Reiner Grundmann’s ‘The Ecological Challenge to Marxism’footnote1 is very much to be welcomed as a well-argued and challenging contribution to a debate that is clearly quite central for the Left today. I think it is especially valuable for its defence of the metaphor of ‘domination’ or ‘mastery’ over nature, as a feature positively to be preserved in an ecologically informed socialism. As I shall try to make clear, I think Grundmann is wrong about this, but, at the same time, his argument cuts through a lot of sloppy thinking in the ‘ecocentric’ camp, and makes some useful conceptual clarifications. Since Grundmann refers extensively to my own ‘Marxism and Natural Limits’,footnote2 I hope I will be forgiven for commenting on Grundmann’s contribution partly in the form of a reply to his criticisms.
I start by considering some respects in which Grundmann’s criticisms are evidence of misunderstandings of what I wrote. I take responsibility for this. The problem lies partly in the density and abstraction of my text and partly,
So, let us consider the areas of misunderstanding first. There are two of importance. The first of these is fairly readily disposed of. Grundmann criticizes my failure to characterize ecological problems adequately. He says, ‘he seems simply to assume that the depletion of resources and population growth are the most pressing problems (at least for Marxist theory)’ (p. 105). Grundmann begins by offering a more extensive list of ecological problems, but reduces the list, by subsuming some items under more general categories, to three. The new category, supposedly ignored in my account, is pollution. Now, in fact I do not ignore pollution. The impression that my emphasis is on resource depletion and population is given by the historical contextualization provided early in the article. The disputes within Classical Political Economy, and especially the polemic with Malthus, did focus on population and potential resource-scarcity as obstacles to ameliorative reform or limits to capitalist growth. My point was that Marx and Engels were disposed by the politics of these debates to view with suspicion all natural-limits arguments. My own proposed reconstruction of the concept of the labour-process emphasizes the requirement to theorize conditions of production independently of instruments of production, and, associatedly, to incorporate into economic analysis the naturally mediated unintended consequences of production. These consequences, as my examples make clear, include each of the types of ecological
I don’t know why Grundmann failed to notice these passages, as they are—as illustrations of the concept of ‘naturally mediated unintended consequences’—quite central to my argument. One possible reason is suggested by his concluding paragraph, where I am accused of being blinded to the problems of pollution by my reduction ‘of ecological problems to problems of natural limits’ (p. 120). It is because of this, according to Grundmann, that I actually ‘understate the real issues at stake between Marxists and environmentalists’. My response to this is, first, to note that pollution is no less a ‘natural limit’ than population or resource-scarcity. Ecosystems have a certain capacity to absorb physical and chemical wastes of various kinds, but this becomes an ecological problem only when limits to such absorptive powers are reached and ecosystems are adversely affected. So, in so far as the other two categories of ecological problem are properly thought of as problems of natural limits, so is pollution. The focus on ‘natural limits’ does not exclude recognition of pollution.
But it is also true that I do not use the word ‘pollution’ when I discuss naturally mediated unintended consequences. This may be another source of misunderstanding. My reason has to do with the kind of critique of Marx’s political economy that I was trying to develop. I was not attempting to define a concept of ecological problems in terms available to us in the closing years of the twentieth century in order to impose it retrospectively upon Marx so as to expose so many failures and lacunae in his position. One among many of the reasons why I did not wish to do this is suggested by Grundmann himself: our view of what is an ecological problem, and indeed of what counts as ‘pollution’, is subject to great historical and cultural variability. Grundmann’s quotation from Mary Douglas is very apt.