Dialectical Materialism and Ecology

Recent reading has convinced me that it is time to reconsider dialectical materialism, the unjustly maligned attempt by Marx and Engels to provide a unified analysis of society and nature. Dialectical materialism has gotten a bad reputation from its use in Soviet apologetics, but, despite this, an updated version can provide insights into the environmental crisis that historical materialism simply can not.

Jean-Guy Vaillancourt's essay "Marx and Ecology: More Benedictine than Franciscan" is contained in the collection "The Greening of Marxism" (Guilford, 1996) raises this question in a most perceptive way. (By the way, there's an essay by this guy named Michael Perelman titled "Marx and Resource Scarcity" in there as well. It's pretty gosh-darned good.)

Vaillancourt singles out Engels's "Anti-Duhring" and the "Dialectics of Nature" for special consideration since they are more directly concerned with nature and ecology than any of the previous writings of Marx and Engels. They are also considered bulwarks of dialectical materialist thought. The "Dialectics of Nature" contains the famous chapter "The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man."

Most people are quite familiar with the paragraph that describes how the "conquest" of nature can have unexpected results:

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such 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 the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. 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 learn its laws and apply them correctly."

What is less frequently quoted is the paragraph which immediately follows:

"And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will humanity not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, humanity and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity."

When Engels states we will know our "oneness with nature", he is really hearkening back to the classical materialist roots of Marxism. After all, Marx wrote his PhD thesis on the philosophy of nature in Democritus and Epicurus. These philosophers are in the materialist tradition begun by Parmenides and Heraclitus, who lived a century before. This tradition is continued in the philosophy of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Theophrastus, who are the forerunners of the science of nature and even of scientific ecology itself. The opposed philosophical tradition of Plato, which posits a duality between mind and nature, is certainly at the root of Christian theology itself which Engels attacks.

Was Engels's studies of the dialectics of nature something that he did while Marx's back was turned? There is a tendency to blame Engels for everything that has gone wrong in Marxism. While the Frankfurt School thinks that everything went wrong after 1844, when Marx and Engels supposedly dumped "humanism", it is the Althusserites who put the blame on Fred himself. They set the date when everything went to hell in a hand basket a little later, when Engels dumped historical materialism and replaced it with dialectical materialism, in order to promote a silly belief that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.

In reality, both Marx and Engels oscillated between an anthropocentric and a nature-centric perspective. When they discover Darwin after 1860, the nature-based perspective begins to hold sway as well it might. The tension between the two poles can best be explained by the lingering impact of Hegel, whose philosophy emphasized historical and socioeconomic factors and incorporated a deeply-felt humanism.

Vaillancourt sees a subtle difference between the two subtly different nature-centrisms of Marx and Engels after 1860. "For Marx, the dialectic is situated more within science, within the human context--that is, than within nature itself--while for Engels, especially in his later works, the dialectic is situated in the very heart of matter, independent of man. Engels investigations into the dialectics of nature were encouraged by Marx. Both saw this investigation as being grounded in philosophy rather than science, but understood that scientific research could only help to strengthen the overall philosophical project."

In the late 20th century, we have begun to understand that nature can not simply a act as a faucet for the unlimited supply of raw materials and as a drain for noxious industrial waste that results from the transformation of raw materials into commodities by labor. Engels's comments on the despoliation of the Alps have been written large as we see huge sections of the planet being wasted by a profit-starved lumpen-bourgeoisie today.

In Martin O'Connor's collection "Is Capitalism Sustainable" (Guilford, 1994), we find an interesting essay by Jean-Paul Deléage titled "Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy" that is clearly informed by the sort of dialectical materialism that can help us to understand and resolve the environmental crisis.

Deléage describes the faucet/sink view of nature as an expression of capitalist ideology. Ricardo was typical of this view when he wrote, "The brewer, the distiller, the dyer, make incessant use of the air and water for the production of their commodities; but as the supply is boundless, they bear no price." Deléage's whole purpose is to quantify the unquantifiable: the environmental costs of capitalist production.

The key to this is energy, understood in its broadest sense as the transformation of natural resources into the raw material of production. "For example, when one shifts from copper extracted from porphyritic ores at a 1% concentration, to 0.5% and then to 0.3% ore, the energy cost of a ton of metal increases from 22,500 kilowatts to 43,000 and 90,000 kilowatts per ton of copper, respectively."

As capitalism grows old as a system and as resources become more scarce, the level of energy expenditures tends to rise. For example, half a century ago, over 10 times more oil was discovered per meter than today; the cost of an exploration well of 30,000 feet is 120 times higher than that of a well of 5,000 feet. The nuclear industry represents the most extreme sorts of costs, measured in this fashion. The costs, however, are not encountered when uranium is extracted from the earth, but when after the ore has been transformed into energy. The radioactive wastes require an inordinately expensive treatment, since the half-life of plutonium 239, for example, is 24,600 years. That is why the nuclear industry is so dangerous. The capitalist class does not want to invest in the storage capabilities to protect us from such wastes. They would prefer to send it off to places like Mali to poison poor people of color.

Agriculture is the most highly visible aspect of the capitalist economy's tendency to attempt to pay for these hidden costs in a destructive manner. Massive use of fertilizer and conditioning of the soil requires significant energy resources, mostly derived from petroleum and byproducts. In Britain, 6.5 calories of fossil fuel produced 1 calorie of food; the ratios were 6.1/1 in France in 1973 and 9.6/1 in the USA in 1970. 16.7% of energy consumed in the USA in the early 80s, according to some scientists, went into agriculture and food-production. The problem with all this, just as it was in the wasteful agriculture in the Alps described by Engels, is that it has environmental consequences.

Agricultural waste is one the biggest problems today that capitalism has no capacity to resolve. It is a daily feature on the news programs, as we discover that pesticides or fertilizers are producing mutant frogs in Minnesota or killing entire species of fishes in Montana, which all points ultimately in the direction of human birth defects. Deléage states:

"Most problems accumulate in the final phase of the productive process, in the form of waste. This applies, for example, to fertilizer, particularly to nitrates no longer held down by the colloids of the vegetal soil, but instead carried away by running water. This irrationality has already led to genuine ecological catastrophes in certain regions of Europe where intensive agriculture is practiced. Thus, in late May 1988 the North Sea, from the southern shores of Norway and Sweden to the northern shores of Denmark, was invaded across some 7.5 million hectares by a sudden proliferation of the seaweed Chrysochromulina polylepis, which destroyed all other forms of life to a depth of 10 meters below the surface of the ocean. The cause of this ecological catastrophe was the saturation of the seawater with nutrients, particularly nitrates used by farmers of the regions adjoining the North Sea, 50% of which are carried to the sea by rain and rivers. One must add multiple accidents of various kinds registered downstream of the estuaries of rivers flowing through regions of intensive agriculture. Such accidents occur every year in France along the shores of Brittainy. Across the Atlantic, in the estuary of the Saint Lawrence River, a proliferation of diatoms led to three deaths and hundreds of cases of food poisoning in 1987."

Deléage sees the second law of thermodynamics as key to understanding these problems and resolving them within a socialist framework: economic activity, intended to satisfy human needs, runs against the general tendency of the universe to move toward a state of greater disorder, of higher entropy. By definition, the overall increase of entropy associated with the productive process is always greater than the local decrease of entropy corresponding to this process. In other words, for example, the amount of energy that goes into industrial farming is much higher than the human energy associated with subsistence farming. When we drive a car, a gallon of gasoline that is burned in the process increases the entropy in the environment. When we produce a sheet of copper, the disorder entropy of the ore is decreased, but only at the expense of increased entropy in the rest of the universe.

Human beings are not immune from this process, which takes place at the level of matter itself. That is why the project that Engels began with Dialectics of Nature is worth understanding and building upon. We are not apart from the natural world, since we are composed of matter ourselves and the energy we expend in transforming matter into commodities transforms the natural world and society itself ultimately. All of the processes are dialectically interwoven.

Marx focused his analysis on the relation between labor and capital. The path that Engels set foot on but did not complete needs to be navigated by our generation of Marxists. In the face of such life-threatening problems as global warming, it would be foolish to think that we have no particular need to address them, or, even worse, that Marxism is for production at the expense of the environment.

The class struggle has been understood by Marxism as having purely a social dimension, but it is high time that we developed a much richer and deeper understanding of the natural underpinnings of the class struggle. Economics is not simply a function of labor; the natural world is intimately involved. This involvement confronts us every day of our lives. To anticipate what this will mean in the sharpening class confrontations of late 20th century capitalism, it is sufficient to look at East Asia. There is an ecological crisis as well as a financial and economic crisis and they are interrelated. Lumpen-capitalist exploitation of the Borneo rain-forests has resulted in out of control forest fires that have spread a toxic haze thousands of miles. The forest-fires are out of control because El Nino has caused a drought in the area. Scientists attribute the intensity of El Nino to global warming. Meanwhile, global capitalism is attracted to East Asia because ecological and trade union limits are hardly to be found. Indonesia is a prime example.

The socialism that we have to create must attack all of these problems because they are interrelated. You can not satisfy the economic expectations of people living in Brazil or Indonesia unless you are prepared to satisfy the overall needs of the planet to remain economically viable, which requires first of all clean air and clean water. To come up with these answers, we have to develop an ecosocialism that is scientifically informed. It also must be theoretically grounded as well. This means developing an appreciation for what Engels was trying to do in Dialectics of Nature and expanding upon it as well.

Louis Proyect