In his book Biology as Ideology, famous American biologist Richard Lewontin tackles some of the ideological prejudices of science, using his dialectical lens already well-developed in his previous book, The Dialectical Biologist. Here we recall one of the examples from his writing, lessons from which are easily applied to many crises humanity faces today.
In an attempt to show the problematic framing of causes of effects, Lewontin asks the question: “What is the cause of tuberculosis?” Then he proceeds with the textbook answer: tuberculosis is caused by the turbercle bacillus, and we have stopped dying from it en masse because we now have antibiotics and other relevant treatments. Similarly, cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth after the failure of regulatory mechanisms within the body to regulate the process. For certain types of cancer, this is caused by exposure to certain dangerous materials. All very technical, and very correct.
Surely, the argument follows, we cannot contract tuberculosis without being infected with the bacillus. But does that mean that the bacillus is the cause of tuberculosis? Tuberculosis infections in the 19th century had a clear class character. Poor working and living conditions contributed to disease spread amongst the working class — so the unregulated capitalism of the time can be put down as the cause of the disease. However, in the “alienated social structure” as Lewontin puts it, medicine could only tackle the bacillus, and not the systemic cause: producing chemotherapy, not revolution.
It is hard to resist the comparison between this historical example and the multiple critical emergencies we face in our times. Here we will focus on the environmental crisis: its scientific component is impossible to ignore. Knowledge of the mechanisms of the climate breakdown and the immediate physical causes of it is necessary, and the work of thousands of scientists in this field is a vital part of any serious effort to ensure a livable future.
However, isolating the technological ends of the capitalist metabolism which is the cause of the climate emergency is a mission doomed from the start. Even if tomorrow, it became in capital’s interest to turn the race for technological climate interventions into a new space race in terms of scale and effort, this would still amount to simply throwing towels on the flooded floor without switching the tap off first. This metaphor is often used in conversations about climate action, and the tap in question represents emissions. In spirit of seeing beyond the immediate causes, it is not hard to give the tap a more systemic name.
Climate breakdown disproportionately affects the working class, the exploited regions, countries, and continents. After all these years, tuberculosis does the same. The cause is still the same—there is no lifestyle choice pushing people into disease or into unlivable conditions; there is exploitation, degradation of nature, and the inherent dependence of capitalism on these. As Nancy Fraser puts it in Cannibal Capitalism, capitalism lives on an “ecological contradiction” in its exploitative relation to nature. Socialist states had their share of ecological disasters, but there is nothing internally inherent to socialism that dictates the necessity of such events. It was the competition the socialist states had to enter with the capitalist bloc that forced capitalist extractivism into play.
To put it in an almost caricature, but still correct, form: capitalism itself runs on a series of ideologically-induced ecological disasters. Communism does not replicate the capitalist relation to nature, and finds no use for the ecological crisis. A technological approach to climate in a communist future has a chance: we are not against technology. We are against technology that works in the service of exploitation.