OPINION: Karl Marx was an environmentalist avant la lettre

Whether it is scorn or praise, everyone seemed to have an opinion on the ideas of Karl Marx, 200 years after he was born. When EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker defended Marx in the city where the economist and philosopher was born, state media in China were more than happy to cover it. But a lot of media overlooked the fact that Marx was also an environmentalist avant la lettre.

Few people know that Marx wrote about the right for all to have access to clean nature, air and beaches, about a sufficiency economy that avoids both depletion and waste and about global citizenship. Marx thought that capitalist agriculture “is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the workers, but of robbing the soil”. Gareth Dale, who authored a critique on Green Growth, writes in The Ecologist that Marx viewed humans as part of nature, not rulers of it and that an ecological Marx was also a sharp critic of the growth paradigm.

Mathias Lievens is an assistant professor at KU Leuven and also the author of The Limits of the Green Economy. Asked to comment on Marx as an environmentalist, Lievens said that Marx wrote about the metabolic interaction (“Stoffwechsel”) between man and the earth, how capitalist accumulation breaks the eternal circle of renewal in nature and how mankind should merely try to pass the earth in a better state to the future generations that will live on the earth’s rent.

Paul Mason, author of the bestseller Postcapitalism writes that Marx is more relevant today than ever in the age of automation: “If we are to defend human rights against authoritarian populism we must have a concept of humanity to defend”. Mason cites late works of Marx that went unpublished for a century. In them, Marx described human nature, the need for autonomy and well-being. This text is so far removed from Soviet interpretations of Marxism that they dubbed it anti-Marxist.

Certainly relevant and timely today is that Marx also wrote about the need to defend indigenous peoples and the racially oppressed. If the EnvJustice project and its massive Atlas of Environmental Justice have only one message it would be something very similar: protecting indigenous peoples and the racially oppressed very much boils down to protecting the environmental protectors who stand at the frontlines of an ongoing war on the environment.

If all that is what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had in mind when he paid his tribute to Marx, then it would suggest that Europeans are at the vanguard of a post-free-reign-capitalist era. Public policy and better regulation should then surely be targeted at better regulated business activities leading to ecological recovery, greater equity and better rights for all EU citizens, as well as greater international solidarity.