The focus on Marx’s economics has been at the cost of overlooking Marx’s environmental concerns. It took eco-socialist such as John Bellamy Foster to bring attention back to Marx’s ecological writings. The matter of soil health is critical in ensuring healthy communities, land, water and climate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it best, as the devastating Dust Bowl swept across the U.S. Midwest in the 1930s: “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, every year we lose around 24 billion tons of fertile soil globally (about 2 billion tons/year in the United States, by estimates in the 2012 Natural Resources Inventory), and it takes roughly 2,000 years to generate 10 centimeters (four inches) of topsoil. In order to achieve global long-term food security while better protecting our communities and our environment, we must take soil health more seriously.
In Capital, Marx described how “Capitalist production 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.”
As Engels put it in a summary of Marx’s argument in Capital, industrialized-capitalist agriculture is characterized by “the robbing of the soil: the acme of the capitalist mode of production is the undermining of the sources of all wealth: the soil and labourer.
Engels, himself, 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.”
Marx in Capital demands both the preservation and sustainable improvements of lands for future generations:
“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 thus demands the abolition of the capitalist relations of production so that the problem of natural limits can be managed without aggravating ecological disruptions: “the moral of the tale…is that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system.” What was required was the “the control of the associated producer” and “the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.”
Capitalist does not primarily take into account the ecological sustainability but aims to maximize profits, which leads to a wasteful or irrational cultivation of the soil.
Advancements in agricultural technology throughout the past century have allowed farmers to feed a population that has grown from less than 2 billion people to more than 7 billion today. But, as demand for food continues to grow, our lands are stretched to their limits and crop yields struggle to keep up the pace, the world will need farmers to make another leap. Farmers have demonstrated that they can increase organic matter and improve soil function in just a few years, through soil health management systems. This represents the hope in healthy soil — the potential of regenerative agriculture.