“A new report from the United Nations” climate panel warns humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate global warming and limit the scope of global catastrophe. Otherwise, millions will be imperiled by increasing droughts, floods, fires and poverty. The sweeping report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges immediate and unprecedented changes to global policy in order to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5¼C.”Democracy Now! 9 October 2018
The burning of fossil fuels during the first and second industrial revolutions, and the period after WWII (dubbed The Great Acceleration) were the major drivers in the rise of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, and thus climate change.
As scientists gathered evidence and discovered that humans induced climate change, the misinformed, misanthropic proverbial tropes began: “humans caused climate change”, (and if) “humans have a nature”, (then) “human nature caused climate change”. The fatal error when interpreting the scientific data is to assume that if climate change is a result of human nature, our humanity has led us to destroying the earth:we are doomed because of our species.
In fact, this argument continues that if we expect to mitigate climate change, we must expect to suppress human nature. But do humans have a nature as such? For those who blame climate change, global warming, and biodiversity loss on capitalism, is capitalism even part of human nature? Karl Marx provided us with this answer in 1867:
“Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labor-power. This relation has no basis in natural history. It is clearly the result of past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.”
Marx asserted that society under capitalism is historically specific:not necessarily unnatural, but certainly not inevitable. He deepened this analysis as he began to study the degradation of ecosystems. If human society was destroying the planet, he thought, what is wrong with human society?
While studying the relationship between humans and nature under capitalism Marx was led to studying climate change in the late 1860s. He became close friends with chemists, biologists, and agronomists as socialist scholars have pointed out. This is no strange coincidence. Older Marx was meticulously studying this relationship because of the fundamental tension between capital and nature.
Marx did not of course foresee the three ecological rifts of the Anthropocene epoch: global warming, nitrogen cycle disruption, or biodiversity loss, per se. Marx studied what was available to him at the time. The science of the day assured that two main capitalist modes of production had the potential to change the local ecosystem, and thus local climate:deforestation, and, (building on David Ricardo’s theory,) robbery of the soil (of its nutrients).
Marx was keen on integrating soil chemistry, agronomy, alluvial theory (theorizing the silt-rich mineral substances that are created via geological formations- as against the intensification of chemical fertilizers) and other natural science into his critique of capitalism. Like any good scholar, Marx incorporated empirical analyses to his “critique of political economy” (the subtitle to his three-volume work Capital).
He came to realize through his critique of the capitalist mode of production (that involved disrupting local climates) that under capitalism, profits must be realized whether or not the earth’s ecosystems are disrupted. The central contribution Marx offers humanity in 2019 is what Kohei Saito discovers in Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (2017), that Marx “came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.” In other words, Marx’s analysis of capitalism was robust enough to imply the system’s ecocidal tendencies — destroying the earth —- was in capitalism’s DNA.
Marx’s insights stretch much further, however. He suggested, as many indigenous societies and environmental activists do today, that neither individuals nor societies are owners of the earth: “They are simply its occupiers, its beneficiaries, and they have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias.” In addition to his critique, he acknowledged a metabolism between humans and nature. Nature exists only in relation to man’s social production. Thus nature and society can only be comprehended in their interrelationship with one another.
According to Saito, the “essential task of socialism” for Marx was the “conscious and sustainable regulation of the metabolism between humans and nature.” It is imperative that the world, especially “progressives” heed Marx’s ultimate insights into the relationship between humans and nature in capitalism because these insights are as important as ever. Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production provided the framework to forecast capitalism’s future which constitutes ecosystem disruption ad infinitum.
Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism are more salient than they were at the time of his writings. If capitalism will make life unlivable, we have to ensure our ways of living are in no way capitalist, in order to heal the metabolic rift. That is, to eradicate production for the realization of value, in no way to exploit people and the earth’s ecosystems in our economic activities. We need to consciously learn to interact with nature:produce and consume, and with renewable energy, in order to avert catastrophic anthropogenic climate change.
We are living in what Andreas Malm, author of Fossil Capital:The Rise of Steampower and the Roots of Global Warming and recently The Progress of This Storm:Nature and Society in a Warming World has called “The Warming Condition.” Unless we heed Marx’s warnings, we may not understand the behemoth that is capitalism, and how it works as a system in which growth is part of its DNA. If the original major critic of capitalism recognized its ecocidal tendencies, all solutions to ecological catastrophe thereafter will be doomed to failure if they do not heed this very old understanding:capitalism requires a historically specific mode of production — in no way a “natural” part of human society- that destroys ecosystems ad-infinitum.
If we cannot realize that our predecessors saw this coming, how can we truly understand what is here and how to solve it? As Benjamin Kunkel has written, we have made it to the point of Utopia or Bust. The good news? At the end of his book, Saito exclaims: “Marx lives!
Alex Fischer is pursuing a Masters degree in Political Science at Lehigh University and is a member of the steering committee of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley and the Beyond Capitalism Working Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Some geoligists have termed our geological epoch the Anthropocene which indicates that Earth’s history from here on out must be understood by including the epoch in which humans (anthropo) have irreversibly impacted the earth. Others have sought to use the term Capitalocene, charging that Anthropocene blames human nature, and that Capitalocene corrects this error. To follow this debate, I recommend first reading the article “Anthropocene: The Human Age,” a 2015 article in Nature by Richard Monastersky, followed by Ian Angus’s 2016 Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System, Andreas Malm’s 2018 The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, as well as a series of articles by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy-Foster in 2018 which can be found online at MRZine.com.
- The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York. New York, Monthly Review Press, 2010.
- In addition to Saito’s latest work, other scholars have witnessed this in Marx’s work, though Saito purports to have understood it as fundamental to Marx’s critique of capitalism. Other scholars credited with similar insights of Marx are Paul Burkett, John-Bellamy Foster, Joe Kovel, Chris Williams, Fred Magdoff, and Brett Clark.