Ecology and Life in the Pandemic: Capital’s Treadmill of Growth and Destruction

Heather A. Brown

Summary: Report to the July 2020 Interim Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, slightly updated — Editors

“One basis for life and another for science is a priori a falsehood.”

—Marx, 1844 Manuscripts

 

The reality of life in 2020 is one of overlapping crises—Covid-19, a deep economic recession, climate change and its related effects, and the dehumanization of persons of color, just to name a few. All of these and more are fundamentally related to attempts by capital to despotically control all of nature, including human beings for the purpose of extracting whatever surplus value it can. This despotic control has reached a point where it can be said without exaggeration that capital has become hostile to the continuance of life on Earth. This is especially clear in the case of the ecological crisis that capitalism faces and in one of its most pressing recent manifestations, Covid-19.

Earlier this year as wildfires raged across Australia at an unprecedented rate, seeming to signal an urgency in preventing further climate change, many in the world paid lip service to the threatening ecological crisis that is clear to soon envelop the world in catastrophic change—rising temperatures, glacial melting, rising sea levels, increasing drought in some regions, loss of biodiversity, increasing scarcity of clean water, etc. Earth’s average temperature has increased about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, most of which has occurred in the past 35 years, with the six warmest years on record taking place since 2014. Globally, sea levels rose about eight inches (about 20 cm) in the 20th century and we are currently on track to double that this century.[1] Scientists predict that the effects on human communities will be profound and will likely include temperature increases which could by 2070 rise to levels that will make about 19% of the Earth unhabitable by humans;[2] droughts in many parts of the world that will disrupt local and international food chains, leading to at the very least, regional famines; increasing water shortages that could lead to regional conflict; increased transmission of infectious disease; and the flooding and submersion of low-lying coastal areas. All of the above are likely to increase conflict as well as create new climate refugees seeking basic survival. Moreover, those who will likely see the greatest negative effects of climate change are those least able to mitigate those effects due to poverty among many other factors.

 

How Did We Get Here?

The basic story of climate change is a familiar and (outside of the far-right) a non-controversial truth. The increased use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has led to atmospheric degradation. These fossil fuels, which took thousands of years to create, have been burned for their energy and released into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. With more carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Earth has been getting warmer since greenhouse gases reduce the amount of heat that can escape the atmosphere into space.

While the above is relatively uncontroversial, there are at least two prominent theories of why humans have caused climate change. One argues that the current age is one of the Anthropocene, meaning that human beings as such are having a large enough effect on the climate to represent an entire era of environmental history. In brief, this theory is problematic as it posits abstract human beings outside of any particular mode of production as the cause of climate change. This theory follows the logic of capitalism which argues that human beings have always been egoistic and acquisitive and rules out the possibility of a different type of social relations as human nature is unchanging and unchangeable.

Others such as Jason Moore would argue that the current environmental regime is one of the Capitalocene. Here, it is the relations inherent in capitalism, in its incessant drive to attain greater and greater surplus value which leads to the destruction of the environment. While space prevents a full discussion and critique of Moore’s work, I would like to point out some of the most significant aspects of his understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature.[3] Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is his critique of the majority of left ecologists that either explicitly or implicitly maintain a theoretic separation between nature and society where each is nearly completely isolated from the other. Moore points in the direction of a theory that dialectically combines the interrelations between nature and culture which can be more useful. Here there are constant interactions between human beings and the natural world where it becomes impossible to completely separate the two. Human beings create new nature while simultaneously, nature acts on and changes the human being.

As Kohei Saito (2017) rightly points out, Moore’s theory is problematic in that he trades the Cartesian dualism of “nature” v. “culture” for an undifferentiated unity of the two. As Marx notes in numerous places in his work, humans are natural beings, but they are also unique in the sense that they are also conscious beings, capable of conscious change to their environment in a way that nature never can:

A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells.  But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.  At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.  Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials.[4]

If we do not maintain this conceptual distinction between the human being and nature, the subjective aspect of humanity cannot be understood, nor can purposeful change happen. Thus, Moore cuts off the most important avenue for humanity to overcome this crisis.[5] However, we do not need to follow Moore this far with his unitary theory. Instead, a dialectical unity of humanity and nature where both commonality and difference are acknowledged can be conceptualized. As Marx argued in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it in present circumstances, given and inherited.”[6] The same can be said for nature as for history.

Another important point for Moore is that we must look closely at the relations between humanity and nature, not as such, but in social and historical context. Human beings do not interact with the natural world in the same way in a feudal society as they do in a capitalist society. Moreover, within different stages of capitalism, humanity’s relationship with nature may shift. The reverse can also be true—climate conditions affect capitalist relations and the opportunities available for individual capitalists to expand. Looking at the issue from a more global perspective, we can perhaps say that contemporary capitalism has developed to the point where its own rapacious nature has led to conditions that further limit its ability to expand and survive (more on this below).

This type of thinking undermines the logic of neo-Malthusian environmentalists who would argue that overconsumption and an increasing world population are the biggest problems. Instead, the issue is that capitalism so exhausts the inputs of nature and the available labor power such that these workers and resources will not be able to reproduce themselves at the same rate, quality or cost for capital. It becomes more expensive for capitalists to do business, cutting the rate of surplus value. Simply reining in overconsumption through state interventions like population control, pollution regulation, or caps on production would, at best, slow down the degradation of nature, but could never solve it. Similarly, the proposed Green New Deal would be a positive development in the sense that it prioritizes new green technology, more democratic control of industry and a stronger social safety net. However, the basis of this program is a neo-Keynesianism which does not question the basis of capitalism itself, thus it cannot be effective in bringing about the type of transformative change necessary to stave off the climate crisis. Capital’s raison d’etre is to expand its accumulation of value and the only way of doing this is through the exploitation of the “free gifts” of nature—i.e. overworked nature and human beings that cannot continue to reproduce themselves in the same way for future rounds of production—hence, the necessity of further degradation of the natural world.

 

Ecology, the Pandemic and Capital

The Covid-19 pandemic underlines the close relationship between capitalist relations and the natural world. It should be noted that this is far from an instance of “nature” reasserting itself against humanity. Instead, the very conditions for a pandemic are written into the social relations of globalized capitalism at a number of levels. Sonia Shah in Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond charts the outbreak of pandemics in the modern world starting with Cholera in the early 1800s. There had been outbreaks of Cholera in parts of India for a very long time, which could become a local epidemic, but not a large-scale pandemic. She argues that in part, what made the Cholera pandemic possible was the dense concentration of people together in cities, high levels of poverty coupled with inadequate sanitation, and the increased ability of individuals to travel throughout the world, spreading the disease. All of these factors were made possible by a particular type of social organization: capitalism. While it is very unlikely that Shah herself could be accused of being a socialist, she shines light on the degree to which capitalism in bringing parts of the world together through commerce, the increased agrarian production that allowed for more people to live and work in cities and through the vast inequality that value production creates, opened up significant ground for the possibility of pandemics.

Additionally, Shah is keen to point out that we are likely to see an increase in epidemics and pandemics. This has as much to do with social relations as it does with the biology of viruses. As we have seen with Covid-19, geography is no barrier to transmission. When it is possible to travel around the world by jet, cruise ship, train or car, securing borders from contagions is almost impossible, especially if there is little or no advance warning. Add to that the motive to sweep under the rug the outbreak of a new virulent pathogen as has been the case in countries like the US and China in order to protect tourism, industry and reputation, and you have a recipe for a full-scale world pandemic.

Moreover, because viruses can adapt to their environments in unique ways, the possibility of more virulent pathogens only increases as interactions among humans and between humans and animals increases.  Viruses, bacteria and other microbes have the ability to acquire traits through horizontal gene transfer, meaning that as they interact with each other, they can pick up the traits of that microbe simply from that interaction. Antibiotic resistant MRSA emerged in this way, for example.[7] Thus, more interaction between live beings creates the possibility of more dangerous pathogens. This issue will certainly not be abated in the new society and, in fact, the interaction of people from all parts of the world may increase. What will be different, however, is that these and other interactions will not be driven by profit, but by socialized human needs. When epidemics or pandemics happen, there will be appropriate infrastructure in place to combat it such as free adequate and equal healthcare for all, PPE supplies on the basis of need instead of profit, public dissemination of factual information to a public that can critically assess this information, and scientific research that is driven by community interests rather than profit.

Finally, capital’s drive to produce greater amounts of surplus value factor significantly into the equation. For example, the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals to maintain their health in the completely unhealthy conditions of factory farms has been common. Also, for reasons that are not fully understood scientifically, antibiotics help these animals grow faster, meaning less time between birth and slaughter—less cost of doing business and faster turnaround means a greater profit. This use of antibiotics has led to the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens that is making medical care more difficult and increasing the potential for even more lethal pandemics in the future.

While Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon in most senses, because it exists in a globalized capitalist world, it lays bare many of the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. It is certainly no accident that Black, Latinx and other persons of color are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19—in fact, the dualities of capitalism and its understanding of “nature” and “society” as well as how it values these things has meant that there will always be workers and aspects of “nature” that will be disposable if it means greater profits for capital. Blacks are about 3.5 times more likely to die from Covid-19 and Latinx are twice as likely to die.[8] Native Americans make up 57% of cases and 72% of hospitalizations in New Mexico.[9] The Navajo Nation alone has had more cases of Covid-19 than 12 states and more deaths than 7 states.[10]

These disparities can be traced to a number of factors stemming from structural inequalities which have been legitimized through the implicit and explicit rhetoric of biological differences which have no real scientific legitimacy once environmental factors are brought in. These groups are not more likely to be diabetic, have heart disease, or asthma because of some genetic predisposition as the medical community often presumes, instead capital has deemed these groups disposable and has naturalized their eventual deaths from these environmental factors.

Take for example, the prevalence of asthma and cancer within minority communities, which are also significant risk factors for complications from Covid-19. A recent study found that Blacks and Latinx breathe much dirtier air that contains PM2.5 particles—extremely small particulates that can collect in the lungs and lead to cancer and other lung problems. Blacks are exposed to 56% more pollution than caused by their consumption and Latinx are exposed to 63%. For non-Hispanic whites, they are exposed to 17% less than their consumption.[11]

Similarly, there have been disproportionate deaths by race in Louisiana. Some of this can be linked to what is known as “Cancer Alley.” This is an 85-mile area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is home to more than 150 chemical plants and refineries. This area has seen five times higher death rates from Covid-19 than the rest of the nation. A recent study from Harvard showed a strong relationship between exposure to PM2.5 particles and Covid-19 deaths even after other factors were controlled for such as healthcare access, poverty, unemployment, and preexisting conditions.[12]

These are just two of many examples of how capitalist-led environmental destruction has put minority communities at greater risk of disease and death. Easily added to these issues are safe water issues on Native American reservations, unsafe water in many cities due to failing infrastructure, food deserts, and the greater heat exposure of cities.[13] These seemingly natural problems become social and changeable problems when viewed as what they really are: the result of capitalism’s efforts to eke out surplus value from nature—whether that is via a static ahistorically created human being or a static ahistorical  “natural” commodity. This is why it is so important to view nature and society as dialectically related rather than as simply isolated and opposing forces. Urban spaces and marginalized individuals are finally seen as not just existing outside history but are a part of capitalist nature that human beings have created. The natural becomes historical and thus changeable.

 

Moving Forward

Capitalism’s defining feature is its need to create greater and greater amounts of surplus value. It can only do this successfully through commodification and its necessary movement of abstracting out all concrete characteristics other than an object’s ability to produce surplus value. This is the only use value that capital truly acknowledges. Because of this, it makes no difference to the capitalist what is produced, how it is made or what harm comes from its production. The worker without health insurance who becomes sick can be replaced by another who is healthy at the same or potentially lower rate. The chicken that is genetically engineered in such a way that it can barely stand upright because of its large breasts is more commercially profitable,[14] and thus, better than the non-genetically modified chicken. Neither the fate of the worker or the chicken matters to capital.

This illustrates the need to uproot capitalism. It is a cruel system that can never work for human or natural interests as its sole purpose is to continually produce. A supply of one good is totally consumed, so it is then time to look to a new source of surplus value. Capitalism’s rapacious nature is such that it will continue to destroy the bases of life beyond the point where it loses profitability. There is no hope that it can or will regulate itself.

We have recently seen the growth of celebrity of Greta Thunberg and other young environmental activists who are calling for a change in the way in which human beings interact with the natural world through events like school strikes and Thunberg using her celebrity to get the message out that the status quo will destroy the planet. While not yet a Marxist movement, these efforts illustrate an important step forward as they show not only the negative of climate change, but also indicate that another world is possible. These young people who will have to disproportionately bear the burden of capital’s frenzied activity to extract as much value as possible, have taken the first step of saying “no” to the current system and are just beginning to think about what an ecologically sustainable society might look like. Perhaps most encouraging is Thunberg’s recent statements which seem to indicate that she is beginning to see the interconnected nature of capitalist oppression. For example, in discussing the Black Lives Matter Movement she says that society “passed a social tipping point, we can no longer look away from what our society has been ignoring for so long whether it is equality, justice or sustainability.”[15] As she and many other young activists take to the streets and public airwaves demanding change, we should critically support their message and encourage them to think deeper about what a new society should look like.

Certainly, the Covid-19 crisis begins to show that another world is possible. Carbon emissions this year are estimated to be between 4.4-8% less than last year. This would be the lowest levels since World War II.[16] Wild animals have been seen roaming urban spaces devoid of people. These sorts of things show that we have not reached a point of no return, and that there is still time to avoid the worst, however, this reprieve is only temporary. It was the power of the state which forced business and industrial closures and mandated lockdowns for citizens in a time of crisis. These types of policies have already shown signs of wear perhaps most visibly with the recent armed protests in the Michigan State legislature. Individuals were essentially protesting for a return to normal—the right to be exploited by their bosses and the right to spread a deadly infection. Others, including prominent politicians have called for a reopening even at the expense of a greater death toll. For many, the system must be maintained at any cost, thus state-mandated change outside of a clear emergency is unlikely to be tolerated for long enough to do any real good.

Hence the importance of our work on The Critique of the Gotha Program. As Marx addresses the Gotha Program in his own era, we need to continue our work to theorize an alternative to capitalism which can bridge the gulf between “nature” and “society” in both theory and practice. This will involve great creative efforts from our organization and others of like minds in order to truly unite the purposes of the natural and social sciences in such a way that they are able to truly serve all regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and ability. However, as Marx notes, the foundation has already been partially laid:

But natural science has penetrated all the more practically into human life through industry. It has transformed human life and prepared the emancipation of humanity even though its immediate effect was to accentuate the dehumanization of man. Industry is the actual historical relationship of nature, and thus of natural science, to man. If industry is conceived as the exoteric manifestation of the essential human faculties, the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man can also be understood. Natural science will then abandon its abstract materialist, or rather idealist, orientation, and will become the basis of a human science, just as it has already become—though in an alienated form—the basis of actual human life. One basis for life and another for science is a priori a falsehood. Nature, as it develops in human history, in the act of genesis of human society, is the actual nature of man; thus nature, as it develops through industry, though in an alienated form, is truly anthropological nature.[17]

 

Footnotes

[1] “Climate Change: How Do We Know?” https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

[2] Helen Regan, “Billions of People Could Live in Areas Too Hot for Humans by 2070, Study Says,” https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/05/world/global-warming-climate-niche-temperatures-intl-hnk-index.html

[3] For a full theoretical exposition of this theory, see Jason W. Moore. 2015. Capitalism and the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso. For an interesting application of these theoretic premises, see: Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. 2017. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. University of California Press. Where Moore’s argument is especially problematic is in his adherence to a theory of underconsumptionism which posits that capital must continually expand to non-capitalist realms in order to avoid and/or overcome economic crises, ignoring the importance of labor to capital as well as subjective possibilities. However, his is a more nuanced look at the issue than most which includes important discussions of gender and social reproduction, for example.

[4] Karl Marx. 1976. Capital, Vol. I. New York: Penguin. P. 284.

[5] Koehi Saito, 2017. “Marx in the Anthropocene: Value, Metabolic Rift, and the Non-Cartesian Dualism,” Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialtheorie und Philosophie. 4(1–2): 276–295.

[6] Karl Marx. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Terrell Carver, ed. 1996. Marx: Later Political Writings. Cambridge University Press. p. 32.

[7] Shah, Sonia. Pandemic. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. P. 72

[8] Bill Hathaway. “New analysis quantifies risk of COVID-19 to racial, ethnic minorities” May 19, 2020. https://news.yale.edu/2020/05/19/new-analysis-quantifies-risk-covid-19-racial-ethnic-minorities

[9] Elise Kaplan and Theresa Davis, “Huge Disparity’ in COVID-19 death rates for Native Americans in NM” May 30, 2020. https://www.abqjournal.com/1461218/huge-disparity-in-covid19-death-rates-for-native-americans-in-nm.html

[10] Rachel DeSantis. June 11, 2020. “Navajo Nation Has More COVID-19 Cases Than 12 States — and More Deaths Than 7 States Combined,” https://people.com/human-interest/navajo-nation-more-covid-cases-7-states-combined/

[11] Doyle Rice. March 12, 2019. “Study Finds Race Gap in Air Pollution—Whites Largely Cause It, Blacks and Hispanics Breath It.” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/03/11/air-pollution-inequality-minorities-breathe-air-polluted-whites/3130783002/

[12] Rachel Ramirez. “A Tale of Two Crises: Wake-Up Call: As coronavirus ravages Louisiana, ‘cancer alley’ residents haven’t given up the fight against polluters.” May 4, 2020. https://grist.org/justice/as-coronavirus-ravages-louisiana-cancer-alley-residents-havent-given-up-the-fight-against-polluters/

[13] A study in the journal Climate, found that “redlining” is a strong predictor of which neighborhoods are exposed to extreme heat. These neighborhoods are less likely to have green spaces and will contain more concrete and other materials that will trap heat due to the “heat island effect.” “The analysis examined 108 urban areas across the country, and found that 94 percent of historically redlined neighborhoods are consistently hotter than the rest of the neighborhoods in their cities, underscoring a major environmental justice issue. Portland, Oregon, showed one of the largest heat disparities between redlined and non-redlined communities — up to 12.6 degrees F.” Rachel Ramirez. “Another legacy of redlining: Unequal exposure to heat waves” January 15, 2020. https://grist.org/justice/another-legacy-of-redlining-unequal-exposure-to-heat-waves/

[14] Patel and Moore (2017).

[15] Justin Rowlatt. “Greta Thunberg: Climate Change ‘As Urgent’ as Coronavirus,” June 20, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53100800

[16] Scottie Andrew. “Covid-19 Lockdowns Could Drop Carbon Emissions to Their Lowest Level Since World War II, but the Change May be Temporary.” May 19, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/19/world/carbon-emissions-coronavirus-pandemic-scn-climate-trnd/index.html 

[17] Karl Marx. 2004. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Erich Fromm, ed., Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Karel Ludenhoff

    This article is starting with the motto “One basis for life and another for science is a priori a falsehood”, a statement Marx made in his 1844 Manuscripts.
    In reading this article we see that this motto gets a wonderful substantiation. And that is to my opinion important in the process of projecting an alternative for capitalist society. We have here not to do with a statement of Marx without any reason, but with a notion that determined all his thinking and activities during his whole life in his searching for a human society. For what this statement is embodying? It points to a specific way of becoming conscious of the world of human beings AND of the creation of this world. It was ground for him to analyze capitalist society and nature in their dialectical interrelation, as metabolism, and it resulted in, as Heather astutely notes, a notion of consciousness of where the natural becomes historical and thus CHANGEABLE. In a nutshell we have here a basic, and perhaps even THE basic idea, of Marx, with all its consequences for engagement with social sciences and– not to forget– natural sciences, the forces contradictory to capitalism and the creation of a philosophy of revolution in which the Marxian dialectic as Idea and in its organizational form will (have to) be central.

    Reply
  2. Christian Aquino

    Heather and Karel make outstanding points. The reality that the scientific enterprise studies and that nature embodies are a fundamental part of the human existence and not something remote from our lives. Nature is a wonderful example of this. It only makes sense that a civilization that abuses human beings will abuse nature and that a civilization that abuses nature will oppress human beings.

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