Extension Material on Environmental Issues for students of the Edexcel syllabus: Kohei Saito – Marx in the Anthropocene.

From the syllabus for Religion and Ethics (Paper 2):

1.1 Environmental issues

a) Concepts of stewardship and conservation from the point of view of at least one religion and at least one secular ethical perspective; animal welfare and protection, sustainability, waste management and climate change.

 b) Strengths and weaknesses of significant areas of disagreement and debate, assessment of relevant examples, legal changes and social attitudes, appropriateness and value of employing religious perspectives in these debates.

With reference to the ideas of J Lovelock and A Næss.

At the outset of the chapter ‘One Economy’ in his book One World Now: The Ethics of Globalisation, Peter Singer cautions that, ‘If you are among those who believe that the solution to the world’s economic problems is to end capitalism, this chapter is not for you.’ This is because he thinks that there is presently no viable alternative system that is capable of providing for basic human needs.

Could that be about to change with the publication of translations of Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene and Marx in the Anthropocene? Already, the former title has sold over half a million copies in Japan. What is even more surprising is that Saito’s proposal for a post-capitalist global society invokes Karl Marx, a philosopher who is understood to have ‘regarded nature as at best a resource to be exploited for human purposes, at worst a foe to be conquered.’ (John Gray False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism pg.149).

In False Dawn, Gray catalogues in detail the devastation and environmental despoliation unleashed on a vast scale by the Communist experiments in Russia and China. For example, under the system of War Communism that existed in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1921, a policy of requisitioning grain from peasants resulted in a famine that claimed over 5 million lives. Marx himself argued for the industrialization of farming, a process that would see peasant small-holdings replaced by huge factory farms. But when this was attempted in Russia, the results were disastrous, and another 11 million peasants are estimated to have perished through famine between 1930 and 1937 (as well as 3.5 million in forced labour camps). And when Mao used the Soviet example as a template for his own attempt to modernise China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962, which again involved an attempt to industrialize agriculture, the outcomes were similar. An artificial famine was triggered and around 30 million people died.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, towards the end of the Soviet era, according to Murray Feschbach and Alfred Friendly in their book Ecocide in the USSR, previously low infant mortality rates began to rise again. The co-authors speculate that this increase may have been due to illness resulting from environmental abuse, as ‘Few industrialized areas of the Soviet Union are environmentally risk-free, and some form of severe ecological condition obtains in 16 per cent of the country’s land area, where one fifth of the population lives.’

Gray, however, is rather less tentative. Writing in 1998, he declares that, ‘Russia’s pollution is apocalyptic in its scale and human consequences. In the birthplace of Genghis Khan – Baley, in the Chita region of the Russian Far East – more than 95 per cent of children are mentally deficient, rates of stillbirths are five times higher than the Russian average, rates of child mortality 2.5 times higher and of Downs syndrome four times higher. Births of children with six fingers and six toes, with hare lips, wolves’ mouths, back deformities, huge heads and missing limbs are common. In Baley, radioactive sand from uranium mines which provided material for the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb was used to build homes, hospitals, schools and nurseries.’

Gray even goes so far as to assert that environmental political movements that arose in response to the slow handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and which coalesced around opposition to vast dam-building projects in Siberia, were a significant internal catalyst for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

From an ecological perspective, the Marxist inspired denial that China could ever suffer from issues arising from overpopulation meant that natural resources there were overstretched, and the impact on the environment more profound than in Russia. Indeed, as Vaclav Smil has noted in his 1984 study The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China‘During the past 40 years, China has lost about a third of its cropland to soil erosion, desertification, energy projects (hydro stations, coal mining) and to industrial and housing construction.’ One example (cited by Gray not Smil) is particularly noteworthy: dams were constructed in China but most quickly collapsed, and when those located in Henan province broke down in 1975, this resulted in the worst damburst in history, one that killed nearly a quarter of a million people.

Set against this historical backdrop, and given that China remains a significant contributor to global warming, what could Saito’s ideas about a form of ‘degrowth communism’ possibly have to offer?

Well firstly, he is taking inspiration from some unpublished writings of Marx which express a keen interest in the types of society that existed before the rise of capitalism, including a self-governing agricultural commune in Russia and a medieval community in Germany. According to Saito, Marx drew on these examples to forge a vision of a sustainable and egalitarian post-capitalist society, one which Saito refers to as ‘eco-socialism’. Such an outlook is therefore obviously of relevance to the “Anthropocene”, a term that was first deployed in the 1980’s by the biologist Eugene Stoermer to describe the period in which human activity has become a globally significant environmental force, impacting not only the world’s climate and biodiversity but also its basic geological structure.

Essentially, as described by Saito, Marx’s eco-socialism is based on the notion of “commons”, around the shared ownership of resources that are essential for our daily lives, such as water, heating and medical care. Before the advent of capitalism these were, Marx maintains, managed together by a community, and were accessible to everyone. The subsequent appropriation of “commons” for profit-making, with all the inequalities this creates, therefore needs reversing, especially as what accompanies this appropriation are the incessant demands, so characteristic of capitalism, for still further growth, with all its attendant adverse effects on both the environment and the continued availability of those aforementioned resources. Instead, a restoration of the former state is required and democratic systems put in place to ensure a more equitable distribution of them. What Saito seems to have in mind is the establishment of communes that are each reflective of this lifestyle.

What is clear from his analysis is that capitalism cannot achieve a balance between growth and sustainability, and this makes Saito sceptical of ‘Green New Deal‘ policies which seek to do so. For example, when interviewed about this, Saito responded as follows:

‘Consumption of energy and resources keeps increasing as an economy develops. To tackle climate change, we need to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions. But I don’t think we can manage economic growth at the same time. Those of us who live in developed countries, must find a way to slow down to steady-state, sustainable economies. If we produce large quantities of electric vehicles, or solar panels, or wind turbines, we will need to exploit limited resources, like lithium, that are mainly sourced from less developed parts of the world. I am concerned that such a situation could eventually give rise to a new form of imperialism.’

Saito therefore proposes that decarbonisation might be better achieved through shorter working hours and the prioritising of essential, “labour-intensive” work.

The ‘de-growth’ that he advocates has apparently drawn criticism from those who believe that this will necessarily entail that wealthier societies will inevitably have to tolerate much lower standards of living and a poorer quality of life, and it could additionally be argued that, even taking stock of his historical examples, Marx’s notion of “commons” could possibly be the secular equivalent of the Genesis myth, a vision of a paradisiacal society that never existed prior to capitalism and never could exist.

With respect to the former allegation, Saito admits that “People accuse me of wanting to go back to the [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868].” But would this necessarily be a bad thing? During that time Japan practised an isolationist foreign policy, was almost completely closed to foreign trade, and did what Western theories of scientific progress thought was impossible, namely, reversed technological evolution insofar as it reverted from the gun to the katana or samurai sword. In doing so, as the essayist and academic Noel Perrin has observed, the country demonstrated ‘that a no-growth economy is perfectly compatible with prosperity and civilised life.’ Furthermore, in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett note that, ‘If, to cut carbon emissions, we need to limit economic growth severely in the rich countries, then it is important to know that this does not mean sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life – in the quality of life as measured by health, happiness, friendship and community life, which really matters.’

From these remarks, it is evident that a form of Marxist eco-socialism might be realizable, even if it may not be possible to ascertain whether Marx’s idyllic “commons”-based community was anything more than a myth. Such an experiment is also very unlikely to repeat the Russian and Chinese catastrophes, that could eventually come to be perceived as having been based on a misreading of Marx. Lastly, it can be argued that if the ongoing debate about capitalist and socialist proposals for addressing climate change has a mythical component, it more plausibly resides with the capitalist insistence that their system can exist in perpetuity without eventually consuming and laying waste to the planet.