The World economy has already crossed or is about of crossing a whole set of planetary boundaries, each one of which represents a planetary emergency in its own right, including ocean acidification, loss of biological diversity, the disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, disappearance of fresh water, land cover change (particularly deforestation), and growing pollution from synthetic chemicals.
Humanity today is confronted with what might be called the Capitalist Climacteric. In the standard definition, a climacteric is a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of an individual or a whole Society.
The current World of business as usual is marked by rapid climate change, but also by the crossing or impending crossing of numerous other planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.
It was the recognition of this and of the unprecedented speed of Earth system change due to social-historical factors that led scientists in recent years to introduce the notion of the Anthropocene epoch, marking the emergence of humanity as a geological force on a planetary scale.
The rapidity with which the human-caused positive climate forcing is being introduced has no known analog in Earth’s history. It is thus exceedingly difficult to foresee the consequences if the human-made climate forcing continues to accelerate.
We will be entering a World of climate feedbacks and irreversibility where humanity may no longer be able to return. Civilization is faced by a threat of self-extermination that over the long run is as great as that posed by a full nuclear exchange – and in a process that is more inexorable.
Human actions might come too late, not simply in the sense of an increase in catastrophic events such as extreme weather or the effects of sea level rise, but also in the even more ominous sense of humanity’s loss of the power to stabilize the climate (and civilization).
This points to the need for massive, accelerated social change exceeding not only the great social revolutions of the past, but also the transformations of production marked by the original Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution: namely, a 21st century Ecological Revolution.
All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil … Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker. – Karl Marx
The industrial economy from agriculture to war is by far the most violent the world has ever known. It is a fact that at the end of world war two industry geared up to adapt the mechanical and chemical technologies of war to agriculture.
At the same time certain corporate and academic leaders, known collectively as the ‘Committee for Economic Development’, decided that there were too many farmers. The relatively self-sufficient producers on small farms needed to become members of the industrial labour force and consumers of industrial commodities.
The first problem of a drastic reduction of the land using population is to keep the land producing in the absence of the people. The ‘Committee for Economic Development’ had a ready solution; the absent people would be replaced by the mechanical and chemical technologies developed for military use and subsisting upon a seemingly limitless bounty of natural resources.
All of the land using population have left their family farms and moved into the cities to be industrially or professionally employed or unemployed and to be entirely dependent upon the ways and the products of industrialism.
Agriculture would become an industry, farms would become factories, like other factories ever more automated and remotely controlled. Industrial land use became a front in a war against the living World.
There is, in fact, no significant difference between the mass destruction of warfare and the massive destruction of industrial land abuse. In order to mine a seam of coal we destroy a mountain, its topsoil and its forest, with no regard for the ecosystem or for the people downhill, downstream and later in time.
But there was another problem that the population engineers did not recognise then and have not recognised yet; agricultural production without land maintenance leads to exhaustion. Land that is in use, if the use is to continue, must be used with care, and care is not and can never be an industrial product or an industrial result.
A proper economy would not exploit, syphon away and finally destroy the life of the land and the people. A proper economy instead would recognise value, cultivate and conserve in any given place, everything that is good in it and worth conserving.
If farming is no more than an industry to be unendingly transformed by technologies then farmers can be replaced by engineers and engineers finally by robots in the progress toward our evident goal of Human uselessness.
If, on the contrary, because of the uniqueness and fragility of each one of the World‘s myriad small places the land economies must involve a creaturely affection and care, then we must see and respect the inescapable dependence even of our present economy, as of our lives, upon nature and the natural World.
Good work in the use of the land is work that goes beyond production to maintenance. Production must not reduce productivity. Good work is also informed in locally adapted ways that must be passed down, taught, and learned, generation after generation.
Every mine will eventually be exhausted but a farm, a ranch, or a forest where the laws of nature are observed and obeyed in use, if given sufficient skill as we know they can be, will remain fertile and productive as long as nature lasts.