devastation done to our environment and our climate rests with the most powerful states, led by the United States. There is little debate about this responsibility in the distant past, a consequence of the ruthless war against nature carried out by the forces of capitalism and colonialism.

But this responsibility also extends to our present period. On 1 April, a new study was published in The Lancet Planetary Health demonstrating that from 1970 to 2017 ‘high-income nations are responsible for 74 percent of global excess material use, driven primarily by the USA (27 percent) and the EU-28 high-income countries (25 percent)’. The excess material use in the North Atlantic countries is due to use of abiotic resources (fossil fuels, metals, and non-metallic minerals). China is responsible for 15 percent of global excess material use and the rest of the Global South is responsible for only 8 percent. The excess use in these lower-income countries is driven largely using biotic resources (biomass). This distinction between abiotic and biotic resources shows us that the excess resources use from the Global South is largely renewable, whereas that of the North Atlantic states is non-renewable.

Such an intervention should have been on the front pages of the newspapers of the world, particularly in Global South, and its findings debated widely on television channels. But it was barely remarked upon. It proves decisively that the high-income countries of the North Atlantic are destroying the planet, that they need to change their ways, and that they need to pay into the various adaptation and mitigation funds to assist countries that are not creating the problem but that are suffering from its impact.

Having presented the data, the scholars who wrote this paper note that ‘high-income nations bear the overwhelming responsibility for global ecological breakdown, and therefore owe an ecological debt to the rest of the world. These nations need to take the lead in making radical reductions in their resource use to avoid further degradation, which will likely require transformative post-growth and degrowth approaches’. These are interesting thoughts: ‘radical reductions in resource use’ and then ‘post-growth and degrowth approaches’.

Simon Gende (Papua New Guinea), The U.S. Army Find Osama bin Laden Hiding in a House and Kill Him, 2013.

The North Atlantic states–led by the United States–are the largest spenders of social wealth on arms. The Pentagon–the U.S. armed forces–‘remains the single largest consumers of oil’, says a Brown University study, ‘and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters’. To get the United States and its allies to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the UN member states had to allow greenhouse gas emissions by the military to be excluded from the national reporting on emissions.

The vulgarity of these matters can be put plainly by comparison of two money values. First, in 2019, the United Nations calculated that the annual funding gap to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) amounted to $2.5 trillion. Turning over the annual $2 trillion in global military expenditure to the SDGs would go a long way toward dealing with the major assaults on human dignity: hunger, illiteracy, houselessness, lack of medical care, and so on. It is important to note here, that the $2 trillion figure from SIPRI does not include the lifetime waste of social wealth given to private arms manufacturers for weapons systems. For example, the Lockheed Martin F-35 weapons system is projected to cost nearly $2 trillion.

In 2021, the world spent over $2 trillion on war, but only invested–and this is a generous calculation–$750 billion in clean energy and energy efficiency. Total investment in energy infrastructure in 2021 was $1.9 trillion, but the bulk of that investment went to fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal). So, investments in fossil fuels continue and investments in arms rise, while investments to transition to new forms of cleaner energy remain insufficient.

Aline Amaru (Tahiti), La Famille Pomare (‘The Pomare Family’), 1991.

Consider the way the United States has reacted to a deal between Solomon Islands and China, two neighbours. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said that this deal sought to promote trade and humanitarian cooperation, not the militarisation of the Pacific Ocean. On that same day of Prime Minister Sogavare’s address, a high-level U.S. delegation arrived in the nation’s capital Honiara. They told Prime Minister Sogavare that if the Chinese establish any kind of ‘military installation’, the United States would ‘then have significant concerns and respond accordingly’. These were plain threats. A few days later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, ‘Island countries in the South Pacific are independent and sovereign states, not a backyard of the U.S. or Australia. Their attempt to revive the Monroe Doctrine in the South Pacific region will get no support and lead to nowhere’.

On 28 April, U.S. President Joe Biden asked the U.S. Congress to provide $33 billion for weapons systems to be sent to Ukraine. The call for these funds comes alongside incendiary statements made by the U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said that the U.S. is not trying to remove Russian forces from Ukraine but to ‘see Russia weakened’. Austin’s comment should not come as a surprise. It mirrors U.S. policy since 2018, which has been to prevent China and Russia from becoming ‘near-peer rivals’. Human rights are not the concern; the focus is preventing any challenge to U.S. hegemony. For that reason, social wealth is wasted on weapons and not used to address the dilemmas of humanity.

Solomon Islands has a long memory of the history of Australian-British colonialism and the scars of the atom bomb tests. The practice of ‘blackbirding’ abducted thousands of Solomon Islanders to work the sugarcane fields in Queensland, Australia in the 19th century, eventually leading to the Kwaio Rebellion of 1927 in Malaita. Solomon Islands has fought hard against being militarised, voting in 2016 with the world to prohibit nuclear weapons. The appetite to be the ‘backyard’ of the United States or Australia is not there. That was clear in the luminous poem ‘Peace Signs’ (1974) by Solomon Islands writer Celestine Kulagoe:

Shot Baker atomic test under Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands), 1946.

A mushroom sprouts from
an arid pacific atoll
Disintegrates into space
Leaving only a residue of might
to which for an illusory
peace and security
man clings.

In the calm of the early morning
the third day after
love found joy
in the empty tomb
the wooden cross of disgrace
transformed into a symbol
of love service

In the heat of the afternoon lull
the UN flag flutters
hidden from sight by
national banners
under which
sit men with clenched fists
signing peace

Originally published: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research on May 5, 2022

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

MR Online, May 6, 2022, https://mronline.org/

Imperialism is the Arsonist: Marxism’s Contribution to Ecological Literatures and Struggles / by Derek Wall

Marxism’s contributions to ecological literature and struggles is a rich and contradictory field of discussion. Marxism in diverse ways has fed into environmental struggles and broader ecological politics. Broadly, I would argue that there has been a deepening appreciation of the ecological themes in the work of Marx and Engels in recent decades. Most significantly, and recently, there has been a shift towards debates around Eco-Leninism, with several different attempts to read the climate crisis through the insights of Lenin. However, specifically Green Party politics, in some states, has seen a movement of former Marxist-Leninists towards a revisionist understanding of politics, with revolutionary objectives being discarded. The way that Marxism’s contribution to ecological literatures and struggles has played out is also internationally diverse, my understanding is strongest when it comes to West European examples but the growth of militant environmental movements across the globe must be acknowledged.

One starting point is the example of the German Green Party. I heard an interesting story; I cannot comment as to whether it is true! An intern worked for a prominent elected German Green Party politician, I forget whether the politician sat in the Bundestag, the European Parliament or a Lander (regional parliament). The intern had been asked to go to the politician’s home while he was away on political business. Watering the plants, the intern was surprised to find a huge, in fact life size, poster of the Great Helmsman himself Chairman Mao, on the wall.

This anecdote has a serious side and illustrates a number of ways in which Marxism has informed ecological literatures and struggles. Most empirically and least significantly the German Greens can be seen as partly a product of anti-revisionist politics. It is also interesting to note how ecological movements and struggles have acted as a movement from Red to Green, a movement from Marxist-Leninist commitment to centre-ground revisionist reform politics. It also reminds us to examine in an open way a range of key Marxists, including Mao, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and Luxemburg in terms of their attitudes to nature.

Marx’s Ecology

A variety of academics and green political writers argued bluntly that Marxism had little to contribute to ecological struggles. Marx and Engels were defined as Prometheans concerned to use nature as an instrument to promote human progress. Communism was based in Marx’s work on rapid industrialisation with little thought for the consequences for the environment. Thus green or ecological political ideology provided a break from existing ideologies. Jonathon Porritt, a leading member of the British Ecology Party made such claims in Seeing Green in the early 1980s, arguing bluntly that communism and capitalism were two facets of a wider anti-ecological ideology, 

dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralization and large-scale bureaucratic control and co-ordination. From a viewpoint of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance.” (Porritt, 1984: 44)

In turn the environmental record of socialist countries such the USSR was seen as both environmentally destructive and entirely consistent with such a Marxist anti-ecology based on the foundation of classic texts by Marx and Engels (Cole, 1993). 

An alternative approach from the editors the academic journal Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS) was to emphasise that Marx’s work is vital to ecological politics. This was based on an understanding that capitalism drives environmental destruction and thus green political economy inevitably demanded an articulation with anti-capitalism, if it was to provide a realistic chance of overcoming ecological problems. James O’ Connor developed this approach with his description of the ecological contradictions of capitalism, arguing that capitalism tended to degrade its possibility of existence by destroying nature. Without nature, capitalism could not survive, but the continued drive for accumulation, exploitation and profit tended to destroy nature (O’Connor, 1988). In turn, Joel Kovel, also associated with CNS, argued that economic growth tended to degrade the environment and that economic growth is functional to capitalism. In his book title The Enemy of Nature, he found the answer in capitalism. Kovel noted the distinction between ‘use values’ and ‘exchange values’, discussed by Marx in the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, was essential to creating an ecologically sustainable society. Thus by making goods to last longer and providing communal products for use, human prosperity could grow without the waste of capitalism. However, like Porritt and other green critics of Marx, Kovel argued that while Marx provided a necessary analysis to capitalism, Marxism was resistant to ecological themes, 

Forged at the moment of industrialization, its [i.e. socialism’s] transformative impulse tended to remain within the terms of the industrialized domination of nature. Thus it continued to manifest the technological optimism of the industrial world-view, and its associated logic of productivism — all of which feed into the mania for growth. The belief in unlimited technical progress has been beaten back in certain quarters by a host of disasters, from nuclear waste to resistant bacteria, but these setbacks barely touch the core of socialist optimism, that its historical mission is to perfect the industrial system and not overcome it. The productivist logic is grounded in a view of nature that regards the natural world […] from the standpoint of its utility as a force of production. It is at that point that socialism all-too-often shares with capitalism a reduction of nature to resources — and, consequently, a sluggishness in recognizing ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves. (Kovel, 2007: 229)

Such perspectives from Kovel and O’Connor might be linked politically to the birth of popularisation of the term ecosocialism. Existing socialism and communism were anti-ecological, key texts might advocate a disregard for nature, so while socialism and/or communism were essential to ecological struggles, they need a prefix ‘eco’ to be distinguished from existing anti-ecological left alternatives.

I would argue that we have seen a sharp break from such perspectives, since the publication of US sociologist John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology. Foster argues, convincingly to my mind, that ecology is core to Marx and Engels’ project (Foster, 2000). Indeed an examination of Marx and Engels’ texts suggests an overwhelming concern with environmental issues. In turn their philosophy based on relationships derived from Hegel and perhaps Spinoza, is akin to ecology defined as a science of relationships. For example, in Capital vol 3 Marx notes,

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].” (Marx, 1959 [1894]: 530)

Discussion of such seemingly contemporary themes of deforestation, pollution and food additives can be found in Capital.

Engels also focussed on ecological questions,

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. […] Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.” (Engels, 1972)

Marx and Engels’ sustained meditations on the sciences including biology, brought them to consider environmental issues. The exploitation of labour was to them also allied to environmental threats to health and safety. Engels’s Condition of the English Working Class looked at how a poor work place environment contributed to the degradation of workers.

John Bellamy Foster argues that ecological considerations were central to Marx’s construction of historical materialism. In turn, Marx’s notion of a metabolic rift between humanity and the rest of nature, has been used by Foster to conceptualise ecological crisis. Healing the rift is the answer to problems such as climate change, to the extent that humans master nature, we are mastering an element of ourselves rather than something alien. Thus while Marxists and other socialists might self-criticise their approach to ecological questions, the description of Marx and Engels as anti-environmental thinkers has been exposed as a myth. How, though, have Marxists engaged with green movements, and to what extent have Marx and Engels’ ecological assumptions informed practical struggles? Certainly since the 1970s Marxists have sometimes joined Green or Ecological political parties.

German Greens roots in Maoism

Specifically ecological political parties emerged in the 1970s. Broadly this was a result of the globalisation of environmental problems, reflected in scientific reports such as MIT’s Limits to Growth. The first Ecology Parties were found in the UK and New Zealand/ Aotearoa (Parkin, 1989). These to some extent were conservative institutions without a critique of capitalism or human exploitation. However, the emergence of broader and more radical social movements can be seen as leading a transformation from purely environmental parties to Green Parties. The anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear weapons movements during the 1970s and 1980s helped create green political parties, the most significant being the German Green Party. The German Greens originated partly from the activism of anti-revisionists to seek a new source of intervention (Hülsberg, 1988: 51-53).

I am not sure if there was a distinct reason for anti-revisionists to get involved with the German Greens. It seems more that this was part of a general engagement of the German left. The story of the German Greens has been told many times: briefly, those on the left, involved in social movements, joined a platform to fight elections. Those who had been involved in the student movement, and some sympathetic to the Baader-Meinhof gang, joined environmentalists. At first the Greens were, in the words of an early leader figure Petra Kelly, ‘the anti-party party’ (Emerson, 2011: 55). Given the openness of the German electoral system, co-option was perhaps close to inevitable. Greens were elected on radical platforms but eventually joined coalition regional governments with the SPD, and the party over the decades has moved broadly to the centre right.

A number of prominent German Green politicians, for example, Ralf Fücks, a former mayor of Bremen; and Winfried Kretschmann, Minister-President Baden-Württemberg were originally active in Kommunistischer Bund West Deutschland. Perhaps the largest Maoist political party in what was at the time West Germany it took a decision to join the Greens en masse in 1982. Other anti-revisionists joined the Greens along with those closer to autonomist networks such as Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Kühn, 2005).

The relationship of green parties and ecological movements to Marxism has demonstrated contradictory tendencies. One has been a move from a more conservative environmentalism to great radicalism and commitment. For example, the British Ecology Party was founded by members of the right wing Conservative Party, however while Marxism has never been strong in the organisation’s history, it has broadly moved to the left (Wall, 1994). Typically in one recent leadership contest hustings, all the candidates insisted that they opposed capitalism (Jarvis, 2021). On the other hand, in the words of the East German eco-Marxist Rudolf Bahro, there has been a shift From Red to Green (Bahro, 1984). The German Greens are perhaps the best known example, as briefly discussed, but there are many others. For example, the Green Left in Holland are now a standard European Green Party, like the Germans, in the political centre, but they were created originally out of the dissolution of four Dutch left wing political parties including the Communist Party (Voerman, 2006: 80). This trend isn’t of course restricted to Greens, one thinks of the movement of the Dutch Socialist Party from Marxism to fairly standard social democracy. And as we know from Lenin, most socialist parties of Europe at the start of the first world war including the SPD ditched communism and supported their contending nation states. Certainly the German members of anti-revisionist organisations who joined the Greens have generally moved dramatically from Mao and Hoxha to accommodation with the Christian Democrats.

At times these contradictory movements are reflected in the work of a single individual. André Gorz, the French ecological theorist, acted paradoxically to promote a movement from red to green, and conversely from environmentalism to anti-capitalist commitment. Best known for his book Farewell to the Working Class, the former Marxist argued that class conflict was largely redundant and new social movements, including environmentalists, represented a force for potential change (Gorz, 1987). Thus he can be seen as giving textual support to the movement from anti-revisionism into social movements, into Green Parties and within the Greens moving apparently ever to the political right. Conversely his text Ecology as Politics, identified the economic drive to accumulate as the key source of ecological risk. Prefiguring Joel Kovel’s arguments by two decades, he argued that capitalism is the cause of environmental destruction. ‘’This is the nature of consumption in affluent societies; it ensures the growth of capital without increasing either the general level of satisfaction or the number of genuinely useful goods (‘use values’) which people have at any given point in time.’ (Gorz, 1980: 23) Gorz thus, amongst other authors, helped promote an anti-capitalist critique amongst some greens, which pointed back to Marx’s broad analysis of capitalism in Capital vol one.

Green Trotskyism?

One approach has been to argue that while Marx was green, the failure of much 20th century socialism to promote environmentalism could be placed at the door of Stalin and Stalinism. This seems to my mind a superficial approach, blaming an individual rather than engaging in sustained analysis. Equally it is difficult to find an environmental core in the work of Trotsky, who might be seen as Stalin’s main critic. Trotsky typically argued that communism was a project of perhaps rather brutally and crudely mastering nature.

“Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain.” (Trotsky, 1941: 5)

Having said this Trotsky did argue that ‘man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. In turn there have been some manifestations of environmentally aware Trotskyism. The present Fourth International, from Ernest Mandel’s line, is explicitly ecosocialist in nature. Its various national sections are highly engaged in ecological work. In Britain, Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance, which is associated with this Fourth International, produced a detailed account of an ecosocialist approach to climate change (Thornett, 2019). Polemics from others in the Fourth International have explicitly criticised Trotsky for failing to address ecological issues, unlike Marx and Engels (Tanuro, 2015)

The existence of numerous Trotskyist internationals can be confusing, although of course this is a feature of other forms of Marxism. It is possible that the Mandelite Fourth International was influenced by Pabloite strands of thought. The Greek Trotskyist Michel Pablo split the Fourth International in the 1960s but his comrades re-joined in the 1990s (Coates, nd). During the 1970s they were strong advocates of what might be seen as an ecosocialist approach. Strongest perhaps in Australia, a leading Pabloite, the physicist Alan Roberts, published The Self-Managing Environment in 1979 (Roberts, 1979). Drawing on both Marx and Freud it criticised the kind of consumer capitalism theorised by Marcuse and other Western Marxists. Roberts’ argument was that a lack of democratic involvement including an absence of workers’ control, led to a frustrated demand for consumer goods. The less we participate and have the ability to shape our life experience, the more we compensate by consuming wasteful goods. The ecological crisis is seen as a product of capitalist growth, growth in consumer capitalism is environmentally destructive. A self-managed socialist society is thus an ecosocialist alternative. Roberts also produced a strong critique of neo-Malthusian environmentalists who blamed ecological problems on over population rather than capitalism. Other chapters in The Self-Managing Environment covered the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ arguing that rather than acting as a metaphor for environmental destruction as suggested by the right wing biologist Garrett Hardin, commons had been seized by force and enclosed.

Nick Origlass, a leading Pabloite, engaged in local government ecosocialism, creating his own independent Labour Party in Leichhardt Municipal Council in Sydney to win local power and challenge toxic waste dumping in his community (Greenland, 1988). Australia also saw the creation of the green ban movement, where trade unionists in the Building Workers Union refused to work on construction projects that damaged the environment (Koffman, 2021).

Another Trotskyist figure passionately involved with ecosocialist politics is the Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco. While Blanco retains fraternal links with the Fourth International, his present politics is closer to that of the Mexican Zapatistas. He publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena and is also an active support of the Rojava Revolution. Originally an agronomy student, he studied in Argentina, he led a peasant uprising in the early 1960s which successfully gained land reform. During his many decades of activism he has become increasingly engaged in ecological and indigenous struggles (Wall, 2018). As I write, he is in his 80s but remains a leading ecosocialist thinker and activist.

Green Cuba

While Socialist states have been criticised on their ecological policies during the 20th century, Cuba has proved a sharp exception. Since the early 1990s, Cuba has pursued policies to drastically reduced climate change emissions and to protect the environment in a variety of ways. The reason for Cuba’s overt and strong turn towards environmental protection is twofold. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Cuba was no longer supplied with cheap oil after 1990. This led to a severe crisis, in the context of a continuing US blockade, resulting in what has been termed the ‘Special Period’. Thus a sharp reduction in the consumption of oil was vital so as to ensure the survival of Cuban society (Plonska and Saramifar, 2019). In turn, and apparently irrespective of this necessity, Fidel Castro became deeply engaged in ecological concerns and debates. At the 1992 UN Rio conference on the international environment he made the case for green policies, noting:

“An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction. 

With only 20 percent of the world’s population, they consume two thirds of all metals and three fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.” (Castro, 2016)

Cuba has been so successful at introducing environmentally friendly policies that it has regularly been cited as the world’s best example of sustainable development. Agriculture has been partially decarbonised, with a push to grow using organic farming. There has been significant investment in renewable energy including wind turbines. Buses have been promoted as a means of reducing dependence on oil to power cars. In 2019, Cuba topped the Sustainable development index promoting economic activity that was ecologically sustainable (Trinder, 2020).

Indeed the supposedly anti-ecological record of the Soviet Union and other socialist states has recently been challenged in a detailed comparative study (Engel-Di Mauro 2021). While Cuba’s environmental policies are increasingly well know, it is perhaps often forgotten that the Soviet Union in its earliest years was also lauded as an environmental model. Under Lenin, National parks were opened and animal conservation was promoted (Stahnke, 2021). In recent years the notion of eco Leninism has become noted by diverse writers. Andreas Malm the Swedish academic has argued that to overcome the climate crisis we need to return to Lenin. He has argued that the urgency of the climate crisis might mean embracing an approach similar to the war communism of the early years of the Soviet Union (Malm, 2020). 

Marxism as a guide to ecological alternatives

So how do we draw this all together, moving from cataloguing various manifestations of ecological Marxism to constructing a political alternative? I have briefly sketched some articulations of Marxism and ecological movements/literatures but this is a vast field and I have left much out. There are four themes I would like, in conclusion, to at least note 1) The commons 2) Working class productivity 3) Anti-imperialism, and finally 4) the role of Leninism in promoting transition. 

The commons, a notion of collective ownership, most extensively explored in recent years by the Nobel Prize winning political economist Elinor Ostrom is essential to tackling ecological problems (Ostrom 2019). It is also a recurring concept in the work of Marx and Engels. Capitalism is a driver of ecological destruction, the notion of collective ownership of resources in contrast creates the possibility of shared prosperity and sustainability. Marx’s observation that we are not the owners of the Earth and should leave it in a better state for future generations, noted above, is a useful starting point for a green political economy. The Marxist aspiration for a society based upon the ensemble, the collective and creative interaction of all of us, for example, promoted by the British musician and revolutionary Cornelius Cardew is pertinent (Norman, 2019). 

Climate change and other severe environmental problems demand working class solutions. The productivity and creativity of workers is vital to ecological alternatives. The often forgotten history of working class environmental politics demands study. I noted above the example of the Australian Green Ban movement in halting environmentally damaging building projects. Workers produce and can produce alternative sustainable futures, the concept of workers’ plans for ecological production is important (Hampton, 2015). 

Anti-imperialism is another important dimension. Thomas Sankara (2018) reminds us that imperialism is the arsonist that burns the forests .There are numerous movements that link anti-imperialism with ecological politics, stretching from indigenous social movements in Latin America to the Rojava Revolution. Another useful contribution from Andreas Malm is his insight into how fossil fuels were the historical product of colonial exploitation and capitalist accumulation (Malm, 2016). The Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui argued that land was at the heart of struggles for autonomy in the face of colonial domination (1971). This is a theme taken up by Max Ajl who argues ‘Eco-socialists have to start from the basic demands of colonised peoples: namely national liberation. The Palestinian liberation struggle is one of the few, but not the only, remaining ‘classical’ national liberation struggles, which aims to break foreign settler control over the land.’ (Hancock, 2021).

In a wide ranging survey of ecology and Leninism, Lenin’s significance to ecological movement can be seen as ranging from an analysis of imperialism to an embrace of base building and dual power strategies (Woody, 2020). Lenin’s strategic analysis might be of value in theorising how to build political organisations that can overcome the ecological crisis (Wall, 2020). Leninism is, out of a number of important Marxist contributions to ecological debates, to my mind potentially the most important. Lenin’s contribution was to investigate how in a specific context we make revolution. There is a growing awareness that capitalism is the key driver of climate change and other ecological ills. Transforming society and transcending capitalism can be seen as essential to human survival, the critical investigation of how we do so can be advanced by an open reading of Lenin’s words and work. Lenin helped make history in a very different world to ours, so his insights cannot be crudely cut and pasted on to contemporary reality but re-reading his texts is vital. The French philosopher Alain Badiou notes that, ‘We must conceive of Marxism as the accumulated wisdom of popular revolutions, the reason they engender, and the fixation and precision of their target’ (Bostells, 2011: 280). We need precision in tackling an accelerating and many sided ecological crisis, Marxism, read with care and acted upon materially, will guide us.

Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a former international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, and is active in the Marxist Centre.

Another Green World, November 28, 2021, http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/