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Climate research strike? Linking up environmental science with the ‘science of society’

Originally published: People's World on March 16, 2022 (more by People's World)  |

“Our obligation as scientists [is] to make sure we fight the good fight and ensure the fruits of science are not monopolized by the powerful and the elite.” — Richard Levins

Three scientists associated with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are discouraged. New Zealanders  Bruce C. Glavovic and Timothy F. Smith and Australian Iain White criticize governments for not doing enough about climate change. They are calling upon fellow IPCC scientists to no longer conduct research on climate change. “More scientific reports, another set of charts,” Glavovic exclaims; “I mean, seriously, what difference is that going to make?”

Hundreds of IPCC scientists provide the United Nations periodically with reports on adverse impacts of climate change. The most recent report, issued in February, details rising seas, terrible droughts, atypical weather events, thawing permafrost, dying forests, and massive displacement of populations.

Once atmospheric warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius over 19th-century levels, changes will be irreversible. The increase so far is 1.1 degrees Celsius. Surveyed, 60% of scientists working on an earlier IPCC report agreed that temperatures would rise almost three percent by the end of the present century.

The three scientists published a statement in Climate and Development in December 2021. They pointed out that “indicators of adverse global change rise year upon year. …[T]he time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, the broken science-society contract.”

Climate scientists have contributed to people’s general awareness of the issues. Lots of people understand that fossil fuels, when burned, generate gaseous emissions which, in excess, cause atmospheric warming. Many people are more or less aware that as consumption and industrial production increase, emissions rise too. In their appeal, the three protesting scientists are, in effect, reaching out to the public and politicians, as if to spark a resistance movement within society.

There is a side story that hasn’t resonated yet. Capital requires new wealth to be created in order to survive. That only happens as long as production and consumption are increasing. Therefore, with capitalism in charge, rising emissions are a secondary matter.

That’s why those three scientists seeking to renegotiate a science-society contract are spoiling for a fight that, in essence, is anti-capitalist.  Unsurprisingly, the prospect is slim of allies flocking to their cause from either the scientific community or the public sector. But of the two, the scientists may be more receptive. What follows here is a look at the potential for collaboration among scientists.

Normally scientists don’t need a supporting cast. They often generate information that is applauded—for example, research findings that contribute to high technology consumer items. Even the science behind weapons manufacture gets a pass.

The public praises most scientific investigation involving natural and biological processes, notably vaccine research, novel therapies for cancer or inherited illnesses, and the development of antibiotics. For instance, advances leading to antibiotic treatment of streptococcal infection led directly to the eradication of terrible afflictions of heart valves, joints, and/or the brain. Everyone benefited.

But something went wrong in other healthcare situations. Scientific findings were not implemented, or only partially so. Population groups were excluded, as per decision-making at the highest levels of government and society. As regards the climate crisis, everyone is excluded.

Scientists found that ingested lead interferes with enzyme activities and thereby injures the brains of children, and causes other disastrous ailments. In 2014, the majority Black population of Flint, Mich., learned that their drinking water contained high levels of lead. Eight years later, lead levels are down, but still potentially toxic. Epidemiologists say there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood.

The high death rates of African-American infants are an abomination. Specialists of many disciplines long ago showed how babies stay healthy. Their mothers have to be healthy, well-educated, and well-nourished. Ready access to competent health care for mothers and babies is essential. But African-American babies have long died at rates two to three times higher than those of white babies.

Maybe scientists investigating natural and biologic processes—our climate scientists, for example—and scientists concerned with how society works can join forces. Both sets of scientists study realities involving either matter, natural and biological processes, or collective human aspirations and actions. They study the interaction of real things, and how things change.

Similarities in methodological approach are one basis for scientists to collaborate in developing joint projects, enabling the general population to understand the role of science in society, and firming up implementation of research findings.

Scientists within the Marxist tradition look for linkages and commonalities. According to historian Helena Sheehan, “The history of Marxism in relation to science is extraordinarily dense and dramatic. From the beginning, Marxism took science extremely seriously, not only for its economic promise in building a socialist society, but for its revelatory power in understanding the world. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science.”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels incorporated findings from the physical and biological sciences into their political analyses. Here is Marx:

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, 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.

Here Marx is discussing political power, changing modes of production, human migration from country to city, and the lack of organic waste material formerly produced by animals and people—which accounts for reduced soil fertility. His reference point is the enclosure movement in 19th century England. Wealthy bourgeoisie bought land, created large parcels, and surrounded them with walls and fences to allow for animal grazing. Villagers and country people, now deprived of animals and land and unable to feed themselves, moved to cities and became factory workers.

This sequence of developments Marx characterized as a “metabolic rift.”

In developing his analysis, Marx gained an assist from scientist Justus von Liebig, who studied agricultural chemistry and plant growth.

Marx declared that “Humans live from nature, i.e.: nature is our body, and we must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die. And “man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature … man is a part of nature.”

Frederick Engels was a kindred spirit. He asks:

What did the Spanish planters in Cuba—who burned down forests, the slopes of the mountains, and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—care that the tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock? In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, tangible success …Thus at every step, we are reminded that … [we], belong to nature, and exist in its midst.

We propose that scientists studying natural phenomena and processes are ripe for collaborative relations with social scientists, including Marxist investigators. As noted, they share similar methodologies, and most of them a dedication to human well-being. Growing numbers of scientists, both kinds, are very likely primed to accept that a linkage runs from wealth accumulation to perennially increasing production, to rising emissions, to atmospheric warming.

Together with the public, scientists need to realize that capital is bound to make its peace with planetary warming, no matter the disaster ahead. Aware that their research impinges on human lives, a few scientists maybe will turn to political activism.

Influenced by the worsening climate crisis, those social scientists receptive to Marxist analysis would increasingly familiarize themselves with issues involving the biologic and natural sciences. One envisions collaboration among the different kinds of scientists and even common struggle in the political arena. Anticipating the new society, revolutionaries within the ranks of scientists, acting together now, would gain a head start in building scientific institutions that serve the people.

Discussion here touching upon social transformation is incomplete without defining the political role of working people. They are the protagonists of the change to come and of rescue during the climate crisis. The desperate situation now has an urgency and sweep extending far beyond burdens falling specifically upon the working class, like economic exploitation and plunder. Now, the world’s entire population may be heading to ruin.

Yet in times past, the working class has shown itself capable of carrying out social revolutions amid other circumstances of generalized disaster. This time, the working class, organized and motivated, could take the lead in the climate crisis while brandishing, as before, some sort of an all-encompassing demand. In the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, the working class called for national liberation; in the Russian revolutions of 1917, for “peace, land, and bread.”

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