O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!


– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

A specter is haunting this planet — the specter of biological devastation and ecological catastrophe. It is ravaging the ecosystems sustaining life. Butterflies, frogs, bees, whole familiar species are in sudden danger of being wiped out. And, mechanisms for propagation — even seeds! — are coming under the private ownership of a tiny number of very large agrochemical corporations in order to extend their control over land and monopolize the world’s food supply by altering the reproductive capacities of entire species.

All the good things that human beings have achieved and the natural beauty of the world around us are being grabbed, privatized and pillaged by corporate, technological and political powers. This colonization is legitimized by new Enclosure Acts similar to those of centuries ago, a legal framework validating the shameless orgy of profiteering and conquest.

In the last 50 years, fully eighty percent of the world’s forests have been chopped down. Forests prevent floods, maintain soil health, defuse hurricanes and detoxify drinking water. They oxygenate the air and serve as habitats for millions of species. In Argentina and Brazil today, huge swathes of primeval rainforest are being cut down and monocropped with genetically engineered soybeans for animal feed and for biofuels, which are exported to the United States and elsewhere.

In Brazil this confiscation of land for extracting corporate profits is occurring under trade agreements with so-called “socialist” president Ignacio Lula da Silva. In Indonesia millions of acres of forest have been burned for palm oil production, mining (especially coal mining) and cattle grazing. In Mexico the Lacandona forest — the home of the Zapatista rebellion — is under siege by international paper companies as much as by federal troops. Under Clinton and Gore more trees were clearcut in the U.S. than under any of their predecessors in recent history — more than the Bush presidency, Nixon, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Truman, or Roosevelt added together. The destruction of the forests, along with emissions from large-scale power plants, automobiles, factory farming of animals (cow-farts, believe it or not, from “rendered” diets), refrigerators and paper mills are the most important contributors to global warm­ing and the pending ecocide of this planet.1

We hear of peak oil and its possible ramifications, but what about “peak forests”? Almost gone. By 2030, at the pre­sent rate of extraction (called “harvesting”) only 10% will be left standing.2 And still the government, Democrats as well as Republicans, allows the timber companies their “natural right” to cut down the forests. The media defend the corporations under the guise of “property rights,” “protecting individual freedom” and “freedom of entrepreneurial spirit” — the “freedom,” that is, to exploit and to plunder. (The New York Times, for instance, cuts down 60,000 trees a week to publish its Sunday paper, so it can’t stray too far from this mantra of “rights” even if it wanted to.)

The ideological spin dominates our language and shapes our thoughts. Suddenly we are no longer talking of global warming or the extinction of whole species, but of the so-called “rights” of corporations — as though these artificial entities should have the same rights (or any rights) as people.3 The paper and lumber industry’s “Wise Use” movement spins the clearcutting for public consumption, and calls it a “salvage sale.” Magnificent giant redwoods, the oldest living beings on the planet, are, to capital, merely “standing inventory.” Beautiful mountain vistas are considered “view sheds.” The last few clumps of trees stretching in a thin line along the highways en route to the mall (giving the false impression of some vast and wild nature on the other side) are “scenic corridors.” Carting the strip-mined carcasses of trees off the mountain is portrayed as “sanitizing a unit.” Industry casts the technology required to do all of this in the dubious forge of “Progress.”

Underlying it all is the all-powerful GOD — Grow Or Die — which perme­ates every moment of production and reproduction under capitalism.

The “bottom line”? (hell, even our metaphors reference corporate accounts!) — No more the once magnificent old growth forests; no more the pristine drinking water, healthy soils, seas teeming with fish — the entire North Atlantic has been “fished out,” if you can even call what industrial trawlers do these days “fishing,” dragging miles of giant steel mesh weighing perhaps 15 tons each through the most ancient and protected parts of the world’s oceans, sweeping up everything in their path.4

This critique is all straight Marxism. There’s nothing in the mechanisms I’ve described here that Karl Marx didn’t analyze 150 years ago. No, he didn’t talk about automobile emissions, genetic engineering, television, nuclear power plants or the mass psychoceutical drugging of children; but he did analyze the mechanisms, the processes by which all technologies under capitalism would develop, and how capitalist relations would come to prevail over all other ways of experiencing our lives so that we would eventually take them for granted as “natural,” as “human nature,” as having always been this way and as being this way everywhere. (Marx called it the move from the formal to the real domination of capital.) Wasn’t it Karl Marx who, in his earliest adult essays, spoke out forcefully in defense of the forest against privatization and in favor of the rights of peasants to glean dead wood from the Rhineland’s trees — lands traditionally unrestricted by law and used in common? Wasn’t it Marx who railed against the state’s jack-booted stormtroopers’ expropriation of the Commons on behalf of the capitalist class in the 18th and 19th centuries? Wasn’t it Marx who, despite some foolish and urban-centric comments, called this expropriation “primitive accumulation” and explained how the capitalists legalized their plunder after the fact through legislation and their increasing control of the State? Wasn’t it Marx who pointed out that by 1842, 85 percent of all prosecutions in the Rhineland dealt with a new crime: the theft of wood, which applied only to peasants while corporations were being freed to strip whole forests of all the trees in them with impunity?

How did it happen that public lands and early machinery were allowed to become privatized and re-shaped by the needs of capital? Why didn’t people protest, revolt?5 We can ask the same today: How did our once-public universities, hospitals, beaches, libraries, prisons and parks suddenly become privatized? Private mercenary armies now make up a large percentage of U.S. forces in Iraq; rivers are so polluted that drinking water is now sold in plastic bottles, their sources owned by the world’s largest corporations.6 Yes, it was Marx, especially, who explained how such “enclosures” came to receive acceptance socially and sanction by law. His entire critique of capitalism started with an analysis and sharp denunciation of the enclosure of lands used in common and the criminalization of peasants for taking dead wood for heating and cooking.7

One of the things I’m not going to do here is to go through all of Marx’s writings and select quotations pertaining to ecology. Others have undertaken that task,8 and John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have theorized that an ecological understanding was central to Marx’s outlook;9 so I will just note here that Marx raised ecological issues in his earliest writings and supported peasants’ and workers’ resistance to privatization. That is how he got involved politically in his early 20s and why he began to develop his analysis of capital. On his birthday thirty-three years later, Marx — then 57 years old — drew upon those early observations and wrote a blistering critique of his fellow socialists for focusing solely upon the exploitation of labor while ignoring the expropriation of the environment. “Nature,” Marx wrote, “is just as much the source of use values” as la­bor, “and it is surely of such that material wealth consists.10

Since his death in 1883, however, many of Marx’s followers have done exactly what Marx had warned against. They ignored his formulation of the twin sources of value — Labor and Nature — and called for “developing the forces of production” at any cost, rarely going even as far as Marx in asserting — let alone analyzing — the central role played by Nature, along with Labor, in the production of capital and the reproduction of the capitalist system. They concentrated narrowly on the exploitation of labor alone. In omitting the expropriation of Nature, which was central to Marx’s analysis of capitalist accumulation, Marxists allowed capitalism’s industrial form of production to go unchallenged.

In fact, many Marxists glorify technology, asserting that tech­nology is composed of a series of “neutral” inventions and machines that could be appropriated lock, stock and barrel and administered com­muni­stic­ally for the good of all. (Many Marxists make a similar argument about the State — that it could be taken over and administered for the good of all, instead of having to “smash” it.)

When the Socialist Committees of Correspondence (Campaign for Socialism & Dem­oc­racy), for example, envisioned technology as bringing “the good life” to workers through the wonders of con­spic­u­ous consumption and the factory production of ever more commodities, they even presented it as “the genie of technology.” Did their members consider the effects on working class communities of a factory-based manufacturing system under socialism? Some may have done so, but the hope was always that new technologies would develop to deal with the exhaustion of natural and human-made resources and the growing mountains of garbage passing into the waste stream, poisoning the planet. They rarely realized and almost never wrote about the social and economic conditions in which the factory form of production indelibly stamps the rapaciousness of capitalism into every moment of the production process. Capitalism — the self-expanding system of exploitation of people’s work and of Nature — is “in its genes,” so to speak. The drudgery of the assembly line and office, the inferno of rotten relationships and rancid dreams, the privatization of everything and twisting of everybody into things to be bought and sold, the reproduction and consolidation of hierarchy, domination, exploitation and patriarchy, the subjugation of Nature (and of Nature within us) to the exigencies of production and the market, the exploitation of natural and human resources, the permanent destruction of the environment — all of these are embedded in technology as such, not just the form it takes under capitalism nor the end product but in the social conditions through which the instruments that make those commodities are manufactured and which themselves are commodities one step removed. And we, raised in those same conditions, can barely conceive of human relations or modern societies producing to satisfy human needs in any other way. Steeped as we are in capitalist ideology, industrial production seems to us to be most “natural” and integral to our notions of progress.

But technology is not just a vast collection of machinery and inventions. It is not a “neutral” force. Technology, like the State, like capitalism, is an ensemble of social relations. In every product – and in the means for producing them – is embedded the history of exploitation, organization of production, class relations, the desecration of the natural environment and destruction of the Commons. This holds as much for production based on the assembly line as it does for the genetic engineering of agriculture, whether they occur under capitalism or under some other system of production.

Unfortunately, official Marxism has sought to emulate the factory form as its model for production and reproduction. At best, Marxists argue for bringing technological development under public ownership and control, administered through centralized state planning. Anarchists – who on the whole have been far more challenging than Marxists about technology, just as they have about challenging the existence of the State – nevertheless generally limit their arguments to the need to bring development under the self-managed decision-making of workers at the industrial workplace and community town meeting.

One prominent anarchist tendency — typified by Fifth Estate, the longest-surviving anarchist newspaper in the U.S. — has made its skepticism of technology the centerpiece of its politics.11 Fifth Estate critiqued fellow anarchist (and long-ago Trotskyist) Murray Bookchin for insisting that technology would be essential in creating a “post-scarcity” world and could serve to liberate humankind by freeing up workers’ time and lessening the amount of hours on the job.12 On the far end  of that spectrum there are the an­archo-primitivists — John Zerzan, in Oregon, for example — who say they want to abolish civilization altogether.

In calling for expanding technology to achieve admittedly laudable goals, Marxism, Anarchism, and other philosophies of liberation are transformed into their opposite: instruments of rapid industrial­ization that reimpose the social and dominance relations embedded therein, even while envisioning a society that no longer exploits human labor.

But should Leftists think of “progress” in terms of technological dev­el­opment and expanded production? Is the manipulation of nature in a supposedly rational and planned manner a significantly different form of “progress”? And will the continuation of the factory form of production into Socialism not only not meet human needs but inevitably end up undermining the socialist project and ravaging the planet?13

Most people equate tech­nology with the machinery or tools needed to create abundance. It is as fundamental to their vision of a post-revolutionary society as it is to capitalism. Radical ecological movements such as Earth First!, on the other hand, offer a profoundly different analysis: Unless we also dismantle the factory form, they argue, capitalist and patriarchal relations will continue to prevail and will destroy Nature, ecological and human alike, regardless of the type of government in place. Even in the hands of well-intentioned peo­ple not motivated by competition or monetary profit, they assert, there is a complex internal dynamic within the production process under capitalism that goes beyond which class owns and controls the technology (the “social relations”), calling into question the whole industrial schema of what constitutes progress and challenging both bourgeois and traditional leftist notions of growth and development.

The Accidental Environmentalist

One unexpected environmentalist posed this question: “Should we expect that densely populated countries such as China, India, Indonesia, will have as many automobiles in proportion to their population as North America and Western Europe?” He answered his own question: “Well, it’s necessary; the expansion of capital requires it.  It’s also impossible; the earth cannot sustain it.”

That was Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro. And in the past few years, Fidel Castro has also made extremely insightful speeches sharply criticizing the growing switch-over to plant-based fuels and the consequent destruction of agriculture and the world’s forests, which he terms “the internationalization of genocide.14 Unfortunately, those concerns have not been picked up by most of those in Marxist parties. In fact, the defense of the forests in the U.S. has been led not by Marxists, but by direct action anarchist groups like Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, the Global Justice Ecology Project, and the Greens. For the most part Marxists have not only taken a “back seat” on these fundamental issues of our time (another example of how even our metaphors are technology derived), but they continue to chain all working class initiatives and the possibility of a qualitatively different world to the expansion of the factory form of production, furthering the environmental devastation already underway. Today, when radical environmental activists point to the devastation the earth is facing, too many Marxists just examine their finger.

I visited Havana in 1992, along with Bertell and Paule Ollman, the late Bill Livant and other members of the Radical Philosophy Association, during what Cubans called the “Special Period.” To address the devastating effects on Cuba of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Cuban government took a number of emergency measures that unexpectedly ended up having profoundly beneficial effects for the environment and people’s health. One decision to counter the extreme shortages of gasoline was to import hundreds of thousands of bicycles from China, which were distributed around the country.15

Everyone not on bicycles rode the old rickety Hungarian buses which got four miles to the gallon and were falling apart. The fare was only ten cents. To say that the buses were “overcrowded” is like saying there is but a slight tear in the ozone layer. Adults as well as kids, doctors, professors, construction workers, orange juice squeezers, seamstresses, clerks and municipal officials raced after the buses and jumped onto whatever toehold they could find, arms wrapped around the window posts, clinging like ants to the sugar cube as it hurtled down the streets.

Most buses had three, sometimes four sets of exit doors through which the sea of humanity attempted to board. Often the drivers wouldn’t even bring their buses to a halt. People just sprinted after them as they slowed down and leapt, hoping to grab hold.16 Those able to enter through the bus’ back doors voluntarily passed their 10 cents forward — sort of an honor system; no one pocketed another worker’s money, even though everyone needed it. I had a similar experience in Nicaragua during the optimistic height of the Sandinistas nine years earlier, and in Harlem when Nelson Mandela first visited the U.S. upon his release from South Africa’s dungeons after 28 years. There, I was at first astounded by and then swept up in the mass enthusiasm as the huge number of people on 125th Street emptied their pockets and passed tens of thousands of dollars over their heads to the stage, the entire crowd laughing, trusting, and cheering one another the whole time. What a transcendental “we’re all in this together” heady moment! Revolutionary success can be measured not only in government policies but in creating conditions through which the morality and radical social consciousness of the community are able to emerge. “When the prison gates are open / the real dragon will fly out.”17

But why were the buses in Cuba so awful? Was it only due to the U.S. embargo, as many Marxists here maintain? That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. In 1990, Cuba’s president Fidel Castro blasted the shoddy Eastern European machinery, including the buses: “Let’s speak clearly once and for all … We Cubans don’t export gar­bage. But often what we get back in trade [from Eastern Europe] is junk! No one else in the world buys Bulgarian forklifts,” Fidel said. “They are such garbage, only we bought them! How many hundreds, thousands of them stand idle today in our warehouses? The Hungarian buses … pollute the city with fumes and poison everyone around. Who knows how many people have died from the fumes of those buses just because they put in a defective fuel pump? On top of it all, those buses have a two-speed Czech transmission that alone wastes 30 percent of the fuel! Oh, how happy I am to speak with such openness! It’s been difficult to talk about these things in the past, but thanks to these new circumstances [the collapse of the Eastern European socialist bloc] we have been relieved of our previous compromises.”18

Among other stop-gap measures taken to ease the transportation crisis, all government vehicles in Cuba were demarcated by red license plates and people flagged them down. The government required them to drive people wherever they were going along the way. It was not unusual to find 5 or 6 people surrounding a government Toyota and somehow squeez­ing into it.

As is the case in most countries in hard times, during the Special Period in Cuba people were forced to make do with what they had. However, unlike other countries the Cuban people’s extremely high degree of social consciousness enabled them to take a different approach to the problems their society was facing. To what degree did the various creative and environmentally friendly policies – which were, let’s face it, predominantly making a virtue out of necessity – carry over into the development of an environmental consciousness and continue into non-austere periods? The jury is still out and the situation is fraught with contradictions, but at least for a moment Cuba offered a different vision of “Progress” and what might constitute “The Good Life” despite material privation, at least as judged from the top of the mountain of material (and environmentally destructive) stuff available here in the United States.


1Tell Al Gore to think about that the next time he preaches about global warming. If we didn’t know better we might think “hey, this guy would make a good Vice-President some day!” For a sharp critique from the left of Al Gore’s politics, see my pamphlet: Listen Gore: Some Inconvenient Truths About the Politics of Environmental Crisis.

2Maude Barlowe, Chair of the Council of Canadians—Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and founder of the Blue Planet Project.

3One organization doing excellent work challenging the supposed “rights” of corporations is POCLAD – Program on Corporation, Law & Democracy:, or (508) 398-1145.

4See Also, see H. Bruce Franklin, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, Island Press: 2007.

5Actually, people did and still do revolt. See Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), which is a history of the development of capitalism in the 16th and 17th centuries analyzed from the viewpoint of its impact on women and the reproduction of the work force – and the working class’ resistance to it. [reviewed, Socialism & Democracy #41 (July 2006)].

6Aquafina (owned by Pepsi-Cola) and Dasani (owned by Coca-Cola) have finally admitted that they do not draw water from natural springs despite the pictures on the labels, and have been selling tap water — or, as they call it, a “Public Water Source” (PWS).

7Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (Austin: University of Texas Press.1979).

8Howard L. Parsons, ed., Marx and Engels on Ecology (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).

9John Bellamy Foster’s books include Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); and Ecology Against Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2002). Paul Burkett’s relevant works include Marx & Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); and Marxism & Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

10 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, May 5, 1875, sec. 1.

11Fifth Estate’s politics were shaped in Detroit during the hub and decline of automobile produc­tion there, and involved such luminaries as Fredy and Loraine Perlman, ­Peter Werbe, SunFrog, and David Watson.

12Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Ramparts Press: 1971. Bookchin did modify his views later, as he thought of technology in itself as neither liberating nor the opposite, but a product of its ‘social matrix.’ (cf. chapters 9 and 10 of The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, AK Press, 2005). Only a thoroughly transformed technics, he argued, not a product of capitalist alienation nor an alienated relationship with the rest of nature, could possibly play a positive role in social evolution; also, Mitchel ­Cohen, Listen Bookchin!, Red Balloon Pamphlets: 1997, addresses the fallacies of Murray Bookchin’s argument.

13The dominant view of progress, held even by many Marxists, has been challenged from the Left by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Silvia Federici, Harry Braverman, Barry Commoner, Joel Kovel, Victor Wallis, Paul Goodman, Ursula Huws, Sheila Rowbotham, George Caffentzis, Brian Tokar, Michael Dorsey, Chaiah Heller, Vandana Shiva, David Noble, among others.

14See, for example,

15See my pamphlet An American in Cuba, 1992, re-issued 2007, which logs my observations during the “Special Period.” Also, Bill Livant’s great essay, “Ride the Red Bicycle”, packaged in the same pamphlet with Mitchel Cohen’s essay and available from Red Balloon Books.

16The best analogy I could think of would be diving headfirst off the stage here in New York City at a punk rock concert, expecting that all the screaming maniacs below would catch you.

17This is a famous line from a poem by Ho Chi Minh, leader of the victorious resistance movement in Vietnam to U.S. imperialism.

18Village Voice, May 1, 1990.


Click HERE to read Part Two

An earlier version was published in Socialism & Democracy


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