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Climate change: What would Frederick Engels say?

By Martin O'Beirne

September 30, 2013 -- The Ecosocialist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- We had not yet destabilised the climate and trounced other planetary ecological boundaries back in 1876 when Frederick Engels wrote these passages in his unfinished The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man. But it is clear that back then Engels had established a biophilous ethic, or in his words:

The senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body ... but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature ... [and] the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature.

Engels expressed an understanding and a prelude of ongoing realisations of the deleterious effects of anthropogenic influence (as is topical with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent report that increases the certainty of climate change being human-made from 66% in 2001 to 90% in 2007 and now 95%) "with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature" and "The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries".

A quote from the new IPCC report which brings Engels' observation to the present day:

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes …

In response to the new report the media seem oddly focused on whether or not, or to what extent humans are to blame. Which is a sidestep away from reporting how destructive scientists say climate change is and a sidestep away from taking responsibility and acknowledging that we can actually do something about it. In 1876 Engels was proactive and aware that we could take steps to reverse or mitigate the consequences of our interference with ecosystems.

In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities.

Engels links the destabilisation of ecosystems with the capitalist moda operandi in its short-sighted drive for immediate profit and accumulation.

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account... In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate most tangeble result... What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees.

Brilliant Engels was generally considered more practical than his outrageously intelligent colleague Karl Marx. He would probably advise that you not get too bogged down with reading all this jibberjabber and loosely be guided by a commitment to anti-capitalism & ecology.

He has been quoted as saying (although a citation has never been found): "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory!"

So go on a march somewhere, join an organisation, raise awareness/teach, or indulge in some civic organising or civil disobedience (and he may even suggest that you sign the petition for a million climate jobs :)

Engels:

We are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula.

And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate most tangeble result.

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