If we look at the world around us today we witness the extent to which nature is being ravaged in the name of short-term economic gain. It is all too clear that the prevailing economic system of capitalist competition is quite incapable of seriously taking into account the long-term considerations with which ecology is vitally concerned. Only where the system's immediate objective of profit maximisation is threatened does it become expedient to act upon such considerations.
Engels produced one of the most cogent rebuttals of precisely this point of view, when addressing himself to the question of man's relationship with nature:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquests over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivatable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture . . .An important point not to overlook is that we are seeking a "steady-state” economy or "zero-growth." Production would not be ever-increasing but will be stabilised at the level required to satisfy needs. All that would be produced would be products for consumption and the products needed to replace and repair the raw materials and instruments of production used up in producing these consumer goods. The point about such a situation is that there will no longer be any imperative need to develop productivity, i.e. to cut costs in the sense of using less resources; nor will there be the blind pressure to do so that is exerted under capitalism through the market. Of course, technical research would continue and this would no doubt result in costs being able to be saved, but there would be no external pressure to do so or even any need to apply all new productivity enhancing techniques. And we can set out a possible way of achieving an eventual zero growth steady state society operating in a stable and ecologically benign way. This could be achieved in three main phases.
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 our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to know and correctly apply its laws. ("The part played by labour in the transition from Ape to Man" Dialectics of Nature).
First, there would have to be urgent action to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world. There would be need for an immediate increase in the volume of production of many kinds of goods to relieve those people who were suffering from the effects of the old system and to supply the needs of those who were in the process of transferring themselves from obsolete to useful occupations. For example, the agricultural parts of the world, freed from the restraints of the present money-based system would pour out the abundance of health-giving foodstuffs to feed the half-starved populations of the world. Secondly, longer term action to construct means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems and for the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods.
For the first time, the conditions would exist for turning into reality the beautiful plans for housing people in real homes instead of the sordid slums which the present social system has called into existence. These plans exist today - on paper - and will remain so, while it is necessary to have money to get a decent home. Released from the money-necessity, architects, builders, designers, artists, engineers, and scientists would be enabled to get together to build towns, homes and work-places which would be a joy to live and work in, a job at which even today their fingers are itching to get. How long this period would last depend on the size and mess left by the present system.
We don’t think it would take very long since we have seen how quickly even the obstacles of the present social system can be overcomed and how backward countries can be developed by modern industrial methods. It should not, therefore, take very long for those parts of the world which are already highly industrialised to turn out enough goods to make the whole of humanity tolerably comfortable as far as the fundamental necessities of life are concerned. Thirdly, having got rid of the worst relics of the old order, production would then be adjusted so that there could be an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode, making due provision by storage for the possible natural calamities such as earthquakes.This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could live in material well being whilst looking after the planet.
Socialism will seek an enviromental friendly relationship with nature. In socialism we would not be bound to use the most labour efficient methods of production. We would be free to select our methods in accordance with a wide range of socially desirable criteria, in particular the vital need to protect the environment. What it means is that we should construct permanent, durable means of production which you don’t constantly innovate. We would use these to produce durable equipment and machinery and durable consumer goods designed to last for a long time, designed for minimum maintenance and made from materials which if necessary can be re-cycled. Many consumer goods are used occasionally. Perhaps sharing them in a neighbourhood will replace the idea that everyone needs one of everything. This will reduce the number of these items required. That means reduced production. In this way we would get a minimum loss of materials; once they’ve been extracted and processed they can be used over and over again. It also means that once you’ve achieved satisfactory levels of consumer goods, you don’t insist on producing more and more. Total social production could even be reduced. This will be the opposite of to-day's capitalist system's cheap, shoddy, throw-away goods with its built-in obsolescence, which results in a massive loss and destruction of resources.