Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 23 06:23:45 MST 1999

>From the article "The Centrality of Agriculture: History, Ecology and
Feasible Socialism" by Colin Duncan in the newly published "Socialist
Register 2000" (Merlin Press)

What is clear is that capitalism itself cannot solve the environmental
problem. Under capitalism wealth cannot be allowed not to grow, and the
rate of return demanded by mobile forms of wealth enforces a short
time-horizon that excludes ecological reasoning. But even before so much
capital was extremely mobile, the appallingly abstract concept of wealth
upon which capitalism depends made it blind to its material consequences.
For a long time this did not matter much. Merchant exploitation of price
differentials between distant market contexts, and even capitalist
production itself pre-dated the massive use of fossil fuels and prairie
soils, and did relatively little harm to the environment. Indeed as I will
show in outline below, the most advanced capitalist society for long was
based almost exclusively on processing recently living material raised over
and over again from soils and tree root systems that had already been
reused for centuries. Indeed some capitalists showed people mired in feudal
arrangements that locally the environment could be enriched, not depleted,
even while great gains in output and living standards were achieved. On the
other hand it is ahistorical as well as illogical to assume that socialism
has to be still more dependent on fossil fuels and prairie soils than
capitalism in its earlier prime. Paradoxical as it may seem now, we must
envisage socialism in terms of regaining the technical ground on which
capitalism was once based.

To put this more plainly, in Adam Smith’s day, long before capitalist
production had become reliant on fossil fuels (let alone prairie soils),
agriculture (in the broad sense also comprising tree management) was the
source of almost all raw materials; but agriculture itself required no raw
materials, only land and labour. Not only does agriculture as an ecological
activity not itself need raw materials, it can also actually provide them.
In that key respect it is essentially more like gathering and hunting and
fishing than it is like contemporary industrial production. Industrial
production necessarily demands raw materials and fuels from elsewhere, and
currently demands so much, and of so many kinds, and generates so much
abiotic waste, that we now believe we cannot continue on these lines
without causing general harm to the planet’s own regulatory apparatus. By
contrast, the soils of much farmland used to be routinely improved, through
agriculture, and could be again; only agriculture is thus capable of giving
us adequate supplies of food and raw materials without negative
consequences. Agriculture has not always been so benign, and much of it
currently isn’t; the fact remains it alone could benignly supply so many
billions with the basics. I do not actually believe ‘basics’ is a
mysterious term, but perhaps I should point out that we cannot include
under it enormous stocks of goods with built-in obsolescence. Concerning
reasonably durable goods we will of Course have to wait and see. But even
many ‘luxury’-producing activities do not require much in the way of
materials: e.g., music-making, fancy food Preparation, gossip, poetry, etc.
All these are open to the poor, if they have the time, for agriculture can
supply all the materials they require.

Seeing these matters in proper perspective calls for a deeply historical
sense of the variety of ways we have passed our time on Earth so far; it is
important to recognize that environmental problems are not new, nor are the
solutions. The problems go back at least as far as the widespread adoption
of agriculture, the food ‘source’ on which 99.99% of us now depend
absolutely. The technical Practices that could have cured past local
mistakes made many millennia ago are essentially the same as those we must
adopt today for both local and global problems. For it can be said that we
now know that in general, and especially when We farm, we must try to
imitate the functional complexity of the rest of nature, not defy it, and
this is necessarily a matter of refined local practice. In order not to
defy nature we must not deify it either. Nature as a whole is not so bad
that we must fear it, but neither is it so good that it will tolerate
absolutely any treatment from us. The atmosphere on which we depend, and in
which all our primate ancestors could evolve, was and is the inherently
global and product of microbes and plants. We are creatures of the air and
we must stop the pretence that we could control the living processes in the
earth and waters of this planet. The only reasonable policy is to leave
geo-physiological control up to microbes and plants. With the adoption of
agriculture — the practice of interrupting the natural cycle of plant
species reproduction to make land constantly produce only a limited number
of plant species, above all food — humans issued, in effect, a challenge to
the rest of life. In those cases the farming mimicked the complexity of the
ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the field space, probably the
damage was absorbed. But the enormous extension of ecologically crude (even
essentially anti-biological) farming techniques undertaken in the last
century and a quarter has made the acute. Now that we see the impending
consequences we must resolve in future only by those means that the planet
as a whole need not notice. presents technical problems to socialists and
non-socialists alike.

The fundamental point is this: much of the planet’s hillsides, woodlands
and wetlands now need revegetation if its atmosphere, soils and waters are
to remain hospitable to us, and it might as well be done with long-lived
useful species since we need to be able to get food, fuel, and material
from that vegetation, over and over again. During the last century and a
quarter a significant proportion of the human population has also been
deriving a quantity of fuel and material from rocks — both from greasy
kinds like coal and the more or less liquid substances known as petroleum,
and also from mineral types such as iron and nickel. This has implied an
ever-deepening spiral of dependency. Not only does getting and working
metals require the massive use of fuels, but the opposite is also true. In
the last half dozen decades of this recent and truly ‘Stone Age’, many
people have even begun to use petroleum and minerals on a large scale as
‘inputs’ in a new kind of agriculture. We are becoming fairly certain,
however, both that the greasy rocks ought not burned at the high rate they
recently have been, and that over the last few millennia human beings have
removed too much of the planet’s vegetation. These problems clearly
exacerbate each other. We need both to restore woodland and wean ourselves
from excessive reliance on burning petroleum and/or coal. Either we will be
able to get enough material and fuel from sustainable woodland practices
(the way almost all peoples for long used to have to), or not. If not, then
we will have discovered that the problem simply cannot be solved so long as
human populations remain so high, and/or so many people where fuels are
needed so much. With luck we will discover this gradually enough to be able
to do something about it without a social catastrophe. So much for fuels
and materials

Louis Proyect
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