Classical Marxism and climate impacts

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Thu, 05/08/2010 - 21:34,

Marx and Engels encountered early climate science while developing historical materialist theory. On 25 March 1868 Marx wrote to Engels, recommending a “very interesting” book on climate change by Carl Nikolaus Fraas, Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider, 1847 [Climate and the Vegetable World throughout the Ages, a History of Both]. Marx argued that Fraas had proven that “climate and flora change in historical times” and as “a Darwinist before Darwin” admitted “the species developing in historical times”. Marx’s library contained three books by Fraas, with marginal annotation. (MEGA IV 32 p.272-73)

According to Marx, Fraas also discussed the contradictory effects of land use in agriculture. “He claims that with cultivation — depending on its degree — the ‘moisture’ so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc”. Marx added: “The conclusion is that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!” (MECW 42 p.559)

Fraas and other Bavarian scientists had spent time in Greece between 1835 and 1841. On his return to Bavaria, Fraas taught at schools and universities, working for a time with Justus Liebig, who strongly influenced Marx’s understanding of ecological questions. Rajan argues that, “once a relationship between climatic change and vegetational patterns had been established, it began to be believed that changes in vegetation, which were, in effect, consequences of deforestation, would also result in changes in climate”. Fraas argued that the original vegetation of Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and southern Europe, “had been a response to climatic conditions and that human beings, mostly through deforestation, had changed the vegetation – which was now less useful to them – and also the climate”. For Rajan, “Concerns about the agency of human beings and, in particular about the ability of people to engineer climate change and the transformation of vegetation detrimental to human interests thus constituted a significant aspect of the scientific discourse in Europe between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century”. (Modernizing Nature: Forestry and Imperial Eco-Development 1800-1950, 2006 p.30)

Engels returned to Fraas in his scientific research in the 1870s. He made notes from Fraas’ book as part of his research for The Dialectics of Nature, which was unfinished and not published in his lifetime. Engels quoted Fraas’ comments on the impact of climate on trees: “We have already said that the oak is sensitive to the climatic factors we mentioned (warmth and dampness) and with only a small change in climate falls behind competing tougher and less sensitive types of tree in the competitive struggle for further development and self-preservation.” (MEGA IV 31 p.515)

Engels also echoed Marx, quoting Fraas’ view that “Advancing human culture leaves a sizeable desert behind it…” (MEGA IV 31 p.515) And Engels summed up the significant impact of human society on ecology. He wrote: “Main evidence that civilisation is an antagonistic process which in its hitherto existing form exhausts the land, turns forest into desert, makes the earth unfruitful for its original products and worsens the climate. Steppe lands and increased warmth and dryness of the climate are the consequences of culture. In Germany and Italy it is 5-6°C warmer than at the time of the forests.” (MEGA IV 31 p.512)

Fraas appears to have been the inspiration behind Engels’ renowned passage from The Dialectics of Nature, also published in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1896), warning of climate impacts on human societies. Engels wrote:
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” (MECW 25 pp.460-61)

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