Friday April 25th, 2014, 1:09 am (EDT)

Environment/Science

Environment & Science

Who Is Threatening Our Dinner Table? The Power of Transnational Agribusiness

In December 2005, anti-liberalization and antiglobalization protest groups around the globe gathered in Hong Kong where the Sixth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was being held. Farmers’ groups that were part of the Hong Kong gathering took the position that agricultural trade rules should be impartial to all World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries and not determined by a handful of agriculture-exporting countries. What suddenly prompted these farmers to come together in this way over the issues of food sovereignty and the expansion of farmers’ rights?… | more |

Debunking as Positive Science

Reflections in Honor of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man

The physicist Alan Sokal laid a trap for postmodernists and anti-science scholars on the academic left when he submitted his article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to Social Text, a left-leaning cultural studies journal. The trap sprang when the journal unwittingly published the article in its 1996 spring/summer issue. The article was intended to parody the type of scholarship that has become common in some sectors of the academy, which substitutes word-play and sophistry for reason and evidence. Sokal purposefully included in his article a variety of false statements, illogical arguments, incomprehensible sentences, and absurd, unsupported assertions, including the claim that there was in effect no real world and all of science was merely a social construction. He submitted the article to test whether the editors of Social Text had any serious intellectual standards. They failed the test, and the scandal that ensued has become legend… | more |

Natural History and the Nature of History

Over 500 million years ago, Pikaia, a two-inch-long worm-like creature, swam in the Cambrian seas. It was not particularly common, nor in anyway would it have appeared remarkable to a hypothetical naturalist surveying the fauna of the time. Pikaia is the first known chordate, the phylum to which Homo sapiens and all other vertebrates belong. As the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary theorist, and dialectical biologist, posited in one of his most renowned books, Wonderful Life (1989), an exceptional level of human arrogance is necessary to argue that Pikaia was superior to its many contemporaries who either went extinct or, through the vagaries of history, dwindled to obscurity. Yet, despite the absurdity of it, bourgeois thought is so deeply committed to portraying history as a march of progress leading inexorably to the present that many natural historians have long argued that evolution on earth unfolded in a predictable, progressive manner, with the emergence of humanity, or at least a conscious intelligent being, as its inevitable outcome. This view fits well with the perspective of the dominant classes of various historical ages, who typically believe the particular hierarchical social order that supports them is both natural and inevitable, the point toward which history had been striving. As Marxist scholars have long recognized, ruling-class ideology gets smuggled into the damnedest places, including interpretations of the natural world. This elite construction of nature, which often involves demarcating so-called inherent hierarchies, is often used to justify inequalities in the social world. It would be wise to call into question such depictions of the social and natural world and to seek an understanding of natural history free of this ideology… | more |

Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development

In developed capitalist countries, debates over the economics of socialism have mostly concentrated on questions of information, incentives, and efficiency in resource allocation. This focus on “socialist calculation” reflects the mainly academic context of these discussions. By contrast, for anti-capitalist movements and post-revolutionary regimes on the capitalist periphery, socialism as a form of human development has been a prime concern. A notable example is Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s work on “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” which rebutted the argument that “the period of building socialism…is characterized by the extinction of the individual for the sake of the state.” For Che, socialist revolution is a process in which “large numbers of people are developing themselves,” and “the material possibilities of the integral development of each and every one of its members make the task ever more fruitful.” … | more |

Homo Floresiensis and Human Equality

The discovery by a team of Indonesian and Australian researchers of the remains of a previously unknown species of hominid, Homo floresiensis, on the Indonesian island of Flores was characterized by some scholars as the greatest discovery in anthropology in a half-century and was selected by Science magazine as the leading runner-up for the 2004 “breakthrough of the year” (first place went to the discoveries of the Mars Exploration Rovers that indicate Mars was once wetter than it is today and potentially capable of supporting life). The discoverers of the new species note that it was a particularly small hominid, with an adult stature of approximately one meter and an endocranial volume of about 380 cm3, less than one-third that of the typical modern human and even small relative to its body size. They argue that it is most likely a descendant of Homo erectus that evolved in long-term isolation, with subsequent endemic dwarfing. Another interesting aspect of the find is that Homo floresiensis apparently lived until at least 18,000 years ago and was, therefore, a contemporary of anatomically modern humans. Many scholars where shocked by both the small stature of and late date attributed to the new hominid, with some moved to question whether the remains were not merely those of a deformed modern human, a suggestion that its discoverers reject as unsupported by the evidence… | more |

The Ghosts of Karl Marx and Edward Abbey

My wife Karen and I were on the road, traveling around the United States, for 150 days. We left Portland, Oregon on April 30, 2004, and over the next five months, we drove about 9,000 miles, through sixteen states. We visited thirteen national parks, seven national monuments, and towns large and small. We walked on streets and hiked on trails; we talked to people; we read local newspapers and watched local television stations; we shopped in local markets; and we observed as much as we could the economics, politics, and ecology in the places we stayed. What follows are some of my impressions… | more |

Ecology, Capitalism, and the Socialization of Nature

DENNIS SORON: Many environmentalists came away from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with a great deal of optimism, believing that the cause of global environmental reform had finally been seriously placed on the political agenda. Today, with environmental conditions continuing to worsen and governments refusing to take effective action, it seems that little of this optimism remains. Why did the hopes spawned at Rio turn out to be so misplaced? … | more |

The Pentagon and Climate Change

Abrupt climate change has been a growing topic of concern for about a decade for climate scientists, who fear that global warming could shut down the ocean conveyer that warms the North Atlantic, plunging Europe and parts of North America into Siberian-like conditions within a few decades or even years. But it was only with the recent appearance of a Pentagon report on the possible social effects-in terms of instability and war-of abrupt climate change that it riveted public attention. As the Observer (February 22) put it, “Climate change over the next 20 years could result in global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.” … | more |

March 2004, Volume 55, Number 10

March 2004, Volume 55, Number 10

» Notes from the Editors

We were enormously pleased to publish in the November 2002 issue of MR Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins’s “Stephen Jay Gould: What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?” commemorating the life of their great Harvard colleague who had died earlier that year. Gould, as Lewontin and Levins explained, was, in addition to being one of the foremost evolutionary biologists and paleontologists of his time, “by far, the most widely known and influential expositor of science who has ever written for a lay public.” Their article has recently been reprinted as the concluding essay in Oliver Sacks, ed., The Best American Science Writing, 2003. This important series, with Jesse Cohen as the series editor, is published each year by HarperCollins, each time under the editorship of a different guest editor—in this instance Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and many other works. In preparing this year’s volume Sacks chose to dedicate the book to Stephen Jay Gould, who he sees as the exemplary figure in modern science writing… | more |

Food Security in Cuba

In 1996, Via Campesina, the recently formed international umbrella organization of grassroots peasant groups, introduced the term “food sovereignty”: the right of peoples and states to democratically decide their own food and agricultural policies and to produce needed foods in their own territories in a manner reinforcing the cultural values of the people while protecting the environment… | more |

Stephen Jay Gould

What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?

Early this year, Stephen Gould developed lung cancer, which spread so quickly that there was no hope of survival. He died on May 20, 2002, at the age of sixty. Twenty years ago, he had escaped death from mesothelioma, induced, we all supposed, by some exposure to asbestos. Although his cure was complete, he never lost the consciousness of his mortality and gave the impression, at least to his friends, of an almost cheerful acceptance of the inevitable. Having survived one cancer that was probably the consequence of an environmental poison, he succumbed to another… | more |

The Challenge of Sustainable Development and the Culture of Substantive Equality

Two closely connected propositions are at the center of this intervention: If development in the future is not sustainable development, there will be no significant development at all, no matter how badly needed; only frustrated attempts to square the circle, as in the last few decades, marked by ever more elusive “modernizing” theories and practices, condescendingly prescribed for the so-called Third World by the spokesmen of former colonial powers. The corollary to this is that the pursuit of sustainable development is inseparable from the progressive realization of substantive equality. It must also be stressed in this context that the obstacles to be overcome could hardly be greater. For up to our own days the culture of substantive inequality remains dominant, despite the usually half-hearted efforts to counter the damaging impact of social inequality by instituting some mechanism of strictly formal equality in the political sphere… | more |

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, edited and with an introduction by Linda Lear (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 288 pp., $16, paperback.

Lost Woods brings Rachel Carson back into the public realm. This collection of her writings, selected by her biographer, Linda Lear, reminds us yet again of the extraordinary range of her talents and the equally extraordinary use to which she put them. The book offers, in one modest volume, a taste of all the pleasures to be found in Carson’s longer works. Through a careful choice of speeches, articles, field notes, and letters, presented in chronological order, Lear allows us to witness, in Carson’s own words, her transformation from a natural scientist to a political advocate for the environment … | more |

Restoring Memory

Eileen Welsome, The Plutonium Files (New York: Dial Press, 1999), 564 pp., $26.95.

It is fitting that the “Atomic Century” draw to a close with the publication of The Plutonium Files. A decade in the making, Eileen Welsome’s book explores the secret human radiation experiments that grew out of the U. S. atom bomb program. Carried out under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Department of Energy’s predecessor, the experiments were designed to help determine atom bomb plant safety standards and to replicate nuclear battlefield conditions. As a result, thousands of hospital patients and servicemen were unknowingly exposed to dangerous levels of radiation … | more |

December 1999, Volume 51, Number 7

December 1999, Volume 51, Number 7

» Notes from the Editors

Recently, we were talking about the environment to a well-known sociologist and got into a fairly heated debate about the ecological effects of capitalism. He insisted that capitalism has nothing to do with it. All human practices, he said, inevitably affect the natural environment and have done so since the dawn of history. This seemed to us a pretty simplistic and ahistorical argument … | more |

Fusing Red and Green

James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: Guilford, 1998), 350 pp., $19.95, paper.

One of the foremost Marxist social scientists in the United States, James O’Connor has produced many original insights into the political economy of the United States, and global capitalism. His Fiscal Crisis of the State (1973) revealed the structural roots of government deficit problems, and his subsequent work has focused on the development of a general theory of capitalist crisis. In Accumulation Crisis (1984) and The Meaning of Crisis (1987), he surveyed and synthesized alternative viewpoints on the economic, political, cultural and psychological crisis tendencies of late-twentieth century capitalism. Since 1988, when he co-founded the innovative “eco-Marxist” quarterly Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, O’Connor has expanded his vision of capitalist crisis and socialist movements to incorporate natural conditions more fully. Natural Causes gathers together O’Connor’s major writings over this last period, providing an excellent opportunity to assess his considerable contribution to eco-Marxist theory and practice … | more |

Science in a Skeptical Age

John Gillot and Manjit Kumar, Science and the Retreat from Reason (Monthly Review Press, 1997), 288 pp., $18.

We live in a skeptical age. All of the basic concepts of the Enlightenment, including progress, science and reason are now under attack. At the center of this skepticism lie persistent doubts about science itself, emanating both from within and from without the scientific community. Recent titles by scientists give an idea of the extent of the crisis in confidence within science: Science: The End of the Frontier? (1991) by Nobel prize winner Leon Lederman; The End of Certainty (1996) by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine; and The End of Science (1996) by Scientific American writer John Horgan … | more |