Ecology, Capitalism and Humans


This extract* from the World Socialist Party discusses ecology and argues that human beings need to take serioul the threat to the earth and humanity itself.

In recent years the environment has become a major political issue. This is because a serious environmental crisis really does exist. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat have all become contaminated to greater or lesser extent.

Recent research on increasing environmental degradation has painted an alarming picture of the likely future if the profit system does not change. Claims that the proper use of market forces will solve the problem contradicted by the emerging facts of what is happening. The motor of capitalism is money profit.

Environmental concerns, if considered at all, always come a poor second. Earth summits over the last few decades have shown a consistent record of failure. The Green Party and other environmental bodies have proposed the reform of capitalism that has not worked or has made very little real difference to the environmental crisis.

What is ecology?

Ecology is the study of the relationships of living organisms to each other and their environment. Ecology teaches that the mineral and chemical constituents of natural matter are continually being used and transformed by the activities of living organisms. Under natural conditions these materials get turned back into what they are originally were, so that the whole process can begin again. Ecology is concerned that materials should go through the process of extraction, transformation, consumption and decomposition in such a way as not to upset the balanced hydrosphere (all the waters on the earth’s surface including lakes and seas) earth’s crust and the atmosphere (the gases surrounding the earth).

The biosphere is in reality one big ecosystem. A simple example of an ecosystem would be a field,forest, pond, or even a puddle. In a pond, for instance, the deposits lying at the bottom contains nutrients, which support various kinds of plant life. These plants provide food, which sustain the fish and insects living in the pond. When plants and animals die their bodies decompose, releasing nutrients back into the bottom of the pond in what is, in affect a continuous process of recycling. All ecosystems tend towards a state of harmony or balance through a system of self-regulation.

A brief history of Earth

Today most scientific experts put time period of the earth’s formation at 4 to 5 billion years. At first, earth was a molten mass of rock and metals. As it cooled it formed a thin crust, which floated on a sea of molten rock. Millions of years passed while an atmosphere gradually formed. The crust cooled into a large chunk, forming oceans, seas, lakes and rivers.

The atmosphere before life appeared on earth is believed to have been composed mainly of hydrogen and its compounds methane, ammonia and water vapour. Life, essentially a chemical process of growth and reproduction had been set in motion it never stopped. Over a period of hundreds of millions of years it spread from the seas to colonise the whole surface of the globe with a great variety of life forms-bacterial, plant and animal.

Life on earth is sustainable by the sun’s rays, which are converted by plants, through the process of photosynthesis, into a form of chemical energy. All other life forms depend on this as food to live. Insects and other animals eat parts of the plant- its leaves, its roots, its fruit and seeds- and are in turn eaten by other animals. Other insects, bacteria and fungi decompose their droppings and their bodies when they die. These bacteria and fungi release into the soil the various minerals, which plants, must have to exist and grow. So the circuit is completed; all life forms ultimately spend on each other in order to live.

Humans enter the scene

Earlier types of Homo evolved into Homo sapiens (humans) not just in response to externally produced changes in their in their environment but also in response to changes they themselves made when they intervened in nature to meet their needs. It is through the interaction of a number of factors-upright stance,free hands, opposable thumbs, tool using, tool making, collective hunting, speech, language, learning- tat our ape-like ancestors are most likely to have evolved by a process of natural selection into human beings.

Humans actively intervene to change nature to satisfy their needs. All life forms change nature simply by being their alive and breathing and consuming food. But human activity involves not simply taking from nature in the process of satisfying needs but also changing nature to get it to provide for those needs. Indeed, changing nature to provide for human needs is the basic definition of production.

What humans do when they engage in productive activity is to apply their mental and physical energies to materials that originally came from nature with a view to changing their form so as to make them suitable for human use. Since humans are part of nature, what happens from ecological point of view is that one part of nature acts on another part to change its form. This means that human work or labour is not the soul source of wealth. Useful things, or use-values as they are sometimes called. Are combinations of two elements, labour and the materials provided by nature.

Capitalism as a system of profit does not heed the need for ecological balance; in fact it ignores the ecological consequences. Things can go wrong when, for whatever reason, humans ignore the ecological consequences of their actions. Ecological damage inflicted by human action is not new to history. The rise and fall of civilizations can be, to some extent, attributed to environmental factors.

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