1980s >> 1986 >> no-984-august-1986

Editorial: Socialism and Ecology

Only when the Earth has become the common heritage of all will humanity be able to face up to the ecological problems posed by its existence as the only animal species that changes nature to satisfy its needs.

All other animal species merely take (the rest of) nature as they find it, feeding off the plants and/or other animals that nature spontaneously supplies and are in fact, both during and after their lives, part of what nature supplies for other animal species. All forms of plant and animal life are linked together in a network of relationships known as an “ecosystem”. This system is normally self-sustaining and self-correcting in the sense that if an imbalance develops it is spontaneously eliminated, either by the old balance being restored or by the establishment of a new balance. This latter course is how change, including evolution, occurs.

The animal species known as homo sapiens is also part of nature and must have evolved out of a related species that at one time also merely lived off the spontaneous fruits of nature, gathering plants and insects. Pre-humans came to be distinguished from the other animals — became “human” — when they began to change nature to satisfy their needs, as for instance by systematically using sticks and stones as weapons to capture and kill other animals which they would otherwise have been unable to do. This introduced a new. potentially disturbing element into the ecosystem that had not existed before. Previous disturbing elements which upset the balance had resulted from changes in the non-living part of nature, from climatic and geological changes. Now the activities of a living species also introduced changes. This human activity — changing nature to supply their needs — is what we call today production and is an activity engaged in by no other animal species.

Production inevitably upsets the previously existing balance of nature. This is not necessarily a problem in itself since, as we saw, a new, different balance will sooner or later come into being and there is no reason to suppose that one particular balance is any better than any other. This new balance, like the old one, will tend to be self-sustaining as long as new changes — such as a change in productive methods — do not happen. Humans are in fact quite capable, despite the production (changing nature to satisfy their needs) they engage in, of being a fully integrated part of a self-sustaining ecology system. This was the case of many early human societies which lived in full harmony with the rest of nature and there is no inherent reason arising from the nature of production why this should not be possible today on the basis of modern technology and productive methods.

It is not production itself that is incompatible with a sustainable balance of nature – though all the great productive innovations, from hunting, fire and metal-working to agriculture and the domestication of animals, will have initially been upsetting factors — but the application of certain productive methods as if there was no balance of nature to be upset or which introduce changes too quickly to allow a new sustainable balance to develop. This, basically, is what capitalism’s use. or rather abuse, of industrial methods of production has done over the past two hundred or so years and is still doing today. As a system of society rent by property and class divisions in which economic units compete to achieve relatively short-term economic gains (monetary profits), it is inherently incapable of taking into consideration the longer-term and overall factors which ecological science teaches are of vital importance.

This is why it is only when the original communist condition of humanity is restored, but at a global level with modern technological knowledge, that the ecological problems involved in industrial production and in supplying the needs of over 4.000 million people will be properly faced. Of course capitalism has ultimately to face up to the ecological problems its pursuit of profit creates, but only after the event, after the damage has been done. Capitalism in fact goes on from energy crisis to energy crisis adopting new sources when the old ones have become exhausted or too expensive; it exploits one source after another according to their relative cheapness without any concern for the future.

Humans occupy a unique place in nature. Not only are we the only species that engages in production and the only species whose activities are a potentially disrupting element, but we are also the only conscious part of nature, the only part which can, at least in principle, choose its patterns of behaviour. We are what the ecologist philosopher Murray Bookchin has described as the “self-conscious spokesmen of nature” and as such we have a special responsibility to the rest of nature in the sense of our being the only animal species capable of taking steps to ensure that a sustainable ecological balance is maintained.

Bookchin has attempted to derive from this an “ethic” in the sense of a code of behaviour governing what human societies should and should not do: we should abstain from using productive methods which are incompatible with a sustainable balance of nature or, expressed positively, we should only employ productive methods which are compatible with such a balance. Of course this is not a question of choosing particular productive methods in isolation from the structure of society but of the objectives and so of the structure of society itself.

Clearly, a class-divided society geared to production for profit is incompatible with humans fulfilling their responsibility to the rest of nature since, being governed by economic laws operating as external constraints on human productive activities, such a society allows no free choice as to what productive methods to adopt. In fact it is obliged to adopt those methods which serve profit rather than ecological considerations — with the consequences in terms of pollution, plunder of non-renewable resources and waste that are well-known.

We can only meet our responsibility as “the self-conscious spokesmen of nature” in, and by establishing, a society without property rights and the profit motive, a society in which humans would be free to choose which productive methods to adopt because it would be a society freed from the uncontrollable economic laws of profit-seeking and capital accumulation. Only a world socialist society, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s resources, is compatible with human responsibility to the rest of nature.