Billions of people around the world are drinking water contaminated with plastic. According to samples analysed by scientists, the US has the highest rate of contamination – a shocking 94%. European countries including the UK, Germany and France have the lowest contamination rate, but this is still as high as 72%.

We’ve been warned about the impact of capitalist production on natural processes for a long time. In the early 1960s, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, insisted that the principal causes of ecological degradation, were “the gods of profit and production” served by a cabal within industry, government and academia which betrayed the cause of scientific truth. Sound familiar?

One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx was developing his critique of the earthbound manifestation of those gods.

In the spring of 1868, following the publication of Volume 1 of Capital, and working to complete it, Marx was pursuing an intensive study of the available science, assessing the effects of contemporary agriculture on the degradation of the soil. His notebooks are published for the first time in MEGA2 (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, the complete works of Marx and Engels).

Kohei Saito, associate professor at Osaka City University, is helping to edit Volume IV Section 18.

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces how Marx’s study of natural science influenced his critique of the capitalist mode of production from 1843 through to the newly published notebooks of 1868 and beyond.

The story is fascinating enough in its own right to merit close attention, but the book’s publication couldn’t be more timely, as it explores Marx’s developing analysis of the broken, alienated relationship between humanity and nature. Saito shows how Marx adopted and further developed the concept of ‘metabolism’ from agricultural chemist Justus Liebig to explain the destructive impact of the labour process within capitalist production.

Whilst the metabolism, or mutually conditioning interaction of human society and nature is universal and perpetual, following Marx, Saito focuses attention on the historically specific process of capitalist social relations, and the necessity for them to be superseded.

During the preparation of Capital, Marx intensively investigated the problem of ‘the disruption of the incessant interaction between humans and nature after the labour process is subsumed under capital’.

As Saito puts it :

He no longer propagated the realisation of the philosophical idea of ‘humanism = naturalism’ and instead tended more and more to describe the central task of the future society as the conscious regulation of this physiological metabolic exchange between humans and nature by the associated producers. This conceptual is change is remarkable.”

In the book, subtitled Capital, nature, and the unfinished critique of political economy, Saito vividly shows us how Marx made that journey.

This March sees the release of the world’s first comprehensive scientific assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Like its better known cousin, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) brings together a vast array of scientific work, far beyond anything Marx could have imagined, or read.

The IPBES’ forthcoming Worldwide Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment Report is the product of three years of voluntary work by more than 100 experts, from 45 countries, who together are reviewing more than 3,000 scientific papers, government and other information sources, including indigenous and local knowledge.

The new report is a companion to the first Global Land Outlook from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, published in September 2017. According to the UNCCD,

Higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increased water scarcity due to climate change will alter the suitability of vast regions for food production and human habitation. The mass extinction of flora and fauna, including the loss of crop wild relatives and keystone species that hold ecosystems together, further jeopardizes resilience and adaptive capacity, particularly for the rural poor who depend most on the land for their basic needs and livelihoods.”

In its Global Land Outlook, the UNCCD makes an important leap beyond the conclusions of the IPCC which put the blame on ‘humanity’ in general.

According to the Convention to Combat Desertification,

Our food system has put the focus on short-term production and profit rather than long-term environmental sustainability. The modern agricultural system has resulted in huge increases while soil, the basis for global food security, is being contaminated, degraded, and eroded in many areas, resulting in long-term declines in productivity.”

As Marx’s life’s work explains, “short-term production and profit” are what capitalist social relations require.

Saito’s brilliant introduction to Marx’s intellectual trajectory will help shed many more critical eyes on the developing scientific consensus, and equip a new generation with an understanding of the necessity of replacing the irrational exploitation of people and planet.

This can and must be achieved – as Marx foresaw – through “a radical transformation of the mode of production so as to realise free and sustainable human development”’.

Whether you’re a newcomer seeking an introduction to Marx’s ideas, or want to deepen your existing knowledge, this book is indispensable. 

Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy 
Monthly Review Press, 2017, 368 pages rrp £20.79

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