Saturday December 20th, 2014, 6:01 pm (EST)

Ecology

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 |

"An analysis with a majestic sweep … may be the single most instructive book I have ever read about the organization and complexity of agricultural production systems."—Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics

A History of World Agriculture

From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis

Only once we understand the long history of human efforts to draw sustenance from the land can we grasp the nature of the crisis that faces humankind today, as hundreds of millions of people are faced with famine or flight from the land. From Neolithic times through the earliest civilizations of the ancient near East, in savannahs, river valleys and the terraces created by the Incas in the Andean mountains, an increasing range of agricultural techniques have developed in response to very different conditions. These developments are recounted in this book, with detailed attention to the ways in which plants, animals, soil, climate, and society have interacted.… | 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 |

Organizing Ecological Revolution

My subject—organizing ecological revolution—has as its initial premise that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis of such enormity that the web of life of the entire planet is threatened and with it the future of civilization… | 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 |

Dialectical Nature

Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist

Richard Levins wrote in these pages (July-August 1986) that an appreciation of history and science is necessary to understand the world, challenge bourgeois ideological monopoly, and transcend religious obscurantism. Knowledge of science and history is needed in order not only to comprehend how the world came to be, but also to understand how the world can be changed. Marx and Engels remained committed students of the natural sciences throughout their lives, filling notebooks with detailed comments, quotes, and analyses of the scientific work of their time. Marx, through his studies of Greek natural philosophy-in particular Epicurus-and the development of the natural sciences, arrived at a materialist conception of nature to which his materialist conception of history was organically and inextricably linked. Marx and Engels, however, rejected mechanical materialism and reductionism, insisting on the necessity of a dialectical analysis of the world. Engels’s Dialectics of Nature serves as an early, unfinished attempt to push this project forward. A materialist dialectic recognizes that humans and nature exist in a coevolutionary relationship. Human beings are conditioned by their historical, structural environment; yet they are also able to affect that environment and their own relationship to it through conscious human intervention… | 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: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

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)

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 |

A Planetary Defeat: The Failure of Global Environmental Reform

The first Earth Summit in Rio de janeiro, Brazil in 1992 generated hopes that the world would at long last address its global ecological prob- lems and introduce a process of sustainable development. Now, with a second summit being held ten years later in johannesburg, that dream has to a large extent faded. Even the principal supporters of this process have made it clear that they do not expect much to be achieved as a result of the johannesburg summit, which is likely to go down in history as an absolute failure. We need to ask ourselves why.
The first reason is perhaps the most obvious, at least to environmen- talists. The decade between Rio and johannesburg has seen the almost complete failure of the Rio Earth Summit and its Agenda 21 to produce meaningful results. This has highlighted the weaknesses of global envi- ronmental summitry… | more |

Stephen Jay Gould—What Does It Mean To Be a Radical?

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 |

Killing Me Softly

Killing Me Softly

Toxic Waste, Corporate Profit, and the Struggle for Environmental Justice

The political economy of toxic waste was summed up by Lawrence Summers—then chief economist at the World Bank, later U.S. Treasury Secretary—in his notorious claim that poor people live in environments that are, from an economic point of view, not sufficiently polluted. In its ceaseless search for profit, the toxic waste industry now routinely endangers the health of people around the worlds and the planet itself.… | more |

I. Capitalism’s Twin Crises: Economic and Environmental

Economic & Environmental

History has provided us with numerous examples of economic stagnation and breakdown, as well as environmental degradation caused by human activity, even before capitalism existed. But capitalism’s central characteristic—the incessant drive to invest and accumulate wealth—gives birth to never-ending economic and environmental crises… | more |

II. Capitalism and Ecology

The Nature of the Contradiction

The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism’s internal laws of motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and everything within it as a result of capital’s relentless expansion. How to understand capitalism’s ecological contradictions has therefore become a subject of heated debate among socialists. Two crucial issues in this debate are: (1) must ecological crisis lead to economic crisis under capitalism?, and (2) to what extent is there an ecological contradiction at the heart of capitalist society? … | more |

Ecology Against Capitalism

Ecology Against Capitalism

In recent years John Bellamy Foster has emerged as a leading theorist of the Marxist perspective on ecology. His seminal book Marx’s Ecology (Monthly Review Press, 2000) discusses the place of ecological issues within the intellectual history of Marxism and on the philosophical foundations of a Marxist ecology, and has become a major point of reference in ecological debates. This historical and philosophical focus is now supplemented by more direct political engagement in his new book, Ecology Against Capitalism. In a broad-ranging treatment of contemporary ecological politics, Foster deals with such issues as pollution, sustainable development, technological responses to environmental crisis, population growth, soil fertility, the preservation of ancient forests, and the “new economy” of the Internet age.… | 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 |

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