Over one hundred years ago Marx and Engels were pointing to the impacts of human civilisation on the natural world. There might be, they argued, one or two islands left in the Pacific which could still be counted as untouched by humanity. But essentially the whole of nature on earth had now become influenced by human activities. Nature had become ‘humanised’.
Marx and Engels drew a number of conclusions from this. Perhaps best known, as mentioned earlier, is their celebration of humanity’s conquering of nature. A strong theme in much of their work was that human emancipation lay precisely through such domination (Schmidt 1971, Grundmann 1991, Dickens 1992, Benton 1993, Pepper 1993). Nature, harnessed to the needs of human society, meant final freedom from the struggle by human beings to survive. It also meant that people were using their creative capacities towards achieving their own liberation. But dominating nature meant not only using it to human ends but increasingly understanding it. Such understanding meant that humans were developing their latent powers. They were transforming themselves in the process of transforming nature. Marx and Engels’s vision was thus forward-looking and in some respects highly optimistic.
But they also argued that the precise ways in which nature was being conquered could also have profoundly damaging effects. Capitalism, while offering emancipation in key respects, simultaneously alienated people in others. People become separated from nature, particularly as a result of the institution of private property and of modern production processes. The latter meant that nature had become reduced to mere raw materials rather than something to be valued and lived with in its own right.
These contradictory themes will be pursued and developed later in this study. But two further aspects of Marx and Engels’s work on society and nature are especially relevant at this point. The first is that Victories’ over nature are by no means trouble-free. They might at first seem wholly unproblematic and beneficial but in the longer run such appearances could be illusory. As Engels now famously put it:
Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories