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The Enemy of Nature

Book Review by Alison Smith, January 2008

Joel Kovel, Zed Books, £17.99

The Enemy of Nature brilliantly lays out the current ecological crisis in all of its dimensions. Kovel reveals the real "inconvenient truth" surrounding climate change: that capitalism is responsible, and the only way to solve the problem is to get rid of it. But far from focusing purely on the environment, Kovel includes in his definition of ecological breakdown the increasing class division, imperialism and poverty which, along with environmental destruction, are all intrinsic features of capitalism.

The system of endless economic growth based around accumulation, competition and profit leads inevitably to the degradation of the resources on which the continuation of that system depends. Capitalist production degrades the natural resource base that it needs to sustain itself, both by extracting resources at an ever increasing rate, and polluting and destroying the natural cycles that allow for regulation and regeneration.

Kovel uses a Marxist analysis of the nature of capital to demonstrate the inherent contradictions that exist not just between capital and labour, but also between capital and nature, refuting the myth that Marxism is in some way anti-ecological.

The book looks at how capitalism has contorted society and altered the natural conditions of humans, discounting the arguments held by certain eco-philosophies that human nature is fixed or that people are inherently destructive to other human beings or nature.

Kovel's critique of the prevailing politics that exist with regard to solving the ecological crisis is highly important and an urgent argument for activists to engage with. This historical materialist perspective enables the reader to understand the implicit nature of capitalism in creating the ecological breakdown we now face, and highlights the failings of technological fixes and market-based solutions. Of particular importance, Kovel demonstrates how individualist responses to the ecological crisis are limited and become either assimilated into the market system or redundant.

Capitalism is clearly identified as the culprit and socialism is the alternative. Capitalists are rightly shown to be incapable of creating a sustainable society because their position of power only exists so long as they seek to compete and perpetuate the capitalist system. This structural inability of capitalism to adapt, and therefore its ultimate destructive nature, is very well illustrated.

The book emphasises the exploitation of labour and the increasing class division that is a result of greater ecological degradation. There is strong recognition of the need to remove capitalism and restore the means of production to freely associated producers through struggle. However, the emphasis on how ripe the conditions are for struggle in this age of neoliberalism is not as strong as it could be.

In other words, the nature of the present crisis and its causes are well explained, but the potential for class conflict coming out of this could be expanded upon. This aside, The Enemy of Nature is a highly valuable book, as it exposes very clearly how capitalism is incapable of saving itself or the world. Kovel shows how the ecological crisis is at the heart of a Marxist critique of capital and that socialist change is necessary to halt the destructive uncontrollability of capitalism.

Buy this book

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