Saturday, 28 March 2020

Covid-19, the Climate Crisis and Lockdown – an opportunity to end the war with nature



Written by Vishwas Satgar and first published at the Daily Maverick

With the coronavirus, we are really trying to mitigate the revenge blow from nature. It’s a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order.

Covid-19 has pushed an already weak and crisis-ridden global economy over the edge. Massive value has been erased from crashing stock market prices. Many commentators are talking about the return of economic conditions similar to the great financial crash of 2007-2009. The most powerful countries in the world from China to the US have ground to a halt.

This pathogen, possibly from delicate creatures like a pangolin or a bat, has engendered the worst global pandemic since the Spanish flu (1918-1920), which killed 100-million people. Death rates are going up globally. Right-wing nationalists in Europe and the USA have been confused as this virus has jumped racist border regimes, and infected all populations. Citizens are no longer concerned about their racist messages, but rather about how to survive.

Governments all across the world are seized with the challenge of protecting their populations, at least that is what it seems like given the people-centred rhetoric. The geo-politics of Covid-19, engulfing the entire globalised world in its rapid spread, is also a shot across the bow of carbon capitalism. Elite consumption of exotic animals, at high prices, in Wuhan, China unleashed the swift and lethal revenge of nature.

This does not mean that this is a “Chinese virus” as the racist Donald Trump has suggested. We are all susceptible and are trying to live through the fear, paralysis and risks brought by this pandemic. Overnight, jobs have disappeared, paycheques have shrunk, loved ones are in critical health situations fighting for their lives and hunger is knocking on the door of many. Healthcare systems, weakened and commodified through decades of marketisation, have or will be overwhelmed.

Yet the very same elites that caused the problem are not carrying the burden of the consequences of their actions. For climate justice politics, these injustices are not new. Elite use and consumption of fossil fuels is linked directly to extreme weather shocks such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and cyclones, for instance, which impact those most vulnerable the hardest. Yet there is no consequence for those responsible and the fossil fuel industry, carbon-addicted states, and the wealthy carbon-based consumers continue as though climate science does not exist.

‘Black Swan’ event, or worsening systemic crisis

In the business world, Covid-19 tends to be reduced to a “black swan event”. A sudden or unforeseen happening, with great consequence and rationalised after the fact. The idea was initially popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s five volumes on uncertainty including the famous Black Swan, which has been described as one of the most famous books since World War II. While in his work, the concept has a richer philosophical grounding, it has become part of  everyday risk management discourse. Business risk analyses missed the likelihood of a Covid-19 pandemic and it certainly was not a concern. Its occurrence, however, cannot be explained as a black swan event.

From an ecological Marxist perspective, it has to do with the contradictory relationship between natural and social relations, has a historical genealogy within how eco-cidal capitalism works and can be causally attributed. Simply, for Covid 19, this means it’s a dangerous problem that is engendered by capitalism’s persistent domination of nature.

It spread from a “wet market” involving organised crime syndicates, linked to shadowy global poaching, and smuggling networks that steal wild creatures from their habitats and place them on elite menus. Avaricious Chinese capitalism, with its appetite for resources and capturing markets, like the West, understands nature as a site of extracting value; nature must serve the juggernaut of accumulation.

South Africans are now familiar with the appetites and reach of this capitalism due to the annihilation of our rhino population merely for their horns. Wet markets also exist in other parts of South and East Asia, and have not been restricted, leaving open the possibilities of new waves of pandemics.

For many years, epidemiologists and environmentalists have been concerned about the public health consequences of such markets, given that animal to human transmission of deadly viruses is a known fact and has been implicated in avian flu (from birds), MERS (from camels) and ebola (monkeys), for instance. These animals are also traumatised and kept in unsafe conditions.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has unleashed land grabs in the Amazon – one of the most bio-diverse habitats on planet Earth. Industrial farming, mining, logging and wild animal poaching are ending the natural protective barriers between human society and ecosystems, heightening the risks of pathogens spreading, but in this case also contributing to climate change, given the role the Amazon plays in a planetary ecosystem to sequester carbon.

Climate scientists have already warned humanity that further warming of the Arctic, for instance, will not only release deadly greenhouse gases such as methane, but also pathogens that have been frozen into ice sheets. Like Covid-19, the worsening climate crisis and its global shocks, are not black swan events, but dangerous systemic crisis tendencies produced by a hard-wired logic based on the duality of capitalism versus nature. Science has provided us with understandings and warnings, and yet the global capitalist system persists in driving us towards harm and destruction.

Carbon capitalism and imposed collective suicide

A world led by those who place profit above human and non-human life, is placing us all in jeopardy. We are not given a choice as the eco-cidal logic of global capitalism destroys the conditions that sustain life. Our planetary commons – biosphere, oceans, forests, land and water sources – are all being commodified and destroyed to make a few wealthy.

On a planetary scale, we are living through an imposed collective suicide. As neoliberalism becomes authoritarian and mutates into the second coming of fascism to defend the wealth of the few, it is revealing a simple fact: It’s not learning lessons about the harm it is inflicting. Instead, it wants to defend at all costs a life-destroying system.

Karl Polanyi in the social science classic, the Great Transformation (1944), drew attention to such elite behaviour when the ship is sinking. In the late 19th century, based on marketisation through the gold standard, the world was driven into World War 1. Lessons were not learned and the world was again locked into gold standard marketisation in the 1920s, and this gave rise also to fascism and World War 2.

This time, we are all dealing with the failure of capitalism’s conquest of nature through treating it as capital through financialisation. The science on biodiversity loss, climate and water, for instance, are all unequivocal that we are breaching limits and surpassing boundaries that endanger everything. At the same time, the raw and infinite power of nature is gathering pace. The present generation of young people understand the dangers of this very well. One of my former students, an extremely intelligent and sensitive young person, placed this public post on his  Facebook page in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak:

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I cried. I felt everything inside of me: the depth and immensity of my pain, my sorrow, my grief, my lament, my worry, my confusion, my longing, my despair – I felt it all and wept, wept for the sadness I’ve kept hidden so long, wept for the loved ones I miss so dearly, wept for the suffering and uncertainty of the world, wept for reasons I don’t even understand.

Many of us weep for the collective suicide we are living through. This is not about victimhood, but about understanding the depth of crisis and the urgency to overcome this universal challenge of our extinction. It is a conscious knowing rooted in deep wells of pain, anxiety and existential suffering growing in prevalence among the young because of the collective suicide being imposed by financialised carbon capitalism.

Greta Thunberg and many of the young climate activists in South Africa such as Raeesah Noor Mohamed, Nosintu Mcimeli, William Shoki, Awande Buthelezi, Jane Cherry and Courtney Morgan, to name a few,  understand this. They carry their pain, their understanding of injustice as they protest.

But is the present resistance enough? The cry of 1 degree Celsius movements – Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, #FridaysForFuture and the Climate Justice Charter process in South Africa – are all coming up against power structures and ruling classes not willing to break with the imposed collective suicide of financialised eco-cidal carbon capitalism. Yet in the context of Covid-19, not only are global populations shocked, but it has rocked, assailed and unhinged the very same power structure standing in the way of addressing the climate crisis. Covid-19 is forcing, even reluctantly, ruling classes to try to act with concern for life.

Lockdown and the ANC’s epidemiological neoliberalism

Covid-19 has thrown us into a state of exception. From a climate justice perspective, this is a dress rehearsal for a world that breaches 2 and 3 degrees Celsius in which climate shocks on a global scale imperil life-supporting socio-ecological systems such as food, water and  health systems through unbearable temperatures. Waking up then is too late.

This is the underlying premise of climate justice activism, given that climate science is telling us what is arriving with business as usual or low mitigation trajectories. With the Covid-19 crisis, our governments seem to be suddenly realising markets and corporations are not more important than human life. Is this the case?

The disaster capitalism of Covid-19, as Naomi Klein reminds us, brings forth profit-making opportunities even from the suffering of the people. Trump is leading the way. His first crucial move was to build up fossil fuel reserves thus keeping oil prices bolstered, then he unleashed the privatised healthcare system and is now keeping pharmaceutical companies “free” to manipulate the prices of essential medical equipment instead of repurposing production through the Defense Production Act. However, this is not the end of the story and struggles inside US society will certainly determine if Trump’s epidemiological neoliberalism will triumph or not.

In South Africa, we have been witness to a sea change from kleptocratic state and neoliberal austerity policies (including cutting billions of rands from health spending), announced by Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni, to cross-subsidise corrupted and failing parastatals, to the war on Covid-19.

The country is going into this government-declared war with a dualistic healthcare system, with the vast majority dependent on a public healthcare system gutted by corruption, mismanagement and austerity. This healthcare system, with these specific features, is what is going to be overwhelmed not just by Covid-19, but by over two decades of ANC misrule. The lockdown of South Africa has to be understood in this context.

Put more sharply, the warped rationalities of commodified healthcare for a few and failing healthcare for the many is clearly the frontline the government is trying to avoid in the country’s Covid-19 response. For most South Africans, in a state of shock and panic, this lockdown crash-landing of the economy on the wretched lives of a precarious working class and poor seems like the best response.

Of course, this shock therapy has been administered repeatedly since neoliberal strictures informed the first democratic budget in 1994 and the macro-economic shift of 1996, kleptocratic neoliberalism of the Jacob Zuma project and now the new epidemiological neoliberalism of the ANC. In this context, the so-called China success story of shutting down Wuhan peppers government-speak.

But the other epidemiological success story of South Korea is not referenced. South Korea did not lock down its economy, but put the emphasis on: (1) intervening fast through test kits produced (100,000 a day), on a mass scale domestically; (2) test early, often and safely (it has conducted over 300,000 tests), such that detection happens quickly; (3) contact tracing, isolation and surveillance, which has used smart apps, mass messaging and has prevented an overload on the healthcare system; and (4) enlist the public’s help. While not perfect and easily replicable, it’s nonetheless an important alternative to lockdown.

South Africa’s lockdown has not been preceded by mass testing despite the two-month lead time the South African government had since the outbreak in China. Even as the country goes into lockdown, the costs of tests are prohibitive, there has been no clear communication about international partnerships to get testing going on a mass scale, there is no clear messaging on testing details and grassroots civil society has not been mobilised, despite its enthusiasm to rise to the challenge.

Instead, the lockdown has shifted the focus to managing economic chaos, mitigation measures and privatised charity through a “solidarity fund”. Deep anxiety, fear and insecurity is running through society. South Africa is going into the lockdown as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The crisis of socio-ecological reproduction is deep as expressed through high levels of structural unemployment, intra-African income inequality, hunger and water inequalities (54% of South African households do not have access to clean water through a tap in their homes).

Lockdown means South Africa’s precarious working class and poor are now responsible for solving the Covid-19 problem because they carry the burden. Lockdown is meant to save their lives while worsening their already wretched life worlds. Hence the ANC government is off the hook with this cunning move of epidemiological neoliberalism while taking Covid-19 disaster capitalism to a new level.

Ending the war with nature

Covid-19 is an expression of contradictory natural relations. On the one hand, it is devouring the most vulnerable in our society and, on the other hand, it is prompting humanity to slow down collective climate suicide. Carbon emission data is certainly going to register deep drops since the onset of Covid-19, with airlines, shipping, cars and other carbon-emitting technologies brought to a halt.

Covid-19 has achieved what almost three decades of UN multilateral negotiations have failed to achieve. If governments can take the Covid-19 emergency seriously, they can take the climate crisis seriously. The UN climate meeting in Glasgow this year has to open with lessons learned from Covid-19 to address the global climate emergency. In this context, South Africa will have to tell its story to the global public. However, there is a lot the South African government should consider as this pandemic unfolds, including its war-on-Covid-19 approach.

South Africa’s government declared Covid-19 a disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. It has unleashed an important coordination capacity in the state, preventative regulations, is disseminating information, has imposed a 21-day lockdown and introduced economic mitigation measures. The command structure is led by the president. The Disaster Management Act was not kicked into gear during the worst drought in South Africa’s history (2014-till now), which ravaged numerous communities, collapsed part of the globalised food system and pushed up food prices. Many communities still have acute water needs and are being challenged to maintain basic hygiene.

As Covid-19 transmission spreads, water-stressed communities are going to be hotspots as these are poor communities and very likely to also have many with compromised immune systems. If the drought was handled properly by the ANC government, water issues would not have been a problem now.

Moreover, if the ANC government did not get caught up in the tides of populism around the land question and listened to the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, including taking seriously their Peoples Food Sovereignty Act handed over to Parliament, we would be sitting in the midst of Covid 19 with more communities, villages, towns and cities having localised agro-ecological food sovereignty pathways to cope with the current situation. Instead, we are living the drama of a war-centred crisis management approach.

The war approach to Covid-19 is limited in three respects and holds out dangers for how leadership is practiced now and what capacities we build in this defining moment. First, war works with a simple logic. There’s an enemy, militarise (build war-making capabilities), mobilise your society in the effort and deploy this to destroy the enemy. It is a reductionist way of thinking; it is not a systems view of the world.

Covid-19 is manifesting in our midst together with other systemic crises, such as economic crises and climate crises. Financialised capitalism has produced an unstable global economy and grotesque inequalities. It has not worked. The climate crisis is worsening with a lack of will to phase out fossil fuels and decarbonise.

We are facing a 1.5 degree celsius increase in planetary temperature most likely in the next five years, accompanied by intensifying climate shocks. These crises are interconnected, cascade into each other and push our socio-ecological orders towards collapse. A war mentality does not appreciate the interconnectedness of all of this.

Put differently, even if Covid-19 is addressed with war-like precision and the epidemiological curve flattens globally and in South Africa, we are not returning to a new normal. We are returning to a world in permanent crisis; a new abnormal. Hence, how we address Covid-19 and reconstruction after it, must lock in democratic systemic reforms that cushion us from more crises.

South Africa will need an eco-justice stimulus package to tackle the impacts of Covid-19, the economic crisis and worsening climate crisis. South Africa’s climate justice charter is a crucial point of departure in this regard.

Second, a war approach to Covid-19 is based on dangerous philosophical foundations. It continues the anthropocentric conquest of nature, central to capitalist thinking. Killing Covid-19 in this frame is about us being the dominant species. We demonstrate to the forces of nature our superiority. This is really a conceit which fails to understand that nature has been and will always be more powerful than us.

Moreover, we are extremely dependent on nature as a species to ensure our reproduction. With Covid-19, we are really trying to mitigate the revenge blow from nature. It’s a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order. We are just one little part of a vast and delicate web of life. Ending Covid-19 should be about ending the war with nature. This includes ending wet markets for exotic animals, ending globalised industrial agriculture and rapidly phasing out fossil fuels. 

Third, the war on Covid-19 keeps us bound up in an ethical knot and derives from deeply oppressive ways of thinking. Violence whether colonial, imperial, patriarchal, racist or eco-cidal is not what the world needs. Modern industrial scale violence that is calculated, instrumental in its reason and deadly is breeding a fast violence from nature. A violence we cannot match. Everyday violence of poverty and structural inequality has to be addressed as we come out of this pandemic moment.

Complex and holistic systems thinking, grounded in an ethics of care rather than war has to prevail. Put differently, if Covid 19 helps jettison the Thatcherite neoliberal subject – competitive, greedy and possessive individual – for a more humane state of being and solidarity-based society, it would have produced our strongest defense against a crisis-ridden world. It would have also affirmed an ethics of care for our natural relations that nurture us, feed us and enable us to have life.

Dr. Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations, Wits. He edits the Democratic Marxism series, is the principal investigator for Emancipatory Futures Studies and has been an activist for four decades. He is the co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Climate Justice Charter process.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Coronavirus – Bored and Locked Down in London



I work in the public services and have been working from home since last Tuesday, which I can do, but have not done for any kind of extended length of time, before. I have been designated as a key worker, category business critical. I am needed to make sure local government gets its funding, which is crucial at this time, as local authorities are to shoulder much of the response to the pandemic. I have been told I will be working from home for 12 weeks, at least.

I live in north London, and the local Tesco has very little in it, a tiny amount of food with no rice or pasta, no toilet rolls or kitchen paper, but if I’m lucky I might get some fresh chicken, or pork, and fruit and vegetables, but precious little else. I have to shop around for what we need, in the small local shops, and have by and large managed to get the items that I can’t get from Tesco. 

I only venture out once a day to get provisions, so I have been following the governments instructions, announced Monday night, already. I'm trying to get hold of an effective face mask, and think we have two coming, but don’t know when.

I live with my partner and we went for a walk on Saturday in a local large park, and it was packed with people. It was difficult to social distance because there were so many other people there, and the grass was muddy, so you really had to stick to the paths. Most people attempted to social distance, but I as I say, it wasn’t easy. It looks as though a total lock-down may be in force soon, but they will need to get the on line shopping sites up and running, we need to eat.

Reports from friends around the country suggests that London and other urban areas have been worst hit in terms of food/provisions shortages and London has the quickest rising cases of people contracting the virus. The worst may be a few weeks away, as the rate of infection in the UK is rising faster than other countries, like Italy, which has been the most badly hit by the pandemic.

Mutual help groups have formed in my area, and have done in some other areas of London that I have heard from. This is a good sign as we will need to help each other if we are get through this in any kind good shape. 

The government at last seems to be getting its act together after delaying measures for too long, probably weeks, and they have announced some sensible things now, so belated credit where it is due. More needs to be done though, especially for those workers not on PAYE and for those on Statutory Sick Pay, benefits and the homeless.

There is a bit of a dystopian feel about things. My local London Underground station is closed and shuttered up. The local pub, which stayed open until Friday, now has all the windows and doors boarded up, there are only the grocery shops open. People seem to be as good humoured as the situation allows, but there is a strange feeling in the air.

The worse thing for those of us feeling fine, is that there is just nothing do after work, except watch TV, listen to the radio or music, and look at things on the web. My partner who is a ferocious reader of novels is beginning to run out of books (even e-books) to read, and this is after only one week. Total boredom is likely quite shortly, but what can you do?

There has never been a time quite like this, but it is similar to the restrictions during World War II, but even then the pubs and entertainments stayed mostly open in Britain. These are unprecedented times that we live in.

I’ll leave you with Buzzcocks ‘Boredom’ from 1976 – it rather sums up my mood at the moment, other than being scared.


Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization

A subway station in Wuhan. Population density is a known factor in the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. 

Written by Kamran Nayeri and first published at Our Place in the World

The Coronavirus pandemic (1) underscores how infectious diseases are presenting the fourth existential threat to humanity. All are caused by the crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. The other three are already acknowledged: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. The trend has been marked by the outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, dengue, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and influenza, and by the looming threat of rising antimicrobial resistance.

The danger is increasing due to rapid population growth in areas with weak health systems, urbanization, globalization, climate change, civil conflict, and the changing nature of pathogen transmission between human and non-human animal populations (Bloom and Cadarette, 2019).  Not only does the deepening of each existential threat undermines human society, beginning with its most vulnerable groups and regions, but all threats interact in a nonlinear dynamic that amplifies the overall crisis.  

Unless this crisis of civilization is addressed in the coming decades, the collapse of global anthropocentric industrial capitalist society is nigh inevitable, and humanity may not survive the consequences. 

The Coronavirus and the economic crisis

Global stock markets lost $16 trillion in less than a month (CBS News, March 13, 2020) and their losses continue as the evidence for an economic recession in the U.S. and worldwide mounts (Officially a recession is always called well after the fact since it is defined by two successive quarters of GDP decline) (2).  

The financial and economic crisis the Coronavirus has touched off is exposing the structural weaknesses of the U.S. and world economies.  As Warren Buffet famously quipped, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” (April 2, 2009) There is mounting evidence of a financial crisis. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, has already remarked about the similarity with the 2008 Great Recession: “In many ways, it’s far worse than 2008.” (Goodman, March 13, 2020) 

As the crisis spreads and deepens daily, the central banks in the U.S. and around the world have employed what is left in their toolbox to slow, if not stop, the unfolding recession. Republican and Democrat politicians, the Congress and the White House have come together to devise fiscal policies to do the same.  

There is nothing in mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories or Marxist economic theory that account for the emergence and the damage caused by “natural” events such as the Coronavirus.  In neoclassical theory, Keynesian theory, and even Marxist economic theory (e.g., Shaikh 1978, 2014) such events are treated as “external shock,” that is, a “given” factor external to the economic system. 

Philosophical and methodological issues

It is important to recall the philosophical and methodological underpinning of these theories and why “natural events” fall outside their scope.  Both neoclassical and Keynesian theories are rooted in the liberal social philosophies of the nineteenth century that view society as an aggregate of individual human action driven by human nature — expressed as Homo economicus — assumed to be most fully expressed in a capitalist market economy.

The labor theory of value as developed by Karl Marx in his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy is a specific application of his materialist conception of history. What is often overlooked is the underlying philosophical anthropology of Marx, who held human nature to be the sum total of social relations among all humans:

“This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (Marx and Engels, 1945)

Thus for Marx, history is made through class struggle.  In The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) Marx and Engels argued that class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would lead to socialism. The primary purpose of Marx’s critique of political economy was to lay bare the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production that invariably lead to a systemic crisis, hence class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. 

Thus, neither bourgeois economic theories nor Marxist economic theory require the inclusion of ecology in the workings of the capitalist economy, except in limited cases such as the theory of ground rent, where soil fertility or location of land matters. But even then, this is mostly treated as a given.

In the last two decades, John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues at Monthly Review have provided important insight into what they call the ecological aspects in Karl Marx’s writings, from which they derive the notion of “metabolic rift.” To put this characterization in historical perspective, the term oekologie (ecology) was coined in 1866 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a passionate disciple of Charles Darwin whose On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection appeared in 1859.  

If Marx’s insights are to be characterized as ecological, then we must acknowledge ecological insights in the Western tradition going back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Theophrastus who first described the interrelationships between organisms and between organisms and their nonliving environment. And the host of writers with “ecological insight” would even include for some scholars Thomas Malthus who is credited with inventing “population ecology.” 

Michael Friedman, a biologist writing in Monthly Review summarizes “metabolic rift” as follows:

“‘Metabolic rift’ is the concept popularized by environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, following Marx and others, to describe the disruption of ecological processes and the tendency to sever the connection between ecological and social realms. Foster attributes the metabolic rift to the intrinsic dynamic of capitalist production, with its private ownership of the means of production, drive for profits, ever-expanding markets, and continuous growth. 

Marx employed this idea to describe the effects of capitalist agriculture on the degradation of soil fertility. Foster and his co-thinkers have employed the concept in analyses of climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries, and many other aspects of human interaction with our biosphere.” (Friedman, 2018, emphasis added) 

Thus, in this rendition of “metabolic rift” the ecological crisis is seen as the outcome of the process of capital accumulation (2). This raises a number of questions.

First, how does the discovery of Marx’s ecological concerns influences the makeup of ecological socialist theories that also build on capitalist accumulation as the root cause for the eco-social crisis, say for example, Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (2007)?  Kovel and others have also made critical assessments of Marx’s work.  But in terms of what is causing the ecological crisis, it would be hard to argue that Kovel and Foster hold uncompromisingly different views. 

Second, while the scholarly work of Foster and his colleagues is a commendable enrichment of our understanding of Marx, it offers no innovations as to the root cause of the ecological crisis. To put it differently, the task of a scientifically based study of the ecological crisis and the task of discovering what Marx thought about the ecological damages done by the process of capitalist accumulation are not one and the same thing. It is perhaps no accident that the entire scientific effort to understand climate change and the Sixth Extinction is carried by scientists in the related scientific disciplines, not by Marxists generally or by those who subscribe to metabolic rift conception in particular.

Third, the attempt to pack all knowledge and understanding about various ecological crises into Marxist categories has blinded its practitioners to some factors so obviously related causal factors. One example would suffice: exponential population growth since 1800 is closely related to the rise, dominance, and global expansion of the capitalist system.  Is it lost on anyone that the emergence and spread of the Coronavirus and the danger it poses to humanity is closely related to high population density?

Yet, the metabolic rift advocates like most other socialists have consistently ignored or even labeled as “Malthusian” or “populationist” anyone who argued that the exponential rise in human numbers is a contributing factor to the ecological crisis such as species extinction. But that is what biodiversity and conservation biologists have shown to be the case historically and in modern times (Nayeri, 2017). For example, the authors of a 2017 review essay in Science conclude: 

“Research suggests that the scale of human population and the current pace of its growth contribute substantially to the loss of biological diversity. Although technological change and unequal consumption inextricably mingle with demographic impacts on the environment, the needs of all human beings—especially for food—imply that projected population growth will undermine protection of the natural world.” (Crist, Mora, and Engelman, 2017)

The authors propose:

“An important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality.” (ibid.)

Finally, the concept of “metabolic rift” leaves out non-economic and pre-capitalist factors and in effect ignores the fact that ecological crises have been endemic to human society since the dawn of civilization. 

The Ecocentric Socialist approach

For about a decade, I have proposed another approach to rethinking Marx and Marxism that takes a very long view of ecological and social crises (For the most recent statement, see Nayeri, 2018; also, see, Nayeri, 2013A and 2013B). Central to my reconsideration is the recognition of the scientific understanding of who are and where we come from so that we can better understand where we are going.  

We are literally the product of our natural and social history and the sum total of our ecological-social (eco-social) relations in any given social formation.  Marx would have reconsidered his own philosophical anthropology as from the 1840s he replaced philosophy in favor of scientific inquiry. Even in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels wrote:

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, emphasis added)

Thus, the founders of the materialist conception of history believed that “the consequent relation to the rest of nature” would matter to historical investigation even though they clearly and consciously set aside the “actual physical nature of man” and his/her “natural conditions” of which they named the “geological, hydrographical, climatic” aspects.

But if we are not just the sum total of our social relations but instead the sum total of ecological and social relations, then we must revise and update the materialist conception of history in light of 150 years of accumulated scientific knowledge.

In recent decades, the study of the human microbiome, the collection of all the microorganisms living in association with human cells and organs, has advanced greatly, although our knowledge of their relationships is still in infancy. 

“These communities consist of a variety of microorganisms including eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells, for a total of about 1000 more genes than are present in the human genome. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that's 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult).” (National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project, accessed March 17, 2020)

Although most biologists separate the microbiome from the human body, they also acknowledge its essential role in human health:

“These microbes are generally not harmful to us, in fact they are essential for maintaining health. For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes. An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.”  (ibid. Emphasis added)

In his essay entitled “Metabolic Rift and the Human Microbiome” cited earlier, Michael Friedman notes that:

“Some biologists conceive of our microbiota as a hitherto unrecognized organ or organs fulfilling important physiological functions and networking with other organ systems, while many microbial ecologists propose that we are not ‘individuals,’ but collective organisms comprised of the person (mammal) and its entire microbiome. Many other species are also collective organisms, termed holobionts, tightly bound by evolution ever since the earliest eukaryotic cells arose from fusions of independent prokaryotes (non-nucleated cells, such as bacteria).”  (Friedman, 2018)

Thus, not only humans but all other complex species might more fruitfully and accurately be called “collective organisms.” In a scientific sense, a human is an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its multiple constituent parts. Biologists call such phenomena emergent properties. Life itself is understood as an emergent property.  

I suspect this is much closer to the holistic view of Hegel (1817) and Marx, that "the truth is in the whole."  Indeed, recent research has found a correlation between gut microbiota and personality in adults (Han-Na Kim, et.al. 2018). If microorganisms in humans can affect even our personality, how could they not have an impact on our history as a species?  

This view of the ecological nature of humans, as the interpenetration of multiple kinds of beings, validates yet another reconsideration of Marx’s philosophical anthropology. As revolutionary as Marx’s advance over Feuerbach’s materialism was in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845) where humans are viewed as the agency in history, his view still remained firmly anthropocentric. We now know that other organisms and species play a decisive role in history. As I will outline in a moment, infectious diseases caused by various pathogens have been particularly crucial at certain moments throughout the history of civilization.

But let me first cite one example of how the application of the materialist conception of history to explain the successful occupation of the Americas by the European colonists fell short of the historical truth.  As a young socialist, one of my teachers was George Novack, an American Marxist philosopher.  In 1975, I translated his essay “The Long View of History” (1974) into Farsi; it was published in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Novack used the interpretation of the materialist conception of history that privileges forces of production to explain how the colonists overcame the Native American population.  

In a nutshell, Novack attributed this to the superior firearms of the Europeans who overwhelmed the Native population armed with bow and arrow.  However, in the decades since, historical research has shown that the European colonists exposed the Native Americans to new infectious diseases for which they lacked immunity. These communicable diseases, including smallpox and measles, devastated entire Native American populations which numbered in millions. Smallpox was one of the most feared because of the high mortality rates in infected Native Americans. 

Marx’s anthropocentric view was invalidated even in his own time with the publication of Darwin’s researches.  As Darwin clearly stated that  “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” He went on: 

We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. (Darwin, 1871/1981, p. 105)

The philosopher James Rachel adds:

“In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives.  We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear.  They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud.  They know wonder and curiosity.  In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (Rachels, 1990: 57) 

Thus, human nature is the sum total of our eco-social relations shaped by the dynamic interrelation of three trends: (1) The transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, in particular the primates. We are animals, mammals, an evolutionary cousin of the chimpanzee. Therefore, we share certain traits with them. (2) The historical trend of our species, Homo sapiens, that goes back at least 300,000 years, including cultural heritage from earlier Homo genera: We inherited the knowledge to use of fire from Homo erectus who domesticated it 400,000 years ago.  And, (3) the trend specific to the mode of production influences, e.g. capitalistically developed global culture today. 

This dynamic mixture of nature and nurture makes us who we are and is key to how history unfolds. 

In “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism” (Nayeri, 2018) I began the task of reconsideration of the materialist conception of history in the spirit of the above insight gained from Marx and Engels including factors they acknowledged but never had the opportunity to sufficiently elaborate, and drawing as well on the scientific knowledge we have gained since the latter years of the nineteenth century. I will not recapitulate that discussion here in the interest of brevity.  Let us now return to the Coronavirus pandemic from the perspective just laid out. 

The origins of the Coronavirus

Virologists and other experts are not yet certain about the origins of the current Coronavirus (there is a large family of Coronaviruses).  But there is little doubt among the experts that a confluence of anthropogenic factors is responsible for the present pandemic. 

Rob Wallace (2020), an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer and the author of Big Farm Makes Big Flu (2016), has highlighted factors that may have played a role in the emergence of novel pathogens in China. 

“… wet markets and exotic food are staples in China, as is now industrial production, juxtaposed alongside each other since economic liberalization post-Mao. Indeed, the two food modes may be integrated by way of land use.

"Expanding industrial production may push increasingly capitalized wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens. Peri-urban loops of growing extent and population density may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild nonhuman populations and newly urbanized rurality.

“Worldwide, even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains: among them ostrichesporcupinecrocodilesfruit bats, and the palm civet, whose partially digested berries now supply the world’s most expensive coffee bean. Some wild species are making it onto forks before they are even scientifically identified, including one new short-nosed dogfish found in a Taiwanese market.”

 Wildlife meat market in China

Thus, Wallace highlights the complex interaction of traditional Chinese culinary preferences, the newly emergent industrial capitalist economy, and the reshaping of the ecology of China’s hinterlands to suggest the eco-social context of the emergence of the Coronavirus.

Wallace’s emphasis is on Chinese capitalist industrialization.  However, Tong et. al. (2017) highlights the interplay of economic growth, urbanization, globalization and the risk of emerging infectious diseases in China.

“Three interrelated world trends may be exacerbating emerging zoonotic risks: income growth, urbanization, and globalization. (1) Income growth is associated with rising animal protein consumption in developing countries, which increases the conversion of wild lands to livestock production, and hence the probability of zoonotic emergence. (2) Urbanization implies the greater concentration and connectedness of people, which increases the speed at which new infections are spread. (3) Globalization—the closer integration of the world economy—has facilitated pathogen spread among countries through the growth of trade and travel.

High-risk areas for the emergence and spread of infectious disease are where these three trends intersect with predisposing socioecological conditions including the presence of wild disease reservoirs, agricultural practices that increase contact between wildlife and livestock, and cultural practices that increase contact between humans, wildlife, and livestock. Such an intersection occurs in China, which has been a ‘cradle’ of zoonoses from the Black Death to avian influenza and SARS. Disease management in China is thus critical to the mitigation of global zoonotic risks.” (Tong, et. al. 2017; numerals inside parentheses are added to emphasize contributing factors)

Key to the development of any capitalist economy is division of labor, which depends in turn on the extent of the market, which itself depends on population growth and the rise in per capita income. Even though the Chinese economy has followed an export-led growth model capitalizing on the international market for developing its division of labor, hence industrialization, by hundreds of millions of Chinese have been moved from rural areas to ever-expanding cities and lifted out of poverty. 

According to a 2013 report by McKinsey & Company, a major international business consulting firm, by 2022, “more than 75 percent of China’s urban consumers will earn 60,000 to 229,000 renminbi ($9,000 to $34,000) a year.” In 2018, some 823 million Chinese, more than half the population, was urban.  The population density in China which in 1950 had 551,960,000 people (the Chinese revolution was 1949-51) in 2018 had 1,433,783,686 people, almost three times as many despite the one-child policy introduced in 1979 and modified in the mid-1980s.  

Meanwhile, population density in China increased from 57.98 persons per square kilometer in 1950 to 150.1 persons in 2019. (macrotrend.com, China Population: 1950-2020) The epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak Wuhan had a population of slightly more than 1 million in 1950. Today it has 8.3 million.

                                                                             Live meat market in China

To better understand the Chinese demand for exotic animals, let me cite a recent article by Yi-Zheng Lian (February 20, 2020) that offers further insight into how Chinese cultural mores have contributed to the emergence of novel viruses in China.  He discusses the ancient Chinese beliefs about the powers of certain foods known as “jinbumeaning roughly “filling a void.”  He writes:

“I’ve seen snakes and the penises of bulls or horses — great for men, the theory goes — on offer at restaurants in many cities in southern China. Bats, which are thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are said to be good for restoring eyesight — especially the animals’ granular feces, called “sands of nocturnal shine” (夜明砂). Gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone is for erections.

“More mundane yet no less popular is the palm civet (果子狸), a small, wild quadruped suspected of having passed on the SARS virus to humans. When stewed with snake meat, it is said to cure insomnia.”

                                                                                              Wildlife meat market in China

It must be plain that the Coronavirus pandemic has as much to do with centuries-old Chinese traditions as it does with the rise of China as the second-largest industrial capitalist economy in the world.  

Crisis of civilization and infectious diseases

While the “metabolic rift” writers focus attention on capitalist industrialization, the deeper underlying cause of the ecological crisis lies in the emergence of fixed human settlement and farming before the rise of early states between approximately 10,000 to 5,000 years ago. 

 If we wish to speak in the language of the metabolic rift in discussions of infectious diseases, we must trace it all the way back to the dawn of farming in Mesopotamia. The farm itself is an entirely human-made ecosystem, which, in combination with the sedentary and crowded lifestyle of early farmers, also attracted a host of species from ticks and flees to rats and cats, sparrows and pigeons.

These brought with them a host of infectious diseases.  Yale University political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott (2017) argues these were a major contributing factor in the collapse of many early civilizations. In a chapter entitled “Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm” in his 2017 book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Scott details the confluence of factors that gave rise to the early chronic and infectious diseases. He compares the chronic ailments of early farmers to the modern-day repeated motion syndrome, a family of muscular conditions that result from repeated motions performed in the course of normal work or daily activities.

Scott calls this the rise of drudgery in early farming.  Hunter-gatherers’ rugged mobile lifestyle in contrast never included such tedium as those introduced by farming activities.  Furthermore, sedentism brought with it crowding: 

“[V]irtually all infectious diseases due to microorganisms especially adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.  They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’ These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginning of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture.”  (Scott, 2017, p. 101)

A key role in the rise and spread of infectious diseases was played by livestock, commensals, cultivated grain and legumes, where the key principle of crowding again is operative. 

“The Neolithic was not only an unprecedented gathering of people but, at the same time, a wholly unprecedented gathering of sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, dogs, cats, chicken, ducks, geese. To the degree that they were already ‘herd’ or ‘flock’ animals, they would have carried some species-specific pathogens of crowding. assembled for the first time to share a wide range of infective organisms. Estimates vary, but of the fourteen hundred known human pathogenic organisms, between eight hundred and nine hundred are zoonotic diseases, originating in non-human hosts. For most of these pathogens, Homo sapiens is a final ‘dead-end’ host: humans do not transmit it further to another host.” (ibid. p. 103)

Thus, there is an unmistakable similarity between the conditions that gave rise to infectious diseases thousands of years ago and what we find happening in the twenty-first century, including the current pandemic caused by the Coronavirus.  

What is markedly different is the scope, scale, and speed by which the Coronavirus has impacted the world population.  This is due to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.  Wallace cites the “connectivity” of the world population in his discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic, and Tong, et. al. (2017) cite “globalization.”  

In 2018, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) there were 4.1 billion passengers on scheduled services, an increase of 7.3% over 2016.  Air travel is projected to reach 5.4 billion passengers by 2030 (this was before the pandemic).  Clearly, infectious diseases can and will spread across the globe like wildfire in the coming years and decades.  

Thus, there is no doubt in my mind that infectious disease must be seen as the fourth existential crisis humanity faces. Again, the other three are: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. Scott argues that infectious diseases were a contributing factor in the collapse of earlier civilizations. There is no reason to doubt that the collapse of anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization would be any different.  

To overcome the crisis, we must transcend civilization, a Herculean task no doubt given that even Marxists, whether socialist or ecosocialist, still conceive of a post-capitalist anthropocentric industrial civilization. This is in part due to a theoretical blind spot. Marxists remain hostage to the anthropocentric ideology that has been at the base of every civilization all based on agriculture in which domination and control of nature are paramount for the extraction of wealth from it.

The Marxian theory promises only to do away with the exploitation of the working masses who perform such extraction of wealth from nature. There is no environmental ethics built into their socialist or ecosocialist theories which are based on socialist humanism.

Ecocentric Socialism argues that the root cause of social alienation, hence all forms of exploitation since the dawn of civilization, is alienation from nature. Human emancipation, even human survival, demands a process of de-alienation from nature.   

Transcending civilization as de-alienation

All civilization is based on a 10,000-year-old anthropocentric detour that constitutes only a mere 3.3% of the history of our species which, as we recently learned, emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago.  During the 290,000 years before the rise of early farmers, humanity lived and prospered as ecocentric hunter-gatherers.  

While it is true that the successful life of hunter-gatherers which led to population growth sometimes caused ecological damage, including extinction events, by-and-large they lived in relative harmony with the rest of nature. There was no systematic attempt to dominate or control nature, something that became the cornerstone of every civilization since, reaching its zenith in the industrial capitalism of the past 250 years.

The combination of the anthropocentric world view, advances in science and technology, and the capitalist drive for ever more accumulation of capital has brought us to the Anthropocene (Age of Man) and the existential planetary crisis.  

Ecocentric ecological socialist politics is the wisdom and the art of undoing power relations that have been thrown up during the past 10,000 years, relations of subordination, oppression, and exploitation of humans and between humans and the rest of nature.  Thus, the class relations and class struggle that Marx and Engels correctly placed at the center of their theoretical and practical concerns must be supplemented with non-class struggles against the subordination of various strata of people and with a cultural revolution that aims to end anthropocentrism in all its manifestations.  

Some of these, like the struggle for gender, racial, sexual orientation, and national origin equality must be seen as essential for fostering the unity of the working people. Others like the fight to stop and reverse climate crisis, the ongoing Sixth Extinction, and the sharpening threat of nuclear war involve existential struggles. But struggle against all manifestations of anthropocentrism must be seen as the core struggle because it is anthropocentrism that helped to create the material basis of social alienation and has served as the ideological basis for the Anthropocene.  

The fight for ecocentrism, like the fight for human emancipation, is a fight for universal values.  Without ecocentrism, that is not just an intellectual point of view but a genuine love for nature and for life on Earth, there will be no humanity and no human emancipation. They are one and the same fight, the fight to overcome human alienation.

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this essay to Panther and Siah (means black, in Farsi). They are two male black tomcats whose names taken together mean "black panther," who live with me in La Casa de Los Gatos. Their friendship enriches my life in ways few humans ever have. 

Acknowledgment: I am deeply grateful to Fred Murphy who read a draft of this essay and made valuable suggestions for the improvement of the text as well as corrected my grammar. He also directed me to the Hegel’s text as the source for his well-known philosophical proposition that “The truth is in the whole.” 

Endnotes: 

1. In this essay, I use “Coronavirus ” and Coronavirus pandemic where others may use 2019-nCoV or Convid-19.

2. As I am publishing this essay, I received in the mail today,  Foster and Clark’s “The Rubbery of Nature” (Monthly Review, 2020).  I do not know if there is anything in this new contribution that adds to the issues discussed here about “metabolic rift.” Of course, if there is I would hope to address them in a future essay as needed.

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