Marx’s Ecology

This article is an edited version of John Cowsill’s presentation at the Ecosocialism: Fracking, Climate and Revolution conference. He also published an early draft in his blog notes.



We’ve had report after report from the IPCC, the UN, and leading scientists about the fact that human activity is causing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rise year on year and that this is causing the average temperature of the planet to rise, which is, in turn, causing the climate to change. And we have witnessed many unprecedented weather events over recent months and years  ̶  the floods, storms and droughts seen on our TV screens. The scientists predicted that more extreme weather will be the result of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And it seems they were right. Many scientists have now linked the recent unusual weather to the burning of fossil fuels.

For more than a decade leading members of governments have been making a lot of noise about the danger of climate change. In 2002, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity”. In 2006, David Cameron, then the Conservative opposition leader, was photographed posing with huskies in the Arctic to spotlight climate change. In the lead up to the 2009 Copenhagen governmental conference on Climate Change, Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, stated,  “Copenhagen is our last chance to get an international agreement on climate change to reduce emissions”. We have to hope Brown wasn’t right about the timing because they didn’t come to an agreement.


But what is happening 12 years, 8 years, and 5 years after those prime ministerial statements? Carbon dioxide emissions are going up at an ever increasing pace. Far from saying that we must cut back (eliminate) CO2 emissions by cutting fossil fuel burning, companies around the globe are scouring the earth for oil miles under the surface of the oceans, in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic, out of the dirty tar sands of Canada and are prospecting for fossil gas under the earth everywhere  ̶  even fracking mother earth in leafy stockbroker belt Surrey. And the Prime Minister, ministers and departments are fully behind the fracking of Britain.

In this year’s Queen’s speech, Prime Minister Cameron announced that the law would be changed to make it possible to allow fracking companies to drill for oil and gas wherever they want, and the pledge, previously given to ensure that all post-2016 building comply with zero carbon rules, was abandoned. Both of those measures will result in more CO2 emissions and consequently, more global warming.  The British Government is fully behind the burning of more and more fossil fuels, despite the warnings.

If we can force a change in these kinds of policies, there is time to set a course toward a safer planet, but time is running out rapidly. Time is running out is because of the danger of reaching the tipping points identified by many scientists  ̶  the albedo affect in the Arctic; the possible release of trapped methane in permafrost regions as the temperature rises; the reducing carbon dioxide buffer of the sea; loss of biodiversity and its effect on the ecosystem. If we burn all the oil, all glaciers will melt and the planet will enter the ice free state with sea levels hundreds of feet higher than they are at at present. Future generations will be confronted with a situation that is out of their control. It will not be us who are affected. It will be our children’s children and our children’s children’s children that will be confronted with an insurmountable problem. Yet, almost unbelievably, the oil companies do plan to burn all of their known reserves and any more that they discover.

Climate change is not the only ecological problem. It is just, perhaps, the greatest life destroyer that capitalism has unleashed upon humanity. Other massive problems  ̶  the diffusion of toxins into the environment, the destruction of the soil by agribusiness, and deforestation, just to list  a few others that also must be addressed. So why are governments and companies acting recklessly, and what can we do about it?

Capitalism is the source of climate change

Capitalism has always treated the environment as a dustbin and as a source of free resources. Karl Marx long ago identified capitalism as an unsustainable system. This comes about partly from the necessity of capital to continually expand, to break all barriers for the self expansion of capital. Nothing must stand in the way of the drive for profit. That’s why the government has introduced the new infrastructure bill in favour of changing laws to allow hydraulic fracturing, despite the absurdity and the destructiveness of fracking. That it destroys the environment is of no matter.

And it comes about partly from the way capitalists have been able to treat unpaid labour, on the one hand, and nature/the environment, as a free gifts (both being important sources of its profits), on the other. So alongside labour, Capital has always treated the environment as if it is free for it to do what it wants with it, whether as a dump or as the scene of the crime for its robbery of nature. Fracking, and all the other combined efforts of the carbon capitalists are an extension of this agenda.

One of the first historic acts of Capital was to drive peasants and farm labourers off the land in the enclosure of the commons.

The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, is the basis of the whole process [Capital Vol 1, pp 503, 4].

This created a rift, or rupture, in what Marx called the human-earth metabolism.

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, […] 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 the lasting fertility of the soil [Capital Vol 1 pp 352/3].

This act destroys the health of the town worker and the intellectual life of the rural worker  ̶  it depletes the land and pollutes the city.

This pillage continues to this day in underdeveloped parts of the world. And to this day, essential minerals and micro-nutrients are pissed down the tubes, while the land has to be artificially fortified with industrially produced fertilisers. Modern agricultural techniques (pesticides, insecticides, GM crops) damage the soil further.

It is clear that capitalism is incapable of solving the climate problem. There have already been many lost lives, lost livelihoods and displaced communities as a result of climate disruption. Capitalism is incapable of solving this ecological problem because it is the source, the very heart of the problem.

Why can’t capitalism solve climate change? In short, the capitalists think they have too much to lose by converting to clean energy like wind or solar power. The energy companies that make profits from oil, coal and gas are central to capitalism. According to the Fortune 500 report, of the ten most profitable companies worldwide in 2007, six were fossil fuel companies, one was an auto manufacturer, and two were banks. The odd one out was Apple at number 7. At the top was Russia’s Gazprom ($44.5 billion in profits), followed closely by the US company Exxon-Mobil ($41 billion), then  The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China ($32 billion). These concerns are linked by a web of mutual interests. Banks make loans to oil companies for infrastructure like oil refineries, drilling technology, etc. Car companies rely on oil and refinery companies to produce the fuel on which their products run. And the oil companies benefit from the constant demand for oil products from the automobile industry.

A wholesale switch to renewable energy would mean a massive amount of stranded investment (equivalent to lost profits) for these fossil fuel and fossil fuel related organisations. Renewable energy, therefore, is seen as a threat to these profit hungry businesses. This is why they attempt to block or stall the growth of the industry and technologies that can save the planet, enlisting the help of governments to do this. In April (2014) the Tory/Condem (and Labour is not different in this) Minister in charge of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) declared “we will be finishing all subsidies to onshore wind power and no more will be installed because we now have enough onshore wind power”, and the compliant BBC Radio 4 Today presenter responded asking whether we should now be ripping up the existing wind turbines!

 We need an ecological revolution: alternatives to fossil fuels

We must demand a complete change! And we should, unapologetically, use the phrase that the apologists for capitalism use a lot, “It’s the right thing to do!”


We need a systematic restoration of the human-earth metabolism. We need an ecological revolution. But this cannot happen without ridding ourselves of the cause of the problem  ̶  the capitalist system. We need a social revolution. We need this, not only because of the horror and humiliation inflicted on billions of people worldwide as a result of the way capitalism treats them as an expendable free resource for profiteering, but because only through a revolution can we restore the relationship humans must have with the planet.

But isn’t capitalism needed to provide all the stuff that we need in order to live? How can we produce, for example, the energy we need without burning more fossil fuels? Are we not caught in an oily trap we cannot get out of?

No. We can provide all the energy needed from renewable resources. In all places where people have settled there is many more times than enough ambient energy than is needed. Energy from the sun. And there is also harvestable energy in the tides and in geothermal rocks.

Take the UK as an example. If numbers and arithmetic makes your eyes glaze over, relax and don’t worry. You don’t need to follow these figures too closely, I just want to demonstrate the power in the wind and the scale of the task.The power you can get from a wind turbine depends on a number of factors. Not surprisingly, the windier it is, the more power you can generate; and the larger the wind turbine, the more power you can generate. The power varies according to the square of the blade length. Doubling the blade length quadruples the power. The power output is also proportional the cube of the wind speed. If a wind turbine produces 8 units of power at a wind speed of 2 m/sec, at 3 m/sec it will produce 27 units of power and at 4 m/sec, it can produce 64 units of power and so on. So it makes sense  to install numerous large wind turbines out at sea, where the wind speeds are typically high and are stable.

Could wind power produce all we need? Take, say, a typical wind speed in the North Sea of 9 metres per second. A 10 MW wind turbine (with a rotor blade length of about 67 metres) at the same location in the North Sea would produce, at that wind speed, about 7MW. How many of these would we need installed to supply all of the UKs energy and power?

That’s quite an easy calculation to do.

In 2007, the total UK energy consumption was 1856TWh (DUKES 2008). This includes all forms of energy  ̶  solid and liquid fuels like coal and oil, and also electricity. Very roughly, if this energy was consumed at a constant rate (it is not, but this is just an illustration) then the continuous power demand would be 211GW (the equivalent of 211 nuclear power stations on at full power). We don’t want nuclear because it is dirty, expensive, dangerous, has a limited stockpile of fuel and is very unreliable (most of nuclear power plants are down for maintenance at any one time, according to ENDS). So let’s replace nuclear with wind power.

Making reasonable assumptions about power losses in the grid cables and equipment, calculations show that around 23,000 wind turbines will deliver 211GW from a wind speed of 8.7 metres per second. This number of wind turbines at optimal spacing would take up an area of about 10,000 square kilometres (about half the size of Wales!). This wind farm would be out at sea. Of course, if the wind speed were to drop to zero, then precisely zero energy would be produced. Zilch, nada, nothing.  It will be necessary to spread the turbines over a wide area to minimise the chances of them all being becalmed at the same time. And, I believe, it is essential to have a good energy storage system in place if we want to power everything with renewables (which we do!).  With a very large internationally interconnected, geographically dispersed electricity grid, the problem of the wind not blowing all the time will disappear, but initially, there will be a requirement for substantial energy storage facilities.

The importance of storage

Energy storage removes the problem of intermittency. Some modeling I did indicates that, with enough electrical storage, about 45,000 10 MW turbines (taking up a sea-area approximately the size of Wales!) could have satisfied the total UK energy demand in 2007.We will need the existing energy storage  ̶  such as the pumped hydro power station at Dinorwig in Wales and those at other locations around the globe, and more of this type of facility must be built. This is expensive technology however, and takes a long time to build, so in the transition period an alternative could be provided by a transport system that becomes increasingly electrified as the renewable generators come on line.

All electric transport, be it trains, trams, trolley buses, buses, vans, lorries, etc., must, at least in an interim transitional period, be equipped with electrical storage. This storage will support renewable generators as well as holding the power to run the vehicles.

Transitional demands

What are our demands? We demand that all the oil gas and coal is left in the ground. We demand that all governments and states plan a route to a fossil free energy system. For that we have to use the fossil fuel we have. We have to phase out fossil fuel and phase in renewable generators like wind, wave, solar and tidal. We also must insulate all buildings so that they require less input energy to keep them warm or cool in the first place. We demand no new coal, no fracking and no new nuclear (nuclear will suck away investment from safe renewables, and is dangerous).

We demand that states/governments invest in renewable technology and in all the new training that it requires. In the UK, for instance, we that demand the Government builds and installs, together with the necessary grid strengthening and ancillary equipment, eighteen hundred 10MW wind turbines each and every year for the next 20 years. Six a day. This is the scale of what is required. Intermittent renewables require energy storage, which  must be built in tandem. This can be done by equipping all electric transport with battery storage  ̶  and there are other storage infrastructure projects that can be developed.

We demand an annually reducing cap on the number of internal combustion engine vehicles that are registered on the road. The reducing fossil transport fleet must be replaced by electric trains, trams, buses, trolleybuses and electric vehicles.

The Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group pamphlet One Million Climate Jobs Now argues sets out to some extent, the detail (excluding the storage argument) of what needs to be done in the UK.

Climate jobs and energy prices

The big oil companies, coal, gas and nuclear are the problem, but the workers who currently work for big oil, coal, gas and nuclear and for the ICE auto industry are part of the solution. The skill sets and expertise amongst the car, oil, coal, gas and nuclear workers  fits pretty much exactly what is needed in a new renewable energy industry. Where their skills are redundant, they must be retrained.

There will be many millions of new jobs in our new renewable generation era. Renewable energy (unlike claims made by nuclear apologists in the 1950s) will be too cheap to meter. It will be cheap, and eventually, virtually free. At first, building a renewables industry will require millions of jobs. The “industrial reserve army” that the capitalists  like in place to keep wages down, will be taken out of their state of humiliation, will learn essential skills, and will have good useful jobs. Once the renewable generators have been installed though, they will only require a small amount of maintenance. At this point workers will be able to retrain to work in other essential areas (and, I would like to think, will get more leisure time!) “To each according to their needs, from each according to their ability” [ Marx, Engels, Selected Works,  p 321].

The price of energy will come down once the initial investment has been made. This is because the sun (and the earth in the case of tidal) sends no bills. Once the wind turbines, solar panels, wave machines or tidal stream generators are up and running, the cost of the electricity they produce will plummet (because there will be more than enough for everyone and, under the current system, because of the law of supply and demand) and this is why, of course, the oil companies do not want renewables. The prices of oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy will come down and profits will tumble. This will make the old energy technology and fuel sources totally redundant. Capitalists know this and wrote about it in a CBI report called ‘Decision Time‘ about 5 years ago. They worried about “negative marginal costs” of wind, the cost of wind electricity falling to zero and below! In Germany in April this year, the validity of this worry for them was confirmed when the price of electricity fell to zero momentarily when there was an exceptionally windy and sunny day, and demand for electricity had dipped.

The “green” levies we are paying for in our electricity bills are actually “fossil” levies. Oil, coal and gas companies are attempting to resist interference in their profiteering and to protect their massive investments in dirty coal, oil, tar and fracking gas. Internationally the corporations and governments are planning in a totally undemocratic way,  to push down our throats more business as usual fossil fuel burning via the fracking industry. They hope the EU-US trade deal (TTIP) currently being negotiated by the US and EU will allow them to do what they like.

What can we do?

Spread the word by any and all means necessary. Join groups. Join your local residents association; Join your Trade Union; get them to affiliate to the Campaign against Climate Change (CCC). Agitate in your workplace for action on climate change. Solidarity and Unity in action is where our strength lies.

Build links everywhere. Hold demonstrations, vigils, marches. Above all, use the power of our side in the workplace  ̶  strikes occupations, picket lines.


Link the struggles. The struggle against austerity, the struggle against low pay and precarious work, the struggle against a debt ridden society, the humiliation of pay day loans  ̶  link those struggles with other resistance  ̶  the resistance to fracking, public service cuts, the list is goes on and on. We can turn all of these struggles to our advantage  if we successfully link them. Capitalism is the root cause of all these problems. A successful fight against this system of profit for the few, will be the solution.

There are many groups concerned about the fracking of mother earth, like Grandmothers against Fracking, Frack Off, Youth for Climate Justice, CCC. Get involved, Act. Oppose big oil ideologically and physically whenever and wherever we can.

Our job could not be more important. We have a closing window of opportunity to change the course of human history. Capitalism is a sinking ship. Capitalism is interested in profit only, not in what humanity needs. The never ending drive to make more and more profit from the free “gift” of nature and the free gift of unpaid labour has taken us to this perilous predicament. The earth has been and continues to be treated like a dustbin, and workers have been and continue to be treated as dirt, as a necessary inconvenience. It is interesting to note that, if capital could replace all workers with robots, the capitalists would do that. But they cannot do that. Workers are needed by the capitalists so profits can be made from their unpaid labour  ̶  at work and in the home and in the community. They need us!  But we don’t need them! We can build a totally clean and safe planet if our demands are carried out.

Agency for change  ̶  us!

A world uprising is required. We will be part of that. We don’t know exactly how this can happen or what might ignite the spark. And it is not entirely clear where the epicentre of resistance is likely to be. Therefore we must build wherever we are. We must build here. We still have time to act.

TIME to ACT is a CCC  campaign helping to give a timely lead  ̶  first to the September 20th 2014 People’s Climate March, which will be  centered in New York City (where Ban Ki Moon’s emergency UN Climate Summit will meet) and will be mirrored everywhere̶ and secondly to the Paris COP 21 next year. We have the chance now to bring together campaigns  ̶  from where people are suffering the most  ̶  in the global South and in the developed world  ̶  against the global corporate fossil fuel profiteers and the whole web of capitalist interests from banks and arms companies with the governments that support these profiteers  ̶  against these parasites on what Marx called the human metabolism with nature.

The struggle against austerity and the struggle for a safe planet are part of the same struggle.

We must work together internationally to build a truly sustainable system.

Capitalism has to go, because sustainability under capitalism is an impossibility.

Marx talked of man’s inorganic body  ̶  by which he meant the environment on which we all depend̶ the land, the air, the sea, the fresh water, the birds, flowers, plants, animals, bees, and fishes, etc.  ̶  all life. And although not explicitly stated by Marx, this would also include sunlight and all the essential energy we receive through the atmosphere from the sun. Capitalism is destroying that inorganic body. It has already cut deep into its heart  ̶  the heart of us all. It will leave a scar (loss of bio-diversity, extinct species, etc.) forever. We must stop its incessant advance before the damage is completely irreversible.

Capitalism is doing precisely the opposite of what a rationally run society would do. Marx wrote

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 household) [Capital Vol 3, p911].

It will not be us that suffer the most damaging consequences of inaction; it will be our children and grandchildren in the generation to come who may find they live in a climate chaos they are unable to control. There is an open window, but the window is now closing. It is time to act!

Karl Marx Capital (Vol 1), Wordsworth, Hertfordshire, 2013
Marx Capital Vol 3 Penguin, London 1981
Marx Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1968
Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, Monthly Review Press, 2000         


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