Nature, Society and Human Survival


8-27-07, 12:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a longer essay, “The Dialectics of Climate Change,” that addresses the ecological crisis in more detail, with more social and scientific examples. The complete essay relates dialectical materialism to the environment; provides a unified framework to help us understand the interrelationships between social, economic and environmental crises; addresses several contentious questions like China’s role, nuclear power, and the practical and theoretical challenges that environmental crises pose for socialists and communists; and proposes a number of steps humanity needs to take to begin to deal with the most crucial climate change questions. For an interview with Marc Brodine see: Political Affairs Radio – Episode 33

Frederick Engels, in his graveside address for Marx, noted that “Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”

These are the fundamental realities of all human life: our lives are based on food, water, and resources that come from nature. As well, the ways in which we create and distribute food, drink and shelter impact the natural world we depend on. We need nature for our survival. If the air becomes too polluted for human health, we can’t simply breathe something else. Pollution that is blown away is blown away to somewhere else; it doesn’t just disappear. We can’t just stop eating; we require water.

Humans are not separate from their environment, and the environments of different countries are not separate from each other; what we experience in one region of the world is intimately connected to what people experience in other regions; what happens to natural global systems also happens to all of us.

All value to humanity comes either directly from nature, or from nature altered by human labor. If we compromise nature’s ability to regenerate the materials we need for our survival, we compromise our own ability to survive. We face a series of linked environmental problems – from climate change, to water use, to soil depletion – which have the potential to negatively affect sea levels, weather systems, our ability to grow food and drink water, and other essential aspects of human life. We can’t endlessly alter the balance of natural systems like the atmosphere or the oceans without suffering the consequences of that alteration.

There are direct human costs of capitalism, but there are also serious indirect costs, as capitalist production and agriculture exploit the non-renewable resources we depend upon in an ever-speedier race to catastrophe.

Capitalism operates on several deadly assumptions: that nature is “free,” that natural resources are limitless, that the waste-absorbing capacity of nature is infinite, that economic activity and the natural world are separate, that short-term profit is more important than long-term sustainability, and that the production of more commodities without end is progress. This is in addition to the human exploitation and oppression capitalism engenders and profits from.

The potential of looming environmental catastrophe isn’t a single problem with a simple solution. The climate crisis, excessive garbage and toxic waste, an increasing list of endangered species, pollution and toxic chemicals in the air, water, soil, and in our food, our workplaces, and our homes, are among the myriad problems we face. When we are threatened with a series of related potential crises, the chances that one or another of them will happen are much greater. We can’t now predict exactly which of the interlocked environmental problems we face will first lead to major negative tipping points. But because we face so many related problems, we can be pretty sure that if we fail to act, one or another of these crises is going to get us.

That’s the nature of risk probability: many risks times many opportunities for system breakdown equals inevitable crisis. Because the world is a complex of interlocking processes with dynamic interrelationships, once any one of these crises hit, the chances of the others occurring escalate rapidly. More global warming results in more forest fires. More forest fires heat the atmosphere and result in more glacial melting, melting more permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases, melting more glaciers, resulting in more forest fires, all of which increase global warming. The world is a series of giant feedback loops. And humanity is busy impacting those feedback loops.

The real question is: will we continue to force these natural systems to work together against humanity? Or will we restructure our social, economic, agricultural, and industrial systems to work more in harmony with them?

Human Society Needs to Change

The adaptability of human social systems is more limited than general human adaptability. When oppressive, class-divided societies are stressed by external events, whether war, economic crisis, or impending environmental collapse, the ruling class first transmits the main burdens of that crisis to the oppressed and exploited classes, using money and power to escape the consequences as long as possible. So the crises that threaten us are not just environmental, they are also crises of our social and economic systems and will accelerate social and economic problems, contributing to even more social instability and conflict. The genocide in Rwanda is one example – global warming and competition for limited degraded agricultural land were not the only causes, but certainly exacerbated the genocide.

When a society comes into unresovlable conflict with its environment, there are three basic adaptations that can happen:

• the society can move elsewhere and continue as before in a new place (the main adaptation in ancient times), • people can stay where they are and transform their society and economy, or • the society and people can die out.

There are many examples of all three occurring over the course of human history, such as the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and Easter Island.

Our globalized economy and globalized environmental crises have left us with nowhere else to go. We can change our economic practices or else perish, or perhaps survive in a diminished fashion in a much more inhospitable world.

In the 10,000 years of agriculture and the four or five centuries of capitalism, humans have already transformed our relations with the microbial world, the seas, the vegetation, the crust of the earth, and now the atmosphere. We have reached a new successional stage in our relations with the rest of nature. The ecological crisis of our species is inextricably entwined with capitalism and its inefficient use of resources for the profit of a relative handful of individuals. If we create ways to transform our relationship to nature by changing our social and economic systems, we may be able to adapt and create a new ecology that enables our species to continue. Otherwise, we will be subjected to the often brutal workings of climate change and natural selection.

The world will survive. That is not in question. The earth has been through many more cataclysmic changes than global warming will bring. Nature will reach a new equilibrium. The question is whether or not our species will be able to survive that new balance. And if we are, will it be compatible with developed human existence, with the existence of human sustainability at a level of technological and cultural advancement and agricultural and water sufficiency. We can either work with nature, or nature will work against us. Nature doesn’t “care” about humanity; humanity must care about nature. We must work to enable nature to sustain us.

Most discussions of global climate change are limited in an odd way. The problems are seen as problems of human interaction with natural systems (which they are) or as problems in need of technological solutions (which they are). But little is done to connect any of this to our economic and social systems. In a private property system, when we collectively face problems that need collective solutions (and it doesn’t get much bigger or more collective than global climate change, both on the problem side and the required solution side), we run into private property rights and private decision-making about production, land use, resources, disposal of waste, and investment. The environmental problems we face are fundamental, so the solutions need to be fundamental. Solutions to our collective problems must be collective solutions.

A starting point is transforming the political and economic system from one that is ruled by a tiny class that privately expropriates maximum profit from socially-produced goods and services, to one led by the vast majority, motivated by the collective survival and sustainability needs of humanity as a whole. As with fundamental solutions to other problems such as racism, inequality, economic exploitation and others, socialism is a necessity for the survival of the human race – not a guarantee, but a necessary precondition for the kinds of fundamental solutions humanity needs. Socialists also need to understand that if capitalism does a bad enough job of ruining the environment, then the material basis for socialism will be harmed or destroyed. Socialism is a necessary, essential aspect of the changes we need to make to protect the survival of our species, but it is not a sufficient condition by itself.

However, we can’t wait for socialism to preserve our existence on this planet. We need to stop making things worse now. As well, confronting environmental problems and their social and economic causes are part of what will convince millions that we need socialism.

What More is Needed?

Socialism is crucial to the environmental, industrial, agricultural, and distribution changes we need to make, but by itself that won’t be enough. We need to integrate socialist economics with environmental science.

The natural world we live in is not infinite, and the resources in and of nature are also not infinite. So our definition of the “greatest good” must not be the greatest amount of material goods, but rather improving the living and health standards of all humanity while facilitating the continual reproduction and restoration of the natural conditions which we need to survive. We can’t have healthy humanity without a healthy natural world.

While the history of socialist countries contain positive environmental steps (such as Cuba’s recycling, organic agriculture and reforestation programs), they also have produced some very negative examples. This is discussed in more detail in the complete essay, available online.

Ultimately, failures and problems of socialism represent a failure to think, research, plan and implement dialectically. Economics and development are based on nature, based on the ability of nature to reproduce itself, and based on maintaining a healthy balance between human needs and the needs of the natural systems humanity depends on. If economics and development don’t work to maintain that balance, they work against the survival of humanity, and that is as true of socialist development as any other kind.

We shouldn’t use up non-renewable resources wastefully, like oil, and we can’t act as if the waste-absorbing capacity of the natural world is infinite. Even renewable resources can be damaged by human activity – if water and soil are degraded faster than nature rebuilds them, they turn into non-renewable resources. Significant shifts in what and how we produce, and in how we package and distribute goods, are necessary for our survival as a species. We have to redesign our industrial processes to eliminate the creation of pollution and take other steps to decrease the impact of human activity on the natural world, including reducing the impact of our agricultural systems and reducing over-reliance on chemical fertilizers, including reducing toxic chemical wastes. We have to restore and rebalance our relationships with nature.

The collective problems of humanity require the collective thinking and action of humanity. That is part of what socialist economic democracy must be about, the mobilization of our collective intelligence, ability and activity to solve our shared problems.

What To Do

There are many steps we need to take to address the linked series of environmental problems facing humanity. Some are changes in individual behavior; others are major changes in how we produce food and industrial commodities. Both kinds of changes are needed – if we only focus on changing the habits of individuals but still keep running our industries in ways that continue to produce pollution, CO2 and methane, we won’t make much of a dent in the problems.

Social, economic, industrial and agricultural changes are required to solve environmental problems. Capitalism is a big part of the problem, and engaging in struggles to solve ecological crises are part of the path to replacing capitalism.

Recognizing Necessity

Engels said that “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” Only by recognizing environmental imperatives will we be free to make the right choices for humanity’s survival. Only by recognizing the restraint required of us by natural systems can we become truly conscious factors in improving the world for ourselves and our descendents.

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