Contemporary Marxism has responded in a number of ways to the challenge posed by ecology. Broadly speaking, three currents of thought can be distinguished.footnote The first I shall call the ‘Marxist dissident’ response. Its proponents have abandoned central elements of Marx’s theory, claiming that the new questions posed by ecology cannot be solved within its theoretical framework. The most prominent author here is Rudolf Bahro.footnote1 Opposed to this group we find a tendency which aims to defend central elements of that theoretical corpus. I shall call this current ‘Marxist orthodoxy’.footnote2 Between them we can locate a third group of authors who think that ecology in fact presents a serious challenge to Marxism, but who are at the same time convinced that ready-made answers are contained within Marx’s thought. This position suggests that Marx himself was a Green, albeit a Green malgré lui. I think this position amounts to wishful thinking.footnote3 Ted Benton recently advanced in these pages a reconstruction of historical materialism which incorporates an ecological dimension.footnote4 His attempt avoids the pitfalls and lacunae of all the above-mentioned approaches. He asserts that ‘there is much in the overall corpus of Marxian historical materialism which is readily compatible with an ecological perspective.’footnote5 But he also aims to show that historical materialism has to be reformulated and reconstructed. His main concern is to emphasize that Marx, and Engels, did not sufficiently consider the limits that nature imposes on the development of humanity and society.footnote6 Marx’s conception, according to Benton, ‘exaggerate[s] the potentially transformative character [of productive labour processes] whilst under-theorizing or occluding the various respects in which they are subject to naturally given and/or relatively non-manipulable conditions and limits.’footnote7 This, according to Benton, is the main reason for the paradox that ‘the basic ideas of historical materialism can without distortion be regarded as a proposal for an ecological approach’,footnote8 while at the same time there exists ‘so much bad blood between Marxists and ecologists’.footnote9 Benton’s solution to the paradox emphasizes an ambiguity within Marx’s thought: ‘My central argument is that there is a crucial hiatus between Marx’s and Engels’s materialist premisses in philosophy and the theory of history, on the one hand, and some of the basic concepts of their economic theory, on the other.’footnote10 Most important is Marx’s ‘insufficiently radical critique of the leading exponents of classical political economy, with whom he shared and from whom he derived the concepts and assumptions in question.’footnote11

My own argument here both accepts the fact that there is much bad blood between ecologists and Marxists, and that historical materialism has much to say about ecological problems. Indeed it has even more to say than Benton maintains. I hope to show this without committing the fallacy of wishful thinking. Whilst accepting the stated paradox, I see a different solution to it.

For the sake of conceptual clarity, I shall first give my definition of an ecological problem. I shall then relate Marx’s theory to ecological problems in a broader way than Benton does, and consider the claim that Marx held exaggerated views regarding the nature-transformative aspect of human labour. Closely related to this ‘Promethean attitude’ is the theme of the domination of nature, which I discuss in the next section. I then briefly examine two different notions of alienation which seem to be helpful for the argument. Finally, I propose an alternative solution to the paradox.

The definition of ecological problems prefigures their solution in an important way. Similarly, the type of explanation given for them determines both their evaluation and the suggested solutions. But Benton does not offer much in the way of such an analysis; he seems simply to assume that the depletion of resources and population growth are the most pressing problems (at least for Marxist theory). However, as several studies have shown, ecological problems consist of at least the following: (1) pollution (air, water); (2) depletion of groundwater; (3) proliferation of toxic chemicals; (4) proliferation of hazardous waste; (5) erosion; (6) desertification; (7) acidification; (8) new chemicals.footnote12 In an illuminating but little-discussed book, John Passmore reduces these problems to (i) pollution; (ii) depletion of natural resources; (iii) extinction of species; (iv) destruction of wilderness; (v) population growth.footnote13

Since 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8 are contained in the more general category (i), I shall take Passmore’s list as the basis for further discussion. Since (iii) and (iv) are contained in (ii), we therefore have basically pollution, depletion of (renewable and non-renewable) resources, and population growth as ecological problems.footnote14 Population growth can be an ecological problem in two senses. First, it can be seen as leading to pollution or depletion of resources, because an increasing population might require more intense exploitation of raw materials, or greater technological development with pollution as a side-effect. Second, it can be seen as an ecological problem per se, that is, an increasing population in a specific place may be detrimental to human well-being. Thus, taken in the first sense, population growth is a cause of, and taken in the second sense it is an instance of, an ecological problem. Pollution itself compounds the already complex problems generated by depletion of resources and population growth. The challenge to Marxist theory is therefore even stronger than Benton’s duality suggests.

Having established what count as ecological problems, we must seek to account for their occurrence. Bringing together explanations from different disciplines such as economic and social theory, we might propose the following list: (a) unintended consequences of human action;footnote15 (b) technology (with the important subclass of industrial accidentsfootnote16); (c) economic growth;footnote17 (d) externalities;footnote18 (e) individual rationality that leads to collective irrationality.footnote19

No one of these factors in isolation is sufficient to cause an ecological problem. Unintended consequences of human action need not lead to such a problem; neither need rational action, externalizing behaviour, economic growth, or the use of technology. They cause ecological problems only in a specific combination or in concert. However, on closer examination, it seems that technology is crucial. It is, as it were, on another logical level than the other factors: the vehicle in and through which ecologically damaging behaviour is embodied and effected.footnote20 Nevertheless, it is clear that, with the exception of some high-risk technology, technology as such cannot be considered the cause of ecological problems: some technologies are neutral, some beneficial, and some are detrimental to the natural environment and to human well-being. (For the necessary qualifications, see below.) This has several implications. One is that no simple solution to the problems is available. Since a simple cause-and-effect relationship cannot be established for all ecological problems, it is nearly impossible to eliminate them at source. Another consideration confirms this. Societies have only recently become aware of the critical problem of pollution. This awareness has in some cases led to an obsession with ‘cleanness’, which seems to suggest that a state of affairs without pollution would be possible.footnote21 Against such a myth of cleanness we should recall the shrewd comment of Mary Douglas who, albeit in another context, observed that ‘uncleanness is matter out of place’.footnote22 What makes a place wrong is dependent on the cultural value system of a given society. With regard to Western societies we may say that it might be wrong aesthetically, that it is detrimental to health, or that it destroys wildlife.footnote23 Ecological problems are a feature of modern societies, which they must live and cope with. In the process of coping with them it is likely that the problems will not be abolished completely but only reduced, transformed and displaced. It may also be the case that the cultural forces shaping the perception of these problems will change. Consequently, the definition of what counts as an ecological problem will change.footnote24