May 2016        

Marxist ecology

“After all, the fight to avoid a catastrophic outcome to this crisis engendered by capitalism is the fight to safeguard the material conditions for survival with dignity of humankind . . . Socialism is not possible on a scorched Earth.”—Alexandre Costa.¹
     In the December 2015 issue of Monthly Review the American Marxist economist John Bellamy Foster asks: “If classical historical materialism embodied a powerful ecological critique, why was it forgotten for so long within the main body of Marxist thought?” He then offers his most feasible explanation, which is
the fact that Marx’s ecological ideas fell victim to the great split that opened in the 1930s between Western Marxism and Soviet Marxism.
     Intellectually, the schism within Marxism centered on the applicability of dialectics to the natural realm, and the position on this of Marx and Engels. The concept of the “dialectics of nature” was more closely identified with Engels than Marx. Engels argued that dialectical reasoning . . . was essential to our understanding of the complexity and dynamism of the physical world. This, however, raised deep philosophical problems (both ontological and epistemological) within Marxian discourse.
     Soviet thinkers continued to see complex, historical, interconnected views of development, associated with dialectical reasoning, as essential to the understanding of nature and science. Yet, while Marxism in the Soviet Union continued to embrace natural science, its analysis often assumed a dogmatic character, combined with an exaggerated technological optimism. This rigidity was reinforced by Lysenkoism, which criticized Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics, and took on a politically repressive role during the purges of the scientific community in the Stalin period.
     In contrast, the philosophical tradition known as Western Marxism dissociated Marxism and the dialectic from questions of nature and science, claiming that dialectical reasoning, given its reflexive character, applied to human consciousness (and human society) only and could not be applied to the external natural world. Hence, Western Marxists, as represented most notably in this respect by the Frankfurt School, developed ecological critiques that were largely philosophical and abstract, closely related to ethical concerns that were later to dominate Green philosophy, but distant from ecological science and issues of materialism. Neglect of natural-scientific developments and a strong anti-technology bent placed sharp limits on the contributions of most Western Marxists to an ecological dialogue.²
     From the 1950s to 1970s, when the modern environmental movement first developed, some pioneering environmental thinkers, such as radical ecological economist K. William Kapp and socialist biologist Barry Commoner, reached back to Marx’s idea of metabolic rift in explaining ecological contradictions.
      The late 1990s saw the development of important Marxist environmental concepts, together with a reunification of Marxist theory. In the meantime the importance of late Soviet ecology has gained recognition. More recently,
Soviet science, particularly in the post-Stalin period, continued to give rise to a dialectical understanding of interdependent natural and historical processes . . .
     By the 1970s, recognition of “global ecology” as a distinct problem related to the Earth system grew in the Soviet Union—in some respects, ahead of the West.
      As J. Bellamy Foster puts it,
it is not by chance that the word “Anthropocene” first appeared in English in the early 1970s in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
      Given the serious nature of the worldwide environmental issues, it is incumbent on communists, socialists and other left forces to build a strong eco-socialist movement to challenge the imperialist-led destruction of the land and marine environment; and this requires commitment, education, and organisation.
      In Monthly Review, September 2015, Ian Angus wrote:
The term Anthropocene . . . suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita (although this is still the subject of debate among scientists).”³
     In 1995 Paul Crutzen, then vice-chairperson of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, received a Nobel Prize for showing that widely used chemicals were destroying the ozone layer in the earth’s upper atmosphere, with potentially catastrophic effects for all life on Earth.
     In his acceptance speech, he said that his research on ozone had convinced him that the balance of forces on Earth had changed dramatically. It was now “utterly clear,” he said, “that human activities had grown so much that they could compete and interfere with natural processes.
     Over the next five years that insight developed until, at an IGBP meeting in 2000, he argued that human activity had driven the earth into a new geological epoch, which he proposed to call the Anthropocene.
     Crutzen and Will Steffen, then executive director of the IGBP, minced no words in describing the Anthropocene as a qualitative and dangerous change in the Earth system: “Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state. In terms of key environmental parameters, the Earth System has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented and unsustainable.”
     A no-analogue state. Planetary terra incognita. Unprecedented and unsustainable. These phrases are not used lightly: the earth has entered a new epoch, one that is likely to continue changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
     This radical transformation was first extensively described by the IGBP in 2004, in Global Change and the Earth System, a broad synthesis of scientific knowledge about the state of our planet that remains the most authoritative book on the Anthropocene. Since then, a great deal of scientific discussion has focused on a question that book did not answer: When did the Anthropocene begin? Of course this has involved technical discussions among experts in various disciplines, but it is not just a technical question. Technical studies can determine when an asteroid hit our planet or when an ice age ended, but a discussion of when human society pushed the Earth system into a no-analogue state must address social, economic, and political issues.
     There is a reciprocal process here. Examining social, economic, and political developments can help identify social changes that might have changed the Earth system, and determining when radical physical changes in the Earth system happened provides a basis for determining which human activities were responsible, and thus what measures humans might take to prevent the change from reaching catastrophic proportions. In this article I offer an overview of the issues and stakes in the “when it happened” debate.

     1. Alexandre Costa, “Socialism is not possible on a ruined planet,” Climate & Capitalism.
     2. John Bellamy Foster, “Marxism and ecology,” Monthly Review, December 2015.
     3. Will Steffen, Paul. J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?” Ambio, vol. 36 (December 2007), no. 8, quoted by Ian Angus, “The Anthropocene: When did it begin, and why does it matter?” Monthly Review, September 2015.

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