Prometheanism and nature

Technological Prometheanism and capitalism's profit-driven degradation of nature: Jack Conrad puts the case for revolutionary Prometheanism and sustainability

Nature is frequently conceptualised as separate from or opposed to humanity and human society - in common parlance what is 'natural' is lauded as good and wholesome; what is 'artificial' is counted as untrustworthy, second-rate and even dangerous. Yet something like the reverse is equally true. Human ingenuity and labour are celebrated as having subdued or conquered nature.

Such dualist misconceptions derive from, on the one hand, a technological Prometheanism that spurs on, befuddles, reconciles or simply provides cynical ideological camouflage - competition and profit-making can proceed apace without any particular concern for nature. Science, technology and economic growth will bulldoze their way through all problems that exist or that happen to arise. On the other hand, there is nature-worshipping greenism, which sees humanity as a kind of global plague - greedily, blindly, giddily eating up and destroying the ecosystem.

Marxism must stand resolutely opposed to both Promethean technocratism and greenism (the latter I will subject to a specific critique in the near future). Such one-sided abstractions demean the concrete human being and serve to further alienate humanity from nature. The fact of the matter is that humanity and nature are inextricably bound together and can only be properly theorised as dialectically interacting. Physically, socially and spiritually humanity is a product of, remains bound up with and continues to be reliant on nature. Ergo, there can be no separate existence of humanity apart from nature.

Fredrick Engels captured the dependent position of our species when he wrote that "at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p461).

What of Prometheus and Prometheanism? In Greek mythology Prometheus was one of the seven Titan gods. Prometheus was the cleverest and wisest of them. Having fashioned humans from clay, he taught them mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine and metallurgy. Prometheus also deviously stole fire from the Olympian gods in order to give it to men and women. We could then cook food and warm ourselves.

Zeus, the boss-god, grew inordinately jealous of humanity's increasing powers and talents. He soon took his revenge. Prometheus was chained naked to a pillar in the Caucasian mountains. Each day a hungry vulture would fly down and devour his liver "¦ and each night it would regrow. His torture continued endlessly (see R Graves The Greek myths Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, pp143-49). Not surprisingly then, the idea of Prometheus, the bringer of fire, has been celebrated by progressives down the ages. He simultaneously symbolises heroic, revolutionary self-sacrifice and the freedom of humanity from the gods.

Technological Prometheanism is a different matter entirely. As opposed to the revolutionary Prometheanism of Aeschylus, Shelly and Marx, technological Prometheanism is a form of mechanical materialism and was undoubtedly the offspring of the industrial revolution and the capitalist mode of production. Technological Prometheanism elevates machines over nature. In terms of the original myth technological Prometheanism fetishistically worships mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine, metallurgy "¦ and fire. The instruments of production become the prime moving force in history.

True, such a reading can be found in Marx himself - the introduction to the Contribution to the critique of political economy springs to mind. Societies are deemed progressive while they continue to develop the means of production "¦ and no "social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 29, London 1987, p263).

Interpreted by technological Prometheanism, this is said to mean that attempts at achieving socialism - such as October 1917 in Russia - were childishly premature. Advocates of this 'Marxism' resignedly put their slippers on and sigh that we will just have to put up with a capitalism of one variety or another till the system finally runs its course. Only once it has done its job of developing the productive forces with generalised robotic production does socialism come onto the historic agenda.

In fact, capital systematically holds back the replacement of human labour by machines - after all, really existing capitalism is limited by what is profitable and therefore its personifications on balance prefer cheap labour to expensive labour-saving technology. Equally to the point, human action and the class struggle is either downplayed or ignored altogether by technological Prometheanism. We therefore get a hopeless one-sided 'Marxism', an economism, which, as Michael Lebowitz convincingly argues, reduces people to "sheepish" followers of the means of production (M Lebowitz Beyond 'Capital' Basingstoke 2003, p163).

Leave aside Marx's highly problematic passage just quoted above, Lebowitz says - and I certainly agree with him - that in terms of the body of their thought the Marx-Engels team put human beings and their revolutionary actions at the heart of their project. Eg, opening their Communist manifesto, Marx and Engels begin with a resounding declaration: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p482). It is also abundantly clear from their practice that Marx-Engels put the class struggle in the first place. Not machines. After all, both men were above everything dedicated revolutionists. That explains their unconcealed contempt for anything that smacked of fatalism or passivity. Throughout their entire adult lives they sought to provide theoretical explanation for the working class movement with the aim of building communist consciousness and organisation. A course we seek to continue with our Weekly Worker and the project of establishing a Communist Party of the European Union.


Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is widely credited as being the founding father of technological Prometheanism. If that accusation be true - for accusation I take it to be - technological Prometheanism was a bastard child. Actually for Bacon human mastery of nature had to be rooted in understanding and carefully following its laws. In Grundrisse Marx incisively comments that in the hands of the bourgeoisie his formulation was reduced to a "stratagem" designed to excuse subjugating nature to the needs of capital (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 28, Moscow 1986, p337).

As already indicated, technological Prometheanism is not only associated with the theory and expansive needs of capitalism. On the left there are those mired in economistic narrow-mindedness who maintain that labour is the sole producer of wealth - eg, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Ferdinand Lassalle, Joseph Stalin and, of course, John Rees's Socialist Workers Party. Recently we discussed and denounced the fact that each and every week Socialist Worker proudly carries this 'Where we stand' proposition: "The workers create all the wealth under capitalism" (see J Conrad, 'One dimensional Marxism and proposition one' Weekly Worker December 15 2005). Nature, if considered at all, is thought of merely as a source of diminishing oil supplies, the latest bolt-on to an essentially trade unionist outlook, a cynical recruiting tactic or simply an object of exploitation. By contrast, humanity, especially the working class, is depicted in almost supernatural terms and therefore virtually free from ecological constraints and limits.

No one can discredit Marxism better than 'Marxists' such as the SWP. So it is hardly surprising that one finds greens lazily accusing Marx and Marxism of technological Prometheanism, including, of course, the toweringly stupid idea that labour creates all wealth. "Deeper greens," says David Orton, "not only see nature as having value in itself, but also see nature as the principal source of human wealth - not labour-power, as in Marxism" (www.greens.org/s-r/37/37-12.html). In fact, Marx himself - the real Marx, not the straw man so easily disposed of by ill-informed green professors - wrote that nature was the mother of all wealth and should be treated with the greatest care and respect. "Labour," he emphatically declared, "is not the source of all wealth" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81). Labour can only modify the natural materials at its disposal.

Biological teleology

Humanity is viewed by technological Prometheanism in teleological terms. Half flatteringly, half hubristically, homo sapiens are said to constitute the pinnacle of evolution. Life - supposedly from its origins - has steadily been getting ever more complex till the final point where perfection is reached. But for biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould the evolution of species is nothing more than adaptation to local environmental changes. As he points out, the "much vaunted" trend towards complexity "only records the small and extending tail of an increasingly right-skewed distribution through time - but with a strong but persistent bacterial mode that has never altered during life's entire 3.5 billion-year history" (SJ Gould The structure of evolutionary theory Cambridge, Mass 2002, p730).

In terms of biomass the vast bulk of life remains simplicity itself. This is still the age of bacteria. Given the original and continued overwhelming success of bacteria, only one evolutionary pathway remains open - invading what Gould calls the ecological niche on the 'right' and the 'strategy' of greater complexity. Various species dribbled in that direction. Nevertheless, insists Gould, there is no evidence to support the contention that higher complexity "should be considered" a "good thing" (in adaptive terms, or otherwise). Indeed studies of speciation show "no trend at all" towards complexity - compared with their ancestor, an equal number of "less complex" species arise as more complex (ibid).

So no ladder of progress. No inexorable upwardly graded movement. Hence no inferiority or superiority of species. We speak - it must be emphasised - not of science, tools or human society. Undoubtedly there has been progressive development here (respectively of knowledge and the ability to predict and manipulate nature; of enhanced capability and efficiency; and of surplus product and the potential for human freedom). Each domain has its own laws which must of necessity be studied according to their own logic, and certainly should not be dumbly confused or casually transposed. A sorry but frequent mistake.

Eg, with due humility I would venture to suggest that apart from technique, materials and points of reference there is no progress in art. Is William Shakespeare inferior compared to Bertolt Brecht? Are the works of Pablo Picasso more advanced than those of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks? Is the music of Harrison Bertwistle or John Adams better than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's? Or do we simply have difference in each case in terms of artistic expression?

The same is true of biological life "¦ including the 'right' dribble. Tyrannosaurus rex was just as well adapted to its Jurassic environment as the modern lion is to the African savannah. Each animal occupies the position of the top carnivore. It would be "impossible to imagine" tyrannosaurs "passing up a free meal if they stumbled across a corpse". However, writes palaetologist Adrian J Desmond, "it seems "¦ probable that like lions they were primarily active killers" (AJ Desmond The hot-blooded dinosaurs Aylesbury 1977, pp73-74). Though separated by many tens of millions of years, there was nothing less evolved about the one compared with the other. Tyrannosaurus rex was warm-blooded, possessed a battery of dagger-like, serrated teeth in a massive pair of crushing jaws, had six-inch, flesh-tearing claws and was in terms of crude statistics the largest land-living carnivore ever to have walked the earth. Yet, despite weighing some eight tons, tyrannosaurus rex could put in short dashes at 30mph. An awesome and surely unsurpassed hunter-killer.

It was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who "explicitly associated" biological evolution with progress and perfection (JB Foster Marx's ecology New York 2000, p189). And his heavily promoted pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo influenced Charles Darwin. Being a bourgeois, Darwin was pained to say anything that might upset the existing social order and bring about a revival of working class radicalism. Memory of the Chartist red menace still weighed heavily on his mind.

Hence the agonised delay in publishing The origin of the species. And, not least due to his class location, Darwin willingly compromised his theory with Spencerian notions of progress and a teleology which credited humanity with being nature's highest achievement (and, by inference, with bourgeois Englishmen as the highest of the high). The penultimate paragraph of The origin includes these reassuring words: ""¦ natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (C Darwin The origin of the species Harmondsworth 1972, p459.


Technological Prometheanism reached its apogee in the 1950s and 60s. No coincidence. These two decades marked capitalism's post-World War II long boom. Left and right, strikes and class struggle, socialism and communism were all said to be obsolete. Such notions might have been appropriate in the 19th century. No longer. And, of course, Marx and Marxism were totally irrelevant when it came to mid-20th century realities and its dramatically changed circumstances. Purportedly, an "irrefutable fact".

Establishment confidence soared sky high. One economic 'miracle' followed another: first Germany, then France, Italy, Japan, and Brazil. Each real step forward by post-World War II capitalism was greeted as a prelude to universal development and prosperity. A mirage. In truth the international pecking order had been reorganised. The US replaced Britain as the top imperialist power. That was the real underlying change that had taken place. Meanwhile, 90% of the world's population continued to live in grinding poverty and on the edge of starvation.

Actually capitalism's decline had reached a new stage. Faced by the material reality of the highly organised working class and the terrifying reality of October 1917, capitalism was turning to organisation in the attempt to put off socialism. But, as it did, the system's internal contradictions became ever deeper and more pronounced.

Technological Prometheanism cloaked this whole process in a fog of obfuscation. There had been a Keynesian 'revolution'. Because of nationalisation and state control over the so-called economic levers in the core capitalist countries, slumps had allegedly been consigned to the history books. The "evil of mass unemployment" had also been banished forever. Yet another "irrefutable fact" claimed by the advocates of technological Prometheanism (I Mészáros Beyond capital Hemel Hempstead 1989, p65). Interest rates, prices, aggregate demand and wages could all be smoothly managed. Running the economy was likened to captaining an oil tanker. A purely technical matter. All that was needed were a few well-timed tweaks here and the occasional nudge there.

Fashionable academics such as Kenneth Galbraith sincerely believed - or professed to believe - that science and technology were inexorably driving up productivity and bringing about the modern 'technostructure'. The Soviet Union and the United States, he decreed, were 'converging'.

Economic surpluses were - or were just about to be - so large, so abundant everywhere that squabbling over their division was deemed to be unnecessary. Given a little patience, there would soon be more than enough to go round - both for regular and substantial pay increases and healthy profits. If only trade unions showed the necessary restraint. Hence capital - but especially labour - must learn that instead of conflict what was needed was brotherly cooperation.

Nuclear power, scientific management, automation, antibiotics, computers, pesticides and the final frontier of space together held the promise of unlimited electricity, crisis-free development, an endlessly productive agriculture and, all in all, unimagined health, wealth and happiness. The affluent society was pregnant with utopia. In times just around the corner problems would no longer be caused by scarcity, exploitation and wild economic fluctuations. The only serious worry would be what to do with hugely increased leisure time. A whole raft of leftish 'intellectuals' fell for the lie "¦ as today they fall for the postmodern politics of despair and despondency.

So successful was the triumphalist nonsense that the word 'capitalism' was no longer used in polite society. It was said to be both intellectually misplaced and morally suspect.

Whenever the phrase was heard it produced condescending titters and educated lectures about the inappropriateness of class hatred. Capitalism sent young children down mine shafts and up chimneys and was thoroughly grimey and Dickensian. Sensible men and women knew that they lived in a spotlessly modern 20th century industrial society.

In fact, almost every difficulty encountered by the system was seemingly solved through the simple device of prefixing the soothing word 'modern'. Eg, modern trade unions, modern political parties, modern industrial relations, modern international alliances, modern schools.

Of course, as István Mészáros tellingly points out, technological Prometheanism presumed the continued hierarchical division of labour in the modern industrial society and therefore the subjection of the working class. These inferior beings - earlier in the 20th century Fredrick Taylor likened them in true social Darwinian terms to oxen - were fit for nothing else. Inevitably then, things had to be run by the scientific, political and managerial elite. Such an arrangement was assumed to be in "full harmony with nature's own determinations, treating human beings as animals "¦ as sanctioned not by the contingent order of society, but by the unalterable lawfulness of nature itself" (I Mészáros Beyond capital Hemel Hempstead 1989, p62).

From our present vantage point, it could hardly be clearer that technological Prometheanism, despite its once vaulting pretensions, did not provide the means for capitalism to overcome its internal contradictions.

Economic downturns, mass unemployment, class struggle, pandemics, alienation, stress and overwork have all returned with a vengeance. Far from wealth distribution slowly levelling out, the exact opposite has occurred. Over the last two decades the rich have gained a larger and larger proportion of the economic cake. The long boom and the social democratic state were a temporary blip, not a permanent state of affairs.


Nor did technological Prometheanism serve to finally conquer nature. Technological Prometheanism was itself, in no small part, responsible for widening, or at least serving as a cover for, what Marx called the metabolic rift between human society and nature. Capitalism does not involve a balanced, or sustainable, exchange between human society and nature. Indeed no value is granted to nature whatsoever. Capital begins and ends with exchange value (its general form being money). What is taken is considered a 'free gift'. So capital robs nature "¦ and does so at an ever increasing rate.

Let us take the birthplace of industrial capitalism: Britain. We shall use this country as an example of the damage capital inflicts upon nature, not because Britain is the worst case, but perhaps because it is the least worst (in part due to the destruction already wrought by a particularly intense form of feudalism, its heavy soils and moderate climate, and the existence of a strong labour movement and therefore many democratic gains). The dark, satanic mills have long ago been demolished - converted into warehouses or swish, middle class apartments; but this is still far from being a green and pleasant land.

Since the beginning of World War II small, mixed farms have been mercilessly squeezed out of business (not that we glorify petty bourgeois farming - but once again that must be the subject of a separate article). According to The Guardian online, in 1939 there were almost 500,000 farms in Britain, the "majority fewer than 40 hectares, and almost all worked by families" (www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0,3604,1013697,00.html). Between them, they employed up to 15% of the workforce. By 1970 that figure had almost halved and in the past 15 years the number has fallen to about 130,000. Most of them are heavily indebted to the banks and many are now run on a part-time basis.

And Tony Blair's Labour government wants to accelerate what it loadedly calls "rationalisation". Lord Haskins - who chaired reports on the future of agriculture and advises Blair - is particularly keen to see mega-farms and a rapid concentration of land ownership. He happily predicts that the number of British farms will "halve again within 20 years" (ibid).

Capitalist farming is inherently limited by the finite nature of land. There is only so much of it available. Marginal land can always be brought into use, but the size of Britain can never be doubled and then doubled again. By contrast, the process of capital accumulation in industry can proceed independently of the process of centralisation. One factory has no need to take over similar concerns in the immediate neighbourhood in order to grow. Not capitalist agriculture. Large-scale capitalist agriculture can only proceed by combining the many into the few.

However, the result of large-scale agriculture is not only capital accumulation. It is monoculture. That necessarily means a further degradation of nature. The huge fields of peas, potatoes, wheat, soya, barley and rape that nowadays characterise the countryside - particularly in the Midlands and southern England - are virtually barren of all other life forms (even the microscopic bacteria in the subsoil is depleted). Driven on by their masters in the four giant supermarkets, the never satisfied hunger for profit and fat subsidies - around 80% of Britain's annual £30 billion grants from Europe goes to the largest 20% of farms - the countryside has become ever more denatured. Eg, till recently hedgerows - tiny threads of native scrubland - were being enthusiastically ripped up, inevitably under the seemingly enlightened rubric of "rationalisation". Between the 1950s and 90s some two-thirds of England's hedgerows were destroyed: a loss rate of around 4.3% per year.

Vandalism on a truly monumental scale ... and not a squeak of protest from the Countryside Alliance and their ilk. Why the silence? The nature-loving ladies and gentlemen who own the countryside were themselves responsible for ordering the ecocide. They craved just that bit more production, just that bit more profit. Were these Barber-clad thugs hauled before the courts and duly punished? No. Were they handed anti-social behaviour orders? Once again, no. In fact, typically, they were rewarded. Government grants and royal gongs continuously flow their way "¦ as they consider their natural birthright. After all, their ancestors had the force of arms needed to steal the land in the first place and eventually to violently evict our peasant forefathers. An act of grand larceny till only a short time ago symbolised by fox-hunting.

Karl Kautsky's attitude on the subject is worth quoting here: "Restrictions" on hunting, he wrote in 1899, "leave us somewhat unmoved" - such 'sports' are hardly "a means for economically or morally elevating the proletariat" (K Kautsky The agrarian question Vol 2, London 1988, p393). As with the Prussian junkers, the hunt's freedom to charge over field and dale de facto underlined the British aristocracy's continued domination of the countryside. Tenants, smallholders and hired hands might occasionally grumble, but are in no position to seriously object. They are dependent, beholden and often touchingly eager to ape the ways of their 'masters and betters'.

Under these self-appointed guardians of rural Britain, species of wild animals and plants have been decimated. This island once had a wide biodiversity not least in the  expansive forests which supported a rich variety of mammals such as bison, wild cats, deer, wolves, bears and boars. Now those animals have all gone and the forests they inhabited have been reduced to little tiny patches between the suffocating monoculture and the poverty of sheep runs, grouse moors and golf courses.

And the extinctions continue: mouse-eared bat (1990), Essex emerald moth (1991), Norfolk damesfly (1957), horned dung beetle (1955), summer lady's tresses (1959). Each extinction has gone almost unnoticed, yet one by one they mark a general decline in biodiversity and therefore the overall health of the ecosystem. Hence the significance of other species. At least a third of Britain's remaining native mammals are in steep decline: water vole, pipistrelle bat, greater horseshoe bat and red squirrel. Then there are threatened plants such the cornflower, shore dock, red-tipped cudweed and starfruit, and the insects like the southern damselfly, netted carpet moth, mole cricket and the violet click beetle.

Studies also show that the wild bird population has plummeted by more than 65% in 30 years. In 1996 a report was issued on the "indirect" effects of pesticides on British bird life (www.english-nature.org.uk/science/srp/srp2.htm). Nowadays they might not directly kill birds, but they do kill their food source. Britain's bird population it literally starving to death. The willow warbler, yellowhammer, dunnock and sedge warbler were all placed on the endangered species list in 2000. The ringed plover, meadow pipit, lapwing, moorhen, linnet and reed bunting have since joined them. And, of course, the house sparrow, once common in towns and cities, has now virtually disappeared.

What was once a glorious morning chorus has been reduced to a comparative whimper. A sad little requiem.

As a general formulation we can say that the growth of capitalist farming equals a directly proportionate loss of wildlife and a reduction in bio-diversity.

Besides wiping out insect and in turn bird life, pesticide residues are nowadays ubiquitous in the environment, including our food chain: in 2002 EU officials found pesticide residues in 42% of the foods they sampled, with 5.1% of the total samples "containing more than the permitted national or EU-wide" maximum. The most frequently detected compounds were imazalil, thiabendazole, chlorpyrifos, maneb group, benomyl group and methidathion. Detections of chlorpyrifos, maneb and benomyl groups doubled in 2002, compared with earlier years. Chlorpyrifos, it is blandly pointed out, is a "nerve toxin, maneb fungicides are suspected probable carcinogens and disruptors of the hormone system, and benomyl associated with birth defects" (www.pan-europe.info/publications/FoodResidues.shtm).

Large-scale capitalist farming consigns cattle, pigs and chickens to huge, factory-like buildings where they are fed on silage or industrially produced pellets. The rampant spread of disease among them is inevitable: salmonella, swine fever, e coli, etc. Antibiotics were once seen as a magic bullet. Madly, they were routinely given in feed. As they obviously would, viruses soon adapted. Many are now more or less immune to the old antibiotics. Then there is the madness of foot and mouth disease. The total cost of the 2001 outbreak in Britain is "estimated to be in the region of £20 billion" (www.warmwell.com/aldersonsept3.html). Some 10 million beasts were slaughtered. The great majority were almost certainly uninfected. Showing the utter irrationality of the system, none were killed for food.

Clerics - such as James Jones, bishop of Liverpool - saw the burning pyres of cattle and sheep as a sure sign of divine judgement: "I believe," he said, "that the various farming crises over the years may well be a judgement of god on the way we are violating creation. The bible sees judgement not just as an event in the future, a far-off-in-time Day of Judgement, but as a present experience. 'Do not be under any illusion,' wrote St Paul. 'You cannot make a fool of god. Because whatever you sow is exactly what you will reap'" (http://www.agriculture-theology.org.uk/articles/godatworkrural.htm). Despite the religious language there is more than a kernel of truth here.

Large-scale capitalist agriculture produces not only same-species contagions. There is the constant danger of diseases spreading from domestic animals to the human population. We have already had BSE and CJD. Now we live under the much greater threat of H5N1 avian flu transforming itself into a human-to-human strain and the possibility of a horrendous pandemic. In Britain alone tens of thousands could die.

Chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson has even talked of 750,000 fatalities (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4346624.stm). Worldwide the total would surely be counted in the many millions.

Another well known consequence of large-scale capitalist agriculture is methane, one of the three gases said to be responsible for global warming. It is reckoned to be some 23 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. Livestock agriculture accounts for some 43% of the United Kingdom's methane emissions - the largest single source.

Each dairy cow is responsible for roughly 84kg of methane per annum; 34kg more than free-range beef cattle, "largely because of differences in diet and levels of exercise" (www.vegansociety.com/html/environment/energy/global_warming.php). There are over 3 million dairy cattle in Britain and 1.4 billion worldwide, together they account for 14% of global emissions of methane. In this case farting is no joking matter.

Mixed farms were relatively balanced in environmental terms: not the huge agro-businesses that supply Sainsbury's with peas and potatoes. The natural metabolic process of exchange has been broken. Without animal fertilisation the soil becomes totally reliant on artificial fertilisers. In 1997 a survey of fertiliser practices in Britain showed that the average tillage crop needed the following artificial inputs: nitrogen - 148kg; phosphate - 55kg; potash - 67kg (http://datalib.ed.ac.uk/EUDL/surveys/fertiliser/report97.html).

Moreover, the stubble that was once eaten by cattle now simply goes to waste. Till a government ban in 1993 it was burnt. Every autumn clouds of acrid smoke hung in the air, triggering gasping asthma attacks and blinding motorway drivers. Yet, despite the legislation, animals still do not feed on it. They are elsewhere - on other specialised farms. Inevitably too soil erosion accelerates. Organic matter plays a crucial role in maintaining soil fertility, stability and water-holding capacity. The proportion of Britain's soil with a high level (over 7%) of organic matter has fallen from 21% to 12% between 1980 and 1995. Hence the department for environment, food and rural affairs freely admits that "rates of soil erosion from agricultural land are generally significant" and are particularly high "where sensitive soil systems are managed inappropriately" (http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/publications/auk/2003/chapter12.pdf).

Agriculture accounts for 95% of overall soil erosion. Around 25% of England and Wales is at "moderate to high risk" of erosion each year. This not only leads to a decline of agricultural productivity through nutrient and seed losses, but the run-off of natural chemicals and artificial fertilisers and the pollution of water courses.

Then there is animal shit. With monoculture, manure is no longer part of the natural cycle - returned to and thereby enriching the soil. Kept in stinking pits, tanks or lagoons, slurry - the liquefied excrement that is produced on intensive livestock farms - is not viewed as a valuable resource. Like straw in arable farms, it has become just another unwanted waste product - and one that is proving ever more difficult to dispose of.

According to the government's policy commission on the future of farming and food, in 2000 agriculture was responsible for 27% of serious and significant water pollution incidents - the largest single source. This compares with 17% caused by the water and sewage industries themselves (http://www.defra.gov.uk/farm/sustain/policycom.htm). Rivers, lakes and seas have often become little more than open sewers and many have been ruined. Slurry also produces large quantities of methane, and livestock manure in general is estimated to be responsible for 7% of emissions of nitrous oxide (an even more aggressive greenhouse gas).

The terrible damage inflicted by capitalism is impossible to hide. Instead of the latest set of high-tech nostrums offered by the high priests of technological Prometheanism we shall answer social problems with social solutions.

In a word, the tried and tested weapons of revolutionary Prometheanism!