The natural environment on which humyn beings and all other living things on planet Earth depend is being seriously harmed by human activities, especially industrial activity. Although humyn activity has affected the environment for millennia, the rate of damage has vastly increased since the rise of capitalism as a global economic system. This is because of the uncontrolled tendency of capitalist industry toward growth for growth's own sake, and the resulting insatiable appetite for resources and massive output of pollution. (See also: Accumulation of capital.)

The Condition of the Working Class – then and now

Friedrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England was a survey of the living conditions of working people and their families in the industrial districts of England in the early 19th century. It dealt with housing, food, water and air pollution, industrial hazards, and diseases, and showed that the working poor were in many cases living in deplorable conditions. Because of the book's concern with the environment in which people were living, it has been described by one recent environmental writer as "a founding work of ecological socialism".[1]

One feature of the English situation was the great contrast between the pleasant surroundings in which the wealthy lived, and the environmental degradation in the working class districts. Subsequent environmental reform, public health measures, and industrial regulation have made this contrast much less stark – in England. However it has recently been pointed out that "On a global scale we now witness a scene broadly comparable with that exposed by Engels in his own day."[2] The contrast, instead of being between rich and poor neighbourhoods of England, is now between rich and poor halves of the Earth: "Conditions comparable to those described by Engels persist in many cities and `industrial zones' in `third world' countries".[3] And just as in Friedrich Engels' experience, there remains a strong geographical correlation between environmental degradation and "socio-economic deprivation" – that is, poverty. The poorest regions are also the worst environmentally.

Another continuity between Friedrich Engels' time and our own is that the wealthy ultimately find it difficult to contain the poverty – or all the effects of the poverty – to the areas designated as poor. In 19th century England, for example, contagious diseases such as cholera, which bred in the open sewers and polluted wells of the slums, escaped into the general population and attacked rich and poor alike.

I have already referred to the unusual activity which the sanitary police manifested during the cholera visitation. When the epidemic was approaching, a universal terror seized the bourgeoisie of the city. People remebered the unwholesome dwellings of the poor, and trembled before the certainty that each of these slums would become a centre for the plague, whence it would spread desolation in all directions through the houses of the propertied class. — Friedrich Engels, p 97.

Today the environmental essayist Ted Benton describes the analogous situation facing wealthy and privileged peoples of the world:

The toxic combination of endemic poverty, disease and environmental damage suffered by so much of the urban and rural populations of South America, Africa and south Asia stands not just as an ethical reprimand to the still-rich countries. The present threat of global pandemics, of impending local and regional resource wars, the rise of international terrorism and the endemic failure of international policy-making in the face of these global issues are all linked to deepening socio-ecological inequalities. — P 96.

Other works

  • Friedrich Engels. The Condition of the Working Class in England. (London, England; Panther: 1996)
  • Ted Benton, 2007. "Greening the Left? From Marx to World-System Theory". In Jules Pretty and others (editors), The Sage Handbook of Environmet and Society.


  1. Ted Benton, p 94.
  2. Ted Benton, p 95.
  3. Ted Benton, p 95.
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