Almost a century and a half ago, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, Frederick Engels, wrote about the degradation of the environment due to human activity.
In a pamphlet about the evolution of human beings from apes — a premise of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary discovery which at that time was fiercely denounced by all religions — Engels wrote: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. …
“Thus 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 of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
Learning the laws of nature has progressed by leaps and bounds since Engels’ time, to the point of splitting the atom and cloning species. But the ability to apply this knowledge correctly?
The current state of the planet, which more and more each day shows alarming signs of the imminent collapse of entire ecosystems due to climate change, is a confirmation of Engels’ warning of 1876 — written long before any knowledge of global warming.
Human activity has now severely disrupted the balance of nature that existed for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s a given fact. So what do we do about it? And what is the main stumbling block to turning things around?
The science of scientific socialism
Scientific socialism — known as Marxism — has been persecuted and denied by the ruling classes because it identifies the basic problem of modern-day society: This economic system of capitalism, based on private ownership of capital and the means of production, must produce a profit for its owners, regardless of human need.
What if measures to save the planet are unprofitable for the individual capitalists? Then they are abandoned, or minimized, or not even begun in the first place. How many times have companies violated every law in the book meant to protect people and the environment from corporate pollution? The environmental disaster at Love Canal in the 1970s in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was not an exception — it was the rule.
Governments are then called upon to undo the damage inflicted by private capital on the planet. There have been many international conferences and agreements in recent years attempting to deal with climate change in this way. Yet it continues at a relentless pace.
In the United States, which has been the undisputed leader of world capitalism for decades, government policies on the environment under the administration of the greedy billionaire Donald Trump have flown in the face of everything that scientists have learned. The U.S. government has thumbed its nose at the Paris climate agreement, even though that pact falls far short of being able to reverse global warming.
Trump would like to take credit for the fact that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas — have fallen slightly in the past year. But the truth is that much of the manufacturing that used to be done here, which contributed to pollution, has now migrated to countries with lower wages, leaving behind a vast Rust Belt where steady jobs are hard to find.
At the same time, it is China’s huge production of solar panels that has driven down their price, making it easier for people here to convert to sustainable energy. The response of the U.S. capitalist government? Put heavy tariffs on solar panels from China.
Human need vs. corporate greed
What must replace capitalism? A system based on production for human need, not for private profit and greed. Only such a system can marshal all the forces of society to tackle climate change.
Of course, getting rid of capitalism is not simple. It means taking on the class that has become astronomically rich from this system and uses its vast wealth to control politics, the state and the corporate media.
Nevertheless, there are many people now alienated by capitalism and alarmed by the dire news about global warming who are demanding something be done about it. They exist in all the social classes.
They are struggling to get more progressive laws passed to curb the rampant abuse of the environment that has even worsened under this administration. The Green New Deal is part of that and is progressive as far as it goes. But that is not far enough, not by a long shot. As long as capitalism prevails, those with capital have the upper hand and will attempt to undermine anything that threatens their profits.
There’s only one class that can actually bring down this system: the working class, the people whose daily activities make everything run, from the factories to the warehouses, to the corporate farms, to the means of transportation and communication. Their struggle against this system that so mercilessly exploits and then abandons them is key to social change.
Within this working class are so many millions who also suffer from additional forms of oppression — targeted because of their race, their ethnicity, their national origin, their religion, their gender, their sexual identity and often a combination of these factors. They have organized and struggled for decades against discrimination at a time when others have been quiet.
Fighting all forms of discrimination in order to unite the working class against the exploiters is the key to social change.
We have reached the point where doing what is absolutely necessary for the world and all its life forms is completely incompatible with capitalism.
The struggle for a sustainable world is inextricably bound up with the struggle of the working class to take over the means of production and use them to meet human needs.
To be a real environmentalist means being a fighter for workers’ power and socialism.