The Ecological Perspective
Current methods of production cause may undeniably be damaging the world’s eco-systems in many ways, as shown elsewhere in this Environment section. Still, the question remains as to whether human productive activity, transforming materials originating from nature into goods suitable for human use, is inevitably damaging in an ecological sense. The massive scale of human productive activity certainly has immense implications for ecology and some radical greens argue that human activity on such a scale is incompatible with a harmonious relationship with the rest of nature.
In considering what we mean by ‘ecological damage,’ it is important to remember that these ecosystems are evolving. The biosphere as a whole, which consists of millions of mutually interdependent life forms, might be thought of as one single ecosystem.
Yet it is still possible to distinguish various sub-systems, or ‘biomes’ within it, on the basis of the different climatic and physical conditions that exist in different parts of the world. These range from the tundra of the Arctic, through the coniferous and deciduous forests and steppes, to the savannah and tropical rain forests of the regions near the equator. To each of these physical and climatic conditions there corresponds a stable ecosystem which evolves to its ‘climax,’ through a series of successive stages. This stable climax will be the situation where the amount of food produced by the plant life is sufficient, after taking account of the plants’ own respiration needs, to sustainably meet the food energy requirements of all the animal life-forms within the system. It will be, in fact, the situation which makes optimum use, in terms of sustaining all the life-forms within the system, of the sun’s light rays falling on the area.
An ecological climax is defined in terms of the existing physical and climatic conditions. It is clear that if these latter change, as they have done relatively frequently in the course of the thousands of millions of years life has existed—through such things as the sea level, and the coming and going of the ice ages—then the previously existing balance will be upset. A new one will then tend to develop in accordance with the new physical and climatic conditions.
The break-up of an old ecosystem plunges the different species and varieties of life-forms into a state of competition. In the case of plants, the competition would be to capture the sun’s light rays. In the case of animals, it would be to recover the food energy produced by plants. The species and the individuals proving to be best adapted to the new conditions (“the fittest” as Darwin put it) would survive and flourish. Eventually a new stable ecosystem, with a different “climax”, appropriate to the new geophysical conditions, would evolve. At such times biological evolution would have tended to speed up as whole. Species could disappear leaving the ecological niche they occupied to be filled by newcomers.
The world’s eco-systems are continually evolving and hence there is no one ‘original,’ ‘natural’ state of the planet. After all, humans are both a product and part of nature and not something outside of it. There is no reason to regard an ecosystem in which humans, like other animals, live in limited numbers as “hunter gatherers” in the forest as any more “natural” than one in which there is a greater number of trees and forest plants. There is no basis in ecology for saying that trees should be the main life-form, nor even that the natural human condition is hunting and gathering.
Ecology and Socialism
The materials humans take from nature can be divided into two categories, according to whether they are renewable or non-renewable. Nearly everything of organic nature is renewable (since more of it can be grown in a relatively short period of time), as are certain natural forces which humans use as instruments of labour (rivers, waterfalls, wind, the sun’s rays etc). Non-renewable resources on the other hand—such as mineral ores, coal, oil, clay, sand—are so called because they do not form part of some natural cycle that reproduces them, at least not with a timescale relevant for humans.
The most obvious way in which humans extract renewable materials from the biosphere is through agriculture. Agriculture involves, by definition, a fundamental change in the existing eco-system. The introduction of agriculture to Europe involved cutting most of the deciduous forest. This deciduous forest had represented a stable ecological climax for most of Europe. The land was used to grow plants which humans found useful, to the detriment of both the trees and other plants that had flourished in the forest. Agriculture involves deliberately preventing an ecosystem from developing towards a climax.
For an ecosystem involving agriculture to be a stable one requires deliberate action on the part of humans. This involves not only planting fields and keeping them clear of other plants which might grow there (‘weeds’), but also to maintain the fertility of the soil which, without agriculture, would spontaneously renew itself.
Things go wrong when humans ignore the ecological consequences of their actions, for instance, by permitting overgrazing by their domesticated animals or by taking out of the soil without restoring the minerals and organic materials that are essential to normal plant growth. However, if humans observe these rules, then, as a number of historical examples testify, an ecosystem in which humans practice agriculture can be as stable as one from which humans are absent, or one in which they practice hunting and gathering.
This was understood and practiced in the relatively self-sufficient agriculture communities which existed up until the coming of capitalism, where what was produced was largely consumed on the spot. The human waste resulting from consumption, together with animal waste and those parts of plants and animals that were not used for food and other purposes, were restored to the soil where they were decomposed by insects, fungi and bacteria into the elements that sustain the soil’s fertility.
When, however, the place of production and the place of consumption are separated, this cycle tends to break down. The result is that the fertility of the soil diminishes. If an area specialises in the production of a crop for export, i.e. for consumption elsewhere, this means that some of the mineral and organic matter incorporated into the crop will leave that area for ever and not be restored to the soil. The same applies to animal rearing. Animals require large amounts of calcium for their bones, as well as other minerals such as phosphorus, iron and magnesium, which also come from the soil, via the plants on which they feed. If these animals are exported, whether dead or alive, and consumed elsewhere, then the minerals they contain are lost to the soil of the area where they were raised.
A complementary problem arises at the other end, at the point of consumption: what to do with the human waste which, when the points of production and consumption were the same, was automatically restored to the soil and recycled by nature? Releasing it into the sea or into rivers or sewers means that it is lost to agriculture, even if not, unfortunately, to the biosphere (this contributes to water pollution by encouraging the proliferation of some life-forms—for example, algae and bacteria—to the detriment of others which the water normally supports.)
The ‘solution’ that has been found under capitalism, because it is the cheapest in terms of the labour content of the products, has been to use artificial fertilisers—nitrates and phosphates that have been manufactured in chemical plants. This works in the sense of allowing the land to go on producing the same amount, or more, of the same crop or animal, but at a price in terms of polluting the water in the region concerned. Artificial fertilisers, not being held by the soil in the same way that organic waste is, tend to be leached off by rain into waterways where they cause pollution.
The ecological solution to the problem is to find some way of restoring to the soil the organic waste resulting from human consumption in urban areas. Barry Commoner suggested that this might be done by means of pipelines linking the town and the countryside. A longer term solution would be that envisaged by those early socialists who looked forward to agriculture and manufacturing industry being combined,
gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.(1)
Concern has been expressed that non-renewable resources will eventually run out. Still, despite some wild predictions that were made in the recent past, depletion of non-renewable resources is not an immediate problem. One advantage non-renewable materials have over most renewable ones is that they can normally be used more than once. With the important exceptions of coal, oil and natural gas when burned, they can be recycled. A proportion of some metals is lost through corrosion but all metals can in principle be recovered and re-used. It has been suggested, for instance, that most of the gold mined since Ancient times is still in use. Much of the iron, copper, tin and other metals mined since the same time is still around somewhere even if not still used as gold is. Resources can be conserved by making instruments of production easier to repair and by manufacturing goods of all kinds to last rather than to break down or become unusable after a carefully calculated period of time, as is common practice under capitalism.
Non-renewable resources can be replaced in many cases by renewable ones. Electricity generation is a case in point (Energy Production).
The techniques employed to transform materials must, if they are to avoid upsetting natural cycles which are fundamental to nature, avoid releasing into the biosphere or leaving as waste products, toxic substances or substances that cannot be assimilated by nature. In other words, a non-polluting technology should be applied. This is quite feasible from a technical point of view since non-polluting transformation techniques are known in all fields of production. However, they are not employed on any wide scale today because they would add to production costs and so are ruled out by the economic laws of capitalism.
The underlying principle behind the changes in the materials and productive methods used, which is demanded by the need to take proper account of the ecological dimension, is that the productive system as a whole should be sustainable for the rest of nature. In other words, what humans take from nature, the amount and the rhythm at which they do so, as well as the way they use these materials and dispose of them after use, should all be done in such a way as to leave nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing the required materials for use.
In the long run this implies stable or only slowly rising consumption and production levels, though it does not rule out carefully planned rapid growth over a period to reach a level at which consumption and production could then platform off. A society in which production, consumption and population levels are stable has been called a “steady-state economy” where production would be geared simply to meeting needs and to replacing and repairing the stock of means of production (raw materials and instruments of production) required for this.
It is obvious that today human needs are far from being met on a world scale and that fairly rapid growth in the production of food, housing and other basic amenities would still be needed for some years even if production ceased to be governed by the economic laws of capitalism. However it should not be forgotten that a “steady-state economy” would be a much more normal situation than an economy geared to blindly accumulating more and more means of production. After all, the only rational reason for accumulating means of production is to eventually be in a position to satisfy all reasonable consumption needs.
Once the stock of means of production has reached this level, in a society with this goal, accumulation, or the further expansion of the stock of means of production, can stop and production levels be stabilised. Logically, this point would eventually be reached, since the consumption needs of a given population are finite.
So if human society is to be able to organize its production in an ecologically acceptable way, then it must abolish the capitalist economic mechanism of capital accumulation and gear production instead to the direct satisfaction of needs.
- (1) Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels (1848)