"In London they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense" - Karl Marx
The socialist task is to feed the world and protect the planet. Marx was scathing of the capitalist economic notion that the air, rivers, seas and soil can be treated as a "free gift of nature" to business."
Today, with climate change threatening life itself, the ecological contradictions of capitalism have reached truly dire proportions. The environmental crisis will undoubtedly play a far larger role in the demise of the system than Marx and Engels realised 150 years ago.
Karl Marx’s analysis of the environment under capitalism shows how saving the planet is inextricably linked to transforming our society. Exploitation, war, hunger and poverty were not problems that could be solved by the market system, he said. Rather, they were inescapable outcomes of the system itself. This is because capitalism is dominated by corporations devoted to profit above all else. According to Marx, capitalism is an economic system profoundly at odds with a sustainable planet. The exploitation of nature is as fundamental to the profit system as the exploitation of working people. Capitalist farming is unsustainable because it inevitably starves the soil of nutrients. It is nothing less than "an art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil" Marx also pointed out that, the development of civilisation and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison.
Capitalism has created a metabolic rift between human beings and the Earth. Karl Marx came up with the term “metabolic rift” to explain the crack or rift that capitalism has created between social and natural systems, humans and nature. This rift, he claimed, led to the exploitation of the environment and ecological crisis. Marx argued that we humans are all part of nature and he was also the first one who saw social societies as an organism with a metabolism similar to that of humans. The general idea is that disruptions, or interruptions, in natural cycles and processes creates an metabolic rift between nature and social systems which leads to a buildup of waste and in the end to the degradation of our environment. The growth under capitalism of large-scale agriculture and long distance trade only intensifies and extends the rift. Large-scale industry and large-scale mechanised agriculture work together in this destructive process, with industry and commerce supplying agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil. All of this is an expression of the antagonistic relation between town and country under capitalism. As Engels later put it: “The present poisoning of the air, water and land can only be put an end to by the fusion of town and country” under “one single vast plan.” Despite its potential cost to society in terms of increased labor time, he viewed this fusion as “no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalist and wage-workers.”
The market system is incapable of preserving the environment for future generations because it cannot take into account the long-term requirements of people and planet. The competition between individual enterprises and industries to make a profitable return on their investment tends to exclude rational and sustainable planning. Because capitalism promotes the accumulation of capital on a never-ending and always expanding scale it cannot be sustainable. Engels explained this destructive dynamic:
"As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions"
We disrupt the natural ecosystem at our peril, Engels warned. "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." Engels added: "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." On the other hand, "we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly." That is, we can organise society in step with nature's limits.
This is impossible unless the profit motive is removed from determining production in human society and a system of participatory democracy and rational planning is built in its stead. A rational agriculture, which needs either small independent farmers producing on their own, or the action of the associated producers, is impossible under modern capitalist conditions; and existing conditions demand a rational regulation of the metabolic relation between human beings and the earth, pointing beyond capitalist society to socialism and communism. Engels argued that only the working people organised as "associated producers" can "govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way". This "requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order."
For Marx and Engels, people and nature are not two separate things . Marx wrote that: “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 that 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.” Marx goes so far as to define communism as “the unity of being of man with nature.”
The most basic feature of communism in Marx’s projection is its overcoming of capitalism’s social separation of the producers from necessary conditions of production. This new social union entails a complete decommodification of labor power plus a new set of communal property rights. Communist or “associated” production is planned and carried out by the producers and communities themselves, without the class-based intermediaries of wage-labor, market, and state. Marx often motivates and illustrates these basic features in terms of the primary means and end of associated production: free human development.
Marx does not see this communal property as conferring a right to overexploit land and other natural conditions in order to serve the production and consumption needs of the associated producers. Instead, he foresees an eclipse of capitalist notions of land ownership by a communal system of user rights and responsibilities:
"From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition."