Nature! We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being. Without invitation and without warning she involves us in the orbit of her dance, and drives us onward until we are exhausted and fall from her arm.
We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien. She parleys incessantly with us, and to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.
— Goethe, Ode “To Nature”
With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature. The proper exposition of the problem requires a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into four separate sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.
After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations. So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified. The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format. It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical, as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history. For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it.
I. The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature
Starting from humanity’s most primitive social state, nature was often viewed as an adversary to be feared — bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind. Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves, or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit. When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals. In Christian times, this same logic persisted, with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.
Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions. As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.” Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind. Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense. With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as the young Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”
Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature. The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.” The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve” and “sentimental” in poetry. For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world. Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.” The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city. Holistic and vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.
Despite its nostalgia for a bygone simplicity of life and man’s unity with nature, the Romantic worldview was gradually overtaken by that belonging to the modern industrialist. To the industrialist, nature presented itself as a wealth of raw materials waiting to be exploited. Through the application of human labor, these natural resources could be transformed into social products, valuable commodities to be distributed to the whole of society. “Man when producing wealth acts upon the things which Nature supplies,” wrote Alfred Marshall, the famous British economist. “The gifts of Nature to man are firstly materials such as iron, stone, wood, etc., and secondly, forces such as the power of the wind, and the heat of the sun, the source whence all other powers are derived.” Wealth, Marshall claimed, could only be generated through the action of men on these natural materials, whose worthiness could only be evaluated according to their potential utility. He continued:
The agents of production are then Nature’s forces, and Man’s force; man’s force being generally most efficient when it is so applied as to control and direct nature’s forces, rather than to counteract them. And the wealth of a country depends upon the manner in which nature’s forces and man’s force work together in the production of wealth.
One might note how much the modern industrialist’s perspective on nature mirrors that of the Enlightenment man of science. For both, nature is conceived as nothing more than the sum of dead matter and the mechanical forces that compel it. The difference is that, while a Bacon or Descartes might be interested in natural products insofar as they might understand them, a Rockefeller or a Carnegie would be more interested in the way they might be exploited so as to generate value.
Though Romanticism took a “dark” and urbanistic turn toward the middle of the century (think Baudelaire and the Symbolists) all the way up to the fin-de-siècle, many of the sentiments it originally possessed toward nature survived alongside Europe’s rapid industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century. The American Transcendentalists are only one of the more notable movements confirming this fact. In the twentieth century, however, the various currents stemming from early nineteenth-century Romanticism began to reemerge, tying themselves to a number of different political tendencies. Preservationists, environmentalists, vegetarians, and nudists joined in with groups from all shades of the political spectrum: Teddy Roosevelt-style big-game conservationism in America, NSDAP fascism in Germany, the pseudo-left Front Populaire in interwar France. Following the end of the war, these tendencies joined in with sections of the international New Left and later the nebulous “post-ideological” Left in the second half of the century.
For most of these later groups, the environmentalists tended to view any exploitation of nature by man as invasive, as a transgression of its inherent sanctity. Nature for them became something of a Kantian Ding-an-Sich, something inviolable and essentially unknowable. Its continued “natural” existence, uncorrupted by the malign influence of society, came to be considered a kind of virtue in itself. Untouched wilderness was thought to constitute some sort of pristine, prelapsarian paradise existing in perfect harmony with itself. It was thus to be set apart from any considerations of its utility to society.
Faced with the reality of the increased industrial exploitation of natural sites, however, environmental activists blamed the rapid destruction of the environment on the expansion of global capitalism and corporate greed run amok. And so they marched in protest of the further exploitation of the environment, spouting apocalyptic rhetoric and predicting ecological catastrophe. All of humanity is doomed, they say, should mankind not mend its ways. In some sense, this almost marks a return to the primitive belief that the sinfulness of humanity will be met with wrath, and it is almost ironic that the rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the ice caps should recapitulate the biblical Flood. Modern society for the environmentalists constitutes a sort of capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, which will soon be punished by Mother Nature. This is the sort of environmentalism one often encounters today, the dispensationalist hysteria almost eclipsing the sound scientific evidence on which the theory of global warming is based. These are the times in which we live.
Returning to the original purpose of this outline, however, what should all these various historical conceptions of nature tell us? First of all, it should tell us that the conception of nature is in large part dependent on the society for which it is an object of contemplation. Nature, though it probably does operate according to an unchanging set of uniform physical laws, has a significance beyond its mere existence in itself. The concept of “nature” also carries with it a great deal of ideological baggage, and reflects the superstructures of thought in any given age. The problem, going forward, is thus not merely to find some sort of solution to the prospect of a potential ecological collapse, but to formulate nature as a social problem. The question of humanity’s relationship to nature goes far beyond “saving the planet” or any such platitude; it involves at its core the disalienation of man from nature, and their reconciliation thereby. No amount of recycling, collecting of litter, or “going Green” will solve this fundamental issue. The resolution of the problem of man and nature can only be reached through radical social transformation, and not by the aggregate sum of superficial actions that only treat mere symptoms rather than the underlying problem.
II. The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature
When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature. It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself. As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…” However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence. “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.” The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form. The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity. This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.” Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”
Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace. Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism. That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.
Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy. It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings. Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Dühring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings. For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole. This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature. And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature. Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:
The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.
Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences. It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology. This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.
But it was precisely the application of this mechanistic Weltanschauung in the natural sciences to the social sciences that later formed the premise for the young Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács’ critique of reification and commodity fetishism in society. This was the view adopted by both bourgeois economists and Bernsteinian Revisionists around the turn of the century. They believed that society operated according to a series of timeless, mechanical laws that could be comprehended and controlled, just as in nature. Lukács pointed out that this took for granted the notion that the laws peculiar to the capitalist social formation had always existed in every past society. As Marx had already shown before him, such categories as “supply and demand” and “socially homogeneous labor-time” were only valid for describing one particular form of society, capitalism. But these categories themselves were merely the transitory outgrowth of this social formation, and did not necessarily belong to prior modes of production:
The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this [relative] kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production. 
It is therefore invalid for economists and social theorists alike to claim that there are “eternal” laws that govern society in all ages, unlike the ones that are presumed to exist in the mechanistic view of nature. In the case of commodity fetishism, a social relation between people becomes objectified as a permanent state of affairs that exists independent of their own activity, as “just the way things are.” Or, as Lukács put it, “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”
Lukács’ great contribution to Marx’s theory of man’s alienation from nature arose out of his recognition of this mysterious “quasi-objectivity” that social relations seemed to assume. It was as if, through the alienation of commodities from their producers and their subsequent circulation throughout society, bourgeois social relations became a sort of “second nature.” As Lukács explained it:
[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the “natural,” irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and “made,” a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).
As a sort of nature in its own right, bourgeois economists and Bernsteinian Revisionists believed that they could set forth notions like “marginal utility,” “supply and demand,” and so on as inexorable laws of society. These laws were thought to operate in a mechanical, predictable, and unchanging fashion, in every society that has ever existed. What is lost is the dialectical recognition that this system of social relations has come into being, and could just as easily pass away. “In its mystified form,” Marx explained, “the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists.” “In its rational form,” he continued, “it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.”
Lukács’ discovery of this apparent “second nature” carries with it even further consequences. For, entangled in this self-created “second nature,” man found himself further and further distanced from “first” nature. The seeming immediacy of nature enjoyed in previous societies, where the wood he used to build his house came from the nearby forest, in which the meat he ate came from animals that he raised and slaughtered, or game that he hunted, became increasingly rare. Instead, what humanity encountered was a system of commodities, goods imported from every corner of the globe, serially processed through a complex division of labor before arriving to their consumer in their finished forms. In other words, this nature, “second nature,” became the world to which humanity was immediately accustomed. With the rise of capitalism, everything changed. “In place of the old needs satisfied by home production we have new ones which demand the products of the most distant lands and climes for their satisfaction. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation we have a universal commerce, a universal dependence of nations on one another.” Despite the extremely abstract character of this social totality, with its multiple layers of mediation, this complex system appears more familiar and recognizable than the sort of nature one encounters in the wilderness.
Even the experience of this sort of “primitive” wilderness is increasingly mediated under modernity. They come in the form of artificially-designed parks established in the midst of huge cities, in zoos and nature reserves, in activities like hiking, rock-climbing, and even safaris. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno recognized the patent falsity of the notion that these sites and pastimes could serve to reunite man, if only briefly, with nature. “The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization,” he wrote, “the more implacably it is dominated.” Humanity under capitalism can maintain the illusion that we are still at one and are in harmony with nature, but it is illusory nevertheless. “Only the irrationality of civilization itself, in the nooks and crannies of the cities, to which the walls, towers, and bastions of the zoos wedged among them are merely an addition, can nature be conserved. The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.” The parks, forests, and zoos can provide some comfort to a humanity yearning for its lost relationship with nature, but in the final analysis such artifacts (and yes, they are artifacts) can only serve as a reminder of the extent to which mankind has already transformed, and sometimes disfigured, nature.
But if humanity cannot be reunited with nature by such means, how can one ever hope to achieve this lost oneness with the world? The total flight from society and its network of unnatural relations (“into the wild”) is no less problematic, and almost assuredly more reactionary. As Adorno’s colleague Horkheimer explained, “The doctrines that exalt nature or primitivism at the expense of spirit [i.e., civilization, society] do not favor reconciliation with nature; on the contrary, they emphasize coldness and blindness toward nature. Whenever man deliberately makes nature his principle, he regresses to primitive urges.” This point will be important to recall in the final section, when dealing with the subject of anarcho-primitivism.
All this brings us to a point that dovetails neatly with the question posed at the end of my first blog entry on the subject: How is it possible to conceive of nature as a fundamentally social problem? For if indeed the social conception of nature is historically variable — i.e. it changes from epoch to epoch — how might the relationship between man and nature be reconceived so as to bring an end to their mutual alienation? The problem of nature must necessarily involve a transformation of the “second nature” constructed by society under capitalism. This may, in turn, necessitate a transformation of the natural world from whence society sprang. Nature must not appear to us as something entirely outside of us, as an autonomous thing-in-itself, even if it does possess certain laws and regularities of its own. It must be recognized as inextricably bound up with society, such that its fate is tied with our own. The reality of the estrangement must be acknowledged, the contradiction of nature and culture affirmed, so as to ensure that the problem is not denied or hastily written off as inconsequential. A post-capitalist society must necessarily be free of all the contradictions that are inherent in capitalism, and a solution to this problem must therefore be sought. Indeed, number of solutions have already been proposed. But before we uncritically attach ourselves to this or that proposed solution, a review of the major positions is in order. The next section will thus lay the groundwork for a radical critique of the various ideologies surrounding the relationship of man to nature by examining one of the central dichotomies to the debate: the nature/culture distinction.
III. An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture
The basic distinction between “nature” and “culture” — that fundamental opposition so central to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology — has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved countless times by post-structuralist scholars and intellectuals. But in this respect, it is hardly the only binary to have been so challenged — man/woman, inside/outside, and self/other have all similarly come under attack. The reality of such distinctions, they say, is far less certain, and far more ambiguous, than the structuralists would have us believe. An absolute division between any of these pairs, they argue, cannot therefore be established.
And there is undeniably something to the blurring of this distinction: after all, is man (historically associated with culture and civilization) not also an animal? Darwin’s theory of evolution proved definitively man’s derivation from more primitive animal species. It could thus not be denied that man is simply one species amongst many. Humanity can claim no special status separate from these other species, by dint of some sort of divine creation or other fantasy. And so also can humanity not maintain any sort of special dominion over all the rest of nature, as suggested by Judeo-Christian mythology. By what right, then, ask the environmentalists, can mankind dominate and exploit the whole of nature? Humans have no special privilege — at an ethical level — over and above any other sentient animals. It is unethical, therefore, to live at the expense of other sentient beings, or to intrude upon their natural environment. Would this not constitute a form of speciesism?
But this argument cuts both ways. For how is it that the actions of this animal, mankind, be considered so wholly unnatural? After all, it might be justifiably pointed out that all biological organisms exploit their environment, to the extent that they can. Those species that do not adequately exploit their environment or find their way into an environment in which they can, simply go extinct. So when environmental activists protest the exploitation of nature by human beings, the argument could be made that we are simply doing what all other organisms do. We just happen to be especially good at it. Might it not even be human “nature” to ruthlessly exploit and dominate the rest of nature? In the end, human beings are exceptionally gifted in terms of their ability to think systematically, understand the relationship between means and ends, and contrive complex devices to use as tools to manipulate the environment. It is as if evolution produced an animal capable of conquering nature in its entirety, and that mankind is merely exercising the gifts bestowed on it by nature.
Both these attempts to deny the difference between nature and culture, however, must be admitted to be flawed. For even if one cannot set up an absolute divide between the two, it is simply a fact of our historical moment that there exists a very real contradiction between nature and human society, or culture. Humanity stands alienated from the nature from which it emerged, millennia ago. And though human beings are indeed animals themselves, there is something about them that profoundly distinguishes them from the rest. Engels explained this eloquently in his Dialectics of Nature:
With men we enter history. Animals also have a history, that of their derivation and gradual evolution to their present position. This history, however, is made for them, and in so far as they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge or desire. On the other hand, the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word, the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance.
Humanity is in this respect radically differentiated from the rest of nature, even though it owes its existence to it. Moreover, the moment mankind entered this history Engels described, human history, marks the beginning of mankind’s long path of estrangement from nature.
Despite his animal origins, the first seeds of self-consciousness and free will were gradually awakened in the mind of man. The natural instincts that drove him mindlessly toward the satisfaction of this or that primitive desire were gradually suppressed, and sacrificed so that man might cultivate the earth and himself along with it. This is taught not only by Hegel in his dialectic of the master and the slave, but also by Freud, who saw that the redirection or sublimation of these natural instincts toward conscious ends was a prerequisite for society. “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud. “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”
From his earlier enslavement to his natural instincts, man progressed through a series of more refined, but less severe forms of enslavement — from savagery, barbarism, and finally, civilization. But even if one rejects this stagist view of history, it will be generally agreed that the earliest phases of agriculture and the domestication of livestock took place in a time when mankind lived under fairly barbaric conditions. In these primitive societies there was a great deal of unfreedom: the domestic slavery of women, the subjugation of men to other men, etc. Nevertheless, through the repression and sublimation of their cruder, more immediate desires, humanity distinguished itself from nature and progressively gained a more conscious mastery over its own ends, even though this freedom was available only to those least bound in their service to other men.
Throughout these more primitive, and even some of the more advanced civilizations, however, nature was never that far away that humanity felt totally estranged from it. Small urban centers were established, and new comforts of life introduced, but the social and technical limitations of these of the day prevented nature from ever becoming too distanced from society. And thus the feelings of alienation in man’s relation to nature remained beneath surface, and only rose to the level consciousness with the passage to a radically new social formation, capitalism. From the moment commodity production began to dominate social relations in Britain and Western Europe, the estrangement of humanity from nature progressed at an ever-increasing pace. The rapidity with which the humble stone cottage was displaced by towering industrial smokestacks was startling. The contradiction between town and country was brought into even greater relief with overwhelming urbanization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Marx and Engels wrote: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the town. It has created enormous cities, vastly inflated the urban population as opposed to the rural, and so rescued a significant part of the population from the idiocy of living on the land.” The contradiction between nature and culture was thus obviated by this historic development — the advent of capitalism, which would grow to eventually swallow the globe. And here is where we can accept the structuralist opposition, although not in the same way the structuralist would have framed it. For both linguistic and anthropological structuralism share with dialectical thought (idealist and materialist alike) the tendency to pair polar opposites with one another and seek their resolution through intermediate terms. One needs only to look to Lévi-Strauss’ seminal essay, “Structure and Dialectics,” to witness its many parallels.
The difference between structuralist dialectics and the historical dialectics of Hegel or Marx is that structuralism is methodologically synchronic, following Saussure’s original formulation. That is to say, they viewed the structural oppositions with which they dealt as timeless, indissoluble contradictions in language or human nature. For structural anthropology, the mediation of these opposites through ritual provides only temporary relief for what is actually an eternal struggle between irreconcilable polarities. Thus, what it can offer are only ahistorical snapshots of various resolutions to what are in essence primordial oppositions that the structuralists believe pertain to every society throughout all of time.
Dialectical materialism, by contrast, is methodologically diachronic. It views the various contradictions that arise throughout history as fluid relationships, which can either be resolved or exacerbated in any number of ways. Thus, with the opposition between “nature” and “culture,” the dialectician can understand it as a contradiction that is by no means timeless, but which came into being along with the foundation of the first societies. The two terms have been in opposition for some time, but have subject to a rapidly accelerating process of alienation and even polarization with the development of capitalism. One could even say that it is here that for the first time Nature presents itself to humanity as a problem. Both the sense of lost unity with nature and the prospect of impending environmental collapse weigh like a nightmare on the brain of contemporary humanity. Humanity begins to realize the extent to which society has already radically reshaped the world, and recognize the potentially disastrous consequences this transformation might have. Or as Engels puts it,
Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe.
Reviewing the course of the discussion to this point, what are the results of this analysis of the nature/culture distinction? First, it shows that humanity cannot be glibly subsumed to nature, as if the activity of mankind is just nature as usual. Also, it demonstrates that the opposition of nature to culture, of civilization to the wild, is not an eternal and indissoluble contradiction, but rather one that arose historically and can potentially be overcome. In connection with our previous posts, it furthermore implies that — since the problem of man’s relationship to nature arises only in society and is dependent on the specific society in which it appears — the opposition of nature to culture can only be overcome through radical social transformation. Finally, it shows that the solution to the problem cannot come in the form of a one-sided embracement of nature over culture, or culture over nature. But by that same token we must reject attempts that only aim to dull the opposition through the implementation of piecemeal legislation and the regulation of industry. Nor can we accept as sufficient the idea of changing lifestyle choices, isolated attempts at corporate sabotage or animal “liberation,” and least of all the numerous scenes of theatrical protest and “Go Green!” initiatives. This analysis forms the groundwork for a searing critique of lifestylism, anarcho-primitivism, and the Green movement in general. This is what will be pursued in the fourth and final section of our study.
IV. A Marxist Critique of the Contemporary “Green” Environmental Movement
A part of the bourgeoisie wants to redress social grievances in order to assure the maintenance of bourgeois society.
Included in it are economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, do-gooders for the working classes, charity organisers, animal welfare enthusiasts, temperance union workers, two-a-penny reformers of multifarious kinds.
— Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
Surveying the various constituencies that make up the present-day Green movement, a number of distinct tendencies can be observed. These each have their own peculiarities and distinguishing features, and are sometimes even at odds with one another. But there do exist overarching themes that hold this jumbled mass of ideological fragments together. One trend held in common by most of them, for example, is a shared opposition to “big business” and “corporate greed.” It is on this basis that many of them fancy themselves to hold a generally anti-capitalist worldview.
1. The Ideology of “Local” and “Organic”: Locavores and Urban-Agriculturalism
But on closer inspection, it can be seen in most cases that these activists don’t really want to overturn capitalism. They merely want to turn back the clock to what they perceive as a kinder, gentler capitalism, in which the “little guy” wasn’t stomped on so severely by all the corporate giants. They want the family-run local shops down the block where everybody knows each other’s first name. They miss the nearby farms that were owned by honest, hardworking families who brought their fresh produce into market every day. They want to get rid of all the corporate suits who come into town and vampirically leach off the hard labor of others and put these local stores and farms out of business by importing cheap goods made by foreign labor and selling produce enhanced by synthetic additives. (The völkisch and vaguely crypto-fascist/anti-Semitic overtones of this perspective should be obvious). Instead, these activists advocate to “buy local” and “go organic,” since they imagine that a world built on these principles is more “natural” than the one in which we live today. The pro-organic and “locavore” movements are based on precisely this belief, which they consider to be more “eco-friendly.”
This world is, of course, a fiction. But that doesn’t stop activists from calling for a return to this paradise that Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life.” Indeed, many leftish urbanites and self-proclaimed radical students have developed a bad conscience out of their sense of distance from the more natural and “authentic” world of organic farming. In fact, this has driven many such ecophiles out of their urban lofts or student housing in some vain hope of achieving a “return to the land.” “There is…wisdom and contentment in the unhurried rhythm of country life, which is mistaken by the smart townsman for slowness in the uptake,” wrote Lord Northbourne, the traditionalist philosopher and progenitor of the term “organic farming.” This promise of living the “simple life” out on the countryside seems to many students and city-dwellers to provide an escape from the stale atmosphere of the academy and the hustle-and-bustle of the urban scene. So they buy some land out on the outskirts and set up farms where they can grow their own food. This gives them an overweening sense of self-satisfaction; they experience the thrill of producing their own homemade, holistic goods, which they can then consume or perhaps even sell at the local co-op back in town.
So what sets organic farming apart from the non-organic? To begin with, organic farming promotes “bio-diversity,” which contrasts sharply with the perceived over-specialization and monocropping practices of big agrobusiness. “Mixed farming is real farming,” declared Northbourne, continuing his anti-modern diatribe against the industrialization of agriculture. “Unduly specialized ‘farming’ is something else; it must depend on imported fertility, it cannot be a self-sufficient nor an organic whole.” This bleak outlook regarding the mechanization and rationalization of the agricultural process, uprooting and replacing more traditional modes of farming, was shared by Sir Albert Howard, the so-called “father of organic farming.” “The hunger of the urban populations and the hunger of the machines has become inordinate,” he lamented. “The land has been overworked to satisfy all these demands which steadily increase as the years pass.” And indeed, the trend over the course of the last century has been toward large-scale industrialized farming — with its reliance on heavy machinery, pesticides, chemical additives, and the bio-engineering of plants. And despite the recent resurgence of the ideology of agricultural organicism in popular culture, its actual output (in terms of its percentage of the market) remains fairly marginal. Even though it is one of the only growing sectors of the agriculture industry, this is true only insofar as the imperative to “go organic” has been embraced by mainstream capitalism. It’s the reason why one sees “organic food” aisles in major supermarket chains, with organic fruits and vegetables produced by subsidiaries of huge agro-giants rather than by their smaller, independent competitors.
But let us return to those dedicated students and urbanites who have fled from their cities and universities to pursue the vocation of local organic farming. And let us further assume that these industrious, small-scale farmers band together to create agglomerations of “community-supported agriculture” (or CSA, for short). Sticking to their “buy fresh, buy local” principles, moreover, we will grant that these farmers restrict the sale of their goods to local co-ops and farmers’ markets. For none of these changes in the sphere of circulation alters the fact that the production process necessitates charging higher prices to break even, or even turn a profit. Since organic foods are typically much more labor-intensive to produce and difficult to preserve, the price for an organic item at a store is usually much steeper than its mass-produced equivalent. The maintenance of such small-scale organic farms would thus seem to be a luxury available only to those who are wealthy enough to afford selling their produce at a loss, or those who find clientele wealthy enough to afford paying much higher prices for locally-grown organic products. It is thus an elitist phenomenon not only in the smug sense of ethical virtue that comes with buying organic or local, but also in a very real, economic sense.
There are those, however, who have not even had to look beyond the city limits for a place to reunite with nature. Though parks and public gardens have been a feature of most major urban centers since the nineteenth century, the movement toward urban-agriculturalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is associated with the whole ideology of Green. Many urban-agriculturalists are simply private individuals buy their own plots at outrageous prices inside the greater urban municipality, where the retail-value for the same acreage bought on the countryside would be dwarfed. So it goes without saying that those who can stand to keep up such an expensive hobby must be extraordinarily rich. But what they’re buying is almost certainly not the crops they will grow on it, or the relaxation brought from the hobby, but rather the knowledge that they, city-dweller though they may be, are eco-friendlier than thou.
That this fetishization of small local farms originally stems from a romantic anti-capitalist ideology should be obvious. However, the deeply conservative and reactionary character of this tendency remains hidden to its adherents. They imagine a past where everything was done at the local level, with “organic” social relationships and good family values. They remember the honest farmer, with his pitchfork in hand and his wife by his side. What they forget is the revolting reality and chronic backwardness of the old, small family farm, most famously condemned by the journalist H.L. Mencken, whose vitriol must here be quoted at length:
…Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore. To Hell with him, and bad luck to him. He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack. He deserves all that he ever suffers under our economic system, and more. Any city man, not insane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile.
No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea. When the going is good for him he robs the rest of us up to the extreme limit of our endurance; when the going is bad be comes bawling for help out of the public till. Has anyone ever heard of a farmer making any sacrifice of his own interests, however slight, to the common good? Has anyone ever heard of a farmer practising or advocating any political idea that was not absolutely self-seeking — that was not, in fact, deliberately designed to loot the rest of us to his gain? Greenbackism, free silver, the government guarantee of prices, bonuses, all the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists — these are the contributions of the virtuous husbandmen to American political theory. There has never been a time, in good seasons or bad, when his hands were not itching for more; there has never been a time when he was not ready to support any charlatan, however grotesque, who promised to get it for him. Only one issue ever fetches him, and that is the issue of his own profit. He must be promised something definite and valuable, to be paid to him alone, or he is off after some other mountebank. He simply cannot imagine himself as a citizen of a commonwealth, in duty bound to give as well as take; he can imagine himself only as getting all and giving nothing.
Yet we are asked to venerate this prehensile moron as the Ur-burgher, the citizen par excellence, the foundation-stone of the state! And why? Because he produces something that all of us must have — that we must get somehow on penalty of death. And how do we get it from him? By submitting helplessly to his unconscionable blackmailing by paying him, not under any rule of reason, but in proportion to his roguery and incompetence, and hence to the direness of our need. I doubt that the human race, as a whole, would submit to that sort of high-jacking, year in and year out, from any other necessary class of men. But the farmers carry it on incessantly, without challenge or reprisal, and the only thing that keeps them from reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile knavery. They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving us, but they can’t do it because they can’t resist attempts to swindle each other. Recall, for example, the case of the cotton-growers in the South. Back in the 1920’s they agreed among themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate the price — and instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors. That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the price of cotton fell instead of going up — and then the entire pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the national treasury — in brief, began demanding that the rest of us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us.
Not only is the historical memory of the locavores fantastic and imaginary, however, but their vision for the future is equally unthinkable and alarming. To generalize the practice of local farming and small shops would mean a regression to a quasi-feudal state of existence, with massive urban depopulation and the death of probably 95% of the Earth’s people. For many Green activists, however, such a development might not be so unwelcome. Unwittingly echoing the arch-conservative Malthus, they insist that the current growth of population is unsustainable and will inevitably exhaust the world’s resources. They fail to recognize: 1. that it is classist (since the lower classes have more children); 2. that it is racist (since non-whites have more children); 3. and that it is sexist (because women are supposed to be the “gatekeepers” of reproduction). Yet the activists who still hold fast to the fear of overpopulation continue to reinforce their claims with apocalyptic rhetoric and eco-scaremongering, evoking images of global environmental collapse. The Malthusian theory of a limit-point to the growth of population was materially disproven by the industrial revolution taking place before his very eyes. And while many may fear the influence that chemical additives might have on their food, the kind peddled by vast multinational corporations like Monsanto, there’s a good reason that population growth has accelerated at such a rapid pace since the end of the eighteenth century: capitalism, and its concomitant industrialization of the agricultural process.
Indeed, there was a time when the Left advocated the industrialization of agriculture, calling for the mass-production and distribution of foodstuffs throughout the world. They welcomed mechanization insofar as it rendered the labor-heavy mode of traditional farming superfluous and produced more goods for consumption. And this is very much what has happened over the course of the last century. The elimination of small family farms and the mechanization of crop production has taken place on its own in the West and throughout the modern world, without the brutal programs of forced collectivization and “tractorization” implemented by Stalin. And while famines still take place in some of the poorer countries, it is only in recent times that all famines could actually be prevented — that for the first time we produce enough food to potentially feed the entire world. So it is a bitter irony of history that many on the Left today seek to return to more primitive modes of local production, rather than to take control of the massive forces of agricultural production that capitalism has unleashed — and end starvation forever. But instead, the Green ideologues exalt and glamorize the small family farmer, and demonize and vilify big agrobusiness. Huge agricultural corporations may be ruthless and unmerciful when it comes to the way they operate and do business, but only a fool would want to return to the world of petty small-time farmers that Mencken described.
2. The Neo-Romantic Reification of Nature: Deep Ecology and Permaculturalism
But the proponents of local and organic produce are hardly the only ones to have resurrected ghosts of the Romantic ideological past. The twin movements of deep ecology and permaculturalism seem to have resuscitated the old notion of Nature as some sort of self-harmonious organic whole, an equilibrium hanging delicately in the balance. In this view of the world, the careless intrusions of mankind into the environment threaten to upset the natural order of things, disturbing the fragile ecosystems they touch. Humanity is therefore to take existing nature as it is, and live in such a manner that impacts it the least. The thought that humanity can reshape nature according to its wants and needs is therefore seen as hopelessly hubristic, the vanity of unnatural anthropic exceptionalism. Instead, human society is to adapt itself so as to leave nature intact, allowing its natural cycles and processes to play out without human interference.
According to the tenets of deep ecology, nature should be thought as a value unto itself, wholly separate from questions of the how it might be potentially useful or harmful to mankind. Arne Næss, the Norwegian philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement, found it peculiar that “[o]ne of the most striking features of political arguments used to decide for or against intervention in free natural processes is that respect for nature in itself is not mentioned.” For Næss, it is not only important that different “forms of life” be respected as inherently valuable, but also certain landforms and geological formations. Now, of course, it is obvious that humanity cannot continue to exist in the complete absence of the instrumentalization of nature at some level, however modest. In light of this reality, Næss sketched out his positive vision of what would be “characteristic of a green society”:
It should be decentralized and should be a grassroots democracy. There should be social responsibility, mutual aid [a reference to the anarchist Petr Kropotkin], and a reign of nonviolence. People should live in voluntary simplicity, with a high degree of self-reliance and with moderate mobility. Different generations should be able to live together and work together. There should be a feeling of community; technology should be appropriate; industrial and agricultural units should be small. Home and place of work should be near each other and transportation mainly public. There should be an absence of social hierarchy and an absence of male domination.
Then there are concepts of another type, namely, respect for nature, reverence for life, ecological agriculture, absence of monoculture forests, absence of animal factories, free access to nature, and so on.
Nowhere in Næss’ populist, nature-revering speculative utopia does he reflect on the various reifications that underpin his positive prescriptions for society. Of course, it contains many inoffensive and uncontroversial points about gender equality and the elimination of social hierarchies, but beyond this, his entire vision of the ideal society is built upon a house of cards. For just as Lukács illustrated the false reification of the present state of society as a sort of “second nature,” obeying eternal, ahistorical laws that cannot be transformed, it can be readily seen that Næss is guilty of an inverse reification. While he is certainly innocent of viewing society’s current state as unalterable state of affairs, he hypostatizes nature in its present state as something to be preserved, rather than transformed.
Næss seems to be oblivious to the fact that to preserve nature in its present state, even fixing it as a limited set of natural cycles and processes, would be a wholly unnatural act. Humanity’s proclivity to save certain species from extinction is likewise in many cases an extremely unnatural intervention; we often forget that the extinction of species has been a fairly common feature of natural history. Nature in itself is not some peaceful, harmonious state of existence, unsullied by human intrusions. It is an often brutal world that exists in a state of perpetual flux, generating (and enduring) countless catastrophes and disruptions that radically reshape its own being. The idea of Nature as some kind of sacred, inviolable entity worthy of our reverence is pure ideology. Human society is totally dependent on the exploitation of nature in some form or another. “[T]he existence of coats, of linen, of every element of material wealth not provided in advance by nature, had always to be mediated through…a productive activity that assimilated particular natural materials to particular human requirements,” explains Marx, in the first volume of Capital. “Labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”
Permaculturalism takes deep ecology’s notion of sustainability as one of its points of departure. The word itself, a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” advocates a sort of soft resilience to withstand the forces of nature, not of brick or reinforced concrete but assembled out of various objects, both natural and artificial, which are then integrated into a natural system. But the “philosophy” that undergirds permaculturalism goes beyond deep ecology in taking inevitable Armageddon as likely, if not inevitable, outcome of humanity’s destruction of nature. “The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life,” laments Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of the permaculture movement. “There is too much contemporary evidence of ecological disaster which appalls me, and it should frighten you, too. Our consumptive lifestyle has led us to the very brink of annihilation. We have expanded our right to live on the earth to an entitlement to conquer the earth, yet ‘conquerors’ of nature always lose.” In Mollison’s opinion, the only way to counter the damage that has already been done is to all-of-a-sudden renounce our exploitative ways, and cultivate a more permanent and sustainable way of living through his program of permaculturalism.
3. Lifestyle Politics: Vegans, Freegans, and Raw Foodists
To continue with the theme of worldwide ecological catastrophe, however — we needn’t fear, some Green activists will say. “If we all chip in and do our part,” they continue, “together we can really make a difference!” This sort of puerile rhetoric brings us to the next subject of our investigation: lifestyle politics, or lifestylism, as it is sometimes called. Its origins can be traced to Gandhi’s famous injunction to “be the change you want to see in the world.” But lately it’s more the kind of message usually delivered by some well-known spokesman (or spokeswoman) — a famous athlete or movie star. The celebrities, always insecure of their ethical status because of the fame and fortune they enjoy, are always ready to join in for a good cause. And so they become the mouthpiece for this or that social message, usually inoffensive and uncontroversial. “The change begins with YOU,” they will say. And then they will parade around the fact that they’ve donated to many charities, rescued sick animals, or adopted a vegan diet. In this way are they spared the guilty conscience of knowing that they have it better off than most people. It’s why they’re so easily lampooned for their endless (and almost pornographic) pontificating.
But the lesser-known practitioners of lifestyle politics are hardly less smug, sanctimonious, and self-satisfied than their celebrity counterparts. They are almost invariably ostentatious in the exhibition of their given way of life. A vegan might take every opportunity to point out how the waiter must first check with the chef to make sure that no animal products are being used in the preparation of his meal, before he can order. Oppositely, they’ll rarely miss a chance to sneer or take offense at something that falls outside their narrow, single-issue worldview. A fur coat, an unrecycled recyclable, a “gas-guzzling” SUV — they’ll find almost any excuse to launch into one of their patented, pre-rehearsed tirades. The words “speciesism” or “anthropocentrism” often enter the diatribe, but the arguments that follow revel in anthropomorphism, allowing for absurd casuistry and moral equivalencies. The logic of meat-consumption apparently “parallels” that of the Holocaust or incidents of rape. I had no idea.
The lifestylists thus usually find their way into a clique of like-minded ethicians, who share the same ideals and who can feel virtuous with one another. As certain lifestyles become unfashionable, many tend to drift away from their chosen lifestyle or simply burn out — so there’s typically a high turnover rate. A vegetarian diet, a vegan diet, a raw food diet, gluten-free diet, a freegan diet — it’s too tough keeping up with the latest trend. But there are some diehards who still cling to their diet or other ethical habits of living (“dumpster diving,” buying “eco-friendly” products, reducing one’s “carbon footprint,” etc.). One might even have counted the guru of deep ecology himself, Arne Naess, a lifestylist to the end, as he enumerated “anti-consumerism,” Third Worldism, and personal asceticism as standard points of the deep ecological code of conduct. But perhaps wisely, in the end, Naess implored his followers to keep their self-selected lifestyles at a strictly ethical level, as he advised them in general “to find politics boring or distasteful.” (He would later contradict himself on this score, writing a piece on “The Politics of the Deep Ecology Movement,” complete with a partial apologium for Malthusian population-control).
For it is only when lifestylists attempt to extrapolate a politics from their chosen ethos that they get lost, that they fall prey to a particularly pernicious eidolon. That they tend to flaunt their given way of life may be obnoxious, of course, but in the end it’s fairly harmless, really. Far more dangerous, politically speaking, is the delusion that the sum of their individual lifestyle choices will have a significant impact on society. This is all the more true if they believe that they are somehow undermining capitalism through their actions. Some vegan lifestylists, like Will Tuttle, have even advanced the hilarious notion that veganism is a more revolutionary position than Marxism. Quite the opposite is true. If anything, these various lifestyles are so readily integrated into the edifice of capitalist society that they almost immediately lose any revolutionary force they might have had. They are reduced to mere niche markets within the greater totality of capitalism. This is why it should not come as such a surprise that one sees the opening of a “Green” McDonald’s in Riverside, Los Angeles. Lifestyle politics is remarkably assimilable to capitalism. In this sense, political veganism, freeganism, and so on, are all worse than ineffectual; they appear to constitute a form of “resistance” to capital just as they are seamlessly sublated into its all-encompassing fold.
It was for this reason that Lenin as well as Marx argued against prefigurative utopianism: the idea that one must behave as if he already lived in a perfect society, a Kantian kingdom of ends. Marx was a merciless critic of the utopian socialists of his day. Lenin would later write off the ultraleftist utopianism (or “Left-Wing” Communism) that surrounded the Revolution as merely an “infantile disorder.” One must accept the social reality that obtains at any given time, and not imagine himself to be ethically or superior to or more politically informed than the rest of humanity by virtue of some lifestyle change. Such a conceit is all too easily repackaged — and thereby absorbed — by capitalist society.
Closely related to, but distinct from, lifestyle politics is a “gendered” strain of eco-activism — eco-feminism. They offer an environmentalist critique that is at once broader and more particular than that of the lifestylists. For many eco-feminists, the whole problem of man’s domination over nature (and yes, specifically man’s) can be traced to a male way of viewing the world. Men, they argue, seek to dominate and bend to their will everything that stands in their path. They will stop at nothing to bring Nature, often culturally identified as female, under their dominion, and so they must beat it into submission. And so patriarchal society has pursued throughout history a campaign against nature, as a test of manhood, an eternal struggle. By contrast, a more feminine perspective on nature, the eco-feminists contend, would be more empathetic and understanding. It would accept nature in all its abundance and fertility; it would show compassion where the men showed none. The wanton destruction of natural ecosystems would thus appear to them as the result of a specifically androcentric (and not more generally anthropocentric) worldview. The domination of nature, eco-feminists argue, mirrors the oppression of women and indigenous people by the Western patriarchal tradition. “The reductionist mind,” states the Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, “superimposes the roles and forms of power of western male-oriented concepts on women, all non-western peoples, and even on nature, rendering all three ‘deficient,’ and in need of ‘development.’” A predominantly gynocentric, indigenous perspective on society’s relationship to nature would be far less destructive, many eco-feminists claim.
Many eco-feminists draw inspiration from the mythological representation of nature as a woman — Gaia, Terra, Prakriti, Mother Earth, and so on. This often leads them to embrace numerous mystifications, many of them anagogic or primitivist in nature. These eco-feminists will then point to indigenous tribal myths that teach that nature should be revered and held sacred. An eco-feminist spiritual worldview, its proponents insist, would lead to a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Of course, there are several problems with these arguments. First of all, it essentializes (one could even say naturalizes) the difference between men and women. “One of the reasons for ecofeminism’s association with an essentialist radical feminism,” Mary Mellor points out, “is its emergence alongside the cultural feminist radicalization of the feminist movement, particularly in the United States.” But this again hypostatizes the old patriarchal myth, so often repeated, that men are strong, bold, and decisive, while women are weak, caring, and empathetic. This is a dichotomy that feminists have for decades been trying to disprove, and now many eco-feminists are looking to resurrect it to serve the purposes of their argument. The old structuralist association man with culture and women with nature is one that modern feminism sought to overturn. Postmodern feminism, on the other hand, has been far more ambivalent.
Secondly, the appeal to the mythological symbolism portraying Nature as female must be seen as inadmissible superstition. The phantoms of religion and mythological deities cannot be used as evidence in any rational discussion, no matter how “authentic” or “sincere” some of these indigenous beliefs might seem. Finally, even if one were to accept such dubious symbolic evidence, would it not stand to reason that men would refrain from acts of environmental destruction like deforestation? After all, the act of chopping down a tree (a longtime symbol of the phallus) could be easily interpreted as an act of castration, the worst fear of men, according to Freud. If the eco-feminists were to trot out such symbolic interpretations in defense of their arguments, one could easily counter with symbolic interpretations of his (or her) own.
5. Radical Environmentalism: Green Anarchism and Anarcho-Primitivism
There are those within the Green movement, however, for whom a superficial change in one’s way of life or a gender critique is not enough. As self-styled radicals, they cannot be satisfied by such modest acts. Nor can they be content with merely participating in theatrical demonstrations, marches, and protests against animal or environmental exploitation (though they continue to do these things as well). These young firebrands feel they must do something more. A truly radical activism, they contend, must seek to do away with the whole bloody system — dismantle it piece by piece. So what you usually get is a bunch of angry young activists, often with some sort of anarchist orientation, who will sometimes whip themselves up and engage in isolated acts of corporate sabotage, office disruption, and animal “liberation.” These acts are usually carried out by either single individuals or small groups coordinating their efforts according to some preconceived plan. The most notorious organizations advocating such militancy are the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), with which it is closely associated. But there are countless little coteries of activists strewn throughout the more developed world that operate by using such tactics. In the age of the internet, they issue any number of online manifestos or proclamations of intent.
Much of this is just militant posturing, though occasionally some groups are able to muster the courage of conviction to actually pull off some of these stunts. They are, however, often quickly arrested and given harsh sentences. There have some been some journalists who believe the courts have been a bit heavy-handed in labeling these activists’ crimes as “terrorism.” They even believe these rulings to be the result of some conspiratorial plot cooked up by big business interests, who then pull some strings in Washington to specifically target eco-activists through their legislation. Though there might be some small truth to this belief, the reality is that these isolated attacks on corporate property and sporadic acts of animal liberation barely dent the profit index of most of these major businesses. Militant Green activism isn’t even half as disruptive or effective as its practitioners would like it to be. It would be (and perhaps is) an extreme overreaction for business interests in government to insist that these young crusaders be classified as “terrorists.” If anything, this only ennobles them by giving them the sense that they are martyrs of state oppression, when in fact they are little more than petty pranksters who got in over their heads.
We have already mentioned how many of these militant tactics owe their origin to the long tradition of political anarchism, which dates back to the first decades of the nineteenth century. Many anarchist authors actually did call for individual acts of terrorism — one needs only read Mikhail Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev’s Catechism of a Revolutionist or look to the acts inspired by Georges Sorel’s book on revolutionary violence to witness this fact. (Lenin would famously critique such Narodnik terrorism in his book, What is to be Done?). This does not, of course, imply that all forms of anarchism employ or even approve of terrorist tactics, as there have been almost innumerable anarchist tendencies over the past two hundred years — some violent, others not. Indeed, most Green anarchists and “veganarchists” are so oblivious to the history of political anarchism that they might scarcely be aware that there were ever any major figures within the annals of anarchism who considered terrorism an acceptable revolutionary method. Their association with anarchism is in most cases purely ahistorical. It’s a sad truth that many activists who identify with anarchism do so out of temperament rather than a thorough course of study. Nevertheless, we may close this critique of the contemporary Green movement with an examination of the peculiarities of the Green anarchist Weltanschauung, then moving on to its most troubling manifestation, anarcho-primitivism.
The anarchist elements within the greater ideology of Green manifest themselves mostly in their anti-hierarchical organizational structures and belief that individual actions can spark revolutionary change. This is closely connected with the more general theme of lifestyle politics, to which almost all Green anarchists adhere. The Green anarchists tend to associate themselves with an anti-globalization political stance, as well. Their critical perspective on what they call “mainstream” environmentalism also distinguishes them from other eco-activist groups. Green anarchism understands itself to be part of a radical fringe, and often takes great pleasure in that occupying that status. Indeed, for all too many Green activists, the anarchist affiliation is little more than a fashion accessory that they pin to their preexisting beliefs in ending climate change and animal cruelty. They enjoy marching side by side with other self-declared anarchists, wearing black bandanas over their mouths and waving a large black flag. They will usually hold up some placards covered with anarchist slogans and chant commonplaces like “this is what democracy looks like!” and “ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” — mindless populist jargon. While these are the kind of people who can sometimes get caught up in the Durkheimian swell of religious fervor and overturn a police car or break into a Starbuck’s, in their life outside of protest their anarchism is more like a hairstyle or tattoo. They might go out of their way to get arrested (in order to wear that fact as a badge of honor), but for the most part their anarchism extends no further than that.
There are the true believers, though. The most frightening among them identify with the anarcho-primitivist movement — a tendency founded under the ideology of John Zerzan, who has a number of followers who live up and down the west coast of the U.S., but also some residing in the northeast. Considered fanatics even by many of the other Green anarchist currents, the anarcho-primitivists are actually pro-collapse. Against the Marxist theoreticians in the Frankfurt School, Zerzan maintains that modernity offers no redemptive possibilities:
There is no reconciliation, no happy ending within this totality, and it is transparently false to claim otherwise. History seems to have liquidated the possibility of redemption; its very course undoes what has been passing as critical thought. The lesson is to notice how much must change to establish a new and genuinely viable direction. There never was a moment of choosing; the field or ground of life shifts imperceptibly in a multitude of ways, without drama, but to vast effect. If the solution were sought in technology, that would of course only reinforce the rule of modern domination; this is a major part of the challenge that confronts us.
In their interpretation of history, society has been built on slavery, injustice, and the ruthless exploitation of nature ever since the first agrarian communities were established. Domestication, to them, is the root of all evil. Even simple farming is too “unnatural” for their tastes; they look to small bands of hunter-gatherer tribes as the only natural mode of human existence. Everything else is “Civilization,” and must be destroyed as a whole. This is why they actually welcome climate change and the prospect of ecological catastrophe — because it would undo the accomplishments of human society and force mankind to “rewild,” to really finally return to nature. Only this can end man’s alienation from nature, the anarcho-primitivists maintain. And so some of them even prepare for this “endgame” scenario by going on barefoot runs through the wilderness at night or learning basic nature survival skills. The lunacy of their ideology is so patent that it would almost honor it too much to offer a critique of it. Needless to say, this is the outermost extreme of the present-day Green movement, but still can claim a number of adherents.
6. Results and Prospects
And so with that shall we close the critique of contemporary eco-activism we have pursued thus far. It might be appropriate here to recapitulate some of its results. In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself. The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.
Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature. And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions. Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed. But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth. So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?
To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation. Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options. Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation. With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct. Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will. What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature. Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.
For the Marxist, the choice is simple. Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale. Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized. One can only progress by moving forward. The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations. This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe. And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history. In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:
With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. [my emphases]
How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii. And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible. First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level. No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages. Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society. No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature. Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature. Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:
The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]
[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.” The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.