Engels on the power of nature

Issue: 130

The terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohuku in northeastern Japan on 11 March took place as this issue of International Socialism was on its way to the press. The scenes in which the tsunami swept away vast swathes of human habitation are an awesome testimony to the overwhelming power of physical forces. The grinding together of tectonic plates that causes earthquakes has nothing to do with human agency, although its effects are mediated by the structures of class, wealth and power. But we know that global warming increases the frequency of extreme weather events, and therefore the likelihood that we may witness, or suffer, more catastrophes comparable to those that have recently afflicted Kashmir, Sichuan, Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and now Japan. Moreover, the nuclear meltdowns the tsunami has caused at Fukushima Daiichi power station underline the criminal folly of governments, like the British, that are relying on expanding nuclear power in order to reduce CO2 emissions.

So it is good to remind ourselves of this passage from Frederick Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, where he dissociates Marxism from the fantasy of human domination of nature:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.


Engels, Frederick, 1972, Dialectics of Nature (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch09.htm