The phrase “human exploitation” usually brings to mind images of slaves in fields of cotton or of young children operating dangerous machinery. However, according to intellectuals such as Carl Marx, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kevin Bales, it should also bring to mind images of treeless landscapes and smog-filled air. In their respective works, Marx, Coates and Bales each comment on the connection between environmental devastation and human exploitation.
Carl Marx was one of the first to postulate that an expansion of what he called “civilization” would be profoundly detrimental to the environment. Capitalism is at odds with a sustainable planet because for the system to be profitable, the environment must be exploited just as the proletariat is
“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is manifested, in which it is active, from which and by means of which it produces” (Marx, 72).
Ta-Nehisi Coates penned Between the World and Me over a century after Carl Marx published his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 but Coates also addressed the connection between environmental and human exploitation. The wrongdoers in Coates’s novel are the not the bourgeoisie, they are the “Dreamers”. These Dreamers are essentially white Americans. Although he is addressing racism instead of capitalism as the force behind human exploitation, Coates also sees environmental destruction as an inevitable outcome.
“The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos” (151).
Kevin Bales is the author of Blood and Earth, a book which “chronicles the lives of people living in bondage and the environmental devastation he says the practice of slavery causes” (“Today’s Slaves Often Work for Enterprises That Destroy the Environment”). Although we tend to think that slavery is a practice of the past, it is not the case. There are millions of people enslaved today and in each country Bales visited to research modern day slavery, he saw environmental degradation as well as human exploitation. You can read about his research and his new book in this NPR interview.
The connection is undeniable but why does it exist? The simplest reason is that human exploitation and environmental devastation are both profitable, especially when you put the two together. The cheaper it is for a major company to harvest natural resources, a valuable commodity, the greater the profit that can be made on that resource. The selfishness of man is a driving force behind the exploitation of both. So, will either ever come to an end?