Gunnar Skirbekk 1973

Ecology and Marxism

Source: Praxis, International edition, No. 2-3, 1973, pp. 283-290;
Transcribed and proofed: Zdravko Saveski 2022.

Ecology as a field of study is relatively new, and ecological insights have not yet really penetrated into the political sphere. We have of course had the conference on environmental problems in Stockholm, arranged by the United Nations, and some attempts have been made at starting an ecological discussion inside the Common Market as a result of Sicco Mansholt's letter of February 1972. But this awakening awareness expands slowly - perhaps because politically educated people generally have their background in the social sciences and philosophy, not in biology, and perhaps because ecological information often conflicts with invested political and economic interests. Anyway, until now the ecological movement has often been politically untrained, and political movements have generally been ecologically unconscious.

We therefore face the task of overcoming this dualistic situation by strengthening the discussion of ecology inside the political milieu. My intention here is merely to contribute to such an initiation of the discussion. I do not pretend to give any solutions or answers.

First I shall briefly present some main points concerning ecological developments. As I have only a weak professional background to judge scientifically the various kinds of information given on this subject, I shall here merely sketch some main points and take it for granted, as a hypothesis, that this sketch is adequate. Then I shall raise the question as to what these ecological points imply for Marxism today. That is, I shall proceed according to a strategical game: »If so, what then?«. If this is what ecology tells us, what then are the implications for Marxist theory and praxis?


As a preliminary suggestion, let us say this much: We have to see the ecological development in a global and long-term perspective. If we merely focus on some short-term, local problem - such as the problem of pollution in the river Thames over a period of five years from now - ecological developments will not appear as a too drastic problem, and solutions may be sought and probably found within the existing political and economic system. Ultimately, however, ecological developments are global and do imply a long-term perspective. And in this global, long-term perspective we can probably predict that existing economic systems and their ideologies will meet their challenge. To be more concrete, politically: For a limited period of time I think that capitalism probably will be able to tackle the ecological problems, but in the long run existing capitalism, and soviet socialism, will hardly survive as what they are today. - What then? An authoritarian, possibly racist, world state? Or a more democratic and decentralised society? Or, a return to the stone age?

An eco-system is the sum of the biological community and the physical-chemical milieu, in their mutual functional interconnection - and the biological community is the mutual interconnections of animal, plant and microorganic populations.

Inside the eco-system we have three main functions, and »functionaries«, namely, the producers of the green plant-mass, mainly plants, algae and plant-plankton; the consumers of this green plant-mass, mainly animals; and the decomposers, mainly microorganisms.

By means of these agents, inside the eco-system, we have circulation, transformation and accumulation of energy and matter. A main thing here is that these fundamental ecological processes are based on the trinity of sunlight, photosynthesis and green plants. This is an ecological basis for life.

Now, the resources are in principle of two kinds: those which disappear (qua resources) after use, such as oil, earth gas and coal, and those which can recycle, such as iron. In both cases the resources of this world are limited, but in the latter case, where a recycling is technically possible, these resources can be utilized to a higher degree than what would have been the case if they had only been used once.

Consequently we have in principle two forms of production:

An extractive form of production, which is based on a use of resources which disappear (as resources) when used, a use of recirculable resources beyond the limits of the present recirculation, and a destruction of the eco-systems themselves by bringing the eco-systems beyond the point where the eco-system is able to regenerate itself. This extractive form of production cannot continue forever, whatever the speed of extraction. It is like constantly taking food from a larder without ever putting anything into it. Whatever the speed, one day there will be no more food in the larder.

A reproductive form of production which is not based on disappearing resources, which uses the recirculable resources within the limits of the recirculation, and which does not destroy the reproductive eco-systems by exploiting or polluting them too strongly. This reproductive system can in principle continue forever.

Today we have to a large extent an extractive form of production, which does not only extract the resources of the planet, but which does so with (exponentially) growing speed.

The present population growth implies a doubling of the world population every 35 years. The consumption of energy grows with a speed three times that of the population growth, i. e. six times more every 35 years. Still an Indian uses only 1/20 or 1/25 of the energy used by an American, which means that the energy consumption should have grown with a speed much higher than six times more every 35 years, if the developing countries were brought up to the level of energy consumption of the most advanced industrial countries.

Similar tendencies are observed concerning other resources, and pollution.

At the same time the sad fact remains: our resources are limited.

It is therefore pretty certain that this cannot continue, in the long run. The question is: how much is there of the various resources? And how long will they last, if we suppose a certain consumption per capita and a certain size of the world population.

As to energy, there is a theoretical possibility for optimism, since it is possible that fusion energy will be made available in the future. If so, mankind will possess a huge amount of energy, for a long period of time. (Whether such a consumption of energy will lead to other problems, as for instance a drastic heightening of the temperature, is another question.)

In general, minerals can to some extent be brought back into circulation, even when this recirculation process probably will tend to make the commodities more expensive. But even so, the use of these resources has to be kept within their limits.

As to food production, the situation seems to be fairly bad, despite »green revolutions«, and despite the fact that the cultivated area probably can be expanded by 50% (according to FAO), and despite a more extensive use of the oceans. If the population growth is not brought under control, there is probably no chance to produce enough food. And there is little hope that the population explosion will be sufficiently restrained in the near future.

Some people have argued for a synthetic production of protein - since the main problem is connected to the production of protein, not of calories. However, this hope seems to be delusive, since such a synthetic production of protein is based on the use of resources which are found in limited amount, and this synthetic production uses more energy and water than traditional agriculture. In short, the synthetic production of protein costs too much and gives too little. As to a microbiological production of proteins, this too is technically possible, and to some extent practicable. But this too can only be a supplement to ordinary agricultural food production, where the chemical industry is already deeply involved (to the extent that today hundreds of millions live from this surplus production, due to chemical industry). To conclude, the synthetic and semi-synthetic production of protein is no short-cut. We shall have to rely on the productivity of the soil, i. e. on green plants, certainly supported by technology - but technology only is not enough.

How many people, then, can this earth nourish? The answers vary. Some say that with the average standard of living of the developing countries there can be from 10 to 20 thousand millions, and some say that with the average standard of living of the most developed countries the world cannot even afford to nourish the present population of 3,6 thousand millions. Sicco Mansholt, for instance, asserts that this planet can only afford one thousand millions if all these have the standard of living of the advanced industrial countries.

Predictions for the ecological development are difficult to make for many reasons. One reason being that this development to some extent depends on what we think and do. However, the Forrester-group, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has tried to define some central factors (population, pollution, resources, standard of living, investments) and their interconnections, and these data have been put into an electronic data-machine. The machine tells us that the crisis will begin about 30 years from now, and culminate between 2020 and 2060. In order to limit the extension of this crisis as much as possible, we should, according to this machine, decrease the use of coal and metals by 75%, decrease the speed in the destruction of nature by 50%, decrease the investments in industry by 40%, decrease the production of food by 20%, and decrease the birth rate by 30%. All other dispositions will give a worse result, the machine says.

This certainly implies deep changes in our societies, both capitalist and socialist. A main point is that a growth economy has to be abandoned, according to these data. That is, traditional economic growth, in terms of brutto national product, is said to be impossible (which does not imply that human growth is impossible, cf. the question of human growth in the ecologically balanced ideal states of Plato and Aristotle). Sicco Mansholt, for one, has argued for this zero-growth economy, in the Common Market (for instance in an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur Paris, June the 12.-18., pp. 71-88 - my translation):

»I understood that it is impossible to get out of the difficulties by means of adjustments, it's the whole of our system we have to reevaluate«.

»It is not even a question of a zero-growth, but of a growth less than zero«.

»We have to simplify life, reduce consumption, in an absolute sense«.

»Briefly, it is necessary to establish a balanced economic order, where the production is not anarchical, where the consumption is reduced, where the resources are taken care of and used in a reasonable manner, where pollution is reduced to a minimum, and where the techniques of recirculation are utilized to a maximum«.

It is not astonishing that Mansholt has met opposition inside the Common Market, both from the right and the left. Nor is it astonishing that such ecological reflections create a certain uneasiness in the developing countries, as was clearly demonstrated at the ecological conference in Stockholm in 1972: Does this mean that the rich people now ask the poor people to give up forever all hope of getting a materially better life?

However, the question is not primarily whether we like or dislike the conclusions drawn by the MIT-machine, but whether the conclusions are correct, i. e. unavoidable.

This is what the specialists, from the various fields involved, have to decide - a task which is certainly not easy, partly because of the interdisciplinary character of the subject.

Even if we do not know enough, there seems to be sufficiently strong evidence for starting to reflect on what we should do. Whatever can and will happen in the near future, we seem to know fairly well what will be the final result (if there will be a future society at all): A society based on reproductive eco-systems, an economy with recirculation of minerals and an ecologically well balanced agriculture, founded on the regenerating forces of green plants. Population, consumption and pollution will have to be kept under control. A certain centralised [decentralised] self-supplying and self-managing local communities are desirable, for ecological reasons.

Personally, I do not believe in an eco-catastrophe, striking the whole planet like an immediate deluge. It seems to me that we probably will face a growing eco-crisis, which strikes different classes and countries in different ways and at different times. And our problem of solving this eco-crisis is not just a technical one - it may well be that a cynic racist world-regime can tackle the eco-crisis by technological means (military suppression and genocide). Our problem is how to solve the eco-crisis without losing civilisation.


If by capitalism we understand a society where for one thing a profit-seeking economy governs politics, it follows that capitalism is not possible in the future, since a future society for ecological reasons demands political control of the economy (i. e., if there in the future will be enough resources left to permit, and demand, some centralised control of the use of resources). In the long-term ecological perspective the problem is thus not capitalism-or-socialism, but rather socialism-or-»fascism« - that is: a democratic, egalitarian world-wide control or a totalitarian, hierarchical and possibly racist, world-wide control. And this socialism, then, cannot be of the established soviet type, with an unecological exploitation of resources.

We have now reached the point where the question emerges: Granted that our sketch on ecology is correct, what does this imply for Marxism?

Marx himself touched the problem of ecology (Das Kapital, I, shap. 13, pp. 528 and 529-530, Berlin 1971):

»Mit dem stets wachsenden Übergewicht der städtische Bevölkerung, die sie in großen Zentren zusammenhäuft, häuft die kapitalistische Produktion einerseits die geschichtliche Bewegungskraft der Gesellschaft, stört sie andrerseits den Stoffwechsel zwischen Mensch und Erde, d.h. die Rückkehr der vom Menschen in der Form von Nahrungs- und Kleidungsmitteln vernutzten Bodenbestandteile zum Boden, also die ewige Naturbedingung dauernder Bodenfruchtbarkeit.«

»Und jeder Fortschritt der kapitalistischen Agrikultur ist nicht nur ein Fortschritt in der Kunst, den Arbeiter, sondern zugleich in der Kunst, den Boden zu berauben, jeder Fortschritt in Steigerung seiner Fruchtbarkeit für eine gegebne Zeitfrist zugleich ein Fortschritt in Ruin der dauernden Quellen dieser Fruchtbarkeit. Je mehr ein Land, wie die Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika z.B., von der großen Industrie als dem Hintergrund seiner Entwicklung ausgeht, desto rascher dieser Zerstörungsprozeß. Die kapitalistische Produktion entwickelt daher nur die Technik und Kombination des gesellschaftlichen Produktionsprozesses, indem sie zugleich die Springquellen alles Reichtums untergräbt: die Erde und den Arbeiter.«*

We notice, for one thing, that Marx does speak of Naturbedingungen, »natural conditions«. However, ecology as a field of study, and ecology as a crisis, was for historical reasons relatively unknown to Marx. (The word ecology was introduced in 1866 by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel.) And further, according to orthodox Marxist theory the capitalist exploitation of man and earth should be overcome by a rational international control, by socialism, at a relatively early stage: Capitalism led to impoverishment, relative and absolute, and crises of overproduction. - However, capitalism has more or less managed to tackle the overproduction crises by introducing a partial mass-consumption. Thereby the capitalist productivity has reached dimensions unforeseen by Marx, but which led to the present-day growing ecological crisis. This is the change from liberalist capitalism to late-capitalism: the state builds out the infrastructure for the capitalist economy, such as schools, hospitals and social institutions. Capitalists pursue a common interest with trade-unions in keeping up production and consumption, which implies a calculated increase in education, well-being and in salaries for the workers.

Inside the capitalist countries the growing eco-crisis can probably be analysed in Marxist terms, but in Marxist terms revised according to the principles of ecology: Capitalism does lead to self-destroying crises, not to the predicted ones, but to an even more serious crisis, a global ecological crisis.

Some Marxist rethinking seems therefore necessary.

The concept of »natural conditions« (Naturbedingungen) has to be reevaluated. Not only productive forces and relations of production, but also the natural conditions of production, belong to the base (Unterbau).

The theory of crisis will have to be rethought, together with the theory of impoverishment and revolution - roughly in this way: In an ecological perspective we have a growing absolute impoverishment, mainly of people in underdeveloped countries, as well as various forms of relative impoverishment mainly among people in the developed countries. In so far we can expect a certain polarization, or increased »class-struggle«. But the eco-crisis may hit the various groups in different ways and at different times. A common basis for global proletarian solidarity will therefore probably be very difficult to obtain. And the danger of a certain »fascistification« of the well-fed workers, mainly in the developed countries, is a real one.

This involves that the very concept of a worker will have to be reexamined, roughly thus: Even when a skilled worker in Detroit and an agricultural labourer in India both do not possess the means of production, and both give surplus value to someone else, there are some material reasons why the American worker and the Indian worker may feel as antagonists rather than as comrades. Slightly overdramatized: the one eats the bread which the other cannot afford to eat.

But how shall the poor worker in the underdeveloped country influence capitalism in the developed countries? For one thing, this worker has hardly any effective strike-weapon against the capitalist headquarters abroad.

On the other hand, on an abstract level there certainly exists a common interest of all men: to avoid an eco-catastrophe. This point, too, is important for the concept of class-struggle. However, if the eco-crisis will not be sought solved in an egalitarian, but in an ethnocentric (racist) direction, the struggle, when not »class-struggle« in an orthodox sense, will probably gain in strength.

As to socialism itself, at least two essential changes in the classical soviet model are necessary: a change from economic growth in a traditional sense to ecological stability, preferably in self-supplying and self-managing local communities (since this is ecologically cheaper), and a change from a pan-technological enthusiasm to a higher evaluation of agriculture in relation to industry.

This involves a change in values and attitudes: a cultivating attitude towards nature, not an aggressive and exploiting one, and an emphasis on qualitative values - human (cultural, social, political) values - and not on traditional economic growth.

These I think are main topics in such a rethinking of Marxist theory and praxis. To be sure, it is not just a question of introducing some new »concepts« into a »Marxist system«. It is a question of a concrete rethinking of theory and praxis with reference to the ecological problem, and this rethinking should preferably be carried out with the participation of all the members of the Marxist movement, theoreticians and practicians. Various people, living in different situations, should do the detailed reexamination.

In Yugoslavia, I suppose, ecology is for the time being not felt as an immediate problem. The immediate problem is still how to raise the standard of living. On the other hand, exactly because Yugoslavia is not fully developed, it is still possible to learn from the ecological mistakes of other people.

And maybe the Yugoslav self-managing system is a relatively favourable system, ecologically. At any rate, Yugoslavia is a country with an intensive and interesting discussion of Marxist problems, and I am thus curious to see what Yugoslav Marxists will find out concerning the relation between ecology and Marxism.[1]


1. This paper was presented as an introduction to a working-group on ecology, arranged at the Korčula Summer School 1972.

The literature on ecology is huge, and growing rapidly. One of the best introductory works, with comments on the question of eco-politics, is A BLUEPRINT FOR SURVIVAL, The Ecologist London 1972 (vol. 2, No. 1, January 1972).

* "Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil."

"Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer."