Economics, Socialism, Ecology: A Critical Outline (Part 2)

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by Kamran Nayeri

Introduction

In Part 1, I argued that economics is neither an objective science nor capable of providing a lasting solution to the contradictions of the capitalist economy and society. As a discipline it has emerged to maintain and justify the capitalist system and it will wither away with its downfall.  Also, I argued that Karl Marx’s critique of political economy (“economics” of his time) and the capitalist system is a specific application of his theory of history, historical materialism, that aims to serve self-activity and self-organization of working people with the logic of transcending the capitalist system in the direction of developing a society of freely Associated Producers, a socialist society.  Thus, Marx’s theory replaces the bourgeois notion of Homo economicus (Economic Man) with the ideal of socialist women and men.  This theoretical transcendence was made possible with a shift of the theoretical paradigm from one serving the interests of the capitalist class to one for emancipation of humanity through the direct action of working people.

Now, I proceed to argue that the current crisis of society and nature is in fact a single crisis, the crisis of civilization built on the foundation of alienation from and exploitation of nature. Therefore, its resolution will require a shift from the prevailing anthropocentric worldview to an ecocentric, indeed a universe-centric view of human society and its relation to nature. This new paradigm provides a conceptual underpinning for an ecological movement that would also be socialist because the present-day civilization is largely capitalist. I will then consider whether and how Marx’s theory aids the development of an ecological socialist movement to build a post-capitalist society where humanity would live in harmony amongst ourselves and with the rest of nature.

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The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene (New Man) is a term coined in 2000 by the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer who argued that we live in a new geological epoch in which one species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has come to shape the Earth’s geology in ways that undermine life sustaining environment and ecology, setting off planetary crises.

Crutzen and Stoermer have suggested that the Anthropocene began with the invention of the steam engine which was a key component of the English Industrial Revolution that began about 1760 and was established sometime between 1820-40. While the notion of the Anthropocene was received warmly by some geologists, the profession has yet to embrace it.  Many stratigraphers (scientists who study rock layers) criticize the idea, citing lack of clear-cut evidence for a new epoch. Still, others, including ecologists and environmentalists, recognize the validity and relevance of the idea to the current debate on charting a course to head off and reverse the anthropogenic (human-caused) crisis of nature.

Let me cite some examples of the harmful impact human society has on the ecosphere. In 2000, the then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) of the consequences of anthropogenic ecosystem changes for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. The MEA has involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide and it has issued a number of reports.

I simply want to draw attention to some findings about human impact displayed in one figure in one of the reports (see, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, 2005; figure 13, page 16).  The summary data shown in the figure (which we cannot show here for technical reasons) assess human impact on a number of ecosystems: forests (boreal, temperate and tropical), dry-land (temperate grassland, Mediterranean, tropical grassland and savanna, and desert), inland, coastal, marine island, mountain and polar.  Adverse impact considered are habitat change, climate change, invasive species, over-exploitation, and pollution (phosphorus and nitrogen). Finally, diver’s impact on biodiversity over the last century (low, moderate, high and very high) are shown in specific colors and diver’s current trends designated by arrows (declining, flat, rising, and vertical for rising rapidly) are displayed.

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The key finding is that all ecosystems are currently under pressure from human impact with a rapidly raising threats from climate change and pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus).

The MEA Board’s statement summarizes the key findings from these reports. Here are some of the points from their statement:

  • Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy, and secure life.
  • Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in recent decades to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, fiber, and energy.
  • These changes have helped to improve the lives of billions, but at the same time they weakened nature’s ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters, and the provision of medicines.
  • Among the outstanding problems identified by this assessment are the dire state of many of the world’s fish stocks; the intense vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply; and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution.
  • Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.
  • The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease.
  • The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.

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Another useful way to classify and summarize the planetary crisis we confront is offered by Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) (Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity, 2009). They have defined and studied nine planetary boundaries (thresholds for safety of human societies) as follows:

  • climate change
  • stratospheric ozone
  • land use change
  • freshwater use
  • biological diversity
  • ocean acidity
  • nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
  • aerosol loading
  • chemical pollution.

Based on current scientific knowledge, SRC scientists have argued that if these thresholds are crossed planetary crises may ensue that endanger human life on Earth.  They also suggest that in three cases–climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle — these thresholds may have already been reached.

The final example of adverse anthropogenic impact on ecosystems is from Haydn Washington (2013) focusing on his discussion of energy flow and food chain. Ultimately, all species live off energy that arrives on Earth via sunshine. Through photosynthesis green plants (primary producers) convert solar energy into sugars. They consume about half of it for their own livelihood. What remains is called Net Primary Productivity (NPP).  The NPP is the basis for all animal life. Herbivores eat plants to gain energy for their livelihood (primary consumers). Some carnivores live off herbivores (secondary consumers).  Some omnivores eat secondary consumers (tertiary consumers).  The final link in the food chain is the decomposers that live off the organic matter of plants, herbivores and carnivores.  In each step in the food chain about 90% of the energy is lost.

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Washington citing Boyden (2004) writes:

The human species is now using about 12,000 times more as much energy per day as was the case when farming started; 90 per cent of this is a result of industrialization, 10 per cent to our huge growth in numbers…. The NPP of the land amounts to about 132 billion tonnes dry weight of organic matter in 1986 (Vitousek et al, 1986). Of these the then human population of 5.7 billion humans consumed directly just over 1 billion tonnes as food. In addition humans co-opted 43 billion tonnes (32 per cent) of total NPP in the form of wasted food, forest products, crop and forestry residues, pastures and so on.  Vitiusek et al. (1986) conclude:

‘We estimate that organic material equivalent to about 40% of the present net primary product in terrestrial ecosystems is being co-opted by human beings each year.  People use this material directly or indirectly, it flows to different consumers and decomposers than it otherwise would, or it is lost because of human-caused changes in land use.  People and the associated organisms use this organic material largely, but not entirely, at human direction, and the vast majority of other species must subsist on the remainder.  An equivalent concentration of resources into one species and its satellites has probably not occurred since land plants first diversified.’

They also note that ‘humans also affect much of the other 60% of terrestrial NPP, often heavily’, thus our impact is not just limited to the 40 per cent of NPP we co-opt directly. The estimates in this classic 1986 study are conservative, and we are now 25 years further down the path of expanding population and impacts. However, other scholars use different methodologies and come up with different figures…. Whichever figure one uses, this remains a huge percentage of the net primary productivity of the planet that humans are appropriating.  Of course this appropriation is also increasing as population, and possibly more importantly per capita consumption, continues to increase. The high and increasing appropriation of NPP by humanity is clearly a fundamental stress on ecosystem health. NPP is the foundation of all ecosystems, so if we pull out too many blocks from the foundation to put on the ‘human pile’ eventually other structures (natural ecosystems) collapse.  And indeed they are…” (Washington 2013, p. 12-13).

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The origin of alienation from nature

As I noted earlier, Crutzen and Stoermer have identified the Anthropocene with the Industrial Revolution that originated in England in the latter part of the eighteenth century.  This view attributes the Anthropocene to the use of technologies that can have game-changing effects on geology and ecology of the planet. Some ecological socialists also have argued that the capitalist system is the cause of the Anthropocene.  As Kovel (2007) puts it, in today’s world “capitalism is the enemy of nature”[1] and as Foster and his co-authors argue “capitalism is at war with the earth.” Their view attributes the origin of the Anthropocene to the emergence and dominance of the capitalist mode of production.

While it is true that the environmental degradation has been a key feature of capitalist industrialization and has accelerated sharply during the past 60 years, it is by no means limited to the modern era. Ruddiman et al. (2003) have proposed “an early anthropocene” hypothesis that suggests emission of methane gas by early human activities such as forest clearance and rice agriculture. Although this hypothesis is controversial (see, for example here), we know from world environmental history important cases of collapse of pre-capitalist societies and civilizations because of “the great divorce of culture and nature” instead of their “primal harmony” (Hughes 2001).  Similarly, the very idea of progress from antiquity to the Enlightenment and beyond has proved fraught with difficulties (for a history of the idea of progress see Nisbet 1994, for a recent critique of it see Wright 2004).  These concerns are directly related to our concern with the Anthropocene.

Instead of focusing on when certain adverse anthropogenic events originated (e.g. climate change), I propose to ask why human onslaught on nature has contemplated, executed and tolerated throughout the history of “civilization.”  To put it differently, I would argue that the Anthropocene presupposes anthropocentrism — the human-centered worldview — that originated from our alienation from nature which dates back, not to the Industrial Revolution but to the Agricultural Revolution. Allow me to explain.

The Agricultural Revolution that originated in several places about 10,000 years ago and unfolded over 5,000 years was based on domestication of animals and plants.  Domestication can be defined as “the evolutionary process whereby humans modify, either intentionally or unintentionally, the genetic makeup of a population of plants or animals to the extent that individuals within the population lose their ability to survive and produce offspring in the wild (Blumler and Byrne 1991, p.24, cited in Barker 2006, p. 2).” In parallel, humans have marginalized or eradicated wild species they felt are in competition with them or deemed undesirable or otherwise better captured or dead.

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Thus, it is essential to examine historically the Agricultural Revolution for the origins of human alienation from nature — that is, the process by which humans began to view the rest of nature as separate from them and attempted to control, dominate, and exploit it.

A leading archaeologist who has written an important book on why foragers became farmers provides a concise bird-eye view of the process of alienation from nature and the subsequent rise of class societies even though he is not aiming to address these questions:

Humans have occupied our planet for several million years, but for almost all of that period they have lived as foragers, by various combinations of gathering, collecting, scavenging , fishing and hunting. The first clear evidence for activities that can be recognized as farming is commonly identified by scholars as at about 12,000 years ago, at about the time as global temperatures began to rise at the end of the Pleistocene (the ‘Ice Ages’) and the transition to the modern climatic era, the Holocene. Subsequently, a variety of agricultural systems based on cultivated plants and, in many areas, domesticated animals, has replaced hunting and gathering in almost every corner of the globe.  Today, a relatively restricted range of crops and livestock, first domesticated several thousand years ago in different parts of the world, feeds almost all of the world’s population. A dozen crops make up over 80 per cent of the world’s annual tonnage of all crops: banana, barley, maize, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, sweet potato, and wheat (Diamond, 1997: 132). Only five large (that is, over 100 pounds) domestic animals are globally important: cow, sheep, goat, pig, and the horse.

The development of agriculture brought profound changes in the relationship between people and the natural world. Archaeologists have usually theorized that with the invention of farming, people were able to settle down and increase the amount and reliability of their food supply, thus allowing the same land to support more people than by hunting and gathering, allowing our species to multiply throughout the world.  The ability to produce food and other products from domesticated plants and animals surplus to immediate subsistence requirements also opened up new pathways to economic and social complexity: farming could mean new resources for barter, payment of tax or tribute, for sale in a market; it could mean food for non-food producers such as specialist craft-workers, priests, warriors, lords, and kings. Thus farming was the precondition for the development of the first great urban civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, the Americas, and Africa, and has been for all later states up to the present day. (Barker, 2006, pp. 1-2).

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The Anthropocentric detour

Central to the Agricultural Revolution was the change from an ecocentric worldview to an anthropocentric one.  Ecocentrism was the worldview of foragers who lived in small but resilient communities for millions of year before the “dawn of civilization.” Even Homo sapiens sapiens (anatomically modern humans) who appeared only some 200,000 years ago, lived as foragers for 95% of our existence (190,000 years) in small, stable and resilient communities before the dawn of agriculture.

Anthropocentrism (human-centered worldview), also known as homocentrism, human supremacism, and speciesism is the view that holds human beings as the central or most significant species on Earth in the sense that they are considered to have a moral standing above other beings.  It is a key concept in environmental philosophy and ethics but as I will argue it is also a key concept in understanding the present-day combined crisis of society and nature.

To get a sense of what the foragers worldview was like, it is instructive to examine the worldview of forager societies still surviving:

…[M]ost foragers are characterized by ‘animistic’ or (less commonly) ‘totemic’ belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.  Their environment is a treasure house of ‘personage’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as ‘persons’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry (Descola, 1996). Foragers with animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of our own Linnaean taxonomies (Howell, 1996).  The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals to stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities.  Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.

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The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance (Carmichael et al., 1994). It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other.  In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences… As the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation. Finding food is taken for granted, reinforced by myths telling the hunter to be the animal before presuming to kill and eat it.  ‘They are being heard by sentient conscious universe — a gallery of intelligent beings who, if offended by injudicious words (ridicule, bragging, undue familiarity, profanity, etc.) can take reprisal, usually by a steadfast refusal to be taken as food or by inflicting disease or doing other violence’ (C.L. Martin, 1993, p. 14).”  (Barker, 2006, p. 59).

By contrast, the farmers worldview is defined by their mode of existence. They see themselves:

at the center of a series of circles of decreasing familiarity: ‘from home, farm or village to the wild periphery where danger threatens’ (Tapper, 1994: 54).  The farmed land is clearly separated from the wilderness beyond, commonly by physical boundaries. The agricultural economy is built around relations with people.  Cooperation and continued necessity of cooperative labour link and bind people, both to those involved in the current cycle of production but also to those who produced the previous cycle, thus creating a cyclical renewal of the relations of production that theoretically never ends (Meillassoux, 1972).  In his comparison of Mullu Kurumba farmers and their Nayaka forager neighbours in southern India, Bird-David (1990) contrasted how the Nayaka viewed the forest unconditionally as a parent, whereas the Mullu Kurumba viewed their land as an ancestor that gave its wealth reciprocally in return for favours rendered.” (Barker, 2006: 59-60).

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Domestication of the mind

In his discussion of why foragers became farmers, Barker (2006, pp. 38-39) focuses on what he calls “domestication of the mind.”  The question for archaeology today is not whether the shift from ecocentrism to anthropocentrism occurred or when and where it first occurred. The key debate is whether it occurred among some foragers before they took up farming (cause) or after they took up farming (effect).

The reason the ideological change has come to the center of research is in part based on a century of progress in understanding of where, when and how farming began across the world. Barker’s summary which he admits is perhaps caricatured to be concise is useful to our discussion: The evolving overall consensus in archeology since the nineteenth century follows:

(1) the advantages of farming were obvious, it just needed time for people to see them as the next rung on their Ladder of Progress [the Victorian era view]; (2) the advantages [of farming] were obvious, it just needed Holocene environmental change to concentrate foragers’ minds; (3) the disadvantages [of farming] were obvious, foragers only became farmers when the choice was either to become farmers or to starve; (4) foragers were well on the road to becoming farmers in the late Pleistocene, so it just needed the stimulus of Holocene environmental change; (5) foragers found they were becoming farmers despite themselves because of how they reacted to Holocene environmental change, with no going back; (6) foragers could see there were few advantages in farming, and successfully resisted for a long time; (7) foragers (or rather a few ambitious individual foragers) could see there were advantages in having more food, or strange exotic foods, for maintaining and enhancing status; (8) foragers’ culture had already moved from being part of the wild to controlling the wild, so it was just ‘one small symbolic step’ to fencing some of it off. (Barker, 2006, pp. 39-40).

We need not explore any of these evolving working hypotheses in archeology. However, it is crucial for our concern to take away this central finding: Agriculture was neither a step in the supposed Ladder of Progress for humanity — as was generally believed in the nineteenth century — nor was it a desired mode of existence.  A complex set of circumstances led to groups of foragers to become farmers. Over time, famers and the “civilization” that arose on the basis of agriculture expanded their domain against the wild, including the foragers who were part of this wilderness.  Also, anthropocentrism, whether cause or effect or some dialectical combination of the two in transition to farming, has increasingly dominated human culture.  This transition from the forager societies to class society and its anthropocentric ideology is the root cause of the ecological crisis and, as I will argue, the root cause of the crisis of society.

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Anthropocentrism  has been central to both religious and secular worldviews.  Ancient Greek gods were imagined as human-like.  In Abrahamic religions humans are God’s agents on Earth. In the Old Testament for example, God creates Adam and Eve in his own image and creates other species for them.[2]

A similar anthropocentric worldview dominated Western philosophy from Aristotle and the Stoics to Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas to Descartes and Kant (Steiner, 2005).

According to Sessions (1995) the leading philosophical spokespersons for the Scientific Revolution — Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz — were all strongly influenced by Christian anthropocentrism.  Bacon held that modern science would allow humans to regain command over Nature that had been lost with Adam’s Fall in the Garden. Descartes argued that the new science would make humans the “masters and possessors of Nature” and that only humans had souls (minds) while all other creatures were machines.  Animals had no sentience (mental life) and so, among other things, could feel no pain.

The same Christian anthropocentrism carried over to Renaissance anthropocentric humanism which preceded the Scientific Revolution and was continued by the Enlightenment philosophers “and on into the twentieth century with Karl Marx and John Dewey, and the humanistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre….Renaissance humanism portrayed humans as the central fact in the universe, while, in addition, supporting the exalted view that humans had unlimited powers, potential, and freedom..” (Sessions, 1995, p. 161).

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Overcoming the crisis through reviving ecocentrism

Let us reconsider the current crisis of society and nature in light of the very long history of our species.  Our forager ancestors proved resilient for 2.5 million years while living in relative harmony amongst themselves and with their natural environment.[3] Even anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) who appeared about 200,000 years ago formed resilient ecocentric communities up to the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago and despite all odds some have survived to this day.  The Anthropocene began with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution.  The rise of a surplus economy combined with an anthropocentric world view served as the basis for class societies. Alienation from nature provided the material basis for social alienation and has provided the material basis for manifold forms of exploitation and oppression of humans by other humans as well as the struggle to overcome all these.  Crises of nature and society have become a defining feature of human “civilization”.

Of course, it is important to analyze historical changes in the forms of alienation from nature and society and specific forms of exploitation and oppression as well as resistance to them as modes of production change.  In particular, it is important to understand and underscore how the capitalist mode of production has transformed and deepened the anthropocentric culture through the dynamics of capital accumulation, as it has turned almost everything into commodities through self-expansion of value. Intrinsic value of everything is turned into exchange value.  Also, it is important to understand how the historical form of capital accumulation, centered on fossil fuel-driven industrialization, has created the conditions for irrepressible damage to the fabric of life on Earth and perhaps possible demise of our species.  But none of these could have come to be without the rise of class society based on anthropocentrism that defines civilization.

If the above argument is true in its broad outline then it follows that no social transformation is radical (getting to the root of the crisis) unless it overcomes the 10,000 year old anthropocentric culture.  This challenges both the ecological and socialist movements that aim to address the crisis of nature and crisis of society respectively.  In other words, in today’s globalized capitalist world to be a consistent naturalist requires challenging the capitalist system as the enforcer of the anthropocentric culture and to be a consistent socialist one has to be a naturalist because the root cause of the crisis of the capitalist system, like all other class societies before it is the anthropocentric culture.  To resolve the planetary crisis and the social crisis, it is necessary to revive the intrinsic value of everything, including each human being, by ridding our society and culture of values assigned to them by the market and this cannot be done unless we return to ecocentrism and transcend the capitalist system.

There is no space to discuss the entire range of the specific implications of this radical shift in paradigm.  I will note just one such implication: the seemingly unending human population debate.  As it is well-known, the debate from the nineteenth century to the present has centered on whether there is a human over-population problem due to limits to growth of production of food and other necessities or if technological change in production of food and other necessities can provide enough for the multitudes if capitalist distribution is replaced by a socialist one.  Both sides in the debate approach the problem from an anthropocentric perspective in the sense that there is no concern whatsoever for the effects of the size and rate of growth of human population on the well-being of other species in the local, regional and planetary ecosystems.  From an ecocentric perspective, there can be no doubt that there are billions too many people as human population growth has contributed to the crisis of local, regional and planetary ecosystems causing the sixth great species extinction, a defining characteristic of the Anthropocene (for a recent detailed account see Washington 2013).

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Darwin’s legacy

If we face a crisis of civilization, not separate socioeconomic and ecological crises, then  overcoming it could benefit from a number of theoretical, experiential and spiritual streams too numerous to note here. However, two of them require our attention in the context of this critical outline: key contributions of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx.  Darwin revolutionized our thinking about ourselves and our relation with the rest of the ecosphere and with natural history.  Marx, together with Frederick Engels, revolutionized our conception of human history since the dawn of agriculture and proposed a critique of the capitalist society that aims to transcend class society and its vestiges in the direction of a freely Associated Producers society.

The Darwinian evolutionary theory overturned the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian worldview of Western civilization.  Darwin’s radical change in the concept of our place in the world proved too much even for his close followers. Thus, St. George Jackson Mirvat, an outstanding biologist who was a firm supporter of evolution by natural selection, but also a Catholic, became a leader of a dissident group of evolutionists who argued that only the human physic might have evolved through natural selection but not her rational and spiritual soul. At some point, God must have intervened to imbue such qualities making us something more than merely evolved apes.

Thomas Henry Huxley, another imminent biologist and chief defender of evolution by natural selection who came to be know as “Darwin’s bulldog,” also went along with the anthropocentric resistance to Darwin’s theory:

On all sides I shall hear the cry– ‘We are men and women, not mere better sort of apes, a little longer in the leg, more compact in the foot, and bigger in the brain than brutal Chimpanzees and Gorillas. The power of knowledge — the conscience of good and evil — the pitiful tenderness of human affections, raise us out of all real fellowship with the brutes, however closely they may seem to approximate us.’” (Huxley, Man’s Place in Nature, 1863: 129, cited in Rachels, 1990: 82).

Siding with the anthropocentrism of his opponents, Huxley asked: “Could not a sensible child confute, by obvious arguments, the shallow rhetoricians who would force this conclusion upon us?”  (ibid.)

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Darwin himself was more resolute.  In his response to Mirvat, he argued that human rationality (or intelligence, or use of language, or any other human mental power) “is an ordinary characteristic…” (Rachels, 1990: 57).  The philosopher James Rachels adds:

…Darwin simply denied the whole idea that there is something special about man’s intellectual capacities.  ‘There is no fundamental difference,’ he said, ‘between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.’  Thus, he reasoned that if the intellectual capacities of other animals are produced by natural selection, and their capacities are not different in kind from man’s, there is no reason to doubt that man’s capacities are also the result of natural selection.

In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives.  We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear.  They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud.  They know wonder and curiosity.  In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (ibid.)

Of course, Darwin did not deny that human mental capacities are much more impressive than other animals. He acknowledged that humans far outdistance all other animals in linguistic ability, thought, and reason.  He only insisted that the differences, impressive as they are, are matters of degree, not of kind. At the same time, despite the prevalent practice of comparing other species’ capabilities to humans, the Darwinian evolutionary theory makes it clear that every species has capabilities adequate to the ecosystem niche it inhabits. It is anthropocentric and anti-Darwinian to expect other species to excel in capacities acquired by one species, namely the Homo sapiens sapiens. In Darwinian theory there are simpler and more complex species. There are no superior or inferior species.  In fact, being a more complex species does not make one superior. As the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson points out, from the perspective of life on Earth humans are unimportant whereas insects are crucial (Wilson, 2006: 26-36).

Thus, the Darwinian evolutionary theory provides a materialist scientific basis for an ecocentrism similar to that of the foragers’s cosmology of the oneness of existence.  Life on Earth emerged out of inorganic matter. More complex organisms evolved out of primal single cells.  There followed the evolutionary unfolding of untold number of species that make up the Tree of Life.  The wisdom and beauty of nature lies not in its purposefulness but in its untold number of trials and errors that have created so many wonders, so many forms of life.

So, the Darwinian heritage is an intellectual and spiritual pillar for the ecological movement of today and a guiding light for humanity to emerge out of its 10,000 year old crisis of society and nature and it provides an ethical basis for a naturalist social formation.

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Responding to the accumulated scientific knowledge about non-human animals, there is a growing community of scientists, philosophers, and others who have argued against particular aspects or the entire anthropocentric worldview.  I note some examples from the bioethics and philosophy literature.

Rachels (1990) who I noted earlier uses Darwin’s theory to argue for moral consideration for all animals.  He recalls that before Darwin the doctrine of “dignity of man” (or his superiority over the rest of nature) was defended either by the claim that “man is made in the image of God” or by the notion that “man is a uniquely rational being.”  Rachels painstakingly debunks both of these arguments in light of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. To replace the “dignity of man” doctrine, Rachels proposes the concept of “moral individualism.”

“How an individual should be treated depends on his or her own particular characteristics, rather than on whether he or she is a member of some preferred group — even the ‘group’ of human beings…This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased.” (Rachels 1990:5)

By “devaluation” of human life, Rachels means the process of dethroning human beings as the apex of creation. It should be understood in the sense of leveling of hierarchical value systems as in the case of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa.  It was not so much “devaluing” the lives of white South Africans as it was for equality of all regardless of their race.

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Among other contemporary philosophical contributions informed by Darwin’s teachings and advances in biology I should note Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) that was a milestone in the animal rights literature. Singer takes a utilitarian approach derived from Bentham and Mill to argue for certain rights for sentient beings which he identifies with the capacity to experience pain or pleasure. Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights (1983) adopts a Kantian deontological approach to make a case for animal rights.  However, as Gary L. Francione (Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, 2008) shows neither Singer nor Regean have overcome the anthropocentric worldview in traditional Western philosophy in relation to the moral status of animals.  He argues that the fundamental human rights are based on freedom for individuals that denies their commodification.  Francione then maintains that commodification of non-human animals denies their freedom and to rid society of institutionalized animal exploitation we must abolish commodification of animals.

A recent movement that is pertinent to this discussion is Deep Ecology that has been identified with the work of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.  Naess’s philosophy builds on Spinoza’s that held that God and Nature are one and the same thing. On this basis, Naess adopts an ecocentric approach that he calls Ecosophy close to the animistic worldview of foragers.  He argues that every living being, human or not, has an equal right to live and blossom (1989, p. 164-65), a right that is not conditional on how humans perceive it. According to Naess, each person has her own ecosophy (philosophy of nature) that can become ecocentric based on experience and contemplation. To suggest just one example of such an ethical approach to nature he and Sessions proposed an Eight Point Platform for the Deep Ecology movement that seeks to address the planetary crisis:

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  • The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  • The flourishing of human life and culture is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.
  • Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  • Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  • The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasing standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.
  • Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Naess and Sessions invited others to draft their own platform or adopt theirs with revisions as they like. Their point is that there can be and there are many ecocentric views of the world and all can contribute to healing of the10,000 old rift with nature.

I would place Deep Ecology’s teachings in the context of what we can learn about our place in the world from Big History, a recent field in history (Christian 2004, Brown 2007, Spier 2010; for more see website). Big History aims to place human history in the context of the history of the universe.  One advantage gained in David Christian’s view is a better understanding of increasing complexity from the Big Bang to the present human society.

Thus, the ecocentric and universe-centric ethics serve as the ideological foundation for overcoming the crisis we face today.

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Marx’s legacy

While the adoption of the anthropocentric worldview by some groups of foragers was necessary for the Agricultural Revolution, the rise of the class society solidified its hold and institutionalized it.  Given the existing global capitalist economy and society, the transcendence to an ecocentric naturalist social formation will require a world-historic anti-capitalist, anti-class transformation.  A world-historic cultural revolution requires a world-historic revolution in the existing capitalist and class socioeconomic structures.

Such a social revolution cannot be accomplished without critical appropriation of all thorough-going (radical) criticisms of the capitalist and class systems, prominent among them the contribution of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Historical materialism is the key contribution of Marx and Engels.  Marx’s labor theory of value and his theory of socialism are the direct result of the application of historical materialism to the capitalist epoch. As Marx wrote in his March 5, 1852 letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:

As to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them….What I did that was new was to demonstrate: 1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production, 2)  that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

The task assessing the legacy of Marx and Engels is beyond the scope of this critical outline. However, I should note that Marx’s heritage is more prone to ideological interpretation and contestation than Darwin’s. Social theories deal with more complex reality than biological theories as humans are both biological and social beings.  Perhaps as a result, social theories are often much less amenable to precise theoretical and therefore scientific articulation. And, unlike biological theories, social theories do not usually lend themselves to controlled experiments and verification. Therefore, what constitutes Marx’s legacy is still unresolved. There has been and continues to be dispute about historical materialism, labor theory of value, theory of the proletariat and theory of socialism, to cite some of the most important.

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From the ecocentric perspective, historical materialism leaves outside of its purview the crucially important “prehistory” of our species — the entire 2.5 million years or the 190,000 years of the physically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) — to focus on the very brief period of written history of class societies.  Thus, historical materialism magnifies the anthropocentric detour of human society at the expense of learning the lessons of our really long history when our species lived in relative harmony amongst ourselves and with the rest of nature.  Of course, Marx’s and Engels’s reason for developing their historical methodology was, as the above quote from Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer shows, to discover how class societies, in particular the capitalist society, evolve, and whether and how the “laws of motion” of the capitalist society, may lead to a classless socialist society.

Any serious student of Marx and Engels would admit that their theory has not always withstood the test of historical experience.  For example, Marx’s theory of the proletariat and socialism (points 2 and 3 in Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer quoted above) have not fared well (Marx and Engels realized this in their own time and began to a re-evaluation). A review and if necessary revision of historical materialism in light of experience can and should be coupled with an attempt to explicitly accommodate an ecocentric perspective as the precondition for emancipation of humanity. The challenge is to merge knowledge gained from transhistorical studies of our species (those that look for common trends in history and “prehistory”) and historical studies (those that focus on class societies, such as Marx’s and Engels’s own work).

This is all the more important as Marx and Engels, like other great thinkers of their time, remained anthropocentric in their worldview, not surprising given that their philosophical outlook and social theory are in the tradition that dates back to the Renaissance’s anthropocentric humanism continued by the Enlightenment philosophers. As the Frankfurt School theorist Erich Fromm writes in Marx’s Concept of Man (1961): “Marx’s philosophy was, in secular, nontheistic language, a new and radical step forward in the tradition of prophetic Messianism; it was aimed at the full realization of individualism, the very aim which has guided Western thinking from the Renaissance and the Reformation far into the nineteenth century.” The Trotskyist philosopher George Novack considers Marx’s theory “revolutionary socialist humanism.” (Novack 1973: chapter 7). Gajo Petrović (1988) argues that Marx’s concept of humans includes a human essence which can be fully realized only in socialist society. Marx’s and Engels’s deliberately scant discussion of the future socialist society include what amounts to an anthropocentric vision of human control of nature as a key defining feature.

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Engels’s The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), one of the most widely read and influential contributions that expounds historical materialism, relied heavily on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877). Engels’s innovation was to re-interpret Morgan’s data to show how the institutions of class society arose from what Morgan described as “communism in living,” that is the “gift economy”, the give-and-take and pooling of effort and resources typical of the forager bands (Morgan, 1881: 63-78). This led Marx and Engels to characterize the original state of society as “primitive communism.”   However, neither Engels nor Marx questioned the prevailing anthropocentrism of the Victorian archeology that Morgan shared nor its “Ladder of Progress” view of history which Hodder Westropp, the leading archeologist of that period, defines as follows:

It appears as if there were but one history for every separate people, one uniform process of development for every race, each passing through successive phases, before attaining its highest social development; for every race must pass through the necessary transitional stages before it can arrive at a higher development.  These successive phases are rude and barbarous, the hunting, the pastoral, and the agricultural, corresponding with, and analogous to, the stages of infancy, childhood, youth, manhood in the individual man.  This sequence is invariable in man, as an individual and collectively. (Westropp 1872-:2-3, cited in Barker, 2006:5).

Barker adds: “The same thesis of a universal cultural progression from primitive hunting to herding to farming to civilization was widely argued by contemporary Victorian prehistorians (e.g. Figuier, 1876; Morgan, 1881; Nilsson, 1868).”  (ibid.)

Of course, Marx and Engels are historical thinkers and revolutionaries. Their contributions should be judged only in the context of their time.  To follow in their footsteps requires the willingness and ability to go beyond their reach given what we have learned in the past 130 years.  Unfortunately, a similar anthropocentrism permeates the socialist movement since Marx, including most currents that have come to consider themselves ecological socialist.

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Concluding remarks

In this second part of my essay, I have argued that to address the root causes of the 21st century crisis of society and nature we must replace the 10,000 year old anthropocentrism of class societies and its present day enforcer global capitalism with ecocentric naturalist social formations.  This is because anthropocentrism that first took hold as cause or consequence of the emergence of farming gradually replaced the ecocentrism of the forager societies that provide a basis for their resilience and relative harmony among people and with the rest of nature for 2.5 million years.  The rise of class societies on the basis of farming solidified and institutionalized anthropocentrism that was the cause of alienation of humans from nature.  Thus instead of living as part of and in harmony with nature, class societies have been waging war against it.  Alienation from nature provided the basis for social alienation.

In this essay I have also argued that the two historically dominant paradigms, reforming the capitalist system as construed by economics or transcending it in the direction of a socialist society as in Marx cannot address the roots of the crisis. Proposed reforms would not work because they are based on economic doctrines that are conceived to justify and maintain the capitalist economy and society. The Marxian alternative would not even go far enough to meet its own goal of human emancipation because it does not address the root cause of alienation from nature that lay in the Agricultural Revolution, not the capitalist Industrial Revolution. The economic doctrine preaches Homo economicus as the ideal image of bourgeois men and women and Marx’s theory expounds an anthropocentric socialist humanism.  The present day crisis requires still a deeper shift of paradigm from bourgeois and socialist anthropocentrism to an ecocentrist paradigm as outlined above.

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It is important to note that this essay provides only an outline of my argument and some evidence for it. I have painted a picture with broad strokes.  For example, economic theory is richer than the classical, neoclassical and Keynesian economics outlined in Part 1 and I do have some opinion on other schools of economic thought but none that matter for the purpose at hand here.  Similarly, socialism includes other theories and theorists that I have not even mentioned much less examined, and my treatment of Marx and Engels is limited to brief references to issues of relevance to the goals of this outline.

It is also my belief that if humanity ever manages to overcome the current crisis, it would be through multifaceted currents in theory and practice and by recapturing ancient and contemporary wisdom.  I had to leave out many important contributions in every one of these areas to focus attention on my central message.

This outline raises important questions for anyone who shares a similar perspective in confronting the planetary and socioeconomic crisis of our time.  Who are the social agencies for the ecological socialist transformation of the type I discussed above? What strategy and tactics are effective? What are the means that are suggested by the results we seek? How is such an ecological socialist movement related to other social and political movements, especially other ecological socialist theories?  I hope to return to some of these questions in due time. Meanwhile, I look forward to critical views of my readers.

Special note:

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother Nezhat Nikrad (April 24, 1927 – August 21, 2013) who gave me life and unconditional love and to Nuppy (1994 – May 20, 2008) who taught me that cats are people too and for his deep friendship.

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Hughes, J. Donald. An Environmental History of the World.  London: Routledge, 2001.

Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed Books Ltd., 2007.

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End notes:

[1] To his credit, in The Enemy of Nature Kovel also reaches back to the origin of woman oppression to find the roots of alienation. This takes us back to the “prehistory,” an idea that I explore here in some detail.  But Kovel’s remark is mostly an aside and the thrust of his argument identifies the Anthropocene with the capitalist epoch.

[2] “And God said, let us make man in our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping that creepeth upon the earth.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

There is some dispute in interpretation of the word “dominion” among Christians. Catholics and other non-Protestant Christians argue the proper translation would be “steward” (see, for example here). But whether we understand the Genesis to give humans dominion over nature or give them stewardship, there is no doubt that they are superior to other creatures. Thus, the passage in Genesis is another case of anthropocentrism.

[3] Foragers committed infanticide to maintain their band size and were responsible for some megafauna extinction just as the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed cat went extinct due to hunting.

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[Thank you Kamran for this important piece]

The writer is the editor of Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. He was an activist in the socialist movement in Iran and America. He was also an active participant in the Iranian revolution of 1979.  He has taught for three decades and conducted research on policy (health, welfare, graduate education) at American universities. He has published in professional and socialist journals and has served on editorial boards, including the Review of Radical Political Economics.  He can be contacted at editor.opitw@gmail.com.

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philosophersforchange.org. Thanks for your support.

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