Winter 1985-6 issue of the World Socialist
In this issue of The World Socialist we raise some questions about the relationship of society to nature. These are vital issues affecting the quality of life not just for this generation but for generations to come.
The subject involves a paradox. Humanity is a part of nature which evolved as one species amongst many within the processes of organic evolution. Yet we commonly see ourselves as something separate from nature. The function of nature is perceived as providing for the means of human existence. Behind this human-centred view is the nature of human consciousness and this is simply that, we are a self-aware part of nature as a whole.
This consciousness now has its own history which is still in the making and a key part of its development has centred on accumulating knowledge of the natural world. This knowledge is now so complex and extensive that no individual could hope to master more than a sub-division of the total.
The discovery of the processes, principles and natural laws through which natural elements interact have been applied as practical techniques of production. This has been humanity's increasing ability to control and manipulate the natural forces of the environment. Since the Renaissance and particularly since the industrial revolution the application of science-based knowledge has gained a rapid momentum. In principle this has been held to be a great advantage and so much has this been the case that in the 19th Century the work of science was invested with high optimism. It was popularly equated with “progress".
But since that time, applied science has also been regarded as a social menace. Given examples include the fact that applied physics has led to the nuclear arms race so that we now live under the threat of self-destruction. Hundreds of millions of people have been killed during this century using the technical methods of modern war. The science of botany and genetic control has resulted in new agricultural techniques, but have these been used for the benefit of humanity? On the contrary, there are more people suffering malnutrition and dying from hunger today than ever in the past. Similarly in the work of energy supply, despite there now being a wide range of technical options for establishing a safe and adequate world energy system, people still die from the cold and hundreds of millions still rely on gathering firewood. The energy production methods in use pose an increasing threat to the environment. Although there have been some undoubted gains, our developed knowledge of the natural world has not led to a better society nor to a better relationship between society and nature. The story of applied science in modern society is a story of waste, destruction and increasing dangers.
Thus, the hopes invested in accumulating knowledge have eroded, leaving the scarred remains of disillusion and pessimism. The mood now is different, but it is a superficial response to blame our present problems on science or our greater understanding of the workings of the natural world. It can be admitted that previous optimism was unsoundly based but behind our problems lies the fact that science has been subject to a different kind of investment - capital investment. Applied science in the form of technology operates as invested capital. The consequences of this have meant that control of the natural world for the benefit of humanity has been subverted by the uncontrolled and anti-social objectives of invested capital and the militarism which has been part of this.
Our understanding of the way capitalism uses the earth and its resources is blurred by a popular misconception. In the ordinary way we may see ourselves simply as useful producers with a useful job of work to do. We think of the environment simply as the natural world. We are aware of land, seas, forests, river valleys and deserts. We are also aware of useful resources such as coal, oil or natural gas and such metals as iron ore, copper or tin deposits. All these features of the natural environment present themselves in our minds as useful means of providing for life. But in the property form in which present society operates we are not simply useful producers and natural resources are not used simply for the reproduction and enjoyment of life. In reality, what we think of as our useful work is economic activity. We are waged or salaried workers functioning as invested capital working on natural materials for the production of commodities for sale on the market with a view to profit.
A farming enterprise cannot view land simply as land, a useful resource for the production of food. In the eye of agribusiness, land and farm labour are the natural elements of invested capital operating for profit and further capital accumulation. Similarly, forests, seas, oil, coal, natural gas resources, iron ore, tin or copper deposits are all taken over as part of the class monopoly of the means of life to be worked upon by wage labour for profit.
As capitalism has spread across the world to become the dominant economic system, including the state capitalist countries such as Russia and China, so has the entire planet come to exist in an economic form as providing for the elements of capital. Rival capitalist nations struggle over control of resources, exploitable populations, and the various trade routes on land and seas. They adopt military strategies for maintaining economic and political control or influence over the various parts of the planet, Most recently, British and Argentine capital was at war over the profit potential of the South Atlantic and the Antarctic, with the Falkland Islands as the strategic gateway to them.
The interests of capital dominate in every branch of knowledge. Capital finances the institutions of education and research. This determines the direction of applied science and technology. Vested capitalist interests control the world’s air waves, the media and the centres of world information. As a consequence, within the prevailing boundaries of thought acceptable to capitalist interests there exists a wide gap between the way nature is perceived and the reality of its economic existence. But we cannot clarify this view of nature by looking outwards at the natural world. The way we use nature and the relationship of society to it is determined by the social relationships between people themselves. It. is in the nature of social organisation that we find the relationship of society to nature.
Society cannot consciously regulate the impact of its activity on the natural world unless it can first consciously regulate its own productive activity. The present inability of society to control its destructive effects on the environment results from the inherently uncontrollable operation of the economic laws of the production-for-profit system which arise from the class monopoly of the means of life. It is awareness of this and the political action to change society which must follow from it which is the important advance in ideas and action represented by the movement for World Socialism.
What is lacking in the present state of human knowledge will not arise from any further focus on the wider natural world. Our existing understanding of this is far beyond what is required for a proper care of the environment. The material in this issue of The World Socialist shows that care of the environment is not primarily a practical or technical problem. It is a problem arising from the prevailing social relationships of capitalist production. By freeing labour from its exploitation by capital, socialism will also free the natural environment from its exploitation by capital. With a direct relationship of work activity to needs, socialism will be free to work with methods which ensure care of the environment. With co-operation based on the common ownership of the means of life socialism would aim at an equilibrium within the balance of natural systems without altering them in any destructive way.