Earth Day book reviews: System Change, Not Climate Change, a revolutionary response to environmental crisis and Fire and Smoke



System Change, Not Climate Change, a revolutionary response to environmental crisis Bookmarks Publications, 2019

By: Barry Weisleder

If you are looking for a compact anthology of articles that make the case for Eco-socialism, this British SWP book is a good one.

The best piece in it is Ian Angus’ “The Discovery and Re-discovery of Metabolic Rift.” He contends that “capitalism (as a product of human activity – BW) is both part of the natural world and at war with it.” This is expressed in “the lack of balance between ‘expenditure and income’ in the earth’s metabolism under the capitalist system.”

There is no ecological counterpart to the business cycle…” Angus dryly observes.

A 2016 report to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, estimates that more the 150 million tonnes of plastics are in the oceans already, with another 8 million tonnes being added each year. Amy Leather writes, “That’s five trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans and counting. If we carry on at this rate, by 2050 plastics in the oceans will outweigh all the fish.”

In “Food, Agriculture and Climate Change”, Martin Empson says “Arguing for a switch to a meat-free diet is a dangerous strategy for the environmental because it places the blame on individuals as consumers, not the system as a whole.”

Suzanne Jeffrey argues in “Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism” that “…capitalism lies at the heart of the climate crisis and (it) needs to be overthrown and replaced with a system that prioritises the needs of the planet over profit and which replaces the anarchic and destructive market with democratic planning…. Our success is being measured against a ticking clock.”


Fire and Smoke

One thing leads to another, evidently. The bush fires that engulfed Australia wrought a terrible toll in the lives of humans and other species, destroying homes and vast stretches of the natural environment. The capitalist government seated in Canberra, that presides over this continent aflame, denies the connection between the carbon fuel economy and the still-unfolding Eco-disaster.

That prompted me to move to the top of my winter reading list the lead article in the December 2019 edition of Monthly Review, “Capitalism & Robbery, Land, Labor, and Corporeal life”, by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman. It provides a concise overview of the Agricultural Revolutions in the capitalist age, stripping away the “’nursery tale’ propounded by classical political economy, that the capitalist system had its origin in abstinence and the consequent buildup of savings”. Instead, it points to its genesis in rampant dispossession of the peasantry and the pillage of the colonized world.

The First Agricultural Revolution under capitalism coincided with the enclosures, from the late fifteenth to early nineteenth centuries, and the formal transfer of land titles. The Second Agricultural Revolution, from 1830 to 1880, was based on the advent of soil chemistry, the growth of the fertilizer trade and industry, and the intensification and upward scale of agro-production. On the findings of German chemist Justus von Liebig, Karl Marx detailed how British ‘high-farming’ techniques constituted a “robbery system,” leading to the despoliation of the soil.

From the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s to the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, humanity has paid the price for the spread of a wanton and avaricious profit system. In Oklahoma almost a third of its farmers were displaced. “The Dust Bowl was the social-historical product of expanding capitalism, empire, and white settler colonialism, all of which contributed to the destruction of land cover and soil erosion.” While this process continues rapidly today in Central and South America, from Honduras to Brazil, it led me back to the poignant narrative of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” His classic 1939 Pulizer Prize-winning novel depicts the tragedy of the Joad family, physically ploughed out of house and homestead. Transformed into migrants, they travelled Route 66 to the fruit and cotton fields of California, only to confront brutal anti-union bosses and life-threatening floods. This book is a must-read for every literate human. Steinbeck not only tells a gripping tale; he explains the labour theory of value, and the rise of monopoly control of the economy, without resort to political rhetoric. While Tom Joad is clearly a red, he exudes grassroots activist. Effortlessly, he is an expression of the real mass, working class radicalization that stormed the ramparts of corporate power and formed the labour movement on an industrial, not craft, basis.