Declining sperm counts, polluted breast milk, autoimmune disorders — the diabolical legacy of capital’s exploitation of labour

In Alfonso Cuarón’s seemingly prescient dystopian 2006 film Children of Men, set in 2027, a fertility crisis has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction.

Sperm counts have reportedly fallen by 60% since the 1970s as a result of the microplastics and toxic chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and mining that are used to make the everyday commodities we consume. The root cause of this existential abomination is the capitalist mode of production: since capital’s exploitation of labour is the source of profit, capital accumulation is increasingly dependent on the labour intensity of production based on the otherwise unnecessary extraction of metals and fossil fuels.

According to a new book, Count Down by Shanna Swan and Stacey Colino, the total sperm count of men in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand fell by some 59% between 1973 and 2011. Extrapolating the trend’s trajectory, 2045 — a mere quarter of a century away — is suggested as the year when sperm counts will be close to zero.

If this development represents a genuine existential threat to humanity, it joins the environmental/climate crises, the rising possibility of global conflict/nuclear war,[1] and perhaps even the development of autonomous military drones.[2] All these great perils cannot be rising alongside each other merely by coincidence. They do in fact share an elemental cause: they are manifestations of a capitalist system that — like an addicted-to-muscle-gain body builder devouring his energy supply faster than it can be reproduced — is destroying everything in its path in a desperate bid to stave off its final collapse.

In terms of the fertility crisis, the quality of sperm is also said to have nose-dived, “with more odd-shaped sperm and fewer strong swimmers capable of fertilising an egg”, The New York Times reports in a review of the book. “Perhaps most importantly, the DNA they carried was also more damaged… Abnormal sperm, increasingly common in men over 40, can cause miscarriages… This may be because testosterone levels have been dropping at 1% per year since 1982. The outlook for women isn’t good either. The miscarriage rate has risen by 1% per year over the past two decades.”

Although most of the analysis focuses on ‘Western’ countries, Swan says the trends also exist in South America, Asia and Africa, although not yet to the same extent.

Swan argues that this disconcerting issue is developing because of our ever-rising exposure to ‘endocrine-disrupting chemicals’ (EDCs) that are sourced from fossil fuels and metal mines and used as preservatives and plasticisers (i.e. that manipulate flexibility) “in everything from plastics, flame retardants, electronics, food packaging and pesticides to personal care products and cosmetics”.

Bisphenol A (BPA), for example, is used to make clear, hard plastic, and also lines the inside of many metal cans to prevent an aluminum taste seeping into food or drink. It’s also ubiquitous in electronics and millions of other items. Some scientists now believe BPA in such containers may leech out of packaging and into food. This happens when plastic deteriorates and releases its chemical contents, according to Nancy Wayne, a reproductive neuroendocrinologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Acidic foods, like tomato sauce, can break down plastic, which also breaks down when heated. Manufacturers often sterilise metal cans lined with BPA by heating them up; and consumers frequently put plastic containers of food in the microwave. “We know that the vast majority of Americans [95% according to one study] have detectable levels of BPA in their blood and urine,” Wayne says.

BPA, BPS, and phthalates ‘mimic’ hormones like estrogen, interfere with important hormone pathways in the thyroid gland, and inhibit the effects of testosterone. Even though many companies are now manufacturing phthalate- or BPA-free products, some scientists are concerned about substitute chemicals, since they’re often functionally similar. George Bittner, a professor of neurobiology and pharmacology at University of Texas, Austin, says that’s because ‘BPA-free’ products may contain functionally identical compounds that go by different names, like BPS. (Wayne recommends switching from plastic to glass food containers.)

Swan and others warn that even in small doses — against the position of the Federal Drugs Agency, which gets half of its funding from the companies it supposedly regulates — these chemicals may pose a particular danger to unborn babies and young children whose bodies are growing rapidly. Such chemicals can even reportedly enter the placenta and alter the anatomical development in children, change brain function and impair the immune system.

Phthalate syndrome in human males is said to be caused by prenatal phthalate exposure in the first trimester of pregnancy, resulting in lifelong damage and leading to poor reproductive health. There’s compelling data, for example, that in utero phthalate exposure is linked to a decrease in something called ‘anogenital distance’ (AGD) in male babies. AGD is the space between the anus and the genitals, and a male’s is usually twice as long as a female’s. In males, a shorter AGD has been associated with poorer semen quality, less testosterone, and a higher risk of infertility.

Separately, a March 2019 study found exposure to phthalates and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) — again, two ingredients found in plastics — damaged the quality of sperm exposed to the chemicals.

For men, “phthalates are the worst offenders, tanking testosterone levels and sperm counts — and causing sperm to basically commit suicide”, says the NY report. “In women, these chemicals may cause early menopause or cysts in the ovaries, or they may disrupt monthly cycles.”

BPA “affects both sexes but is particularly concerning for women. It interferes with conception and causes miscarriages early in pregnancy”.

Swan, a “noted environmental and reproductive epidemiologist”, was part of a team led by Hagai Levine that published a systematic meta-study in 2017. She says she was “a natural-born sceptic” when the controversial 1992 Carlsen et al. study claimed there had been a worldwide decline in the quality of semen (42% since 1938). These findings were re-examined in a study published in 1997 which concluded that “data on semen quality collected systematically from reports published worldwide indicate clearly that sperm density has declined appreciably”.

While problems with accuracy remain, the 2017 study is considered to be the most robust one to date. Harvard’s Jorge Chavarro, a fertility-focused epidemiologist, who was not involved in the study, called it “by far the most convincing evidence that sperm counts are dropping”.

Such studies have to be treated carefully, of course.[3] For one thing, the eugenics movement tends to act more covertly and insidiously than it has done in the past.[4] Reports of declines in sperm count will certainly be seized on by capitalists and fascists in twisted ways[5]. Some communists may feel the story is a psychological operation (psyop) to justify legislation enabling de facto eugenics or transhumanist practices. Swan, for her part, is rightly just calling for the banning of toxic chemicals. Given that such chemicals are widely thought to damage human health in numerous other ways (see below) — that fossil fuels damage human health is surely quite clear, by now — it seems more than plausible that they are damaging reproductive health, too.

Impact on animals

Swan also documents how these chemicals are jeopardising the survival of various animal species. Of note: distinctly smaller penises in alligators, panthers and mink, as well as fish, frogs, snapping turtles and birds that appear to have both male and female gonads, and mating difficulties in many species caused by altered behaviour.

These other findings follow research by Dr Tyrone Hayes, who studied the impact of EDCs in amphibians (especially the exposure to the herbicide Atrazine in the US) and concluded that 54% of all species and 40% of all critical habitats had been affected by EDCs.

Cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease

EDCs are also linked to some cancers, including prostate and testicular cancer. Three court cases concluded that EDCs cause cancer. “Bayer Crop Science, the company that produces Roundup, has been ordered to pay billions of dollars in damages, and thousands of other cancer cases are pending in state and federal courts,” Civil Eats reported in June 2019. “While the majority of the US’s corn, soybean, and cotton growers continue to use it, Roundup’s damage to soil health and history of producing herbicide-tolerant ‘superweeds’ are also critical concerns of farmers and consumers. While Bayer, which recently bought Monsanto, touts its mining process as ‘sustainable’, environmentalists contend that the process involves stripping away the soil off mountaintops, which destroys vegetation, contaminates water and creates noise and air pollution that is detrimental to wildlife and the environment. The impacts to humans, animals, and plants are countless.”

Exposure to BPA may also elevate the risk of obesity, diabetes and coronary heart diseases, according to a study by Jaromir Michałowicz, among others. Obesity has doubled worldwide since 1980. (It should be noted, however, that Alicia Mundy in the book Dispensing With The Truth argues that a moral panic about obesity was engineered by a pharmaceutical company to get regulatory approval for the ‘weight loss drug’ fen/phen by having the Body Mass Index (BMI) standards for obesity lowered — thereby winning approval for a drug with dangerous side effects by making out that the drug’s risks were lower than the risks of obesity.) “When EDCs block connections between hormones and their receptors, they ‘reprogramme’ the parts of the endocrine system that govern metabolism, energy balance and appetite,” says the Endocrine Society. “EDCs change the sensitivity to glucose (sugar) and the metabolism of lipids (fatty acids). All of this predisposes a person to gain weight.”

Polluted breast milk

Swan’s work tallies with other similarly distressing research. A new peer-reviewed study (13 May 2021) in the Environmental Science and Technology journal that checked US American women’s breast milk for PFAS contamination “detected the toxic chemical in all 50 samples tested, and at levels nearly 2,000 times higher than the level some public health advocates advise is safe for drinking water”, The Guardian reports.

“The study shows that PFAS contamination of breast milk is likely universal in the US, and that these harmful chemicals are contaminating what should be nature’s perfect food,” said Erika Schreder, a co-author and science director with Toxic Free Future.

The Guardian continues: “PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 9,000 compounds that are used to make products like food packaging, clothing and carpeting water and stain resistant. They are called ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in humans. They are linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, plummeting sperm counts and a range of other serious health problems.”

Air pollution

One recent study argues that air pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for nearly one in every five deaths worldwide, killing more people each year than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

The figure is likely higher. The recent Environmental Research study, estimated that there are 8.7 million premature deaths each year, but that does not include deaths caused by long-term exposure to ozone air pollution, or smog, which is also driven by the combustion of fossil fuels. The calculations for fatal lower-respiratory infections in children under five were also limited to higher-income countries in Europe and North and South America, where such cases tend to be much less common.

Air pollution is linked to a wide range of serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, tissue damage, asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases are a new phenomena in human illness. Douglas Kerr, M.D., Ph.D., in his foreword to The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a faculty neurologist and neuroscientist, writes:

“The prevalence of autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes is on the rise. In some cases, autoimmune diseases are three times more common now than they were several decades ago. These changes are not due to increased recognition of these disorders or altered diagnostic criteria. Rather, more people are getting autoimmune disorders than ever before. Something in our environment is creating this crisis.”

The US figures for Systematic Lupus Erythematosus, for example, stood in 1988–1994 at 53.6/100,000 people per year, then nearly doubled by 2004–2008 to 102.9/100,000. For Crohn’s Disease, the figure in 1991, 140/100,000, increased by almost 70% to 235.6/100,000 in 2008–09. For Guillain-Barre Syndrome, the number nearly doubled from 1.6/100,000 in 1973 to 2.9 in 2.9/100,000 people per year.

If the immune system ‘overreacts’ to a particular trigger, the immune response itself can be overwhelming, causing autoimmune disorders. This is called pathogenic priming. Children may be particularly vulnerable as they have highly active immune systems while they are growing. Kerr explains:

“The immune system mistakes friend for foe and begins to attack the very tissues it was designed to protect. Over the past 40 years, something has been pushing that system over the edge. Something is causing the immune system to increasingly make mistakes in which the line becomes blurred, the immune system attacks the body itself, and autoimmune disease occurs.

“There is almost universal agreement among scientists and physicians that the environmental toxins and chemicals to which we are increasingly exposed are interfering with the immune system’s ability to distinguish self from non-self. Most of the risk of autoimmunity comes from environmental exposures rather than from genetic susceptibilities. So, have those environmental exposures changed over time? The answer is clearly yes.

“The numbers are staggering: one in twelve [US] Americans — and one in nine women — will develop an autoimmune disorder. And since it is clear that not every patient with an autoimmune disease is correctly diagnosed, the prevalence is certainly higher than that. The American Heart Association estimates that by comparison, only one in twenty Americans will have coronary heart disease. Similarly, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, one in fourteen American adults will have cancer at some time in their life. This means that an American is more likely to get an autoimmune disease than either cancer or heart disease.”

Growing evidence suggests that even acne is caused by an autoimmune disorder, yet one of the most prescribed drugs for acne, Accutane/isotretinoin, is also thought to cause (or worsen) autoimmune diseases, such as Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS) — many serious side effects are already listed on the label — and has now been taken off the market in many countries. IBS and other autoimmune disorders usually come with chronic fatigue. One study by Interdisciplinary Toxicology in 2009 concluded that glyphosate — which is sourced from phosphate mines associated with selenium poisoning — “the active ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup, is the most important causal factor in this epidemic [of Celiac disease, and, more generally, gluten intolerance]”.

As well as acne, other common disorders increasingly common in children and increasingly thought to be autoimmune-related include eczema and asthma. Allergic reactions, which are also on the rise, from hay fever to anaphylaxis, also begin in the immune system.

As Dr Michael Mosley has written: “None of the characters in Jane Austen’s 19th century novels ever complains about hay fever or having a food intolerance. Charles Dickens never suggested that Oliver Twist or any of the artful dodgers suffered from eczema. Allergic diseases are a modern plague.”

Mosley writes that autoimmune diseases are extremely rare in hunter-gatherer tribes, since, compared to the average urban-dweller, they have a much greater variety of bacteria in their gut (which is now considered to be like a ‘second brain’). That’s thanks to their much more varied and natural (unprocessed) diet, which has not been touched by preservatives or antibiotics; and because they spend far more time outside and among plant life.[6]

Microplastics

Other recent studies have shown that synthetic clothes shed about 700,000 microplastic fibres (less than 5mm in size) that end up in the waterways after every domestic wash.[7] Of the eight million metric tonnes of plastic that end up in the ocean annually,[8] 236,000 tonnes are microplastics,[9] which emerge because of fossil-plastics non-biodegradability. Microplastics pollute every lake and river in Britain.[10] The most problematic pollutants come from chemical sewage discharge, farming, and industrial chemicals. (The urban-rural divide — a manifestation of accumulation’s needs to centralise capital into fewer and fewer hands — means nutrients in food are transported from farms to cities but not back, increasing the demand for chemical treatments in both sewage and farming, and diminishing the health of the soil and the nutritional density in food.) Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of the deepest marine organisms known to exist and make their way into our food and drinking water (both tap and bottled). Every participant in a Europe-wide study was found to have nine different types of plastic in their faeces.[11] The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, lymphatic system and even the liver.

Proposed solutions

Swan proposes regulations that ban the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products and that require companies to prove chemicals are safe before using them commercially. According to the NYT report, “Europeans favour this precautionary principle and are currently phasing out or banning the most dangerous chemicals. (The EU has banned ‘non-essential’ use of PFAS.) Swan says this contrasts with the American approach of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, which then requires taxpayer-funded government studies to investigate health effects.

Some companies have taken it upon themselves and announced that they are banning toxic chemicals in their products. McDonalds says it will have phased them out of their packaging by 2025. Is it doing the same with its food, though? And can we really trust this claim? Most monopolised industries in late monopoly capitalism are ‘self-regulated’, since abiding by regulations eats into thinning profit margins.

Researching, developing and implementing safe alternatives will cost large amounts of money, especially since fossil fuel is such a cheap material (in April 2020, oil prices fell below zero for the first time ever). Many companies will surely try to fool the public and any real regulators into thinking they have made or are making suitable changes. Who will enforce regulations without being bribed or blackmailed? The fossil fuel industry, of course, already mired in an existential debt crisis, will do everything it can to resist change, as it has done regarding global heating by, for instance, funding denialist myths in the media (just as the tobacco industry famously did to obscure the negative health impacts of smoking cigarettes).

Predictably, the NYT suggests a technological fix to the fertility crisis: “If these trajectories continue, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproductive technologies may become a widely needed tool for conceiving children.” (Some fascist lunatics probably see an opportunity for human cloning and other such crackpot ideas, too.)

Under capitalism, such a move would be dependent, like state-mandated vaccine programmes and the like, on ramping up public debt to heavily subsidise private providers. (Some 97% of the funding behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca ‘covid-19 vaccine’ came from public sources, for example.) Such solutions are therefore economically limited and unsustainable — the more dependent capital becomes on state (i.e. public) subsidies, the more the state becomes dependent on money printing, leading to high and then hyperinflation and systemic collapse (something that already looks to be quite imminent). Nor does IVF begin to address the health problems caused by pollutants that will likely take generations to repair.

While IVF-type treatments might have to be part of the solution if we do not arrest the decline in fertility quickly, Swan and the NYT cannot offer a full or proper course of action since they do not uncover the essential driving force behind this humbling concern.

Capital’s fossil fuel dependency

Chemicals are not inherently bad: humans, animals, plants, the whole world and universe, are made up of chemicals, and they will continue to play a vital in the breakthrough innovations of the future that, amid the ongoing automation revolution, are increasingly within touching distance.[12] Indeed, plant-based chemicals can be used as preservatives and plasticisers. The question that goes unanswered then is: why has production become so dependent on plastics and chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and mines? Phthalic acid, for example, is sourced from coal.

The answer is not simply that fossil fuel is relatively abundant, versatile and portable. So are — at least potentially — fibrous plants, especially hemp (and mycelium, a fungi)[13], from which most products can be made — and at a higher quality, at a fraction of the cost — than is presently the case. They also have the advantage of being a potentially de facto infinite resource — if they are not consumed quicker than they are grown — whereas fossil fuel is a finite resource. We will eventually run out of it; indeed, the highest quality oil has already been exhausted.[14] And, of course, we need to stop using it, at least if we want human reproductive health to recover and the planet to remain habitable.

Fossil fuels are certainly much more energy-dense than fibrous plants. Coal’s is roughly 6,667 watt-hours (Wh) per kilogram (kg) compared to hemp’s 12 Wh/kg. But, when it comes to energy production, nuclear power delivers a much higher 24,000,000 kWh/kg — and nuclear has fallen out of favour much faster than fossil fuel, despite also being emissions-free and, presently, the safest form of mass energy production.[15]

The primary reason fossil fuel production is so dominant over nuclear and hemp is because of the labour-intensity of its production. That’s because capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour is the sole source of exchange-value and profit. The worker keeps only the value (the real measure of which is labour time) that covers her necessary labour time — her cost of living — and her surplus value/labour time is appropriated by the capitalist, realised as profit through commodity sales.[16]

Because humans cannot handle uranium, nuclear power is highly capital-intensive; and because it is long-lasting, there is little inbuilt obsolescence involved. (If you make your lightbulbs less durable, you can sell more of them, more often.) The upfront costs are therefore too high and risky compared to potential profitable returns. Growing hemp is quite non-labour-intensive to the point that the plant is self-seeding, and hemp processing is generally of low-intensity, too.

As capitalism ages, its dependence on fossil fuel increases, since the capitalist system must continue to expand to offset its own core contradiction: as production becomes more abundant, less labour and therefore profit is contained in each commodity, because of innovation introduced to raise the productivity of labour. The absolute mass of profit tends to rise, but the rate of profit tends to fall (historically towards zero). The solution to this relative decline is to expand production yet further and make an even greater abundance of commodities, only to intensify the contradiction yet further.

Official US debt hit a new record of 136% of GDP in 2020, higher even than the 121% at the end of WWII. The real figure is at least 2.5 times higher though once ‘off the books’ net obligations like Social Security and Medicare are taken into account.

As the ratio of capital/machinery to labour rises, the rate of profit tends to fall and more and more capital becomes overaccumulated, or surplus — unprofitable to (re)invest — resulting in rising debt (i.e. dependence on public subsidies), greater speculation, and deeper economic crises. (The historical trend towards a fully automated system of production therefore eventually makes socialism an economic necessity.)

The more extractive and therefore labour-intensive a form of production, the higher the rate of profit. (Statistical mechanics has proven that higher labour-intensity, as compared to a higher capital:labour bias, equates to greater rates of profit.) Fossil fuel has been the most important source of extractive production for capitalism, not only because giant machines have to be built by exploited labour in order to extract it; or because the process of extraction itself is labour and fuel intensive; but because once it is used, it disappears into thin air and has to be dug up anew… by exploited labour. Physical products made of oil-based plastics are relatively flimsy, and largely unrecyclable, too, enabling inbuilt obsolescence. Hemp bioplastics by contrast can be made up to 10 times stronger than steel yet lighter than carbon fibre; and are of course biodegradable.

This is why it has taken so long for renewable energy, based largely on metal mining, to attract large-scale investment. It is only now that fossil fuel production has become so capital-intensive (although the rate of exploitation of the remaining workers is very high) — hence the industry’s debt crisis — and the best quality oil has been exhausted, that its share in the mix of energy production is starting to decline, even if only very slightly. Even between January 2020 and March 2021, at a time when they were pledging to “build back better”, the G7 governments (UK, US, Canada, Italy, France, Germany and Japan) committed $189bn to support oil, coal and gas compared to $147bn on ‘clean’ forms of energy. The support included measures to remove or downgrade environmental regulations as well as direct funding of oil, gas and coal. The G7 represent a 10th of the world’s population but are responsible for almost a quarter of CO2 emissions.

Compound accumulation

Fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, natural gas and orimulsion) would shrink to roughly half of total primary energy supply in 2050, from about 77% in 2020 — down from 81% in 2010 — if the world meets the ‘minimum’ internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius (C) warming, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. (Even 1C has already seen a reported 400,000 people (and counting) a year dying from climate-related causes; while the Arctic permafrost — containing 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in Earth’s atmosphere — is, we are told, melting 70 years sooner than previously expected.)

While fossil fuel may fall to 50% of the mix of energy production, its absolute production may rise, since economic output under capitalism tends to double every 20 years.[17]

As Jason Hickel writes in his book Less Is More, there was

“a steady rise of material use in the first half of the 1900s, doubling from 7 billion tons per year to 14 billion tons per year. But then, in the decades after 1945, something truly bewildering happens… material use explodes: it reaches 35 billion tons by 1980, hits 50 billion tons by 2000, and then screams up to an eye-watering 92 billion tons by 2017… This increase in material use tracks more or less exactly with the rise of global GDP. The two have grown together in lockstep. Every additional unit of GDP means roughly an additional unit of material extraction.

“There has been a radical acceleration of fossil fuel use since 1945, rising along with the explosion in both GDP and material use. And carbon emissions have gone up right along with it. Annual emissions more than doubled from 2 billion tons per year to 5 billion tons per year during the first half of the 1900s. During the second half of the century they rose fivefold, reaching 25 billion tons by the year 2000. And they have continued to rise since then, despite a string of international climate summits, reaching 37 billion tons in 2019. Of course, there is no intrinsic relationship between energy use and CO2 emissions. It all depends on what energy source we’re using. Coal is by far the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels. Oil — which has grown much more quickly than coal since 1945 — emits less CO2 per unit of energy. And natural gas is less intensive still. As the global economy has come to rely more on these less polluting fuels, one might think that emissions would begin to decline.… [But] because GDP growth is driving total energy demand up at such a rapid pace … these new fuels aren’t replacing the older ones, they are being added on top of them. The shift to oil and gas hasn’t been an energy transition, but an energy addition.

“The same thing is happening right now with renewable energy… To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium — an eye-watering 2,700% increase over current levels of extraction… It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium. Even at present levels of extraction this is causing real problems. In the Andes, where most of the world’s lithium is located, mining companies are burning through the water tables and leaving farmers with nothing to irrigate their crops. Many have had no choice but to abandon their land altogether. Meanwhile, chemical leaks from lithium mines have poisoned rivers from Chile to Argentina, Nevada to Tibet, killing off whole freshwater ecosystems. The lithium boom has barely started, and it’s already a catastrophe…

“Today the world is producing 8 billion more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000. That’s a lot — enough to power all of Russia. But over exactly the same period, economic growth has caused energy demand to increase by 48 billion megawatt hours.

“There’s also something else going on. With every year that goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to extract the same amount of materials from the earth. Today, three times more material has to be extracted per unit of metal than a century ago.”[18]

The climate, autoimmune and fertility crises all stem from the exact same thing: the capitalist mode of production — i.e. capital’s exploitation of labour and the ever-greater demands of capital accumulation. The capitalist’s need to expand production must be based on expanded extraction because it must be based, in turn, on deepening the rate of exploitation, by making workers produce more commodities in less time (and over a longer period of time; hence, for example; the near total de facto abolition of privacy and monetisation of personal data; and rising retirement ages — which also push back the payment of pensions that eat into thinning profit margins — often to the point that workers die before retiring).

Plant-based alternatives

In terms of saving the habitability of the planet, renewables based on metal mining is hardly the answer. Mining the earth is (fossil) fuel-intensive; releases emissions that were sequestered in the earth into the atmosphere; and poisons rivers with toxic waste. (Having said that, this final point manifests because preventing or cleaning up waste eats too far into profit margins. One study estimates that none of the top global industries would be profitable if companies had to pay for using — and polluting — the environment. Toxic waste could be hugely reduced while socialism weans production off of mining.) Mining is a massive driver of deforestation, ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss.

Even though the present methods of renewable production demand less aggregate labour than non-renewable fossil fuel production, and renewables emit next to nothing at the point of consumption, the renewables industry as it stands is still initially extractive and polluting — but therefore more profitable than investing in non-labour-intensive industries like growing and processing hemp and mycelium.

Demand, however, for plant-based surfactants (surface-active agents) — compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids — has been rising noticeably since before 2015. Some (usually smaller) ‘eco-friendly’ companies[19] now use limonene, sourced from lemons, for example, and linalool, from lavender. Other ‘natural’ examples include decyl glucoside (corn starch and coconut); capryl glucoside (vegetable derived fatty acids and glucose) and alkyl glucoside (alcohols and sugar/glucose).

While many companies will complain that plant-derived surfactants (biosurfactants) are expensive and lack versatility, this is likely because of the lack of research and development into biosurfactants. Why put resources into researching something unprofitable? One study found that, “In many cases, the plant-derived surfactants showed better properties than the synthetic ones”.

The terpenes (aromatic oils) in hemp and cannabis (of which there are many strains, of course) can also be used as surfactants. Hemp oil can be made into anything with an oil base, including paint, varnish, solvent and lubricating oil. Until the 1930s, most paint and varnishes were made with non-toxic hemp oil. Hemp paint provides superior coating as hemp oil soaks into and preserves wood due to its high resistance to water. Hemp oil is a good base for non-toxic printing inks, too. Soy is currently made into inks, but requires more processing and takes longer to dry.

For centuries, hemp fuel was used to light lamps. As a high storer of solar energy, the stalk of the plant produces the purest form of ethanol, which itself can boost fuel efficiency and reduce net emissions from fuel by 37%. But hemp can also produce methanol used in a process called pyrolysis to make biofuel from hemp seed that is more than two-thirds cleaner (and therefore far less carcinogenic) than fossil fuel, while at least matching the latter’s performance in terms of power and mileage. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biodiesel provides 93% more net energy per gallon than is required for its production. The same process that makes biofuel produces sulphur-free charcoal with a heating value equivalent to coal. This charcoal can be used as a raw material for organic fertiliser.

The ‘waste’ or shiv — the broken woody core of the plant — from hemp processing can be turned into reusable, durable and (in forced composting conditions) biodegradable bioplastics that, as mentioned, can be made up to 10 times more dent-resistant than steel yet lighter than carbon fibre. Notably reducing emissions alone is the fact that fibre glass, which has to be heated to 1,371°C for conventional plastic, no longer has to be used as a reinforcing component.

Hemp carbon is of a very high quality and holds the key to the next generation of computer chips and supercapacitors. In 2014 scientists in the US found that the bast from hemp, the fibrous covering of the shiv, can be transformed into high-performance energy storage devices. They said the material performed better than conventional graphene — which is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber — by up to 200%. Partly because graphene is mined and imported from China and India, hemp-based supercapacitors can be produced for a thousandth of the cost. Another study found that a hemp cell battery performs eight times better than lithium-ion.

Hemp can be turned into the softest of fabrics that are four times stronger and harder-wearing than cotton, with its antimicrobial properties making it perfect not only for fabric but also as a base for detergent.

Hemp products, unlike those made from fossil fuels, are antimicrobial, anti-fungal, flame-retardant (think Grenfell Tower), biodegradable, and much more durable. The growing process itself is relatively rapid and requires relatively little water — making hemp drought-resistant — while hemp also heals damaged and poisoned soil and rapidly draws down CO2 that is then sequestered indefinitely in the (unburned) products it is converted into, including carbon-negative hempcrete-based buildings.[20]

Indeed, hemp provided fuel, food, clothing, medicine and shelter for thousands of years before capitalism. Capitalism has prohibited and limited hemp farming and production precisely because its versatility and cheapness threatened the competitiveness of extractive industries. It is only now that the fossil fuel industry has become so indebted that hemp and cannabis prohibition has begun to end.

Socialism or extinction?

A predominantly plant-based mode of production must be re-established if humanity is to have any chance of surviving and thriving. Such a mode of production must be socialist, superseding privately-owned, for-profit commodity production with socially-owned, break-even utility production.

Because socialism creates value based on utility instead of exploitation, the labour intensity of mining metals and fossil fuel is not an absolute economic imperative, since all labour becomes productive, rather than only commodity-producing labour (non-commodity-producing labour eats into profits without producing any surplus value). We could then transition to production predominantly based on fibrous plants, mycelium and other clean alternatives. This would surely be foundational to any possibility of reversing capitalism’s negative impact on the Earth’s climate and humanity’s health (over a number of generations). Indeed, global socialism[21] really is, in all likelihood — to the extent that such a thing is possible — the elusive ‘cure for cancer’.[22]

The NYT report comments that: “If you’ve smugly enjoyed the dystopian worlds of The Handmaid’s Tale (where infertility is triggered in part by environmental pollutants) or Children of Men (where humanity is on the precipice of extinction [due to widespread infertility]) — and believed that these stories were rooted firmly in fantasy — Swan’s Count Down will serve as an awakening.”

But such an awakening, as ever, is only truly possible if the root cause of the problem becomes widely understood. Capitalism is fairly ‘dystopian’ at the ‘best of times’, but increasingly so now that it is staggering towards its final breakdown. The system has proven to be both economically and biologically unsustainable. It may be extremely tough to contemplate and accept, but scenes like those in Children of Men may soon be our reality, whether by dint of economic, environmental or reproductive collapse — indeed, all three seem to be converging. In the countries recently destroyed by US/British/EU-led NATO invasions, such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya — where chattel slavery has been re-established in what was previously the most developed African nation — such scenes already are reality.

The anti-communist “we must secure the future for our children” mantra has proven to be the greatest and most diabolical lie ever told. As with global heating, the harm capital inflicts on the human body, by forcing it to constantly produce and consume pollution, damages the wellbeing of not only working class people, but of all classes; as is made clear by sperm counts having declined most sharply in the most developed countries, where the middle classes make up a greater proportion of a given population. The labour aristocracy and petty bourgeoisie should bitterly regret their anti-communism — their children will surely not forgive them if they do not now abandon their calamitous loyalty to capital.

It really is only communism that stands any chance of securing a future — and one worth living — for humankind.

Ted Reese is author of Socialism or Extinction: Climate, Automation and War in the Final Capitalist Breakdown; Humanising Production: The Second (Not Fourth) Industrial Revolution and the Bio-Economic Necessity of Socialism (Out October 2021); and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (Zer0 Books, out May 2022).

[1] As argued in my book, the accumulation crisis is intensifying economic competition between private monopolies and the nation-states they are based in, over (mostly colonial) assets and resources (especially human labour), forcing them into ever-more direct confrontation. This has manifested in the intensifying trade wars the US has begun to wage against China and the European Union. In 2015–16 — before Brexit or Trump — the G20 economies introduced a record number of trade-restrictive measures, at 21 per month. “WTO warns on rise of protectionist measures by G20 economies”, FT.com, 21 June.

[2] See footnote 37 in my essay “Automation represents the second — not ‘fourth’ — industrial revolution. Just as the first necessitated capitalism, the second necessitates socialism”.

[3] Even fertility doctors who are sceptical of the latest study “agree that there’s a trend decline”, reports Julia Belluz for Vox. Epidemiologists are “generally more convinced”.

“To truly prove sperm counts have halved, you’d need a long-term prospective study — one that looks forward in time, following men over generations,” rather than a meta-analysis of other studies.

Average sperm counts do remain “in the normal range”, having fallen from 99 million sperm per millilitre of semen to 47 million per millilitre (mL). “Doctors don’t start worrying until semen dips below 15 million sperm per mL (though Swan noted that as the average drops, more men may find themselves with abnormally low counts).” Nonetheless, there is a clear trend towards such a dip.

“Lifestyle factors (drinking, smoking, saunas) can also dramatically change sperm quality. Being overweight or obese is associated with poorer semen quality,” but as we’ve seen, EDCs are now thought to have contributed to the obesity epidemic, too. Moreover, an addictive diet of processed fat, salt and sugar has been largely hardwired into the human diet as a result of food monopolies maximising their profits by feeding the working class, who generally can’t afford to buy healthier foods, as cheaply as possible.

Vox continues: “A couple is diagnosed with infertility after one year of unprotected sex. In the US, between 12 and 15% of couples are unable to conceive at that point. About a third of the time, the problem is with the man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of couples who would be classified as infertile, and the number of women seeking out fertility services, hasn’t changed much since 2002. (And by some measures, it’s been getting better.)

“But even if the numbers were getting worse, we have to keep in mind that couples are waiting longer to get pregnant, and older age is associated with a higher risk of infertility. For that reason, even the measure of couples seeking fertility services — which hasn’t budged significantly over the past two decades — isn’t very telling.

“In 2015, the National Institutes of Health brought together researchers from around the world to discuss the question. Importantly, they differentiated between fertility (how many kids people have) and fecundity (how many they are capable of having). Fertility rates have fallen dramatically over the past half-century, but they are heavily influenced by social factors: changes in working patterns, access to birth control, wars, the economy [all driven by the changing needs of capital — the higher the surplus of capital, the higher the surplus labour and therefore capital’s need for depopulation, for example], etc. Fecundity, on the other hand, is not. And the researchers determined that the question of whether fecundity is changing is currently unanswerable based on current data.”

Stuart Moss, the director of male reproductive health at National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of NIH, says, “It’s clear from a number of epidemiological studies that a male’s fertility can be a determinant of his overall health. So a low sperm count is troubling from a number of areas. One is, if the trend continues, I’d imagine at some point in time we could start seeing [fecundity] decrease. But more immediately, it could be a biomarker for poor health in general.”

A Harvard paper led by Marion Boulicault and Sarah S. Richardson proposed an alternative explanation to Levine and Swan’s: that sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical, and that above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. But the Levine paper did not focus solely on sperm count — it showed that sperm health had also diminished.

The Harvard paper also claimed that, “The proposed causal mechanism for lower sperm counts of exposure to environmental EDCs is not supported by the geographical and historical patterns of average population sperm counts.” But, again, given the consensus that EDCs are responsible for the rise in autoimmune diseases, the theory that they are having the same impact on sperm counts does not seem particularly outlandish.

[4] Founded on the nonexistent basis of a gene pool crisis supposedly leading to the human race’s deterioration, the eugenics movement claimed ‘the best’ human beings were not breeding as rapidly as the ‘inferior’ ones — the foreigners, immigrants, Jews, degenerates, the unfit, and the ‘feeble-minded’. Its supporters included Adolf Hitler, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill; and it was approved by US Supreme Court justices. Modern science has shown all humans to be 99.9% genetically identical, making a mockery of the concept of race (a social construct invented to justify colonialism and serve the needs of capital) and therefore eugenics; and so eugenicists now have to operate more cleverly and insidiously. The real motivation behind eugenics is to: raise the productivity of labour (mostly by creating hyper-exploited sections of the working class); rewiden profit margins by slashing pensions and benefits; and maintain rule by dividing the working class.

[5] The Harvard paper also said that among the reasons to consider alternative interpretations is the “theories in Alt-Right, white supremacist, and men’s rights discourse. These groups have used Levine and Swan’s research to argue that the fertility and health of men in whiter nations are in imminent danger, often linking the danger to the perceived increase in ethnic and racial diversity and to the influence of feminist and anti-racist social movements.”

While this concern has to be addressed properly (as we are doing here) in order to effectively counter the appeal of the far right, it does not necessarily mean sperm counts are not falling. It is a favourite tactic of the ‘mainstream liberal-conservative right’ to point to ‘far right’ conspiracy theories to obfuscate their own fascistic tendencies and shore up support from ‘left-wing’ social democrats. (See The Fine Art of Propaganda by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, 1938.) The idea that the world is being deliberately feminised and deracialised is an obvious myth — you only have to look at ‘mainstream media’ for a short time to see how the ruling class is working overtime to reinforce political-economic categories (i.e. constructed social divisions) of gender, sexuality, race and nationality (and to generally depress, scare and ‘dumb down’ the populace, including through an increasing bombardment of dystopian sci-fi designed to desensitise people to the increasing violence, oppression and exploitation they face.)

What is happening is a historical development whereby late-stage monopoly capitalism is starting to produce ‘pre-socialist’ trends to some extent. The world is not being feminised or deracialised as such — it is being humanised, bearing out Marx’s contention that communism would represent “the beginning of human history”, since humanity would be liberated from not only (exploited) labour (as opposed to unexploited, self-realising work), scarcity, and the dictates of capital; but also the contradiction between physical and mental work; and alienation, i.e. from the products of social labour (and thus nature, from which products are made), which are appropriated by the capitalist. All this means that classes, not just socio-economic class but political-economic classes of genders, races, nationalities, etc. will wither away (i.e. not by force but ‘organically’; gradually as the forces of production continue to evolve and create abundant material wealth for all, decentralising power to the point where everyone is effectively ‘equal’ in terms of economic power and status).

Put another way: over many centuries, manual labour determined the technological basis of society. The technological mode of production, the mode of combining inanimate and human elements, was subjective. The next stage, paved by the specialisation of implements in manufacture, began when the main working function — control of partial implements — of the ‘living mechanism’, the worker, transferred to the mechanical mechanism, the machine. From human-inanimate, the working mechanism became inanimate-human. The technological mode of production became objective and labour became mechanised. This represented the first industrial revolution. Finally, the third historical stage in technological development is ushered in by automation. The working mechanism becomes fully technical and the mode of combining man and technology becomes free (since automation represents a humanised, i.e. self-controlled force) as labour itself is automated. This then represents the second (not fourth) industrial revolution.

The partial integration of genders, races and nations to date started in earnest during monopoly capitalism, due to capital accumulation’s need to expand the bases of exploitable labour and commodity consumption.

  • (owned) slaves had to be converted into wage-labourers (rented slaves). This was because owned slaves are a form of constant capital (like machinery (fixed capital)), which cannot be devalued/cheapened without being replaced; nor could slaves outperform mechanised machinery; nor could slavery be enforced in urban settings. Wage-slaves are a form of variable capital, which can be devalued. Moreover, capital needs to ‘import’ immigrants when it has labour shortages (which it tends to manufacture), or when it needs to cheapen the labour base (including through loosening the labour market to increase competition between workers to drive down wages). Since monopoly capital has to export surplus capital (machines, loans) that cannot be (re)invested profitably ‘at home’, ‘globalisation’ becomes inevitable, breaking down national barriers to an increasing extent (at least until capitalism begins to collapse), with innovations in telecommunications and transport becoming increasingly necessary to speed up the global circulation and turnover of capital — laying the basis for the historical necessity of international socialism (with the higher stage of communism representing a ‘global commune’.)
  • Women were no longer confined to the home as domestic labourers, working privately for gratis (free) for capital as producers and maintainers of labour, which they increasingly combined with wage-labour. Labour-saving innovations to domestic utilities also contributed to giving men more time and therefore tolerance for cooking, cleaning and child-rearing; while rising housing and absolute living costs relative to stagnating wages meant one ‘breadwinner’ no longer sufficed.

Moreover, ‘deindustrialisation’, the transfer of the workforce from manufacturing to services as automated machines replace mechanised machines — an inevitable development due to capital accumulation’s need to raise the productivity of labour (see main text) — has diminished the role of the ‘typical working class man’ in the production process. This largely explains a rising ‘crisis of masculinity’ (which the ruling class media plays up, resulting partly, for example, in high male suicide rates) and, perhaps, the tendency for ‘cis men’ to ‘become’ ‘transgender women’ more than vice-versa. While understandable concerns within communist trends do exist concerning the predatory pharmaceutical industry’s profit-motivated role in encouraging physical ‘transitions’ — including from some transgender people who regret transitioning — transitions are also offered in socialist societies, where there is no profit motive. Socialist Cuba offers transitioning for free as part of its universal public health care system. Gender dysphoria is increasingly symptomatic of not just its commodification but also the historical ‘purgatory’ in which we find ourselves between late-stage monopoly capitalism and lower stage communism (socialism). Only time will tell, but it seems likely that the demand for transitioning will diminish and disappear as lower-stage communism develops into higher-stage communism and the integration of genders ‘optimises’* — i.e. when the economic-technical basis underpinning the social construct of gender (‘the gender binary’) withers away with the realisation of fully automated production and abundant material wealth for all; meaning, perhaps, that most people will ‘identify’ as ‘non-binary’/gender-nonconforming or, simply, human. Again, this will happen gradually and ‘organically’.

(Whether the male-female sex binary is also a social construct that will also therefore wither away is not a question I am yet ready to take a position on — such a possibility is too far off to be able to anticipate, and may largely depend on the direction science and technology takes under the democratic control of humanity. If for example, IVF were to be embraced as liberatory for women to the point that human pregnancy is effectively abolished, then the sex binary is more likely to disappear; if it is not, since, say, it is decided that the nourishment a baby receives in the womb cannot be replicated (babies are more likely to develop health problems from non-vaginal births as they do not ingest anywhere near as much bacteria during birth, for example), then any such withering away seems more unlikely. What must absolutely happen, though, is the abolition of stereotypical gender roles.)

(*The acceleration of this process of ‘gender integration’ can already be seen in Cuba after 60 years of socialist construction. The country’s democratically-negotiated constitution stipulates that men and women should share housework duties; and women now make up 43% of the National Assembly, almost 60% of all professionals; and more than half of scientists — compared to 25% in Europe.)

By that point, most people will have returned to living in communal settings (something that, at first, may need to be incentivised by tax breaks and rent reductions — as well as by the quality of communal housing (that embraces privacy and individual ‘space’) — and further encouraged on the basis of achieving energy efficiency for the sake of saving the habitability of Earth). Gradually, the (bourgeois/capitalist) family unit as we know it may be ‘abolished’ as humans return to raising children socially, communally and collectively i.e. in larger, communal families, sharing out the tasks of raising children and improving children’s social development throughout their childhood.

In early hunter-gatherer societies, the male and female sex practiced a form of group marriage, and as paternity could not be established, descent was traced through the mother. The emergence of agriculture, private property and surplus production relegated women from a position of equality to the position of producing labourers to work the land. As the obvious inheritors of private property had to be ‘legitimate’ heirs, this precipitated the invention of monogamous marriage and the enforced fidelity of the wife, replacing the matrilineal system with a patrilineal one so that paternity could be determined.

Communism, then, will also complete the ‘sexual revolution’ as women (including those not forced into the sex trade) will no longer have to ‘sell sex’ to men in return for economic security; and (non-coercive) contraception will be abundant and free for all; while the material basis for the exploitative sex trade will of course also disappear. (Strong socialist states in the past have been able to enforce the prohibition of the sex trade, although this ended to a limited extent in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, its main trading partner, decimated its economic security.) People will finally be able to enjoy relationships free of economic considerations. A number of studies have concluded that all genders and sexualities enjoyed much more satisfactory sex lives in East Germany than in West Germany, since sex was seen as a natural need and something to share rather than trade. (See Ghodsee, K., Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism And Other Arguments For Economic Independence, Vintage, London, pp. 132–9.) (Regular sex, of course — two-three times per week for over-30s — improves sperm production.)

(Obviously women’s dependence on men and the sex trade is rising again as capitalist production breaks down. Falling birth rates have been coupled with falling rates of sexual activity. The share of US American men under 30 who are not having sex tripled in the 12 years following the 2007–09 financial crash — and that was before the social ‘lockdowns’ of 2020–1. In France, births were down year-on-year by 13% in January 2021. For France, a country that has traditionally had the highest fertility rate in the 27-member EU, it marked the biggest fall in births since the abrupt end of the baby boom in the 1970s, when capitalism suffered its first serious post-WWII crisis. Births had also fallen 7% in the previous month compared with the same period a year earlier, leaving the total number of babies born in France in 2020, 735,000, at the lowest level since the end of WWII. China’s population fell in 2020 for the first time since 1961.

[6] Presumably hunter-gatherers also spend more time around other people compared to people in capitalism’s increasingly atomised, anti-communal, ‘concrete jungles’. It has been found that people with “more diverse social networks [have] greater resistance to upper respiratory illness”, for example. (Cohen et al., “Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold”, June 1997.) Isolation increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s; and is as deadly as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (With this in mind, social distancing, ‘lockdowns’ and mask mandates in the wake of the arguably manufactured ‘COVID-19 pandemic’ should surely be seen as an intensified ruling class attack on the human immune system. See my essay “Capital’s profitability now depends on ‘lockdowns’, acute social enclosure, and ‘medical’ tyranny”.)

Mosley writes that:

“Like animals in the wild, many species in our gut [microbiome] are in decline and have been for decades. It’s partly because we eat such a narrow range of foods, which means our gut bacteria also have to live on a restricted diet. Of the 250,000 known edible plant species, we use less than 200. 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.” This itself is due to profit-maximising monopoly capitalist monoculture. Mosley continues: “Another reason for the decline is the widespread use of antibiotics, not only to treat us but to help the animals we eat put on weight.” Again, this is done to maximise output and profits. Mosley says red meat untouched by antibiotics is otherwise good for your health in moderate quantities. “Finally, there are emulsifiers. These are chemicals that are added to processed foods to extend their shelf life. They’ve been shown to reduce microbial richness, and may directly contribute to colitis and diabetes.” (The Clever Guts Diet, Short Books, London, 2017, p. 66.)

The microbiome is the genetic material of all the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses — that live on and inside the human body, weighing as much as five pounds. It regulates body weight, decides how much energy is extracted from food, regulates the immune system, and converts indigestible bits of food into hormones and other chemicals.

A lack of biodiversity in the gut’s microbiome brings about an imbalance that allows one or a few sets of bacteria to become dominant, causing, for example, certain unhealthy cravings by reducing hormones that quell hunger. “You want your biome to be as multicultural as possible… A diverse microbiome will allow your gut to recover much more quickly from a bout of diarrhoea,” says Mosley (pp.65–6).

Mosley recommends (p.69): trying to avoid antibiotics, which “can take weeks, months or even years for your gut microbial community to bounce back from, if at all”; eating a Meditarianian-style diet/more and more varied plants and fermented produce (including cheese, red wine, apple cider and dark chocolate); avoiding or significantly limiting sugar (not fruit sugars) and artificial sweeteners (which he argues are even worse) and processed foods; intermittent fasting (something that hunter-gatherers effectively do and which can help reverse type 2 diabetes (because the bacteria Akkermansia, which strengthens your gut lining, supports microbiome health, and protects from disease, lives on mucus (without depleting it) and not on the remains of the food you’ve eaten, as most gut microbes do, so it thrives when you reduce your calories (p.163))); keeping windows open as much as possible (since we spend 90% of our time inside); spending more time outside, especially in ‘outdoorsy’ settings; and “getting your hands dirty, preferably by gardening, which connects you with the trillions of bacteria that live in the soil”.

This makes even more sense when we consider the latest science in regards to how trees relate to both each other and humans. As Hickel writes,

“Just as bacteria are revolutionising how we think about our relationship with the world, biologists are also discovering some remarkable things about trees and forests that are upending how we think about plants.

“When we see a tree, we tend to think of it as a singular unit — just as we think of ourselves as individuals. But biologists have discovered that it’s not quite so simple. They have come to understand that trees depend on certain kinds of fungi in the soil: hair-thin structures called hyphae that interlace with cells in the roots of trees to form mycorrhiza. The fungi benefit by receiving some of the sugar that plants produce through photosynthesis (which it cannot otherwise make), while the trees benefit in turn by receiving elements like phosphorous and nitrogen that they cannot produce for themselves, and without which they cannot survive.

“But this reciprocity is not confined to just two parties in this ancient relationship. Invisible fungal networks also connect the roots of different trees to one another, sometimes over great distances, forming an underground internet that allows them to communicate, and even to share energy, nutrients and medicine. The ecologist Robert Macfarlane explains how this works:

“A dying tree might divest itself of its resources to the benefit of the community, for example, or a young seedling in a heavily shaded understory might be supported with extra resources by its stronger neighbours. Even more remarkably, the network also allows plants to send one another warnings. A plant under attack from aphids can indicate to a nearby plant that it should raise its defensive response before the aphids reach it. It has been known for some time that plants communicate above ground in comparable ways, by means of airborne hormones. But such warnings are more precise in terms of source and recipient when sent by means of the myco-net.’

“Trees co-operate. They communicate. They share. Not only among members of the same species, but across species barriers: Douglas firs and birches feed each other. And it’s not just trees; we now know that all plants — except for a handful of species — have this same relationship with mycorrhiza. Just as with our gut bacteria, these findings challenge how we think about the boundaries between species. Is a tree really an individual? Can it really be conceived as a separate unit? Or is it an aspect of a broader, multi-species organism?

“There’s also something else going on here — something perhaps even more revolutionary. Dr Suzanne Simard, a professor in the department of forest & conservation at the University of British Columbia, has argued that mycorrhizal networks among plants operate like neural networks in humans and other animals; they function in remarkably similar ways, passing information between nodes. And just as the structure of neural networks enables cognition and intelligence in animals, mycorrhizal networks provide similar capacities to plants. Recent research shows that the network not only facilitates transmission, communication and co-operation — just like our neurons do — it also facilitates problem-solving, learning, memory and decision-making.

“These words are not just metaphorical. The ecologist Monica Gagliano has published groundbreaking research on plant intelligence, showing that plants remember things that happen to them, and change their behaviour accordingly. In other words, they learn. In a recent interview with Forbes, she insisted: ‘My work is not about metaphors at all; when I talk about learning, I mean learning. When I talk about memory, I mean memory.’

“Indeed, plants actively change their behaviour as they encounter new challenges and receive messages about the changing world around them. Plants sense: they see, hear, feel and smell, and they respond accordingly.19 If you’ve ever seen time-lapse footage of a vine growing up a tree, you’ll have an idea of what this looks like in action: that vine is no automaton — it’s sensing, moving, balancing, solving problems, trying to figure out how to navigate new terrain.

“The more we learn, the stranger (or perhaps more familiar?) it all becomes. Simard’s work shows that trees can recognise their own relatives through mycorrhizal networks. Older ‘mother’ trees can identify nearby saplings that came from their own seeds, and they use this information to decide how to allocate resources in times of stress. Simard also describes how trees seem to have ‘emotional’ responses to trauma in a way that’s not dissimilar to animals. After a machete whack or during an aphid attack, their serotonin levels change (yes, they have serotonin, along with a number of neurochemicals that are common in animal nervous systems), and they start pumping out emergency messages to their neighbours.

“Of course, none of this is to say that plant intelligence is exactly like that of animals. In fact, scientists warn that our urge to constantly compare the intelligence of some species with that of others is exactly the problem: it ends up blinding us to how other kinds of intelligence might work. Set out in search of a brain and you’ll never even notice the mycorrhiza that have been pulsing through the earth, evolving right under our feet, for 450 million years.

“This research is just taking off, and we have no idea where it might lead. But Simard is careful to point out that it’s not exactly new: ‘If you listen to some of the early teachings of the Coast Salish and the Indigenous people along the western coast of North America, they knew [about these insights] already. It’s in the writings and in the oral history. The idea of the mother tree has long been there. The fungal networks, the below-ground networks that keep the whole forest healthy and alive, that’s also there. That these plants interact and communicate with each other, that’s all there. They used to call the trees the tree people … Western science shut that down for a while and now we’re getting back to it.’

“Trees aren’t only connected with each other. They are also connected with us. Over the past few years, research into human–tree relationships has yielded some truly striking findings.

“A team of scientists in Japan conducted an experiment with hundreds of people around the country. They asked half of the participants to walk for fifteen minutes through a forest, and the other half to walk through an urban setting, and then they tested their emotional states. In every case, the forest walkers experienced significant mood improvements when compared to the urban walkers, plus a decline in tension, anxiety, anger, hostility, depression and fatigue. The benefits were immediate and effective.

“Trees also have an impact on our behaviour. Researchers have found that spending time around trees makes people more co-operative, kinder and more generous. It increases our sense of awe and wonder at the world, which in turn changes how we interact with others. It reduces aggression and incivility. Studies in Chicago, Baltimore and Vancouver have all discovered that neighbourhoods with higher tree cover have significantly fewer crimes, including assault, robbery and drug use — even when controlling for socio-economic status and other confounding factors.22 It’s almost as though being with trees makes us more human.

“We don’t know quite why this happens. Is it just that green environments are somehow more pleasant and calming? A study in Poland suggests that doesn’t explain it. They had people spend fifteen minutes standing in a wintertime urban forest: no leaves, no green, no shrubbery; just straight, bare trees. One might think such an environment would have minimal if any positive impact on people’s mood, but not so: participants standing in the bare forest reported significant improvements in their psychological and emotional states when compared to a control group that spent those fifteen minutes hanging out in an urban landscape.

“And it’s not just mood and behaviour. It turns out that trees have an impact on our physical health too — in concrete, material terms. Living near trees has been found to reduce cardiovascular risk.24 Walking in forests has been found to lower blood pressure, cortisol levels, pulse rates and other indicators of stress and anxiety. Even more intriguingly, a team of scientists in China found that elderly patients with chronic health conditions demonstrated significant improvements in immune function after spending time in forests.26 We don’t know for sure, but this may have something to do with the chemical compounds that trees exhale into the air. The aromatic vapours released by cypress, for example, have been found to enhance the activity of a number of human immune cells, while reducing stress hormone levels.

“In an attempt to quantify the overall benefit of trees, scientists in Canada found that trees have a more powerful impact on our health and well-being than even large sums of money. Having just ten more trees on a city block decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to earning an extra $20,000. And it improves one’s sense of well-being as much as earning an extra $10,000, moving to a neighbourhood with $10,000 higher median income, or being seven years younger.

“These results are astonishing. There’s a real mystery here, which scientists still do not yet understand. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, we have co-evolved with trees for millions of years. We even share DNA with trees. After countless generations, we’ve come to depend on them for our health and happiness just as we depend on other humans. We are, in a very real sense, relatives.”

(Hickel, J., Less Is More, Windmill Books, 2021, pp. 276–81.)

According to Sender et al, if you were to count up all the cells that constitute your body, you’d find that more of them belong to other lifeforms than belong to ‘you’ as such. “Revised estimates for the number of human and bacteria cells in the body,” PLoS Biology 14(8). As the British philosopher of science John Dupré has put it, “These findings make it hard to claim that a creature is self-sufficient, or even that you can mark out where it ends and another one begins.” Thus the capitalist myth around The Individual is blown away — the world is powered by collectivism.

[7] Napper and Thompson, “Release of synthetic microplastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions”, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Vol 112, Issues 1–2, sciencedirect.com, 15 November 2016.

[8] Jambeck et al. “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”, Science, 13 February 2015.

[9] Sebille et al, “A global inventory of small floating plastic debris”, Environmental Research Letters vol 10, no 12, IOPscience.iop.org, 8 December 2015.

[10] Bangor University, “Microplastic pollution widespread in British lakes and rivers, study shows”, phys.org, 7 March 2019.

In August 2020, Brian McHugh contacted Yorkshire Water asking about the presence and monitoring of PFOS chemicals:

“Their response was far from reassuring. Yorkshire Water, along with all other Water Companies in England and Wales, are obliged to undertake monitoring of the drinking water they supply to customers, in line with the requirements stipulated in The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016 (as amended). This is a legal document issued by the Government and regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. In this document there are no specified regulatory limits (PCVs), for PFOS or PFAS. This means that Yorkshire Water are not legally required to monitor for these compounds and subsequently are not required to report results for these compounds to the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

“Clearly aware that there were harmful dangers associated with PFOS, Yorkshire Water, like all the water companies I contacted, was hiding behind a ‘regulatory shield.

“River quality is being impacted by chemical pollution, drinking water is not being regulated by water companies, and PFAS chemicals are being found in food packaging and UK supermarkets. And this is the UK, when we were supposed to be held to higher European standards on pollution — causing concern that 2021 may see environmental standards slip even lower, as a result of the UK leaving the little protection that was offered by the EU.”

Capitalist states protect capitalist interests; likewise, socialist states are needed to protect social interests from capital, until counter-revolution has been thoroughly defeated (i.e. globally).

[11]Microplastics discovered in human stools across the globe in ‘first study of its kind’”, Medical University of Vienna, October 2018.

[12] In Capital Marx also discusses how by “means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods [modern industry] is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process”.

Marx could see that the mechanical treatment of materials would give way to chemical methods. But before they could be applied in industry, they had to be given the corresponding technological form in terms of mechanisation or automation. Unlike mechanical methods of treating matter, explains Soviet theorist Genrikh Volkov,

“chemical reactions do not require the use of implements exerting a direct influence on the object of labour. The chemical properties themselves play the role of such ‘implements’. Nor is there any need for the power required in mechanical methods for driving the tools. Once the substances have been brought into contact, the reaction generally proceeds automatically…. In addition, whereas mechanical treatment is the result of a series of discrete, disjointed, singular movements, chemical treatment is continuous by nature, since chemical reactions go on without interruption.

“Automatic processes and continuity are the indispensable features typical of automation. Hence, chemical methods of treatment correspond to the very essence of automation (which cannot be said about mechanical and certain physical methods). Furthermore, chemical methods cannot dispense with automation, inasmuch as many chemical processes are harmful to health, and also because their control requires absolute precision, which only cybernetical devices can ensure.

“Close alliance between chemistry and automation will lead to the creation of new synthetic materials with miraculous properties, and this will revolutionise automation itself. Bulky automatic lines consisting of mechanical units with their complex and noisy systems of transmission and transportation will give way to compact, noiseless, elegant and dependable plastic installations.” (Volkov, Era of Man or Robot? The Sociological Problems of the Technical Revolution, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1967 , pp56–7.)

Such developments will create more ‘overground’ space for reviving the environment and dedicating more plants to general production. In this way, whereas automation intensifies the antagonism between man and nature under capitalism, it reunites them under communism.

One of the projects championed by Fidel Castro in socialist Cuba was a biotechnology mission, beginning a year after the revolution. In 1960, Castro declared that “the future of our homeland must be that of men of science”. At his insistence, Cuba established a National Centre for Scientific Research (CNIC), the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM), the Finlay Institute and the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).

Volkov writes that,

“It is only logical to expect that the next foreseeable leap in technology will be tied up with the use of production of the biological properties of living matter with a view to achieving an even more radical transformation of nature…. Biochemical and bionic technology will enable us to transform living nature, plants and animals, direct the activity of living matter and make use of its marvellous properties for the good of mankind. Bionic technology will take the form of artificial sense, of organs of thought and psychology, which will reinforce and improve the functioning of the natural sense organs.”

Rather than being a force alienated from humans, technology — alienated from humans under capitalism since the products of labour are appropriated by capital — would thereby, under communism, become a “humanised force” designed to satisfy man’s needs and assist him in his various activities, including those of his body. Bionic machines would “assume entirely unexpected forms” and at the time of writing, “already, devices are being worked out in which a living body is fitted into a technical system”. The reflexes of a living body are much more efficient than “the present-day electronic control devices modelled on them”.

“It is therefore expedient and theoretically possible to use the nervous system of, say, a rabbit, dog or other animal in such a way as to make the biological currents controlling the heart also control a technical unit…. The organism’s biological currents can be used as control signals for transmitting information and supplying electricity to instruments.”

Fifty years later, however, such possibilities have not really materialised beyond the expensive labs of mega-corporations and military facilities. Despite massive progress within those confines, robots are still more cumbersome than an athletic human, although the gap is increasingly narrow. The most advanced (and expensive) bionic leg has only recently been able to reproduce the agility of a human leg. Because production is now so capital-intensive, making capital increasingly unprofitable to (re)invest in production, the rate of technological progress has tended to slow down. The technical use of biological energy, a totally clean form of energy production, has not been realised on a level that can be generalised and diffused. Volkov said that biological methods of acting on nature

“correspond to the principles of automation even closer than chemical methods, inasmuch as a biological cell, and doubly so a living body, is the most efficient automatic (self-controlled) system there is. It is precisely this unity of the principles of control which makes possible an astonishing symbiosis of technical and biological elements. This same unity enables us to ‘humanise’ technology, ie to set up technical systems best adapted and adjusted to the possibilities of the human body. Such technical systems will permit us to amplify many times over the activity of the human senses and brain. The man-technology system will thus assume a new, efficient form in which technology will really play the role of a set of artificial organs of social man.” (p. 58–62.)

The clean, renewable and hyper-efficient technologies of the future will have to be fully realised under socialism and communism.

[13] Mycelium, a type of fungi, can be coaxed, using temperature, CO2, humidity and airflow, to rapidly build fibrous structures for things such as “packaging, clothing, food and construction — everything from leather to plant-based steak to scaffolding for growing organs”; all with minimal (mostly compostable) waste and energy consumption. Mycelium is also used to bind hemp bricks. See also: Adamatzky, A., (2018) “Towards fungal computer”.

Our new understanding of microbes (thanks to advances in DNA sequencing), mentioned above, also provides insights for new technologies. Some microbes conduct electricity — scientists have found that the Geobacter group can convert sewage into freshwater and produce electricity in the process. It is now thought that microbial fuel cells could power mobiles, household appliances and even spaceships.

Other general options include:

Carbon-negative ‘sky mining’. This can be employed, for example, to make diamonds that are physically and chemically identical to those mined from the earth by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. Producing a conventional one carat diamond requires the shifting of around 1,000 tonnes of rock and earth, consumes almost 4,000 litres of water, and generates more than 100kg of carbon emissions.

Lab-grown gold that is ‘purer’ than mined gold.

[14] In July 2016, Sir David King, the British Foreign Office’s Special Representative on Climate Change, said: “We are not running out of oil, but we have reached a plateau in easy, inexpensive conventional oil production, which will be followed by a fall in production… Novel unconventional oil reserves are abundant, but are more costly to produce, provide less net energy and cause more GHG emissions.” (See Nafeez Ahmed, “Welcome to the Age of Crappy Oil”, Vice.com, 18 August 2016.)

[15] Clearly, like all areas of science and technology, an independent proletarian re-assessment of nuclear is required (although we should take into account that the nuclear power plant was a soviet invention). Pound for pound, uranium provides 16,000 times more electricity than coal, promising abundant cheap energy for the masses.

Before the era of neoliberalism, after 1973, France decarbonised 78% of its electricity in just 13 years by building 54 publicly-owned nuclear power plants. The abandonment of nuclear power has had little to do with safety concerns (which, for all we know, may well have been caused by sabotage) but rather its unprofitability. The available statistics seem to suggest nuclear is much safer than seems to be generally accepted. As Leigh Phillips writes:

“Exposure to cosmic rays while taking two transatlantic flights (0.16 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation) is roughly equivalent to the annual exposure of a UK nuclear power station worker (0.18 mSv), which is far less than the annual dose of the average US citizen from all sources (2.7 mSv), or exposure to radiation as a result of one CT chest scan (6.6 mSv) or the average annual dose from radon from the ground experienced by people who live in Cornwall (7.8 mSv). We also know that the new generation of dramatically safer reactors employing passive-safety systems physically cannot melt down, and that safe methods of waste disposal are proven. The amount of waste produced is also tiny compared to that of many other industrial processes, and far less hazardous. Radioactivity also decreases with time, but the danger presented by solar panel production, such as cadmium, mercury and lead pollutants, never goes away. Instead these pollutants bioaccumulate (there is ever greater concentration of the pollutant in an organism) and biomagnify (there is ever greater concentration of the polluting as you move up the food chain). Advanced nuclear power systems can completely recycle used nuclear fuel, actually producing a net positive balance of energy in this process. In a 2014 survey of all energy sources exploring which delivered the least direct harm to biodiversity, nuclear was among the best options, due to its small land and mining footprint. Nuclear has by far the best safety record of any energy source, clocking in at 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour, compared to wind’s 0.15 deaths, solar’s 0.44 deaths, hydroelectric’s 1.4 deaths, oil’s 36 deaths and coal’s 100 death.”

In his book, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts (see the chapter “The Left Defence of Nuclear Power”), Phillips writes that energy poverty in Germany has risen since the country started decommissioning nuclear power:

“Where genuinely clean nuclear power until the mid-2000s represented the largest proportion of Germany’s electricity generation, this crown is now worn by brown coal (lignite), the least efficient and dirtiest kind of coal there is. Even as the country is mothballing its fleet of nuclear power plants, it is commissioning and opening brand new coal-fired power plants. The reason is due to the intermittency of wind and solar.

“The idea that the Energiewende [energy transition] is some revival of national planning, the sort of public sector build-out of new energy and transport infrastructure that we do need to solve the climate crisis, is laughable. Rather, it is neoliberal business as usual, with the feed-in tariff offering subsidies to property owners and companies to install the solar panels and wind turbines. This subsidy is expensive, with the cost passed on as a surcharge to consumers, making electricity in Germany the most expensive in Europe. The average household now pays an extra €260 a year, while 2,300 energy-intensive companies are exempt from paying the surcharge — and costs are only expected to rise. From 2008 to 2011, the proportion of German households suffering from energy poverty climbed from 13.8 to 17% (a household is considered to be energy-poor when it spends more than 10 percent of its income on energy).”

Emmet Penney and Adrián Calderón write for The Bellows:

“Throughout seven decades of service, nuclear power has consistently been proven to be safer than every other mass scale form of energy production. In one year, residents who live near a nuclear power plant are exposed to less radiation than anyone who has eaten a single banana. Though it may sound counterintuitive, because elements such as uranium and plutonium have such long half-lives, the radiation they emit is low enough to safely hold in your hand. Nuclear is also far and away the most reliable form of energy generation in the US, which makes it ideal for providing baseload power for the electrical grid [whereas wind and solar are intermittent due to night time and winter]. Nuclear reactors routinely spend years in continuous operation. The current fleet of nuclear power plants have no technical limits that prevent them from being in service for 80 years, if not a century.

… most [nuclear waste] is composed of low-level waste (LLW) made up of protective clothing, cleaning materials, equipment, and tools exposed to neutron radiation. LLW accounts for 90% of nuclear waste by volume but only 1% of its total radioactivity and can be disposed of safely and permanently. After about half a decade of providing carbon-free energy in the reactor core, the uranium fuel itself must be replaced. This high-level waste (HLW) is the highly radioactive and long-living stuff that you see caricatured in popular imagination. Yet this type of waste comprises only 3% of total nuclear waste. To put this in perspective, all of the waste from the entire history of American nuclear power plants can fit within an area the size of a football field, 50 feet high — half the height of a single wind turbine.

“Meanwhile, weather-dependent renewables require 400–450 times the land to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear. Leveling an area of land larger than almost a third of all US states for energy production might be an acceptable compromise to some, but it does not solve the weather-dependent nature of those sources. Further complicating matters is the fact renewable energy must be stored for later, which requires the use of lithium batteries. But the sheer scale of mining and land use required, and the fact that it involves the domination and exploitation of predominantly developing countries, makes the choice not only inefficient, but unethical. With the abundant uranium reserves already in the United States today, we have the capacity to cultivate an industry to domestically fuel our reactors right now.”

[16] For detailed theoretical proof of the labour theory of value, see Kliman, A., “Debt, Economic Crisis, and the Tendential Fall in the Profit Rate: A temporal perspective” and

[17] In his 2019 lecture ‘How to enjoy the end of the world’, Sid Smith argues that doubling the size of the economy, as tends to happen every 20 years under capitalism, would finish off the habitability of Earth’s atmosphere — but also that the economy is now so large that the cost of doubling it, based on the expense of a diminishing energy return on investment (EROI) makes that impossible. “The collapse has already begun,” he says. That this is happening — as I argue in my book — at exactly the same time that capitalism is exhausting its primary fuel supply, human labour, can be no coincidence, but is remarkably humbling nonetheless.

[18] Hickel, J. op cit, pp. 103–6; 142–151.

[19] Small companies tend to have a lower capital-to-labour bias and therefore a higher rate of profit, which gives them more scope for experimentation and innovation. They cannot, however, compete with monopolies in terms of production in absolute numbers, meaning their prices are higher (harming their competitiveness); and they tend to get destroyed or subsumed by monopolies who need to crush competition and expand and raise production by buying up means of production, preferably on the cheap.

[20] A worldwide hemp/plant-based industrial revolution is therefore absolutely essential if we are to reverse desertification and stabilise the climate; and with the added bonuses of ending pollution, whether plastic or atmospheric, and furthering technological and industrial advancement.

This is not a call for a hemp monoculture. In 1984 it was estimated that just 6% (90 million acres) of contiguous US land cultivating hemp could supply all then-current demands for oil and gas, while maintaining a neutral carbon system. (‘Coincidentally’ the US government pays farmers not to grow on 6% of the farming land (to keep food prices high.)* Clearly the figure would have to be higher than 6% if hemp were also to replace steel, concrete, plastic and lithium, etc. While the economy is now much bigger than in 1984, a lot of what we presently produce is completely wasteful — much novelty tat, bombs, energy-intensive financial systems, for instance — only made to serve the needs of accumulation. As things like lab-grown food and 3D-printing become more diffuse and ‘localised’, as local life becomes increasingly pleasurable, and public transport improves exponentially, private forms of transport like cars will become increasingly obsolete, too (and the cars that do get made for fun and independent craftsmanship will be made with hemp, mycelium, etc.). And as the means of production continue to shrink and move underground (see footnote 12) there will be more and more overground space to revive the environment and biodiversity. So while a hemp monoculture is not necessary, the argument that plants must be reserved for crops is, at the least, outdated.

Hemp in Latin actually means ‘useful’ — making it the perfect match for the use-value-based production of socialism — since it is one of the only plant species that provides food/medicine, fuel and fibre. It was used prolifically by humans for at least 10,000 before capitalism, which had to prohibit its production because its low labour intensity makes it relatively unprofitable and its versatility and cheapness threatened labour-intensive extractive industries. It is only now that the fossil fuel and other extractive industries have become so capital-intensive and therefore increasingly unprofitable that hemp and cannabis prohibition has started to end.

Other examples of fibrous plants that can be used in production: Banana peel can be made into high-performance sodium-ion batteries. Leaves and grass clippings can be turned into solar panels.

Sources: “History of hemp”, Hemp.com; Burns, J. (2020), “How cannabis coevolved with humanity, and could save it now”, Forbes.com; Briggs, J. (2012), “Hemp fuel guide”, Hemp Frontiers; Kaucic, G. (2019), “A sustainable alternative to fossil fuels: hemp & biofuel”, Hemp History Week; Mitlin, D., et al (2013); Interconnected Carbon Nanosheets Derived from Hemp for Ultrafast Supercapacitors with High Energy’, American Chemical Society Publications; Murray-Smith, R. (2017), “The hemp battery performs better than the lithium battery”, Cannabis Tech; UK Hempcrete, “Better-than-zero-carbon buildings”.

(There is also growing body of anecdotal evidence that hempcrete can absorb reasonable quantities of electromagnetic interference (EMI). The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Furthermore, the recent discovery of the endocannabinoid system EDS has further revealed humanity’s evolutionary connection with plantlife, and is set to revolutionise our understanding and treatment of disease. Hundreds of millions of people around the world — usually in defiance of the law — have long used cannabis to treat autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, cancers, and so on. The EDS is a network of cannabinoid receptors all over our bodies that provide chemical feedback for cellular communication. These receptors are located on inflammatory cells, white blood cells, lymphocytes and throughout the nervous system. They have anti-inflammatory effects and various properties that have other health benefits. When you stimulate the cannabinoid type 1 receptor, by consuming cannabis, you reduce pain transmission into the nervous system, for example. Cannabidiol (CBD) and (tetrahydrocannabinol) THC therefore provide the same pain relief as opioids but without the potential addictiveness. THC, for example, mimics and therefore complements or makes up for an underproduction of anandamide — an endocannabinoid — producing a calming effect on irritated neurons. (People who do not have an underproduction of anandamide should not use cannabis too frequently. Like other drugs, nor is it always safe to mix with other drugs/medicines.) This area of medicine and anatomy is hugely under-researched due to prohibition. It was not until the 1990s that the ECS in humans was even (re)discovered(?). We now know that the ECS is involved in fighting almost all diseases, opening the way for researchers to re-analyse how they should be treated. It may be that the ECS can be manipulated not just therapeutically but through vibrations and bioelectricity. (See The Canna Manual: Cannabis in Context, Global Cannabinoids Solutions, 2020.) Not only did capitalism introduce an energy system that poisons body, brain and nature; it banned the thing that is perhaps best not only at treating but maintaining their health in the first place. We could have built — at least in theory, if we ignore the inevitability of the epoch of private property — a durable world of abundance without polluting the air, unsettling the climate, or degrading the soil.)

*Mechanisation had already had a profound impact on US farming by 1900: the labour needed to produce 1 acre of wheat fell from 61 hours in 1830 to 3 hours 19 minutes in 1896. (Reynolds, B., The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century, Zer0 Books, op cit, loc. 1757.) Today, the agriculture problem is returning to the bleak days of the Great Depression, when the US government bought produce for a guaranteed profit or ordered its destruction to raise prices. From 1996 to 2006, the cost of producing corn was higher than its sale price. Rising demand as a result of droughts, crop failures and biofuel production boosted prices for a while, but corn production became unprofitable again by 2015. This “demonstrates that Marx’s remarkable prediction was right. The collapse of production for exchange-value is not just a theoretical possibility. We can already observe it happening. An agricultural system that sacrificed everything from environmental standards to food quality and safety in the search for profit can no longer sustain production for profit on an independent basis. US agriculture has to be subsidised permanently or it will be unable to operate in a capitalist market.” (Reynolds, op cit, loc. 1789–1805.)

[21] We stress global, since socialism isolated and under attack by capitalist superpowers, as in the case of the Soviet Union, has to trade with capitalist companies (where it can circumvent blockades and sanctions), undermining the ability to plan production, since fluctuating foreign prices cannot be fully anticipated (socialist prices being predictably fixed to labour time); and incentivising the build up of foreign currency (including via black markets).

The Soviet Union was also forced to build up its military defences at the expense of its civilian economy. It therefore had little choice but to use fossil fuel and metals in production, although it may have suffered from capitalist-inherited ignorance on the matters of hemp and mycelium (and much research and development, as a result of prohibition, is still required).

With capitalism’s fetters (restraints) on productivity — the profit motive/surplus capital that cannot be (re)invested profitably — fully removed worldwide, any technological fixes needed to help reverse the climate and fertility crises would become much more possible; especially since all labour, rather than just commodity-producing labour, becomes productive under socialism. This is even true to an extent of socialism ‘in one country’ (the Soviet Union was more like one continent).

For example, space-based solar power, overcoming the intermittency of winter, night time and overcast weather, is too expensive to develop by a capitalist system in severe decay. Chinese scientists, meanwhile, have just set a new world record of achieving a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds, a key step toward the test running of a fusion reactor, using deuterium abound in the sea to provide a steady stream of clean energy. This is only a small step, however. Nuclear fusion is said to be even safer than fission, because it is less radioactive, but has taken decades to develop because of the capital-intensity. Whether China is ahead of the game on this (like most technologies these days) because it is genuinely ‘building socialism’ or because its overaccumulation of capital is relatively smaller than the US’s, is beyond the scope of this essay, although we tend to think it is the latter since China has its own mounting debt/falling interest rate crisis.

The Soviet Union was, of course, far more innovative than it is given credit for. Inventions there included: the radio antenna; 2- and 3-D holography; the artificial satellite; the programmable computer; the nuclear power plant and nuclear-powered submarine; the AK assault rifle; the mobile phone; and Tetris. See “Russian inventions in the soviet era”, inventions-handbook.com.

Modern advances in computing power, ‘big data’ and stock coding will make socialised central planning far superior compared to the level reached in the Soviet Union, meaning that the ‘command and control’ military style that ignored the finer details of planning is no longer necessary (outside of war-time). Even back then, though, socialised central planning made it possible, for example, to speedily transport factories to the other side of the Urals after the outbreak of WWII — within 12 months 2,500 major enterprises had been moved and brought into operation. Compare this to the sluggishness of capitalism’s response to climate change. Soviet armaments production was more efficiently organised than that of either the Allies or the fascists. For every million tonnes of steel the USSR produced 1.5 times more planes than the UK, 2.6 times more than Germany, and 3.2 times more than the US. The Soviet Union’s industrial output quadrupled in 1928–38, while the advanced capitalist economies broke down into the Great Depression. See: “War and the Soviet Union: The Soviet victory over fascism”, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 49, May 1985. According to Sam Lilley in Automation and Social Progress (International Publishers, 1957, p. 159), the volume of production in the USSR was four times greater than in the US in 1937, five times greater by 1949, nearly seven times greater in 1952 and nearly nine times greater in 1955.

Clearly, a transition to predominantly non-extractive production would take years, probably decades. Hard limitations on fossil fuel and metal mining production will have to be enforced during, meaning only really essential items could be made until they could be done so sustainably. Obviously certain wants are needs, but ‘luxuries’ that could not be produced cleanly would have to be rationed until such a time that they could be produced sustainably. On the other side of this arduous but necessary transition lies abundant material wealth for all.

While the economy could still grow under socialism, the doubling of output every 20 years, as under capitalism, is surely not ecologically sustainable. Nor is it really necessary. Capitalism produces incalculable waste to meet the demands of accumulation. Under socialism, because production is consciously planned, the economy still could grow but at the same rate as or slower than nature replenishes itself (something that capitalism hinders, but socialism would assist). At the moment, the equivalent of 1.7 Earth’s worth of resources is being consumed per year, but half of that is by the world’s 10% richest people. If every country consumed the same amount of resources as the US, the number of Earth’s consumed each year would be four.

Clearly, extraction took place before capitalism or the advent of private property, too, but on a very limited basis. As Hickel writes:

“We humans have been on this planet for nearly 300,000 years; fully evolved, fully intelligent, exactly as we are today. For approximately 97% of that time our ancestors lived in relative harmony with the Earth’s ecosystems.

“This is not to say that people didn’t extract from the land or mine the mountains. They did; but they did so with careful decorum and rituals of respect. Miners, smiths and farmers offered propitiation. They believed they were permitted to take from the earth, as one might receive a gift, but that to take too much, or too violently, would invite calamity.

“[Early human societies did] change ecosystems. We know, for example, that certain societies played a role in the demise of some of the planet’s ancient megafauna, like woolly mammoths and giant sloths and sabre-toothed cats. But they never precipitated anything like the multi-front ecological collapse that we are witnessing today. It was only with the rise of capitalism over the past few hundred years, and the breathtaking acceleration of industrialisation from the 1950s, that on a planetary scale things began to tip out of balance.

“For most of our 300,000-year history, we humans have had an intimate relationship with the rest of the living world. We know that people in early human societies were likely to be able to describe the names, properties and personalities of hundreds if not thousands of plants, insects, animals, rivers, mountains and soils, in much the same way people today know the most recondite facts about actors, celebrities, politicians and product brands. Aware that their existence depended on the well-being of other living systems around them, they paid close attention to how those systems worked. They regarded humans as an inextricable part of the rest of the living community, which they saw in turn as sharing the essential traits of humanity. Indeed, the art our ancestors left hidden on stone surfaces around the world suggests that they believed in a sort of spiritual interchangeability between humans and non-human beings.

“Anthropologists refer to this way of seeing the world as animism — the idea that all living beings are interconnected, and share in the same spirit or essence. Because animists draw no fundamental distinction between humans and nature, and indeed in many cases insist on the underlying relatedness — even kinship — of all beings, they have strong moral codes that prevent them from exploiting other living systems. We know from animist cultures today that while people of course fish, hunt, gather and farm, they do so in the spirit not of extraction but of reciprocity. Just as with gifts exchanged among people, transactions with non-human beings are hedged about with rituals of respect and politeness. Just as we take care not to exploit our own relatives, so animists are careful to take no more than ecosystems can regenerate, and give back by protecting and restoring the land.

“Enlightenment thinkers once disparaged animist ideas as backwards and unscientific. They considered them to be a barrier to capitalist expansion, and sought desperately to stamp them out. But today science is beginning to catch up. Biologists are discovering that humans are not standalone individuals, but composed largely of microorganisms on which we depend for functions as basic as digestion. Psychiatrists are learning that spending time around plants is essential to people’s mental health, and indeed that certain plants can heal humans from complex psychological traumas. Ecologists are learning that trees, far from being inanimate, communicate with each other and even share food and medicine through invisible mycelial networks in the soil. Quantum physicists are teaching us that individual particles that appear to be distinct are inextricably entangled with others, even across vast distances. And Earth-systems scientists are finding evidence that the planet itself operates like a living superorganism.”

Again, as well as showing that the world is powered by collectivism and not individualism, these new developments in science in late monopoly capitalism are conspicuously ‘pre-socialist’, i.e. systematic, holistic; of Marx’s dialectical historical materialism: the method of assessing the world through the understanding that it develops not in a purely deterministic way as such but through bidirectional interactions and conflicts of social, material forces, tending towards higher modes of production. Capitalism has traditionally been blighted by theories and ideologies (invented to combat peasant and indigenous notions of ‘animism’, the theory that ‘nature’ is teeming with animated life), that are idealistic (seeing man’s tending-to-rise rationality as the driving force of historical development); mechanistic (seeing nature, including human bodies, as (merely productive) machinery); and dualistic (sentient humans, the thinking subject, versus the lifeless objects of nature, to be possessed; or civilised versus savage, justifying colonialism).

Although our new understanding of microbes has destroyed the old dualist germ theory which saw all microbes as agents of disease, dualism has sustained a new germ theory which pits ‘good’ bacteria against ‘bad’ bacteria. Again, it will take the independent research of a proletarian state — which will abolish the dualism of use-value vs exchange value, producer vs consumer and so on — to determine whether the science should move beyond this, but arguably terrain theory offers a more materialist explanation of disease. Terrain (or cellular) theory focuses on the terrain of human cells. It does not necessarily argue that germs do not exist but that ‘the terrain’ must first be deficient or toxic/sick in order for infection to manifest. This theory seems more plausible and two-sided compared to (a one-sided) germ theory from a Marxist perspective, which utilises a ‘dialectical’, i.e. bidirectional/interactive science, going back and forth between the abstract and the concrete, the particular and the general, in a method of induction, deduction and successive approximation, whereby elements are excluded and reintroduced in a method of isolation. Is it not the declining biodiversity in the gut microbiome (allowing one or a few to dominate the terrain of the human body) and rising air/plastic pollution that causes disease? (Are people being labelled as dying ‘with/from’ COVID-19 when they are actually dying from something else?) Mosley reversed his type 2 diabetes by following the eating habits of hunter gatherers.

See, for example, “The belief that viruses are pathogenic invaders is crumbling: New study says ‘exosomes’ can’t be distinguished from viruses,” DrTomCowan.com. “The early proponents of the germ theory were not only completely inaccurate in their conclusions about the role of bacteria in the human organism, but, more important, they established a framework that postulated that human beings were somehow separate from nature. This insidious and unscientific conclusion, which continues to the present time, has caused grave harm to all living systems. In the case of viruses, a similar shift is just beginning to happen in the scientific community. The old paradigm about viruses is that we are essentially ‘virus-free’ in our healthy, natural state, and the only viruses that are inside us must be pathogens that came from the outside. This belief was, of course, never proven; it was just stated as dogma, and it dovetailed nicely with the narrative of ‘nature is out to get us’… To date, a reliable method that can actually guarantee a complete separation between a supposedly exogenous pathogenic virus and an endogenous extracellular vesicle does not exist.”

See also: “The Misconception Called ‘Virus’” by Dr. Stefan Lanka. Lanka won a landmark case in 2017 which went all the way to the German Supreme Court. The highest court of the land agreed with Lanka that measles was not caused by a virus, and that there was in fact no such thing as a measles virus… Lanka writes:

“All claims about viruses as pathogens are wrong and are based on easily recognisable, understandable and verifiable misinterpretations … All scientists who think they are working with viruses in laboratories are actually working with typical particles of specific dying tissues or cells which were prepared in a special way. They believe that those tissues and cells are dying because they were infected by a virus. In reality, the infected cells and tissues were dying because they were starved and poisoned… The infection theories were only established as a global dogma through the concrete policies and eugenics of the Third Reich. Before 1933, scientists dared to contradict this theory; after 1933, these critical scientists were silenced.’”

It seems quite possible that germ theory has long been used to justify the (over)prescription of medication that is harmful to human health, such as antibiotics.

Clearly it is not possible to eliminate all trade-offs when it comes to raising living standards driven by technological innovation; and most people would probably prefer to live 50 interesting, exciting years than 80 boring, arduous ones. We eat things we know to be unhealthy because we enjoy them (although we will be able to make ‘nice but unhealthy’ foods increasingly less unhealthy). Human health does of course deteriorate with age and mortality cannot be ‘cured’, even if we thought this would be a worthwhile thing to strive for. The average human now lives to be 71, 40 years longer than at the beginning of the 20th century. We should remember that the human body is exceptionally good at expelling toxins and ‘the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater’ (see footnote 12). Socialism is a higher mode of production — it will be more productive and innovative than capitalism, although that production will be measured more in terms of quality (and quality of life) than quantity. It does appear, though, that the human body is now being overwhelmed somewhat by the sheer amount of pollution, microplastics and nanoparticles being consumed, and socialism will have to prioritise tackling this reality — although, again, it will take generations to fully do so. (Researchers in epigenetics have found that life experiences affect the way genes work and that epigenetic information carried by parental sperm chromosomes can cause changes in gene expression and development in offspring. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.)

While living standards have risen for some periods for some workers under capitalism in the 20th century and 21st centuries, that has mostly been achieved through labour-saving innovation, the cheapening of labour and production, and on the backs of the global working class, vast swathes of which remain poor. 85% of the world live on less than $30 per day, two-thirds live on less than $10 per day, and every tenth person lives on less than $1.90 per day (and this was before the events of 2020). The poorest 60% of humanity receives only about 5% of total global income. Over the course of the past four decades since 1980, their daily incomes have increased by an average of about two cents per year. The richest 1% alone capture $19 trillion in income every year, which represents nearly a quarter of global GDP. That adds up to more than the GDP of the ‘poorest’ 169 countries combined. To bring everyone in the world above the income poverty line of $7.40 per day, and to provide universal public healthcare for every person in the ‘global south’ at a standard equivalent to that in Costa Rica, would require about $10 trillion. (Hickel, op cit, p. 189.)

Between 1980 and 2015, the global economy grew by 380%, yet the number of people living in poverty (on less than $5 (£3.20) a day, adjusted for the different cost of a ‘basket of goods’ from country to country) increased by more than 1.1 billion. In 1980, $2.20 of every $100 went to the world’s poorest 20%, but in 2003 that figure had fallen to 60 cents. While the official global rate of extreme poverty decreased by around 1% a year between 1990 and 2017, the extreme poverty marker is set by the World Bank at below $1.90 per day. By this standard, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined from around 1.9 billion (36%) in 1990 to 643 million (8.4%) in 2019 (mostly in China). These figures are absurd: according to the United Nations, 815 million people do not consume enough calories to sustain even “minimal” human activity; 1.5 billion are food insecure and do not have enough calories to sustain “normal” human activity; and 2.1 billion suffer from malnutrition. And this was before 2020, when starvation doubled as a result of capital’s need to slash expenditure on surplus labour. If a threshold of $7.40 minimum wage is set, the extreme poverty figures change to 3.2 billion (71%) in 1981 and 4.2 billion (58%) in 2013.

Furthermore it has not always been the case that capitalism tends to raise living standards and life expectancy, even in the richer countries. During the rise of capitalism, achieved through the industrial revolution and enclosure (the expropriation, privatisation and atomisation of land owned in common by peasants) the first century was characterised by a striking deterioration in life expectancy, down to levels not seen since the Black Death in the 14th century. In Manchester and Liverpool, the two giants of industrialisation, life expectancy collapsed compared to non-industrialised parts of the country. In Manchester it fell to a mere twenty-five years. This happened in every European country that has been studied. The first few hundred years of capitalism generated misery to a degree unknown in the pre-capitalist era. (See Simon Szreter, “The population health approach in historical perspective,” American Journal of Public Health 93(3), 2003, pp. 421–431; Simon Szreter and Graham Mooney, “Urbanization, mortality, and the standard of living debate: new estimates of the expectation of life at birth in nineteenth-century British cities,” Economic History Review 51(1), 1998, pp. 84–112.)

Moreover, while technological innovation has played its part, life expectancy has mostly seen sustained gains when capital has either been forced to make concessions by forceful working class movements; or (the two often coincide) when capital has needed public infrastructure to take on the burden of cheapening production. (Producing and maintaining the working class is most efficient with public health care. Hickel: “Spain spends only $2,300 per person to deliver high-quality healthcare to everyone as a fundamental right, achieving one of the highest life expectancies in the world: 83.5 years; a full five years longer than [US] Americans. By contrast, the private, for-profit system in the United States sucks up an eye-watering $9,500 per person, while delivering lower life expectancy and worse health outcomes.” The thing that had the most impact in reversing falling living standards under capitalism — after decades of resistance from landlords who would not pay taxes or accept offers for land — was (public) sanitation (resistance that was only broken after workers won the right to vote). (Simon Szreter, “The importance of social intervention in Britain’s mortality decline c. 1850–1914: A re-interpretation of the role of public health,” Social history of medicine 1(1), pp. 1–38.) Recent data shows that water sanitation measures alone explain 75% of the decline in infant mortality in the United States between 1900 and 1936, and half the total decline in mortality rates.)

Life expectancy in the US peaked at 78.9 in 2014 — nudging it just over the UN’s threshold for ‘very high’ life expectancy — and fell by a full year in the first half of 2020 to 77.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In socialist Cuba in 2020, life expectancy at birth for Cuba was 78.89 years, having increased from 70.31 years in 1971 to 78.89 years in 2020, growing at an average annual rate of 0.24%. This is despite the US’s economic blockade of Cuba that has cost the island nation around $1 trillion over nearly 60 years.

In 2019, the US had a GDP per capita of $59,500. Japan has 35% less income than the US, but a life expectancy of 84 years — the highest in the world. South Korea has 50% less income and a life expectancy of 82 years. Portugal has 65% less income and a life expectancy of 81.1 years. The European Union as a whole has 36% less income than the US, and yet beats the US not only on life expectancy but on virtually every other indicator of human welfare.

Costa Rica “provides perhaps the most astonishing example”, says Hickel. “The rainforest-rich Central American country beats the US on life expectancy despite having 80% less income. Indeed, Costa Rica ranks among the most ecologically efficient economies on the planet, in terms of its ability to deliver high standards of welfare with minimal pressure on the environment. And when we look at it across time, the story becomes even more fascinating: Costa Rica managed to achieve some of its most impressive gains in life expectancy during the 1980s, catching up to and surpassing the US, during a time when its GDP per capita was not only small (one-seventh that of the US) but not growing at all.” (Hickel, op cit, pp. 173–8.)

[22] Scientists during socialist China’s Cultural Revolution reportedly found — via a 1,500 year-old manuscript — an effective, non-toxic malaria treatment that grows from a weed called artemisinin, whose anti-cancerous properties were later realised in the 1990s.

(Incidentally, the doctors who discovered how artemisinin kills cancer cells (it attaches to transferrin and releases oxygen in the cell, triggering apoptosis (cell death)) also argue that they have demonstrated that cell phone radiation damages DNA and causes cancer. Capitalism has little interest in curing disease — humans are subjected to the same logic of planned obsolescence as commodities. It is far more profitable to cause illnesses in order to create demand for medical commodities (which are often, as we have seen, toxic. Quite the ingenious, self-perpetuating business model).)

Because of the US blockade and a variety of traditional knowledge within the population, socialist Cuba and its world renowned health care system is heavily invested in ‘natural medicine’ derived from plants, herbs and roots. (The island has 67 physicians per 10,000 people compared to just 24 per 10,000 in the US, according to the World Health Organization. Local doctor-nurse teams called consultorios are available in every community.)

Research into traditional medicine has increased on the island over the past decade. The Ministry of Public Health has begun to implement the use of traditional medicine through a variety of different programmes and government-owned farmland is dedicated not only to the production of food, but also of medicinal plants. Production has been expanded to include common medicinal plants like oregano, aloe vera, mint, moringa, and noni, a tree in the coffee family used as an antioxidant and to fight inflammation.

Yoandra Adelá, a general practitioner at a Havana hospital, says that, “In every elementary school you’re going to find a small greenhouse where kids plant and farm medicinal plants, and they are taught different uses they have as well as the healing properties of each one.”

Students learn about different varieties of mint, used to cure indigestion and diarrhea; and “mejorana” (oregano), which is used to treat coughs, asthma and colds. Camomile, called “manzanilla” is used to treat stomach ailments, cramps and fevers. Derivatives of moringa are used to treat fevers, rheumatism, muscle pain, liver inflammation, cystitis and even certain tumours. “Palo de Brasil”, a small hillside plant with a thick, woody trunk, is used to treat kidney problems and high blood pressure.

In Las Terrazas, an eco-community and biosphere reserve located about 50 miles outside of Havana, residents have access to medicinal plants right in their backyard. Most families grow between five and seven plants in community gardens, often populated with herbs to treat common illnesses like stomach problems or skin irritations.

Further reading:

PFAS chemicals: a “ticking time bomb”

Frequently Asked Questions about phthalates and plasticisers

Potential adverse effects of nanoparticles on the reproductive system”, Wang et. al., International Journal of Nanomedicine, 11 December 2018.

The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals’”, TheCounter,org, 5 August 2019.

Ted Reese is a Marxist economist and author of Socialism or Extinction (self-published) and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (Zer0 Books)

Ted Reese is a Marxist economist and author of Socialism or Extinction (self-published) and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (Zer0 Books)