I subscribed to the Monthly Review for years and only let my subscription lapse this past year because I allowed myself to become overwhelmed with other things in my life, much to the detriment of my happiness. It was there that I first read Foster's work, and I will say that I was initially not a huge fan, relative to other regular MR contributors, above all Samir Amin. I considered myself a good, old-fashioned revisionist, anti-Soviet Marxist, and felt that the environmentalist theme running through his--Foster's--work was the sort of forced connection academics often make in order to be able to present the same paper at two different conferences.
In any event, the fact that I picked up his book at the library and read it indicates that my first impressions or impulses were wrong, and that, over time, I came around to see on the one hand that his approach was valid, even spot on, and also organically Marxist. Not that one needs to conform to this or that label to be right, but as I've found more value in Marx's analysis of modernity than in any other, I'm interested in the genuine extension of his thought.
The book, subtitled "a short economic history of the environment," is brief, intentionally, and written to be read by "the literate public," so-called. It is, generally, what its subtitle purports to be. Its read on the course of world history conforms very much, somewhat to my disappointment but not to my surprise, to a fairly conventional linear narrative on the Western Civ. model. I would say that given his intended audience, this is acceptable and possibly inevitable: it is the question of the effect of capitalism on the environment that is the object of his history. The new thing to the reader is the environmental angle, and throwing an essentially new historical narrative at the reader would likely end up turning more people away than attracting them.
Like Marx in Capital, Foster leaves a lengthy discussion of the solution generally aside. That said, one gets some sense of what a better future could look like from the book, and, though he doesn't emphasize this fact, a major point is that socialism will not outproduce capitalism. Discussing Kerala, he notes the prominence of leftist mass movements:
Kerala...has a per capita income that is only 60 percent of that of India as a whole. Nevertheless, due to a history of mass struggle, which brought a communist party (or parties) to power for long periods, it has made startling progress in areas of land reform, distribution, nutrition, health, and education. Infant mortality in Kerala is 27 per thousand, compared with 86 per thousand in India as a whole...Life expectancy in India is 57 years, while in Kerala it is now more than 70 years, far exceeding that of much wealthier countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil...(133)
People with objectively--as measured in income--less get more, measured in life. This needs to be positively stressed. People in capitalist societies are constantly reminded of what they supposedly lack, in order to produce high levels of consumption and therefore profit. Much discussion of the environment and the fundamental unsustainability of capitalism focuses on what those of us in, above all, the United States will need to give up so that the species, and a bunch of others, too, can continue. We need more discussion of what we will gain when we give up capitalism. A few things exchanges we might consider:
- Convienent, crappy fast food for home-cooked meals.
- Road rage for slow walks (I remember the line in The Magnificent Ambersons: "the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.")
- Excess for security.
That's just a quick list off the top of my head.
Also worth highlighting, which Foster doesn't really do is the necessity of taking a cue from modern indigenous people. Foster notes the centrality of indigenous resistance to capitalism, in, for example, Brazil:
This struggle of Brazilian forest peoples to creat extractive reserves and to recognize legally native lands that will be held on collective principles serves to illustrate the historical process that some environmentalists have called the "socialization of nature." (141)
The socialist future, I would argue, exists in the indigenous present as much as the capitalist future existed in the medieval city.
That said, worth a read, for sure.
Crossposted at http://www.palaverer.com/