Date: Sun, 7 Nov 1999 14:52:24 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Marxism, ecology and the American Indian
Organization: Columbia University
We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.
—Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching
No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ’environment,’ on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world.
—Nikolai Bukharin,Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, 1925
Based on an review that I recently submitted to the Journal of
Economic History, this post will address
Marx and Nature: a Red and
Green Perspective, written in 1999 by Paul Burkett. Then it will
consider an article by John Bellamy Foster that appeared in the Sept.
1999 American Journal of Sociology titled
Marx’s Theory of
Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.
Both Burkett and Foster are noteworthy for their pioneering work in
establishing Marx’s ecological credentials. I will conclude this
piece with some thoughts on possible missing pieces in the puzzle that
might help to put together the big Red-Green picture.
One of the main criticisms of Marxism from radical environmentalism is
that it follows a
Promethean logic that takes nature for
granted. It sees Marxism as viewing nature as raw input to the labor
process, out of which pours commodities for a ravenous consuming
public. Only a philosophy that questions unconstrained industrial
growth can curb such
Marx and Nature, Paul Burkett takes up the arguments of
Andrew McLaughlin, Enzo Mingione and Ted Benton, who feel that Marx
was squarely in the Enlightenment tradition. This tradition allegedly
holds that human progress hinges on the subjugation of nature to human
purposes. McLaughlin states,
For Marxism, there is simply no basis
for recognizing any interest in the liberation of nature from human
domination. Mingione points to a rigid need to develop the forces
of production in Marx, which solely can guarantee future liberation.
Benton sees Marxism as sharing
the blindness to natural limits
already present in . . . the spontaneous ideology of 19th century
Burkett responds to these criticisms by first of all initially
accepting their plausibility. With frequent references in Marx to the
need for developing the productive forces of social labour, such a
conclusion does not seem far-fetched. Digging deeper into Marx,
Burkett questions support for the proposition that the historic
superiority of capitalism is
based on an anthropomorphic preference
for material wealth over nature. Only in comparison to
precapitalist social institutions is capitalism. By removing
constraints on the natural and social character of humanity,
capitalism in theory offers potentially richer and more
environmentally conducive values.
But even with this vision of an emancipating capitalism, Marx
understood the negative dialectic that would undermine this tendency
in the long run. It socializes production but only in an
antithetical form due to the class-exploitative and alienating
character of production. Although all societies are exploitative, it
is capitalism alone that exacerbates environmental problems to the
breaking point. By concentrating the producers and separating them
from the necessary conditions of production, including natural
conditions, capitalism undermines humanity’s ability to develop
Burkett also believes that the labor theory of value—the heart
of Marxist political economy—is of utmost relevance for a
socialist ecology. This seems puzzling since the labor theory of value
most often comes into play within an entirely different
context—to refute the claim that prices and profit are a
function of supply and demand, or rewards for entrepreneurial
initiative. Marxists point to labor’s creation of value based on
the exploitative wage relationship. Nature as such has rarely entered
the picture in this ongoing debate. Burkett writes,
The notion that
Marx’s labor theory of value might provide an important
ecological perspective might seem strange, given the popular view that
this theory excludes or downgrades nature’s importance as a
condition of and limiting factor in human production.
The key for Burkett is nature’s role in the contradiction between production of use values and exchange values. Production of use values characterized precapitalist societies, which yield to the production of exchange values in capitalist society. Use values consist solely of natural materials modified by human labor, such as the clothing and crops that self-sustaining farmers produce. Exchange values emerge from commodity circulation, where goods yield cash equivalents. Cash then becomes new commodities in a new round of exchange. Capital exploits labor to produce commodities that are greater in value than the wage of the workers who produce them. From the capitalist standpoint, this represents profit. From the Marxist standpoint, it is exploitation only of a more recent vintage than the serfdom and chattel slavery that preceded it.
Capitalist production not only exploits labor, but nature as well.
Competition drives the capitalist system. Accumulation of capital
requires ever-increasing demands on the worker and on nature itself.
While the work-day extends, the surrounding countryside turns into a
toxic dump in order to meet production quotas. Objectification of
humanity and nature go hand in hand. Marx describes this process as a
self-estranged natural and spiritual individuality.
Although Burkett’s book is an unqualified success in its stated goals, there is a critical question that requires additional discussion and clarification among Marxists searching for a combined Red and Green perspective.
This involves the relationship of a certain kind of existing precapitalist society to nature today. While capitalism has a relatively emancipatory logic vis-a-vis precapitalist social formations such as chattel slavery or serfdom, there are indigenous societies around the world under siege from multinational corporations. How do they fit into this schema?
In nearly every instance, the clash is over how to use nature. Indigenous peoples tend to value nature as a communal economic and spiritual resource, while the multinationals—in most cases, energy corporations—view it as a raw input to commodity production. Is the spread of capitalist property relations in the Amazon rainforest an advance over precapitalist modes of production?
I will return to this question after reviewing John Bellamy Foster’s article, which recapitulates his research into Marx’s concern with the problem of soil fertility as well as drawing some new lessons about the relevance of Marxism to ecology.
The context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question was the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870. The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.
The need to artificially replenish the soil’s nutrients led to
scientific research into the problem. Justin von Liebeg was one of the
most important thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the
problem in terms of the separation between the city and the
countryside, what Marx characterized as an
This contradiction is associated with the growth of large cities
during the industrial revolution and the removal of wage earners from
While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to
gain control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains
imperialism, which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day.
England brought Peru into its neocolonial orbit because it was the
most naturally endowed supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847,
227 thousand tons of guano were imported from Peru into England. This
commodity was as important to England’s economy as silver and
gold were in previous centuries.
There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000. Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of dead soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile soil.
The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in
upstate NY and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted
Congress to pass the
Guano Act of 1856, which eventually led to
the seizure of 94 islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.
Liebeg theorized that such measures would eventually fall short. Even with such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient properties so long as the artificial divide between town and countryside was maintained. Not only was the countryside losing its productivity, the town was being swamped with human waste which was no longer being recycled. London had such a terrible problem with open sewers that Parliament was forced to relocate to a location outside the city during the summer months. The stench was unbearable.
Scientists like Liebeg, on the other hand, supported the notion of soil improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society and nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx’s own exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition of the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take place along sound, ecological guidelines.
Marx viewed Liebeg’s research as critical to his own attempts to
frame a socialist solution to the most pressing environmental problem
of the 19th century. He wrote,
I had to plough through the new
agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebeg and Schöbein,
which is more important for this matter than all the economists put
Marx’s concern with the problem of soil fertility had a profound influence on the next generation of Marxist thinkers, including Karl Kautsky and Nikolai Bukharin, one of whose thoughts on the topic serves as an epigraph above.
Published in 1899, Kautsky’s
The Agrarian Question
discussed the failure of fertilizers to resolve the
Supplementary fertilisers... allow the reduction in soil fertility
to be avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger
adds a further burden to agriculturenot one unavoidab1y imposed by
nature, but a direct result of current social organization. By
overcoming the antithesis between town and country... the materials
removed from the soil would be able to flow back in
full. Supplementary fertilizers would then, at most, have the task of
enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment. Advances in
cultivation would signify an increase in the amount of soluble
nutrients in the soil without the need to add artificial
Other early Soviet thinkers were influenced by Bukharin’s
ecological writings. For example, V.L. Komarov wrote in 1935 that,
The private owner or employer, however necessary it may be to make
the changing of the world comply with the laws of Nature, cannot do so
since he aims at profit and only profit. By creating crisis upon
crisis in industry he lays waste natural wealth in agriculture,
leaving behind a barren soil and in the mountain districts bare rocks
and stony slopes.
After amassing a wealth of documentation supporting the links between
classical Marxism and ecology, Foster writes in his conclusion that,
The way in which Marx’s analysis prefigured some of the most
advanced ecological analysis of the late 20th
century—particularly in relation to issues of the soil and the
ecology of cities—is nothing less than startling. While I
agree wholeheartedly with this, I want to suggest some other areas of
research that need to initiated in order for a comprehensive Red-Green
analysis to be completed.
The first of these is the question of energy and global warming, which
in their own way reflect similar contradictions as those found in the
metabolic rift. Fossil fuels provide the energy to
manufacturing, just as fertilizers sustain industrial farming. In
either case, you are dealing with organic substances that become
transformed into essential links in the overall chain of commodity
production. How capitalist society deals with these organic substances
reflects intractable problems that no amount of reformist tinkering
The industrial revolution not only separated the wage earner from agrarian society, it also unleashed powerful momentums to gain control over energy sources. Rivalry over coal fields was one of the main causes of World War One, just as rivalry over oil provoked World War Two. Many scholars link the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with FDR’s decision to declare an oil embargo on Japan.
International competition between advanced capitalist countries drives the exploration for and careless exploitation of mineral resources. Strip mining, oil spills, nuclear power mishaps and air pollution are not incidental accessories to the overall capitalist mode of production, but go to the heart of it. Furthermore, global warming looms as the most serious challenge to humanity and nature, as capitalist competition proceeds unabated. While some Marxists regard global warming as some remote problem that needs to be confronted a century from now, there is evidence that climate changes are already in progress that have had a killing effect on poor and working people. Many scientists speculate that the intensity of Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc in Central America two years ago, is related to a more intense occurrence of La Niña brought on by global warming.
While irrational use of energy can produce devastating side-effects in urban-based industrial societies, it as at their source where many of the most cruel and inhumane effects are being felt. I speak of the clash between indigenous peoples and multinational corporations looking to exploit oil, coal or uranium and who will murder to safeguard their profits.
Winona LaDuke’s recently published
All Our Relations: Native
Struggles for Land and Life, from which the Haudenosaunee saying
above originates, details the impact of energy exploitation on the
lives of American Indians.
In 1973, after the energy crisis began, the US government stepped up exploration for coal. Many of the US’s coal reserves are found on Indian reservations and this led the powerful AMAX corporation to exert pressure on the Northern Cheyenne tribal council in Wyoming to sign an agreement that effectively ceded control to the company. The consequences have been devastating for the Indians.
That year the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that
detailed the damage of strip mining, especially in arid territory like
Surface mining destroys the existing natural communities
completely and dramatically. Indeed, restoration of a landscape
disturbed by surface mining, in the sense of recreating the former
conditions, is not possible. Such lands, which often are found in
economically and politically marginal places like Indian reservations,
should be dubbed
National Sacrifice Areas according to the
Academy. The Northern Cheyenne decided that they had sacrificed
enough and launched a rebellion against the government and the coal
company. It took almost 15 years for them to convince Congress to void
all the coal leases and get rid of the coal company.
In addition, much of the world’s nuclear industry depends on uranium that is found on or near indigenous peoples’ territory. Since 70 percent of the world’s reserves is found there, the clashes are frequent, whether in New Mexico with the Dineh, or in Australia’s Jabulikka mines.
Forced by economic duress to sign commercial agreements with energy corporations, American Indians receive very few benefits. Instead they put up with toxic dumps consisting of the byproducts of uranium mining, while jobs in the mines often lead to radiation-related cancers. Grace Thorpe, the founder of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, wrote:
The Navajos .. were warned about the dangers of uranium. The people
emerged from the third world into the fourth and present world and
were.. .told to choose between two yellow powders. One was yellow dust
from the rocks, and the other was corn pollen. The people chose corn
pollen, and the gods nodded in assent. They also issued a warning.
Having chosen the corn pollen, the Navajos were to leave the yellow
dust in the ground. If it was ever removed, it would bring evil.
Finally, the most dramatic instance of a life-and-death struggle between indigenous peoples and energy corporations is taking place in Colombia today where a miniscule band of U’Wa has threatened to commit suicide en masse unless Occidental and other companies stop drilling on or near their homelands. The response of organized Marxism to the U’Wa has not been satisfactory, as the FARC guerrillas murdered 3 North American activists who were working to keep the oil companies out. While the FARC has described the murders as an unfortunate accident and brought the perpetrators to justice, it unfortunately reflects deeper problems that are not accidental. The ELN guerrillas continue to blow up pipelines that cause vast pollution problems on indigenous lands, no matter the objection of the affected peoples.
This is symptomatic of an ongoing failure of Marxism to fully respect
indigenous demands. It is connected to the problems between the
Sandinistas and the Miskitus and it also reflects the failure of the
socialist movement historically to fully theorize the role of
indigenous peoples in a schema based on the transition from
civilization as Engels put it. These
stages have more to do with Social Darwinism than they do with
the emancipatory project of socialism.
But it is on the particular question of ecology and indigenous peoples
that the Marxist movement needs to sharpen its analysis. There are
attacks everywhere on the notion that American Indians had respect for
Nature, the latest being a book written by Brown professor Shepard
Krech III, titled
The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. It
is a rehash of all the stale arguments about how Indians drove bison
off of cliffs, leaving dead carcasses to go to waste; how they did not
practice ecologically sustainable farming, etc., ad nauseum.
Unfortunately these views have managed to creep their way into some
highly respected Marxist venues. David Harvey, whose latest book
Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is cited
approvingly by Paul Burkett a number of times, circulates the nonsense
about Indians hunting Paleolithic era animals into
Capitalism, Nature and Socialism editor
J. Donald Hughes has written an article for that journal titled
Classic Maya Collapse that agrees with Krech that the Great Mayan
Civilization collapsed because of environmentally unsustainable
farming practices. It is shocking that such an august journal has not
kept up with recent scholarship on the Mayans, which based on aerial
photography and carbon dating, proves definitively that Mayan farming
WAS environmentally sustainable. (See Robert J. Sharer,
While indigenous peoples are small in number, their strategic location
in looming battles between energy corporations and humanity as a whole
demands the sharpest and clearest response from Marxists. While
Marxism has to look at social relations with an objective eye, it
appears that the response of Harvey and Hughes has less to do with
objectivity than it does with an overall climate of hostility toward
indigenous rights. If human beings first organized on this planet on
the basis of communal property, then it makes sense to fight for the
rights of such peoples today. It is not
capitalism destroys indigenous societies organized on the basis of
communal ownership of land and other resources. Modern urban society
has much to learn from people like the U’Wa. Offering solidarity
to such peoples should occupy a central place in a socialist movement
sensitive to Green perspectives.