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What Every Marxist Needs to Know about Ecology

By Karl North | December 12, 2010

Karl North 2010

The problem and some options

Nature rules. Everything we do that violates the rules of nature will eventually fail. Nature’s rules include broad ones like the laws of thermodynamics, and more specific ones like those that govern how the soil food web feeds plants.

It follows from the laws of thermodynamics that there are limits to growth. The dialectic of evolving capitalism has brought the planet to the point where the limits to growth are kicking in. Human civilization is at a turning point: to feed over-consumption in the industrialized world and overpopulation in the rest, we are rapidly depleting finite resources, exceeding sustainable harvest of renewables and damaging essential ecosystem processes. Human consumption has overshot planetary carrying capacity by about a third. This overshoot has gone on long enough that it is rapidly eroding planetary carrying capacity itself. This happens to every species that goes into overshoot. It’s a rule of nature. It’s taken for granted in systems ecology. Yet even people who recognize this persist in advocating alternatives to capitalism that include economic growth.

We have no choice: if we do not advocate and begin to create zero growth political economies, nature will force them on us. However, there are different options in this direction. One is for industrialized societies to consume much less so that the imperial periphery societies could consume more. This would work regarding the consumption of renewables like soil, water and forest if it reduced imperial consumption and plunder of such resources in the periphery well below the refresh rate, so that societies in the global south could, with appropriate policies, partake of them in ways that stay within sustainable harvest rates. This would not work with finite resources like fossil energy and strategic minerals, for no matter who uses them, without perfect recycling they will continue to deplete until too scarce and costly to use for most purposes. As Marxists are well aware, the implementation of a major transfer of control over resources that this option implies would involve revolutionary national and class warfare. This is not an decision to be undertaken lightly, and few existent revolutionary movements are prepared to carry it through in the near future to a successful conclusion.

Another option has more potential right now within the currently evolving structure of global power, and can profit from the gradual weakening of the old industrial centers as power shifts to emerging ones. In local communities where resource consumption is still relatively low and capitalist indoctrination toward its standard of material consumption is still weak – and this is true in much of the rural global south – strategic reallocation of resource use could replace growth policies with policies designed to occur within a zero growth political economy, and still vastly improve quality of life. But unlike virtually all current projects of national socialist revolution, it will require awareness that ‘progress’ in the sense of development toward Western levels of material consumption is no longer a meaningful, or in the long run attainable goal. This option still requires strong resistance to imperial control, but because it would be localized and the stakes in many cases would be lower, imperial efforts to put down these ‘resource liberation movements’ as they proliferate in many localities around the world will be of lower priority for the old imperial centers that are now facing more serious problems as they decline.

The greatest potential for implementing this option exists in client nations of empire that are descending into a chaotic state that Marxist James Petrus describes as lumpen capitalism. Mexico and Colombia are examples. Potential models for this option might be the Zapatista Caracole movement, the landless worker movement in Brazil, or rural insurgencies in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere that have gained control of territory and its renewable resources. If movements like these can create revolutionary development policy goals that respect ecological imperatives and the resource constraints of today’s planet, there is good reason to believe they can achieve egalitarian and quality of life goals that socialists have always desired of the revolutionary process.

The Laws of Nature

The rest of this essay will attempt to describe and help fill the gaps in anti-capitalist thinking about ecological economy, its laws and imperatives and their implications for developing a “dialectics of nature” (Engels’ phrase).

What are the laws of nature that social scientists and activists must respect? How will they affect our understanding of social dynamics? What should a historical materialism that includes both society and the rest of nature in its analysis look like?

The early US pioneers in ecology, Eugene and Howard Odum, developed dynamical models and methods that are fundamentally similar to Marxist dialectical models, to show how structures of causal relations explain behavior and evolution in both natural and humanly managed ecosystems. These models subsumed the laws of nature. Limiting not only growth but also sustainability of all systems are the laws of thermodynamics: no energy can be created, and everything is subject to entropy. Things fall apart, energy is lost in all activity, and energy inflow is constantly needed simply to maintain systems in operation. As applied to all species including humanity, growth or even survival depends on the energy flow available to the system, and can increase only until the ecological load – the use of resources and essential ecological services – reaches carrying capacity, the maximum sustainable ecological load. Prolonged overshoot of carrying capacity leads to its erosion and ultimately to the collapse of populations or their material standard of living, or both. The Odums were well aware that these laws and ecological imperatives apply as much to human society as to other species.

As applied to the present human condition, these laws and mode of analysis reveal a planetary society well into overshoot and erosion of carrying capacity. William Catton, one of the first ecologically informed scientists to point this out, wrote in 1982 that we are living the last decades of an “age of exuberance” made possible by the temporary boost in carrying capacity that fossil energy grants. This “phantom carrying capacity” permitted accelerated population growth in the global south and per capita resource use many times the world average in industrialized societies, whose only possible final outcome is decline – the classic overshoot and collapse that threatens all systems that exceed maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load.[1] Just to keep industrial civilization going, even with no growth, requires enormous energy inputs, which eventually will be available no longer.

How does this perspective alter our analysis of capitalist dynamics? The irony is that while Marxists have excelled at exposing the internal economic and social contradictions of capitalism, which have yet to bring down the system, what will actually bring down the system, at least in its current globalized and highly industrialized form, is a much greater contradiction that is looming: between an economic system that requires growth to survive and the external material reality of the limits to growth. Until now, the capitalist system has been able to escape its internal contradictions through militarization, exportation of industry, financialization and other gambits. But its supreme safety valve has been the planetary niches that remained to invade and pillage of their land, minerals and cheap labor. Like the American frontier a century ago, this safety valve is now closing.

Capitalism is now coming up against nature’s laws that, unlike revolutionary movements, never fail. Mother Nature always bats last. Unfortunately, generations of cheap energy have shaped industrial economies and cultural values in ways that make them extremely fragile yet highly resistant to easy change. Capitalism, which must grow or collapse because it runs on the monetization of debt, now confronts a future of declining energy, which brings not just stagnation but decades of global economic shrinkage until a bottom is reached where humanity has adapted to a lower energy society. Not just capitalism, but humanity is at a major turning point in the dialectic of natural history.

In the face of these prospects, Marxists have an opportunity, not yet fully embraced, to help dismantle the failed paradigm of growth by advocating structural changes, but in the context of conversion to lower energy, no-growth post-capitalist political economies. There is no reason why growth is necessary in order to shift resource allocation from the export-driven pattern in client states of the empire to one that builds an equitable domestic economy anywhere in the world.  Why leave such advocacy to the Herman Dalys and the Lester Browns, who have a much poorer understanding of the political economy of the capitalist system?

Critics have characterized steady state economics as a return to static equilibrium models that justify business as usual. They misunderstand that, following Darwin, social ecologists assume not only dynamic equilibrium but also evolution, within the constraints of the biophysical resource base.

Much time has been wasted trying to build justification for an ecological Marxism  by searching the works of Marx and Engels for ecological gleanings. This is unnecessary. The seminal works of systems ecology (Odum et al.) are fully compatible with a Marxism that acknowledges its materialist basis. Such a shift would be in line with the original materialist thrust of the thinking of Marx and Engels. We need to remember and take to heart that it was Marx who said that capital exploits not only the tiller of the soil, but the soil itself. But we need to add that endlessly exploited soil (Marx’s metaphor for the natural resource base) will bring down any economy, no matter how egalitarian.

This shift in direction would gain Marxism a wider audience among those who currently see it promoting essentially the same dead-end growth paradigm as mainstream economics in an era of sharply depleting, finite natural resources, especially oil.

For Marx, human economies are in the last analysis dependent for survival on the existence of material conditions of production. The perception that today the depletion and deterioration of these conditions has reached a global tipping point has a rigorous conceptual basis in ecological science in the law of carrying capacity and its erosion through overshoot which, carried on long enough leads inevitably to collapse. Ecologists have documented this process repeatedly for many species. The human species is not immune to this law. In our world of finite conditions of production, economies of any kind predicated on growth will eventually fail.

[1] Catton, William R. Jr. 1982. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Chicago Press.

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