Socialist Worker

‘Nature will take its revenge on us’

Issue No. 1928

Concern about humanity’s destruction of the environment is commonly seen as a recent worry. But for the 19th century socialist thinkers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels the environment was a major part of their theory.

Their writings show that capitalism’s devastating effects were there at the beginning of its dominance over the world.

‘As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account.

As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.

What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees?

What cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock?

In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.

Then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character.

The harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite.

Private ownership based on one’s own labour must of necessity develop into the expropriation of the workers, while all wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of non-workers.’
Frederick Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

‘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 they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry of 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 possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season.

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.

All our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.’
Frederick Engels, Collected Works

‘THE IMMEDIATE consequence of private property was the split of production into two opposing sides—the natural and the human sides, the soil which without fertilisation by man is dead and sterile, and human activity, whose first condition is that very soil.

To make earth an object of huckstering—the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence—was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering.

It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self alienation.

And the original appropriation—the monopolisation of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life—yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.’
Frederick Engels, Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

‘The development of civilisation and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison.’
Karl Marx, Capital

‘THE “ESSENCE” of the fish is its “being”, water. The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of the river.

But the latter ceases to be the “essence” of the fish and is no longer a suitable medium of existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive the fish of its medium of existence.’
Marx and Engels, The German Ideology

‘Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, 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 good heads of the household.’
Karl Marx, Capital

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Sat 20 Nov 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1928
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