Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shiva and Marx

Campaigner and activist, Vandana Shiva, writes movingly about humanity’s connection with the the soil.

“Contemporary societies across the world stand on the verge of collapse as soils are eroded, degraded, poisoned, buried under concrete and deprived of life.... We need to measure human progress not on the basis of how much cement buried the soil, but how much soil was reclaimed and liberated.”

SOYMB is very much minded that she is not alone in the sentiments she expresses and her concerns  are shared by many others who too care about the relationship between people and the eco-system they live and work in. Environmentalism is often considered as a relative new social development yet  in Capital in 1867 on England's ecological imperialism toward Ireland, Marx was stating: "For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil."  Marx was drawing here on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig.  In the introduction to the seventh (1862) edition of his Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology Liebig had argued that "Great Britain robs all countries of the conditions of their fertility" and singled out Britain's systematic robbing of Ireland's soil as a prime example.  For Liebig a system of production that took more from nature than it put back could be referred to as a "robbery system" a term that he used to describe industrialized capitalist agriculture.

Marx emphasized in Capital that the disruption of the soil cycle in industrialized capitalist agriculture constituted nothing less than “a rift” in the metabolic relation between human beings and nature.

“Capitalist production,” he wrote, “collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-greater preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil…. But by destroying the circumstances surrounding this metabolism…it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race…. All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

Marx argued that soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) were sent in the form of food and fiber sometimes hundreds and thousands of miles to the cities, where, instead of being recycled back to the land, these nutrients ended up polluting the urban centers, with disastrous results for human health.  "Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together," Marx stated, "are not 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]."

Engels wrote in The Housing Question:

“The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage-workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical demand of both industrial and agricultural production. No one has demanded this more energetically than Liebig in his writings on the chemistry of agriculture, in which his first demand has always been that man shall give back to the land what he receives from it, and in which he proves that only the existence of the towns, and in particular the big towns, prevents this. When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure than is produced in the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and what colossal structures are necessary in order to prevent this manure from poisoning the whole of London, then the utopia of abolishing the distinction between town and country is given a remarkably practical basis.”

 The division of town and country, the degradation of the soil, rural isolation and desolation, overcrowding in cities, urban wastes, industrial pollution, waste recycling in industry, the decline in nutrition and health, the crippling of workers, the squandering of natural resources (including fossil fuel in the form of coal), deforestation, floods, desertification, water shortages,  climate change, conservation of energy, the dependence of species on changing environments, and famine were and are issues of importance for all Marxists.

The only sustainable, solution to the global environmental problems requires, in Marx's words, a society of "associated producers" who can "govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature."

Vandana Shiva no doubt would concur, we hope.

See also here, John Bellamy Foster.

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