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Does Ecology Need Marx?

Martha E. Gimenez is associate professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on population theory, Marxist feminist theory, and US politics of racial/ethnic enumeration. She is the founding editor of Progressive Sociologist Network (PSN) and Progressive Population Network (PPN) This contribution consists of excerpts from the closing section of an article with the same title in Organization & Environment, vol. 13, no. 3 (September 2000), 292-304, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Organization & Environment is issued quarterly by Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320. Subscriptions are $59 annually. The article was based on a talk given at the Socialist Scholars Conference, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, March 2000.

Does ecology need Marx? I wonder, at this point, what ecology is, for it seems to be an umbrella term, like sexism or racism, which covers a variety of macrolevel and microlevel phenomena produced by different causes and lends itself to the development of a wide variety of conflicting ideologies and theoretical frameworks. I would prefer to change the question to the following: Are Marx and Marxism contingent or essential in the struggles against environmental degradation and all forms of exploitation and oppression? Although in the eyes of environmental activists, they may seem irrelevant in the context of day-to-day struggles, the need for an all-encompassing theory capable of illuminating the necessary connections between seemingly separate problems will emerge in time, as activists learn from their experiences that there are capitalist structural barriers to the effectiveness of their individual behavioral changes and legal and political successes. This is why it is important that Marxists do more than engage in theoretical critique. They should be involved in specific struggles, learning from their experiences and sharing their learning with those whose views may be different but whose political goals might be the same. This does not imply, however, that theoretical work should be secondary to political involvement. On the contrary, as the world systemic nature of capitalism becomes increasingly visible, the accelerated nature of the circulation of capital and labor are creating the conditions for the emergence of regional transnational working-class organizations and movements. At the same time, the exploitation of nature and the circulation of waste, pollutants, viruses, infectious diseases, pests, plant diseases, and healthy animals and plants deliberately or unwittingly taken from their natural habitat intensify and highlight the global nature of most ecological problems. As the situation worsens at the local, regional, national, and world levels of analysis, it will call for the Marxist historical analysis of its conditions of existence and reproduction through time and will also call for the development of regulatory agencies and planning. Marxist contributions to ecology that, despite their importance and timeliness, are today largely the concern of academics will at that time become even more relevant.

A careful reading of Marx and Engels’ work leads to the realization that their political economy, firmly grounded on materialist premises, contains important theoretical categories and methodological guidelines for the theoretical analysis of the determinants of the current ecological predicament, and for the development of a Marxist ecology based on ecological principles central to Marxist theory. Inherent in the premises of historical materialism is the notion of the coevolution of nature and society. Human development, the unfolding of human potentials, and the emergence of new needs and talents presuppose the material production and reproduction of life and of means of subsistence, processes through which both humans and nature change and are mutually sustaining. Marx postulates the existence of a process of social metabolism between humanity and nature and identifies, under capitalism, the presence of a metabolic rift brought about by agricultural and trade practices that despoil the earth without replenishing its resources and rob whole regions of their natural conditions of production. Rejecting ecology’s radical division between nature and society, according to which societies face insurmountable natural limits, Marx and Engels offer a materialist and dialectical theory of the relationship between humanity and nature. Natural limits are both material and constraints of social organization and human beings while, at the same time, operating through social conditions established by the level of development of the forces of production and the existing relations of production. In other words, to the abstract materialism inherent in the dominant ecological perspectives that, because of their undialectical standpoint, combine an idealist understanding of the causes of ecological problems with what amounts to a vulgar materialist understanding of natural limits, Marxism opposes a dialectical approach that preserves the materialist side of nature and its laws while acknowledging the history-making capacity of humanity.

Marx said that the barrier to capital accumulation is capital itself and this is manifested in the periodic crises of overproduction and underconsumption, the progressive undermining of the conditions of production, and the ebb and flow of class struggles, setbacks, advances, and stalemates. The greater the destructive effects of the free market on nature, the more obvious the need for its antithesis (i.e., prevention, regulation, and planning). Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle (1905) to highlight the inhuman conditions in which meatpackers worked and lived. However, as he said, instead of touching the hearts of the American people, he succeeded in touching their stomachs and the Food and Drug Administration was born. It is possible that environmental activists, struggling against the exploitation of nature and for a qualitative change in our relationship with the environment and other life forms may succeed, despite their current skepticism about Marx and Marxism, in releasing the collective energy needed to undermine the fetishisms of market freedom, competition, and unceasing economic growth in the public consciousness, thus paving the way toward social changes designed to end not only the exploitation of nature but the exploitation of labor as well. However, such changes do not happen automatically; in the absence of a widespread, ongoing, principled red-green dialogue, the most that is likely to be attained is an improvement in environmental conditions for the privileged. Does ecology need Marx? Is there any doubt?

2001, Volume 52, Issue 08 (January)
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