The Guardian • Issue #2088


Racing to ruin

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2088

Research into the potential climate impact of burning fossil fuels dates back at least 70 years. (Green Notes, Guardian #2086) But the impact of human actions on nature was studied far earlier in the 19th century by Engels and Marx. In Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels said: “Everything affects and is affected by every other thing.” This is particularly pertinent to humanity’s relationship with nature which is catastrophically manifesting itself in climate change, where the actions of humans are threatening the survival of humanity. Marx, who assisted Engels in the writing of the Dialectics of Nature also made an extensive study of scientific works of the time on agriculture, soil, and forestry, in order to understand the connection between capitalism and its destruction of natural resources.

Engels in Anti-Dühring, (1878), said the capitalist class was “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open.” “[…] both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself … to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.” In other words, socialism is a necessity for human survival.

In The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, (1876), Engels provides a specific example of the degradation of nature by capitalists, an example that is very relevant to the impact of capitalist exploitation of nature and its impact today, in the 21st century: “The people of the Americas were driven into slavery, but also nature was enslaved.”

“As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. […] What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the 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 immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character; that the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite … ,” Engels said.

Marx wrote in Capital: “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility … . Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”

Engels and Marx could not be more relevant today than almost 150 years ago!

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