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, I think, in the intrinsic difficulty of the arguments themselves. I believe it is worth trying to correct these misunderstandings since I remain convinced that the concepts I tried to develop are importantly innovatory, but also because there are areas of agreement between Grundmann and myself which are obscured by misunderstanding. However, some of these misunderstandings do shade into substantive disagreements. So far as is possible I will organize my responses in a way which follows Grundmann’s order of exposition, focusing especially on the concept of the labour-process and the metaphor of ‘domination of nature’. I will conclude with a consideration of some of the normative issues posed by Grundmann’s criticisms of ‘ecocentrism’ and romantic, or sentimental, attitudes to nature. My article was, in fact, almost wholly concerned with how to rethink some of the basic concepts of Marx’s political economy to bring them into a better alignment with what seem to me to be ‘ecologically friendly’ aspects of the broader materialist view of history. In other words, the aim was to get a better explanatory purchase on the generation of ecological crises and the counter-purposive effects of human social practice upon nature. I did not, and did not try to, address directly the moral and aesthetic aspects of ecological criticism except in a short section on a possible reading of Marx’s and Engels’s view of human emancipation. However, I do quite strongly disagree with some of Grundmann’s positions in this area, and so I will take this opportunity to say a bit more about how I currently view those questions.

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 ‘problem’ that Grundmann includes under the term ‘pollution’. I will give one example here: ‘Among these unintended consequences may be the effects of accessory raw materials and their residues as well as unutilized energy released upon water supplies, atmospheric conditions, climatic variables and so on’ (p. 74). More extended exemplifications are given in relation to agriculture (on p. 78), rural ‘development’ (p. 80), and elsewhere in the article.

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.

My critique was, on the contrary, intended to show by an exploration of the internal tensions and contradictions of Marx’s own theoretical position that it required corrections for which contemporary ecological thinking provides valuable resources. So, in the disputed case of ‘pollution’, my point was that Marx’s failure to theorize conditions of production and naturally mediated unintended consequences in relation to one another led him to undertheorize the labour of reproducing the conditions of production (as distinct from means of production) in his general account of reproduction. In everyday terms, pollution may offend against cultural values, and this is important of course. But from the standpoint of political economy, pollution is also economically important in that any specific labour-process may undermine or destroy its own conditions of sustainability. Ancillary economic activity is then required to restore those conditions. I deliberately avoided the use of the word ‘pollution’ in discussing this process precisely to avoid confusions that might arise from the relativity of its value connotations. In fact, the processes which Grundmann refers to the category ‘pollution’ are not only present in, but absolutely central to, my argument.

There is one further point to be made about ‘natural limits’. This is that historical materialism has a quite distinctive and indispensable contribution to make to the way these are conceptualized. Since Grundmann seems to accept the utility of this concept of natural limits at least for population and natural-resource scarcity, it will be worth clarifying this. A very widespread view among environmentalists represents the biosphere as an immensely complex ‘system of systems’ which has a certain adaptive power with respect to human impacts (and possibly other extrinsic sources of disturbance—volcanic actvity, meteorite impact and so on). Our planetary ‘lifesupport system’ is, however, limited in its adaptive power. These limits define outer boundaries to the scope of human activity in relation to nature. The laws of thermodynamics, for instance, often figure in such arguments.