Marxism, capitalism and the environment

Below is a talk on Marxism and the environment given by Workers World Editor Deirdre Griswold to a Workers World Party forum in New York on April 26, 2013.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote a century and a half ago. Climate change is a modern problem. So why do we say that Marxism is essential to the struggle to protect the environment?

Because Marxism views human activity not in the abstract, but within its concrete historical conditions. It is a dialectical, materialist worldview — a scientific view of nature and society — that defines human beings as part of the material world, or nature, and as having evolved along with all life forms. It rejected what was the dominant Western view in the 19th century: that humans were placed here by a divine being to conquer nature.

Our relationship to the environment is not fixed. Like so much of human behavior, it arises from the level of technology achieved and, most important, the social relations that flow from that.

We know, for example, that the Indigenous people on this continent had a very different attitude toward nature than did the European settlers. They viewed their own role as being in harmony with all living things. They hunted for food and clothing, for example, yet they inculcated in each new generation a healthy respect for the animals and only killed what they needed.

Contrast this with the scenes of carnage that led to the near extinction of the buffalo. Settlers who rode the early trains across the Midwest would shoot hundreds of buffalo as they went by. Often, they came back for the hides and left the carcasses to rot on the plains. They committed this terrible crime against nature partly for money, partly for sport, but largely it was done to deprive the Native peoples of a basic food supply and either starve them or drive them off the land. In three decades, some 75 million buffalo were reduced to a few small herds. The European settlers’ view of themselves was as conquerors, not as stewards of the land.

Different social systems produce opposite views of nature

As Marxists, we say that these opposite views of nature come not from some genetic or inborn difference, but from contrasting social systems. The Indigenous people were communal — they shared the wealth they had. They cooperated in the struggle to survive; they did not exploit each other but instead did all they could to help one another.

It was European settlers who brought capitalism to the Western Hemisphere. Their ideology came from this predatory system that allows a few to become wealthy by exploiting the labor of the many. If it is OK to exploit fellow human beings in this way, then why not nature itself?

This is not to say that that was the attitude of everyone who came here, but it was the prevailing attitude, from the conquistadors to Gen. Custer to the wealthy planters, whose demand for labor created the holocaust of the slave trade. And let’s not forget, while chattel slavery was the form of class exploitation used in the South and the Caribbean, it was different from the slavery of ancient times. Modern slavery was designed to serve the demands of a world capitalist market in cotton, sugar and other commodities, which made it much, much harsher because the market was so much bigger.

So when we look at the degradation of the environment that is now affecting the climate of the whole planet, we should remember how it began.

Engels on ‘The Dialectics of Nature’

Marx’s collaborator, Frederick Engels, wrote in “The Dialectics of Nature” in 1883:

“The social science of the bourgeoisie, classical political economy, is predominantly occupied only with the directly intended social effects of human actions connected with production and exchange. This fully corresponds to the social organization of which it is the theoretical expression.

“When individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results can be taken into account in the first place. When an individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with only the usual small profit, he is satisfied, and he is not concerned as to what becomes of the commodity afterwards or who are its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What did the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees, care that the tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock?

“In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, tangible success; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different, mainly even of quite an opposite, character.”

This was written 130 years ago, but how well it describes the situation today!

Now the problem has become worldwide. And it is not just climate change.

So much “profitable” economic activity — mountaintop and strip mining, clear-cutting of trees, overfishing, the production of chemicals and plastics, using fossil fuels to feed an ever-growing demand for energy, agribusiness monoculture and the huge concentration camps for food animals, and much more  — has damaged the environment and/or depleted the natural resources. It is profitable for the capitalists but not the people as a whole.

This damage to the planet is not just because of population growth. The U.S., for example, has less than 1/20th of the world’s people, yet it is responsible for nearly half the world’s accumulated emissions of CO2. The U.S. has been the world’s largest capitalist economy since World War II.

U.S. corporations go around the world pumping out the oil, extracting the copper, cutting down the forests. And the Pentagon has directly harmed the environment (not to speak of killing people!) with its bombs, both atomic and conventional, its napalm and white phosphorus, its vast consumption of oil (the Navy is the world’s largest consumer), its energy-consuming bases in the deserts of the Middle East.

The science is clear, so what’s the problem?

To fix a problem as big as climate change, you have to first be able to define the problem. That problem is the rule of monopoly capital, dominated by the big banks, that has penetrated every continent.

It took decades for scientists to overcome the energy lobby so that global warming change was generally acknowledged.  The science became overwhelming, leading to a split in the scientific community.  James Hansen, for instance, who recently resigned as head of NASA, had a very powerful job but his warnings about greenhouse gas emissions went unheeded for at least two decades.

However, just establishing the scientific basis for climate change, that human activity has led to the accumulation of CO2, does not explain why our society has not dealt with it.

We know that the U.S. government has the ability to mobilize enormous resources when they want to. Look at the trillions of dollars that have been spent just in the last decade on war and aggression.

So why, after decades of dire warnings, has nothing significantly changed? After Midwest drought, hurricane upon hurricane, widespread tornadoes, massive floods, why has the U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Accords, which were very weak, or any other international agreements to reduce CO2 emissions?

Why have the attempts to reduce pollution using the capitalist market — schemes like “cap and trade” — been a bust?

It’s not a problem of the science. The vast majority of scientists now agree.

Is it a political problem, in the narrow sense of electoral politics? The Bushes, we know, worked hand-in-glove with the energy industry. So why haven’t the Democrats made a big issue of climate change?

But the environment was barely mentioned in the presidential debates. And the Obama administration is just as pro-war as the Republicans — Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, etc. On the domestic scene, the government has not tried to stop oil exploration in the Arctic, fracking or the Keystone X pipeline. But it did impose tariffs of up to 36 percent on Chinese solar panels, making it much harder for homeowners here to switch to solar energy.

The solution to this problem is not political, not in the sense of picking one capitalist party over another. This “democratic” political system itself functions to promote the interests of the capitalist class.

Pollution is profitable — for the 1%

What the quote from Engels made clear is this: to the capitalists, pollution can be very profitable. They can walk away from the problem. The overriding factor in their decisions is to maximize their profits. Cleaning up the mess is not their problem. Just as the health of workers is not their problem. Re-educating workers in the use of new technology — especially in periods of high unemployment — is not their problem.

The approach of most of the environmental movement is to get laws, agreements, etc., that would make environmental protection the problem of society as a whole. But who are the lawmakers? Who are the governments?

Only when it suits the interests of the capitalists will the bourgeois politicians curb the corporations’ predatory practices. And for every law they pass, for every fine they levy, there are 100 loopholes that let the polluters get away with it.

Think of how capitalists get away with so many safety violations. The recent Texas fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people — five times the deaths from the Boston Marathon bombing. It injured scores more and destroyed the town of West. Where are the urgent calls in the media for stiffer laws, more inspectors? Some 4,500 workers die every year from job-related accidents. Many more die from the long-term effects of pollution.

But with the “sequester,” health and safety inspections are being cut back. If the capitalist government won’t spend the money to protect these workers, is it going to spend the trillions necessary to reorganize production, transportation and housing so as to reverse global warming?

Of course we are for progressive reforms and restraints on polluting companies, just as we are for many other reforms, like a government-funded jobs program.

But it’s nowhere near enough.

So how do we combat the degradation of the environment?

We say it has to be an integral part of the struggle to end capitalism. Capitalism requires an ever-expanding market — and ever-expanding production. If production drops, the stock markets panic. Capitalism is the driving force of rapid, unplanned, industrial and agricultural development.

The primary purpose of this economic activity under capitalism is not to provide what people really need to lead healthy, satisfying lives. It is to produce maximum profits for the bosses. That’s the nature of this system. Asking it to change is like asking a tiger to become a vegetarian.

Why are vast forests chopped down each day to produce the New York Times and other capitalist news media? Because most of their space is devoted to advertising, which is essential to expanding the capitalist market.

System is choking on its own productivity

This system is now at the point where it is choking on its own productivity. Yet it must go on trying to produce more and more, cheaper and cheaper. This is a prescription for disaster.

Economic disaster for the workers, with unemployment rising all over the world. Today, the enterprises with the newest, most labor-saving technology survive, while those that need to employ more workers go under. The result is worldwide, massive unemployment.

We are in an ecological emergency. If the working class took over the basic means of production and initiated an economic plan to serve the needs of the people, wouldn’t we be putting every available person to work restoring the health of the planet?

One of the first things a revolutionary workers’ government would do is work out a plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions without hurting the people. Take the hundreds of billions now spent on war and bank bailouts and use it to rebuild mass transit. Get rid of the military-industrial complex and all the useless polluting industries that profit off war. Green our cities to cool them in the summer. Plant millions of trees to naturally sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Help insulate older houses so they burn less energy and provide solar panels to everyone who wants them. Rebuild the energy grid so electricity is not wasted. Focus on the most efficient, least polluting sources of energy — and devote resources to their development.

At least this much is necessary to turn the situation around. But it seems — and is — impossible to achieve when the capitalists and their politicians decide everything.

Movement needs a revolutionary perspective

Without a revolutionary perspective, the prospect seems too bleak to contemplate. Most of the “solutions” being offered are to go back to small-scale economies, co-ops, family farms, etc. This is nothing but a pipe dream. It may provide a satisfying life for some people, but it is not a solution for the vast bulk of humanity.

But there is another trend in the environmental movement. It was expressed in Bolivia at the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, and in the streets outside U.N. climate conferences in Durban, South Africa, and Cancun, Mexico, when large gatherings of environmental activists hit capitalism as the cause of global warming. In South Africa, demonstrators charged that the big imperialist countries, which are responsible for the vast majority of the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere, want to shift the burden of cutting emissions onto the developing countries.

It all boils down to the class struggle that Marx and Engels saw as the lever for social change. The class with the least to lose under capitalism is the working class. The oppressed nations have even more reason to fight the system of capitalist imperialism and replace it with socialism.

The harsh conditions of capitalist decay are forcing our class to rethink everything, discard any prejudices they have been taught and embrace new forms of struggle. Workers World Party is sure that this global environmental emergency will become yet another nail in the coffin of this cruel and dying system.

Email the author at [email protected]. For a compilation of WW articles on the environment, “Unnatural Disasters,” go to and click on the “Books” tab.