Natural limits, sustainability and socialism

Part 2 of an edited version of a talk given at the Communist University, by Gabriel Levy, 26 August 2012. Part 1 is here.

These are some points (i) about the natural limits confronted by the economy, (ii) about global warming and the energy transition, and (iii) about agriculture.

Natural limits

In the discussion about natural limits, socialists often feel, with good reason, that they are called upon to respond to Malthusian arguments,[1] i.e. that there are too many people, or – in more recent versions – that there are too many consumers. Judging by the socialists’ collective response to the Occupy movement, for example, I am not convinced that we have really got our act together in this respect. I hope the following might help to put this right.

The first point is: there are natural limits within which the economy operates, within which humanity lives, and societies have constantly come up against them in the past. In my view the clearest explanation of the natural limits as they stand at present has been given by a group of scientific researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute.[2] They aimed to “define planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely”, and to estimate whether, and to what extent, such boundaries are being breached. They concluded that the economy has already gone over the boundaries in three ways:

1. Global warming, the main cause of which is the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process of burning fossil fuels, which in turn results in the “greenhouse effect”. The range of possibly disastrous effects is well known. As I understand the projections by many scientists, they show that the likely results of global warming include sea-level rise such that large parts of countries such as Bangladesh would be submerged. Even earlier in the process there are weather effects on the tropical zone that make agriculture difficult and in some respects impossible – after a history of imperialism that has already been about, for hundreds of years, the tropical zone being looted by the temperate zone. There is a limit.

2. Biodiversity loss, which is happening at an extremely rapid rate. It produces changes in the earth systems that are hard to predict, hard to understand, and very hard for agriculture to adapt to. The disappearance of species, just like the evolution of new species, happens in nature continually. The point is about the rate of change: under the impact of industry and industrial agriculture, species are being lost at such a rate that uncontrollable consequences follow.

3. The disruption of the nitrogen cycle, i.e. the cycle of nitrogen through the ecological system. The amount of nitrogen in its reactive forms (i.e. forms that can be metabolised by plants and form the basis of nutrients) has doubled in the past fifty years, and it gathers in concentrations that cause a range of other environmental problems, which I will talk about in the final part on agriculture.

The argument by the researchers at Stockholm is that humanity, through the world capitalist economy, is impacting on earth systems unsustainably in those three ways. They looked at, and tried to determine where the limits are, for other aspects of the earth’s natural systems, including ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone; the phosphorus cycle; and freshwater use. In these cases, they concluded that the impact is problematic but not yet unsustainable.

We can not understand the capitalist economy if we do not understand the way that it hits up against these natural limits. I think this is a modern version of scarcity, not the sort of scarcity that socialists faced in the 1920s. The type of scarcity that was faced then, which caused millions of people to die from hunger, is still present – largely as a result of capitalist social relations, and there is a great deal of research showing that agriculture, at its present level of technology, could feed a much greater number of people than there are alive now – but there is this other type of scarcity, scarcity of natural systems and natural resources on which the economy impacts.

The second point is that the history of the people-nature relationship is important. People have many times in history come up against natural limits to economic practices. There are known examples, starting from the time when settled agriculture began, that suggest that people, living in various types of social relations, conducted economic activity unsustainably.

There have been discussions in academia about this history, for example the one about Collapse, the popular book on environmental history by Jared Diamond. (See report here.) He argued that in all the cases of societies that in his view collapsed – and that idea of collapse is itself contested – there has been an environmental element among the causes. Diamond surveys many societies, including such well-known cases such as the Mayans, the Easter Island society, etc. There are ways in which his argument plays into the Malthusian view of population as the cause of the problem.

Those who are polemicising with Diamond have shown, quite convincingly in my view, that he has exaggerated the extent to which these different cases are related. But there is little disagreement over one fundamental point, that there are ways in which societies come up against the natural limits. For example, that many societies have practiced agriculture in such a way that has caused deforestation, and consequent soil erosion, at a level that reacts back on to agriculture and the humans supported by it. This history needs to be studied.

The third point is that the clash between socialism and Malthusianism is not about whether natural limits to economic activity exist, as they clearly do, but about how the economy confronts those limits and how its unsustainable characteristics are to be measured and understood.

Take for example the recent Rio +20 conference, at which representatives of most of the nations in the world got together and reviewed the targets they had set themselves for making the economy sustainable at the Rio summit 20 years earlier. They had to conclude that they had not come near to meeting these targets.

Prior to the conference, a special issue of Nature was published that presented the most relevant scientific research. (See report here.) When it came to proposals about what action should be taken, it seems to me significant that the most substantial article was co-authored by the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in the 1970s made a reputation as an aggressive, Malthusian advocate of population control. Ehrlich, together with two colleagues, now takes what I would describe as a modified Malthusian stance: they emphasise the importance of reducing population – albeit e.g. by providing contraception, and education, rather than compulsorily – and, while they acknowledge the “enormous inequity in wealth” that must be dealt with alongside “environmental hazard”, they retain the approach that the key to dealing with unsustainability is to reduce the number of people and to reduce their level of consumption.

To my mind, their methodology is crude and wrong, and as far as I know it has gone largely unchallenged by other scientists or economists. It passes over the importance of social relations in producing impact on the environment. The equation used to work out environmental impacts, first devised in the 1970s and still used today, is Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (IPAT). In other words, that the impact of human activity on the environment can be measured with reference to the size of the population, its level of material wealth, and the technology used to produce the goods it consumes.

Even some socialist writers accept the validity of this equation completely, although others have, at least, sketched out the beginnings of a critique of it.[3] In my view we need to go further. Points that would be included in such a critique of the neo-Malthusian approach are:

• The economy comprises a specific set of social relations, i.e. capitalism, and that is driven in the first place not by consumption but by the constant drive of capital to expand itself, and thereby to expand production.

• This economy by its nature produces vast quantities of waste.

• Types of consumption are not fixed but socially determined – and those common under capitalism would clearly have little or no place under any remotely human social relations. An extreme example is the consumption of hamburgers, the production of which is so incredibly expensive in terms of the amount of water used, and which are so damaging to the health of millions of people affected by obesity. (There are estimated to be 400 million obese people in the world, nearly half the number of undernourished people.) Another example is the extent of motor car ownership. The point I am making, as a person living in a relatively rich country, is not that millions of Chinese or Indian people who now wish to own a car should not do so. The point is that that capitalist society has throughout its recent history assumed and encouraged mass motor car production, which requires endless purchases of motor cars. If and when we live differently, people would not want motor cars in many cases.

The conclusion of this section is that we need a rounded approach that (i) explains the impact of the economy on the natural environment, and (ii) envisages a transition to socialism that takes into account the economy’s collision with the natural limits, i.e. the scarcity of natural resources – which I regard as the big scarcity of the 21st century. Socialism can and will transcend those scarcities.


In discussion, the points were made (i) that material goods bring status to people living alienated lives – the example was given of the various devices invented by Steve Jobs, seen as one of the great entrepreneurs of our time, that do not significantly differ in their functions from devices produced by other companies but sell in their hundreds of millions; and (ii) that consumerism is for many people a form of escapism from their working lives, “retail therapy” as it is called.

Comment: I agree with the point about consumerism in relation to status and as “retail therapy”. There is an ideological issue here, about the “green” message from the sections of the establishment that seeks to make individuals feel guilty and responsible for damage to the environment. A very good text on this is Ecological Servitude, by a group of Belgian activists. It is not for us to advocate that people reduce their individual consumption or feel guilty.

When working-class people go shopping, whether for Steve Jobs’s gadgets or whatever else, it is often about seeking a sense of fulfilment in this horrible world that we live in. Isn’t that exactly what Marx said religion was about? This is powerful ideological stuff. Understanding that there are natural limits is not about going round saying to people that they should consume less. It is not the issue.

We should of course highlight the way that some types of consumption are very damaging. Earlier on in our discussion someone said – in order to question my argument against “socialist growth” – that growth is necessary, since there has to be more food, and there has to be more medical equipment and drugs. I would say, it depends. Firstly, because in times and places where people go short of food, where they starve, the cause is almost invariably to do not with a shortage of food as such, but with the way that food is distributed. Secondly, are there not types of food that we do not favour increased production of? Do we really want more hamburgers, to be fed to more teenagers who suffer from obesity? I don’t.

Similar things could be said of medicine. An article in the New Scientist this week demonstrates just how many drugs used by patients in rich countries could be substituted simply with regular exercise. People walking or running for a little time each day. The article demonstrates scientifically something we all probably understand instinctively. But the problem with exercise is the unnatural lives people lead. So here in the south-east of England, where people work mostly in offices, they may think that their working lives have little to compare with those of our great-great-great grandparents who lived in industrial 19th century London. But people live perhaps even more unnaturally. They do not have time –  no time to exercise as people naturally should.

There was more discussion about the contrast between life under capitalism and the life of hunter-gatherers. The point was made that in terms of agricultural production and the consequent growth of human population, “the genie is out of the bottle”; there could be no return to the stone-age economy, under which e.g. only half a million or so people could live on the territory of the UK.

Comment. About the genie being out of the bottle: we do not know how people will or can live in their natural surroundings free of alienated social relationships. The reason for this is that, around the time that settled agriculture was established, so too were forms of social hierarchy and alienation. Forms of economy further on than hunting and gathering have never been tested out in history, except under alienated social relations. We only have a history of humanity confronting its natural environment under alienated forms of social relations. We do not have the data about how it would have been with different types of social relations. We can not go back; the genie is out of the bottle. In this sense, the transition to socialism is a transition to the unknown. We don’t know how humanity will live in some sort of accord with nature, because it has not been tried – at least not consistently, or on a large scale, for a long time. Humanity has only tried living in relatively large numbers in its natural environment under a succession of alienated social relationships, that have to one degree or another ruptured or messed up the relationship with nature. There are physical limits that we have discussed – the limits on the atmosphere, the limited amount of freshwater resources, etc – and the transition to socialism will be a transition to a situation in which we are living in accord with those limits.

I do not accept the bald assertion that we can not sketch out what communism will look like. Of course we can not do it in any exact way. And of course in the future there will be people cleverer and better-equipped than us to do so more effectively, as the transition gets underway. But I still think we can do a better job than we are doing.

Global warming and the energy transition

The most important natural limit to the economy and to human activity is the danger of global warming caused by the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions produce a “greenhouse effect”, i.e. reduces the extent to which the atmosphere reflects sunlight back and retains a greater amount of the sunlight’s energy as heat energy in the atmosphere. Before the industrial revolution this was not the most dangerous rupture between people and nature: then, problems such as deforestation were much more pressing. But it is the case now. For that reason, I will make some points about climate science.

1. Although there are some people who think that climate science is a conspiracy by the establishment, or a conspiracy by climate scientists to get lots of research money, I do not think it is worth spending time answering those arguments, any more than it is worth answering arguments about the world being flat. One denialist argument is that all animals including humans have lived through changes in climate before and will do so again. That is true, and irrelevant; the issue is about the speed with which these changes take place.

2. There are huge uncertainties in climate science, and particularly about the manner of predicting future climate – as there are with many aspects of research in many sciences – and all serious climate scientists say so.

3. Despite the uncertainties, there are some things about which there is no doubt, including that the atmosphere is warming up more quickly than at any previous time in human history, and the cause of this is the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution.

4. Despite the uncertainties, there are effects of global warming that are not only visible to scientists, but are already affecting millions of people’s lives. The main one of these is volatile weather in tropical zones, which is playing havoc with agriculture in Africa and south-east Asia especially. Farming conditions have changed, or are changing, dramatically, with very serious consequences.

5. Despite the uncertainties about the speed at which global warming will continue from now, it is possible to measure some of the likely consequences quite accurately, e.g. the speed at which sea level rises per degree in average temperature rise is computed quite accurately.

6. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe there is a danger of global warming reaching “tipping points”. These can not be predicted with any certainty, and there are many debates between scientists about how likely they are. But the consequences of any of these scenarios would be pretty horrific. In these cases, change would move so fast that it will throw up very serious threats to hundreds of millions of people – and if it happens under capitalism, poor people in particular. The clearest example is the danger of large blocks of Arctic or Antarctic ice melting. This would cause sea levels to rise much more rapidly than previously, with obvious impacts on the hundreds of millions of humans who live near rivers or sea shores.

As you all probably know, there is a much public discussion about whether governments should implement policies to limit climate change, or policies to adapt to it. I think that socialists should keep out of this discussion and continue to do what we are doing, i.e. to try to bring closer a time when these issues will be dealt with by society as a whole, in a completely different manner.

Given the dangers of global warming, and also the fact that fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are generally becoming more and more difficult and expensive to access, it seems inevitable that there will be a transition from fossil fuels being the predominant sources of energy for human use to other types of fuels. Good work by socialists working to understand the implications of this – and how approaches to the energy transition may be developed together with communities who rely on fossil fuels for work, e.g. of coal miners, oil workers, etc. – has been brought together in a book edited by Kolya Abramsky, which I recommend.[4]

The energy transition can only be a social transition. An example that might seem to suggest that the problem of global warming can be resolved without drastic social change is that of the ozone layer. As I understand it, this is a case in which governments of the large capitalist countries worked together to fix a serious global environmental emergency, i.e. the hole in the ozone layer that was being rapidly enlarged as a result of the emission into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Manufacture of the relevant products was banned outright or strictly regulated, with successful results. The hole in the ozone layer, as far as I understand, is getting smaller. In this case, the position of the manufacturing companies – perhaps like the tobacco companies in many countries – was such that governments felt able to regulate in that way.

However I suspect that fossil fuels are so integral to the capitalist economy that it will be different. There will probably be “green new deal” at some point, but it is very difficult to see how capitalism can adapt in the way that would be needed to cut carbon dioxide emissions on the scale required. In that sense the energy transition is very much part of the transition to socialism.

My conclusions on this are:

• I am opposed to a catastrophist discourse of some so-called eco-socialists, e.g. “capitalism is causing global warming; global warming will cause disaster; in order to avoid disaster we need to overthrow capitalism.” This is not a guide to any type of action. Instead, we need to develop an understanding of the transition to socialism that also embodies a transition to new forms of energy.

• All previous energy transitions – from human power to animal power, from wood to coal, the introduction of the diesel engine and electricity – have implied huge social changes. The move away from hydrocarbon fuels to other types of energy is also likely to go hand in hand with huge social changes.


Many of the most significant ruptures in the relationship between people and nature occur in agriculture, and often get scant attention from socialists who live and work in cities.[5] Some of the main issues we need to consider are:

1. One of the three natural limits that the capitalist economy is already breaching, according to the research at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is the disbalance of the nitrogen cycle.

The problem concerns reactive nitrogen, i.e. nitrogen in chemical compounds that can be metabolised by plants (i.e. processed to make protein). The amount of nitrogen in this form has more than doubled over the last fifty years, mainly due to the use of chemical fertilisers that put nitrogen into the soil; production of energy from fossil fuels and biomass. Big concentrations of reactive nitrogen cause problems, mainly: eutrophication of lakes and rivers (i.e. excessive concentration of nutrients in them), which e.g. can destroy fish stocks. The exponential increase in the use of chemical fertilisers is starting to produce other negative environmental effects: the saturation of soil in some places, and eventually the reversal of productivity improvements achieved by fertilisers. Productivity of industrial agriculture is still improving, but is not improving as fast as it used to.

In the 19th century, Marx wrote and thought a great deal about the dangers of the disbalance in nutrients caused in Europe by concentration of human population in cities, and the fact that nutrients transferred in foodstuffs to the cities were not returned to the countryside. But in the 20th century, the invention of chemical fertiliser and the advent of industrial agriculture to some extent turned this problem on its head. Marx was alarmed by the loss of nutrients on agricultural land. As a result of the invention of chemical fertilisers, there is now a problem of an excess of nutrients in some places, to the detriment of agriculture as a whole.

2. Other serious problems aggravated by industrial agriculture include deforestation, and pressure on availability of fresh water. The stress on some of the world’s largest rivers from agriculture means that some of them no longer reach the sea.

3. In my view, there is a strong argument that the tremendous surges in food prices in 2007, and further surges last year and this year, reflected the way that agriculture is hitting the natural limits. For sure, one cause of these surges was financial speculation. But there were other underlying issues: the rising cost of fuel for transport, and of natural gas which is a key raw material for most fertilisers, reflected rising prices of fossil fuels that in turn may reflect the limits of available resources. Relative shortages of land and water, and slowdowns in improvements of productivity, were also among the causes of the price surges, according to most economists who have researched this.

4. Agriculture is also a field where the deformation of the instruments of labour, which we discussed earlier, is most evident. Technologies to support small- and medium-sized farms are not developed: agribusiness does not invest in them because it is against its interests; small farmers do not do so because they do not have the money. The domination of the agribusiness corporations, which rely on large-scale technology and crop monocultures, is supported by the trading rules (under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and in many other ways by capitalist states. In the last couple of years another form of expropriation, land-grabbing, has become rampant – so for example China buys up land in Africa, with a view to feeding Chinese people who have themselves emigrated from the land into the cities to work. These and other changes in land use have driven literally hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers off the land in poor countries.

Some conclusions on agriculture are:

• Socialists have to have something convincing to say about the struggle of small farmers and rural poor in countries like India where literally hundreds of millions of people have been driven off the land but can not be classed easily as urban or rural, or as workers or peasants. Repeating slogans about nationalising land that were relevant in the 1920s is not good enough.

• We have to have something convincing to say about how we see agriculture in the transition to socialism. In my view there would be much there about forms of agriculture that work sustainably and in concert with natural environments.

• We have to develop some 21st century ideas about overcoming the separation of town and country, which was central to 19th century socialism and was prominently highlighted in the Communist Manifesto, but has largely been lost in the 20th century.


One comment was that, in dealing with global warming, time is of profound importance; that climate scientists, and in particular James Hansen, have warned us that time is limited in taking action on carbon dioxide emissions; that this does impart a real urgency to the need to defeat capitalism; for these reasons, is there anything wrong with warning of catastrophe?

Response. The work of James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, is really important. He has not only become an outspoken critic of US government environmental policy but has also written for the general public in order to widen understanding of the issues.[6] Hansen has a very clear position on the science: he says that he and his colleagues are sure that there are more and nearer “tipping points” than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change accepts. He has been fiercely critical of the IPCC on the grounds that its projections of global warming effects have been too moderate. As I understand it, the majority of climate scientists probably think that the IPCC is too conservative, but there is a range of uncertainty and Hansen’s conclusions are not the only ones. He is less sceptical about his results than some other climatologists. The differences between them are not about whether global warming is dangerous; they are about different estimates of how quickly and how ruinously these dangers will materialise, and how sure we can be.

It seems to me mistaken for most of us, who are not climate scientists, to claim that we know which dangers will materialise and when. We do not know, exactly. But we do know that there is a range of dangers about which we are being warned – and of course I am as alarmed as anyone by some of the greatest of these dangers – and that these should never be tested in practice. Humanity collectively must not allow these dangers to materialise.

My point about catastrophism is a political one. Nothing is to be gained by shouting, screaming and panicking. Fear is no way to strengthen social movements. Let us say that capitalism, by its lunacy, by its distortion of the relationship between people and nature, has raised this horrible panoply of dangers, all of which humanity should avoid. That is a convincing enough reason to move forward in the transition to socialism.

Part 1 of the talk is here.

[1] Thomas Malthus argued (i) that population increased geometrically while agricultural production increased only in a linear way (which turned out to be wrong: he underestimated the potential of farming technology) (ii) that population growth, rather than capitalist social relations, was the cause of poverty; and (iii) that the state should not do anything to keep alive those impoverished by changes in the capitalist economy. Marx not only denounced Malthus’s views on poverty, but also polemicised against him theoretically, arguing that “surplus population” had to be understood in the specific historical context, i.e. this population was surplus to the capitalist economy, not surplus in any other sense. Many twentieth-century environmentalist writers have embraced Malthusian arguments, often explicitly (e.g. Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of the Commons”), sometimes implicitly and partially.

[2] Johan Rockstrom et al., “Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity”,  Ecology and Society 14(2). Also see: Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: the 30-year Update (Chelsea Green, 2004). Written by members of the research team who produced the initial “limits to growth” report in 1972, it is broadly neo-Malthusian in its approach, but refers to much important empirical research.

[3] Minqi Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Pluto Press, 2008), pp. 139-147, uses the IPAT equation. There is a critique of it in John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: capitalism’s war on the earth (Monthly Review Press, 2010), pp. 377-399.

[4] Kolya Abramsky (ed.), Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: social struggles in the transition to a post-petrol world (AK Press, 2010)

[5] The best introduction to the wide range of issues by a socialist is: Tony Weis, The Global Food Economy: the battle for the future of farming (Zed Books, 2007).

[6] See James Hansen’s web site. His book addressed to general readers is: James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (London, Bloomsbury, 2009).

4 Responses to Natural limits, sustainability and socialism

  1. […] and objections to the Malthusian ideas that dominate that discussion, was the subject of the second part of the talk. There I also tried to summarise the main issues about the limits to fossil-fuel-based energy and […]

  2. […] often feel, with good reason, that they are called upon to respond to Malthusian arguments,[1] i.e. that there are too many people, or – in more recent versions – that there are too many […]

  3. […] G. (2012). Natural limits, sustainability and socialism… Accessed 3rd May […]

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