21st century Marxists need to return to Marx’s ecological critique

By Simon Butler

March 23, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- Do oil spills make good economic sense? A witness called by Canadian firm Enbridge Inc.— which wants approval to build a $6.5 billion pipeline linking Alberta’s tar sands with the Pacific coast — told a recent hearing in British Columbia (BC) that the answer is yes.

He said oil spills could benefit the economy, giving business new opportunities to make money cleaning it up. He told Fishers Union representatives that an oil spill in BC might indeed kill the local fishing industry, but their lost income would be replaced by compensation payouts and new career prospects, such as working for oil cleanup crews.

Upon reading this, some readers might protest: “That’s just not fair! How come British Columbian communities reap all the economic gains of a potential oil spill disaster, when we have to live in relative safety?”

It’s easy to laugh at this kind of thinking, to write it off as a desperate ploy by a greedy oil company.

The argument assumes it could be more useful to allow an oil spill than prevent it from happening. It assumes the ecological, social, health and emotional costs of such a disaster can be calculated in financial terms and neatly balanced off with a cash payment.

It suggests there is no fundamental economic difference between activity that maintains or destroys human lives and natural ecosystems. It says the short-term financial returns from causing pollution count for more than maintaining the integrity of the biosphere for the indefinite future. It accepts that the ruination of the natural world helps provide generous new opportunities to expand capital.

But before we laugh too hard, we should recognise that the world’s big corporations make all of these assumptions on a day-to-day basis. The argument put to the British Columbian hearing was cruder than most, but it is entirely consistent with the inner logic, and everyday practice, of the capitalist system.

British-German economist E.F. Schumacher once said: “The strength of the idea of private enterprise lies in its terrifying simplicity. It suggests that the totality of life can be reduced to one aspect – profits.”

Marx’s ecology

Famous for their analysis of capitalism and call for social revolution, Karl Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels are far less known for their ecological thinking, which held that capitalism inevitably tears apart the natural conditions that sustain life.

They argued capitalism’s exploitation of working people, and the unsustainable exploitation of nature, were linked and part of the same process. In 1844, Engels remarked: “To make the Earth an object of huckstering — the Earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence — was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering.”

Marx had a coherent approach to ecology, which emphasised the historically conditioned, co-evolution of nature and human society. Marx’s two most important ecological insights were “the treadmill of production” and “the metabolic rift”. The treadmill of production refers to capital’s impulse to unlimited expansion, its relentless drive to increase profits, regardless of the ecosphere’s natural limits.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Nature is a circular system where everything is recycled. This is the opposite of capitalism’s linear, treadmill economy, which overloads natural systems with ever-growing amounts of waste products: waste gases into the sky, waste pollutants into water, and waste chemicals and toxins into the soil.

The metabolic rift refers to Marx’s theory that capitalist production for profit creates a sharp break in the crucial two-way relationship — the metabolism — between nature and human society. Marx’s concept of metabolism incorporates the material and energetic exchanges between human society and the natural world, which is mediated by the process of human labour.

Marx arrived at this conclusion from his research into how industrial agriculture tended to reduce fertility, depriving the soil and the workers of nourishment and sustenance. But he also understood the concept of the metabolic rift on a global scale, as colonies in the global South had their natural resources and soil fertility plundered to support Western capitalist development — an imperialist project that continues today.

Healing this rift and building a truly sustainable society was a central goal in Marx's vision of a democratic socialist future. In Capital, he said: “Freedom ... can only consist in this, that socialised [humans], the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their own collective control rather than being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

Engels said capitalism helped destroy the natural world because “in relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result”.

In the early years of the Russian revolution, Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin drew on Marx’s arguments about the link between human society and nature. He concluded: “If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world; all its culture will inevitably pass away; society itself will be reduced to dust.”

Restore Marx’s ecological critique

In a passage near the end of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels discuss what makes communists stand out from other political parties and groups. First, revolutionaries always fight alongside working people for their immediate aims. But the manifesto goes on to say that “in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement”.

To truly fulfil this dual role today, 21st century Marxists have to learn from the mistakes of 20th century Marxists who mostly failed to recognise how fundamental ecology was to Marx’s thought and tended to downplay ecological issues. It means Marxists must be part of movements to stop climate change and other ecological breakdowns, which pose a not-so-long-term threat to life as we know it.

It is with good reason that French Marxist Michael Lowy has said the “ecological question ... poses the major challenge to a renewal of Marxist thought”. Typically, Marxists in the 20th century, even of the anti-Stalinist variety, held to a “productivist” vision of change, whereby increasing the level of the productive forces inherited from capitalism was considered the path to social progress.

Technology was wrongly assumed to be class-neutral, rather than historically and socially determined. The experience of the Soviet Union, with its dreadful record of environmental vandalism, heralded what John Bellamy Foster calls “the grand tragedy that befell Marxist ecological thinking after Marx”. Together with its repressive, undemocratic regime, the Soviet system’s crimes against ecology amounted to a rejection of a core element in Marx’s vision of social transformation.

This history makes the concept of ecosocialism doubly important. Ian Angus has said that “ecosocialism begins with a critique of its two parents, ecology and Marxism”. It seeks to combine the best insights of ecology, which says human actions can undermine the basis of life, with Marxism’s critique of capitalism — a system based on the dual exploitation of labour and nature.

Ecosocialism is not a new political party or theory. It’s a movement that seeks, as Angus puts it, to “make the greens redder and the reds greener”. It holds, in Foster’s words, that “there can be no true ecological revolution that is not socialist; no true socialist revolution that is not ecological”. It recognises the truth of Barry Commoner’s conclusion about the ecological crisis: “To make peace with the planet, we must make peace among the peoples within it.” It knows peace is a dream as long as there are such things as lower classes, oppressed minorities and billionaire tycoons.

But restoring Marx’s ecological critique must go beyond sometimes quoting a few lines from the classics, or insisting on capitalism’s role in driving climate change. Angus says the real challenge is a creative one: “A key task for ecosocialists everywhere is to take the beginning points that ecosocialism offers today, and to build on them using the method of Marxism, the best scientific work of our time, and the lessons we learn in struggles for change. Then we must apply our new understanding in a wide variety of places and circumstances.

“This is hard to do, because it requires us to think, to understand our situations and respond appropriately and creatively, not just repeat the same old slogans. Only if we do that can ecosocialism contribute effectively to saving the Earth."

Marx and Engels famously urged the world's workers to unite because they had a world to win, and nothing to lose but their chains. Capitalism’s drive toward ecological catastrophe adds a further vital dimension to this vision of human liberation. If Marxism is to live up to its own maxim as a theory to not merely interpret the world but to change it, then it must include strong ecological theory and practice. The stakes are high. We still have a world to win — but we also have a world to lose.

[Simon Butler is a member of the Socialist Alliance of Australia and co-author of Too Many People.]