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China's unique way to build ecological civilization

People's Daily by John Bellamy Foster, June 12, 2015 Adjust font size:

China's leadership has called in recent years for the creation of a new "ecological civilization." Some have viewed this as a departure from Marxism and a concession to Western-style "ecological modernization." However, embedded in classical Marxism, as represented by the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was a powerful ecological critique. Marx explicitly defined socialism in terms consistent with the development of an ecological society or civilization—or in his words, the "rational" regulation of "the human metabolism with nature."

In recent decades there has been an enormous growth of interest in Marx's ecological ideas, first in the West, and more recently in China. This has generated a tradition of thought known as "ecological Marxism."

This raises three questions: (1) What was the nature of Marx's ecological critique? (2) How is this related to the idea of ecological civilization now promoted in China? (3) Is China actually moving in the direction of ecological civilization, and what are the difficulties standing in its path in this respect?

Marx's Ecological Critique

In the late 1840s the German biologist Matthias Schleiden observed in his book The Plant: A Biography: "Those countries which are now treeless and arid deserts, part of Egypt, Syria, Persia, and so forth, were formerly thickly wooded, traversed by streams." He attributed this to human-generated regional climate change. At the same time as Schleiden was developing these views, the German agronomist Carl Fraas, was making similar observations in his Climate and the Plant World, arguing that "the developing culture of people leaves a veritable desert behind it." Marx and Engels, who were becoming increasingly interested in ecological degradation and regional climate change were influenced by these ideas. In 1858, Marx, following Fraas, wrote: "Cultivation—when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled…leaves deserts behind it."

By the 1860s, when he was writing Capital, Marx's ecological concerns had intensified. Much of this was under the influence of the great German chemist, Justus von Liebig. In the 1862 edition of his Agricultural Chemistry Liebig argued that industrial agriculture in England was a "robbery" system. The main soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) were being removed from the soil and sent hundreds and thousands of miles to the city in the form of food and fiber where they contributed to pollution and were lost to the soil. Britain and other countries attempted to make up for this by digging up the Napoleonic battlefields and robbing the catacombs in Europe to obtain bones to fertilize English fields. They extracted mountains of guano from the islands off of Peru, shipping it to Britain to enrich the soil.

"Instead of a conscious rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations," Marx declared, capitalism led to "the exploitation and squandering of the powers of the earth." The result was an "irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism" between humanity and nature, requiring the "restoration" of this essential metabolism. In the higher society of socialism, he contended, "the associated producers" would "govern the human metabolism of nature in a rational way…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature."

On this basis, Marx developed in Capital what is perhaps the most radical conception of ecological sustainability yet propounded: "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 they 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 and Engels addressed in their writings most of the ecological problems of modern times: climate change (then seen as a regional phenomenon); soil degradation; air and water pollution; overexploitation of natural resources; overpopulation; deforestation; desertification; industrial poisons or toxins; and the destruction of species. In The Dialectics of Nature Engels observed: "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….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 of 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."

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