I stumbled across this Marxist critique of Green Environmentalism. It is written by a Masters candidate at University of Chicago (a very beautiful campus). I am working on a response. Here is what I have so far. Pardon the brevity with which I cover each point. Wolfe covers a lot of ground in a short essay. I am unable to give strong responses to each argument.
Wolfe’s Marxist critiques of the present Green movements (in their various forms) are surprisingly uncharitable. He assumes that the individuals of these movements share the same self-righteousness that is exemplified by the most immature people in the movement. These are the people parodied in Hollywood and the Onion. They are straw-men, easy to knock down.
For the sake of correcting its course the Green movement should be open to critique. Wolfe has done his research. He knows what he is talking about. He brings out a few good points, which I will repeat below, but in order to find these points in his essay one must sift through a number of his personal pet peeves which would be better reserved for the barstool. His essay also ends with an unsupported utopian vision of the future (from what I understand of Wolfe’s position, he is not offended by the identification with words such as “utopian”) that, with a few modifications, would not be too different than permaculture’s vision.
Wolfe’s essay breaks the Green movement into 5 groups:
- Local and Organic
- Deep Ecology and Permaculture
- Lifestyles Politics
- Radical Environmentalism
LOCAL AND ORGANIC
Local and organic food is inherently elitist. It is often more expensive than industrialized and processed food for a variety of reasons. Wolfe claims that it the local food movement is taking Capitalism a step backwards to its early form. Local and organic food are often endorsed by liberals and urbanites with a romanticized notion of the farmer, an untrustworthy, self-intereted capitalist. Wolfe vilifies the farmer as if he or she, once given power, will abuse it similar to the bourgeoisie. Finally, Wolfe argues, the increase of efficiency due to industrialized farming methods is necessary in order to feed the current and future world population. Otherwise 95% of the world will go hungry.
The claim that local and organic food is inherently elitist is not unfounded. In the last few decades local and organic food has only been available in expensive grocery stores in upper-middle class neighborhoods. In contrast with Wolfe, I blame capitalism for the unavailability of fresh food in poor neighborhoods. Corporations and governments sacrifice the health of the people for the profit margin, though I recognize that an important fact is missing from this conversation. Often, when given the chance, low-income populations prefer cheap, processed food over fresh whole foods. Wolfe does not bring up this point. I am sure that it is a complicated one, but my guess it that it is associated with upbringing (among other factors). We are comfortable eating the food that we have been acculturated to.
It should also be noted that in “One Straw Revolution” Masanobu Fukuoka says that he was able to deliver organic food to the market more efficiently than industrial food, therefore his food cost less than the industrial food. Wolfe does not consider this possibility.
When Wolfe argues that the local food movement remains fundamentally capitalistic, he is right. Only free/public food would not be capitalistic. Wolfe says it is a step backwards. He is referencing Marxist metaphysics, which I place little weight in. Hegel’s (and Marx’s) dialectics and the movement of Geist, in my opinion, still play a valuable role in philosophy. At the same time, both Post-Modern and Analytic philosophy offer strong arguments against Marxist and Hegelian metaphysics that make them nearly useless as a source of criticism. Whether the localvore movement is a movement backwards, or a dialectical movement forwards feels like an argument over whether or not angels carry swords.
Nonetheless, the local farmer is obviously romanticized by many as the benevolant person taking care of societies needs. The fact remains that he or she is seeking profit. Although I think Wolfe has gone too far in his critique of the modern Romanticism of the farmer, we should remember that the farmer can play the role of oppressor given the right circumstances.
Lastly, Wolfe argues that 95% of the world’s population would go hungery if localvore’s had their way because pre-modern farming techniques, as proven by history, cannot meet the demands of today, given the population boom that we have observed during the last two hundred years. I have little experience in this department, but I must say that I am surprised that Wolfe offers little support for this claim. It seems to me that there is good evidence on either side of the debate. Localvores like Joel Salatin make it clear that they have no interest in returning to pre-modern farming methods. Sustainable “Beyond Organic” farming takes into account modern science and engineering, while rejecting the “Input/Output” mindset of Modernism that results in the consumption of resources and the disposal of waste. Rather than supporting his criticism of localvores against people like Joel Salatin, Wolfe’s footnote argues that the capitalistic food industry chooses not to feed the world’s population even though it easily could. This does nothing to argue that the Joel Salatins of the world cannot feed the world. Wolfe presupposes that localvore farming practices are identical with those of a hundred years ago.
DEEP ECOLOGY AND PERMACULTURE
The deep ecology/permaculture movements accept the Romantic notion of Mother Nature as a peaceful, balanced whole. Nature’s beautiful harmony is threatened by human intervention. The goal, Wolfe articulates, of these movements, is to become “natural.” Part of becoming natural involves engineering human ways of being that are aligned with nature’s balance. At the same time, these movements believe that since humans have already caused an imbalance, we must do what we can to preserve nature through species preservation, etc…
Wolfe’s criticism of these movements is two part. First, he questions the legitimacy of the claim that nature, left to its own devices, is in balance, and that humans are the primary reason for nature’s imbalance. His second criticism centers around preservation. Wolfe argues that preservation is counter to nature, since nature is constantly evolving, and preservation seeks to keep nature as it is.
In the former criticism I must admit that I feel quite ambivalent. I agree with Wolfe’s point strongly, and yet I think humans are absolutely justified in presupposing a metaphysical “balance” behind nature. Unfortunately these points require more detail than is within the scope of this paper. I will summarize possible responses, but not argue them thoroughly. First, why I agree.
It is plausible to argue that climate change is caused by humans. We burn gasoline and release (comparatively) large amounts of carbon into the air, throwing nature out of balance. It is also plausible to imagine a world in which humans have nothing to do with it. We can assume that humans were in no way responsible for the last ice age, about ten thousand years ago. One may argue that an ice age is a part of nature’s fluctuating balance between hot years and cold years, but such a conception of balance is blind to the needs of humanity, or any other specific species. Permaculture (Permanent Culture) presupposes that nature’s balance will remain hospitable to humanity, but this is not necessarily true. All of us recognize that eventually the sun will burn out. This will be the end of nature, at least as we know it. When this happens “nature,” at least the Mother Nature of Earth, will necessarily be out of balance, in no part due to humans.
This argument is a stretch. I recognize that there is something about nature that deserves to be called “balanced.” I will argue why I think it is helpful to treat nature as if it is harmonious and in balance.
Nature’s balance fluctuates, but life continues and becomes increasingly complex. It is often not harmonious. Natural history is punctuated by earthquakes and floods, but the larger picture shows mother nature supplying just the right thing to fulfill ever niche.
There are plants that exist that would be wiped out if a specific species of a moth or a frog or something else became extinct, but we see only a small percentage of cases where this happens outside of human intervention (perhaps this unsupported claim is completely off base). It is easy to conclude that for the most part, nature is a balanced, harmonious whole, most often out of balance by humans.
Concerning preservation, Wolfe argues that the Romantic notion that assumes humans are responsible for the imbalance of nature and the extinction of species is the same notion that seeks preservation of the species, but the conception of preservation, he continues, is inherently counter to nature. Part of the metaphysical analogy of nature presupposes that it is a constantly fluctuating, evolving balance. Preservation seeks to interfere with nature’s progress by forcing the survival of species that would die otherwise. Preservation is an attempt to keep nature static.
Wolfe has a point. Preservation is counter to nature, but only at a shallow level. The deeper goal of preservation is to retain diversity in nature, so that it is less dependent upon individual species in order to fill certain niches. This creates a greater stability in nature (which is better for humanity, as well). If humans are responsible for mass extinction, as some believe we will be if drastic measures are not taken soon, nature will be able to recover by creating new species to fill niches, but the impact on humans may be fatal. Saying that preservation is counter to nature is like saying having a bone set back into place is counter to nature. If a bone is not set back into place the body heals, but when it recovers the body is in a form quite different than before. If the bone is set back into place, when the body recovers one may not even be able to recognize the fact that the bone had ever moved. Preservation is partially an attempt to keep nature healthy and diverse, but is also, most of the time, an attempt to respond to the damage we have caused.