The struggle for the natural world has always pitted the left against the right, now it’s become a battle for survival, argues Sarah Ensor
In the 19th century some scientists tried to understand the work of the ‘creator’, while others wanted knowledge to improve people’s lives. Chemist Justus von Liebig was trying to solve capitalism’s developing crisis of soil fertility in farming. His research into nitrates and chemical interactions in soil began to show that declining soil fertility was caused by the processes of capitalism, and was not natural. This work was deeply influential on Marx and Engels’s ecological thinking in relation to metabolic rift and the dialectics of nature.
At the same time, Charles Darwin was discussing his ideas on evolution with geologist Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker. Darwin only published his evolutionary theory as early as 1858 because Alfred Wallace wrote to him having come to much the same conclusions. He published On the Origin of Species the following year. Darwin was fettered by ideological boundaries and by fear of the impact his discoveries of biological processes of chance could have on his reputation, religion and society. But still his ideas were revolutionary and forced people to reconsider everything they ‘knew’ and ‘understood’ about themselves and their place in the natural world. Evolutionary theory and natural selection became the ideas to be fought for by a new generation of biological pioneers unafraid of the shock of the new.
One of the most important was Marx’s friend E Ray Lankester who argued that lifeforms needed to be studied in their natural settings to understand the dialectical interactions between them. John Bellamy Foster has demonstrated in his book, The Return of Nature, an almost linear development of ecological ideas shaped as much by ecological crisis and class struggle as by scientific and technological discovery. Botanist Arthur Tansley studied with Lankester and Francis Wall Oliver who studied the effects of pollution on plants and set up pollution monitoring sites around London. They understood ecology as dynamic dialectical systems and Tansley began to use the term ‘ecosystems’ for his field work. So, a clash became increasingly likely between the ecologists and a botanical establishment which tended to see the structure and form of plants as supremely important.
These different outlooks came to a head in December 1917 when Tansley and his colleagues argued that ecology and genetics were more important than studying a plant’s structures in isolation from its environment. For this, and for supporting the new National Union of Scientific Workers, they were accused of “botanical Bolshevism”. A similar ecological radicalism was at work across the Russian empire where naturalists wrestled with deforestation, erosion, protection of water sources, sustainable hunting and the limits of growth. They knew the unique ecosystem of the steppes was disappearing under ploughs and in 1898 persuaded a rich landowner to turn 500km² of steppe on his estate into a zapovednik (a protected reserve for the study of nature).
The Askania-Nova reserve, some 1,000km south of Moscow, became an ecological beacon for radical scientists and ordinary people who felt strongly about the land. Other reserves followed, but the First World War escalated deforestation and brought bison to the edge of extinction, so many scientists saw hope in the Russian Revolution. VI Taliev, of the Kharkov Society of Naturalists, stated, “We suddenly find ourselves facing the broadest horizons for maximum freedom and full rule by the people”, while “the fate of science in every nation is organically inseparable from its political conditions”. Peasants, desperate for their own land, were about to seize Askania Nova in 1917, but the Kronstadt Soviet helped save it by calling on the revolutionary government to send a special commissar, because the reserve was irreplaceable.
The battle between progressive and reactionary scientists over the content and direction of ecology continued into the 1930s. Reactionaries championed ‘scientific’ racism to show that white men were naturally superior to all other people. They railed against planning, collectivism and environmental socialism, claiming that ‘pure science’ was neutral and objective, unlike the ideas that became the ‘social relations of science’ movement of the left. The tragedy of the left in ecology and science in the 1930s was that so much of its brilliance was hampered, compromised or destroyed by Stalinism. The eight Soviet scientists permitted to attend the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in Britain in 1931 epitomised this. Led by Nikolai Bukharin, they were some of the best-known Marxist scientists working on trophic dynamics, genetics, ecosystems and what would later be called earth systems and system ecology.
At home they were fighting against Lysenkoism, Stalin’s favoured theory about nature and farming. This rejected natural selection and Mendelian genetics that claimed any adaptation an organism made to its environment would be passed on to its offspring. This un-Darwinian theory of acquired characteristics had been proven wrong, but Trofim Lysenko’s wildly exaggerated claims for grafting and increased crop yields suited Stalin’s myth-making Five Year Plans. Lysenkoism was a weapon for Stalin against Nikolai Bukharin and many of the Soviet Union’s greatest scientists including Vladimir Vernadsky, Vladimir Stanchinsky and Nikolai Vavilov whose work, ideas and popularity were a threat to him. Many of them were destroyed in Stalin’s purges, but in the 1920s and early 1930s they were part of an international network of creative research with a dialectical understanding of nature and science in society. In the post-Second World War economic boom, capitalism created new ecological crises and new anti-capitalist ecological struggles.
Many ecologists became anti-nuclear campaigners after the Bikini Atoll tests of 1954 which polluted an area of 11,000 km with radioactive fallout. A crisis of biodiversity also began to develop, which has led to levels of species loss never experienced in human history. Silent spring Marine biologist Rachel Carson describes this unfolding disaster in her 1962 book Silent Spring. She documented the poisonous effects of DDT and other weedkillers and insecticides which were commonly used round the world. Carson also described the biomagnification effects of minute amounts of deadly chemicals, including radiation, which become concentrated as they move up the food chain. She showed how crop spraying could prevent eagles breeding successfully, and how radiated lichen in Lapland could poison the Sami people who ate reindeer.
Barry Commoner, also writing in the 1960s about the interconnectedness of the natural world and human society, saw his role as a scientist as helping develop citizen movements that could challenge polluting industries. Both Commoner and Carson’s books were enormously popular and helped millions of people articulate how capitalism was destroying the natural world for profit. Marx describes how capitalism creates an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”, what Foster terms the metabolic rift between humans and the natural world.
This insight was possible because Marx and Engels set Liebig and Darwin’s ideas in a political framework. Biologist Richard Lewontin describes this dialectical relationship as the triple helix in which genes, the organism and its environment interact to shape the organism which in turn shapes its environment. It is clear that capitalism can play no part in a sustainable ecology. Last year’s global climate strikes were led by millions of consciously anti-capitalist young people enraged at the rapacious damage of the world for profit. That climate movement, together with the Black Lives Matter movement, shows the possibility of a way out of the chaos and misery of capitalism. That is our hope for the future.