In Engel’s address at the graveside of Karl Marx, he said “Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”
Another pertinent quote is that according to the labor theory of value, “all value comes from nature altered by human labor.”
In the past, Marxists have focused on the labor part of that equation, noting that how human labor is organized, how production is organized, is the fundamental determinant of what kind of society we have. The basic, though not the only, differences between forms of society are rooted in the different laws and practices that govern who owns and controls the means of production, and the level of technology embedded in production.
Climate change and other environmental challenges are forcing us to look to the other part of the equation also, that of the nature from which all value is derived. If there are insufficient resources to feed, clothe, and house humanity, to provide the natural resources which are acted upon by production and technology, that too will have fundamental effects on what kind of society we have.
For 21st Century socialism, environmental struggles are not just another in a long list of struggles, they are fundamental to the future of humankind. If we live in a world that is inhospitable to human life or to the agriculture which feeds us, due to heat and water stresses, all the “overgrowth of ideology, laws, and philosophy won’t matter.
It is not just labor which is fundamental, so is nature, so are the resources and conditions humanity depends on for survival. That capitalism exploits labor is basic to the operation of the system, but capitalism also exploits nature and is doing so in ways which are harmful to the future of everyone. They ways in which capitalism exploits nature are determined more by the short-term profit interests of the few rather than the long-term survival needs of all.
The limitations of our finite world must be an essential component of Marxist economics, which has focused on labor, development, and growth sometimes to the exclusion of the needs of nature.
If capitalism destroys the ability of nature to reproduce the essentials of life, in the process it destroys the possibility of an advanced socialism. Infinite, endless growth is not possible in a finite world, and capitalism depends on endless growth in markets, in commodities, in profits, and in exploitation of labor and nature. It exploits natural resources at the start of the production process, exploits the waste-absorbing capacity of nature in the process of production, and exploits the waste-absorbing capacity of nature after goods have been consumed.
A socialism which seeks endless economic growth would be just as incompatible with nature, because of those natural limits.
There are potential ways to alter the supply of natural resources. Nanotechnology offers great potential to create and produce in new ways. Finding news ways to utilize the resources of the oceans and space are two other potential avenues to tap for expanding the resources humanity uses for production and agriculture. But these resources too are not limitless and at present are theoretical, not practical. We can’t base our program on the hope that new technology will magically solve our basic problems for us, any more than technology can solve human exploitation.
Solutions require a shift of class power, and also a shift in our economic planning. When socialist economic planning does not sufficiently take the requirements of nature into account, that can result in disaster—as for example the efforts to create a new cotton-growing region in the Soviet Union by tapping the tributaries of the Aral Sea for irrigation, resulting in the destruction of the sea and also of the productive land around it, along with fishing, small-scale agriculture, and many towns as well.
Each single environmental issue by itself is not as crucial nor more important than anything else. We have to see environmental issues through our class lenses, as they relate to basic issues of class power, justice, democracy, and peace. We work in coalition with many others for immediate survival needs in the present and for long-term survival needs for the future of all humanity. We fight for living wage jobs for all, and jobs that enable humanity to go on living as well.
We struggle against those, right or left, who try to pit these against each other, for whatever reason. When the environmental movement talks, correctly, about protecting the environment for the future, without talking about the needs for jobs in the present, we must criticize this short-sighted, go-it-alone strategy. When one or another labor union supports environmentally destructive jobs, we need to understand the real reasons (unemployment, job loss, falling wages) why they do this, but also criticize it as short-sighted and not in the long-term interests including job interests of their members and other workers. Our job is to make links between these movements, to build on the real commonality of interests they share, and to fight for programs that make those common interests explicit. For example, a current proposal by the labor movement to rebuild and repair our nation’s existing gas pipelines, which would create more jobs for construction workers that the Keystone XL pipeline project, would help the environment by fixing leaks and preventing spills, and avoids the unnecessary jobs-right-now versus destroying-the-environment in the long-term argument.
Our goal of socialism is a necessary, though not sufficient by itself, condition for solving the environmental crises we are already experiencing and that will already happen due to the nature of the natural systems and the way they work (the greenhouse gases already emitted will change the climate for centuries to come, though human activity is still making the problem even worse). Social decision making, based on the long-term needs of humanity rather than on short-term profit interests, is an essential aspect of the changes necessary. Climate change, for example, is world-wide, and can’t be solved unless shifts are made to stop private interests from making things worse for everybody, making us pay in the long-term while pocketing the immediate profits in their own pockets.
An environmental consciousness must be a fundamental component of 21st century socialism. We can’t let capitalism destroy our future.
Our long-term strategy calls for uniting the core forces, and that does not need to change—the environmental movement which is one of the important movements we should work to rally around the core forces is not, at this point, a “new” core force. But environmental issues, especially climate change, are core issues, basic ones, issues we need to integrate more deeply into our program and into our work. Our central slogan, “People and Nature Before Profits” speaks to the unity of all issues of both economic and environmental exploitation.
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