Karl Marx argued that capitalism was a system that distorts humanity’s relationship to the environment

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.

Despite widespread official recognition of the catastrophic threats posed by this crisis, including formal UN agreements to limit carbon emissions since the early 1990s, ecological destruction has only accelerated.

In Australia, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and the Morrison government wants to extend the life of coal-fired power stations and encourage new mines.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, commonly described as the Earth’s lungs, producing 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen, has grown to its fastest ever pace.

Our rulers refuse to act because any meaningful change requires confrontation with the fundamental logic of the capitalist system that produces their wealth and power. Capitalism is a form of social organisation based on competition, where production is run on the basis of profit for the benefit of a tiny elite.

The destructive operations of capitalism are unique in human history. Human societies have developed many different ways of relating to the environment. Aboriginal societies in Australia lived sustainably with the land for at least 60,000 years, both adapting to and changing the environment.

Their use of fire, for example, significantly transformed the fauna and flora. It was not until the British class system was brutally introduced into Australia that sustainability became an issue.

Although environmental damage, such as the deforestation and soil erosion on Easter Island 1300 years ago, occurred in previous class societies, the magnitude of capitalist environmental degradation dramatically surpasses anything previously. Capitalism has relegated nature to a mere “input” to a system driven by competition and profit.

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. This anticipated much of present-day ecological thought.

At the centre of Marx’s critique was the idea that capitalism had created an “irreparable rift” in the “metabolic” interaction between human beings and the earth.

The idea of this “metabolic” relationship reflects a key 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 we are also distinct from other creatures in that the food and shelter humans require comes from nature through a process of conscious labour. We are capable of planning and thinking through the way we produce our livelihood in a way no other creatures can.

The rift that Marx described was a result of the way capitalism uprooted previous modes of existence (and their specific relations with nature), re-structuring the economy and society.
This included the creation of new agricultural technologies and the growing division between town and country.

Marx’s ecology

The ecological aspects of Marx’s thought are little known and there is a widespread view that Marx had little to say about the environment.

Marx is often portrayed as having a pro-industrial outlook that continued the “exploitative paradigms” of the capitalists he so bitterly criticised. As a result, Marx is charged with taking nature for granted and with advocating a socialism based on unconstrained “growth”.

Others distinguish a “softer”, “romantic” Marx of his early Philosophical Manuscripts, and the “harder”, “technocratic” Marx of Capital. This mistakenly paints Marx and Marxists as being crude economic determinists, advocating science and technology as the solution to environmental problems.

The ecological aspects of Marx’s thought, like so many others, have been distorted by the historical association of Marxism with Stalinism in Russia.

Stalin’s rule saw massive environmental destruction as he 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 as in the West.

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 burgeoning 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 raided for bones 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 capitalist agriculture fuelled 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 in Capital:

“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.”

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, this 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 presents a similar story. GM products are said to be the solution to world hunger.

But GM development is driven by agri-businesses’ concerns to control production and increase profits, not any consideration of their ecological impact.

This misuse of science and technology is a result of the way it is developed and controlled under capitalism.

Marx’s writing, far from advocating a blind and uncritical reliance on science and technology, was acutely aware of this problem.

Capitalism produces things, commodities, to be bought and sold on the market.

The commodification of all aspects of life has also transformed nature too into a commodity. This process divides nature into products to be exchanged on the market, removing natural resources from their role in the ecosystem.

Industrial logging destroys forests, industrial fishing destroys fisheries and industrial use of fossil fuels drives climate change.

As the very existence of individual companies relies on ensuring profits, 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 scale of the environmental destruction we see today is the system of capitalist production. 

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 to challenge it.

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 strike action, 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 defending the environment. 

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 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.

Union power is crucial to winning the transition to renewable energy and the zero carbon economy that we need. And it the working class alone that has the power to get rid of the system that now threatens catastrophic climate change.

The history of the green bans is a small example of the potential power of the working class to fight for a truly sustainable society in which humanity and nature are not in conflict.

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