The reason why capitalism is the first mode of production to threaten the future survival of many forms of life is difficult to understand if the detailed complexities of nature and capitalism are approached separately. However, if one accepts that the abstract concept of ‘nature’ can be considered as covering all life-forms, then the matter is somewhat simplified. That way, after an initial stage of analysis, it is possible to introduce both sets of complexities to reach a more developed understanding.
Thus, we know that all forms of life utilise the materials of the planet and the energy contained within it or from outside it (ie via the sun) to reproduce and sustain themselves. Living things are the planets organic assemblies of inorganic materials, continuously inter-connecting. When life-forms die, those materials return initially to the surroundings where death takes place.
Even before organisms die they ingest material from nature to support their growth and energy and they secrete any unused or unneeded material back to nature. In short everything – including all the mineral and bio-chemical ingredients involved in this ‘cycle of life’ – is connected and re-cycled to be used again.
In other words, recycling is not just a modern ‘feel-good’ obsession but an essential process of the ‘connected’ cycle of all life on our planet, and has been for millions or billions of its annual orbits around the sun.
However, this natural process, was significantly interrupted when the capitalist mode of production became more than just a fringe activity within and between some Mediterranean maritime communities. As large-scale capitalist forms of agricultural production encroached upon inland farming, the essential recycling process of organic and inorganic nature was progressively dis-connected and distorted at all such locations.
When local human populations were separated from direct production of the land to make way for large-scale agri-farming, the land had taken from it the above-noted natural form of recycling local waste products. Much residual material of those things assembled by nature (plants, animals, birds, insects) and from the fecal waste of all living things, went elsewhere and all the essential elements donated by nature to life went with them. Capitalist agriculture thus disconnected nature from its local, natural and human metabolic processes.
Consequently, intensive capitalist agriculture also quickly exhausted the microbiology of the soil. Since profits required continuous production, soil fertility then needed replenishing from external sources. This necessity created another form of profitable activity in the form of foreign-sourced elements such as guano (bird poo) and other material (bones of people and animals) which were used on intensive farms.
As dispossessed peasants and others were cleared off the land they gravitated to towns and cities taking their poo and pee with them. Night soil – as excreta was designated during the Victorian era – was sometimes taken from cities and large towns and used on fields and farms, but much was dumped in rivers and seas. Overall, this meant the soil was being denied much of it’s natural cycle and eventually when guano and bones ran out, chemical substitutes had to be found to keep capitalist farming productive.
This capitalist type of agricultural production amounted to a five-fold robbery of nature – just for the profit of a few! The soil of increasingly mechanised farms, was robbed (1) of their basic nutrients in order to overproduce crops for sale and (2) the soil was therefore separated from its natural local waste-product fertilisers. The peasants and cottagers were separated from their small-holding livelihoods (3) and foreign lands were separated from natural resources such as guano (4). But this capitalist robbery by separation of nature – for profit-led extraction – did not end there. Crops grown by chemical fertiliser methods were not as nutritious as those organically grown. So food was robbed (5) of its natural nutrition and taste.
Even before considering capitalism’s ‘Robber Land Barons’ and the consequent land-clearances, unemployment and low pay, the bodies of working people were being robbed of nourishing food to sustain and replenish their own bodily cells. When capitalist industry and agricultural also instituted long hours, poor conditions, unemployment and low pay these symptoms were added to food poverty and to a diet of less nutritious and chemical contaminated food. It was then that ill health and disease (including epidemics) became disproportionately the lot of working people, both blue-collar and white.
For when people have a diet deficient in certain natural elements, then the micro – organisms and cells that make up the human immune system and body structure are also starved of the elements they need to function properly. It got so bad that vitamin and mineral supplements were produced in tablet, powder and liquid form (for those who could afford them), in order to attempt to make up for what had been lost in naturally grown food.
Fast forward to the modern capitalist (and neo-liberal) era and the problem has intensified and gone global. Ask yourself where the excrement and urine from global cities numbering millions of citizens is going – each day – and what a loss much of this is to soil. Then think about what an imposition it is on nature when tons of it go into the differently based eco-systems of rivers, lakes and seas. Also ask yourself where the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in huge agri-business farming are extracted from and what effect this has on the quality of food produced, the pollution of nature’s soil, and the consequence of its run-off into rivers and seas.
If we add to this distortion of the intimate food connection between nature in its human and non – human forms, the effects of non-food mass-production of industry and it’s effects upon the air and water quality that all land-based life-forms breath and drink, then certain conclusions follow. Capitalists are not only at war with rivals, for markets and raw materials, but effectively at war with humanity and nature as a whole.
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2020)