Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Foster: The Environmental Crisis E.Kather

The author of Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment, John Bellamy Foster, provides an account of one man returning home to fully realize the irreversible ecological disaster in the regional Pacific Northwest and the global impact of this. As the years go by the issue of conservation becomes not only regional but global. In the late eighties, the world started to become more aware of the threats posed by global warming, destruction of the ozone layer, tropical deforestation, loss of genetic diversity, the destruction of wetlands, the erosion of soil, famine, floods and the extinction of species.
War, economic inequality, and third world underdevelopment are “inextricably bound to the larger question of systematic degradation of the planet and conditions of life for a majority of the world’s people” (9-10). In the world today we are faced with ecological disaster, overpopulation, societal degradation and it’s reaching a critical level but there are ways to alleviate urban pollution and the depletion of nonrenewable materials. So what type of crisis are we dealing with? Foster argues that the interests that are the most at fault for the current ecological situation are in the unquestioned social relationships, nothing biological. He asks us to recognize the historical and the social issues which admit the earth is not in a crisis of nature but of society. In order to understand and change environmental degradation, one should begin starting with “productive relations, technical imperatives and historically conditioned trends that characterize the dominant social system” (12).
When Columbus voyaged across America five hundred years ago he piloted the origin of the capitalist system and world definition of nation states in a hierarchy based upon developed or undeveloped. Skipping on through ages you have the Industrial Revolution, taking place in Europe and increasing average production and creating division. There are three divisions “divisions between economy and nature, between capital and labor, and between center and periphery” (14). Now that we have a history lesson and idea of his concepts we’ll move along.
In the first phase of the Industrial Revolution the death rate did not match the birth rate creating an exponential increase in population. Next he lists numerical data surrounding GNI (gross national income) in countries and rather than repeating what was said, though important, it comes to this. Seventy-five percent of the production of the world is taken by the twenty-five percent living in developed nations, The greater the division of economies the more concentrated the pollution, fact. “Reductionist agriculture” following industry led urban development, means the use of more chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides to make agriculture a cash crop. In the meantime small agricultural business is pushed onto marginal land contributing to more deforestation and soil erosion and use of pesticides.
So why do we care about pollution, contamination, forests? We live in a fragile ecosystem caused by mans continuous murder of nature. To put it in perspective, half of the species in the entire world live in the tropical rainforests. Half of that population is gone entirely and what remains is in sordid condition. If the cutting of the tropical rainforests continues, you can bet they will be gone for good within thirty years. If that doesn’t shock you, how about the extinction of “27,000 species a year, 74 every day, 3 every hour” (24).
There may be thirty million species living today and of that one fourth has been catalogued. The earth needs biodiversity it can’t exist without it. Human beings use and rely on of around 20 species for eighty percent of their food products yet seventy-five thousand different edible plants are available to them.
Humanity is now at point to recognize the devastation, the human transformation of the planet Earth. Car exhaust has contributed to rises in nitrogen rich atmosphere and a twenty percent increase in carbon emissions. Environmentalists began to use a PAT formula to deduce where the degradation is arising. PxAxT or population times affluence time’s technology. Since they are interrelated improvements in all three areas would be beneficial. Such areas include decreased population, accumulation and environmental technology. The future of the world rests in the restructuring of capitalist systems, population peaks and falls, and environmentally friendly sustainable solutions.


  1. Foster continues to press that many of the promblems we face is a social problem and not a nature problem. We as a society have not reached a balance between the the two. These social problems arose before and during the Industrial Revolution( cotton, sugarcane, etc). The reliance on machine production and the rise of modern industrial cities created unhealthy working environments. Poor ventilation and infectious diseases, for example, were responsible for increased death rates during the Industrial Revolution.

    Our ecosystem is indeed fragile. It is obvious that it doesn't take very long to destroy the natural environment in which we live. The loss of wildlife has played a significant role in altering food chains. Soil erosion and forest depeletion occured with large-scale industry and large-scale agriculture which exhaustes the "natural power of the soil" as Foster states. Each person can try to make a change in an attempt to reverse affects on the environment but is it to late? Have we reached the tipping point?

  2. It would be difficult at best to say that we human beings learn from history but it is obvious through this historical perspective we have learned nothing. The orderly fashion to which farming became segregated was evident in the enclosure movement in England. Those with status ($$) could afford to live amongst “nature” and benefit from the work of others through agriculture while those that could not were forced into the cities for jobs in the manufacturing. Fosters states that this was a “liberation of workers from the land” to seek employment in industry (51), but isn’t it a step in the segregation of social classes and social environments?

    As manufacturing advanced so did the populations in the areas of industry which created vast amounts of waste both human and industrial. For those in higher social status this was not something that affected them until they started dying of the illness brought on by air and water pollution, and then it became a social issue. Malthus believed the population doctrine showed “the future improvement of society could not occur through any process that reduced inequality” (61) and that has been reiterated in different forms throughout history. Sanitation and disposal was not practiced until it was necessary to prevent illness but has it truly change....doesn't dumping continue in some form in certian areas of the world? In urban areas there are still large amounts of waste and don't we blame the people who live there? We have turned to sharing our waste with those that live in other areas often affecting those that do not have the means to fight/change the process. We continue to share through rural landfills, in the currents of the rivers and in the air that we breathe. So the process continues.