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The Natural World and Covid-19 – part1

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Part 1 of 2: The Natural World and Covid-19


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,1975, p.7

50th. Anniversary of Earth Day

In the midst of this global Covid-19 pandemic, Wednesday 22 April marked the 50th. Anniversary of Earth Day. Fifty years ago, on 22 April 1970, 20m people in the US (around10% of the total population) took to the streets and university campuses to protest against environmental degradation: such as oil spills, smog and rivers that, quite literally, caught fire. The protesters demanded a new way forward for Planet Earth - and, initially, in the early 1970s, some important environmental gains were made: such as the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the establishment of the principle that "the polluter pays".

But the fifty years since 1970 has shown that the past is indeed “a foreign country” - certainly as regards the environment. From the late 1970s, rampant neoliberal capitalism has not only wiped out most of those gains - it has even made things much worse. In particular, its rapid and on-going destruction of the natural world has resulted in an ever-worsening Climate Crisis - and in dangerous zoonotic pathogens and viruses increasingly crossing from the dwindling number of wild animal species to humans.

As well as the Covid-19 coronavirus, this century has also experienced three other coronavirus epidemics: SARS, in 2002 and 2004; and MERS in 2012. Most recently, from 2013-16, there was the Ebola epidemic, caused by a filovirus. The combined evidence of dangerous global warming and ecological crisis shows that the world is experiencing nothing short of capitalist ecocide.

As Michael Löwy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe, one of the leading ecosocialist thinkers, has said,

“…preserving the ecological equilibrium of the planet and therefore an environment favourable to living species, including ours, is incompatible with the expansive and destructive logic of the capitalist system.”

In the 21st. C., the planet - and all life on it - is now facing an unprecedented combination of threats, all as a result of the expansion of the global capitalist system: catastrophic Climate Breakdown as a result of global warming; a huge loss of ecosystems and biodiversity via a Sixth Mass Extinction; and, as a result of both these dangers, an increase in the frequency of dangerous pathogens crossing from wild animal species to humans.

Twenty-first century ecosocialists are not alone in having recognised the negative impacts of capitalism on the natural world. As well as William Blake - whose poem Jerusalem was one of the earliest literary attacks on the “dark Satanic Mills” of early industrial capitalism - William Wordsworth also pointed out, in a critical way, both the growing encroachments of industrial capitalism on nature (at what has since come to be seen as the start of the Anthropocene), and emerging consumerism:

“The world is too much with us: late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!...

For this, for everything, we are out of tune; ”

William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much With Us

in William Wordsworth, S. Gill (ed.), (Oxford, OUP, 1990), p.270

Much more recently, in 1979, James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, summarised the main points of the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’, that he had developed earlier with Lynn Margulis. In fact, it was the novelist William Golding who suggested the name ‘Gaia’ - as Gaia was the Ancient Greek goddess of Earth. And that theory - as briefly summarised by Bryan Appleyard - is that: “Life and the Earth are an interacting whole and the planet can be seen as a single organism:…” Since then, we have become increasingly aware of just how dangerous it can be to radically alter/interfere with the complex ways in which this organism functions.

However, one of the clearest summaries of the negative impacts of capitalism was drawn up by Michael Löwy in 2005:

“The reigning capitalist system is bringing the planet’s inhabitants a long list of irreparable calamities….All the warning signs are red: it is clear that the insatiable quest for profits, the productivist and mercantile logic of capitalist/industrial civilization is leading us into an ecological disaster of incalculable proportions. This is not to give in to ‘catastrophism’ but to verify that the dynamic of infinite ‘growth’ brought about by capitalist expansion is threatening the natural foundations of human life on the planet.”

If nothing else, this pandemic crisis is making it painfully clear that ‘system change’ is now needed, as quickly as possible, in order to create an economic system that allows for a habitable and sustainable planet. The past 50 years has shown that the ‘System’s’ - i.e. capitalism’s - imperative to push for ever-continued and -increased productivity and consumption, in order to expand short-term profitability, is increasingly exposing the planet’s ecosystems, natural habitats and species to serious threats that are already significantly undermining the planet’s ecological balance.

Furthermore, the unsuccessful global attempts to significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases - primarily, but not solely, CO2 - show that the ‘System’ cannot even regulate its destructive actions, let alone overcome the planetary and ecological crises it has already triggered. Faced with the choice of ‘Grow - or die!’, it is clear that, as regards the natural world, neoliberal capitalism continues to favour the latter.

Thus, if capitalism remains - at the very least - unchecked, it will have increasingly-devastating impacts on human, animal and plant life. It is now abundantly clear that one of those impacts - especially, but not exclusively, on the poorest and most vulnerable members of all societies - will be ”Epidemics of malaria, cholera, and even deadlier diseases…”

Although made in 1916, during the horrors of WW1, Rosa Luxemburg’s unequivocal warning about the two choices facing humanity - “Socialism or Barbarism!” - seems particularly relevant for the environmental crossroads we’ve now reached. In September 2007, The Belém Declaration updated her warning: “Humanity today faces a stark choice: ecosocialism or barbarism.”

Belem Ecosocialist Declaration

This sentiment was graphically encapsulated at that meeting by Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, who said:

“The world is suffering from a fever due to climate change, and the disease is the capitalist development model.”

Though, to bring Rosa Luxemburg’s warning fully up-to-date - and make the choice even clearer - it needs to be amended to: “Ecosocialism or Capitalist Barbarism!”

Metabolic Rift

Eight years before the first Earth Day in 1970, Rachel Carson was one of the earliest researchers and writers to warn about the growing threats to the natural world in the 20th. C - specifically, she focused on the dangers inherent in the use of organophosphate pesticides by large-scale agri-businesses. As a result of her studies, she concluded that:

“The balance of nature is not the same today as in Pleistocene times, but it is still there: a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a [person] perched on the edge of a cliff. The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. [Humans], too, [are] part of this balance.”

Rachel Carson and her ground-breaking book. 1962

Since she wrote her ground-breaking book in 1962, it has become frighteningly clear that the ‘ecological problem’ is now this century’s greatest problem, and that the world now faces an existential planetary crisis. In particular, it has become increasingly clear to many that capitalism is ecologically dysfunctional and inherently destructive of biodiversity. However, Rachel Carson was by no means the first to comment on the negative impacts on the natural world which accompanied the growth of industrial capitalism.

For instance, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett (Marx and the Earth) have done much work to show that both Marx and Engels were aware of this as early as the second half of the 19th. C. Their work has established that ecological concerns were central to Marx’s critique of capitalism, based on his understanding that humankind was a part of nature, which led him to develop an ecological world view.

In particular, Marx saw capitalism’s commodification of nature leading, in practical terms, to the growing degradation of nature, thus creating a dangerous ‘metabolic rift’ - or separation - between humans and the natural world. The historian and environmentalist, Andreas Malm (The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World), saw Marx’s concept of the ‘metabolic rift’ as being one line of inquiry into environmental problems that: “…has outshone all others in creativity and productivity.”

Marx was also keenly aware of the importance of sustainability; and the need to think of future generations who would have to live in the world left to them:

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations,…”

As Foster and Burkett point out, Marx’s insight concerning ecological crises meant he understood that:

“The intensifying ecological problem of capitalist society could be traced… to the rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature (that is, the alienation of nature) that formed the very basis of capitalism’s existence as a system, made worse by accumulation, ie. capitalism’s own expansion.”

Both Marx and Engels understood that serious ecological problems could arise from the relationships between human economic production and the natural world, and that it was important to solve such contradictions by ensuring that human production remained in harmony with nature. This was because, ultimately, humans depended on the natural world, of which they were merely a part. Failure to do so, Engels warned, would result in serious problems:

“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… at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature…- but that we,…belong to nature, and exist in its midst,…”

A later Marxist who was also fully aware of the importance of the relationship between humans and the natural world was Nikolai Bukharin who believed that the ultimate basis of materialism lay in ecology, because human beings were both the product of nature and, at the same time, a part of it. As John Bellamy Foster (Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature) points out, “Bukharin built his analysis [of the relationship between humans and nature] on Marx’s concept of the metabolic interaction between nature and society.”

Thus we can learn useful lessons from Marx and Engels (who were not the out-and-out ‘Promethean productionists’ as is often alleged), and others who would now be seen as early ecosocialists, on how to deal with the current problems besetting the natural world. In particular, it is important to realise that capitalism - because of its global scope - has the ability to continue accumulating profits despite the damage it causes to nature in specific and scattered locations. As Paul Burkett (Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective) has noted: “It is becoming more obvious in recent years that the natural conditions of human life (not to speak of other species of life) are increasingly threatened even as - indeed, precisely because - capital continues to accumulate.”

One important aspect to grasp concerning the issue of the metabolic rift and the ecological crises is that unlimited and continuous production and consumption is just not ecologically sustainable. Writing on this aspect in 2005, Sheila Malone (Ecosocialism or barbarism) emphasised that:

“Capitalism operates on the basis that the earth’s resources are there for limitless exploitation, and that market forces will always find a (benign) solution to a crisis.”

A society and economy that meets the true needs of both humans and nature will value different ‘commodities’: such as greater leisure time. Amongst others to point this out was Ernest Mandel (Power and Money):

“Today we have become aware, with much delay, that dangers to the earth’s non-renewable resources, and to the natural environment of human civilization and human life, also entail that the consumption of material goods and services cannot grow in an unlimited way.”

Ian Angus (Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System) is one of many who has warned that the worsening negative impacts of capitalism could, if unchecked, very rapidly lead to the Anthropocene being the shortest of all epochs:

“Capitalism has driven the Earth System to a crisis point in the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. If business as usual continues, the first full century of the Anthropocene will be marked by rapid deterioration of our physical, social, and economic environment.”

All this should make it clear that for an economy to be ecologically sustainable, it needs to heal the metabolic rift by re-establishing a respectful metabolism with nature - and, in particular, by accepting the need to protect and conserve the land for present and future generations. This is particularly relevant to the current forms of capitalist agricultural production which treats the natural world only as part of the productive process itself. Whilst no agricultural production can fail to have some impacts on nature, those of global capitalism’s highly-industrialised agriculture are so negative because, instead of growing food for use, it grows it mainly for profit.

Destruction of the natural world

One of those to have made clear how capitalist agriculture is environmentally irrational and unsustainable is Fred Magdoff. In a 2015 article:

A Rational Agriculture Is Incompatible with Capitalism

he focused on a range of negative impacts concerning agriculture in the US - but many of his comments about capitalist agriculture’s impacts on ecosystems are applicable globally:

“There is loss of biodiversity as native plant species are eradicated to grow the crops desired for sale in the market The loss of habitat for diverse species means that there is also a loss of natural control mechanisms…All of the common decisions and practices in the agricultural system…[are rational] only from the very narrow perspective of trying to make profits within a capitalist system.”

Of the many negative impacts of global capitalist agriculture (apart from its high emissions of greenhouse gases), one of the most dramatic is related to land use, deforestation and biodiversity/species loss - which is particularly marked in the Amazonian rainforest. This acts as the ‘lungs’ of the planet, and is an essential part of Earth’s ecological equilibrium. In the last 50 years or so, one third of the world’s woodland has been destroyed. As pointed out by Ian Angus: “Most of the land now being converted to agriculture was formerly tropical forest, so…tropical forest loss continues to accelerate.” This is a huge factor in the current ecological crises: “Brazil’s tropical rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, cut down or burnt to create short-term grazing land for cattle to produce quick profits for big landowners.“

The anti-ecological and unsustainable impact of the meat industry

Much of the destruction of such important natural habitats is connected to the global meat and dairy industries. These need, at the very least, to be drastically reduced, if we are to create sustainable agro-ecosystems that work for people instead of for corporate profits.

Just how much biodiversity loss has been taking place because of capitalist agriculture - as well as global warming - was shown by Elizabeth Kolbert. In her book, The Sixth Extinction: A Unnatural History, she wrote about what is known as the ‘Sixth Extinction’, and to ‘background extinction’ rates. The normal ‘background extinction’ rate of mammal species is 0.25 per-million species-years. As she points out:

“This means that, since there are about fifty-five hundred mammal species wandering around today, at the background extinction rate you’d expect - once again, very roughly - one species to disappear every seven hundred years.”

However, the current rate of species loss shows the earth is undergoing its Sixth Mass Extinction - the first to be driven specifically by human activities. Because of the combination of global warming, one group of scientists in 2004 estimated that, by 2050, anything from 13% to 32% of all species could be lost - with an average of 24% of all species heading towards extinction. Whilst different studies have produced varying figures, the general consensus is that the species extinction rate is the highest in 65 million years - with an extinction rate 1000 times greater than the natural ‘background extinction’ rate.

Although several aspects of the 2004 study have been criticised, it is important to bear in mind that this study mainly focussed on the impact of climate change. Once physical destruction, or fragmentation, of natural habitats is also factored in, the picture becomes much more dire. This is because whilst global warming compels some species to migrate, the destruction of natural habitats and the creation of various ‘barriers’ (such as roads and clear-cuts) means migration becomes much more difficult or even impossible.

These threats - and others associated with capitalist agriculture, such as the heavy use of pesticides - are becoming increasingly destructive. This is particularly so because of the irrational demands of the meat and dairy industries, which dominate agricultural land use. Various studies have shown that, by shifting massively away from meat and dairy production, the world could adequately feed a population much larger than the present 7+ billion. The meat and dairy industries are extremely inefficient when it comes to producing proteins for human consumption: 100 kilos of plant protein is needed to produce 9 kilos of beef protein or 31 kilos of milk protein. Or, to put it another way, 10 hectares of land can produce:

meat to feed 2 people
maize to feed 10 people
wheat/grain to feed 24 people
soya to feed 61 people

Currently, over 50% of all crops grown is fed to farmed animals. The big agri-businesses require roughly 70% of the world’s land, as grazing for animals and for growing crops for feed. To ensure enough productive land is available, huge areas of forests are being felled all over the world - sometimes illegally - on an industrial scale. By far the biggest culprit in this is cattle farming, which is the main cause of deforestation across the globe. In particular, it is increasingly responsible for the destruction of what remains of the Amazon rainforest.

Globally, forests are still being lost at a rate of 7.3 million hectares per year - mostly for cattle ranching and the growing of fodder crops. Currently, about 70% of the cleared Amazon rainforest is used for the grazing of cattle. Just 1 hamburger made from Costa Rican beef results in the destruction of:

1 large tree
50 saplings
almost 30 different species of seedlings
hundreds of species of insects, mosses, fungi and micro-organisms

All this is confirmed by Alan Thornett (Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism), in one of the most recent - and most informative - overviews of the many negative impacts of capitalism on the natural world. As regards capitalist agriculture, the current global levels of meat production and consumption are completely unsustainable. Apart from the huge numbers of land animals slaughtered every year for human consumption - around 70 billion - the meat industry is hugely inefficient when it comes to feeding the world’s human population, as these animals:

“…consume vast quantities of corn, maize, and soy that could otherwise be eaten, far more effectively, by the human population including the planet’s billions of hungry people...The cattle sector of Brazilian Amazon agriculture, driven by the international beef and leather trades, has been responsible for about 80 per cent of all deforestation in the region, or roughly 14 per cent of the world’s total annual deforestation. It is the world’s largest single driver of deforestation.”

As well as being a key factor in the absorption of CO2 (and thus helping to slow down global warming), rainforests contain the largest reservoirs of biodiversity. Yet now, around 60% of global biodiversity loss is directly due to capitalist agriculture. This is of particular relevance to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917