Karl Marx: Our duty to the earth and the future

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[Quotes and Insights #1]

A previous post quotes top NASA climate scientist James Hansen on the importance of viewing our relationship to the earth as a “usufruct” — a right to use, but also a responsibility to preserve for future generations. If Hansen were a Marxist, he might have cited this quote from Karl Marx, in Capital, Volume III:

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”


  • With regards to the “improved state” in which Marx urge mankind to leave the Earth to succeeding generations, I must say that the notion of improvement unfortunately resonates far too much, in my opinion, with the Enlightenment orientation towards considering nature in its “natural state” as vacant and liable to occupation, appropriation andmanipulation through (Lockean) labor-mixing. An orientation which has led to the appropriation of lands on the new world based on its “vacant status”, the a priori framework of western mind being unable to recognize a relationship between man and nature not showing signsof “domination” (i.e. improvement); an orientation which has reproduced continuously a “productionist” pattern based on the understanding of improvement” as that which is opposite to Polanyi’s “habitat”. In this respect, this may well reinforce a productionist”view of Marxian thought, rather than displaying a green side of Marx. It is important to “monitor the discourse”, as ideas are forged in language, and language informs praxis.

  • The exact opposite of this is the well-known remark of Keynes, “In the long run, we are all dead”. Just as Marx’s comment sums up the thoroughly humanistic outlook of socialism and therefore its rational attitude to environmental questions, Keynes’ comment epitomises the selfish, alienated, dehumanised perspective of capital. Less intellectual than Keynes but thoroughly in the same tradition was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior (i.e. of the environment), who was quoted as saying there was no particular need to worry about the environment since the Second Coming was near.