This is the first part of a three-part examination of Marxism and the political economy of the environment
Part One: Introduction
“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.” —Karl Marx[i]
Until recently, there may have been a suspicion among Communists that Green politics were mostly the domain of various hippies, anarchists and other upholders of petty bourgeois thinking. If this is entirely the case, then all green ideology might reasonably dismissed as faddish distraction from the serious business of confronting capitalism.
In this regard, we could point to the Irish Green Party and its role in government as well as to its business-friendly rhetoric;
The Green Party believes that ….tax reliefs for businesses should be structured so that the establishment of strong indigenous enterprises is rewarded. [ii]
From a left social democratic perspective green academic John Barry argues for an approach to green political and economic transition, “which does not completely reject the positive role/s of a regulated market within sustainable development … [but which]does demand a clear shift towards making the promotion of economic security (and quality of life) central to economic policy”.[iii] He argues that, “an alternative economy and society must be based in the reality that most people (in the West) will not democratically vote for a completely different type of society and economy. That reality must also accept that a ‘green economy’ is one that is recognisable to most people and that indeed safeguards and guarantees not just their basic needs but also aspirations (within limits). The realistic character of the thinking behind this article accepts that consumption and materialistic lifestyles are here to stay (so long as they do not transgress any of the critical thresholds of the triple bottom line) and indeed there is little to be gained by proposing alternative economic systems, which start from a complete rejection of consumption and materialism.”[iv] This suggests that the current economic system is based on the “consumption and materialistic lifestyles” of most people and not the endless compulsions towards accumulation and expansion which lie at the heart of the capitalist economy (when it’s not in recession). As Karl Marx put it “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”
Or we could give the example of the Green Party in Germany which, under its leader then Foreign Secretary, Joschka Fischer, wholly supported the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. Moreover, as Greek Communist, Dimitris Karagiannis notes, “environmental protection” might be used in future as a cynical justification in future imperialist resource wars:
NATO expands to all parts of the world through various relations, with the support of the bourgeoisie and their political representatives in tens of states including states in the Middle East. It is now preparing itself to adopt a new strategy against the peoples. This new doctrine that will be discussed at its summit in December 2010, provides amongst others the intensification of interventions against the peoples under many pretexts, including, apart from combatting terrorism, internal security, energy security, political and economic crises, even climate changes.[v]
We could also point out that opportunists at all points of the political spectrum have been rushing to don themselves with the greener-than-thou mantle. To take one example, the BNP has taken to linking its ugly racism to environmental concerns:
The British National Party argues that “our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete” as more and more houses are built. Apparently “the biggest reason all these new houses are needed is immigration. One-third of all new homes are for immigrants and asylum-seekers.” The BNP claims that “immigration is creating an environmental disaster”, and worries that if we let in more migrants Britain will become “a tarmac desert”. [vi]
To take another example, the Republican Party in the USA relates environmental issues to its free-market ideology:
Private property ownership key to environmental agenda
Republicans know that economic prosperity is essential to environmental progress. We link the security of private property to our environmental agenda because environmental stewardship has been best advanced where property is privately held. People who own the land also protect it. Republicans will safeguard private property rights by enforcing the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and by providing just compensation whenever private property is needed to achieve a compelling public purpose.[vii]
Beyond the area of party politics many commentators on the left and on the right argue that capitalism can be reasonably expected to come up with the “environmental fixes” (e.g. bio-fuels, electric cars, nuclear fusion, carbon capture) and policies such as carbon trading which will solve such environmental problems as global warming. Moreover, many argue that a Malthusian drive towards global population reduction is the only answer to global overproduction.
And from yet another perspective, which again has its adherents on the right and left, anthropogenic (man-made) global warming is not happening and environmental concerns are being stoked up among the general public to suit various interest groups and moral agendas.
Are the global warming cynics right? It is clearly true that environmental rhetoric is being used in many quarters as the latest trendy guise in which to present ideology and push products. Of course, Marxists should have nothing to do with the politics of “greenwash”, i.e., the cynical use of green language for populist purposes. However, there is an eco-socialist strand to green thinking which makes a strong scientific case for the inability of capitalism to sustain the accumulation of profit without the mass extinction of species and the cataclysmic destruction of various crucial natural cycles. From this perspective, socialism is not inevitable but it is necessary if the world is not to plunge, fairly soon, into an abyss of scarcity and environmental chaos. In short, according to the eco-socialist perspective, socialism is the alternative to growing global barbarism.
What follows is a general overview of some of the main issues. It is the opinion of this writer that communists need to develop scientific and radical approaches to environmental issues, not because the issue is currently “trendy” but because the issues are ones of life and death.
The radical eco-socialist approach demands that the planet and its people cannot afford the anarchic capitalist profit system and that a largely closed system such as the biosphere (the Earth heated by the Sun) cannot sustain the limitless growth that modern globalised capitalism promises and needs. What results is environmental degradation, some examples of which follow:
- According to the United Nations Environment Programme (2008) the effects of human activities on biodiversity have increased so greatly that the rate of species extinctions is rising to hundreds or thousands of times the background level. Every year, 160,000sq km of tropical rainforest are destroyed, an area almost twice the size of Ireland. These forest areas are home to tens of thousands of species of animals and plants.
- The damage wrought on the world’s seas and oceans is already so acute that, in the words of Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): “The recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years.”[viii] Climate change, overfishing and pollution are causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide and the total collapse of commercial fish stocks is now predicted to be just four decades away.
This radical ecological approach is also critical of earlier attempts to build socialism in the Socialist countries because these countries also based their economic and environmental practices on two principles that they shared with capitalists: these were
- that Nature provides “free gifts” which human beings can use as they choose without too many consequences. Rivers can be dammed, species hunted, coal and petrol burned as and when required. Human beings dominate and exploit natural resources. Pollution, species extinction, etc. were treated as ‘externals’ (i.e. not included in the accounts) of the socialist economies, just as they are in most capitalist accounting.
- that endless economic growth is an essential requirement of a planned socialist
Socialists in the USSR, China and other countries said that the planned socialist economy could provide growth and use environmental resources for the benefit of the working class and peasants and this proved the superiority of the Socialism. In Soviet and Chinese analyses capitalism was seen to be what it is– a ruthless, warmongering imperialist, inhumane system, but ideas of endless growth and the domination of the world’s resources were not themselves in question. For example,
The Aral Sea: As recently as 1960, this was the world’s fourth largest inland sea, with a prospering fishing industry, and a sustainable agriculture in the surrounding region. In just thirty years, the Aral Sea … lost two-thirds of its volume, its fisheries are totally destroyed. The land that was set aside by Soviet agricultural planners for extensive cotton cultivation has been seriously polluted by fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, residues, and by salt and chemical residues airborne from the dry lake bed.[ix]
Given the history and the situation of the Socialist countries, the need to build and grow as speedily as possible was perhaps not surprising but Socialists today are free to learn from the mistakes of Comrades past just as we can also learn from their great achievements[x]. Today also, we can learn lessons from the remaining Socialist countries. For example, in terms of its ecological approach to agriculture socialist Cuba is a shining light. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 oil imports in Cuba were cut in half, and food by 80%. The island underwent a transition from an industrial system to one of urban gardens using organic methods. In 1997 Havana’s urban gardens produced 20,000 metric tonnes of vegetables and by 2005 this number had grown to 270,000 metric tonnes.
More than two hundred facilities provide needed inputs for urban agriculture—producing, providing, and/or selling seeds, organic fertilizers, biological pest control preparations, technical services, and advice. More than 7,000 Organic Material Centers produce organic fertilizers (compost and vermicompost, worm humus). Water for irrigation comes from piped municipal urban supplies, as well as from wells, rivers, and reservoirs. Water availability is maximized by improvements in the capture of rainwater, as well as by efficient irrigation techniques, especially in organoponicos and intensive gardens. To the extent some imports, e.g., pipes for irrigation systems, are still needed, the Ministry of Agriculture undertakes their purchase and allocation.[xi]
The World Wildlife Fund recently identified Cuba as the only country in the world that meets the requirements of sustainable development.
We have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to put aside these fundamental ideas of domination of nature and endless growth, sometimes termed GOD (growth or death). This might be particularly difficult in relation to economic growth, but if the global economy returns to its ‘traditional’ growth levels of 3%, world economic output will double in the next thirty years. Can the world afford the economics of endless growth? Or can social/economic growth be decoupled from CO2 emissions growth?
[i] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, (London: Penguin, 1981), 911, 959
[ii] http://www.greenparty.ie/index.php/en/policies/economy/business_and_taxation last accessed 26th October 2011
[iii] John Barry “Towards a model of green political economy: from ecological modernisation to economic security”, Int. J. Green Economics, Vol. X, No. Y, xxxx 1, p.2
[v] Communist Party of Greece, 2010, Collection of Articles and Contributions on Current Issues of the Communist Movement, p.163
[vi] Brendan O’Neill, “BNP’s green disguise”, New Statesman and Society 23 August 2007[vi]
[vii] 2004 Republican Party Sep 1, 2004 . 69-70 Platform http://www.ontheissues.org/Celeb/Republican_Party_Environment.htm,
[viii] Quoted in “U.N. says world fisheries face collapse”, Reuters, February 22, 2008
[ix] . “Russian Environmentalism: Conditions and Prospects” by Ernest Partridge in Human Ecology: Progress Through Integrative Perspectives The Society for Human Ecology, 1995.[ix]
[x] The mainstream view on left and right is that Stalin adopted a crude “productivism” in which Soviet man would conquer and tame nature like a hostile beast. Against this view American historian Stephen Brain shows that,” “[e]vironmentalism survived—and even thrived—in Stalin’s Soviet Union, establishing levels of protection unparalleled anywhere in the world, although for only one component of the Soviet environment: the immense forests of the Russian heartland. (p.2) Brain argues that, “[w]hen Stalin passed from the scene, supporters of forest protection apparently lost the one political actor in Soviet history who was both willing to confront the industrial bureaus and powerful enough to tip the balance in conservation’s favor. (p.27) “Stalin’s Environmentalism”, Russian Review, Jan 2010, Vol. 69 Issue 1, pp 93-118.
[xi]Sinan Koont, “The Urban Agriculture of Havana” in Monthly Review, New York 2009, Volume 60, Issue 08 (January)