Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alex Green: Foster Ch. 2, 3

Foster's essential point in the third chapter of The Vulnerable Planet is that the source of our ecological crises is not, as many would have us believe, technological and industrial advance, but social and cultural organization. He points out that, thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, civilizations had come to regional ecological crises due to mismanagement of resources and overpopulation. He cites Sumeria as a prime example, placing part of the blame for its downfall on the ecological effect of their extensive irrigation of the Tigris/Euphrates floodplain, which resulted in the destruction of the soil of the region by salt from floods caused by the raising of the water table by irrigation. Foster then cites deforestation resulting in soil erosion, overgrazing, and depletion of soil as major factors in the downfall of the Roman and Mayan civilizations, and then notes similar situations in mainland Europe just before the rise of mercantile capitalism in the 1500's.
The next section of the chapter focuses on the rise of capitalism prior to the industrial revolution, highlighting the increasingly exploitative attitude toward not only the environment, but also other people. Science in this period is said to have posited a war between humankind and nature, with our mission to subjugate nature to our will. this exploitative attitude resulted in the extensive harvesting of animals for thier coveted furs, driving many species entirely out of Russia, a primary participant in the fur trade, and seriously threatening the equilibrium of environments in North America as the fur trade expanded across the Atlantic, a shift to commercial monocrop farming using slave labor, causing deforestation and soil depletion, along with obvious exploitation of human peoples. The depletion of soil in the British colonies resulted in an expansionist ethic (however unethical), which our government responded to by ordering the extermination of the indiginous population, though Foster notes matter-of-factly that their form of agriculture was vastly superior in yield and sustainability to our own.

The next chapter deals with ecological relations during the Industrial Revolution, beginning with the enclosure movement in England, during which large numbers of English families were moved off of their ancestral land, so that it could be "monopolized by rural landlords" (51). This process allowed England's agricultural capacity to expand to match its booming population for the next period of history, while also "freeing" up thousands of workers for capitalist production. Said capitalist production causes appalling environmental conditions in England, explained alternately as a result of natural constraints dealing with carrying capacity of the region by Malthus (c.c. not Malthus's phrase), and as a problem created by social and political factors, a.k.a. artificial constraints, of profitability in the capitalist system by Marx. The response to the aesthetic ugliness and public health issues in England were, contrary to some accounts, responded to almost immediately, but these critiques were apparently not as respected as Malthus's "natural" laws of population and technology. This response grew into the romantic response to 1800's industrialism characterized by figures like Thoreau, John Ruskin, and William Morris.

Overall, it seems that Foster is placing the blame for our current predicament on the social structure of capitalism. For my part, I fully agree with this assessment, however, it is an incomplete picture. Of course, in such a short volume, the social environment that has allowed such wholesale destruction to take place can not be examined in excruciating detail (in starting "with the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago" (34), Foster may as well admit that this is by no means a complete picture). I would still like to point out a dominant cultural factor from the Middle Ages which continues on through to today, and which Foster seems to have ignored completely, possibly for reasons of audience and readership potential: Christianity, and, for that matter, any widespread belief system with an eternal paradise myth or an apocalyptic narrative. In the Middle Ages, the paradise myth of Christianity was used to subjugate the masses by promising them that whatever hardships or indignities they may suffer in life, they will be rewarded for it in Heaven.

This belief leads to the assumption that this world is transient and does not matter in the long run, with obvious implications for a Christian's opinion on Earth's well-being. Also, the presence of an apocalyptic narrative in such a widespread religion leads to a similar phenomena: the assumption that, since the world is going to end soon anyway, what does it matter what we do to it in the few years we have left? The assumption that the flora and fauna of Earth were placed here for the benefit of God's favorite science-fair project (i.e. us), is also incredibly distressing to the environmentalist cause, and more than likely had a great effect on the whole expansionist ideology that Foster mentions. Again, it's obviously difficult to be exactingly thorough with such a short discussion as this book, but to place all of the blame for expansionist ideology and environmental apathy on capitalist production seems short-sighted.


  1. John Bellamy Foster has very scary figures. He uses evidence to scare people into changing their terrible, world-ending ways. In chapter 1 we learned the basic figures that make us want to run hide from the evil the human race has committed. Chapter two starts no differently. Our ancestors dating back at least to the Sumerians in 5,000 BCE began an awful thing by using the land and profiting off of it. The Sumerians abused the land over a 2,000 year period and when they failed they left the land destroyed and unusable (37). At least, that is how Foster makes the situation seem. The effects of Sumerian society on the land could not have been incredibly long lasting in view of the fact that there have been people inhabiting and using the area of the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years.
    Foster then explains that the Roman Empire declined and fell because of the abuse of their African breadbasket – mostly Carthage and other such Northern African places (37). His use of decline and fall itself could be argued against endlessly by any historian but his use of the phrase “decline and fall” makes it seem as if some climactic environmental event was what triggered the “fall” of the Empire in 476 CE. He does nothing to mention the internal conflicts within Rome such as inept emperors and plotting of the Eastern half of the empire to rid themselves of the west. He especially should have mentioned that sometimes the Romans would purposely ruin the land of their enemies (Carthage and Rome rarely got along) to make sure that they would starve, which would lead to a lack of food for the regular Joe Sixpacks of Rome.
    Foster’s examples force one to start doubting some of the things he says. While he utilizes good evidence on the effect of European colonization on the land in the Americas, Africa, and India (p. 43-47), Foster clearly shows a passion in his loathing of capitalism and it seems as if he could possibly be using such powerful imagery simply to follow him blindly and not check the different facts that he uses.
    Foster is equally passionate in his third chapter and the first subheading he uses is “Dark Satanic Mills,” which will already put the reader into the mood of hating technological progress because it destroys the earth. He talks about the living conditions of the factory workers, but says little of the overall on the effect on the environment in which the factories existed. He definitely appeals to the people worried solely about being aesthetically pleased.
    Chapter three then has` a focus on population and its effects on the world in general and then a talk about Thoreau. Foster seems to mention the actual environment of the industrial revolution very little and he seems to skirt around that issue, probably because very few people at the time cared that their trees were being cut down since they were trying to make money in the only world they had known.

    To respond to the above comment: A summary isn't your opinion. Having said that your last paragraph I semi-agree with. Its easy to blame things on the Christians, but its an easy out. Economies based on agriculture were everywhere, not just Christendom.

  2. The main point of Fosters first chapter is that environmental destruction is not a new problem, and rather than blaming technology we should instead consider the social systems . he makes this very clear by using many examples, most about how pre-industrial agriculture was destructive.
    one example is cultivating hillsides in Rome, which led to soil erosion and deforestation. the consequences being vast deserts and land that has not yet recovered. an example I am surprised was not included is that of Easter Island where deforestation led to the fall of the polynesians
    Foster includes a powerful quote from Sir Francis Bacon that in my opinion describes the views of many people societies from A.D. to maybe even present day. " Rather than allowing natural world to continue to dominate humanity, nature must be bound into a service and made a slave"
    many societies try to conquer nature instead of work in balance with its cycles.
    he continues about the destruction of life and effectively makes the point that if one species is removed from the ecosystem all others are affected.
    to respond to the last comment, I agree that Fosters main technique is scare tactics to make his points.

    Chapter 3 discusses the industrial revolution. Foster makes the point, again using various quotes from people of that time, that people recognized environmental degredation
    one of the best quotes is from charles dickens on page 55-56 about the town of "red brick"
    Foster includes Malthus's view on population, how it increases geometrically but should be kept in check by limited food. this might be true if it werent for agricultural advances.
    He uses a quote from Morris (68) to make the point that the need for money is what caused crowded cities and in turn polution and degredation of environment and its resources.

    people in the time periods discussed by Foster may not have realized how much damage they were causing; the planet probably seemed infinite to them. We can see their mistakes through the examples in the text, and we should learn from it. if all people today were educated about environmental problems maybe they would start to recognize that we have a real problem.

    so how much have todays people actually learned from history? we have come up with new ways to reduce environmental impact both for agriculture and industry- many standards need to be met by law (the only way to ensure that most people will put new technologies to use). I think it would be fair to say that people have not learned enough or simply dont care about the well being of the planet for other life (now or in future generations) this is because money is, and always will be the most important thing to most; for if there were no laws enforced, most every tree would be cut for profit.
    I could go on about this forever but to wrap it up until people believe that they are not the only important life on the planet, and start caring about something besides making that extra dollar the planet, its beauty, and its resources will continue to be degraded, or as Bacon would say be a slave to humans.

    more than likely if social systems are not forced to make changes, they will not.