Ecological crisis: myth or real menace?

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

We have received an interesting letter from a comrade in Spain who asks about the reality of the ecological crisis: "what truth is there in all this world-wide theatre about climate change? Are there not particular interests hidden behind this?...The analysis could be: given the real situation of the destruction of the world (what is this? Do we know precisely?) can we continue with the level of consumption reached by the masses? Can the system change its model of production and consumption? Which class, the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, is hit hardest by the approaching climatic catastrophes? Are they imminent?".

The comrade asks whether we are facing a grave ecological crisis, or whether, on the contrary, it might be a media show to make us accept austerity measures and poverty under the pretext of ‘saving the planet'.

What truth is there in the ‘ecological crisis'?

It is quite right to say that capitalism doesn't have the slightest scruple about the pretexts it uses to gain advantage for itself, and it will not hesitate to dress up in green if this will gain benefits for it.

It's also particularly repulsive to see the attempts of all governments, but especially those of the left, to make us feel guilty about the deterioration of the environment. We are led to believe that bad habits like going to work by car, showering regularly or putting out the rubbish are the cause of all the ills facing the planet.

But underneath this pile of shameless propaganda, a very real and serious problem remains: capitalism is indeed in the process of destroying the conditions for life on this planet. In the article in ‘Only the proletarian revolution can save the human species' in International Review 104 we said that:

"Throughout the 90s, the plundering of the planet has continued at a frenzied rhythm: deforestation, soil erosion, toxic pollution of the air, water tables and oceans, pillage of natural fossil resources, dissemination of chemical or nuclear substances, destruction of animal or plant species, explosion of infectious diseases, and finally the steady increase in average temperatures over the surface of the planet (seven of the hottest years for millennia were in the 90s). Ecological disasters are becoming more combined, more global, often taking on an irreversible character, with long term consequences that are hard to predict".

In the same article we cited the report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change: "Average surface temperature has increased by 0.6% since 1860...New analyses indicate that the 20th century has probably seen the most significant warming in all the centuries for the last thousand years in the northern hemisphere...The area of snow cover has diminished by about 10% since the end of the 1960s and the period in which lakes and rivers are under ice in the northern hemisphere has diminished by about two weeks in the 20th century.....the thickness of the Arctic ice has diminished by 40%....Average sea levels have risen by between 10 and 20 cm during the 20th century...the rhythm of these rising sea levels during the 20th century has been about 10 times higher than in the previous three thousand years".

 Our article also cited the journal Maniere de Voir, no 50:

"...the reproductive and infectious capacities of insects and rodents, the vectors of parasites or viruses, is connected to the temperature and humidity of their surroundings. In other words, a rise in temperature, even a modest one, gives the green light to the expansion of numerous agents which are pathogenic to man and animals. This is why parasitic diseases - such as malaria, schistosomiasis and sleeping sickness, or viral infections like dengue fever, certain forms of encephalitis or haemorrhaging fevers - have gained ground in recent years...In the same way, the number of diseases transmitted by water is also spiralling. The warming of fresh waters facilitates the proliferation of bacteria. The warming of salt waters - particularly when they are enriched by human effluent - allows phytoplanctons, which are the real breeding grounds for the cholera bacillus, to reproduce at an accelerating rate. After virtually disappearing from Latin America around 1960, cholera claimed 1,368,053 victims between 1991 and 1996".  We think that we have to reply in the affirmative to the questions the comrade asks about the dangers of climate change. We can also say that the workers and the oppressed masses will be the most affected, but the question is more global and more profound: it's a question of the destruction of the very milieu in which humanity lives, the destruction of "man's inorganic body", as Marx described the natural environment in which we live.

The relationship between man and nature under capitalism

We have to pose an elementary question here: what is the relationship between man and nature? This question has already been posed by the marxist movement. Let's quote The Dialectics of Nature by Engels, who writes that "the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals..." (The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man')[1]

Human societies have sought to adapt the natural milieu to the necessity to survive, and to exploit to the maximum the riches supplied by nature. The development of the productive forces of humanity can be measured by the degree to which they have been able to transform the natural milieu and more effectively extract the riches it contains. A dual relationship has thus been established between man and nature throughout history: transformation but also depredation.

Under the modes of production which preceded capitalism (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, etc), nature exerted a crushing domination over man, and the latter's capacity to modify it was very limited. This relationship was radically transformed by capitalism. In the first place, the productive forces (machines, means of transport, industrial and agricultural techniques) have reached an unprecedented level. In the second place, capitalism has spread across the entire world, subjecting every country to the power of its mode of production. Finally, the exploitation of natural resources (agriculture, fish, minerals, cattle...) became systematic and extensive, profoundly altering natural cycles and processes (climate, regeneration of cultivated land, forests, watercourses...). For the first time, man had developed the productive forces which could not only transform but totally exhaust the existing natural resources.

The capacity of human society to transform its natural milieu, and consequently to transform itself constituted a very important historical progress. But capitalism has made it so that that this progress expresses itself fundamentally in a negative and destructive way, while its positive, transformative and revolutionary side remains hidden.

The transformations and changes brought about by capitalism in the evolution of the natural milieu take place in a chaotic and anarchic manner, working in the short term, without taking into account the more long term consequences, acting on the surface of things without concern about the underlying laws of nature. This immediate and empirical way of acting has caused all kinds of damage to the global ecology. We are now seeing the catastrophic results of this and they announce even more dramatic and sinister prospects for the future. The human and natural productive forces are developing in the prison of antagonistic relations - relations based on class divisions and ferocious competition between nations and enterprises.

The body and mind of the workers suffer even worse ravages than the natural milieu: physical and psychological destruction, moral and material poverty, frenzied competition, atomisation, the extreme compartmentalisation of human capacities, monstrously developed to the point of hypertrophy in certain cases and castrated no less monstrously in others. We arrive at a terrible paradox: "At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force" (Marx, speech on the anniversary of The People's Paper, 1856)

The comrade asks himself about capitalism's ability to prevent the catastrophe it has set in motion. We think that the laws and internal contradictions of the system will not only prevent it from doing so but can only push it further towards the disaster. The need to produce in order to produce, to accumulate for the sake of accumulation, pushes capitalism to become locked in insurmountable contradictions: "Goaded by competition, by the anarchic rivalry of capitalist units struggling for control of the market, it obeys an inner compulsion to expand to the furthest limits permitted to it, and in this mer­ciless drive towards its own self-expansion, it cannot pause to consider either the health and welfare of the producers, or the future ecologi­cal consequences of how and what it produces" (IR 63, ‘It's capitalism that's poisoning the Earth').

The decadence of capitalism and the destruction of the environment

All these phenomena have their roots in capitalism since its birth, but they have reached a paroxysm in the period of the decadence of the system. When the greater part of the planet was incorporated into the world market, at the beginning of the 20th century, the period of capitalism's decline began and from then "capital's ruthless destruction of the environment takes on a dif­ferent scale and quality, while at the same time losing any historical justification. This is the epoch in which all the capitalist nations are forced to compete with each other over a satu­rated world market; an epoch therefore, of a permanent war economy, with a disproportionate growth of heavy industry; an epoch charac­terised by the irrational, wasteful duplication of industrial complexes in each national unit, by the desperate pillaging of natural resources by each nation". (ibid)

Already in the ascendant period of capitalism, in the 19th century, Marx and Engels drew attention to the danger of the gigantic industrial cities developing at the time: "Marx and Engels had many occasions to denounce the way that capitalism's thirst for profit poisoned the living and working conditions of the working class. They even considered that the big in­dustrial cities had already become too large to provide the basis for viable human communities, and considered that the ‘abolition of the sepa­ration between town and countryside' was an integral part of the communist programme"(ibid) This problem has been massively aggravated in the period of decadence, a period in which we have seen the proliferation of mega-cities of 10 or 20 million human beings, bringing with it huge problems of pollution, water supply, waste disposal, etc, giving rise to new sources of illness and deformities and further destroying the ecological balance.

But decadence also adds a qualitatively new phenomenon. For centuries, humanity has suffered the scourge of war, but the wars of the past can in no way be compared to the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, for which marxists coined a term that reflected their historical novelty: imperialist war. We can't here go any deeper into this question. We will limit ourselves to pointing out that the effects of imperialist war on the environment are devastating: nuclear destruction, the development of pathogenic agents through the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons; the brutal alteration of the ecological balance through the massive use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, etc. The effects of more than a century of imperialist wars on the environment remain to be evaluated, since for the moment they are denied or severely underestimated by the bourgeoisie.

The proletarian revolution opens the door to a new relationship between man and nature

Global ecological problems require a global solu­tion. But despite all the international confer­ences, despite all the pious talk about interna­tional cooperation, capitalism is irreducibly based on competition between national economies. We cannot hope for anything from capitalism. It's significant that the book/film written by Al Gore, former vice president of the USA, the country which contributes the most to global pollution, uses a ‘daring' title (An Inconvenient Truth) but actually proposes paltry measures like eating less meat, doing the washing up by hand, using washing lines or working at home!

Faced with a problem of planetary dimensions and which has its origins in the relationship between the whole organisation of society and its relationship with nature, this gentleman merely reveals the impotence of the representatives of capital, who can propose nothing more than a list of good citizen's habits as ridiculous as they are useless. Al Gore tells us to "behave in an irreproachably green way", and lays responsibility for the ecological disaster on the ‘citizen' in order to make us feel guilty for the disasters that threaten us and to let the social system off the hook.

We on the other hand have to put forward this ‘inconvenient truth' for capitalism in response to Al Gore and other ‘Green' ideologues: "In its present phase of advancing decomposi­tion, the ruling class is increasingly losing control of its social system. Humanity can no longer afford to leave the planet in its hands. The ‘ecological crisis' is further proof that cap­italism has to be destroyed before it drags the whole world into the abyss" (ibid)

The proletarian revolution, in eliminating states and national frontiers, in eliminating commodity production and the exploitation of man by man, will destroy the system which is leading towards the annihilation of the human race and the ruin of the natural environment. The society the proletariat aspires to will be founded on the world human community, which will consciously plan social production and establish a harmonious and organic relationship with the natural environment. The relations of fraternity and solidarity, the collective consciousness which will mark the world human community will naturally extend to man's relationship with nature.

ICC (24/2/08)



[1] Engels also makes it clear in this article that man is an integral part of the natural milieu and is in no sense an outside element: "At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly".