Extinction, climate change and Karl Marx

Marx can help us understand why the choice really is system change or climate change, argues Brendan Montague. 

This speech was originally delivered at rs21’s Endgames conference (video and report available here), and published at the Endoxa.earth blog. Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist.

A workman uses lime to disguise the smell of the Thames: the curtains in Parliament were soaked with lime chloride to try to mask the odour. Punch magazine, 31 July 1858. (via wikipedia). Karl Marx argued London’s waste management crisis was symptomatic of capitalism.

What can Karl Marx tell us about climate change? Karl Marx died in 1883. It was thirteen years after his death, in 1896, that the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published the first calculation of global warming resulting from human emissions of CO2.

Marx does not use the term global warming, or indeed climate change. So how could Marx possibly tell us anything specific, anything useful, about climate change?

The tragedy here is that if more of us humans had read Marx in his lifetime, had understood Marx, and had acted on that understanding we would have predicted climate change, and we would have prevented it.

Horrific

And – more broadly: we would have predicted and prevented biodiversity collapse, the wholesale destruction of our forests and oceans, and the animal casualties of plastics in the oceans and the human casualties from air pollution in our cites.

This is true in very general sense.

Marx advocated for societies where production was managed to meet human needs, within the limits of our natural resources, rather than a society based on profit making through the sale of commodities. He wanted societies that acted on the needs of humans for generations to come.

But he was not alone in saying these things. He was not the first. And obviously not the last. So why do we still today refer to Marx, and Marxism?

This is a particularly important question considering for hundreds of millions of people the work Marxism is associated with totalitarianism and indeed environmental devastation on a horrific scale.

Solutions

The feeling evoked watching Chernobyl, and knowing those responsible called themselves Marxists, cannot be ignored. Should we forget about Marx, the individual, while fighting for a society based on need, and not greed?

I don’t think we can.

Marx’s contribution to philosophy, to natural philosophy and the sciences, to political economy and to social science is specific and extraordinary.

Specifically, Marx developed an analysis of our ecological and social systems that would have allowed us to predict and prevent climate change. These contributions may not have been unique, but they were leading edge.

And more importantly: Marx’s presentation of his findings in relation to ecological crises that existed in his own time and that we would likely suffer decades later were always presented in the context of solutions which were global in scale and historic in ambition. Solutions appropriate to the scale of climate change.

Exist

But what evidence is there to support the claim that Marx would have predicted climate change, and that a society based on Marx’s own solutions would have prevented or avoided it? The answer is complex, but I want to provide some outlines.

Marx understood nature, and human societies, as systems: as an organic unity. He recognised that some of these systems and subsystems are linear, and others nonlinear. Any system that is linear will, given enough time, fail.

To give an extremely simple example: if a tree grows 1 cm a year, in 1.2 billion years its height will be the same as the diameter of the planet. This linear growth for that period of time is physically impossible.

If the tree were to shrink by a centimetre a year it would not take long before it is impossible to detect my humans, and our instruments. It would, for all intents and purposes no longer exist.

Civilisations

Nonlinear systems, those that can remain within limits, can exist for much longer. In nature, and in society, we find systems that are homeostatic: they have feedback controls that keep them within viable limits. This is a form of dynamic equilibrium.

We have had life on earth for 3.5 billion years so those life forms that exist within non-linear circular systems survive for longer periods: they are statistically more likely to be in existence at the same time as us humans. We are surrounded by nonlinear systems.

The human body includes homeostatic systems: for example the systems that keep our body temperature almost constant, keeping us alive.

The climate is a homeostatic system: as more carbon is released into the atmosphere, the more vegetation grows, drawing down the carbon and keeping the amount in the air static.

This is why we have had a temperate climate long enough to evolve, to build our civilisations.

Farmland

Not all life is circular. There have been billions of species who have survived with linear processes. But in the end they die, they become extinct. They exhaust their supply of food, or drown in their own excrement.

Marx understood – and explained back in 1850 – that this exact same process applied to humans and human societies.

The example he gave was London, which in the 1840s was the largest city on Earth. Here, our human food supplies were transported from the countryside to the capital. This process reached crisis point as the city began to literally become filled with shit.

The solution chosen at that time was to build a sewer and direct the waste into the sea. But our human excrement was not returned to the land.

This is a linear process. The first crisis was resolved, but only to create an even bigger crisis. The farmland, robbed of its nutrients, began to fail. The solution arrived at under capitalism was cheaper, short term and – again – linear.

Starve

Bird shit rich in nitrogen was imported from Peru, through the colonial system of slavery and plunder. In time, this supply was exhausted and the capitalists turned to fossil-fuel based fertiliser. Agriculture today is a major contributor to climate change.

Marx described this breach of natural cycles with linear productive processes as an ‘ecological rift’ in the ‘metabolism’ between human society and the natural, non-human, environment.

This ecological rift continues today.

A senior UN official has gone as far to say that internationally our farmland has about 60 crop cycles of fertility left.

If we do not solve the problem identified by Marx in the next half century billions of people will starve.

Homeostatic

Marx’s model of cyclical natural processes being undermined by the linearity of the system of capitalism is the best explanation of climate change.

We extract oil, petrol, gas, we burn it, and we dump the waste – carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere.

Had Marx lived long enough to have read Arrhenius he would have understood immediately the implications of this crisis – and also its solutions.

Over time, it is absolutely inevitable that those supplies of fossil fuels will be exhausted, and that the carbon sinks – the gas equivalent of landfill sights – would also be completely overwhelmed.

The natural homeostatic regulation of the carbon in the atmosphere is now close to collapse.

Extinction

What Marx would have realised in 1896 is finally, today, being understood worldwide.

Climate change will lead to extinction.

Marx is still relevant and necessary today because he established that capitalism – as a linear system endlessly disrupting natural systems – will continue to cause such crises.

Capitalism will lead to extinction.

I just cannot be arsed to prevent climate change if capitalism simply drives us into mass starvation.

System change

We need urgently to develop human economic and social systems that correspond with and sit within the limits of natural cycles and systems.

Marx understood that then.

By reading Marx from an ecological perspective we can enhance our understanding what needs to be done, and how we can do it, today.

We need system change. And that goes far beyond preventing climate change.

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