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Facing up to our alienation from nature

A new study of Marx’s ecology explains how social transformation is linked with creating a new human relationship with nature.

Kate McCabe reports

Establishing human kind's true relationship to nature is absolutely necessary if we are to map out a way of resolving the ecological crisis that threatens the future of life on the planet. After all, it is the abuse of this relationship in the drive to produce that lies behind global warming, the running down of natural resources and environmental degradation.

Yet many environmentalists are usually too enmeshed in arguments about "sustainable growth" and existing economic and political social relations to attempt to answer this question.

John Bellamy Foster argues in this important book* that, despite common prejudice in the universities and among ecologists, Marx based his whole outlook on resolving the alienated relationship between humanity and nature. His ecology was both scientific and socialist.

Marx and Engels were part of the 19th century movement which overthrew official natural and social science in a revolutionary sweep. They were inspired by the work of Charles Darwin, who showed how nature evolves as a result of the process of natural selection, producing new species over time.

This confirmed Marx and Engels' materialist view that nature exists independently of human beings, and their dialectical (that is, containing self-movement) concept that nature wholly has within itself the necessity to change itself. It challenged the religious idea that humanity and nature are fixed opposites, created by God, with nature provided for people to dominate and exploit. The book brings home the risks Darwin and his supporters took in publishing their views, and describes vividly the ideological and political debate that raged when they did.

Engels himself produced original work on evolution in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, where he made labour the primary driving force in the evolution of human beings.

The descent of apes from the trees freed the hand to begin working with tools. This created a new relationship between humans and nature, a technological relationship, which led to changes in consciousness – in particular the ability to develop abstract knowledge.

The human brain, in Engels' view, evolved through a complex interactive set of relations now referred to by evolutionary biologists as "gene-culture co-evolution". The leading expert in this area, Stephen Jay Gould, was the first to recognise the contribution made by Engels in this field saying that his was "the best 19th century case for gene-culture co-evolution."

Up until the late 20th century, the scientific consensus opposed this explanation, Bellamy Foster points out, and sought the development of the brain in "missing links" between primates and hominids, which when discovered would have an intermediate brain. This expectation collapsed in the 1960s with the discovery of Australopithecus, a hominid species, walking erect and exhibiting evolved hands and feet, and using tools, but with a brain only slightly larger than an ape.

This and subsequent discoveries led to the restatement of Engels' thesis by a number of scientists, notably Sherwood Washburn and Ruth Moore in their work containing the statement "Tools Makyth Man". Modern anthropology has come round precisely to the view expressed by Engels.

As Bellamy Foster writes:

"It was labour that constituted the secret, from the very first, not only to the development of human society but also to the transition of ape to man. It was labour, moreover that defined the distinctive ecological niche occupied by humanity. Marx and Engels thus saw the human relation to the earth in co-evolutionary terms – a perspective that is crucial to an ecological understanding, since it allows us to recognise that human beings transform their environment not entirely in accordance with their choosing but based on conditions provided by natural history."

Changing nature to gain the things they need is the life activity of human beings, and this essential relationship (unity) never changes. But the framework within which we carry out this activity (conflict) changes as technology (tools) advances, bringing about revolutions in human society.

Capitalist society is dominated by private property and the exchange of commodities for profit. This produces a double alienation – firstly, the alienation of human beings from the land, town from country; and secondly, the alienation of the worker from the product of his/her labour in industrial production.

This alienation even applies to animals, as Marx showed in his book The German Ideology: "The essence of the fish is its being, water. 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." Therefore the fish's essence – its nature – is alienated away from it as a result of the private ownership of the river.

It is this alienation that Marx set out to analyse in Capital. As he wrote in Grundrisse, a preparatory work on political economy:

"It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation, or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital."

This contains the essence of Marx's entire critique of the alienating character of bourgeois society. A linked idea put forward by Marx which the book researches is that under capitalism there is a "metabolic rift" between man and nature.

Marx was influenced by studies on agricultural production and soil fertility, and particularly the work of the Scottish political economist James Anderson who in his book A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that have led to the present scarcity of grain in Britain (1801) stated that the judicious application of manure would sustain soil "for ever after", but that huge amounts of useful waste were being "daily carried to the Thames in its passage through which it subjects the people in the lower part of the city to the most offensive effluvia".

The chief outcome of the separation of country and town, and the alienation of human beings from the land, has been the progressive degradation of soil. It was this, rather than over-population, that was the cause of the grain shortage, Anderson said.

The crisis of soil fertility caused what has been called the second agricultural revolution. The first had been the process of enclosure of common land to establish private ownership of the majority of land in Britain. The second was the application of industrial methods, with the development of soil science and the manufacture of artificial phosphates.

Nitrogen proved harder to synthesise, leading to the rush for guano – a sort of bird dropping Klondike, where South America was denuded in a few years of nitrogen that took centuries to build up. The United States illegally annexed hundreds of islands to get at the good stuff. Anyone interested to see the result of capitalism's ability to make anything into a commodity for profit should visit the beautiful hot house garden at Avery Hill, near Woolwich in South East London, part of the estate built by a guano millionaire with his profits.

Marx sums up his critique of capitalist agriculture in Volume 1 of Capital:

"Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil...But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism... it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race...

"All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility...Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker."

This concept of metabolic rift is the opposite of the failed notion of sustainability, which takes certain outcomes of capitalist production and turns them into causes. For Marx, capitalist forms of production are in essence opposed to agriculture:

"The way that the cultivation of particular crops depends on fluctuations in market prices and the constant changes in cultivation with these price fluctuations – the entire spirit of capitalist production which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profits stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations." (Capital Vol. 3)

On the issue of population growth, Marx and Engels rejected those who looked at this issue separately from the conditions in which it takes place. They would have recognised today's entirely class-based perspective on population, where a growth in population in poorer countries is seen as a problem, but a decline in population in richer countries is equally problematic. The logical answer might be to import populations from the poorer to the richer countries, but this is a solution unlikely to find favour with New Labour.

What happened to Marx's ecology after Marx? Bellamy Foster concludes his book with an overview of this, particularly highlighting some of the work that was done in the early years of the Russian revolution.

In his view, Soviet ecology in the 1920s was arguably the most advanced in the world. V.I.Vernadsky founded the science of geochemistry and is acknowledged as the "first person to come to grips with real implications of the fact that Earth is a self-contained sphere". His colleague N.I.Vavilov was a brilliant plant geneticist. They persuaded Lenin to establish the first nature reserve anywhere exclusively aimed at the scientific study of nature.

But as Bellamy Foster, points out, one of the many tragedies of the eventual triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union was that these lines of research were ended and instead the official science became the crudest mechanical materialism, which in its application led to famine and environmental destruction.

By the 1970s, the Soviet bureaucracy knew there was an environmental crisis and drew up broad measures to try to pull back from the brink, but like all the plans made during that period, they were never allowed to interfere in practice with the ruthless exploitation of Russia's natural resources. The final outcomes were Chernobyl, and the devastation of forests and lakes, the destruction of species due to pollution and over trapping, the spoiling of wild areas like Siberia by the oil and other raw materials industries.

Marx's future society of associated producers would look back on the capitalist form of production as at a nightmare. He wrote in Capital: "From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias (good heads of the household)."

The "metabolic rift" at the heart of Marx's ecological thought has now become globalised, leading to an environmental crisis which puts in question the survival of human beings. Bellamy Foster has done a great service in researching this aspect of Marxist thought, and suggesting lines for future study. It is most significant that these ideas are being reclaimed for humanity by those working at the forefront of natural science and ecology, for this is where Marx and Engels themselves operated. It heralds future big advances in understanding the human predicament, with a view to transforming it.

Marx's ecology is particularly important because, as the author says,

"the goal is to understand and develop a revolutionary ecological view of great importance to us today; one that links social transformation with the transformation of the human relation with nature in ways that we now consider ecological".

* Marx's Ecology by John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press. $18.00

This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine

indent Marx's ecology - materialism and nature

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