Green as Red: Marxism and Climate Change
By Christopher C.
The biggest threat facing the world today is global warming. This is better called climate change since, according to the predictions, not all parts of the globe will become universally warmer. Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is happening. Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. In summary, the warming of the earth is partly the result of human action.
This fact is undeniable. It is true that the earth has always gone through hotter and colder periods (ice ages), but more and more greenhouse gases (the most important of which is CO2) are being pumped out into the upper atmosphere. These operate like greenhouses or blankets, in that they let warmth from the sun in, but then trap it in the atmosphere. This contributes to the warming of the earth as a whole. Since the 1980s, the earth has been warming up at a faster rate than ever before. And emissions from us, in the form of burning fossil fuels that give off greenhouse gases, are to blame .
Over half of the increase in temperature has happened in the past thirty years and is in part attributable to human activity. Already it has led to droughts, extinctions of species and rising sea levels leading to localized flooding. It’s going to get worse . Any political movement must articulate an analysis of climate change and a strategy for dealing with it. Climate change must be combatted, the only question is how we are going to do it.
I would like to examine the variety of strategies articulated by activists as to how to deal with the threat of climate change. Many argue that capitalism can be “made green,” or that the damage being dealt to the environment is not the result of systemic issues with capitalism . I would first like to argue against this perception, as well as offer Marxism as a viable alternative to it.
In large part, climate change is due to what economists call “externalities” . Externalities are things that don’t affect the balance sheet and therefore firms don’t worry about. The firm produces iron and steel. It gets paid for these outputs. It also produces smoke. This smoke is a nuisance, but the firm is not charged, so it has no incentive to limit how much smoke it belches out. The firms do not have to pay for this: the working class does. It pays through lung and chest diseases.
Capitalism is literally killing the working class – and the planet – just by functioning normally. That is why the idea that the market treats the environment ‘efficiently’ is ridiculous. Firms minimize costs because that is the best way to make money. But they don’t minimize costs that others have to pay – externalities. Why bother? But these are real costs, just like iron and coal. They are just costs that have to be born by the rest of us.
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 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 is not the result of a corrupted “crony capitalism” or anything of the sort. It is simply capitalism working as intended.
It is impossible to construct a “green capitalism” that does not result in environmental destruction. An article in Monthly Review summarizes the green capitalist program this way: “‘green capitalism’ seeks to bind together two antagonistic notions. To be green means to prioritize the health of the ecosphere, with all that this entails in terms of curbing greenhouse gases and preserving biodiversity. To promote capitalism, by contrast, is to foster growth and accumulation, treating both the workforce and the natural environment as mere inputs” . This is, however, at odds with the systemic workings of capitalist production.
A “green capitalism” would mean curbing carbon emissions and promoting biodiversity, at the expense of growth. Green capitalism necessarily involves cutting back, but the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production necessitate a “pushing onwards.” In his book Green Capitalism: the God that Failed, Richard Smith explains that “ecologically suicidal growth is built into the nature of any conceivable capitalism. This means … that the project of a steady-state capitalism is impossible and a distraction” . In particular, “under capitalism, the whole point of using resources efficiently is just to use the saved resources to produce even more commodities, to accelerate the conversion of even more natural resources into products.” This cannot be avoided under capitalism without causing economic collapse. “Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction… No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs” . Consider that “more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and military is dedicated to propping up this consumerist ‘American way of life’” .
Capital’s need to grow is the logical outcome of accumulation. The objective limits of capital are determined, in the short run, by saturation of the market and, in the long run, by exhaustion of resources. When its productive potential is stymied, it turns to financial speculation, which only increases the gulf between the capitalist class and the rest of the species. Even capital that does not directly destroy resources therefore contributes to – and is dependent on -environmental degradation. Smith puts it this way: “Consumerism and overconsumption are not ‘disposable’ and cannot be exorcised because they are not just ‘cultural’ or ‘habitual.’ They are built into capitalism and indispensable for the day-to-day reproduction of corporate producers in a competitive market system in which capitalists, workers, consumers and governments alike are all dependent upon an endless cycle of perpetually increasing consumption to maintain profits, jobs, and tax revenues…” .
Even smaller, ecologically-minded businesses, in large part freed from the rapacious need to imperialize, cannot become green to the extent that is necessary. The scope of such practices is likely to be severely limited by market pressures. The aspect of local self-sufficiency is most widely seen in the food-services sector, especially in farmers’ markets, which have experienced a notable resurgence in recent years in industrialized countries. This corresponds more to what Marx called “simple commodity production,” however, than to capitalist enterprise . Agribusiness allows residual space for it, but at the same time undercuts it through economies of scale facilitated by technologies of food processing and storage; political clout, resulting in subsidies; and reliance on a typically migrant workforce that receives less than a living wage. Because of the resulting cost differences (as well as inconveniences of access), patronage of farmers’ markets is likely to remain primarily a political choice until much more is done to offset the artificial competitive edge enjoyed by the food-industrial complex.
Big capital will always crowd out, absorb, and otherwise overtake small capital. While noble, smaller “green capitalist” businesses are simply incapable of bringing about the systemic change necessary to mitigate the impact of the ecological crisis.
We can see that capitalism is not the answer, but is Marxism? Many activists argue that Karl Marx had an overly positive view of industrialisation and saw nature as an unlimited source to be exploited . Contrary to this claim, consciousness about and struggle for the environment is nothing new for Marxists. In fact, Marx was a pioneer in analysing and criticising the destructive effect of capitalist industrialisation on nature as well as on society. Both Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, closely studied and followed science in all fields.
Engels outlined over one hundred years ago the contradictions between an exploitative, short-term relationship of humanity to nature and the long-term problems that would inevitably engender: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each 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 out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season… 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 of nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly” .
Today, many governments are overtly committed to militarism to extend the economic reach of their own national group of capitalists. All mainstream predictions by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency point toward growing worldwide use of fossil fuel energy. Waiting for real and meaningful solutions to emerge from governments guarantees humanity a desperate future and many species a short one. The raison d’être of capitalism is profit based on continual economic expansion.
Capitalism has, in theory and in practice, alienated humanity from nature by privatizing the land and making all things into commodities—even pollution itself. On this alienation from nature, Marx explains, “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product” .
The mentality expressed here results in the environmental catastrophe of climate change. The capitalists think of nature not as a vital part of life which must be protected, but as nothing more than a source of profit (the same way they view workers). This, in turn, leads them to inflict horrific damage upon the environment. This damage to the planet is not just because of population growth, as many proponents of capitalism would have you believe.
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. Its corporations pump out the oil, extract the copper, and cut down the forests . The Pentagon has directly harmed the environment with 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 . Despite this, the Navy is made up of a relatively small number of people when compared to the US population as whole. This fact proves that population growth is not the primary factor in exacerbating climate change. Capitalist production has that dubious honor.
It is clear that capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding. According to a 2000 study carried out by five major European and U.S. research centers: “Industrial economies are becoming more efficient in their use of materials, but waste generation continues to increase…Even as decoupling between economic growth and resource throughput occurred on a per capita and per unit of GDP basis, overall resource use and waste flows to the environment continued to grow. We found no evidence of an absolute reduction in resource throughput. One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year” . (Emphasis mine)
Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. Philosophically, the approach that capitalism takes to the environment, and the attitude it forces us to adopt, is one of separation and alienation. As a species we are forcibly cut off from the land, separated from nature, and alienated from coevolving with it. It’s an attitude amply summed up by Marx in volume 1 of Capital: “Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…. The social combination and organization of the labor processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workmen’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.… Moreover, 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 a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” .
Marx and Engels viewed humans not as something separate from the environment, as capitalist ideological orthodoxy does, but dialectically interconnected. Writes Marx on the relationship between nature and humanity: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature” . The organism interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on the organism. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be shaped at will by whatever life-form comes along, but plays a role in making the organism what it is. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed with each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction and transformation. Environmental niches don’t just pre-exist so that some happy organism that just happens to wander by at the right time can slot itself in. The very idea of an environment has no meaning unless we are talking about an organism’s relationship to it.
For Marx and Engels, writing in The German Ideology, human activity had the potential to alienate all creatures from their environments: “The ‘essence’ of the fish is its ‘being,’ water… The ‘essence’ of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence” . Capitalist industrial production and with it the working class, had only come into existence in the preceding decades, but were immediately understood by Marx as the key elements for the development of society. Stressing the importance of the working class did not mean ignoring the environment.
Interestingly, Marx viewed labor as “a process in which both man and nature participate” . This is underlined in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme – the programme adopted by the initial congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1875. Marx takes up the programme’s assertion that, “labor is the source of all wealth and all culture” . “Labor is not the source of all wealth”, Marx wrote. “Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power” . The falsehood of labor as the sole source came from Ferdinand Lassalle, not from Marx. Marx understood labor and the environment as inherently interrelated. He did not focus on labor to the exclusion of environmental issues.
In fact, Marx devoted considerable effort to understanding the environment. He warned of the effects of the disruption in the relationship between humanity and nature. Therefore, he saw the alienation of workers in capitalist production as part of the same process as humanity’s alienation from nature. In his time, this was particularly obvious in the industrialisation of agriculture. The working class was and is at the forefront of the effects of capitalism on the environment. For example, energy companies – oil, coal, nuclear power – pose a direct threat to workers in those industries as well as to people and the natural environment in whole regions or countries. Workers in those industries are often the most conscious about those dangers. The struggle to improve the working environment is an important part of environmental struggles.
Further, the impacts of global warming fall disproportionately on the working class and the poor. The effects will manifest themselves in lots of ways: more expensive foods, a shortage of water, less fertile soil, and more extreme weather. Those who will suffer (and already are suffering) as a result are ordinary working and middle class people, peasant farmers – in short, everyone except the super-rich, who can always up sticks and move to a more pleasant climate. Although at the moment the effects are largely confined to the so-called third world, they are already starting to impact on the richer countries. This means that global warming is not just a scientific issue, but a class issue. Marxism, being the most developed theory of class, is clearly relevant here.
In addition, the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism offers the means to analyse and explain today’s climate crisis. Marx and Engels in the mid-19th century showed how both society and nature develop through the build-up of contradictions leading to qualitative leaps . Today, climate researchers echo this method in warning of tipping points, the moment when the environment passes irreversibly from one stage to another . In this sense, climate change is dialectical in nature. The dialectical nature of climate change is a striking confirmation of the philosophy of dialectical materialism developed by the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In his unfinished book The Dialectics of Nature, Engels provides us with an explanation of dialectical materialism: “the transformation of quantity and quality – mutual penetration of polar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes – development through contradiction or negation of the negation” . This is confirmed to be just as correct for global warming, particularly through the discovery of ‘tipping points’, as in other aspects of science and nature. For example, computer models predict that an overall increase in global temperatures, Britain could experience a dramatic fall in temperature, much colder than at present . The reason is simple: the Gulf stream, the current of warm water from the Caribbean that keeps the British Isles warm, could be diverted due to melt water from the Arctic. What better confirmation could there be of the dialectical “mutual penetration of polar opposites?” In order to successfully combat climate change, it is vital that we understand how it functions. Marxist theory, best describes this process. Given this, it would be utterly incorrect to characterize Marxism as irrelevant to issues of environmental justice.
In the third volume of Capital, published in 1894 after Marx’s death in 1883, Marx describes capitalism as a break with the natural laws of life: “On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities. It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life” .
Based on a discussion about the long-term degradation of the soil following the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture, Marx wrote that “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility” . Contrary to popular belief, Marx was not only concerned with the horrors capitalism inflicts upon the working class. His analysis also dealt with the planet itself. As such, claims that Marx had nothing to say on the issue of environmental justice are unsound.
Marx warned that capitalism’s constant modernisation would increase “this process of destruction” . Marx predicted the atrocities capitalism would inflict on the environment over one hundred years ago. How, then, can we call his thought irrelevant?
Marxism does not just diagnose problems with capitalism. It also provides solutions, new approaches moving forward. Engels summarized the dependence on, and need to learn from, nature: “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 of nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly” . This stands directly opposed to the capitalist method of dealing with nature, in which the planet is treated like a slave to be beaten and exhausted. Those who are interested in achieving justice for the environment must also dedicate themselves to the struggle against this attitude, and therefore capitalism as a whole.
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 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.
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 . While well-intentioned, this strategy is nothing but a pipe dream. The forces of production have centralized to such a degree that decentralization is all but impossible on the scale needed to combat climate change. Small-scale farms may offer a way out for some people, but those who live in deteriorating cities near boarded-up factories will be left in the dust.
Right now, we need a strategy that is applicable to the whole working class, not just those in very specific and insular situations. Decentralization, a “scaling down,” simply cannot offer that. Marxism, with its emphasis on the unification of the proletariat, is far more fitting.
In short, Marxism is the only viable way to deal with climate change. With capitalism threatening to destroy the entire planet, it is time for us to examine alternative approaches. Marxism, far from being applicable only to the 19th century working class, remains relevant for everyone concerned with the wellbeing of the human species.
Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.
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See, for example, Dawn Killough, “Combating Climate Change With Small Farms” Planetsave.com, April 8th, 2015.