Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 155-157
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Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism
Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. By James O'Connor. New York: Guilford Press, 1998. Pp. xviii + 350. $39.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
Today, with most of the former "socialist" countries in a state of economic and ecological collapse, and the world market economy triumphant, it might well be asked what a book of essays on Marxism, such as Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, can contribute to contemporary thought on history and ecology. James O'Connor, the editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism, would begin his answer with the observation that "just at the moment when world economy simulates the model...that Marx developed in Capital, Marxism is dismissed as fatally flawed" (p. 1). But O'Connor is more a critic of (albeit a friendly, constructive critic) than an apologist for classical Marxism.
Marx, O'Connor notes, lived and wrote before the advent of ecology, and perhaps for that reason neglected the importance of nature as one of the "conditions of production." Marx identified a contradiction in capitalism, in that capitalists extract surplus labor from the working class, resulting in overproduction. Workers cannot afford to buy the more plentiful goods, and falling prices then cut into profits and prevent further growth, bringing about a crisis. O'Connor does not reject this analysis, but notes that it deals only with the relations of capital [End Page 155] and labor, neglecting the physical and ecological conditions, and is therefore "not materialist enough" (p. 43).
O'Connor then distinguishes a "second contradiction of capitalism" in that capital demands growth and treats the conditions of production (labor and nature) as commodities. But the market cannot assure the supply of these essentials. Instead nature is depleted, resources become scarce, and pollution undermines the health and efficiency of labor. As a result, production costs rise and goods become scarcer and more expensive. Capital, therefore, destroys its own environmental conditions of production. It is the recognition of this second contradiction that makes O'Connor's "ecological Marxism" a correction of classical Marxism. In one of the book's most trenchant chapters, he asks the question, "Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?" (p. 234). His answer, "probably not," is reached only in light of the fact that no coherent theory of sustainable capitalism has been advanced, and that if one were, it would require "changes that would make capitalism unrecognizable" (p. 239).
The essays collected in this book form a delightfully mixed bag. Some of them are closely reasoned abstract theory, but others are case studies that demonstrate the workings of the second contradiction. The latter include a study of the environmental history of the Monterey Bay region; a photo essay on the changes wrought since 1860 on one stream, Fall Creek; a critical account of the "sales of two cities," Chicago and Los Angeles; an analysis of the Gulf War; and a mini-history of the effects of British rule and North Sea oil on the Shetland Islanders.
Environmental history, as these specific examples show, becomes for O'Connor as much a critical and broadening step beyond traditional political, economic, and social histories as his analysis of the second contradiction is a step beyond the first. "Environmental history may be regarded as the culmination of all previous existing histories," but including them, not replacing them. "Far from the marginal subject so many historians still regard it to be, environmental history is (or should be) at the very center of historiography today" (p. 51).
Whenever an author is critical of the present world-system, readers may ask what he offers instead. O'Connor gives us ecological socialism and a motto, "Preservation First!"--his transmutation of the radical ecologists' "Earth First!" He rejects the economic growth game and concentrates on preserving or maintaining the conditions of production, but production that would be for need, not for profit. He speaks of recycling, reduction in energy use, green cities, organic agriculture, and decommodification of labor and land, along with the [End Page 156...