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Does the environmental crisis constitute a ‘second contradiction’ of capitalism?

The main tension in capitalism is between capital and labour. But what about the tension between capital and the environment? The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explores some of the ideas

FEW people today other than the coterie around Donald Trump and his appointed head of the US Environmental Protection Agency can have any doubt that humanity faces an environmental crisis.  

The rate of extinction of animal and plant species and the loss of natural ecosystems surpasses anything that has gone on in the past.  

The disruption of global biogeochemical cycles — manifest most critically in climate change — now poses a threat to human survival.  

And, critically, millions of the world’s people still go undernourished with inadequate access to water and the basic necessities of life.

All of this has happened during the period when human society has been dominated by capitalism — and the pace of environmental destruction is accelerating.  

That raises the question: is environmental degradation an inherent and inevitable feature of capitalism (or is it is a consequence of “growth” in general) — and can and will socialism do any better?  

These and other questions are the focus of other answers in this series.

These have argued that the key issue is not “growth” or “no growth” but what kind of growth; that capitalism has destroyed, is destroying and, as long as it persists, will continue to destroy our environment; and that that while socialism will not automatically resolve the relations of humans to the environment, it is the essential precondition for doing so.  

These conclusions are not new. Marx and Engels were themselves acutely aware of the way that human activities could result in unforeseen environmental damage.  

They saw environmental degradation as not just a problem of the burgeoning industrial cities but a more general problem of the relations of humans to nature.  

Although the analytical focus of Capital (1867) was economics, Marx clearly saw that there were fundamental environmental as well as economic contradictions within capitalism, declaring that “capitalist production … develops technology … only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.”   

And Engels wrote in his Dialectics of Nature: “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.” 

What was important, he declared, was that we should try to understand “both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature.”  

Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital (1913) wrote of the impossibility of equilibrium or steady-state capitalism, which “must therefore always and everywhere fight a battle of annihilation against every historical form of natural economy.”

As a mode of production and as a social system, capitalism degrades the conditions of its own reproduction.  

That much was clear to early Marxists. But what neither they — nor anyone else at the time — could appreciate is the scale of environmental destruction.  

Today, as an earlier article in this paper put it: “Extinction needs to be seen, along with climate change, as the leading edge of contemporary capitalism’s contradictions … Capitalism depends on the continuous commodification of the environment to sustain growth.  

“The catastrophic decline of biodiversity thus represents a direct threat to the production of capital but the (il)logics of the system cannot address this contradiction as it would undermine the basis of the system itself.”

Non-exploitative capitalism is a contradiction in terms. As an economic system, capitalism depends on exploiting workers and so too does it depend on exploiting the resources — living and non-living — of our planet.  

And, as awareness of the environmental damage caused by capitalism has grown, some have suggested that the relationship between capitalism and the environment should be seen as a “second contradiction” of capitalism, a contradiction of equal significance to that between capital and labour.  

In a number of respects this is clearly the case. Marx and Engels saw energy as a key ingredient in the development of industrial capitalism and the replacement of timber by coal — not just as a source of heat but as substitute for charcoal in the iron and steel industry solved the problem of the “timber famine” of the 17th and early 18th century.  

The analysis has been developed particularly within the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism founded in 1988 by the Marxist economist James O’Connor who has promoted an “ecological Marxist” theory which has major implications for the struggle for socialism.  

O’Connor suggests that if the “struggle for the environment” is as important as, perhaps even more important than, class struggle “there may be not one but two paths to socialism in late capitalist society” — the class struggle focused on economic and political exploitation and a struggle based on “new social movements” focused on the environment.  

For Marxists, those wider struggles — in our communities, to protect the environment, at the point of consumption as well as of production — are critically important. They cannot simply be subordinated to class struggle.  

However the “second contradiction” thesis raises a number of issues. In the first place, capitalism has hitherto shown a remarkable capacity for overcoming “natural limits” and — from the replacement of wood as an energy source (and of charcoal for smelting) by coal, to the progressive substitution of coal by oil, and most recently nuclear power and various types of “renewable” energy (all of them with their own inherent environmental, economic and social problems) — these limits have been a major driver of technological change.  

And, as an economic system, capitalism has demonstrated that it is capable of surviving the most appalling environmental disasters.

Moreover navigating environmental problems can be extraordinarily profitable. Trading in “carbon credits” (essentially, permissions to pollute by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases) is now a major international financial market.  

And a host of other practices such as biodiversity offsetting represent the monetisation of nature, underpinned by new theoretical approaches, often promoted as somehow challenging “orthodox” economics (but in reality supporting it) such as natural capital and ecosystem services, all putting a price on nature and natural processes so that they can be integrated with the capitalist marketplace.  

The environment has become big business. In Britain the Green Investment Bank (GIB) was set up in 2012 with £3.8 billion of government money (ie our money), to fund green infrastructure projects including offshore windfarms and other renewable energy and low-carbon schemes.  

In April last year it was sold off for just £2.3bn to the notorious Australian tax-dodging Macquarie Bank, adding to the bank’s “green portfolio” of £6.7bn equity (which brings in 70 per cent of its profits) in this area alone.  

Free of public-sector restrictions the bank can do what it likes with its investments — the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas has suggested that this will include fracking.

There is a danger in overemphasising “natural” limits at the expense of a focus on the internal contradictions in capitalism that force “growth” of the most profitable kind in the first place and on the class relations that drive environmental impacts in an environmentally destructive direction.  

As David Harvey declares: “The capitalist class, it goes without saying, is always delighted, on this point at least, to have its role displaced and masked by an environmental rhetoric that lets them off the hook as the progenitors of the problem.”  

Especially after the defeats of labour and socialist movements of the 1970s and ’80s, capitalism’s “environmental contradictions” became more prominent and for some, appeared to present a stronger basis for building anti-capitalist alliances than labour struggles.  

The alliances that can be built around environmental issues are critical. However it remains the case that environmental destruction is to a great extent driven by the fundamental contradiction in capitalism — between the forces and relations of production.

There is not a single “human ecology” — every social system has its own ecological dynamic, and capitalism’s is a particularly destructive one.

The relation between capitalism, socialism and the environment is by no means settled and is still a matter of debate among Marxists.

It is (along with many other topics) a developing area of Marxist theory — and practice — and one with which we can all engage.

In the meantime just like austerity (capitalism’s “solution” to its economic crisis), capitalism’s onslaught on the environment — from global climate change through drought and desertification (as this summer’s heat wave demonstrated, not just in the “developing” world) to traffic pollution and the loss of urban green space in our cities — bears disproportionately on “the many,” impoverishes us all, threatens to destroy our planet, and makes the struggle for a sustainable, socialist alternative all the more urgent.

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