Based on a recommendation from Kristine in comments, I’ve picked up John Bellamy Foster’s book, Marx’s Ecology. I’m not very far into the book yet, but so far it is excellent. Often Marxist thought is portrayed as being opposed to ecology as a result of its conception of practice. Nature, the story goes, is treated as a passive matter upon which humans simply impose their own image through their labor. Foster, by contrast, shows how Marx’s dialectical thought and materialism leads him to develop a rich ecological philosophy that necessarily requires the Marxist to take the ecological into account. Foster’s aim is not simply to vindicate Marx against these charges by “greening” him, but rather to make an intervention in contemporary ecological thought. Because, Foster argues, ecological thought has tended to pitch itself as a debate between anthropocentrism and naturalism (the former being the bad guy), it has been led to focus on nature as a value, ignoring the relations and practices that generate ecological problems. As a consequence, much ecological thought ends up have a deeply unclear picture as to just why our ecological problems have taken the form they’ve taken. Marxist thought, Foster contends, provides us with the tools for overcoming this. In addition to his reconstruction of an ecological thought within Marx, Foster also devotes a good deal of attention to the influence of materialists such as Epicurus, Lucretius, and Darwin upon Marx’s thought; showing how they are the key to his own thinking.

read on!

So far, I would say Foster’s book is well worth the read. My only complaint arises from an offhand remark Foster makes towards the beginning when outlining what he calls “the informal laws of ecology”. Foster writes that,

These are: (1) everything is connected to everything else, (2) everything must go somewhere, (3) nature knows best, and (4) nothing comes from nothing. (14)

I find nothing particularly objectional in “law” 2 and 4, but find 1 and 3 pretty problematic. If you’re going to adopt an anti-teleological concept of being, then you simply can’t assert number 3. As Zizek puts it in an unfortunate sexist way in a recent interview, “nature is a crazy bitch.” There is nothing particularly wise or knowledgable about nature. Or rather, as Nietzsche once put it, “nature is wasteful beyond measure”. We really need to abandon the idea of nature as a wise entity seeking harmony.

The thesis that “everything is related to everything” is, I think, another thesis that the ecologically minded need to abandon. The first problem is that the thesis that everything is related to everything is simply an empty statement. Where relation reigns ubiquitously in this way it becomes completely useless as a concept. When we practice ecological investigation what we’re interested in is how things are related. In other words, we abandon the concept that everything is related to everything and investigate the specificity of relations. In other words, we recognize that things are related in specific ways and that not everything is related to everything else. It seems to me that ecologists, having discovered the valuable insight that what we do to this thing here often has a profound impact on this thing over there, then proceed to hyperbole and argue that everything is related to everything. The first move is absolutely necessary and admirable, the latter is useless hyperbole.

The second point, I think, pertains to the importance of retaining a rich place for the concept of substance in our ecology. If the concept of substance must be retained here, then this is because we need the resources for thinking the manner in which objects or substances shift relations, break out of existing relations, and, as a consequence, produce new effects as a result of entering into new relations. In a comment, Joseph Goodson expresses the importance of this point nicely in relation to Latour’s remarks about Pasteur. As Goodson writes:

My take on the microbe thing is that here OOO demonstrates just why we need certain concepts in our ontology. Yes, the microbe — that is, the real entity, whatever it is — did produce new qualities or actualizations through its relationship with Pasteur, at least, some of them did. There were microbes that were never and could never be touched at all by Pasteur’s actions, either in the past, or simply out of reach, on the other side of the town, for instance — what of them? Here we need concepts like quality and local manifestation in order to really sort out what is going on here. We can’t really say that every single microbe was changed after Pasteur. Our epistemology changed, our épistémè changed, no doubt, such that afterward science and even the lay person would no longer think of that entity, or react to it, in much the same way (at least within certain cultural boundaries). All that is true, and all of that is ontological as well, inasmuch as knowledge is also an object and so on. But, the microbe itself, well, we have to be able to speak about the microbe itself and its hidden depths — but not in a descriptive and epistemological way — no! Of course not. But we have to be able to speak about it ontologically in order to preserve two things: that something entered into a relationship with Pasteur and science and that something remains in excess of Pasteur and that science. We refer to it as “microbe,” and we have some exaggerated qualities to help us distinguish it and deal with it, up to a point, but we have to say at the same time that, for instance, it may surprise us one day. Also, if we don’t want to absolutize our science on any given day, we have to say that something of the microbe eludes us, and something of the science of microbes eludes us, too. We need the concept of qualities and local manifestations because, yes, the individual microbes did change as a result of Pasteur’s science, but that is because there is something that could change and that had the power to change, that wasn’t exhausted simply by what it was at that given moment (prior to Pasteur). The ontological question is: where do you locate that “new being”? Is it really a new object, or a new quality, a new manifestation of that object? Empirically, it becomes difficult to say here, but the point is that one needs an ontology that can account for just this kind of thing: that is, some kind of theory of substance, substantial form or essence.

One of the central things we’re investigating when we investigate ecological relations is how new relations generate new local manifestations in substances. The substance was before in such and such a set of exo-relations. It now migrates over into such and such a set of exo-relations. Upon entering into this new field of exo-relations, new local manifestations take place. Thus, for example, cane toads in South America don’t pose much of a problem because they have a variety of different natural predators. When, by contrast, they’re transported to northern Australia, their population (local manifestation) explodes as a result of the absence of natural predators.

These sorts of observations only make sense if we retain a place for substance within our ontology that is, in an important sense, independent of its relations. Put in DeLanda’s language, we must conceive relations not as relations of interiority where all substances are parts within a whole and have no existence independent of this whole, but as relations of exteriority, where substances enter into relations, but can also depart from these relations. In other words, we need a concept of substance where substances are conceived as mobile, nomadic, autonomous, etc., thereby moving in and out of relations. This is precisely, I think, what ecologists are interested in in their scientific practice. In their practice (not their theory of their practice) it’s not the fact that things are related that is their prime insight, but rather the insight that when objects enter into new relations new local manifestations or phenomena emerge. They wish to track these local manifestations and evaluate whether they are lethal or productive. Yet this requires a rich concept of substance that’s aware of how qualities change when substances enter into new relations.

At any rate, for those looking to get their Marx, materialism, and ecology on, Foster is a great place to start.