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Feb
2014
Tuesday 25th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Communism's greatest thinkers were ahead of their time in their attitudes towards the environment, says DEREK WALL


Where I live in Berkshire has been dramatically hit by the recent floods.

Luckily for my neighbours and me we live on a hill, so have stayed dry on the whole.

But thousands of people in the area, in Datchet, Wraysbury, Old Windsor and other points on the Thames, have been flooded out.

The floods have been a natural disaster, but the consequences of natural disasters are shaped by decisions made by human beings.

There have been a number of essential and sensible things written about the floods, I don't want or need to repeat them in detail to Morning Star readers.

My Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has been clear that, while no weather episode can be put down to climate change, extreme weather is increasing with increased carbon emissions and the government must sack ministers such as Owen Patterson who are climate sceptics.

George Monbiot has informed us, reporting from the floods in Somerset, that EU agricultural policies led to trees and vegetation being cut down, so any rainfall, rather than being absorbed by the ground, rapidly runs off into swollen rivers.

We all know that cuts have led to reduction in spending on flood defences. But I want to make a more general point, which I think has to be stated loudly and clearly - politics needs to be ecological.

Without an appreciation of ecology, we are, quite literally, likely to be sunk.

The politics of the present is the politics of money. If something leads to short-term financial gain it is good.

But the politics of money does not let us care about future generations, and despite being a form of materialism in the crude sense of material self-interest, does not respect nature.

The very fact that so many flood plains have been built upon shows this. Likewise the way in which coal and oil companies lobby against any measures to combat climate change.

We need to be ecological and not just "environmental." Ecology is the science that looks at the relationship between species.

This is often complex and contradictory, so being pro "nature" or the "environment" rather than focusing on profit is an advance but doesn't produce policies that always work.

Teaching ecology as an essential subject in school would be a start. Making sure that all policies were ecologically literate is also vital.

Even many members of the Green Party or environmental NGOs don't, in my view, think deeply enough about ecology.

Human beings are part of ecosystems. We are not separate from nature, so ecology has to be "social."

Austerity, for example, has a direct effect on ecosystems. Just think how, while we need to reduce CO2 emissions, the cuts are destroying bus services and forcing people into cars or into transport poverty.

So if we want an ecological politics, where do we find it? The science of ecology keeps advancing, but it's interesting to note that in the 19th century Marx and Engels were practising a form of political ecology.

This might seem an unusual claim. Marx was often condemned as an anti-environmental thinker who loved smokestacks and thought that nature was without value.

Indeed in the 20th century, between the death of the great ecosocialist William Morris and the work of Fidel Castro in the 1990s to green Cuba, socialists seemed to have largely ignored ecology.

Marx, it is said, believed labour to be the only source of value. In fact, in A Critique Of The Gotha Programme and in other texts he was very clear that nature too was a source of "use value."

In his early Paris manuscripts he argued that human beings were, of course, part of nature.

In one of his earliest works, Engels showed in The Condition Of The Working Class In England how pollution, as well as poverty wages and long hours, harmed our population.

John Bellamy Foster in his book Marx's Ecology shows how, from Marx's work on his PhD as a student right up to his death in 1883, ecology was core to his beliefs.

In Das Kapital (volume three) Marx identified that an ecological concern for future generation was vital.

"From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the earth by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one person by another.

"Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like good heads of household, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition."

There are other sources of ecological politics, the late great Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, for example.

But Marx and Engels provide some precise but often forgotten ecological wisdom.

And back here in Berkshire it is raining again! Cuts, climate change, poor agricultural practices are creating, in their complex unity, what to many local people looks like a perfect storm.

Let's not forget that Engels discussed how unecological practices might produce floods, even before the onset of extreme weather produced by climate change.

In The Dialectics Of Nature he noted: "When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were ... thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons."

 

Derek Wall is international co-ordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales




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