N is for Nature

All over the world, during lockdown, we were reminded that the rest of the natural world is closer to us than many of us thought.

Capitalism has thrived on the idea that humans can “transcend” nature – that we can find a technological fix for anything that gets in the way of economic growth. Indeed, other species are seen as a positive inconvenience. Or a source of profit.

Need more palm oil to make anything from soap to peanut butter? Need cheap protein? Finding that you’ve got a lot of waste products to get rid of?

This attitude goes back a long way: “The interior is mostly a magnificent and healthy country of unspeakable richness… I am confident that with a wise and liberal (not lavish) expenditure of capital… any enterprising capitalist might take the matter in hand.” Lieutenant VL Cameron, 1876

It’s not only other species. Aristotle talked about some people being “natural slaves”. In Spain, in 1550, his words were used to justify enslaving indigenous peoples in the Americas. Those same arguments are still being used today… “The Indians don’t speak our language, they don’t have money, they don’t have culture. They are native peoples. How did they get 13% of the land?” (Javier Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, 2015)

And was used for centuries to justify the enslavement and oppression of millions of African people. “… a native race still plunged in its primary squalour, without religion, without clothes, without morals…” (Winston Churchill, 1908)

Women have also often been categorised as being closer to nature and so somehow lesser than men. “…woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by superior reason.” (Augustine of Hippo, 4th Century) “Women are nothing but machines for producing children.” (Napoleon Bonaparte, 1817)

And dangerous with it. Anyone who didn’t fit in with the ruling class’s image of a perfect (hu)man was described as “unnatural”. And hence unwanted.

At the same time, we are manipulated by a romantic image of “nature” in order to serve the needs of capital.

The idea of a perfect wilderness, untouched by human intervention, has persisted for a long time. In the United States, huge areas of land emptied of its original inhabitants by genocide are now National Parks. (Although even being a National Park doesn’t necessarily protect nature from capitalism.) In Sub-Saharan Africa, capitalist colonial powers carved up the continent into “productive” land and into “conservation” areas. Peoples who had lived in harmony with the rest of the natural world for millennia were – and still are – pushed out to make way for this pristine image of nature, untouched by human hand.

In recent years, even those who make a fortune from exploiting nature and excluding people have started to notice that this model cannot last forever. But the “solutions” they come up with are always the same… Markets, privatisation, valuing “natural capital”, paying for “ecosystem services”.

There’s nothing natural about capital.

Attaching a cash value to something suggests that it can be bought and sold. Clean water, breathable air, other species that share our planet – none of these should be for sale. But the ruling class is always looking for new ways to accumulate more. Nature just becomes another technical challenge to be overcome, subjugating even more of our lives to the rule of money. Making us all pay for our own destruction.

We don’t have to accept the rule of money and the destruction of nature.