Endlessly plundering the Earth

Fighting for a sustainable planet requires fighting for anti-capitalist revolution, argues Eddie Ford


Regrettably, there has long been a tendency amongst some on the far left – and not necessarily just by devotees of the former, unlamented, Soviet bureaucracy – to essentially regard socialism as like capitalism with stilts on: big ‘red’ stilts, of course. The factories will be renamed after the great heroes and figures of the revolutionary movement and then go into hyper-drive. Productivity levels will rocket. Socialist GDP will shoot up. Targets will be smashed. Gleaming highways and motorways everywhere. Whether according to a two, five or 10-year plan, those socialist factories will be pumping out more and more stuff, things, so that everybody will get everything they could not acquire under the old capitalist order. Whether it be a car, power shower, mobile phone or the brand new hi-tech MarxPad available in 61 colours. In this way, the superiority of the ‘new proletarian order’ will be made manifest on earth.

Needless to say, under such a productivist schema, the planet and its resources exist purely to be located, stripped down and exploited in order to supply us with the raw materials necessary to realise the plan and achieve the required level of material-physical satisfaction. Nature is just there to be bent into shape and dominated at will – if not conquered and subdued. Legions of critics have falsely ascribed this so-called ‘Prometheanism’ – itself a slur on the great revolutionary mythological figure of Prometheus, who defied the gods and brought light and fire to human beings – to Marxism itself, when in fact it represents a major break from Marx’s own fundamentally ecological outlook.

This rather infantile productivist disorder was in evidence in two recent letters to the Weekly Worker, giving us prime examples of a certain ‘macho’ Marxism that needs to be politically defeated. Comrade Douglas Rankine takes strong objection to my comments that oil “like all other natural resources” should be “treated as a precious resource to be cherished and husbanded” – not as “some free gift to be frittered away”.[1] For the comrade, this is “romanticism at its very worst” – was I crazily suggesting that we “leave it under sea” and “forget about it”? Rather, he writes, oil is there to be “discovered” and “utilised” – simple as that. Comrade Rankine also worries that I have fallen victim to “anti-capitalist dogma” and “swallowed the ‘green’ arguments about carbon usage and the warming of the planet”.[2]

In a similar vein, comrade Jeff Leese is dumbfounded by the idea that a socialist world would “consume far less electricity” – given that a large section of humanity has little or no access to electricity at all, as he correctly points out. A socialist world would actually consume “far greater supplies” of electricity, not less – it being a “highly developed and modern world focused on creating conditions of material abundance for all”. Like comrade Rankine, he too thinks I am guilty of “adopting the reactionary petty bourgeois ideas of environmentalism”, as espoused by the eco-warriors. In reality, he ventures, the problem with capitalism is that it “holds back industrial development” and “creates vast underconsumption”. Instead, comrade Leese looks forward to a world – a “socialist society” – that will “unleash humanity’s productive potential by increasing human mastery and conscious command of nature”.[3]

Both comrades are fundamentally mistaken, and dangerously so. For them, it seems, “abundance” is not to do with the rational, democratic, equitable allocation of the world’s resources – which may well decide that extracting oil thousands of feet below the sea is an inefficient, unnecessary and potentially harmful use of labour time. Rather, if we are to believe the comrades, “abundance” is a grotesque game of ‘catch up’ involving incessant production so as to generate a Californian-style ‘affluence’ – no matter what the cost in terms of environmental degradation and destruction. Far from helping to “unleash” human potential, this form of “human mastery” will just re-introduce the alienating rule of things over people – as opposed to the other way round, which is the goal of the Marxist project of universal human liberation.

Capitalism is a destructive and wasteful mode of production and reproduction. It seeks only to make a profit, a quick buck – anywhere, anyhow and by any means necessary. Production for production’s sake. Therefore the statement made by comrade Leese that capitalism “holds back industrial development” needs to be qualified. Left to itself, capitalism will ‘industrialise’ to the point of self-destruction, making the air unbreathable and the rivers dead with toxic sludge – if its servants think they can make a profit out of it. Conversely, and I presume this is what comrade Leese was getting at, capitalism will effectively leave underdeveloped whole areas of the globe where it estimates – no doubt quite rationally from its own narrow perspective – that no profit can reasonably be made. Hence much of the African continent has been left to rot, or ‘de-industrialised’, for the simple reason that capital has little or no interest in it: no decent return can be made.

This only highlights the need for democracy, and substantive equality, on a world scale – so that we can exercise emancipatory social control over our own life processes and collectively decide what has to be done. Doubtless this will involve massive industrial development in African, Asian and other so-called ‘third world’ economies. But will this take place regardless of the effect on nature because we have reached the point where “human mastery” or human “command of nature” has been achieved?

More to the point still, the vision – such as it is – offered up by the comrades is just downright unsustainable. The earth is not a bottomless goodie-bag to be plundered merrily for the rest of time. Unless managed rationally and carefully, the sweeties will eventually run out some time down the line – leaving us deep in the shit, as there is no planet B to escape to if things get too sticky back home. Clearly, capitalism’s blind desire for profit threatens to devour the planet. But so does ‘red’ utopianism – or dystopianism, to be more accurate – which does not aim to do much more than emulate capitalism’s inner productivist logic: accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, comrades, for the good of the ‘plan’.

So, yes, Marxism is environmentalist to its very core. Karl Marx fought to overcome the “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature, between town and country, which itself was a reflection – and product – of capitalist class rule over the workers, of dead labour over living labour. Indeed, any Marxist who is not an environmentalist – who is not fighting for a genuinely sustainable planet – is not a Marxist at all.

Comrade Rankine may think that I, or the Weekly Worker, have succumbed to “green” arguments – or shroud waving, as he might see it – about carbon consumption/usage and global warming. But facts are stubborn things. Thus, according to the American Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency – and there is no reason to think that they are lying to us – worldwide energy consumption will on average continue to increase by 2% per year. An annual rise of 2% equals a doubling of energy consumption every 35 years. Therefore comrades like Douglas Rankine and Jeff Leese can stick their heads in the sand if they want – snarl angrily at the “reactionary petty bourgeois” environmentalists – but the problem will not go away. The energy hole will just get deeper. We are without doubt in the midst of a global environmental crisis of such enormity that the fabric of life of the entire planet is threatened, and with it the future of our human civilisation. Except for the refuseniks and recalcitrants – or climate “sceptics”, as they like to grandly flatter themselves – this proposition is surely no longer controversial. All the environmental trends and warnings are there.

Almost for certain, the critical threshold of a 2°C (3.6°F) increase in average world temperature above the pre-industrial level will soon be crossed due to the steady and relentless build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – as we have seen above. Yet, truly alarmingly, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is projecting increases in average global temperature of up to 5.8°C (10.4°F) or more by 2100. Climate warming at such a level will have calamitous implications for the world’s ecosystems. Experiments at the International Rice Institute and elsewhere have led scientists to conclude that with each 1°C (1.8°F) increase in temperature, rice, wheat and corn yields could drop 10%.

Furthermore, the planet is facing global water shortages due to the drawing down of irreplaceable aquifers, which make up the bulk of the world’s fresh water supplies. This poses a threat to global agriculture, which has become a bubble economy based on the unsustainable exploitation of groundwater. One in four people in the world today do not have access to safe water. Two-thirds of the world’s major fish stocks are currently being fished at or above their capacity. Over the last half-century, 90% of large predatory fish in the world’s oceans have been eliminated. As for the species extinction rate, that is now the highest in 65 million years, with the prospect of cascading extinctions – as the last remnants of intact ecosystems are removed. The extinction rate is already, as with bird species, one hundred times more than the ‘benchmark’ or ‘natural’ rate. Meanwhile, scientists have pinpointed 25 ‘hot spots’ – or breaking points – that account for 44% of all vascular plant species and 35% of all species in four vertebrate groups, while taking up only 1.4% of the world’s total land surface. All of these ecologically vital areas are now threatened with imminent destruction due to human – or more exactly, capitalist – despoliation.

We have seen how past civilisations underwent sudden ecological collapse, like the Mayans or, most notably and spectacularly, the Easter Islanders – who deforested the entire island in order to glorify and appease their gods. There is now the very real danger, thanks to capitalism, that the entire world could end up as a giant Easter Island – overexploited to the point of catastrophe, even effective extinction. There are no technological solutions to the capitalist-ecological crisis, such as the crackpot idea of putting white islands in the sea, or launching giant satellite ‘eyes’ into the sky, in order to increase the reflection of sunlight back into space. Or the notion of taking CO2 out of the air with various carbon sequestration schemes; or fertilising the oceans with iron, so as to stimulate algal growth to absorb carbon. Nor will the electric car, for example, be our salvation. All this technological tinkering and quackery by capitalism offers no solution – only more fiddling while the planet burns.

In order to prevent a catastrophic climate change tipping point, the advanced capitalist countries will need right now to cut their carbon emissions to around zero, even achieve negative emissions – by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere through reforestation, sustainable land use and so on. But everything we know tells us that a carbon-free economy, a necessary transition if we are to survive and prosper as a human race, is simply not possible under the capitalist system, with its insatiable drive for growth and expansion. What we need to fight for instead is an anti-capitalist ecological revolution, one that aims for sustainable human development and proper protection of the planet.

As Karl Marx always argued, such a revolution would see the associated producers rationally regulate the human metabolic relation with nature: it would transform the way we view wealth and human development, by ending the alienation of human beings from nature and from each other. Imagine our planet populated by sustainable ‘eco-communist’ communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, rather than ones enslaved to the all-consuming drive to accumulate ‘wealth’ (ie, capital and profits).

In short, capitalism cannot save the earth – it is in fact contributing every hour of every day to its destruction – so capitalism itself must go.

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Notes

  1. ‘Burning up planet Earth’ Weekly Worker June 10.
  2. Letters, June 17.
  3. Ibid.
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