Marxism and the environment


This podcast was produced and presented by Kieron Yates

Climate change, environmental pollution, privatisation of the biosphere, water crises are all signs of the impact of neoliberal policies on our environment, but where will the solutions to these problems come from?

Thirty years ago, there seemed to be a disconnect between an ecology movement that had emerged in the 1960’s and the traditional left – neither readily  embraced the other. But over the last two decades there’s been a rediscovery of a strand in Marx and Engels’ writings that relates to the environment, and this has led to the growth of an eco-socialist movement that campaigns not just on issues of environmental concern but also social justice.

Pod Academy’s Kieron Yates talked to Chris Williams, Adjunct Professor at PACE University in the Department of Chemistry and Physical Sciences and Gareth Dale, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Brunel University

Kieron began by asking Chris Williams what was the reality of the disconnection between the environmental movement and socialist politics of the 1980’s.

 Chris Williams:  There was a strand in Britain of what could be termed deep ecology which was more commitment to protecting the earth and naturral systems… saving the whale and natural systems and less concerned with the social world or social justice questions… which is obviously more of a left sociualist concern.

But there was also another strand to environmental concerns in the 1980’s, in Britain anyway… which was CND and the campaign for Nuclear Disarmamanet… and just the general idea that the world was in a very bad sitauation with regards to the possibility of nuclear warfare and what did that mean in connection to nuclear power stations and nuclear power.

I think in Britain my recollection is that there were different strands but certainly the left was somewhat disassociated from both in a certain regard but certainly much more so from the idea that we should promote the natural world over and above any concerns for the people in it, as if there was this big split between the two and we didn’t depend on each other. That was proababy most evident in the United States with the people of Earth First which split off from what they thought were the sellouts of the mainstream environmental movement and turned anti-human in many ways… and some sections of it embraced HIV and AIDS as a way of cleansing the earth, depopulating it of a human virus and other despicable ideas like that. So, there were different strands even within the deep ecology movement… some of them were overtly racist and so the left would obviously have condemned that anyway. The situation has definitely moved on since then.

Kieron Yates: When I began doing research for this podcast I was surprised to discover Marx and Engels themselves had a highly developed concept of the relationship between capitalism and the environment and it’s a theme that is explored in both Marx’s Capital and some of Engels’ later writings – in fact, to my mind, their thinking still seems remarkably contemporary and holistic. I asked Gareth Dale if this was a fair assessment.

Gareth Dale: I think your surprise is related to the fact that the thought of Marx and Engels was for a long time interpreted in very orthodox ways by social democratic and communist parties for most of the twentieth century and these were parties that were linked to very state centered modernizing projects… geared to economic growth, and geared to urbanising society and to capital accumulation at the end of the day… whether that was in the form of state capitals in Soviet Union and eastern Europe and in social democratic nation states in western Europe and elsewhere.

These were parties therefore that interpreted Marxism in a very growth orientated modernising framework which fetishised technology. I remember I lived in East Germany for a couple of years and I remember the children’s text books would feature great bulldozers raging around the world tearing up forests so that sparkling new cities could be laid around the country.

Yet in recent years the ecology of Marx and Engels has been uncovered by a number of Marxologists above all John Bellamy Foster whose work on Marx’s ecology really summarised the new interpretation… and Foster notices the term used by Marx… the metabolism between humanity and nature has been riven… there’s been a rift between humanity and nature opening up with capitalist development.

That of course is not all there is to Marx and Engels their work is enormous and there is a great deal different angles that you can read into them… certainly Marx and Engels were not what we might call deep greens… they were very influenced by enlightenment philosophy and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks… they conceived of human beings as a ‘needs expanding species’, they were very interested in human flourishing.  They conceived of this in part in terms of what they called the productive forces… the ways in which human beings work upon nature and in the process they develop their capacities and they produce goods and services in order to fulfil their needs and wants which themselves are in the process of expansion. In the course of that, an element of conceiving of human relations with nature in terms of ‘mastery’ entered their thought… but its essentially the mastery, the same concept, you might use when you speak of a violinist playing the violin – somebody who masters the instrument.  It’s a process that requires a sense of the player and the instrument and the limits of each.

KY: The concept of metabolic rift uncovered by John Bellamy Foster is central to Marx and Engels’ environmentalism. It reflects their keen interest in developments in scientific research of nineteenth century and this particular concept emerges from their interest in the work of the pioneer of organic chemistry Justus von Liebig.

CW: What they were most concerned with was the crisis that emerged in the mid 1800’s, centered around Britain, this was the fertility of agriculture and how were they going to maintain the fertility of the fields in Britain, given the expanding population – a population that needed to be fed so that it could, in turn, be fed into Blake’s dark satanic mills and make money for the emerging industrial capitalists.

So there were all kinds of ideas about what was required by the soil of the time and Justus Von Leibig who’s a famous soil scientist, and the first person to really investigate what was being taken out of the soil by agriculture and whether it was being put back in again,  his work was read with great interest by Marx and Engels.

They recognised that what was happening was that all the nutrients from the soil were being transported from the rural areas to the urban areas and they regarded this as a metabolic rift. In other words it was a complete rupture in the natural cycles that would eventually have to be rethought but capitalism was not capable of doing that and came up with other ideas to overcome the rift that it was creating (i.e. to go and foment wars in South America to import guano after they ran out of digging up the bones of British and French soldiers who had died in the Napoleonic Wars in France to spread on the fields… so workers could be exploited by capitalism both dead and alive).

So that was the original idea… even the word metabolism was a new word coming out of energy studies in the early 1800’s.  It was originally used to talk just about individual cells or the metabolism of individual organisms and the revolutionary idea that Karl Marx expanded it to was to say that the whole of human society was in metabolism with nature and so we need to look at it as a set of inputs and outputs and how was there a balance in that if we were to maintain an ongoing relationship with nature which at one poiny he writes about being ‘the body of humanity’

KY:  What Marx and Engels recognise is that humankind and the social world are not separate from nature and the environment. It’s this holistic view that science is returning to more and more.

CW: It’s not just the organism… it’s not just the environment… it’s the interaction between those things.   So that kind of holistic understanding, which is coming into various branches of science more recently, is still a fairly new idea but is something that certainly would have been very familiar to Marx and Engels or to them when they were thinking about how do you focus on the processes that go on? Engels talks about science being concerned only with death of things and not with their life and their interactivity.

KY: Though the rediscovery of Marxist thinking on the environment occurred only recently in the west, it was not lost to the scientists of early Soviet Russia.

CW:   There is this fallacy that Lenin led directly to Stalin and it was all terrible almost right from the beginning but actually when you look at the ecological policies of the early Soviet Union in the early 20’s… even back through the civil war… some of the first decrees that Lenin signed were on forests and on land not just about redistributing… but how do you regenerate forests and land that has been under industrial or agricultural use and bring it back to its former levels of biodiversity.   So there were restrictions placed on all kinds of hunting and various other kinds of agricultural activities by the early Soviet government… influenced by early soviet ecologists.   One of them, Vladimir Vernadsky, who worked in the agriculture department coined the term ‘biosphere’.  You could take a degree in ecology by 1924 in soviet universities, well ahead of what went on in the West.

There was an explosion of scientific investigations – large areas were set aside for no tourism or anything, just for scientific research to examine how to regenerate the land.  Many people joined all kinds of what would now be called environmental preservation or conservation societies, as people went out into nature and discovered nature for the sake of it.

So there were a lot very kind of cutting edge and ahead of their time things that went on the early Soviet Union despite the horrendous economic situation post-civil war and post-revolution.

KY: These early soviet environmental projects were eventually wiped out by the rise of Stalinism and the pursuit of economic growth. Part of Gareth Dale’s current research is an attempt to understand growth as an ideology… one that serves capital accumulation.

GD:  What I’m talking about here really is what I call the ‘growth paradigm’.  This is the idea that economic growth is something that is utterly normal and natural about human society – human society has an economy which grows and that growth is necessarily good. The growth is linear,  it will continue,  it is potentially infinite, it can continue forever.  Growth is the first port of call if there are any social or economic problems  – we simply need to increase the growth rate and that will enable us to sort things out.

I see it therefore as an ideology; something that essentially naturalises social processes,  so that the economy and economic growth are creations of human beings yet we all must come to think of them as something entirely natural, something that just happens, and if it isn’t happening then the body politic or the body economic is somehow diseased and needs to be brought back to health. And the only healthy state is a state of economic growth.

I see it ideologically as a refiguration of capital accumulation. Capital accumulation is the basic motor of our world economy, but politicans can’t say (or rather it would be revealing or very honest if they were to say) that their goal was to “seek to provide amenable conditions for the accumulation of more capital”.   because that sounds… (a) very abstract and (b) explicitly in the interests in the owners of capital – the business people themselves.  That is essentially, at bottom, how the economy works but it would be bad politics to be so honest. So, economic growth has come into being as the concept that politicians utilise to justify their actions in favour of capital. Growth appears to be in everybody’s interests.

And then of course, growth is a subject that is of very immediate environmental concern because the more the world economy grows the more pollutants we throw out into the atmosphere… the more habitat is destroyed… the more species are destroyed.. the more plastic is turfed into the oceans and so on.

KY: Within the capitalist global economy the focus on growth presents a problem for those seeking a solution to the world’s environmental problems – how to have both economic growth whilst reducing the impact on the environment.

GD:  The main challenge for environmentalism is to immunise itself from the new forms of the hegemony of the growth paradigm. Let me give you an example – . there’s a lot of talk particularly within the international organisations such as the United Nations, the OECD, the World Bank and so on (but also particular nation states such as South Korea and China and the European Union) about a new green economy and green growth. This is to my mind dangerous wishful thinking. The idea is that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental impact so that GDP can carry on growing forever even as humanity’s, or human society’s, impact on the environment is progressively lessened. I think that is an impossibility and yet it’s a lure. It is very seductive in that it appears to be able to solve the environmental problems in the terms of the society in which we live – the world global capitalist society. Capitalist society could just reform itself along environmental lines – and to the extent to which this represents a very seductive promise for the ecologically minded or environmentalist, inuring oneself against that is task number one.

KY: So, is the whole notion of a green capitalism an oxymoron? Here’s Chris Williams again.

CW: Even Paul Hawken, who believes in natural capitalism (he was the one who said it… if I’m not misquoting him, “green capitalism is an oxymoron”). Even people like Tim Jackson who have written about sustainability without growth have yet to explain how capitalism could exist without growth… I think there is a lack of real understanding of what capitalism does and why it needs to grow… because it’s not all about consumers wanting to consume… it’s about the production process itself and what capitalism does with its investment… the money it has to invest in future production… because that’s always what happens.

And the idea of a ‘weightless economy‘ that was somewhat popular in the 1990’s… or that technology would automatically lower the need for material resources or new amounts of energy… and we’d suddenly be decreasing our energy and natural resource use even though the economy was still expanding has been shown to be a mirage. It’s true there has been some leveling off of resource use but overall it’s going up everywhere so there’s no evidence.  I mean, show me some evidence that would indicate that capitalism is able to change course.

Neoliberalism posits two solutions. The answer is either going to come from some kind of silver bullet – and innovation will take care of any problems that we may have.  Or we leave it to the market, and market decisions will automatically lead to better results. That’s where, for example, ‘cap and trade’ comes in with adjustments to the market… or it’s where some of the crazy ideas about seeding the oceans with iron, or firing artillery shells full of sulphates into the atmosphere come in… or launching tens of thousands of mirrors into space to reflect the sun. These are all bog standard ideas straight out of the ideology of capitalism that handily leave the system scot free of any responsibility or any need to change – because if we just allow it to continue then it will find its own solution to the problem that was created by capitalism in the first place.

KY: One of the ways this neoliberal approach has manifested itself is in attempts to establish a carbon economy in which states, corporations and even individuals are allocated a certain amount of permissible carbon emissions which can then be traded. Here’s Gareth Dale again

GD: I think this is one of the ways in which we can see very vividly neoliberal policies and ideas shaping the agenda of humanity’s relationship to the environment… one of the crucial ways we affect the environment is through the waste products… including atmospheric pollution carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide etc. This is potentially setting the planet on the course of run away global warming… climatological catastrophe is looming so humanity faces the question of how to deal with it’s atmospheric pollution… and because we live in a neoliberal phase of capitalism, capitalism is essentially dealing with this by seeking to commodify our atmospheric waste products and therfore turning tons of produced carbon… or simply hypothetically produced carbon… into a commodity that can be traded through carbon markets.

KY: Whilst the impact of a carbon economy is high on the agenda for those concerned with the current state of the environment –  a recent report by the World Economic Forum identified water crises as the most serious global threat in terms of impact on business and society. I asked Chris Williams if struggles over the control and management of the water supply were a more tangible aspect of the impact of capitalism on the environment than perhaps the more difficult to grasp idea of climate change.

CW: One of the things that climate change is doing is affecting water supply for any number of communities around the world. And while that is going on from a physical science perspective,  there is the political science of what capitalism was doing to privatise water supplies throughout the 1990’s. There have been, and still are, many struggles against water privatization. The most internationally successful are the water wars to reverse the privatisation of water supply in Cochabamba in Bolivia, but there have also been massive struggles in South Africa. And currently in Ireland there are struggles around water.

And because rivers are drying up… glaciers are melting… there are increasing problems with extreme weather events … either there’s too much water (Britain is certainly suffering from this)  or there’s not enough fresh water.

So I think for sure there will be more and more struggles around water. I disagree that we’re somehow running out of fresh water… although the fossil fuel corporations and other petro-chemical industries are doing their best to pollute what we have and industrialised agriculture to drain the rest. But I think that struggles will intensify not only around water but around many other issues as well, because there’s much more privatisation of land –  particularly in Africa. Or there will be struggles around individual pieces of infrastructure such as the  KXL pipeline going across native American lands… and creating all kinds of problems with their alternative source of getting the oil out which is trains.

So is climate change a harder more ephemeral theme to conceive? I’m not so sure. I was on the climate march (Sept 2014) that had almost half a million people on it in New York… so the idea that people in the United States don’t care about climate change or don’t believe in it… that’s the biggest march against climate change that the world has seen to date.

So I think that 2014 in many ways was a watershed year, if you will, for a wider resistance and a more powerful resistance a more resolute resistance to the priorities of capitalism, one of which will certainly result in extensive climate change – and just talking about that and water.  That was one of the main motivations behind the anti-fracking movement which after six years has successfully managed to force the democratically elected governor of  New York State to ban fracking. That’s a huge victory with repercussions all around the United States and across the world.

KY: Although Marx and Engels provide a thorough critique of capitalism the route to solutions to capitalism’s ongoing ecological crisis is not so easy to find … with neoliberals often giving the retort that as it stands capitalism is the best solution we have.

Gareth Dale was involved in the production of the booklet “One Million Climate Change Jobs” which proposes some ideas on how the British economy could be re-structured to both reduce our ecological impact and maintain and create jobs.

GD: The first goal was to show how feasible a radical decarbonisation of the economy would be… with ideas of how to do it in terms of, for example, expansion of renewable energies… a shift from private vehicle transport to public transport… insulation of buildings and so on… and to do so at the level of the nation state, in this case Britain.

The second goal was to argue and to show with examples and with figures and statistics… to show that this can be done at the same time as making our own environment and our lives more comfortable and habitable… you know, cutting down on coal fired power stations involves erecting wind turbines and using tidal and wave energy and so on.  It also involves insulating people’s houses which keeps them warmer. And getting people out of their cars and on to bicycles and into buses and trains and so on. All this would make our environment more pleasant and our lives healthier. and in many ways, one would assume, happier.

And above all, we live in an age in which people have very precarious jobs or none at all. There are a lot of people with a lot of skills, imagination, energy and the need to work… transforming our economy in an environmentally friendly way… in the manner that is outlined in that booklet would require a lot of people doing quite a lot of work… but there is the demand for that and it would help to make people’s lives more satisfying… because they would find themselves involved in a project that would be improving the lives of pretty much everyone.


This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Amiel Melburn Trust, and is the first in a series of podcasts on Marxism in the 21st Century, funded by the trust.

Photo: Oleary’s 

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