Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China
by John Bellamy Foster
China's leadership has called in recent years for the creation of a
new "ecological civilization." Some have viewed this as a departure
from Marxism and a concession to Western-style "ecological
modernization." However, embedded in classical Marxism, as represented
by the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was a powerful ecological
critique. Marx explicitly defined socialism in terms consistent with
the development of an ecological society or civilization -- or, in his
words, the "rational" regulation of "the human metabolism with nature."
In recent decades there has been an enormous growth of interest in
Marx's ecological ideas, first in the West, and more recently in China.
This has generated a tradition of thought known as "ecological Marxism."
This raises three questions: (1) What was the nature of Marx's
ecological critique? (2) How is this related to the idea of ecological
civilization now promoted in China? (3) Is China actually moving in the
direction of ecological civilization, and what are the difficulties
standing in its path in this respect?
Marx's Ecological Critique
In the late 1840s the German biologist Matthias Schleiden observed in his book The Plant: A Biography:
"Those countries which are now treeless and arid deserts, part of
Egypt, Syria, Persia, and so forth, were formerly thickly wooded,
traversed by streams." He attributed this to human-generated regional
climate change. At the same time as Schleiden was developing these
views, the German agronomist Carl Fraas was making similar observations
in his Climate and the Plant World,
arguing that "the developing culture of people leaves a veritable
desert behind it."
Marx and Engels, who were becoming increasingly
interested in ecological degradation and regional climate change were
influenced by these ideas. In 1858, Marx,
following Fraas, wrote: "Cultivation -- when it proceeds in natural
growth and is not consciously controlled . . . leaves deserts behind
By the 1860s, when he was writing Capital, Marx's ecological
concerns had intensified. Much of this was under the influence of the
great German chemist, Justus von Liebig. In the 1862 edition of his Agricultural Chemistry Liebig argued that industrial agriculture in England was a "robbery"
system. The main soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium)
were being removed from the soil and sent hundreds and thousands of
miles to the city in the form of food and fiber where they contributed
to pollution and were lost to the soil. Britain and other countries
attempted to make up for this by digging up the Napoleonic battlefields and robbing the catacombs in Europe to obtain bones to fertilize English fields. They extracted mountains of guano from the islands off of Peru, shipping it to Britain to enrich the soil.
"Instead of a conscious and rational treatment of the land as
permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the
existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations," Marx
declared, capitalism led to "the exploitation and squandering of the
powers of the earth." The result was an "irreparable rift in the
interdependent process of social metabolism" between humanity and
nature, requiring the "restoration" of this essential metabolism. In
the higher society of socialism, he contended, "the associated producers"
would "govern the human metabolism of nature in a rational way . . .
accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions
most worthy and appropriate for their human nature."
On this basis, Marx developed in Capital
what is perhaps the most radical conception of ecological
sustainability yet propounded: "From the standpoint of a higher
socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals
in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one
man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all
simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of
the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have
to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household]."
Marx and Engels addressed in their writings most of the ecological
problems of modern times: climate change (then seen as a regional
phenomenon); soil degradation; air and water pollution; overexploitation
of natural resources; overpopulation; deforestation; desertification;
industrial poisons or toxins; and the destruction of species. In The Dialectics of Nature Engels
observed: "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account
of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes
its revenge on us. . . . 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 nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and
brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all of our
mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all
other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them
China's Ecological Civilization and Marxism
What is clear about the present Chinese emphasis on ecological
civilization is that it has emerged out of a broad socialist
perspective, influenced by both Marxian analysis and China's own
distinct history, culture, and vernacular. In China, as opposed to the
West, the land remains social or collective property and cannot be
sold. I believe it is wrong therefore to see China's initiative in the
construction of ecological civilization to be a direct outgrowth of
Western-style ecological modernism, as some have supposed. At the 17th
National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in 2007 it was
officially proposed that China should build an "ecological
civilization," creating more sustainable relations between production,
consumption, distribution, and economic growth. At the18th National
Congress of the CPC in 2012, "ecological civilization construction" was
written into the CPC Constitution. These principles were built into the
latest five-year plan (2011-2015).
Although many have questioned the
seriousness of the CPC's commitment to the construction of an ecological
civilization, it is evident that this: (1) arose out of real needs in
China, where there has been enormous ecological devastation; (2) was a
response to the growth of massive environmental protests throughout
China; and (3) has been followed up by massive government efforts in
area of planning, production, and technological development.
Behind all of this of course is the fact that China's environmental
problems are massive and growing. This is the inevitable result of
extremely rapid economic growth which has not sufficiently protected the
environment, coupled with other factors such as climate change.
China's environmental concerns include: air pollution in major cities
amongst the world's most severe; deforestation; desertification,
sandstorms contributing massively to air pollution; loss of arable land;
seizures of farmland for urban development; water shortages, water
pollution; unsafe drinking water; toxic waste dumping; urban congestion
and overcrowding; overpopulation; over-reliance on coal-fired plants,
rising carbon dioxide emissions, potential energy shortages; and issues
of food security.
Is China Moving in the Direction of Ecological Civilization?
There is no doubt that Chinese leadership has made significant steps
toward a more sustainable development. Due to the large role of
planning China has been able to make rapid changes in a number of areas,
going at times against the logic of economic growth. Examples of such
efforts are: (1) targeted reductions in economic growth justified in
terms of more environmentally balanced growth; (2) the massive promotion
of solar and wind technology; (3) a growing share of non-fossil-fuel
energy consumption; (4) creation of a red line to protect a minimum of
120 million hectares of farmland; (5) reduction of major air pollutants
by 8-10 percent in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015); (6) removal of
six million high-pollution vehicles from the roads in 2014; (7) a 700
percent increase in the output of electric passenger cars (non-plug ins)
in 2014; (8) initiation of a government campaign for frugal lifestyles
and against extravagance (conspicuous consumption) by officials; (9)
growing official criticism of GDP worship; and (10) a pledge to reduce
the carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 level,
coupled with a pledge to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, if
not sooner; and (11) the imposition of a new resource tax on coal.
From the critical standpoint of ecological Marxism, however, such
developments are still overwhelmed by China's 7 percent economic growth
rate, in which the GDP will double in size in a decade, massively
increasing environmental demands. Going along with these growth
projections is a plan to increase the number of permanent urban dwellers
in the next five years to 60 percent from the present 54 percent. This
is to be accompanied by larger, more mechanized family farms in rural
areas, with the eventual disappearance of 60 percent of the country's
villages, to be merged into small towns and large cities.
environmental laws have hitherto been characterized by weak enforcement,
suggesting the dominance of profits over environmental protection.
Such an overall development path, if it should indeed continue on
this same basis, is clearly non-sustainable, threatening to replicate
some of the worst aspects of Western capitalism. In the age of
planetary climate change alternative models must be found. This cannot
be accomplished simply by technology but requires new ways of living.
If China is truly to succeed in creating a new ecological civilization
it will have to go in an even more radical direction, further removed
from the regime of capital that has characterized the West and that is
responsible for today's planetary ecological emergency.
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