The Vulnerable Planet: a Short Economic History of the Environment

Submitted by on 9 April, 2004 - 12:00

By John Bellamy Foster, 1999, New York, Monthly Review Press

The author, now one of the Editors of Monthly Review, is a regular writer on environmental problems. In 2000 he wrote a 310-page study of Marx's Ecology: materialism and nature. More recently, in the January 2003 issue of Monthly Review, he has analysed the failure of the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits. The Vulnerable Planet, while a short work (only 168 small pages) is a splendid introduction to the problems we face, as well as to the literature where we can go further.

The book is organised in the following chapters: the Ecological Crisis; Ecological Conditions before the Industrial Revolution; the Environment at the time of the Industrial Revolution; Expansion and conservation; Imperialism and Ecology; the Vulnerable Planet; and finally the Socialization of Nature. In his Preface he describes growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, more concerned about the Vietnam War than what, in that location, seemed a remote problem. But returning to his home area in 1985. and seeing the changes, he became interested in environmental problems.

The book ranges widely over problems of the depletion of non-renewable resources, and the ever-growing pollution of the earth; the destruction and loss of the soil which is the basis of agriculture, and the problems of human health which result from all these changes. He puts the blame unquestionably on the capitalist system of production and exchange, and its focus on private profit above all other considerations. Time and again he gives examples of where firms plunder the world's treasures, like the old-growth forests of his homeland, or the tropical forests which have been home to uncounted, invaluable species of plant and animal. While they take for private profit what were the collective treasures of humankind, they constantly produce pollutants and expect the public to pay for their mess. One frightening example among many: the British nuclear complex at Sellafield, which has had some 300 accidents, including a highly polluting fire in 1957, constantly pours nuclear waste into the Irish Sea, polluting fish and the shores with its dangerous radioactive materials (p.128).

The weakest section of the book is that dealing with the USSR. Foster describes the 'ecocide in the Soviet Union': the soil erosion; the poisoning of water resources; and the frightening radioactive contamination, much of it as a result of the Chernobyl disaster (pp.96-101). But he tends to attribute it, not to fundamental problems associated with the structure of Communist Party and State, but to the hostility of surrounding capitalist powers dating from the Revolution of 1917, and particularly that of the USA and its Cold War. Reminding us that genuine socialism is very different (p.101), though important, is not enough.

Foster has helpful things to say to those who argue that it is all a question of "too many people". As background he outlines the ideas of Malthus and the comments of Marx and Engels on population (pp.59-66).]

In his chapter on 'the Socialization of Nature' Foster gives a useful summary of the different strands of the environmental movement. He notes the corporations which give lip-service to the cause, and even money (p.126), and the thousands of activists who have often risked their limbs, and even lives, to stop some flagrant act of vandalism (136-37). But apart from generalisation at a level where they are distant signposts, abstractions like 'the answers to today's ecological problems . . . are to be found in the direction of the "socialization" of nature and the conditions of human existence' are all he offers for alternative action. He does not even spell out the difficult questions which socialists must face if they are to persuade their potential allies among the still-Romantic Greens!

The book has end-notes and an index. The last could usefully be supplemented, and it would also be easier to follow up ideas if there were a separate bibliography. But that said, this is an excellent book by a writer whose ongoing work on these topics should be followed. Readers of Workers Liberty will find it of great help to them.
Score: 9/10
Reviewer: Ron L Price

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