Marxism, Metaphors, and Ecological Politics

By Harvey, Donald | Monthly Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Marxism, Metaphors, and Ecological Politics


Harvey, Donald, Monthly Review


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

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

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

Metaphors of Crisis, Collapse and "The End of Nature"

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

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

Leaving aside the question (which mainly preoccupies Foster) of whether we can indeed 'threaten the continuation of much of nature," in the short or long run, there are short-run political difficulties with the idea. If the collapse does not materialize in the near term or the grounds for such expectations are seriously disputed, with strong appeals to both scientific theory and evidence, then environmentalism in general (including its socialist variant) gets discredited for crying "wolf' too often. …

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