Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China

China’s leadership has called in recent years for the creation of a new “ecological civilization.”  Some have viewed this as a departure from Marxism and a concession to Western-style “ecological modernization.”  However, embedded in classical Marxism, as represented by the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was a powerful ecological critique.  Marx explicitly defined socialism in terms consistent with the development of an ecological society or civilization — or, in his words, the “rational” regulation of “the human metabolism with nature.”

In recent decades there has been an enormous growth of interest in Marx’s ecological ideas, first in the West, and more recently in China.  This has generated a tradition of thought known as “ecological Marxism.”

This raises three questions: (1) What was the nature of Marx’s ecological critique?  (2) How is this related to the idea of ecological civilization now promoted in China?  (3) Is China actually moving in the direction of ecological civilization, and what are the difficulties standing in its path in this respect?

Marx’s Ecological Critique

In the late 1840s the German biologist Matthias Schleiden observed in his book The Plant: A Biography: “Those countries which are now treeless and arid deserts, part of Egypt, Syria, Persia, and so forth, were formerly thickly wooded, traversed by streams.”  He attributed this to human-generated regional climate change.  At the same time as Schleiden was developing these views, the German agronomist Carl Fraas was making similar observations in his Climate and the Plant World, arguing that “the developing culture of people leaves a veritable desert behind it.”  Marx and Engels, who were becoming increasingly interested in ecological degradation and regional climate change were influenced by these ideas.  In 1858, Marx, following Fraas, wrote: “Cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled . . . leaves deserts behind it.”

By the 1860s, when he was writing Capital, Marx’s ecological concerns had intensified.  Much of this was under the influence of the great German chemist, Justus von Liebig.  In the 1862 edition of his Agricultural Chemistry Liebig argued that industrial agriculture in England was a “robbery” system.  The main soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) were being removed from the soil and sent hundreds and thousands of miles to the city in the form of food and fiber where they contributed to pollution and were lost to the soil.  Britain and other countries attempted to make up for this by digging up the Napoleonic battlefields and robbing the catacombs in Europe to obtain bones to fertilize English fields.  They extracted mountains of guano from the islands off of Peru, shipping it to Britain to enrich the soil.

“Instead of a conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations,” Marx declared, capitalism led to “the exploitation and squandering of the powers of the earth.”  The result was an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” between humanity and nature, requiring the “restoration” of this essential metabolism.  In the higher society of socialism, he contended, “the associated producers” would “govern the human metabolism of nature in a rational way . . . accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

On this basis, Marx developed in Capital what is perhaps the most radical conception of ecological sustainability yet propounded: “From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men.  Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth.  They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

Marx and Engels addressed in their writings most of the ecological problems of modern times: climate change (then seen as a regional phenomenon); soil degradation; air and water pollution; overexploitation of natural resources; overpopulation; deforestation; desertification; industrial poisons or toxins; and the destruction of species.  In The Dialectics of Nature Engels observed: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature.  For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. . . .  Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all of our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”

China’s Ecological Civilization and Marxism

What is clear about the present Chinese emphasis on ecological civilization is that it has emerged out of a broad socialist perspective, influenced by both Marxian analysis and China’s own distinct history, culture, and vernacular.  In China, as opposed to the West, the land remains social or collective property and cannot be sold.  I believe it is wrong therefore to see China’s initiative in the construction of ecological civilization to be a direct outgrowth of Western-style ecological modernism, as some have supposed.  At the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in 2007 it was officially proposed that China should build an “ecological civilization,” creating more sustainable relations between production, consumption, distribution, and economic growth.  At the18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, “ecological civilization construction” was written into the CPC Constitution.  These principles were built into the latest five-year plan (2011-2015).  Although many have questioned the seriousness of the CPC’s commitment to the construction of an ecological civilization, it is evident that this: (1) arose out of real needs in China, where there has been enormous ecological devastation; (2) was a response to the growth of massive environmental protests throughout China; and (3) has been followed up by massive government efforts in area of planning, production, and technological development.

Behind all of this of course is the fact that China’s environmental problems are massive and growing.  This is the inevitable result of extremely rapid economic growth which has not sufficiently protected the environment, coupled with other factors such as climate change.  China’s environmental concerns include: air pollution in major cities amongst the world’s most severe; deforestation; desertification, sandstorms contributing massively to air pollution; loss of arable land; seizures of farmland for urban development; water shortages, water pollution; unsafe drinking water; toxic waste dumping; urban congestion and overcrowding; overpopulation; over-reliance on coal-fired plants, rising carbon dioxide emissions, potential energy shortages; and issues of food security.

Is China Moving in the Direction of Ecological Civilization?

There is no doubt that Chinese leadership has made significant steps toward a more sustainable development.  Due to the large role of planning China has been able to make rapid changes in a number of areas, going at times against the logic of economic growth.  Examples of such efforts are: (1) targeted reductions in economic growth justified in terms of more environmentally balanced growth; (2) the massive promotion of solar and wind technology; (3) a growing share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption; (4) creation of a red line to protect a minimum of 120 million hectares of farmland; (5) reduction of major air pollutants by 8-10 percent in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015); (6) removal of six million high-pollution vehicles from the roads in 2014; (7) a 700 percent increase in the output of electric passenger cars (non-plug ins) in 2014; (8) initiation of a government campaign for frugal lifestyles and against extravagance (conspicuous consumption) by officials; (9) growing official criticism of GDP worship; and (10) a pledge to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 level, coupled with a pledge to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, if not sooner; and (11) the imposition of a new resource tax on coal.

From the critical standpoint of ecological Marxism, however, such developments are still overwhelmed by China’s 7 percent economic growth rate, in which the GDP will double in size in a decade, massively increasing environmental demands.  Going along with these growth projections is a plan to increase the number of permanent urban dwellers in the next five years to 60 percent from the present 54 percent.  This is to be accompanied by larger, more mechanized family farms in rural areas, with the eventual disappearance of 60 percent of the country’s villages, to be merged into small towns and large cities.  Chinese environmental laws have hitherto been characterized by weak enforcement, suggesting the dominance of profits over environmental protection.  Such an overall development path is, if it should indeed continue on this same basis, is clearly non-sustainable, threatening to replicate some of the worst aspects of Western capitalism.  In the age of planetary climate change alternative models must be found.  This cannot be accomplished simply by technology but requires new ways of living.  If China is truly to succeed in creating a new ecological civilization it will have to go in an even more radical direction, further removed from the regime of capital that has characterized the West and that is responsible for today’s planetary ecological emergency.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon.  He is the author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (with Fred Magdoff, 2009), The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (with Brett Clark and Richard York, 2010), The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (with Robert W. McChesney), and The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy (New Edition, 2014), among many others.  A version of this article was first published in People’s Daily Online, (which titled it “China’s Unique Way to Build Ecological Civilization”), on 11 June 2015.