Discussion of “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism”

Discussion of: Foster, J.B. and Brett Clark. (2004). “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism” in Socialist Register 2004, vol. 40.

Note: The page numbers referred to in this discussion are for the .PDF available at this address.

Following the previous discussion of opening the intellectual space of social ecology I have begun to finish some works in ecosocialism. The first is an essay by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark from Socialist Register 2004 titled “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism.” Comments, responses to questions, or supplemental information are welcomed from readers of this blog.

Foster and Clark open by citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol. The Iraq invasion is also significant to fellow ecosocialist Joel Kovel (2008), who writes

This is the first instance when a world power has acted on the perception, not that its resources are inadequate (as Germany and Japan did in the 1930s), but that the world’s resources are no longer capable of sustaining the regime of growth. In other words, the invasion of Iraq, though legitimated by the incitement of terror, has been the first war primarily conditioned by global ecological crisis (p. 17).

For me this raised the question, given these two large actions by the Bush administration (withdrawal from Kyoto and invasion of Iraq), how different would a Gore administration have been? Would we have had a cap-and-trade system implemented? Would this have been a positive or negative development relative to the contemporary radical ecological struggle? Would Gore have also pulled out of Kyoto? Would he have invaded Iraq?

Returning to the issue at hand, ecological imperialism, a dialectic between capital and the state is implied. Very simplistically, it would seem the state exists in tension between its (human) constituents and the imperatives of the market on which it is reliant. For instance, the military is commonly a tool for the advancement of global capital, while other areas of government — regulatory agencies, public services, and to an extent the legislature — act, however incompetently and bureaucratically, in the interest of “voters” (or perhaps against certain interests of capital). However, these areas too can be corrupted or stripped of their regulatory or legislative power under corporate pressure, as those in the United States and elsewhere often witness.

Analyzing Iraq brings up the related question of the contemporary presence of the United States in the region, particularly its ongoing involvement in Libya. Is this another oil war, as I have heard some claim? Yet, the situation in Libya is seemingly far from a clear cut example of ecological imperialism. Didn’t many on the left celebrate the Libyan rebellion as a populist, progressive continuation of the North African uprisings? No doubt the intentions of the United States are not consistent, sincere, or ethically motivated (in addition to being outright hypocritical, given simultaneous support of the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian royal dictatorships), but isn’t support for the rebels a good thing? Relating to the motivations of the United States, is its strategy in the region offensive, wherein it is actively seeking expansion of global capital and imperialism, or perhaps defensive — in a sluggish global economy, widespread distrust of its presence, stalemates in two wars, and an ongoing revolutionary wave (in North Africa) restructuring the global political landscape, is the U.S. simply seizing any opportunity to keep a toehold in the region to maintain its presence and sphere of influence?

Further, one justification for the U.S.’s continued presence is the threat of Islamism. Yet, the generally populist and progressive character of the North African uprisings demonstrate that Islamism is far from the prevailing sentiment of the Arab world. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, the events in North Africa (he is discussing particularly Egypt) are actually validation of universal, modernist values: fundamentally, we all are struggling toward the same general ideals and ends as a species — secularism, democracy, freedom (around 3:40-6:00 in the preceding video). This is related to the social ecological concept of unity in diversity (for discussion, see Clark 1997; where is the best discussion of this concept in Bookchin?). While differences must be noted and celebrated, it is the unity — as human beings, as living beings — and universal commonalities, upon which the struggles for a better world, and the post-scarcity society, rest.

Discussing Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900, Foster and Clark mention anthropogenic dispersal of Old World species negatively impacting New World and other species. This must be examined. Conservation biologist David Theodoropoulos (2003) has written a critical examination of the science supporting the theories of biological invasions and the (non) ecological concepts on which it is based. Briefly, Theodoropoulos values biodiversity and sees a mitigation to anthropogenic (human caused) ecological disturbance and extinction in ex situ conservation (relocating populations of plants and animals and integrating them into compatible ecoregions). He proposes a theory of conscious, intentful anthropogenic dispersal as a way to protect and improve decreasing biodiversity caused by human (more specifically, government and corporate) disturbance, which is found to be the more fundamental cause of ecological dislocation. His conception of nature is dynamic, referencing the long-range, persistent, and wide-spread dispersal of species throughout geologic time. He finds that such a dynamic conception of nature calls into question the distinctions of “natural,” “native,” and “non-native,” as well as views of ecosystems as tightly coevolved and unable to integrate newcomers. Indeed, he finds such static conceptions of ecosystems, and their enforcement through regulation of dispersal and eradication of species deemed non-native to stifle evolutionary processes.

Theodoropoulos’ exciting work has large implications for social ecology, as well as ecosocialism. For a discussion of his work, “invasion biology,” and a social ecological theory of anthropogenic dispersal, see the post “SE Working Paper: “The Invasion of Sonora: Buffelgrass, ‘Invasion Biology,’ and a Social Ecological Theory of Anthropogenic Species Dispersal.”

Outlining the complex “ecological problem under capitalism:”

Ecological degradation at this universal level is related to the divisions within the world capitalist system, arising from the fact that a single world economy is nonetheless divided into numerous nation-states, competing with each other both directly and via their corporations. It is also divided hierarchically into centre and periphery, with nations occupying fundamentally different positions in the international division of labour, and in a world-system of dominance and dependency (p. 187).

They add: “All of this makes the analysis of ecological imperialism complicated enough, but understanding has also been impeded by the underdevelopment of an ecological materialist analysis of capitalism within Marxist theory as a whole (p. 187).”

Bookchin (2003) would agree, arguing that in the wake of post-World War II capitalist hegemony, the “economic imperative” for the self-destruction of capitalism was invalidated. Consequently, a new imperative was needed:

Fundamental to my development of social ecology is a crisis that developed in socialist theory itself, one that I regard as unresolvable in a strictly conventional Marxist or anarchist framework — or to use the most all-encompassing phrase of all: proletarian socialism…. It was out of the failure of Marx’s economic imperative that social ecology was born… (p. 7, 9)

For more on social ecology and Marxism see Bookchin 1980, 1999, 2003, 2004.

However, Foster and Clark argue that Marx’s work shows “that transfers in economic values are accompanied in complex ways by real ‘material-ecological flows’ [expressed as use-value] that transform relations between city and country, and between global metropolis and periphery (p. 187).” This manifests as: pillage of resources and transformation of ecosystems of one nation by another, the connected movement of populations and labor, exploitation of ecological vulnerabilities of certain societies to promote imperialist control, dumping of wastes, “and overall, the creation of a global ‘metabolic rift’ that characterizes the relation of capitalism to the environment, and at the same time limits capitalist development (p. 187).”

Seemingly, the inherent instability of capitalism is present again in the ongoing global “Great Recession.” Would this have led Bookchin to a reconsideration of the validity of Marx’s economic imperative? Keeping in mind Kovel’s (2008) observation that the self-perpetuation of capital does not allow for it to ever reach equilibrium, Bookchin’s observation that capitalism nevertheless had reached an unprecedented level of stability at the end of the twentieth century until his death in 2006 is notable. Like Alexander Berkman, who died just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution, perhaps Murray Bookchin would have been enlivened by the dramatic economic changes that would occur less than two years after his passing? The potentialities unearthed by the instability of capitalism (partially fulfilled in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere) highlights the agency for change that is inherent in humanity. The question remains: does this give Marxism a new legitimacy for social ecology? A “post-stability” or contemporary recession critique of capitalism is an imperative for social ecologists.

Foster and Clark seem to indicate that use-value, in opposition to exchange-value on which capitalism is based, is actually and implicitly ecological, explicated as “material-ecological” flows. In this scenario, both Bookchin and the authors see the need for an ecological imperative, the former looking outside of Marxism, the latter uncovering it as an extension of Marx’s economics.

Indeed, the authors argue that “[t]he main ecological contradictions of capitalism, associated with ecological imperialism, were already evident to a considerable extent in the writings of Marx (p. 187).” This includes the notion of capital as a self-propelling process (see also Kovel 2008) and the problem of where the original capital came from to set off the process — the notion of “prior, primary, or ‘primitive’ accumulation (p. 187).” This process of primitive accumulation “had deep ecological implications (p. 188).” Capitalism brought further alienation of the land over feudalism and extended the domination of human over human [1].

The two primary ecological concepts in Marx: primitive accumulation and the metabolic rift. The authors discuss the state of industrial agriculture in Marx’s day that inspired the “metabolic rift” concept. Marx was a student of German chemist Justus von Liebig.

The so-called “Columbian Exchange,” an analysis of which is relevant to a social ecology of the Sonoran Desert, can for the authors be analyzed in the context of an era of ecological imperialism, and be seen as a process of primitive accumulation (p. 188-189).

The nineteenth century’s modes of ecological imperialism included British “high farming” and tropical monoculture. Early industrial farming practices made Britain dependent on imported nutrients and fertilizers (p. 189).

Foster and Clark detail an example of ecological imperialism and give a historical analysis of the War of the Pacific (fought 1879-1883). Peru’s guano supply was depleted by nations dependent on industrial agriculture. That this took place partially in Peru and Bolivia’s deserts (now part of Chile) makes it particularly relevant to our analysis of deserts which informs specifically an analysis of the Sonoran Desert and avenues for expressing ecological solidarity. It is also important to learn the shared history of struggle by those in similar ecoregions, as well as economic class.

Nitrates were similarly exploited at this time in the Tarapaca desert province of Peru, and Bolivia’s Atacama. Nitrates are important for fertilizer and explosives. The Peruvian elite profited from the exploitation as ecological conditions for the people deteriorated (not to mention guano harvesting being a horrible job) and the nation became indebted. Peru’s attempt at nationalizing its guano and nitrate supplies led to the War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia versus Chile backed by British investors. Chile won both the Atacama and Tarapaca provinces, which it still holds today. This allowed for further increases in British dominance of the indebted Peru, which turned over its railroads to British investors. Meanwhile, having backed Chile, British control of nitrates in the Tarapaca region grew from 13 percent to ultimately over 70 percent (190-191).

Chile would go on to have its own problems with British capital and its nitrates. Nitrogen fertilizers have since become a polluting, ecological problem (191-192).

The same process present in the history of nitrate exploitation in Latin America can be seen contemporarily around oil — an ongoing form of ecological imperialism (192).

The authors note that imperialism is the “necessary companion” of capitalism, indicating they are not synonymous. I’m not completely clear about the Marxist notion of imperialism. No doubt this is explained in John Bellamy Foster’s numerous other works. Perhaps imperialism reflects the state’s role in global trade or the dialectic of capitalism and the nation-state in a global context? Readers are free to comment with their own clarifications.

This planetary ecological rift, arising from the workings of the capitalist system and its necessary companion imperialism, while varied in its outcomes in specific regions, has led to ecological degradation on a scale that threatens to undermine all existing ecosystems and species (including the human species) (p. 193).

Bookchin, of course, would concur with the above statement.

Foster and Clark mention that “opposition to ecological imperialism is now increasingly taking place via the concept of ‘ecological debt’ (p. 193).” This is defined by Acción Ecológica as “the debt accumulated by Northern, industrial countries toward Third World countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases, from the industrial countries (p. 193).” Over five years after this essay was written, “ecological debt” was an issue of concern at the Copenhagen and Cancun climate negotiations, and was no doubt a part of the Cochabamba “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.” See Capitalism, Nature, Socialism vol. 21, no. 1.

From a social ecological perspective, while indeed caused primarily because of the capitalist economy, this formulation of the ecological crisis is perhaps overly economic. Contributing to the ecological crisis are also social (in this case, non-economic) causes which may not be rooted in economic exploitation alone. This is blurred with the encroachment of capitalist economic values into society as a whole. While capitalism is certainly a primary cause of the ecological crisis, its substantive solution must come about through the elimination of domination in all spheres of human life. Indeed, this concept that the domination of humanity over nature stems from the domination of human over human is foundational to social ecology.

There are two major dimensions to ecological debt: “(1) the social-ecological destruction and exploitation that takes places within nations under the influence of ecological imperialism; and (2) the imperialist appropriation of global commons and the unequal use (exploitation) of the absorption capacity of these commons (p. 193).”

The volume of material and economic value that flows out of the South increases (the volume of exports from Latin America increased by 245 per cent between 1980 and 1995), yet the financial debt of these nations continues to grow, exacerbated by arbitrary increases in interest rates. At the same time monopoly capital, dominating the world market, is able to overvalue the North’s industrial, high-value commodity exports, further unbalancing international trade (p. 194).

At the planetary level, ecological imperialism has resulted in the appropriation of the global commons (i.e. the atmosphere and oceans) and the carbon absorption capacity of the biosphere, primarily to the benefit of a relatively small number of countries at the centre of the capitalist world economy. The North rose to wealth and power in part through high fossil-fuel consumption, which is now culminating in a climate crisis due to the dumping of ecological wastes into the atmosphere (p. 194).

Proponents of ecological debt focus tactically on the carbon debt: “Simply stated, if a nation uses fossil fuel above a set rate, then it is accumulating a carbon debt, making a disproportionate use of environmental space in the commons for the disposal of its carbon waste (p. 195).” Payment of a fraction of this ecological debt would eliminate the South’s debt to the North and pay for an ecological means of development (p. 196).

The authors are in agreement with Bookchin on the fact that capitalism undermines the ability of Earth to sustain life.

Advocating a global per capita allotment of CO2 emissions as well as payment of an ecological debt would limit the growth of capitalism, perhaps challenging its very foundations. Indeed, it is possible that such a limit on capitalism would render the resultant economy not capitalistic, as limits to growth (at least by means of fossil fuels) would contradict a primary characteristic of capital: accumulation.

The ecological debt campaign highlights the anti-ecological and inequitable features of capitalism. The authors ultimately call for “a revolutionary social solution:” “the rational organization of the human metabolism with nature by freely associated producers (p. 198).”

However, Foster and Clark add that, “The problem with the ecological debt campaign is, clearly, that given the current balance of world forces it cannot hope to succeed (p. 197).” They cite the resistance of capital signified by the withdrawal of the Kyoto Protocol. I would add that this was more recently witnessed in the United States when the cap-and-trade proposals (spun in some circles, including ecosocialist, as capital’s cooptation of the environmental movement) failed to pass in Congress. Though these proposals are a clear manifestation of “green capitalism,” it was interesting to observe the vehement opposition to the plans by the corporate lobby. This leads one to think about the relationship/dialectic of “green capitalism” to the rest of the capitalist system: How antagonistic are the two? Is “green capitalism” seen as a threat or challenge to the status quo within the established capitalist system? Or is “green capitalism” really simply a cooptation by traditional capitalism of the environmental movement?

Further, is not the “ecological debt” concept challenging the global economic system on its own terms? This seems to be what Foster and Clark imply above. Indeed, we have seen arguments like this fail to make headway in the last few rounds of international climate negotiations. What if the “ecological debt” campaign were successful? Would it serve to eliminate capitalism or simply “green” it? Would sustainable, renewable energy technologies in the context of global capital simply allow for another period of relative stability, as was seen at the turn of the century until late 2007? As long as commodities are produced for profit, even if the energy used in such production is clean and sustainable, the system will still end up running into natural resource limitations. There is still a finite amount of “products” that can be produced from the finite natural resources of the planet.

Is the “ecological debt” approach a pragmatic technological or mechanistic fix to a problem that requires the replacement of social institutions and values? Would the adoption of the demands of ecological debt activists signify such a shift in institutions and values? It seems just as likely that it could leave these important factors untouched. As well, where is the emphasis on the need for a radical ecological movement to develop and demonstrate what is possible? Perhaps this is implied.

While the reorganization of economic relations called for by Foster and Clark is no doubt necessary, it is not seen as sufficient from a social ecological perspective. Bookchin argues that, while the elimination of economic exploitation is necessary for the creation of a post-scarcity society, there are forms of domination that are not economically exploitative and therefore would not be eliminated through a reworking of economic relations alone. This leads social ecology to a critique of hierarchy and domination altogether, the elimination of which is necessary to completely overcome the domination of humanity over nature (again, see endnote 1).

To conclude, the relationship between social ecology and Marxist ecosocialism is a close one. While social ecology concludes that Marxism is not sufficiently ecological, Marxist ecosocialists like Foster would argue that ecological conceptions are inherent in Marx, though not sufficiently articulated in his work. They point to the concept of “use-value” as the basis for a conception of “material-ecological flows,” as well as the notion of “primitive accumulation” in which natural resources were the original capital initially setting off the self-perpetuating system of capitalism.

While the classical concept of Marx’s “economic imperative” arguably gains renewed validity in the wake of the ongoing “Great Recession,” social ecology nevertheless holds that Marxism is overly economic. Indeed, social ecologists like Bookchin would point to other instances of domination that do not stem from economic exploitation, and would therefore remain in a world altered only in terms of economic relationships. As a result, social ecology explores the biological and anthropological origins and development of hierarchy in addition to the emergence of capitalism.

Admittedly, my knowledge of Marxism is not sufficient. It is hoped this will be overcome through subsequent readings of Foster, Kovel, and others. Currently, however, a question arises: An attractive concept of social ecology lies in its analysis of capitalism. In “Listen, Marxist!,” Murray Bookchin (2004) observes that capitalism is no longer simply an economy, but has increasingly become a society, wherein the values of capitalism (competition, privatization, individualism, etc.) have seeped into the culture at-large. For Bookchin, this is one argument for the obsolescence of “proletarian socialism,” and seemingly a large point of departure for a theory based significantly in Marxism.

Yet, what about the Marxist concept of “base and superstructure“? In this concept, economic relations are primary, and form the societal base. From this economic base, other institutions are influenced and develop. This can seemingly be read as a recognition that capitalism is not simply an economy, but ultimately begets society. What, if any, are the implications for social ecology here?


1) This is a good place to point out a key difference of social ecology and Marxist theory: the reversal of the idea of the domination of nature leading to the domination of human over human. Social ecology sees the domination of nature as rooted in the domination of human over human. This notion itself is rooted in an advanced analysis of hierarchy and the biological preconditions to its emergence in human society.


Bookchin, M. (2004). “Listen, Marxist!” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism. AK Press: Oakland, CA.

Bookchin, M. (2003). “Reflections: An Overview of the Roots of Social Ecology” in Harbinger: A Journal of Social Ecology, vol. 3, no 1.

Bookchin, M. (1999). Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left: Interviews and Essays 1993-1998. AK Press: Oakland, CA.

Bookchin, M. (1980). Towards an Ecological Society. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Quebec.

Clark, J.P. (1997). “A Social Ecology,” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, no. 31.

Kovel, J. (2008). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Zed Books: London, England.

Theodoropoulos, D. (2003). Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience. Avvar Books: Blythe, CA.

One thought on “Discussion of “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism”

  1. I thought you might be interested in this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/27/obama-white-house-foreign-policy

    which ran in the Guardian shortly after Obama was elected. I think this speaks to the possible alternatives, say, if Bush had never been elected. A Gore presidency would have undoubtedly resulted in some substantive differences, especially regarding domestic and social policy (I’m thinking about marriage and abortion specifically), but I wonder about our international relationships.

    You write:
    “Very simplistically, it would seem the state exists in tension between its (human) constituents and the imperatives of the market on which it is reliant. For instance, the military is commonly a tool for the advancement of global capital, while other areas of government — regulatory agencies, public services, and to an extent the legislature — act, however incompetently and bureaucratically, in the interest of “voters” (or perhaps against certain interests of capital).”

    I think this is a really good way to frame the legislature and maybe the gov. in general. While I don’t think it can be said that politicians and gov. agencies work for the public, they do sometimes work against certain interests of capital.

    I would cite the recent decision to mandate that birth control (along with a select list of other reproductive services) be given to women without a co pay if necessary. While this is marginal it is a point where a gov. agency is conflicting with the interests of the insurance industry.

    I have some more comments on this piece that I’ll be getting up in the next day or two. I want to read some of the source material you have put up before I continue.

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