Ecology between Frederick Engels and Rachel Carsons

Louis Proyect
Book Cover:The Return of Nature


September 9, 2020

For me, ecology began with Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring” in the 1962 New Yorker, continued with Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” in 1971, and finally reached full bloom with a torrent of books soon afterwards touching on global warming, desertification, species extinction, water and air pollution, etc. I, of course, knew about Engels’s observations in “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” about the pine forests in the Alps but between Engels and Rachel Carson, it was a bit of a blur.

Among the great accomplishments of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature” is filling in the gap between Engels and Rachel Carson. Chapter Eight, titled “Ecology as a System”, deals with ecological writing in England in the late 19th to early 20th century. Among the revelations is his discussion of a 1,400 page book co-authored by Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells and Wells’s son G.P. Wells titled “The Science of Life”. As you will see below, the three men were writing about things that continue to confront us today. It is not surprising that they were men of the left. As Foster points out, H.G. Wells’s novels are filled with dystopian visions of a future that came about because of a refusal to follow Green principles. It’s tragic that we are faced with the same crisis today.

The ecological problem facing humanity then becomes a question of releasing nature's locked-up powers, avoiding leakages in energy flows, and ensuring that humanity does not heedlessly cross natural limits or break nature's laws. Evolution is presented as a slow, inherently progressive process. Humanity is able to speed this process, but it is also faced by ecological contradictions of its own creation. The final section of the chapter "Life Under Control," [in “The Science of Life”] titled "The Ecological Outlook," explores the problem of anthropogenic ecological crises and the possible means of addressing them. Thus, we are told, in line with Lankester [a friend of Karl Marx committed to ecosocialism], that civilization's spread has been accompanied by a "trail of plagues." Colonization has gone hand in hand with the intended and unintended spread of invasive species, crowding out and killing off native habitat and species. Industrial agriculture leads to the systematic disruption of the soil cycle, robbing the soil of its nutrients. "To make good these losses of the soil, he [the human being] has crushed up the nitre [nitrates] of Chile, the guano of Peru, the stores of phosphate rock in various parts of the earth's crust. But these too are [natural] capital and the end of them is in sight. Linnaeus gave man the title of Homo sapiens, Man the Wise. One is sometimes tempted to agree with Professor [Charles] Richet, who thinks that a more suitable designation would have been Homo stultus, Man the Fool."

Describing this folly, Wells, Huxley, and Wells wrote:

In the last couple of centuries he [humanity] has accelerated the circulation of matter—from raw materials to food and tools and luxuries and back to raw matter again—to an unprecedented speed. But he has done it by drawing on reserves of capital. He is using up the bottled sunshine of coal thousands of times more quickly than Nature succeeds in storing it; and the same rate of wastage holds for oil and natural gas. By reckless cutting without re-afforestation, he has not only been incurring a timber lack which future generations will have to face, but he has been robbing great stretches of the world of their soil and even of the climate which plant evolution has given them. .. .

By over-killing, man has exterminated magnificent creatures like the bison as wild species. Less than a century ago herds numbered by the hundred thousand covered the Great Plains. Buffalo Bill killed 4,280 bison with his own rifle in a year and a half; and that was far from being a record. The United States Government detailed troops to help in the slaughter, in order to force the Indians, by depriving them of their normal subsistence, to settle down to agricultural life on reservations. Today there remain a few small protected herds.

By over-killing, he has almost wiped out whales in the northern hemisphere, and unless some international agreement is soon arrived at, the improvement of engines of destruction is likely to do the same for the Antarctic seas. If he is not careful, the fur-bearers will go the same road; the big game of the world is doomed to go, and to go speedily, unless we take measures to stop its extinction. By taking crop after crop of wheat and corn out of the land in quick succession, he exhausted the riches of the virgin soils of the American west; and is now doing the same for the grasslands of the world by taking crop after crop of sheep and cattle off of them.

The essential problem in all of this was the human economy, its speed of expansion, its ruthless acquisitiveness, its waste of resources, and its lack of planning. In the final section of the chapter on "Life Under Control," titled "The Ecological Outlook," the three authors argued:

The cardinal fact in the problem of the human future is the speed of change. The colonization of new countries, the change from forest to fields, the reclamation of land from sea, the making of lakes, the introduction of new animals and plants—all these in pre-human evolution were the affairs of secular time, where a thousand years are but as yesterday; but now they are achieved in centuries or even decades. One cannot estimate such changes exactly, but we shall not be far out if we say that man is imposing on the life of the world a rate of change ten thousand times as great as any rate of change it ever knew before.

Human beings were able to transform nature radically in the interest of the expansion of the human economy, but they did so under conditions in the dominant economic order, conditions that were unplanned and that showed a lack of concern and foresight for the long-term ecological consequences of such actions. Humanity is "very unlikely by the light of nature to see all the multifarious consequences" of such economic actions, "and too often the consequences will be quite different" from what was anticipated.

From the standpoint of biological economics, of which human economics is but a part, man's general problem is this: to make the vital circulation of matter and energy as swift, efficient, and wasteless as it can be made; and since we are first and foremost a continuing race, to see that we are not achieving an immediate efficiency at the expense of later generations." The issue then became one of long-term sustainable development.

Wells, Huxley, and Wells explained that due to agricultural chemists such as "Liebig, Lawes, and Gilbert, the employment of chemical fertilizers has become almost universal. But up till quite recently man has taken little thought for the morrow beyond the single crop. It is true . . . that he has been forced by the demands of his wheat and corn to let his land lie fallow from time to time, or to introduce nitrogen-catching crops, like clover or lupins, into his rotation; but that is only a beginning." Nitrogen-based fertilizer was now available in unlimited supplies, making the loss of Chilean nitrates no longer a problem. But other limits were quite severe. They wrote: "We are using up our coal and oil." Fossil fuels would eventually have to be replaced by alternative energies: "Water-power is always with us, and there are tide-power and sun-power and wind power for us to tap. We are using up our oil; but sooner or later we shall replace it satisfactorily by power-alcohol made from plants."

The most serious problem was phosphorus:

Phosphorus is an essential constituent of all living creatures. It is, however, a rather rare element in nature, constituting only about one seven-hundredth part of the earth's crust... . From the soil of the United States alone the equivalent of some six million tons of phosphate is disappearing every year; and only about a quarter of this is put back in fertilizers. Meanwhile the store of fertilizers is being depleted, and man ... is sluicing phosphorus recklessly into the ocean in sewage. Each year, the equivalent of over a million tons of phosphate rock is thus dumped out to sea, most of it for all practical purposes irrecover-able. The Chinese may be less sanitary in their methods of sewage disposal, but they are certainly more sensible; in China, what has been taken out of the soil is put back into the soil. It is urgently necessary that Western "civilized" man shall alter his methods of sewage disposal. If he does not, there will be a phosphorus shortage, and therefore a food shortage, in a few generations. But even if he does that he will still have to keep his eye on phosphorus; it is the weak link in the vital chain on which civilization is supported.

The conclusion was that "man's chief need to-day is to look ahead. He must plan his food and energy circulation as carefully as a board of directors plans a business. He must do it as one community, on a world-wide basis, and as a species, on a continuing basis."