Marx on the Planet

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

Michael Livingston

Marx’s Ecology:
Materialism and Nature
by John Bellamy Foster
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, 310 pages, $18.00 paper.

WE HAVE ARRIVED at a turning point in human history. Scientists feel that we have until perhaps 2050 before the multiple and massive environmental problems we face will become irreversible. After that, the planet will not support the existing global capitalist civilization.

The environmentally aware segment of the ruling class, represented by politicians such as Clinton and Gore, hope that market based mechanisms and technology will solve our problems.  The more reactionary elements in the ruling class, represented by Bush, ignore the problems while they facilitate the corporate plunder of the planet.

The unfolding environmental crisis makes the environmental movement a crucial arena for socialists, an arena as important as other social movements.

In making this claim I am not arguing that the labor movement, the anti-imperialist/antiwar movement and movements for human rights are not also important. They obviously are. But whereas socialists have a long standing and significant role in these movements, our presence in the environmental movement is less significant and more ephemeral.

The logic of environmental struggles will lead participants in a revolutionary direction, but this is not an automatic process. Without the active participation of socialists with a clear program and concrete ideas, the environmental movement will not bring about the fundamental change needed to resolve the crisis.

The enormity of the environmental crisis and the centrality of the environmental movement for revolutionary change makes John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature both timely and significant. Foster explores the mostly unknown but now very relevant ecological thinking of Marx and Engels, as well as other prominent 19th century writers, and he shows the shared philosophical basis for Marxism and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

That shared philosophical basis is historical materialism, a “materialism without determinism” to use Bertrand Russell’s phrase.  Foster rescues for us the historical materialist view that was the foundation of so many of Marx’s achievements, and offers a Marxist approach to analyzing environmental problems.

Transformations and Materialism

Foster has several goals with this work. He seeks to develop a revolutionary ecological view that links social transformation with the transformation of human’s relationship to the environment. While he does not directly deal with the various ideologies found in the environmental movement, he hopes that his analysis will help us get beyond the spiritualism and anti-rationalism found in much of Green political thought.

Foster hopes to do this through a systematic reconstruction of Marx’s ecological thought and of Darwin’s materialism. Finally, he wants to show us a different way of reading Marx, a method that appreciates the strong link between Marx’s materialist conception of history and his materialist conception of nature.

Foster’s work addresses six common criticisms of Marx’s ecology:

1. Marx’s statements about ecology or environmental issues are only “illuminative asides;”

2. Marx’s statements on ecology or environmental issues are mostly from “the early Marx,” not “the late Marx;”

3. Marx failed to address the exploitation of Nature;

4. Marx felt capitalist technology and economic development had solved the problem of ecological limits;

5. Marx had little interest in issues of science or the effects of technology;

6. Marx was a speciesist (he placed the interests of humans over the interests of the ecosphere or of other species).

In the course of his book, Foster demonstrates that each and every one of these ideas is a fallacy — in a nutshell, that Marx’s analysis of environmental issues was fundamental to his work and a lifelong concern; that Marx addressed the exploitation of nature and did not think that capitalist technology and economic development could get us around the problem of ecological limits; and that Marx (as well as Engels) was deeply interested in issues of science and technology.

The Nature of Nature

In chapter 1, “The Materialist Conception of Nature,” Foster traces the materialist roots of both Darwin’s work and of Marx’s work. Darwin’s materialism came through the work of Bacon, his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and materialist scientists within England.
Darwin understood the materialist and radical implications of this theory, and consequently was very reluctant to publish it until he received news in 1858 that another biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace, was about to publish a paper presenting essentially an identical theory.

Wallace and Darwin decided to co-present a paper to the Royal Society, and the following year, 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The rest, as they say, is history.

Darwin had been working on the theory for almost 20 years and had conducted a massive amount of research.  He was, however, a reluctant revolutionary, not eager to upset the social order of which he was a part or to risk the wrath of that social order.

The young Marx was also a materialist, as Foster shows through an analysis of his doctoral thesis on the work of Epicurus. This Greek philosopher was for Marx “the greatest representative of the Greek Enlightenment,” and a materialist, but not a determinist.

Epicurus had a profound influence on later philosophers and scientists, and was also the philosopher most hated by the Christian Church. Epicurus argued that there is no life after death, that death is the only thing that does not die.  He further argued for the existence of evolution and the existence of other planets such as our own.

While Epicurus was a materialist, he was not a determinist. He recognized the role of chance and contingency in matter, and the possibility of human freedom (within real material constraints). Marx’s thesis was a reconstruction of Epicurus’ thought, given the limited sources available. (As an aside, Foster notes that in light of the more extensive sources we now have available to us on Epicurus, the reconstruction is a very good one).

It is clear from Marx’s unpublished notebooks written during the course of his thesis that he was already a materialist. As Foster points out, the doctoral thesis is not really Hegelian (although it does have a veneer of Hegelianism). The thesis is both materialist and a transitional work as Marx has not yet replaced the Hegelian with a materialist dialectic.

Opposing Malthus

In chapter 2, “The Really Earthy Question,” Foster traces the development of the young Marx’s historical materialism.  Then in chapter 3, “Parson Naturalists,” Foster examines Marx’s struggle against the thinking of Thomas Malthus and other “parson naturalists” as Marx called them.

The parson naturalists fought ideologically and politically against materialism.  They sought to create a justification for the state religion and the established social order by combining natural theology and political economy. One of the most influential of the parson naturalists was Malthus, whose essays on population were an influential attack on social welfare.

Malthus was not interested in the ultimate carrying capacity of the planet (that is a more modern concern). His essay is not a tract on the limits of growth. Rather, he argued that population tends to increase by a geometric ratio and food production tends to increase by an arithmetic ratio.

This idea, the one original idea in his essay, has no evidence to back it up in Malthus’ work. He takes it as a matter of faith though, and goes on to argue that any effort to aid the poor and starving are only going to make the problems worse, as poverty and misery are God’s way of checking the excess population growth.

In chapter 4, “The Materialist Conception of History,” Foster traces the emergence of Marx’s historical materialism in Marx’s critique of Malthus and Proudhon, and his break with the contemplative, ahistorical  materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach.

Engels was central to this emergence of historical materialism.  Also central to the development of historical materialism were the environmental concerns of both Marx and Engels. Engels’ environmental masterpiece, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), contained an early critique of Malthus as well as Engels’ development of the notion of the reserve army of the unemployed.

Engels’ work is also a striking portrait of the conditions of the working class in the industrial towns of England. Engels focused especially on environmental toxins and public health conditions, and the impact that these had on workers — including air pollution, lead poisoning, skeletal deformities resulting from malnutrition, and diseases spread by unsanitary water. This was written over a century before Rachel Carson’s brilliant work Silent Spring.

Ecology and Capital

In Chapter 5, “The Metabolism of Nature and Society,” Foster examines the ecological analysis that underpins Marx’s mature work, Capital.  “It was in Capital,” Foster writes, “that Marx’s materialist conception of nature became fully integrated with his materialist conception of history.” (141)

This integration took place around one of the most important ecological issues of the time: the depletion of the soil, an issue that eclipsed other important issues of the time such as deforestation and urban pollution.

Declining soil productivity generated a crisis in the 1820s and 1830s. This crisis was only resolved when Justus Von Liebig published his brilliant 1840 work Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology, also known as Agricultural Chemistry, describing the role of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the growth of plants.

Two years later the English agronomist J.B. Lawes invented a process to make phosphate soluble and started a factory to produce the first synthetic fertilizer. Liebig’s science and Lawes’ fertilizers made the second agricultural revolution possible in the rest of the 19th century.* Liebig later came to reject the use of synthetic fertilizer.  Liebig tied the depletion of the soil to the growth of urban pollution.  He argued strongly for the recycling of nutrients contained in sewage as part of a rational agricultural scheme.

Foster shows how Marx, who was very familiar with Liebig’s work, developed Liebig’s ideas into the notion of “metabolic rift.” Marx showed in the three volumes of Capital how capitalist industry and capitalist agriculture tears humans away from our natural interaction with the environment, and how capitalism intensified the degradation of the soil.

By the time Marx wrote Capital, Foster observes, he “had become convinced of the unsustainable nature of capitalist agriculture.” (151) Foster goes on in Chapter 5 to explore Marx’s concept of sustainability and what Marx called “the everlasting nature- imposed conditions of human existence.”

In Chapter 6, “The Basis in Natural History for Our View,” Foster returns to Darwin’s theory and Darwin’s materialism. Foster then explores the relationship between Marx and Darwin and between Marxism and the theory of evolution.

In an epilogue Foster traces the development (and near extinction) of Marx’s ecological thought after Marx’s death. Engels carried the Marxist ecological critique forward in his much-misunderstood work titled The Dialectics of Nature, a book that was not published until 1927.

The Marxist ecological analysis was also developed by William Morris, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin. Yet by the third decade of the 20th century the Marxist approach to the environment had almost died out completely within socialist circles; it has continued in the recent movement only among politically progressive biologists such as Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, and Stephen Jay Gould.

The Materialist Legacy

My review has not done justice to a book filled with insights. For instance, Foster notes that Lucretius, the Roman poet and follower of Epicurus who lived from approximately 96 to 55 BC, “alluded to air pollution due to mining, to the lessening of harvests through the degradation of the soil, and to the disappearance of forests.” (37)

John Evelyn (1620-1706), who translated parts of Lucretius’ work into English, was the first English speaker to advocate sustainable development—in his 1664 book Sylva. Several years earlier in 1661, Evelyn had published a materialist critique of air pollution titled Fumifugium.

Foster shows how Marx and Engels inherited their ecological concerns from earlier materialists.  The implication, it seems to me, is that the environmental movement did not begin on Earth Day in 1970; it did not even begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, or Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac in 1949.  The environmental movement arose from a materialist critique of first agrarian and later industrial capitalism.

John Bellamy Foster is an editor for Monthly Review and the author of two other books on the environment: The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment (revised edition 1999) and Ecology Against Capitalism, published in 2002.

These two books along with Marx’s Ecology form a trilogy. While Marx’s Ecology lays out the philosophical basis of historical materialist environmentalism, The Vulnerable Planet presents an historical overview of environmental destruction from the start of the capitalist system to the present.  Ecology against Capitalism is a series of essays applying a materialist analysis to contemporary environmental issues.

My two favorite essays in the latter collection are “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis — Is Technology the Answer?” (Foster shows that it is not) and “The Limits of Environmentalism without Class: Lessons from the Ancient Forest Struggle in the Pacific Northwest,” in which Foster shows the vital need for a class perspective and the struggle for ecological conversion.

Foster’s work aims to rescue the potent and still relevant Marxist analysis of environmental destruction.  It is not just the concepts that Marx used, such as the metabolic rift, that are important, but the historical materialist approach to our double alienation — our alienation from human labor and our alienation from the natural world.

Marx’s solution to this double alienation was “a world of rational ecology and human freedom with an earthly basis — the society of associated producers.” (256)

As we face the enormous crisis of environmental destruction at the start of the 21st century, the rate of historical change is rapidly increasing. We can shape our own destiny only by embracing Marx’s objective, the society of associated producers, and Marx’s method, an historical materialist approach, to environmental problems.

The resulting Marxist Political Ecology will help guide our actions in the coming period. Marx’s materialism was after all eminently practical. As the man said, the purpose after all “is not just to understand the world, but to change it.”

ATC 113, November-December 2004