thermodynamics (was: What do Marxist's think about the future)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Sep 14 17:43:06 MDT 2003

As capitalism grows old as a system and as resources become more scarce, 
the level of energy expenditures tends to rise. For example, half a century 
ago, over 10 times more oil was discovered per meter than today; the cost 
of an exploration well of 30,000 feet is 120 times higher than that of a 
well of 5,000 feet. The nuclear industry represents the most extreme sorts 
of costs, measured in this fashion. The costs, however, are not encountered 
when uranium is extracted from the earth, but when after the ore has been 
transformed into energy. The radioactive wastes require an inordinately 
expensive treatment, since the half-life of plutonium 239, for example, is 
24,600 years. That is why the nuclear industry is so dangerous. The 
capitalist class does not want to invest in the storage capabilities to 
protect us from such wastes. They would prefer to send it off to places 
like Mali to poison poor people of color.

Agriculture is the most highly visible aspect of the capitalist economy's 
tendency to attempt to pay for these hidden costs in a destructive manner. 
Massive use of fertilizer and conditioning of the soil requires significant 
energy resources, mostly derived from petroleum and byproducts. In Britain, 
6.5 calories of fossil fuel produced 1 calorie of food; the ratios were 
6.1/1 in France in 1973 and 9.6/1 in the USA in 1970. 16.7% of energy 
consumed in the USA in the early 80s, according to some scientists, went 
into agriculture and food-production. The problem with all this, just as it 
was in the wasteful agriculture in the Alps described by Engels, is that it 
has environmental consequences.
Agricultural waste is one the biggest problems today that capitalism has no 
capacity to resolve. It is a daily feature on the news programs, as we 
discover that pesticides or fertilizers are producing mutant frogs in 
Minnesota or killing entire species of fishes in Montana, which all points 
ultimately in the direction of human birth defects. Deléage states:

"Most problems accumulate in the final phase of the productive process, in 
the form of waste. This applies, for example, to fertilizer, particularly 
to nitrates no longer held down by the colloids of the vegetal soil, but 
instead carried away by running water. This irrationality has already led 
to genuine ecological catastrophes in certain regions of Europe where 
intensive agriculture is practiced. Thus, in late May 1988 the North Sea, 
from the southern shores of Norway and Sweden to the northern shores of 
Denmark, was invaded across some 7.5 million hectares by a sudden 
proliferation of the seaweed Chrysochromulina polylepis, which destroyed 
all other forms of life to a depth of 10 meters below the surface of the 
ocean. The cause of this ecological catastrophe was the saturation of the 
seawater with nutrients, particularly nitrates used by farmers of the 
regions adjoining the North Sea, 50% of which are carried to the sea by 
rain and rivers. One must add multiple accidents of various kinds 
registered downstream of the estuaries of rivers flowing through regions of 
intensive agriculture. Such accidents occur every year in France along the 
shores of Brittainy. Across the Atlantic, in the estuary of the Saint 
Lawrence River, a proliferation of diatoms led to three deaths and hundreds 
of cases of food poisoning in 1987."

Deléage sees the second law of thermodynamics as key to understanding these 
problems and resolving them within a socialist framework: economic 
activity, intended to satisfy human needs, runs against the general 
tendency of the universe to move toward a state of greater disorder, of 
higher entropy. By definition, the overall increase of entropy associated 
with the productive process is always greater than the local decrease of 
entropy corresponding to this process. In other words, for example, the 
amount of energy that goes into industrial farming is much higher than the 
human energy associated with subsistence farming. When we drive a car, a 
gallon of gasoline that is burned in the process increases the entropy in 
the environment. When we produce a sheet of copper, the disorder entropy of 
the ore is decreased, but only at the expense of increased entropy in the 
rest of the universe.

Human beings are not immune from this process, which takes place at the 
level of matter itself. That is why the project that Engels began with 
Dialectics of Nature is worth understanding and building upon. We are not 
apart from the natural world, since we are composed of matter ourselves and 
the energy we expend in transforming matter into commodities transforms the 
natural world and society itself ultimately. All of the processes are 
dialectically interwoven.

Marx focused his analysis on the relation between labor and capital. The 
path that Engels set foot on but did not complete needs to be navigated by 
our generation of Marxists. In the face of such life-threatening problems 
as global warming, it would be foolish to think that we have no particular 
need to address them, or, even worse, that Marxism is for production at the 
expense of the environment.
The class struggle has been understood by Marxism as having purely a social 
dimension, but it is high time that we developed a much richer and deeper 
understanding of the natural underpinnings of the class struggle. Economics 
is not simply a function of labor; the natural world is intimately 
involved. This involvement confronts us every day of our lives. To 
anticipate what this will mean in the sharpening class confrontations of 
late 20th century capitalism, it is sufficient to look at East Asia. There 
is an ecological crisis as well as a financial and economic crisis and they 
are interrelated. Lumpen-capitalist exploitation of the Borneo rain-forests 
has resulted in out of control forest fires that have spread a toxic haze 
thousands of miles. The forest-fires are out of control because El Nino has 
caused a drought in the area. Scientists attribute the intensity of El Nino 
to global warming. Meanwhile, global capitalism is attracted to East Asia 
because ecological and trade union limits are hardly to be found. Indonesia 
is a prime example.

The socialism that we have to create must attack all of these problems 
because they are interrelated. You can not satisfy the economic 
expectations of people living in Brazil or Indonesia unless you are 
prepared to satisfy the overall needs of the planet to remain economically 
viable, which requires first of all clean air and clean water. To come up 
with these answers, we have to develop an ecosocialism that is 
scientifically informed. It also must be theoretically grounded as well. 
This means developing an appreciation for what Engels was trying to do in 
Dialectics of Nature and expanding upon it as well.


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