The writings of Karl Marx showed an understanding of capitalism as a system that distorts humanity’s relationship to the environment, writes Jasmine Ali
“Let us not however flatter ourselves over much on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and the third cases has unforseen effects, which only too often cancel out the first.
“With everyday that passes, we are learning to understand these laws more correctly (laws of nature), and getting to know more about the immediate and more remote consequences of our interference in the traditional course of nature. But the more this happens, the more will humans not only feel, but also know their unity with nature, and thus more impossible will become the senseless, and anti-natural idea, of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, body and soul.”
—Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature
The worsening ecological crisis—the urgent issue of climate change, depletion of land, forests, and water resources are all indications that something has gone terribly wrong in the relationship between society and the environment.
In Australia, despite the CPRS legislation, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise and the federal and state governments relentlessly expand carbon-intensive industries. In Papua New Guinea, the Ok Tedi copper mine creates 80,000 tonnes of waste rock and disgorges 120,000 tonnes of tailings a day into the Fly River, which 30,000 local people depend on for fishing.
The Amazon rainforest, commonly described as the Earth’s lungs, producing 20 per cent of the Earth’s oxygen, lost an area larger than the size of Greece to deforestation between 2000 and 2006.
These environmental problems have been widely documented and deeply felt. Yet the ecological destruction of the Earth continues unabated. This raises the question—what is the root of the reckless destruction of nature and the environment?
Environmental problems are generally understood as a product of human beings’ domination over nature—the unavoidable result of human society. The argument evokes a social-Darwinist view of all against all and the “survival of the fittest” in which humanity inevitably destroys the physical environment.
Another line of argument associated with green political thought suggests that the planet’s destruction is a result of “anthropocentric” attitudes, that privilege human-centred activity at the expense of other species. Some say that this human-centredness is founded in the “Euro-centric” traditions of Western thought, and is responsible for an “exploitative paradigm” that continues from Biblical to modern times.
Certain strands of deep green environmentalism even suggest that scientific “rationality” and technology itself is the source of environmental degradation. Writers such as Mae Wan Ho and Vandana Shiva (in her book Stolen Harvest) are trenchant critics of the corporate abuse of the environment but also reject science as yet another attempt to dominate nature.
Although these ideas rightly identify that something more fundamental than a casual disregard for the environment is at play, such notions embody a type of fatalism. They are underpinned by the idea that what happens to the environment is outside the realm of human agency and control.
These sorts of explanations are not only ahistorical, they ultimately accept that the despoilation of the environment is inescapable, unless population is cut or humanity returns to more “natural”, say, peasant-like existence of an earlier feudal mode of production.
Historically, human societies have developed many different ways of relating to and working with the environment. Aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies lived sustainably with the land for around 60,000 years, both adapting to and changing the environment.
The Aborigines’ use of fire, for example, significantly transformed the fauna and flora of the natural environment, but it was not until the British class system was brutally introduced into Australia that the issue of sustainability became a problem.
Although environmental damage, such as the deforestation and soil erosion of Easter Island 1300 years ago, occurred in previous class societies, the magnitude of capitalist environmental degradation dramatically surpasses any previous society. As a system based on competition and unceasing accumulation, capitalism has relegated nature to a mere “input” to a profit-driven system.
As witnesses to the early stages of capitalism’s development from feudalism, Marx and Engels wrote about the destruction of nature as being inextricably connected to the development of industrial capitalism and anticipated much of present-day ecological thought.
At the centre of Marx’s critique was that capitalism had created an “irreparable rift” in the “metabolic” interaction between human beings and the earth. The use of “metabolic” reflects a key ecological component of Marx’s political writings—that human beings, like other animals, were a part of nature and relied on nature for the maintenance and reproduction of life. Yet they are a distinctive part, as humans subsist through the conscious and collective activity of labour.
Labour, as a cooperative activity, is not simply a means to an end, but is also the potential expression of the creative capacities of human beings—the “metabolism” of humans’ relationship with nature.
The rift Marx described was a result of the way capitalism uprooted previous modes of existence (and the specific relations with nature), re-structuring the economy and society.
This included the creation of capitalist technologies in agriculture and the growing division between town and country. For Marx and Engels, the problem of sustainability was inextricably linked to the transformation of nature that took place with capitalism.
The ecological aspects of Marx’s thought are little known and there is a general view that Marx had little to say about the environment.
Academia commonly portrays Marx as having a technocratic and pro-industrial outlook that continued the “exploitative paradigms” of the capitalists he so bitterly criticised. As a result, Marx, and Marxism, is charged with taking nature for granted and with advocating a socialism that is based on unconstrained “growth”.
Even more sympathetic views often distinguish between a “softer”, “romantic” Marx of his early Philosophical Manuscripts, and the “harder”, “technocratic” Marx of Capital. These versions mistakenly paint Marx and Marxists as being crude economic determinists, advocating science and technology as the solution to environmental problems.
However Marx’s writing in both early and later works anticipated the principles that are now associated with ecological thought that emerged in the 20th century. These principles broadly understand that there is a complex inter-relationship between all living organisms and their physical environments.
The ecological aspects of Marx’s thought, like so many others, have been distorted by the historical association of Marxism with the rise of Stalinism in Russia.
Stalin’s rule saw massive destruction of the environment and people as Stalin drove a massive effort to industrialise in order to compete with the West.
Stalin’s Russia was not socialist or communist—it is better understood as being “state capitalist”—founded on the defeat of the revolution of 1917 and driven by the same logic of capitalist accumulation that drove the West. Hence the characteristic Stalinist iconography of the triumphant worker, with a tractor, “subduing” the land.
Marx and capitalism
Marx’s description of the “irreparable rift” that emerged as a result of capitalist production was drawn from his studies of the bourgeoning industrial agriculture in the 19th century and its impact on soil fertility in Europe and North America.
During the 1820s and 1830s European farmers were so desperate for ways to replenish soil nutrients that the Napoleonic battlefields of Waterloo and Austerlitz were reportedly raided to dig up bones for phosphate to spread over their fields.
The mounting crisis in soil fertility, its impact on crop yields and therefore profits stimulated the development of synthetic fertilisers and what is termed the “second agricultural revolution”. Justin von Liebig, a German chemist was commissioned by wealthy landowners to investigate soil nutrients and later developed the first synthetic fertilisers.
Marx also observed how soil depletion and capitalist agriculture fuelled the beginnings of imperialism as the demand for fertiliser resulted in massive importation of guano from Peru. Both Liebig and Marx drew the conclusion that these new “high farming” methods of British agriculture were a “robbery” system opposed to any sort of rational farming. Marx writes:
“All progress in capitalist agriculture, is not only a process in robbing the labourer but robbing the soil. All progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the last sources of that fertility.
“The more a country develops its foundations of modern industry, the more the rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production therefore develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth, the soil and the labourer.” (Capital, Volume I, chapter 15)
By the late 1860s, the contradictions of capitalist agriculture were obvious to Liebig and Marx as agriculture had ceased to be self-sustaining.
Although the initial application of single nutrients such as phosphate generated dramatic results, it diminished rapidly, as soil fertility is limited by the nutrient in least abundance. Marx pointed out that the developments in soil science in this way actually laid the basis for further degradation of the soil.
In recent times, the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops on the world market presents an almost identical story. GM products are said to be the solution to world hunger today. But GM development is driven by agri-businesses’ capitalist concerns to control production with no consideration for its ecological impact.
Traditional breeding technologies, advocated by The Union of Concerned Scientists, which rely on selective breeding which operates on whole organisms rather then genetic engineering, have been shown to be immensely successful but have received far less support.
This mis-use of science and technology is a product of its development and control under capitalism. Marx’s writing, far from advocating a blind and uncritical reliance on science and technology as a means to solve environmental issues, revealed the way that science and technology were subordinated to the maintenance of the capitalist system. The question is therefore what science? And in whose interests?
Why capitalism destroys the environment
Capitalism is a system based on competition and the production of profits for an elite.
Marx described the capitalist’s mantra in Capital, as “Accumulate, accumulate! That is both Moses and the prophets”. The foundation and maintenance of capitalist economies relies on the dual exploitation of the working class and the environment.
Capitalism produces things, commodities, to be bought and sold on the market.
The commodification of all aspects of life under capitalism has also transformed nature into a commodity. This process divides nature into “things” to be exchanged on the market and in effect separates nature from itself—that is, it removes natural resources from their role in the ecosystem.
Industrial logging destroys forests, industrial fishing destroys fisheries and industrial use of fossil fuels creates the greenhouse effect.
The narrow-sightedness of capitalist production is a product of the system itself. As the very existence of individual units of capital is founded on the logic of ensuring profits and markets, the environment is just another input. The health of the ecosystem cannot be registered as a genuine priority.
Why the working class?
The fight for a sustainable future therefore goes beyond changing attitudes and ideas about the environment.
The root of environmental destruction is capitalist production. It is the commercial, corporate and industrial complex that is responsible for the scale of environmental degradation we see today.
Creating a sustainable society will require an active challenge to, and the eventual overthrow, of the existing relations of production.
While Marx understood capitalism’s destructive ability, he also saw that capitalism itself created the potential power for that destructive system to be challenged.
In an oft-quoted phrase in the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to the working class as the “grave-diggers of capitalism.” Capitalist production concentrates large numbers of people in the modern day workplace—from traditional factory workers and construction workers to call centre workers and teachers. Through collective action such as strikes, workers have the ability to stop environmental degradation where it begins—at the point of production.
Trade unions, as organisations to defend working class wages and conditions have also played important roles in stopping environment destruction. In the 1970s, the green bans of the Builder’s Labourers Federation protected natural heritage sites and low cost housing from developers. Similarly union bans on handling uranium yellow cake put a halt to the expansion of uranium mining for many years.
Working class action challenged the immediate priorities of capitalism and also raised the more fundamental question of workers’ control over both the natural and built environment.
An orientation towards union activity opens up serious possibilities for tackling the current ecological problems that confront us. Just as capitalism and environmental destruction are inextricably linked so, too, is the future of the planet tied to the future of the working class.
The Rudd government’s use of Howard’s industrial police, the ABCC, to threaten construction worker Ark Tribe with jail, and the NSW government attempt to privatise electricity and ferries, are opportunities to build the climate movement, winning unionists to the fight for green jobs and to oppose the false market-based solution of an emissions trading scheme.
A victory for unions is a victory for the climate movement, and the environment movement as a whole. It is only by confronting the system that is responsible for obliterating the earth that the fight against environmental degradation is winnable.
The history of the green bans is a small example of the potential power of the working class to fight for truly sustainable society in which humankind and nature are not in conflict.