We live in a world that is facing a profound and deepening ecological and social crisis. People are searching for an understanding of how this all happened, and what can be done about it. In The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology John Bellamy Foster has written a comprehensive account of the many socialist thinkers who have developed ecological critiques of society. It is essential reading for all who want to change the world; a sequel to Foster’s earlier work, Marx’s Ecology. Foster starts with the deaths of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx in 1882 and 1883, and examines the long struggle for socialism and ecology since. The premise underlying the book is that “socialist thinkers provided systematic and sometimes contradictory ecological critiques of our present society that were crucial both in their day and ours”.
This is a “legacy that we can no longer afford to do without”. At the heart of the book is an examination of the writings of the “classical historical materialist” Friedrich Engels. His key writings on nature are to be found in The Dialectics of Nature and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. For Engels nature itself has a history – “nature is the proof of dialectics”. Foster summarises Engels’ dialectical view on nature as “a spiralling process of contingency, change, interpenetration, contradiction, negation, transcendence, and emergence within the natural world itself, which generated, at the highest level of human consciousness, fluid, dialectical conceptions of reality”. Foster also examines the development and contribution of other thinkers and writers in great detail, such as the left Darwinian E Ray Lancaster and William Morris.
He also looks at the writings of ecologists such as: the Fabians Sir George Tansley and HG Wells, who introduced the concepts of ecosystems and human ecology; ‘red scientists’ such as John Needham, JBS Haldane and H Levy, who brought dialectics to twentieth century science and the history of science; and the extraordinary polymath Christopher Caudwell. In addition, Foster examines the work of John Desmond Bernal, a central figure in the first great ecological movement of the post-Second World War period that initiated the campaign against nuclear testing.
As Bernal said, “If life is not to die, we have to see to it that we stop the forces threatening its existence”. As Foster says, what these diverse thinkers all share is an understanding of the “dialectic interplay of society and nature”. Left wing theorists were key to establishing an ecological worldview. As Foster says, rather than “treating society and nature dualistically as two distinct realms used to justify the expropriation of nature, and with it the exploitation of the larger human population”, we need “a radical conception of the need to restore the human social metabolism with nature while promoting genuine human equality”. Foster has spent two decades preparing this important book, so we should find the find time to read it.