Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis
Apart from the highly technological link between capitalism and war,
there is no specialized feature that either unites or separates the
two. The discovery of metals (copper, bronze, iron, and the like) for
tools invariably led to their use as weapons. Capitalism as a history
of competition has so greatly increased the tempo of weapons
development that it is hard to believe that the Iron Age really began
about five thousand years ago and the Bronze Age, before it, lasted
only a few centuries—with monumental increases in the number of wars.
Today this association of wars with capitalistic forms of competition in only a century has produced what Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American president of the 1950s, appropriately called the “military-industrial complex.” War and capitalist technics have become completely cojoined. In fact it is quite appropriate to argue that war and technology are completely cojoined. The present conflict in Iraq has created a situation where every step in the sophistication of technics defines the age in which it occurs. Accordingly, we now have not only an Iron Age, which began a few thousand years in the past, but an Atomic Age, which began a few decades ago. Now strategic weapons like missiles can be fired from a human shoulder to countervail them.
Still other “futuristic” technological advances project the emergence of a Solar Age, and a Hydrogen Age—with the prospect of wars based on the use of these fuels. Capitalist industry has enveloped everything it finds useful to a degree that could not have been foreseen only a few generations ago—and with it the wars that no one today believes can be avoided as long as capitalist social relations continue to exist.
But the use of so widely diversified a resource base is incompatible with an economy that thrives on competition—that is, on growth for the sake of growth. Capitalism not only continually remakes itself (as Karl Marx emphasized in Capital) but remakes itself on an ever expanding basis. And it not only expands its resource base but further diversifies itself at an extraordinary tempo. What can only be imagined today is nearly certain to become a reality in the future, so malleable and creative that no restraints are likely to contain the worst of horrors.
In a society based on growth for the sake of growth, with no moral constraints to inhibit it, the entire world is likely to be totally remade—and for the worst. “First nature,” as Cicero called it (the natural world that evolved untouched by human hands), and “second nature” (the form of natural evolution guided by human thought and practice) are now in bitter opposition to each other for complex life-forms. Our “second nature” threatened to drastically simplify the “first nature” from which we as a species together with other complex life forms emerged. Yet what is patently clear is that neither one form of nature nor the other can exist without the other. It is one of idiocies of modern-day primitivists that we must completely return to the primordial past if we are to avoid species-suicide—as though this is even possible any longer without producing the very suicide such a return is like to produce. We can no more return to the caves that we can create Buckminster Fuller’s technocratic paradise without terminating in self-annihilation.
What is needful today is a transcendence or Aufhebung of both “first” and “second nature” to a melding and advance beyond the two into a “free nature,” in which the best elements of both give rise to an age that is guided by the spontaneity of “first nature” and the rationality of “second nature.” I refer to a thinking nature that can perceive the reality around it and choose in a thinking fashion the alternatives and improvisations that lie in the making of a knowledgeable evolution of life. It would reject the great urban conurbations that have been replacing soil, the wastes that pollute huge areas of the oceans, the lethal poisons that infest the human food supply, the climatic changes that are producing skin and lung cancer—and so forth.
Let me explain that this new nature will try to attune the new nature by combining the best and most rational features of first with second nature. It will combine the strictly human, such as machinery, with the strictly nonhuman, such as photosynthesis, into an eco-anthropo-oriented system of social ecology. It will be restorative as well as creative, reaching back to a time with humanity was still on the threshold of the biological and the anthropological. It will be a culture that is both consciously created and spontaneously formed. And it will be a culture that combines the free play of first nature with the reasoned design of second nature that responds to the needs of instinct and mind, of spirit with thought, of a recognition of necessity with a knowledge of the open universe of the unknown and the contradictory.
It would also weave the barely discernible knowledge of a very remote world into the rich insights of a world that is still coming into being. Like philosophy, it would be knowledge of what has been with what is coming into being. Humanity has always stood on this threshold, which makes our species so remarkable and creative. The word ecology is essentially a naturalistic stand-in for the word dialectic—a continuum in which what was, what is, and what will be has a throbbing presence amidst a true reality that is always a continuum. Just as the word social in social ecology is a stand-in for socialism, so the word ecology is a stand-in for the word dialectic and continual development.
Note: The books that best espouse the foregoing views are my The Ecology of Freedom, From Urbanization to Cities, and The Philosophy of Social Ecology. I know of no other books (apart from those written by Janet Biehl) that present aspects of social ecology as a practicable and perceptive body of ideas. The school that best presents the ideas I have advanced here is the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont. There are individual instructors who provide excellent courses on the subject in Europe and the United States but for whose commitment to Social Ecology I cannot vouchsafe. The words social ecology have been appropriated with no relation to the meaning I have given them. I know of many cases where “social ecology” has been used by German Social Democrats with whom I have no relation.