“[The capitalist mode of production] is based on the dominion of man [sic] over nature. Where nature is too lavish, she “keeps him in hand, like a child in leading-strings.” She does not impose upon him any necessity to develop himself. It is not the tropics with their luxuriant vegetation, but the temperate zone, that is the mother country of capital. It is not the mere fertility of the soil, but the differentiation of the soil, the variety of its natural products, the changes of the seasons, which form the physical basis for the social division of labour, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spur man on to the multiplication of his wants, his capabilities his means and modes of labour. It is the necessity of bringing a natural force under the control of society, of economising, of appropriating or subduing it on a large scale by the work of man’s hand, that first plays the decisive part in the history of industry.” Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, p.564-5
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
An abridged version of the article is in Solidarity 3/195
In our highly manufactured world, it is useful to be reminded that we are all natural beings (a part of nature) and everything in our world is sourced from natural materials (albeit in highly manipulated form). The world we live in is the product of human hands adapting and manipulating the forces of nature. In many respects, this Marxist understanding of ecology is the message of the BBC’s latest nature series Human Planet.
Human Planet opens by explaining that human beings are the only animal that has been able to live in all regions and environments on earth. We can survive in the most varied climes because of our unique ability to adapt nature and the natural resources around us to our own needs. We are not alone in being able to do this – bees adapt their environment to make a nest, beavers can divert whole rivers – however, we are by far the best. Marx gives an explanation why this might be so: “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” (Capital, ch 7)
The series looks at people who live in the most remote and extreme environments on earth, each episode focusing on a different geographical feature – mountains, deserts, the arctic, jungles etc. In each locality, we are shown incredible adaptations of the natural world to human needs. For instance, the Korawai tribe who build enormous treehouses in the rainforests of West Papua. Or the Brazilian fishermen who have learned to work in collaboration with local dolphins. Or the Nepalsese who practice sky-burials by feeding their dead to vultures. Each people have changed the nature around them to satisfy their human needs.
But the changes that these peoples make to their environment also determine the kind of people they are and the societies they live in. Marx explains: “by thus acting on the external world and changing it, [humanity] at the same time changes [its] own nature.” There is a stark example of this in the Baju sea gypsies of the Sulu Sea who spend so much time on the sea that they get “land sick” when the go on land to trade. These adaptations are perhaps less common than the social adaptations that develop with a developing relationship with nature.
Almost everyone in the series is linked in someway to global capitalism, even if money transactions and the products of the global marketplace form a very small part of the economy. The least integrated include the tree house building Korawai tribe who live a life of primitive communism, each family helping the others to build their houses. Slightly more integrated are the Baju would trade fish for fuel and clothing on the mainland but within the community trade relations are scarce. Further up the scale are a group of middlemen and fixers. Although the series makes no mention of them, there are clearly people who make money from showing Western tourists the strange, traditional practices of these remote people. In the Behind the Lens section we catch a glimpse of the “fixers” who make money by bringing the extremes of our globalised world between remote backwardness and advanced capitalism. The series is good in that it does not fetishise backwardness and goes some way to explain how advanced capitalist societies interact with nature. The grasslands episode features Australian farmers who herd their cattle with mini helicopters providing over 1.3 million dollars of beef to the international market.
The most remarkable footage in the series is of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rain forest. A Brazilian government official is charged with flying over the rain forest to take video footage of isolated tribes in the hope that he can protect them from logging and mining corporations. He says: “It is important for humanity that these people exist. They remind us that it is possible to live in a different way. They are the last free people on the planet”. Taken as a purely political statement this "reactionary anti-capitalism" glorifies primitivism and backwardness. However, it is also a statement about alienation, how capitalism has stripped us the skills and social organisation we need to survive in a world without money. We are reminded that capitalism will also break down their isolation with its “heavy artillery” and impose similar alienation upon their ancestors.
As capitalism spreads across the world, many of the societies featured on Human Planet will be destroyed. With the destruction of these communities will be the loss of a primitive understanding of our relationship to nature and to each other. As capitalist production destroys the earth’s ecosystems and our communities, so it undermines the once common understanding that we are dependent on our environment and on each other. Simply by describing reality as it is, Human Planet does a service in trying to combat our alienation.