In "Marx's Ecology," John Bellamy Foster defies conventional green thinking by raising the banner of materialism rather than spirituality in the fight to save the planet and humanity from ecological ruin. In addition to restoring materialism to its proper place, Foster also shows that ecological questions were central not only to Marx, but other Marxists such as Bebel and Bukharin. By restoring this lost tradition, Foster hopes to create a new basis for ecosocialism grounded in Marxist science rather than mysticism.
Although most students of Marx are aware of materialist thought in such early works as the 1845 "Theses on Feuerbach," Foster argues convincingly that materialism made its debut in Marx's doctoral dissertation on the "Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature," written four years earlier. According to Foster, the standard explanation for the dissertation is that Marx saw Epicurus as a kindred rebel spirit. This Epicurus sought to overthrow the totalizing philosophy of Aristotle, just as the post-Hegelians--including the young Marx--rose up against Hegel. What is missing here is the element of materialism, which drew Marx to Epicurus in the first place. Marx identified with the Enlightenment, for which Epicurus serves as a forerunner to the radical democrats of the 17th and 18th century. The materialism they all shared was crucial to an attack on the status quo, ancient or modern.
The Greek materialists, especially Epicurus, are important to Marx because they represent the first systematic opposition to idealist and essentialist thought. Just as importantly, Epicurus in particular anticipates the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. His dicta that "Nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing" and "nature . . . never reduces anything to nothing" are in harmony with what we now know as "the principle of conservation." Foster also notes that Lucretius, another materialist of the classical era, "alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests through the degradation of soil, and to the disappearance of the forests; as well as arguing that human beings were not radically different from animals."
In their early writings, Marx and Engels wed the materialism of the Enlightenment to a political critique of the capitalist system, particularly targeting ideologues such as Malthus. Taking aim at his false piety, the 1844 "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" challenges private property, especially in the land, asserting that:
"To make earth an object of huckstering--the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence--was the last step in making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immortality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation--the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life--yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth."
By restoring Marx's materialism to its proper place, "Marx's Ecology" provides a theoretical foundation for further explorations in ecosocialism. Once we understand the proper connection between nature and society, we can begin to act to confront the major problems facing humanity, from global warming to diminishing fresh water supplies. In the final chapter, Foster cites a number of Marxist thinkers who belong to the materialist tradition. Their examples can help to inspire a new generation of ecologically minded socialists.
Foster presents an unfamiliar side of Bukharin. His "Philosophical Arabesques," only made available in 1992, reveals a sophisticated dialectical materialist who grounds his analysis of society in ecology. Bukharin writes of the "earth's atmosphere, full of infinitely varied life, from the smallest microorganisms in water, on land and in the air, to human beings. Many people do not imagine the vast richness of these forms, or their direct participation in the physical and chemical processes of nature."
As one of the founders of German Social Democracy, August Bebel not only spoke with some authority in the 1884 "Woman Under Socialism," he also seemed to be anticipating the dire consequences experienced today in the wake of clear-cutting:
"The mad sacrifice of the appreciable deterioration of climate and decline in the fertility of the soil in the provinces of Prussian and Pomerania, in Syria, Italy and France, and Spain. Frequent inundations are the consequence of stripping high ground of trees. The inundations of the Rhine and Vistula are chiefly attributed to the devastation of forest land in Switzerland and Poland."
Finally, in an instance that seems to address Joel Kovel's complaint about the lack of spirituality in Marxism and a possible alternative to Lewis Henry Morgan's obsession with "improvement,", we have the example of Rosa Luxemburg who wrote from prison in May, 1917:
"What am I reading? For the most part, natural science: geography of plants and animals. Only yesterday I read why the warblers are disappearing from Germany. Increasingly systematic forestry, gardening and agriculture are, step by step destroying all natural nesting and breeding places: hollow trees, fallow land, thickets of shrubs, withered leaves on the garden grounds. It pained me so when I read that. Not because of the song they sing for people, but rather it was the picture of the silent, irresistible extinction of these defenseless little creatures which hurt me to the point that I had to cry. It reminded me of a Russian book which I read while still in Zurich, a book by Professor Sieber about the ravage of the redskins in North America. In exactly the same way, step by step, they have been pushed from their land by civilized men and abandoned to perish silently and cruelly."