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Missing the Marx: On Intellectual Failure and Environmental Catastrophe

Karl Marx. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Getting radical anti-capitalist ideas wrong and ignoring those ideas completely are timeworn traditions for U.S. intellectuals. The habits go back a long way and have continued through the current millennium. The consequences can be deadly, as is seen with two short books printed by leading U.S. publishing firms a few years ago – liberal historian James Livingston’s Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (Basic Books, 2011) and environmental journalist David Owen’s The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse (Penguin, 2011).


Marx’s “Protestant Work Ethic”

Here, from page one hundred and sixty-five of the early Barack Obama enthusiast [1] Livingston’s book is a graphic example of a U.S. intellectual getting a leading past anti-capitalist thinker (Karl Marx) badly wrong: “In fact, I would claim that we can’t live comfortably with the pleasures of consumer culture (not to mention the life of the mind) precisely because the Protestant work ethic still haunts us – because we believe along with Marx, who got the idea from Hegel, who got it from Luther, that human nature just is the metabolic exchange with nature that we call work.” By “work,” Livingston here means manual and physical labor, skilled and unskilled, engaged primarily in material production, extraction, transportation and the like.

It’s hard to imagine anyone missing the mark on Marx more completely. Marx spent the lion’s share of his most productive years engaged in intensely intellectual activity (“the life of the mind,” to say the least) in his study and at the British Museum library. He was grateful to escape the clutches of wage labor (production-oriented or otherwise) thanks in part to the support of his bourgeois comrade and fellow communist Frederick Engels. In his late twenties, Marx wrote of the glories of a “communist future” when all would be free to follow creative and intellectual pursuits beyond the requirements by class society’s division of labor:

“For, as soon as the division of labor comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” [2]

Two decades later, near the end of the draft third volume of Capital, Marx imagined a post-capitalist and post-class society, one in which people as “associated producers” would create a world of “true freedom” beyond the necessity of toil and in accord with their true “human nature” – a world that required first of all a shorter work day:

“In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite”(emphasis added). [3]

That’s not exactly “the Protestant worth ethic” inherited from Calvin, Luther, and Hegel – or from anyone else. It certainly isn’t Marx advancing a concept of “human nature” requiring us to be at constant hard work making things – quite the opposite, in fact.


An odd thing about Livingston’s mind-bending misrepresentation of Marx is that in Livingston’s case he knows Marx well. He has a history of writing in something of a Marxist vein, including essays in an academic journal called Marxist Perspectives and two academic books that display a substantive background in classic Marx texts, including Capital.

Why does he misrepresent the famous anti-capitalist in such an egregious fashion? My guess is that Livingston wanted to create a straw left dog to complement his neo-Keynesian critique of the right in attracting establishment intellectuals and opinion-makers to his call for Americans to embrace the glories of “consumer culture” as “good for the economy, the environment, and your soul.” It always helps to take a shot or two at Marx and “Marxists” (Livingston preposterously accuses the latter of romanticizing small business and craft producers) when trying to achieve recognition and status within the establishment intellectual culture. [4]

Never mind that America’s really existing consumer culture (RECC) has yoked untold millions of Americans precisely to overwork (look up the left economist Juliet Schor’s learned reflections on capitalism and “insidious cycle of work and spend” [5]). Never mind that RECC, driven by unremitting corporate advertising and an addiction to built-in obsolescence that has penetrated the production process itself, is a leading factor behind contemporary capitalism’s ever-escalating liquidation of livable ecology. As the Marxist ecologists John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark noted in late 2012:

“We live in a world not of increasing real wealth but rather of ‘illth’ to use John Ruskin’s memorable term….The packaging industry, much of which is devoted to marketing wares, is the third largest industry in the world after food and energy… Around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. Only two-thirds of this is enough, according to the Guardian, ‘to cover the 48 contiguous states of the U.S. in plastic food wrapping.’…Durability is the enemy of the system. Maximum profits are thus generated by a throwaway culture. The economic life of cell phones in the Untied States is only a couple of years due to both planned and psychological obsolescence, with the result that 140 million cell phones reached what the Environmental Protection Agency refers to as their ‘end of life’ (EOL) in 2007. Some 250 million computers and peripherals reached their EOL in the same year. In 2006 Steve Jobs urged customers to buy an iPod every year to keep up with the latest technology. More than 150 billion single-use beverage containers are purchased in the United States every year, while 320 million take-out cups are bought and discarded each day. Since the 1960s, one-time-use containers have risen from 6 percent of packaged soft drinks to 99 percent today. The more than 100 billion pieces of mostly unwanted junk mail delivered to homes and businesses in the United States each year add 51 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. In an economy designed to maximize overall waste, products are systematically made so as to no longer be repairable.”[6]

That’s not “good for the environment,” to say the least.

And never mind that RECC cultivates and preys on the destruction of the human psyche. As Foster and Clark note:

“Marketing commodities in ways that exploit the alienation of human beings in monopoly capitalist society is now a fine art. As early as 1933, sociologist Robert S. Lynd observed in a monograph entitled, ‘The People as Consumers,’ written for the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends, that ‘advertising, branding, and style’ changes were designed to take full advantage of the social insecurity and alienation brought on by changing economic conditions. Corporations looked on ‘job insecurity, monotony, loneliness, failure to marry, and other situations of tension’ as opportunities for elevating ‘more and more commodities to the class of personality buffers. At each exposed point the alert merchandiser is ready with a panacea.’ The symbolic need that commodities thus attain in our society is crucial to what Juliet Schor has called ‘the materiality paradox,’ i.e., the selling of material goods to satisfy needs that cannot in fact be met by material commodities. Ironically, it is this inability to obtain satisfaction from these commodities that ensures capital a permanent market—as long as, we are constantly told, ‘satisfaction is guaranteed.’ Marketing plays on these social vulnerabilities, creating an endless series of new wants, enhancing the overall wastefulness of the system.”[7]

That’s not good for the soul, or the environment, however much it might help spur the Gross National Product (“the economy”).

The Myth of the Sovereign Consumer

Livingston is ready for such criticisms, of course. It is one of Livingston’s core contentions (embedded in the title of his book [8]) that consumers have the power to heal the environment by making smart, soulful, and green decisions about what sorts of goods and services they wish to consume and how. Such decisions, Livingston notes, are based on the basic human need and desire for real use values, not the relentless lust for endless accumulation of exchange values (wealth) that drives capital when it enters Marx’s famous money and commodity cycle (M [money]-C-[commodity]-M’ [money “prime,” with profit added on]). They permit us, Livingston contends, to put ecologically friendly values – energy efficiency, reduced pollution and greenhouse emissions, de-industrialized food, sustainable agriculture, etc. – at the heart of economic development and production. At the same time, he argues, “consumer culture” holds out to us the dream of a world beyond production and toil – a bridge to a world geared toward simple, free-flowing, psyche-nourishing human enjoyment and pleasure, not endless labor serving the infinite accumulation needs of the investor-class few.[9]

There are two fatal flaws in Livingston’s ecological argument. The first is Livingston’s embrace of the myth of the sovereign consumer, which inverts the dark essence of contemporary capitalism. “With one of every twelve dollars of U.S. GDP spent on marketing (which does not include the marketing costs built into the production of the commodities themselves),” Foster and Clark note, “consumer sovereignty is a mere illusion. Individuals in society are subject to relentless marketing propaganda nearly every moment of their waking lives. Indeed, as John Kenneth Galbraith argued through his famous ‘dependence effect,’ the way we consume in today’s capitalism is largely dependent on the way we produce, and not the other way around.”[10]

Green capitalist niche markets aside, that harsh reality isn’t going away until citizen-workers gain control of the “forces of production” to “rationally regulate” society’s “interchange with Nature” [production]),…achieving …under conditions…worthy of their human nature.”



The second fatal flaw in Livingston’s argument is the belief that green, that is energy-efficient consuming and producing is good for the environment. Which brings us to David Owen. Moving from Livingston’sAgainst Thrift to Owen’s The Conundrum takes us from an author who knows Marx’s work butmisrepresents Marx in telling us to consumer more to an author who seems completely oblivious to Marx and other anti-capitalist thinkers before and since in the course of telling us to consume less.

Unlike Livingston, Owen is a serious and significantly science-based environmental thinker [11] who cares deeply about livable ecology. The Conundrum is dedicated to puncturing the notion that we can purchase and energy-efficiency-ize our way out of environmental collapse. Hybrid cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs, e-books, solar panels, fast trains, local foods, carbon offsets – for Owen these and other supposedly sustainable products and eco-living strategies “are irrelevant or make the real problems worse.” [12]

Owen’s judgment is based on an economic principle called the “rebound effect.” Under the “rebound” rule, increased energy efficiency reduces the cost of a given item or activity, causing increased consumption, which cancels out energy savings (what some analysts call “backfire”) and thereby negates environmental gain. Owen’s book takes aim at what he calls “the Prius Fallacy” – the “belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.”[13] As numerous studies and reports demonstrate, government-mandated increases in fuel efficiency have led to gas consumption going up since people simply drive more miles and buy larger vehicles with increased horsepower (the SUV). Owen also dismisses HOV lanes, traffic-control systems, and smart-phone apps for finding a parking spot as “counterproductive from an environmental point of view because they make drivers even happier with cars than they were already.”

The Conundrum is packed with other eco-ironic predicaments. Air conditioners are more efficient and affordable and so more homes are now air-conditioned. The more affordable light bulbs get, the more they’re left on. The more efficient and cheap refrigeration has become, the more cold storage has proliferated (your local gas station has more cooling capacity than large grocery stores possessed 40 years ago). Airplanes may be more energy-efficient and faster than ever, but this only means that it has become cheaper to fly longer distances. And so on. “The environmental problem with such advances,” Owen writes, “is that the productivity gains have almost always been reinvested in additional production: as we’ve gotten better at making things, we’ve made more things.”[14]

Jevons’ Paradox 2.0

Speeding through Owens’ easily readable book (another contrast with Livingston’s tedious Against Thrift)[15], I kept waiting to see the phrase “Jevon’s Paradox.” The term finally came on page 102, prior to a short chapter titled simply “William Stanley Jevons.” Jevons was the 1860s English economist who famously responded to British officials who were worried that their glorious industrial system was going to run out of coal by observing that rising technical efficiency – most particularly economical burning of coal in mechanical engines – actually boosted absolute national consumption of coal and other resources rather than saving them. “It is the very economy of [coal’s] use,” Jevons proclaimed in The Coal Question (1865), “which leads to its extensive consumption….. [E]very improvement of the engine….does but accelerate anew the consumption of coal[16]…..It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”[17]

So it is today, as Owens knows. “Jevon’s Paradox” is alive and well on our ever more endangered planet. As Foster notes:

“Technological advancements in motor vehicles, which have increased the average miles per gallon of vehicles by 30 percent in the United States since 1980, have not reduced the overall energy used by motor vehicles. Fuel consumption per vehicle stayed constant while the efficiency gains led to the augmentation, not only of the numbers of cars and trucks on the roads (and the miles driven) but also their size and ‘performance’ (acceleration rate, cruising speed, etc.) – so that SUVs and minivans now dot U.S. highways. At the macro-level…even though the United States managed to double its energy efficiency since 1975, its energy consumption has risen dramatically. Over the last thirty-five years, Juliet Schor notes, ‘energy expended per-dollar of GFP has been cut in half. But rather than falling, energy demand has increased by roughly 40 percent. Moreover, demand is rising fastest in those sectors that have had the biggest efficiency gains – transport and residential energy use.’”[18]

“No Non-Radical Option”

What to do? Owen argues (as Jevons did in his time) for reduced overall consumption in the interests of longer term sustainability. One his book’s many chapters is titled “The Importance of Less.” We simply must consume less, much less, as a species. And that means that society must drop its commitment to “permanent, year-over-year economic growth.”[19] Towards that end, Owen reasonably wants Americans to cut energy use by living closer together. (He holds up New York City as “the [unintentionally] greenest community in the United States” because the metropolis is dense, living spaces are restricted, public transportation is [mostly] convenient, and car ownership is low)[20]. He wants citizens and officeholders to undertake policies that acknowledge “the environmental necessity of imposing frugality” by compelling reduced consumption of natural resources: increasing fuel taxes and capping consumption. He wants us to metaphorically drive Model T’s: “If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model T’s, how many miles do you think you’d drive each year, and how far do you think you’d live from work?” In Owen’s view, “Efficiency initiatives make no sense as an environmental strategy unless they’re preceded—and more than negated—by measures that force major cuts in total energy use.”[21]

Along with “steady state” and anti-growth/degrowth experts he cites (e.g. Herman Daly), Owen rightly notes that continuous economic growth – even the so-called green growth favored by “green capitalism” advocates like Paul Hawken and Paul Krugman (and professor Livingston) – is simply unsustainable on finite Earth. The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[22] As Naomi Klein notes, “our relentless quest for economic growth” is “killing the planet” (killing livable ecology that is – the planet will outlive us).[23]

Capitalism: The Real Conundrum

Owen is mistaken, however, if the thinks it is sufficient to criticize pseudo-green methods and technologies and to call for less consumption, invoking the ghost of Jevons. The “rebound” and “backfire” he deplores is not simply a function of unintended technological consequences. There’s nothing wrong with technological energy efficiency as such. In and of itself, indeed, it should be a very positive thing, much to be encouraged. The problem is that the technological “improvements” Owen knows not to be the solution – and even as contributors to the problem – have been introduced under capitalism, a system in which cheaper inputs help profit-hungry corporations sell more products to more consumers, pushing sales and return on investment (profit) higher. “Under different social arrangements,” the economic historian Richard Smith notes, “if profit were not the goal of production, then such gains in efficiency could indeed save…natural resources for the benefit of society and future generations.” [24] The trick is to create what Foster calls “a system in which efficiency is no longer a curse – a higher system in which equality, human development, community, and sustainability are the explicit goals.”[25]

Owen’s second, intimately related mistake is that he fails to understand that calling for an end to continuous growth means calling for an end to capitalism. Growth is not optional under capitalism. It is built into the system. As Smith notes, “irresistible and relentless pressures for growth are functions of the day-to-day requirements of capitalist reproduction in a competitive market, incumbent on all but a few business….”[26]Most businesses know very well that “grow or die” is for them a maxim of survival thanks to the pressures they face: (i) to find markets for their every-expanding productivity and output; (ii) to defend their position against capitalist competitors. The eloquent eco-socialist Joel Kovel puts it very well in the recent collaborative book Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA:

“However capitalism may be dressed up as a society of democracy, free markets, or progress, its first priority is profitability and, therefore growth, the eternal expansion of the economic product. This requires converting everything possible into monetary value….As [Marx] vividly wrote in Capital: ‘Accumulate! Accumulate! That is the Moses and the prophets’…capital is in the grip of a quasi-religious impulse that drives its system to convert the entire Earth – its oceans and atmosphere and everything under the sun – into commodities to be sold on the market, the profits converted to capital…Seen in this light, capitalism is truly pathological….a kind of metastasizing cancer, a disease that demands radical treatment – revolutionary change.”[27]

The “Global Treadmill of Production”

At the same time, cancerous though it may be to the environment, economic growth is an imperative for the majority of the population, which relies on it for jobs and more. As Smith notes after asking the question “why would anyone want a steady-state capitalism?”:

“Poll after poll shows that ordinary citizens want to see the environment cleaned up, want to a see a stop to the pillage of the planet, the destruction of their children’s future. But as workers in a capitalist economy, ‘no growth’ just means no jobs….if corporations and the economy do not continuously grow, where would the jobs come from for the workers’ children? Today, in the United States, there are said to be at least seven applicants for every available job. Where are the other six people going to find jobs if there is no growth? And this situation is far worse in the developing world, where unemployment levels are off the charts.”[28]

Welcome to what Foster has called ago “the global treadmill of production.” As he explained:

“The logic of this treadmill can be broken down into six elements. First, built into this global system, and constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of ‘social security’ for a least a portion of its citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.”

“A defining trait of the system is that it is a kind of giant squirrel cage. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place.” [29]

The same irrational systemic imperatives that drive capitalism into recurrent cycles of boom and bust turn the profits system into a cancerous threat to human existence. The extermination of the species is practically an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky[30]) for the western business class that stands atop this malignant rat-wheel treadmill of endless accumulation.

The Ghost of Marx

David Owen might have understood all this if he’d look at another great thinker who worked on political economy in England during the 1860s besides Jevons. I am referring, of course, to Marx. For the Jevons Paradox in both its original and subsequent forms is at heart an example of the larger efficiency conundrum of capitalism as understood by Marx. Gains in labor productivity, for example, do not commonly lead to reductions in total time spent in labor because the goal behind such gains under the rule of capital is to advance further accumulation of profit. As Marx noted, the reduction of working time is “by no means the aim of the application of machinery under capitalism…. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value” and thereby for enhancing endless capital accumulation.[31] Like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and generations of subsequent bourgeois economists through Keynes and beyond, moreover, Marx understood quite well that capitalism depends on endless overall economic expansion.[32]

It would be wonderful if we could heal the environment through green, energy-efficient consumption and production. And it would be great if we could move to a steady-state de-growth economy which values the common environmental good over the endless consumption and accumulation of exchange values. But these things simply won’t happen under capitalism, a system that can no more forego growth and continue than people can stop breathing and live on. The profit system’s core definition of efficiency always comes down not to true and general social efficiency but to specifically capitalist efficiency: maximum return on private investment.

This is particularly true in the age of the corporation. Under the corporate form, top corporate managers lack the freedom to opt for de-growth or prioritize ecological concerns over profit. “Corporations,” Richard Smith notes, “are owned by masses of shareholders. And the shareholders are not looking for ‘stasis;’ they are looking to maximize portfolio gains, so they drive their CEOs forward.” Moreover, those CEOs are forbidden by US law to privilege social responsibility (including environmental responsibility) over the profit interests of shareholders. As Smith argues, following Marx, “we need a completely different kind of economic system, a non-capitalist economic system based on human needs, environmental needs, and a completely different value system, not based on profit.”[33]

Such, surely, would be the conclusion of Marx’s imagine “associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”


Of course, Marx is long dead. It’s not about him or his real or purported followers. And it’s not about political labels. It’s about the survival of “future as well as present generations …including…other species with which we share this precious blue planet.” As Smith concludes: “‘Socialism’? ‘Economic democracy?’ Call it what you like…Either we save capitalism or we save ourselves. We can’t save both.”[34]

Professor Livingston’s dream of a greener mass-consumer- and use-value-driven capitalism (calling for “more”) and Owen’s dream of a sustainable capitalism (calling for less) are both beside the point. It’s not about consuming and producing less or more at the end of the day. It’s about what: (a) production and consumption for the common good and in accord with democratic principles, or (b) production and consumption for private profit, under the command of the unelected dictatorship of capital? A growing body of earth science and historical understanding suggests rather strongly that human survival and the survival of other living things on Earth requires a fairly rapid transcendence of the latter by the former. As the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put it thirteen years ago, “We are running out of time. . . . The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.[35]


1. See the embarrassing late November 2007 document “Historians for Obama,” History News Network, The laugh-out-loud punch line came at the end: “As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people’.” “Stretch the meaning of democracy” seems a bit of an understatement more than six years later, though not in the direction meant by the dozens of historians who signed. See “Civil Liberties Under Obama With Glenn Greenwald,” Speech to International Socialist Organization, Chicago, Illinois, July 2011, – a soul-numbing reflection on Obama’s assault on civil liberties prior to the Snowden revelations.

2. Karl Marx, The German Ideology [1845] (New York: International, 2001). 53

3. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole [1867[ (New York: International, 1976), 820

4. For evidence that some success was achieved in that regard, see Livingston’s appearance on the “Public” Broadcasting System’s power-worshipping “Newshour” ( and Livingston’s attainment of Op-Ed spaces in the New York Times ( and ) and Bloomberg News ( and appearances on Bloomberg TV,

5. Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic, 1992), 107-138; Juliet Schor, The Overspent American (New York: Basic, 1998), 99, 162-63, 240-41.

6. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),

7. Foster and Clark, “Planetary Emergency.”

8. I am referring to the phrase “good for the environment,” in the title. It is odd that the only environmental reference in Against Thrift’s index is the following: “Environmental concerns: moral life of consumer, 179-181; online shopping, 22; and food revolution, 183.” That’s four pages in a 257-page book that puts “good for the environment” in its title.

9. Livingston, Against Thrift, 22, 180.

10. Foster and Clark, “Planetary Emergency.”

11. Thus, Owen would never write something like the following: “We’re as much a part of Nature as the soil itself, because since the Neolithic revolution our planting and harvesting…have been changing the physical and even the chemical composition of the earth. So the ‘material reality’ of the world is not a fixed externality that operates according to laws of motion we didn’t devise: most of the ‘things themselves’ that make up this earth, including the trees and the deserts, wouldn’t be here without us, because, God help us, we were present at their creation” (Livingston, Against Thrift, 180). Livingston is right to note (rather elementarily) that humanity has long shaped what we call Nature but of course there are numerous natural laws that we did not devise. We may come to understand and work with the Second Law of Thermodynamics or General Relativity or Wave-Particle Duality but that hardly makes us authors of Nature, whose laws we still incompletely understand. Those laws were in operation before we appeared on the planet and will outlast us if and when we disappear – a distinct possibility over the next millennium thanks in no small part to anthropogenic climate change and other generally growth-driven human interventions in natural systems, undertaken in arrogant defiance of Natural laws.

12. Owen, The Conundrum, 2.

13. Owen, The Conundrum, 95.

14. Owen summarizes “the conundrum” with a personal anecdote: “On my desk I have an old beer can, from the 1940s, that once contained twelve ounces of Hampden ‘mild but sturdy’ ale. The empty can (which I found inside a wall in my house during a renovation project) weights seventy-nine grams, or five and half times as much as a modern twelve-ounce beverage can made of aluminum. That modern can represents an impressive feat of dematerialization. But has the slimming of our disposable contains caused the per capita human waste stream to shrink? Or has it merely enabled and encouraged us to become still more reckless in our consumption” Owen, The Conundrum, 32.

15. Though Owen’s book lacks something that Livingston’s book shares with most serious nonfiction volumes: an index. This, if after you’ve finished reading Against Thrift and want to review everything he Livingston wrote about, say, Keynes or Marx or savings, you can do that fairly quickly. To review what Owen had to say about Herman Daly or Model Ts or carbon caps or Jevons and so on, you have to pretty much leaf through the book again and again. The movement away from serious indexes in nonfiction publishing is an intellectual atrocity.

16. William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question, third edition (New York: Kelley, 1905), cited in Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014),

17. Jevons, The Coal Question, cited in Owen, The Conundrum, 104. Emphasis in Jevons.

18. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 178.

19. Owen, The Conundrum, 246.

20. Owen, The Conundrum, 38-60.

21. Owen, The Conundrum, 149, 151-152

22. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,”

23. Naomi Klein, “How Science is Telling Us to Revolt,” New Statesman (October 29, 2013),

24. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?” (see note 13, above)

25. Foster et al. The Ecological Rift, 181.

26. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

27. Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecolsocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28

28. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

29. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at

30. “I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative.” Noam Chomsky, “Is t he World Too Big to Fail?” TomDispatch (August 20, 2012),,_who_owns_the_world_

31. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 492.

32. P.M. Mathew, “Marxism in Revival Mode,” The New Indian Express, August 22, 2013,; William Appleman Williams, The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic Into the Dialogue About America’s Future (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1964), 31; Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

33. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

34. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

35. Istvan Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 80; emphasis added