Ecological Marxism, Intrinsic Value and Human-Centeredness  

                                                                                                                                    By David Orton

                        The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?
                        by Joel Kovel, Fernwood Publishing Ltd, Nova Scotia, 2002, 273 pages,
                        paperback, ISBN: 1-55266-069-9.

                   “Marxism needs, therefore, to become more fully ecological in realizing its potential
                    to speak for nature as well as humanity. In practice, this means replacing capitalist
                    with ecologically sound/socialist production through a restoration of use-values
                    open to nature’s intrinsic value.” pp.10-11

                    “‘Nature’, as we employ the concept, is a social construction before it is anything else.”


                    Joel Kovel, who is a professor of social studies in the U.S., has run for the Green Party in that country
                and is also the editor-in-chief of the Marxist magazine, Capitalism Nature Socialism: A Journal of
                Socialist Ecology
. I would argue, based on this book, that he is intellectually quite influenced by social
                ecology, which he describes as “intrinsically radical” in contrast to bioregionalism, deep ecology and
                essentialist ecofeminism (p. 177). He is therefore perhaps best classified theoretically as a hybrid between
                Marxist and social ecologist, although he sees his book as within the tradition of Marxism. Kovel is also
                someone who takes the ecological crisis very seriously and his passion is felt by the reader. He is truly an
                ecologized member of the Left and this is something shared by this reviewer.

                    After The Enemy of Nature came out in 2002, there was quite a spirited discussion about its merits on
                some internet lists that I am on. I borrowed it from the local library to see whether or not I should purchase
                a copy. I first read Kovel’s comments on deep ecology for an introductory flavour but found the author
                totally “out‑to‑lunch” in his erroneous views on this philosophy. This raised for me serious questions about
                what this book was attempting to do, and therefore the accuracy of other positions given in the text. Deep
                ecology, although originating in Norway through the work of the philosopher Arne Naess, has greatly
                influenced radical environmentalism, such as Earth First!, and green philosophical, ethical and political
                thinking in North America, Australia and England.

                    While there is a real deeper critique of the attempted green electoral road, in Canada for example, the
                provincial Green Party in Ontario endorses deep ecology and gives the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform
                as part of its First Principles. The federal Green Party, which in 2004 polled over four percent of the
                popular vote, has declared its support for deep ecology in its electoral platform. The Canadian federal
                party even has a “shadow cabinet” spokesperson (myself), to represent a deep ecological viewpoint in
                party discussions. Kovel, however, tells us that: 

- Deep ecology is a “flaccid doctrine” (p. 171);
- “In the USA, very few people influenced by deep ecology bother to read Naess ...” (p. 171);
- “The deep ecology ecophilosophy is far too loose to form itself into a coherent movement, and
                  almost by definition excludes the formation of parties or any organized assertion of power.” (p.171); and
- “Deep ecology comes home as the strategy of advanced capitalist elites, for whom nature is what looks
                  good on calendars.” (p. 172)
                    After reading the above, I decided against reading this book. Subsequently, several people whose
                 opinions carried some weight with me urged that I read it, primarily because they said Kovel is also on
                an ecocentric path and, moreover, uses some deep ecology-inspired concepts or language - for example,
                “intrinsic value”, “ecocentrism”, “individual self-realization”, and he attests to the “affirmation of freedom
                for all creatures.”  Hence this review.


                General Comment

                    There is much to support in this book. Many observations about the direction of capitalist society are
                often expressed in a witty and incisive manner. The author is good on the historical record of the absorption
                of green parties, who then became the defenders of Capital. Kovel’s outstanding success is to convincingly
                show how Capital must continually expand and why it is in fundamental opposition to any policy of
                ecological restraint. Any deeper green or environmental position therefore needs to be anti-capitalist. I like
                the emphasis, from Marx, that social evolution is a result of struggle within a society. I share the view that
                “ownership” of the Earth is an illusion, the advocacy of usufructuary instead of private property ownership,
                and the necessity for environmental and green activists to take non-reformist positions. I appreciate the
                honesty in the statement: “Almost the entire socialist tradition...has largely been unable to appropriate an
                 ecological attitude.” (p. 206) Kovel’s book importantly shows how Marx regarded nature as primarily
                “use value” and that Marx did not accept the “recognition of nature in and for itself.” (p. 211) This is a
                position that some Marxists concerned about ecological questions, according to feedback directed in my
                own direction, often seem to deny.

                    The author makes the conventional, but often overlooked, useful Marxist distinctions between “exchange
                value” and “use value”. He also introduces an “intrinsic value” for Nature and the Earth into his analysis.
                For those open to deep ecology, this concern for intrinsic value can raise high expectations. But, ultimately,
                it is “the domination of labour” (p. 178) which primarily defines capitalism for Kovel. Ecology eventually
                becomes an “ecological mode of production.” (p. 218) It also seems that humans are more privileged than
                other species, that we have a special responsibility for “improving the globe” (p. 241) and to guide evolution:
                “An unalienated human intelligence is itself capable of fostering the evolution of nature even as it itself
                evolves” (p. 108). Left biocentrists like myself would assert that, while humans need to tread as lightly as
                possible upon the planet, bearing in mind the habitat needs of all other species and the natural world itself,
                we have no ‘human species responsibility’ or ‘right’ to shape the evolutionary process in what we conceive
                to be an improvement upon the existing situation. The claim that we do, would be seen by most deep
                ecology supporters as another example of human hubris. As I read this book, intrinsic value, as seen by
                Kovel, ultimately collapses back into use value by humans. Hence it is a derived value and does not exist
                in its own right.

                    Kovel seems to want to keep industrial society - the existing society with an ecosocialist cloak. There is
                the retention of rail, communication and power grids. We are told that large scale cities like New York City,
                London, Paris and Tokyo will continue. There is no sense of the vast scaling back of technology and the
                diminishment of the industrial machine that is required, as it was already advocated in the 1980s by the
                German green philosopher Rudolf Bahro. World trade is retained, with a “World People’s Trade
                Organization” now regulating it, “in accordance with the flourishing of ecosystems.” (p. 249) There is also
                much “envirosocialist” speculation about how to move forward and also some psycho-babble:

                “To be open to nature means being receptive to ecosystemic being without the fear of annihilation that is
                the legacy of the male ego. The masculine construction of being interprets receptivity as the castrated
                condition of the female.” (p. 217)

                    Protestations by Kovel against sectarianism notwithstanding (p. 179), there is a strong sense of “all is
                foretold” in Marx and Marxism. This is just wrong and makes his green and environmental critical commentary
                often seem patronizing. Green politics is given the ultimate Marxist dismissal of being classified as
                “petty-bourgeois.” (p. 234) This asserted moral superiority tends to obscure and minimize the glimmerings of
                the new alternative, which is too slowly emerging in the green and environmental movements. The basic
                problem for the Left is that the environmental and green movements worldwide have emerged with a new world
                view struggling to define itself, in the main, outside of the socialist/communist movements. To influence these
                movements one must be on the inside, not on the outside supposedly demonstrating ‘analytically’ what is
                wrong. There is a minority revolutionary anti-capitalist tendency among greens and environmentalists, which
                does not need convincing by a Marxist left.

                    Unfortunately, it seems that any deep ecology language used by Kovel is merely “appropriated” and then
                placed in the service of a hybrid Marxism and social ecology analysis. This serves really as human-centered
                greenwash. A very major theme in this book is an unrelenting, apparently slanderous, attack on the deep
                ecology philosophy, e.g. linking this philosophy to fascism and racism; saying that the concern with
                “wilderness” erases aboriginal peoples; and which repeats the prejudices spawned by some social ecologists
                under the influence of Murray Bookchin. An example is the false linking of the green fundamentalist Rudolf
                Bahro to the Nazis.(See Green Web Bulletin #68, Ecofascism: What Is It? A Left Biocentric Analysis
                which looks at the smearing of deep ecology, and Bahro, by some social ecologists, e.g. Murray Bookchin,
                Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, at  Kovel does
                not deal with population or immigration issues, always a very touchy topic for the Left, except to use these to
                attack deep ecology and green ideas in general. On population reduction, a crucial issue for deep ecology
                from an all-species perspective and also for the quality of life for humans themselves, Kovel is reduced to the
                platitude: “The core principle is already integral to ecosocialism: giving people, and especially women,
                control over their lives.” (p. 250) Basically, this author accepts the existing population levels as a given.
                Because of this, for example, “bioregionalism” becomes a fantasy straw opponent to dispose of.

                    There is a left anti-capitalist theoretical tendency within deep ecology, which goes back not only to Naess
                himself, but also to people like Richard Sylvan, Andrew McLaughlin and Judi Bari, and which includes the
                work done by other left biocentrists including myself, and most recently Fred Bender - see the 2003 text
                The Culture Of Extinction: Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology
. These are totally ignored in The
                Enemy of Nature
. Kovel does acknowledge that Naess comes across in the key book Ecology, Community
                and Lifestyle
as positive about socialism. The third edition (2001) of the college reader Environmental
                Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology
contains a comment by the social ecology activist
                and philosopher John Clark referring positively to the emergence of left biocentrism and saying that it
                “combines a theoretical commitment to deep ecology with a radical decentralist, anticapitalist politics having
                much in common with social ecology.” This comment is repeated in the current fourth edition and feeds into
                a growing discussion of left biocentrism in the green movement by various commentators and not only by its
                proponents. That Kovel has chosen to ignore this is strange indeed.

                Left Biocentrism, Marxism, and the Enemy of Nature: some major disagreements

                    For left biocentrists, unlike for Joel Kovel, industrialism, even more than capitalism, is the main problem in
                destroying the natural world. This industrialism can have a capitalist or socialist face. Andrew McLaughlin
                developed this important point in his 1993 book Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology.
                Implicit in the anti‑capitalist view is that it is the ownership of wealth which is the main problem. But the
                natural world can be destroyed individually and communally, or by the capitalist or socialist state. Yet left
                biocentrists are anti‑capitalist and believe that this economic and social model for organizing society is both
                anti‑ecological and socially unjust. For Kovel, the deep ecology assault on industrialism is identified with the
                Unabomber. (p. 210)

                        Kovel speaks in his book about “the gendered bifurcation of Nature” (p. 176) yet only devotes about one
                page to ecofeminism, where is not really evaluated. He does say the anti‑capitalist path forward needs to be
                also ecofeminist. Left biocentrism has a critique of ecofeminism which centers on its gender-based splitting
                character, but does not separate out gender in its overall analysis. The theoretical tendency of left
                biocentrism sees women as equal partners in the environmental and green movements. Women contribute
                their own unique perspectives as part of an overall analysis done under a deep ecology anti‑capitalist banner,
                aimed at achieving an egalitarian, non‑sexist, non‑discriminating society, which is also respectful towards the

                    Kovel argues against what he calls “nature mysticism” in deep ecology, which he links to fascism and is
                defined as considering human beings as having “the status of just another species in the ‘web of life.’” (pp.
                183‑184) Two things here: left biocentrists like myself do believe in a needed spiritual transformation to
                break with industrial capitalist society; and we do interpret the intrinsic value of all species, as it relates to
                humans, in the manner pilloried by Kovel. Yet this author also argues in a contradictory manner for one of
                deep ecology's major objectives, that is "a powerful spiritual movement" or "ecological spirituality" to counter
                capitalism. (p. 228) 

                    Kovel has a Marxist emphasis on capturing state power. He sees this power as key for controlling
                corporations, capital accumulation, and to keep in place the class system. Left biocentrists would see the
                changing of mass consciousness as being crucial before state power was captured, which could then be
                re‑directed towards empowering a citizen base.

                    In this book, Marxism still retains what has been called by green‑oriented writers a "human‑welfare
                ecology perspective" in its resurrected ecological form. This text does not show that Kovel has joined the
                ecocentric Left. By ecocentric Left, I mean those who have made the fundamental shift in consciousness
                from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism and who have learned the lessons of deep ecology, as initially
                unfolded by Naess. The ecocentric Left is not anti‑Marxist but accepts the limitations of Marx and Marxism
                from an ecological perspective. As Robin Eckersley points out her book Environmentalism and Political
                Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach
, Marx had an "exclusive preoccupation with human betterment"
                and "showed no interest in natural history, and he did not address the cause of nonhuman suffering." None
                of the left writers in ecology that I take account of, people like McLaughlin, Bender, Bahro, Sylvan, Salleh,
                Sarkar, Eckersley, etc. disparage Marxism. All of us would say that much in Marx is true and valuable. But
                all understand, as I do, that while this world view is important for the critique of capitalism and to consider
                oneself educated in some way, it is not very relevant for the ecological ecocentric imagination today.
                Activists in the green and environmental movements can eventually come to consider themselves anti‑
                capitalist as a result of their own organizing experiences, they do not necessarily need Marxism for this
                 path. At a more crude level, I am not aware of "Marxist ecologists" on the theoretical or practical front lines
                of green and environmental politics in Canada. My own "contribution" to the debate in Canada has been to
                publicly articulate that greens and environmentalists need to take the Marxist/socialist/communist tradition
                seriously as part of the theoretical debate and also to absorb its very important social justice lessons. This
                has often meant for me personally opposing mindless anti‑Marxism/anti‑communism among fellow greens
                and environmentalists. Some of those who have come to a left biocentric position do not come from the Left,
                although many of us do. The ecology question cuts across all 'isms', as Bahro has noted.

                    There is also a definite clash between the ecocentric and Marxist left on ecological matters. (See my
                article “The Ecocentric Left and Green Electoralism” in the Socialist Studies Bulletin, Fall 2004, No. 74,
                which was reprinted in the US magazine of green social thought Synthesis/Regeneration, No. 36, Winter
                2005, at Left & Green Electoralism.html) Clive Ponting's,
                A Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
, which is
                referenced in The Enemy of Nature, shows that it is not just the “capitalist industrializers”, who are the
                problem regarding the “conquest of nature.” Ponting gives the evidence to show many examples of past
                civilizations and empires, e.g. Greece, the Middle East, Rome and North Africa, where humans have ruined
                their local environments, through over‑exploitation of the local natural bounty, not controlling population,
                extensive deforestation, etc. They did not find a balance with their environment and placed impossible
                cultural demands on the land. With European expansion based on looting, forced labour and slavery, and
                the eventual emergence of a global industrial society, environmental destruction has now become global.
                Yet paradoxically, as other books have pointed out, it was in the 19th century of the Western intellectual
                tradition, that an anti‑vivisection movement, a vegetarian movement, a naturalist movement and an animal
                welfare movement also emerged. The 20th century saw the birth of the environmental movement and
                animal rights movement in Western society.

                    Marxism is embedded in the economic growth paradigm, as many green  theorists have noted. Overall,
                the main thrust of Marx’s analysis is to not consider nature or the ecology as having intrinsic value. Kovel’s
                book shows this. In my view however, it is to distort Marx's own unique theoretical contribution, to try and
                graft an ecocentric perspective on it. Marxism has not acknowledged the unfreedom of all the nonhuman
                species in the natural world in industrial society. In the pursuit of Marx's notion of freedom, the nonhuman
                world is expendable and to be viewed instrumentally. It is the contribution of deep ecology and the green
                and environmental movements to call all this into question, and to put forth for discussion an alternative
                world view which puts the natural, not the human world, at center stage. 

                    Kovel's book brings to mind Saral Sarkar’s 1999 Eco‑socialism or Eco‑capitalism?, which I feel much
                more positive about. Sarkar, a friend, is originally from India and has lived in a German culture since the
                early 1980's. Yet I have also criticized Sarkar’s book because, like Kovel, his theoretical synthesis for
                radical ecology and socialist politics lacked a real understanding of the importance of deep ecology. Sarkar,
                unlike Kovel, pays much more attention to the need for population reduction. Yet both these authors call for
                an eco‑socialist society to replace capitalism. I believe this to be an incorrect call. This seems to say we
                know what the nature of the coming post-capitalist society will be and that it will be "socialist." I believe this
                is a sectarian call that shuts a lot of people out of an important public discussion, which has only just begun
                and is still open‑ended. As a socialist, I believe there is much to learn both in a positive and in a negative
                sense from the history of the socialist and communist movements, and the societies which have been
                established in their names. But how to live in an ecocentric world society, based also on justice for all
                species and their habitats and human justice for our own species, is not, unfortunately, foretold from the
                experiences of the Left, past or present. It therefore misrepresents what a Left consciousness can
                contribute to the green and environmental movements, to claim that we know the nature of the alternative
                to industrial capitalist society and that it is ecosocialist.



                    I recommend this book for those seeking out the needed theoretical synthesis to guide the green and
                environmental movements forward. Kovel does not have all the answers, but he has a lot to contribute. The
                explanation of how Capital has to expand and its ingrained anti-ecological characteristics is of
                fundamental importance. Yet my overall evaluation of this book's merits has to be negative. While this
                author seems to move in an ecocentric direction - there are quite a number of statements in the book
                which show this (see for example pp. 100, 140, and 179) with which someone like myself can identify -
                Kovel ultimately collapses back to a standard Marxist world view. This is illustrated perhaps by one of the
                quotations introducing this review that “Nature is a social construction before anything else.” This is
                where the author’s line about the intrinsic value of nature has ended up, in a statement of post-modernism
                and human-centeredness! Normally one would say something about this book, like that this was an exciting
                attempt from the Left to move more in the needed ecocentric direction, but that the Marxist theoretical
                framework was too entrenched to yield significantly. The reason why I cannot give such an assessment,
                is the sustained and quite slanderous attack on the deep ecology philosophy, where the ecocentric initiatives
                have their original home for all of us. This seems duplicitous. There is also that "know-it-all" Marxist
                reductionism which can, in the end, and despite many positive statements, dismiss the green and
                environmental movements as "petty bourgeois.

                    September 2005

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