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Marxism, Metaphors, and Ecological Politics

David Harvey teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at The John Hopkins University. His books include Social Justice and the City; The Limits to Capital; The Condition of Postmodernity, and, most recently, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.

It has, unfortunately, taken far too long for Marxists to take environmental issues seriously. There are some good reasons for this, including the undoubtedly “bourgeois” flavor of many of the issues politicized under that heading (such as “quality of life” for the relatively affluent, romanticism of nature, and sentimentality about animals) and the middle class domination of environmental movements. Against this, it must also be recognised that communist/socialist government have often ignored environmental issues to their own detriment (the pollution of Lake Baikal, the destruction of the Aral Sea, deforestation in China, being environmental disasters commensurate with many of those attributable to capitalism). Environmental issues must be taken seriously. The only interesting question is how to do it.

I criticized John Bellamy Foster’s The Vulnerable Planet (“TVP”) in my book Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (“JNGD”) because I think he takes some wrong turns in confronting the problem. While I applaud his attempts to link the production of many environmental problems to the dynamics of capitalism (and agree with much of what he has to say on that topic), he concedes far too much to the rhetoric of the environmentalists. Like many others on the left who take environmentalism seriously, he treads on dangerous conceptual ground without recognizing it. In particular, he appeals to metaphors that create political difficulties rather than advantages for socialists.

I would like to make two main points in response to his comments. The first is that the metaphors to which we necessarily appeal in our discourses about “nature” are dangerous (see JNGD, chapter 7). We cannot do without them, but we should proceed with caution and select with care. They cannot be laid aside as Foster does with a casual “they are not to be taken too literally.” Some metaphors can just as easily work as justifications for ecofascism and sociobiology as for socialism. The second point is that, while it is important to do a careful and respectful reading of what environmentalists say (everything from deep ecology and social anarchism, through the “scientific and managerial” literature, to the environmental justice movement) we do not have to give up on our own language (Marxism) in order to translate much of what is important in their arguments into our own political tradition. I illustrate these two points by taking up two issues brought up in his book and in his commentary on JNGD.

Metaphors of Crisis, Collapse and “The End of Nature”

The idea of crisis, imminent collapse, or even “the end of nature” plays an overwhelmingly powerful role in shaping most varieties of environmental discourse. The appeal of this rhetoric to the left is partly based on displacing the crisis and collapse rhetoric about capitalism from class conflict to the environmental issue. Foster (TVP) opens his argument thus: “the destruction of the planet in the sense of making it unusable for human purposes has grown to such an extent that it now threatens the continuation of much of nature, as well as the survival and development of society itself” (my italics draw attention to a different part of the sentence then that emphasized in Foster’s comment).

I re-emphasize here my view that a socialist politics that rests on the view that environmental catastrophe is imminent is a sign of weakness. It echoes that long and not very impressive history of proclaiming “the final collapse of capitalism” in the Marxist tradition. This does not mean there are no environmental problems. But we should resist the idea that the very existence of a “vulnerable planet” (Foster’s term) is threatened.

Leaving aside the question (which mainly preoccupies Foster) of whether we can indeed ‘threaten the continuation of much of nature,” in the short or long run, there are short-run political difficulties with the idea. If the collapse does not materialize in the near term or the grounds for such expectations are seriously disputed, with strong appeals to both scientific theory and evidence, then environmentalism in general (including its socialist variant) gets discredited for crying “wolf” too often. There is now a whole genre of writing along those lines. Not all of it comes form the right wing and some of the rebuttals, such as that of the Ehrlichs and the statement of the World Scientists, cited so approvingly by Foster, are every bit as problematic as the literature they rebut. The Ehrlichs’ position on population control is very hard for socialists to accept and the language of “humanity on a collision course with the natural world” reeks of those abstract and ideological conceptions of which Marx complained “whenever (natural scientists) venture beyond the bounds of their own specialities.”1 Looking for signs of catastrophe (always popular with the media) may also divert our attention from some of the longer-term more gradual changes that ought also to command our attention. Besides, I am by no means as sanguine as many that a rhetoric of crisis and imminent catastrophe will sharpen our minds in the direction of class politics or even cooperative, collective, and democratic responses as opposed to a “lifeboat ethic” in which the powerful pitch the rest overboard.

It is primarily for this reason also that the invocation of “limits” and “ecoscarcity” as a means to focus our attention upon environmental issues makes me as politically nervous as it makes me theoretically suspicious (see JNGD, pp. 139-49). While there are versions of this argument that accept that “limits and “ecoscarcities” are socially evaluated and produced (in which case the question of limits in nature gets so softened as to become almost irrelevant), it is hard to keep this line of thinking from slipping into some version of naturalism (the absolutism of fixed limits in nature) or, worse still, Malthusianism (even to the point where many radical environmentalists now claim that Malthus was right rather than wrong—and I note here that Foster (TVP) heads his list of environmental difficulties with the politically loaded Malthusian term “overpopulation,” without any qualification, and approvingly quotes Malthusians like the Ehrlichs at several points in his book as well as in his comments).

We have, I want to suggest, a choice of background metaphors for our deliberations. Against the idea that we are headed over the cliff into some abyss (collapse) or that we are about to run into a solid and immovable brick wall (limits), I think it far more consistent with both the better sorts of environmental thinking and Marx’s dialectical materialism to construe ourselves as embedded within an on-going flow of living processes that we can individually and collectively affect through our actions, at the same time as we are profoundly affected by all manner of events (some self-induced) within the world we inhabit. To construe ourselves as active agents caught within the “web of life” is a much more useful metaphor than the linear thinking that has us heading off a cliff or crashing into a brick wall.2

But it is then necessary to find a way to construct socialist environmentalist perspectives within the “web of life” metaphor. It is first useful to consider the directly “negative” and “positive” consequences of diverse human activities, both for ourselves (with appropriate concern for class, social, and national distinctions) and for others (including non-human species and whole habitats). But, even more importantly, we need to recognize how our actions filter through the web of interconnections that make up the living world with all manner of unintended consequences. Foster is here quite correct to point out that the question of scale (both temporal and, I also add, geographical) is vital to how we identify and assess the seriousness of environmental issues (this point is also made in JNGD, pp. 203-4, but needs much more detailed elaboration). Global issues (warming and loss of biodiversity) contrast with micro-local issues (radon in the basement) and short-term difficulties intermingle with long-term trends. I agree in principle, however, that we need to focus on the transformations occurring around us and not try to get ourselves off the hook by invoking, for example, geological time as opposed to historical time. (Ironically, Foster tries to deflect the force of my criticism by making it sound as if I may be correct geologically but incorrect historically!)

How, then, should we assess our contemporary situation? A strong case can be made that the environmental transformations now underway are larger scale, riskier, and more far-reaching and complex in their implications (materially, spiritually, aesthetically) than ever before in human history (cf. the citation from Science given in Foster’s comment). The quantitative shifts that have occurred in the last half of the twentieth century in, for example, scientific knowledge and engineering capacities, industrial output, waste generation, urbanization, population growth, international trade, fossil fuel consumption, resource extraction—just to name some of the most important features—imply a qualitative shift in environmental impacts and potential unintended consequences that require a comparable qualitative shift in our responses and our thinking. The web of planetary life has become heavily permeated with human influences (on this point Foster and I clearly agree). The environmental movement (broadly understood) has pioneered in alerting us to some of the risks and uncertainties entailed. As a result, we now see that there is far more to the environmental issue than the conventional Malthusian view that population growth might outstrip resources and generate crises of subsistence. (Up until as late as the 1970s this was the dominant form environmentalism took.) Furthermore, the evidence for widespread unintended consequences (some distinctly harmful to us and others unnecessarily harmful to other species) of such massive environmental changes, though not uncontested, is far more persuasive (cf. the case of the disappearing frogs cited by Foster) than the idea that we are reaching some limit, that environmental catastrophe is just around the corner or that we are about to destroy the planet earth.

Prudence in the face of such risks is a perfectly reasonable posture. This provides a more likely basis for forging some collective sense (and a class politics) of how to approach environmental issues. There are, however, several points to be made here. First, the definition of “environmental issues” has its own particular bias, with those that affect the poor, the marginalised, and the working classes frequently being ignored (occupational safety and health, for example) while those that affect the rich and the affluent get emphasized (for example, poverty is a far more important cause of shortened life expectations in the United States than smoking, but it is smoking that gets all the attention). Secondly, environmental impacts frequently have a social bias (class, racial, gender discriminations are evident in, say, the location of toxic waste sites and the global impacts of resource depletion or environmental degradation). Thirdly, some risks and uncertainties can strike anywhere, even against the rich and the powerful. The smoke from the fires that raged in Indonesia in the fall of 1997 did not respect national or class boundaries any more than did the cholera that swept nineteenth century cities, the latter provoking a universal rather than specifically class-based approach to public health. The threat of increased hurricane frequencies from global warming terrifies insurance companies as much as it irritates General Motors and the oil companies to hear that they should cut back on their global plans for expansion because of the threat of emissions to the atmosphere. Finally, the distinction between the production/prevention of risks and the capitalistic bias towards consumption/commodification of cures has significance.

Once the environmental issue is conceptualized in part as directly a class issue, then this configuration of arguments fits into a definite kind of class politics. We need, in the first instance, to understand the specific class content and definition of environmental issues and seek alliances around their resolution (as, for example, in the environmental justice movement—see JNGD chapter 13). The politics of this kind of environmental improvement can then replicate that which limited the length of the working day as “the working class’s power of attack grew with the number of its allies in those social layers not directly interested in the question.”3

But there is a more general point. The risk and uncertainty we now experience acquires its scale, complexity, and far-reaching implications by virtue of processes that have produced the massive industrial, technological, urban, demographic, lifestyle, and intellectual transformations that we have witnessed in the latter half of the twentieth century. In this, a relatively small number of key institutions, such as the modern state and its adjuncts, multinational firms and finance capital, and “big” science and technology, have played a dominant and guiding role. For all the inner diversity, some sort of hegemonic economistic-engineering discourse has also come to dominate discussion of environmental questions, commodifying everything and subjecting almost all transactions (including those connected to the production of knowledge) to the singular logic of commercial profitability and the cost-benefit calculus. The production of our environmental difficulties, both for the working class, the marginalised and the impoverished (many of whom have had their resource base stripped from under them by a rapacious commercialism) as well as for some segments of capital and the rich and the affluent, is broadly the result of this hegemonic class project (and its reigning neoliberal philosophy). It invites as response an equally hegemonic class project of risk prevention and reduction, resource recuperation and control, in which the working class and the marginalised could take a leading role. In performing that role the whole question of constructing an alternative mode of production, exchange and consumption that is risk reducing and environmentally, as well as socially, just and sensitive can be posed. Such a politics must rest on the creation of class alliances in which the environmental issue and a more satisfying “relation to nature” have a prominent place alongside the reconstruction of social relations and modes of production and consumption. A political project of this sort does not, I insist, need a rhetoric of limits or collapse to work effectively and well. But it does require careful and respectful negotiation with many environmental movements that clearly see that capitalism is incompatible with a satisfactory resolution of the environmental questions that bother them.

“Nature Knows Best”

Let it be said at the outset that “negotiation” with environmentalists can be tough and often frustrating given the passion with which they believe in their particular causes. That passion is often infectious and captivating (particularly in a political climate where cynicism abounds) leading those of us on the left who wish to take environmental issues seriously with little option except to concede something to environmental rhetoric. But I think we should be careful as to what we will or will not concede. To paraphrase James Boyd White, we should not feel that respect for environmentalism obliges us to erase our own political culture as if all value lay with them and none with us.4

Foster (119-24) uncritically takes the principle “nature knows best” from Commoner5—which is a seemingly respectable source. Such a proposition has wide currency within the environmental movement, embracing much of deep ecology (Naess), the land ethicists (followers of Leopold), ecofeminists, and a wide range of ecocentric movements. It is closely associated with the idea that values are in some sense “intrinsic” or “inherent” in nature. I cannot possibly unpack all the various meanings which attach to that idea here (see JNGD chapter 7), but I think Foster is wrong to advance “nature knows best” as an acceptable principle for the left.

And here is why. If nature knows best and we want the best then we should surrender our own judgement to what nature knows. But how do we know what nature knows? Sociobiologists (E. O. Wilson) and evolutionists (R. Dawkins) claim that their detailed studies of nature give them a privileged position to tell us what nature knows and that “science may soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values, from which all ethical pronouncements and much of political practice flow.”6 Now I am sure that Foster would not want to be tarred with such thinking. (Indeed, his proclaimed anthropocentrism elsewhere puts him in opposition to it.) Worse still, the Nazis also claimed the mantle of following natural law as do a whole swathe of supremacist movements that believe in some version of social Darwinism or even a modified creationism (which is singularly patriarchal in tone). We can, of course, dispute that this is what nature knows, but then the whole discussion gets out of hand and quite absurd, (or purely tautological, as with the social ecologists’ thesis that “humanity is nature becoming conscious of itself”) with every prophet, mystic, and seer, as well as mad scientist claiming to have the inside track on what nature knows or what it is important to be conscious about.

I prefer to take the view that nature knows nothing in particular though we, as human beings, know a lot about what we, as a species, have and can do to each other, to ourselves and to the world we inhabit. Socialist politics is about using that accumulated knowledge for distinctively socialist ends. Those ends have nothing whatsoever to do with what nature knows. But they have everything to do with our understanding of how nature works and certainly ought also to have a lot to say about what our individual and collective relation to nature as well as to each other should be.

Towards a Basic Formulation

We clearly need a socialist language in which to articulate environmental issues. The proposal I ventured in JNGD is to construct a language of dialectics and of historical-geographical materialism. The basic formulation goes roughly like this. We are a species on earth like any other, endowed, like any other, with specific capacities and powers that are put to use to modify environments in ways that are conducive to our own sustenance and reproduction. In this we are no different from all other species (from termites to beavers) that modify their environments while adapting further to the environments they themselves help construct.

This is the fundamental conception of the dialectics of social and ecological change. It is, as Marx put it, “the nature imposed condition of our existence” that we are in a metabolic relation to the world around us, that we modify it at the same time as we modify ourselves through our activities and labors. But, we like all other species, have some very species-specific capacities and powers, arguably the most important of which in our case are our ability to alter and adapt to our forms of social organization—to create, for example, class structures and institutions—to build a long historical memory through language, to accumulate knowledge and understandings that are collectively available to us as guide to future action, to reflect on what we have done and do in ways that permit learning from experience, and, by virtue of our particular dexterities, to build all kinds of adjuncts (e.g. tools, technologies, organizational forms and communications systems) to enhance our capacities and powers. The effect is to make the speed and scale of adaption to and transformation of our species being and of our species environment highly sensitive to the pace and direction of cultural, technological, economic, social and political changes. In recent times, such changes have increasingly become captive of capitalistic modes of behavior, organization, social relations and ways of thought.

This conception is species centered and thereby commits me resolutely to an anthropocentric stance. I cannot see (here, too, I agree with Foster) that we can ever avoid asserting our own identity, being expressive of who we are and what we can become, and asserting our species capacities and powers in the world we inhabit. To construe the matter any other way is, in my view, to fool ourselves (alienate ourselves) as to who and what we are. In this sense the Marxian concept of “species being” continues to resonate. But if our task is “to be distinctively ourselves in a world of others,” this does not mean that we cannot, if we wish, “create a frame that includes both self and other, neither dominant, in an image of fundamental equality.”7 We can strive to think like a mountain, like the ebola virus, or like the spotted owl, and construct our actions in response to such imaginaries, but it is still we who do the thinking and we who choose to use our capacities and powers that way. And that principle applies cross-culturally too. I can strive to think like an Aborigine, like a Chipko peasant, like Rupert Murdoch (for he inhabits a cultural world I find hard to comprehend). In these cases, however, my capacity to empathize and put myself in the other’s shoes is further aided by the possibility to translate across languages and to study material activities and variegated attitudes to nature through careful observation. But it is still an “I” or a “we” who does the imagining and the translation and it is always in the end through my (our) language that the thinking gets expressed. The political and ethical thrust here lies of course in the choice to try to think like the other, the choice of who or what I try to think like (why a mountain and not the ebola virus or why a Chipko peasant and not Rubert Murdoch?) And the effort to build frames of thought and action that relate across self and others in particular ways. And we do all of that because that is how we can explore our capacities and powers and become something other than what we already are. If respect and love of others is vital to respect and love of self, then socialists should surely approach all others, including that of nature, in exactly such a spirit. Concern for our environment is concern for ourselves.

I here learn a great deal from trying to understand ecocentric lines of thought and the works, for example, of deep ecologists, land ethicists, and animal rights theorists. I may not accept their views but I do respect them and try as faithfully as I can to transcribe and translate their thoughts into my own resolutely anthropocentric and Marxian framework. They help concentrate my mind on the qualitative as well as the quantitative conditions of our metabolic relation to the world and raise important issues about the manner of relating across species and ecological boundaries that have traditionally been left on one side in many Marxist accounts.

I am aided in this by a striking parallel between a relational version of dialectics (which has always been central to my own interpretation of the Marxian tradition) and many other forms of environmental discourses. From deep ecology and other “green” critiques of Enlightenment and Cartesian instrumentality (including those developed in ecofeminism) I find sustenance for a more nuanced dialectical and process-based argument concerning our positionality in the natural world. Writers as diverse as Whitehead and Cobb, Naess, and Plumwood have something important to say on this and I do not find it impossible to translate at least some of what they say into the language of a relational Marxism. This does not lead me to accept some of the more strident rejections of Enlightenment thought (indeed, I think on balance it was positive and liberatory), but it reinforces a rejection of mechanistic and positivist accounts of our postionality in an relation to the rest of the natural world that have often infected Marxism as well as conventional bourgeois forms of analysis.

Marxism emphasizes, of course, the role of transformative activity—human labor—as fundamental to our species being. The evolution of human societies through organization of labor process is an integral part of the evolutionary process in general. Marx was, I believe, broadly right to see his studies on a continuum with those of Darwin, though of course, it is the evolution of our specific species-powers that form the main focus of Marx’s attention. This focus on the labor process as the active point at which we as a species appropriate the grand other of the natural world we inhabit is vital to my own conception and I wish that more environmentalists would focus on it (rather than drifting off, as so many do, into more mystical, contemplative, or “consumerist”—e.g. nature as a positional good—ways of thinking). We can never ignore the conditions (social, political, economic) under which we appropriate and transform the world around us in accordance with our needs, wants, and desires. Nor can we ignore the extraordinary achievements of the bourgeois era in creating new technological, social and political possibilities and developing extraordinarily sophisticated organizational forms (divisions of labor, specializations of functions, institutional structures, forms of governance). How we “make a living” and organize our life chances is always a fundamental materialist reference point. To abandon it is, in Marxian language, to become alienated. To abandon the world of possibilities that the bourgeois era has created is to try to go backwards (as so many environmentalists are prone to do) rather than forward into some more satisfying relation to nature and to others. And one of the possibilities opened up is to manage our relations with each other as well as with the natural world in a far more prudent, satisfying and cautionary way than is currently the case.

There is, then, plenty of room for expansion of the Marxian argument through engagement with environmentalism. If, as Marx put it, we change ourselves through changing the world and if, at the end of every labor process we get a result that existed in our imagination before being converted into a material fact through labor, then there is a distinctive role for the imaginary, both in defining the nature of labor processes and, even more importantly, in defining who and what we might or will become through a restructuring of our metabolic interactions in the world. The implication is that no socialist project to transform social relations can afford to ignore the experiential qualities (including aesthetic and emotive responses and meanings) of metabolic relations; the imaginary of socialist transformation must focus as much upon its relational embeddedness in the natural world and upon its metabolic conditions as upon social relations and power structures. Struggles for emancipation and self-realization are multi- rather than uni-dimensional. There the general lines of the “green” critique of Marxism have been helpful in forcing us to re-assess the powers of our own linguistic tradition. But it is also vital to hold fast to the principles that (1) all projects to transform ecological relations are simultaneously projects to transform social relations, and (2) transformative activity (labor) lies at the heart of the whole dialectics of social and environmental change.

But which social relations need to be transformed? The traditional Marxist focus has, of course, been on those of class, but environmentalists as well as many others have insisted that there is much more to it than that. Emancipation from conditions of dependence coupled with self-realization are both noble Enlightenment aims deserving of unashamed re-affirmation and extension across the whole spectrum of sociality. Issues of gender, of reproduction activities, of what happens in the living space as well as in the workspace, of group difference, of cultural diversity and of local autonomy deserve careful consideration. A more nuanced view of the interplay between environmental transformations and sociality is seriously called for and I think we, on the left, should embrace rather than reject that idea even though we quite properly insist that the class dimension is fundamental because that is what capitalism is always about.

On the other hand, Marxists scarcely need any urging to see that nothing short of a radical replacement of the capitalist mode of production will suffice to institute a new and saner regime of socio-ecological relations. Commodification and market processes cannot provide answers to most of the environmental problems we encounter (indeed, they are a central part of the problem). The importance of a radical agenda, clearly recognized throughout much of the non-managerial wing of environmentalism, arises for the very simple reason that the options open within the hegemonic powers of capitalistic institutions and processes are far too limited in relation to the risks we face. If, for example, the strategy of the automobile industry is to bring China up to the levels of the United States in car ownership then it hardly needs emphasizing that the environmental risks are huge. And even that wing of capitalism that acknowledges that something called “sustainability” has importance, judges sustainability as much in terms of continuous capital accumulation as it does in terms of socio-ecological well-being. From this standpoint, it seems that there is no option except to engage in massive confrontations with many of the central institutions of a capitalistic world order. On this point I know that Foster and I would thoroughly agree and want to make common cause. It is a nexus where much of the left and many within the environmental movement can also converge to make common cause if they do wish. And it just as surely defines the foundations for an ecologically sensitive Marxism.

Notes

  1. Marx, K., Capital, vol. I (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 494.
  2. See, e.g., Capra, F., The Web of Life (New York: Doubleday, 1996) for an environmentalist collaboration of this concept.
  3. Marx, K., Capital, vol. I, p. 409.
  4. White, J., Justice as Translation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990).
  5. Commoner, B., The Closing Circle (New York: Knopf, 1971).
  6. Wilson, E., On Human Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) p. 5.
  7. White, J., op. cit., pp. 257-64.
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