Harmony and ecological civilisation: Beyond the capitalist alienation of nature

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By Fred Magdoff

June 4, 2012 -- Monthly Review -- Let me begin by making clear that I am not a philosopher nor am I well versed in Chinese cultural history. My background is in agriculture, specifically soil fertility and health, from which I have branched out into areas of ecology and ecological approaches to agriculture and society.

With that background in mind, when I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment and the other species we share the planet with. People need fully to understand, and act in such ways that indicate, that they are embedded in nature and dependent upon it—not just to obtain natural resources needed for human life, but also that their lives are made richer and protected by biodiversity and the smooth and efficient functioning of the many cycles of nature such as the water and nutrient cycles.

There is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world — among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems — is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism, a system that has been in existence for some 500 years (merchant capitalism for approximately 250 years and industrial capitalism for about 250 years) — a relatively short time in the 150,000-year history of anatomically modern humans — has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the Earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence. This is a result of capitalism’s basic characteristics and the relationships it creates as it normally functions. The purpose of capitalism is not to satisfy human needs and preserve the environment. There is only one purpose and driving force — ultimately responsible for both its dynamic periods and its crises and long periods of slow growth (stagnation) — and that is the accumulation of capital without end.

The capitalist system has a number of basic characteristics and also fosters specific human characteristics and relationships. Here are 10 key aspects of capitalism:

  • It has to grow (or else it is in crisis) and its very logic and motivating force impels growth.
  • It has no other driving force than the accumulation of ever greater amounts of capital.
  • Through the creation of so-called “externalities” (or side effects) it wreaks damage on humans as well as the ecosystem and the life support systems needed by humanity and other species. In Paul Sweezy’s words: “As far as the natural environment is concerned, capitalism perceives it not as something to be cherished and enjoyed but as a means to the paramount ends of profit-making and still more capital accumulation.”1
  • It promotes the use of non-renewable resources without regard to the needs of future generations, as if there was no end to them, and abuses even renewable resources such as ocean fisheries and forests.
  • It creates vast inequality in income, wealth and power both within and between countries. Not only class, but race, gender and other inequalities are built into its laws of motion.
  • It requires and produces a reserve army of labour — people precariously connected to the economy, most kept in poverty or near poverty — so that labour is available during economic upswings and workers can easily be fired when not needed by businesses.
  • It promotes national economic and political competition and imperialism, leading to wars for domination and access to resources.
  • It fosters and rewards those particular human traits that are useful for thriving or even just existing in such a possessive-individualist society — selfishness, individualism, competition, greed, exploitation of others, consumerism — while not allowing the full expression of those human characteristics needed for a harmonious society (cooperation, sharing, empathy and altruism).
  • It leads to the breakdown of human health since people operate in a hierarchical society, with many working under dangerous and physically debilitating conditions or in jobs that are repetitive and boring — while subject to job loss or fear of losing their job. (There are many adverse long-term health effects following the loss of one’s job.)2
  • It leads to the breakdown of healthy communities as people become more solitary in outlook and behaviour and Indigenous culture is replaced by the dominant national or international capitalist culture and outlook. People become dedicated to obtaining more for themselves and their families and depending less on reciprocal relationships with others.

The growth imperative of capitalism deserves special attention because it is one of the major stumbling blocks with respect to harmony between humans and the environment. Accumulation without end means using ever greater quantities of resources — without end — even as we find ways to use resources more efficiently. An economy growing at the very meagre rate of 1 per cent a year will double in about 72 years, but one growing at 2 per cent a year, still a low rate, will double in size in 36 years. And when growing at 3 and 4 per cent, economies will double in 24 and 18 years respectively. China recently has seen recorded growth rates of up to 10 per cent, meaning economic output doubles at a rate of approximately every seven years! Yet, we are already using up resources far too fast from the one planet we have — depleting the stocks of non-renewable resources rapidly and misusing and overusing resources that are theoretically “renewable”. If the world’s economy doubles within the next 20 to 30years this can only hasten the descent into ecological, and probably societal, chaos and destruction.

Thus capitalism promotes the processes, relationships and outcomes that are precisely the opposite of those needed for an ecologically sound, just, harmonious society.

In the alienated ideology and practice of bourgeois society, Marx and Engels noted in The German Ideology, “the relation of man to nature is excluded from history and hence the antithesis of man to nature is created”. Proletarians thus had the historical task of bringing their “‘existence’ into harmony with their ‘essence’ in a practical way, by means of a revolution” (italics added).3 Only in this way could they reestablish a harmonious connection to nature and to their own production. That Marx and Engels were referring directly to the early stages of what we now call the ecological crisis is indicated by the following:

“The ‘essence’ of the fish is its ‘being,’ water—to go no further than this one proposition. The ‘essence’ of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the ‘essence’ of the fish and is no longer a suitable medium of existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive the fish of its medium of existence.”4

Nevertheless, for many the role that capitalism plays in ecological destruction is invisible. Thus the ecological and social antagonisms and contradictions of capitalism are frequently misdiagnosed. Some observers suggest that many of these problems are caused by the rise of industrial society. Here, so the thinking goes, any society based on or using industrial production will necessarily have the same resource and environmental problems. Others blame the thoughtless exploitation of natural resources and the great damage done to the environment on the existence of too many people. The large population, exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet, they maintain, is the culprit and the solution is therefore to reduce the population of the Earth as quickly as possible. (Not easy to do of course by humane means.) Some ahistorical commentators say the problem is endemic to humans because we are inherently greedy and acquisitive.

With a few important exceptions, non-Marxist discussions of the problems neglect to even look at the characteristics and workings of capitalism, let alone examine them at any depth. They are so embedded in the system, that they assume that capitalism, which many mislabel “the market economy”, will go on and on forever — even, it is illogically assumed, if we destroy the Earth itself as a place of human habitation — while any other type of economic system is absolutely inconceivable. Economic, societal and historical contexts are completely ignored.

Rational and useful alternative solutions to any problem depend upon a realistic analysis and diagnosis as to what is causing it to occur. When such analysis is lacking substance the proposed “solutions” will most likely be useless. For example, there are people fixated on non-renewable resource depletion that is caused, in their opinion, by “overpopulation”. Thus, they propose, as the one and only “solution”, a rapid “degrowth” of the world’s population. Programs that provide contraceptives to women in poor countries are therefore offered as an important tool to solving the global ecological problem. However, those concerned with there being too many people generally do not discuss the economic system that is so destructive to the environment and people or the critical moral and practical issue of the vast inequalities created by capitalism. Even the way that capitalism itself requires population growth as part of its overall expansion is ignored.

Thus, a critical aspect almost always missing from discussions by those concerned with population as it affects resource use and pollution is that the overwhelming majority of the Earth’s environmental problems are caused by the wealthy and their lifestyles — and by a system of capital accumulation that predominantly serves their interests. The World Bank staff estimates that the wealthiest 10 per cent of humanity are responsible for approximately 60 per cent of all resource use and therefore 60 per cent of the pollution (most probably an underestimate).

Commentators fixated on non-renewable resources and pollution as the overriding issues cannot see that one of their main “solutions” — promoting birth control in poor countries — gets nowhere near to even beginning to address the real problem.

It should go without saying that poor people should have access to medical services, including those involving family planning. This should be considered a basic human right. The rights of women in this respect are one of the key indicators of democratic and human development. But how can people fixated on the mere population numbers ignore the fact that it is the world’s affluent classes that account for the great bulk of those problems — whether one is looking at resource use, consumption, waste or environmental pollution — that are considered so important to the survival of society and even humanity?

In addition to the vast quantity of resources used and pollution caused by wealthy individuals, governments are also responsible. The US military is one of the world’s prime users of resources — from oil to copper, zinc, tin and rare earths. The military is also is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States.5

While capitalism creates many of the features and relationships discussed above, we must keep in mind that long before capitalism existed there were negative societal aspects such as warfare, exploitation of people and resources, and ecological damage. However, capitalism solidifies and makes these problems systemic while at the same time creating other negative aspects.

Living in harmony with the planet

It is certain that there is no way to reach a truly harmonious civilisation with an economic system in which decisions are made by private individuals based on how much capital will be accumulated as well as personal greed and consumerism. In such a society “[s]ocial relations became but reflections of the dominating force of society’s capitalist economics.”6 Hierarchical class structures are solidified—with workers (blue and white collar), small business owners (this includes farmers and craftspeople working on their own or in small units) and owners and managers of large businesses. The relationship of a worker to a business manager or owner reflects differences of wealth and power in the workplace and in the world outside. And the worker and the boss have differing interests. The boss is trying to maximise profits while the worker is trying to get more income and better working conditions.

Because of the motive force of capitalism and the procedures, practices and approaches embedded in its DNA, there is no way to reform or modify the system to accomplish the goals of sustainability, harmony or ecological civilisation. Capitalism, in its very essence, is anti-sustainability, anti-harmony and anti-ecology. For Marx capitalism generated an “irreparable rift” in the metabolism of nature and society, requiring the “restoration” of this basic metabolism essential to life — a restoration that necessitated a more harmonious social order beyond capitalism.7

No one can predict the details of any future civilisation. But, to be ecological and socially sustainable — basic requirements for harmonious society — an economy will need to have the sole purpose of satisfying basic human material and non-material needs (which, of course, includes a healthy ecosystem) for all people. As with many pre-capitalist societies, economics will need to be submerged within human relationships and must be under control of the people.

An ecological or harmonious civilisation, a truly sustainable and ecologically sound society, will need to have certain basic characteristics. It will need to stop economic growth after basic human needs are satisfied. It will also need to promote, encourage and reward the positive human traits of cooperation, sharing, empathy and reciprocity. And it must operate with respect for, and care of, the environment — locally, regionally and globally.

There are people who believe that nature has rights of its own and that “Mother Earth” (or Pachamama, in the language of the people of the Andes in South America) should be respected and cared for just because it is right and ethical to do so. But even taking an anthropocentric view, it is to the direct benefit of humans and their societies to create and maintain biological and habitat diversity and functioning, essential to a thriving ecosystem. In order to live healthy, satisfied and happy lives now and for generations to come people need clean water and air, healthy and productive soils, wise and careful use of renewable and nonrenewable resources.

Degraded ecosystems need to be regenerated. Humans need places to see and enjoy the natural world — parks, forests, swamps, lakes. When people understand nature’s beauty and importance for their existence, they live emotionally richer lives and are connected to the natural world on a deep emotional level. There has even been a term coined for describing children that do not experience the natural world regularly (and in industrialised wealthy countries this may include the majority )— “nature-deficit disorder”. Although some children do adapt to being mostly indoors and relating with the world primarily through electronic gadgets, there are many that suffer the consequences ranging from a lack of vitamin D to depressed immune systems (more likely to be sick) to behavioural problems such as aggressiveness.8

Because our lives are so dependent on healthy local, regional and world ecosystems, protecting and regenerating the environment must be a goal of a society that seeks harmony in the broadest sense.

An economic/political/social system that is designed to satisfy basic human material and non-material needs for everyone (as discussed above) will require a democratic decision-making process that is based in communities and the cooperation between many communities and regions.

It will be essential for people to live at a much more modest living standard than what is called the Western middle-class standard of living. This is underscored by the Work Bank estimate that approximately 75 per cent of all resource use (and, therefore, pollution) is caused by the wealthiest 20 per cent of humanity, approximately 1.4 billion people. Even here, as we shall see, the statistics are undoubtedly conservative. As explained in my book (written with John Bellamy Foster) What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism:

It is important to recognize that this [the wide income/wealth disparity characterizing global society] is a question of class and other forms of social inequality, as well as inequality between nations. In 2008, Americans in the highest income quintile (the top 20 percent) spent three to four times as much on housing and clothing, and five times as much on transportation as those in the poorest quintile. In Canada, where consumption data is available by groupings that represent 10 percent of the population (deciles), ecological footprint analysts have found that the top income decile has an ecological footprint nine times that of the bottom decile, and a consumer goods footprint four times that of the bottom decile.9

When viewed at the global scale, inequality is even worse. Recent studies have shown that “a mere 2 percent of the world’s adult individuals have more than half of the global household wealth, with the richest 1 percent accounting for 40 percent of total global assets; while the bottom half of the world’s population has barely 1 percent”.10

A harmonious and ecologically sound society must promote substantive equality. It is impossible for everyone to live at a very high (so-called Western middle-class) standard of living since this would necessitate an ecological footprint that the planet cannot support. Nor is a truly democratic system (essential for harmonious society) compatible with conditions in which a few live in luxury while most people live at far lower living standards. A harmonious relation to nature and society therefore requires egalitarian conditions. Indeed, how would a few manage to live at a higher standard than the mass of people when economic decisions, including those of investment, wages, types of private property permitted, etc., are being made by democratic, planned procedures?

If society is going to meet the needs for all people to live decent lives, we cannot ethically have a group, however small, that constitutes a wealthy leisure class that promotes what the great US sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. Nor can we have a culture of “pecuniary emulation” based on “invidious distinctions”, where everyone is attempting to outdo his/her neighbours in physical possessions.11

In an earlier paper I approached the subject of ecological civilisation by beginning with a discussion of basic ecological concepts.12 I described the pillars that undergird strong ecosystems — diversity; efficient natural cycles through closely linked metabolic relationships, self-sufficiency, self-regulation and resiliency through self-renewal. The discussion then turned to using these pillars as a framework to examine characteristics of a possible future ecological civilisation.


Let me give just one example of the changes that can occur when communities are put in control of their economies (self-regulation). In Venezuela, small-scale fisherpeople were having problems caused by the large and disruptive harvests made by huge fishing trawlers. Bottom trawling techniques not only harvested large quantities of fish, but also damaged the sea floor and coral life so important to maintaining the stock of fish for the future. The Venezuelan government banned trawlers from Venezuela's territorial waters. In keeping with its approach to other communities, fishing communities were encouraged to make decisions and manage their resources collectively. Now, the fishing cooperative of Chuao — a village mainly known for the quality of chocolate produced from its cacao trees — collectively decides on when and where to fish and how much to catch, and the size of fish to keep. They are able to not only feed their community, but also sell fish to the government-operated, low-cost markets to supply the general population. They have gained a semblance of self-sufficiency (another pillar of strong ecosystems) by means of their own gardens, the fish they catch, the cacao and bananas they sell. By controlling the location, quantity and size of fish they catch they are in a closely linked conscious and planned metabolic relationship (another important pillar of strong ecosystems as applied to society) with the natural world that is based on respect for this resource and its preservation for future generations.

To summarise, a harmonious civilisation requires an economy and politics under social control. One in which communities strive for: (1) self-regulation by meaningful democratic processes; (2) self-sufficiency for critical life needs (even though complete self-sufficiency is not needed or desirable); (3) economic equality in which everyone has their basic human material needs — but no more — met; and (4) application of ecological approaches to production, living and transportation.

We can simplify the issues by using the following equation:

Harmonious civilisation =

socialism (with the economy and politics under social control, meaning democratic control by the people and workers controlling their factories, farms, and all other workplaces)

+ an economy operating with the goal of producing goods and services that will fulfill basic human needs, while protecting the environment
+ substantive equality
+ living simply

All of this of course means cultivating a new, harmonious ethic as part of an ecological revolution. As the Dao De Jing (also referred to as the Laozi) declared: “People starve because the rich take too much . Only those who do not use life as a means [for aggrandisement] are able to value life.”13 We must find a way to return to this essentially harmonious, ecological conception in our lived society.

[Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont. His is co-author with John Bellamy Foster of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 2011). This article was prepared for presentation to the conference on “Harmony and Ecological Civilization” organised for a group of visiting Chinese academics interested in ecological Marxism by the Institute for Postmodern Development of China (IPDC), Claremont, California, on April 27 and 28, 2012. Sponsors of the conference from China included the Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation of the CCP and the China Society for the Dialectics of Nature.]


  1. Paul M. Sweezy, “Capitalism and the Environment”, Monthly Review, 41, no. 2 (1989): 8.
  2. For a few examples, see Daniel Sullivan and Till von Wachter, “Job Displacement and Mortality”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124, no. 3 (2009): 1265–1306; Frances M. McKee-Ryan, et. al., “Psychological and Physical Well-Being During Unemployment”, Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, no. 1 (2005): 53–76; and Philip Oreopoulos, Marianne Page, and Ann Huff Stevens, “Intergenerational Effects of Worker Displacement”, Journal of Labor Economics, 26, no. 3 (2008): 455–83.
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1975): 55–58.
  4. Ibid.
  5. 4 Daily Energy Report, “A Look at US Military Energy Consumption”, June 8, 2011, http://oilprice.com.
  6. Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff, “Approaching Socialism”, Monthly Review, 57, no. 3 (2005): 19–61.
  7. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin, 1976), 637–38; Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981): 949.
  8. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2008).
  9. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press), 2011), 34–35.
  10. Ibid., 84.
  11. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: New American Library, 1953).
  12. Fred Magdoff, “Ecological Civilization”, Monthly Review, 62, no. 8 (2011): 1–25.
  13. P.J. Laska, The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing (Green Valley, AZ: ECCS Books, 2012), 98

Like many '2nd Wave' Marxists, Magdoff misses a key point. We need unlimited growth in one sector of the economy, the knowledge sector, especially as high design. And the more we use its products, the better it gets. In fact, it is precisely through the infinite growth of this sector, that we have the means to lighten the ecological footprint of all the others, many of which, I would agree, have to be restrained, or even in some cases, shrunk toward zero.

It is also precisely this that allows for higher quality living standards in 21st century socialism, even as it's done with less 'stuff', and enables harmony between the Global North and South. All the bare bones of this was set forth some time ago in the work of Buckminster Fuller. It's time for the Marxists of our generation to start taking the work of this visionary seriously, and avoid the backward trap of 'no growth' and its inevitable divisiveness.