There is an ‘Ecology’, the Fascist Turn and on Privilege

When Mckenzie Wark appeared on Novara, Resonance FM on May 28th 2013 he argued that a critical theory that does not confront environmental problems as one of its central problems was not worth discussing (I am paraphrasing – what he actually said was is more complicated and is transcribed below). Oddly, in this interview Wark managed to simultaneously acknowledge the validity of the environmental crisis as a theoretical problem – while also denying its implications in practice. For me this was a significant moment for Novara since it was certainly the best attempt they have yet made (that I am aware of) to engage with the ecological problem. Unfortunately, while Wark has many good ideas, his convoluted take on ecological theory is a classic example of extravagant lengths intellectuals (and especially the environmentally disengaged radical left) devise to continue to dismiss the most fundamental challenges posed by the ecological crisis and this culture’s legacy of ignoring ecological relations and perspectives. I will quote the most problematic parts of what Mckenzie Wark had to say starting with the following:

I would not call it an ecological crisis because that would presume that there ever was an ecology… and there sort of isn’t. It’s… what we know of the natural world includes its instability…and our species being is one that has acquired the capacity to kind of rupture environments on a kind of global scale. So I would be a little hesitant to use the word ‘ecological’….

Yes, it is true that what we know of ecology includes some instability – but far more important is the fact that there is relative stability within planetary boundary conditions. In a similar way to how our bodies can only function within a relatively narrow range of temperatures (maintained by homeostatic mechanisms), the earth will only be habitable for humans within planetary boundaries (including factors beyond climate change such as the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Once ecological thresholds are crossed, we know that abrupt change can (and does) happen. It is at this point that ecosystems collapse and/or enter a significantly different state where life for some species is no longer possible. These factors are now responsible for dramatic rates of species extinction. Estimates are that somewhere between 30,000 and 140,000 species are becoming extinct every year. Thus scientists have named this new era the Anthropocene and also potentially the Sixth Mass Extinction. The scientific disciplines of Ecology and Earth Sciences provide humankind with these basic geophysical facts. So the idea and science of ecology is significant in that in explains the material circumstances and context in which we exist including the impact we have on the Earth. McKenzie Wark explains the rationale for his position:

To think nature without ecology is also a worthwhile project. What we mean by nature. Nature is what social labour encounters. So it’s a… try not to have an ideology of what nature is, it is what we encounter. It is an kind of empty, its almost an negative concept. A concept of an encounter. And that’s the bit that needs to be thought.

Wark is referring to the fact that the concept of ‘ecology’ is a construct (just like all other words). It happens to be a construct that humankind invented (based on the science of Ecology) because it is a useful means of describing the space we inhabit and the most important principles and features of this space. Zeroing in on ‘ecology’ of all the various constructs out there to deny is a most unhelpful way of getting a grip on what some of us call ‘an ecological crisis’. In Wark’s analysis we will not even have this concept to use to defend the environment. Needless to say that environmentalists are already fighting an uphill battle against corporate interests and governments facilitating these interests – the last thing we need is to be further undermined by our potential comrades on the left. Wark continues his argument with the statement:

Ecology is thing that would need to be constructed – if it is even possible. It’s maybe more of question of tactics for managing unintended consequences of seven billion people activities on the planet.

Ecology is a thing that has already been constructed. This attempt to deny its relevance as a concept is simply another means of reproducing hegemonic dismissal tactics deeply embedded into our intellectual traditions. So instead of showing solidarity with the movements struggling to address various ecological problems and the subsequent injustices that are felt most dramatically by the poor, Wark is playing linguistic gymnastics with the idea of ecology. On positive note, there were many other parts of this interview that were worthwhile. Wark started the interview with a description of what Marx called the metabolic rift. The exchange value ‘chops the world up into bits and quantifies them’ while the ‘use value is left out’. Wark describes the danger:

The exchange value cycle just accelerates and accelerates – despite the widening rifts that it is producing – and that has to be the central problem of critical thought. A critical theory that does not take that as one of its central problems is not worth talking about in this time.

Wark also helpfully acknowledges the need for the humanities and social sciences to think about how things are made and what those practices that make things involve. Wark asks: ‘What would a revolution of the means of production look like?. I liked Wark’s comments on how praxis always falls short of theory, but what I think he misses is that theory itself suffers when theoreticians are not engaged in the practices they are philosophising about. At this part of the interview Wark said something that made it clear to me that his grip on ecological issues is tenuous. Wark said:

Like we are going to save the world with artisan cheese…It does not scale. That’s not to say there aren’t important answers from the organic question abut what farming is… but one really has to think of thinking for seven billion…

Again Wark (along with much of the ecologically disengaged left) parrots the hegemonic biases of capitalist techno-science. In doing so they dismiss environmental struggles including those of the international movement representing 200 millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers: La Via Campesina. This massive but marginalised movement have been struggling to resist land grabs and other threats by corporate agriculture and powerful states since 1993. La Via Campesina claim that food sovereignty is the most powerful response to the current food, poverty and climate crises. Food sovereignty will enable farmers to feed the world equitably and without eroding topsoil, poisoning lakes, destroying biodiversity with toxins and causing climate change. Since large-scale corporate fossil fuel intensive agriculture does all of the above, the casual manner in which Wark dismisses ‘the organic question’ – sits in sharp contrast to his acknowledgment of the need to address environmental problems. La Via Campesina have the knowledge and practices developed over centuries to produce food without the dramatic damages produced by modern corporate agricultural methods. This uncritical take on how science works in capitalism in regards to agriculture is hugely problematic. Surely the people who can best think about feeding seven billion people are the people who actually do the work of managing land and growing food – not urban Marxist disengaged from these struggles. There are two more issues I want to mention briefly. I like Wark’s description of ‘the fascist gesture’ – and I would argue that we need to be more aware of the ways that this phenomenon works, even in our movements.

Fascism is just really that political operation where someone is telling you: ‘I can make you feel good about yourself by making someone else suffer’…. And its back precisely because of the failure of the ruling class to articulate anything better.

We must always start with looking at ourselves. Over the last year, I have watched local social movements implode thanks to actions of individuals who launch personal attacks on others that have more to do with identity politics than any of the issues at hand. There is a huge difference been critiquing tactics and ideas – and insulting someone’s identity. The resulting fragmentation of our movements not only alienates individuals, but for every public attack there are 10s, 100s or 1000s of witnesses – many of whom are potential activists and comrades who might get involved if social movements appeared to be welcoming places they could develop new political consciousness without fear of attack. I for one won’t engage with a movement where these fascist gestures are tolerated. We must devise a better way of dealing with anger, resentment and disagreement and not succumb to the bullying tactics of the culture in which we are embedded. Finally, quite late in this interview Wark starts to say: ‘I think it is particularly incumbent on…’ and then instead of talking about what he can do with the privilege he has as white man with a job in academia, he goes on to say: “I do not like the discourse of talking about privilege, it comes from Christian thinking…” Novara host Aaron Peters seems to agree with this point. Actually, the discourse of privilege comes from feminist, anti-colonialist and race theory where it describes how power works in our society to bestow privilege on some groups. For this reason, all of us are constantly subjected to the opinions, perspectives and analysis of privileged white men. Those who are typically excluded from public discourse not only have a right to be heard but they often have a particularly sharp analysis of the ways in which power functions in society for the interests of the ruling class. People who have been on the receiving end of social injustices have had to fight harder to make their voices heard and often have legitimate anger due to having experience injustices and being consistently excluded from public debate. Obviously this does not mean that every time a white male has an opinion that is challenged by a black woman she is correct – but it does mean that black women (and especially those from the rural global south) need more public space and political power to address their interests and fight the oppressions in they face. Following this logic it is incumbent on those of us with privilege take note of the arguments put forward by La Via Campesina for instance (obviously there are many other examples). I am unhappy to see the concept of privilege rubbished on Novara. Novara FM is a radical hour on Tuesday afternoons hosted by Aaron John Peters and James Butler on Resonance FM. Unfortunately, ecologically informed perspectives have been notably absent on Novara. Peters and Butler seem keen to use the environmental crisis as a means of contributing to their critique of capitalism, but repeatedly appear to consider environmental issues a side-issue and ignore the implications of ecological thought for their wider analysis. I admit I am frustrated by the failure of not only Novara but most of the radical left to engage in a meaningful way with the environmental crisis. In this context, I see Wark’s denial of the value of the very concept of ‘ecology’ as harmful to the development of ecologically engaged social movements. In between some good political analysis, this particular episode started a debate on ecology in a most unfortunate manner.

11 thoughts on “There is an ‘Ecology’, the Fascist Turn and on Privilege

  1. You are way off base with this. Putting all sorts of unhelpful constructions around some brief remarks.

    In your commentary, you actually appear to agree with my central point: that ecology understood as homeostasis does not exist. There are temporary and moving equilibria. This has been clear since Darwin, and Vernadsky, has it not? So the conceptual part would be: is it possible to think without the regulatory norm of a homeostatic closed system?

    I was referring in the interview particularly to the book ‘Ecology Without Nature’, by Tim Morton. I think that’s a very interesting book. But its also useful to think it form the other side: nature without ecology, ie from the point of view of the instability of nature rather from the homeostasis of ecology.

    The discourse of privilege is inherited rather unthinkingly by social movements from Christian discourse. Taking a closer look at that might not be a bad idea, as this business of playing moral cop is exactly what it always leads to.

    Why would i not support environmental struggles? I don’t see how that would follow from any of the above.

    Yes, I do think there’s a role for science and technology. It is from climate science that we learn that climate change is real. Some of our means of confronting that crisis are technological — perhaps even the internet, which is where we happen to be now.

  2. To me, you describe what I found during my short time as a member of the Green Party, especially here in Manchester. I have found, those who class themselves as Marxists and other far-left doctrines, to be an elitist bunch. They shout down anyone who dares say anything they disagree with. The situation in Brighton, where on member of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas’s ex-PA, has been working against the good work her fellow colleagues are doing, under trying conditions. Tim Jackson, (Prosperity without Growth) addressed a Green Party conference, and urged the Green Party to be bold and state, we cannot have more growth. He stated, ‘Labour – Social Democracy demands more, will only happen with growth. Capital Growth is a shark, Labour supports this inequality and unsustainable growth’. Unfortunately, the left, of which, Caroline Lucas is one, decided to ignore Tim Jackson’s advice. And have continued with calls for more spending and consumption of natural resources. I do not know why they are in the Green Party, which was originally the Ecology Party.

  3. So how do you get off a growth path without changing some fundamental things about how capitalism works? Just halting growth at the status quo won’t solve all that much. Even assuming you could have a capitalism that doesn’t grow, its still putting out too much carbon.

    It seems to me an open and wide ranging public discourse about all this is a good thing. Factionalism and denunciations aren’t all that helpful. I don’t think anyone has a magic solution. Everything everyone is doing, even if we cooperated better at it, still isn’t enough.

  4. Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
    To me, Joanne, describes what I found during my short time as a member of the Green Party, especially here in Manchester. I have found, those who class themselves as Marxists and other far-left doctrines, to be an elitist bunch. They shout down anyone who dares say anything they disagree with. The situation in Brighton, where on member of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas’s ex-PA, has been working against the good work her fellow colleagues are doing, under trying conditions. Tim Jackson, (Prosperity without Growth) addressed a Green Party conference, and urged the Green Party to be bold and state, we cannot have more growth. He stated, ‘Labour – Social Democracy demands more, will only happen with growth. Capital Growth is a shark, Labour supports this inequality and unsustainable growth’. Some of them even dismiss the idea of Green Economics, what they want is a consumer society but with the riches more fairly distributed. That is, of course for those of us in the Global North. They do not consider the implications for those in the Global South. In fact Peter Cranie at a hustings for leadership of the Green Party. Claimed, it was only right that the thousands who are affected by floods in Bangladesh, should emigrate to the UK. It does not seem to understand, it is are excessive consumption of natural resources that are the cause of the floods. Therefore, moving people, will not solve the problem but will help exasperate the situation. Unfortunately, the left, of which, Caroline Lucas is one, decided to ignore Tim Jackson’s advice. And have continued with calls for more spending and consumption of natural resources. I do not know why they are in the Green Party, which was originally the Ecology Party.

  5. McKenzie Ward: Thanks for your comments. Since friends were impressed with your interview, I took the time to describe exactly what and why I was disturbed by some of the specific things that you said. I am sorry you see this critique as unhelpful – perhaps this is inevitable since we seem to have a difference of opinion. I think we need the word ‘ecology’ – and you seem to want to dismiss this concept. I am coming from a practice based tradition (design) and looking at the ideas that are useful in making new ways of living on this Earth without destroying the space we inhabit. Both the science of ecology and the history of ecological thought are central to this endeavour.

    For example, we must create ways of living that exist within planetary boundaries. These boundary conditions enable states of relative equilibrium. Humankind has benefited from relatively stable conditions over thousands of years. While we will now have to deal with increasing instability, due to our reckless behaviour and the carbon emissions already in the system, the instability of ecological systems in the future (due to unsustainable development) will be very challenging and potentially fatal for humankind. It is not responsible to theorise this space without acknowledging the severe risks associated with dramatic changes already happening.

    Re: supporting environmental struggle. It is just that in the manner in which you theorize ecology in this interview is very abstract. I think good ecological theory emerges from practice. Since I know very little about you and am basing everything on the interview I heard.

    I support a critical relationship to science and technology. I want science and technology that works for the commonality – for the benefit of people and planet. Science and technology within capitalism tends to work to exploitative way. I am concerned that too much Marxist theory does not take a critical position in regards to S+T, especially agricultural technologies. I did really like your summary of the metabolic rift.

    I also do not think factionalism and denunciations are helpful. I was compelled to write this blog as I strongly disagreed with two points you made: the issue of ecology and privilege. You will notice that I did commend several other things you said. I did very much like your description of the ‘fascist turn’ and I hope this idea will find some traction.

    Finally, everything else I could debate with you about for some time but where it ends for me is the rejection of the notion of privilege. We absolutely disagree on where the notion of privilege comes from and what it means. I have already outlined my argument but I have to respond that it has nothing to do with playing ‘moral cop’ as you so blithely put it. Yes, occasionally it is used in this fashion (this is a mistake) – but the concept itself is solid. I find your take on this issue quite astonishing. I have to say I find it hard to take any white man who does not acknowledge his own privilege seriously so it might be best to end our conversation shortly. We will have to agree to disagree here.

  6. We agree about pretty much everything, as it turns out.

    But why are you using your privilege to try to police what i say by labeling it ‘irresponsible’? If you are going to call others out by claiming they have privilege. is it not rather contradictory to do so in a way which clearly claims a superior one? Particularly given, as you state, you don’t know much about me. It has everything to do with playing ‘moral cop’, and you have now done it twice.

    This discourse of privilege was clearly not the most consistently useful one for the social movements to inherit from Christian discourse. Its why concepts of class and patriarchy, and so forth were constructed: to shift from this moralizing speech to social analysis. What you call privilege I call power. One of which is the power to question the self-evident.

    In the interview i made the claim that the concept of nature might be more useful than the concept of ecology, contrary to received wisdom at the moment. That may well prove to be a bad idea. But one works toward better ideas by trying them out. Ideas too are designed. You may well disagree, but in my view, progress on the crisis of metabolic rift requires experiments in the design of concepts as well as of other things. And as with any other kind of design, if you are not questioning your immediate go-to solutions, you are not really working the problem very well.

  7. I have been attempting to use my capacity to engage with you in this dialogue to speak for the rights of nature and also to attempt to bring in the voices of highly marginalised rural group from the global south, La Via Campesina into this debate. I did this as it appeared to me that perspectives that continued to malign these two sets of interests were being put forward in an influential radical radio show in my community. I am concerned these ideas reproduce some dangerous ways of thinking about the environment, science and agriculture.

    The reason we are talking about privilege is because you dismissed the entire concept and misrepresented its origins. In light of the fact that you were attempting to rubbish an huge body of thought that has been developed by feminists, race scholars and anti-colonialists it is relevant what your gender and race is. Dismissing the vitality of this concepts threatens decades worth of intellectuals struggles by POC and feminists. These communities have have built these concepts to try and deal with massive power imbalances in society and the exclusion of their voices from public discourse. Clearly anyone who undermines the concept of privilege will serve the interests of white men as this will hand them a new excuse to ignore these marginalised communities. Please do not misrepresent what I have done or said – I have only brought up your race and sex in the context of your attempt to malign a central argument in gender and race theory.

    I can appreciate your preference for ‘nature’ over ‘ecology’. Yes, ecology does have instrumental overtones that are not always helpful. The concept nature also has many theoretical problems – but I also think it has some strengths that ecology lacks. I would argue that we need both – more of both.

    This territory is very politicized and there is strong legacy in our intellectual traditions to deny the rights of nature. Therefor, it is dangerous to put forward ideas that enable the reproduction or reinforcement of denial strategies. It appeared to me that you were offering Novara a means of continuing to dismiss ecological struggles, since they will now have this obscuring ‘anti-ecology’ concept that you have so neatly mapped out for them.

  8. I want to give a big THANK YOU to Jody for writing this article, and I am really proud to have worked with her in the past and to be able to call her a friend. This piece reflects on many of the frustrations I encountered among the more “intellectual” side of the radical community – students, phd candidates, academics, etc. in London after the establishment of the Tory government. These frustrations were mainly to do with an acknowledgement among many of my new friends that there is an ecological crisis and a range of environmental injustices happening all over the world, coupled with a complete and absolute disinterest in actually doing anything about it. “Ecologically disengaged” is a perfect way to describe this way of thinking.

    I also found a great deal of value in the points that compliment some of the more useful things that Wark said, and it’s a shame that he’s not recognizing that this isn’t an all-out personal attack; rather, it’s an overdue critique of an ongoing trend in radical politics to dismiss environmental concerns as either unnecessary to radical struggles or bourgeois (from what’s written above, I don’t see anything to imply that Wark subscribes to this thinking). It’s one thing to acknowledge environmental destruction and climate change. It’s another to actually incorporate it into your politics and to DO something about it. I’m really disappointed that the editors of Novara, whom I consider to be friends, haven’t dedicated any of their shows to environment-related topics. I hope that this critique will be taken on constructively by them and that this will soon be corrected.

    One if Wark’s comments above really stands out for me: “So how do you get off a growth path without changing some fundamental things about how capitalism works? Just halting growth at the status quo won’t solve all that much. Even assuming you could have a capitalism that doesn’t grow, its still putting out too much carbon.” Here we see that unhelpful conclusion that because the ecological crisis is a biproduct of capitalism (Personally I would say it was exacerbated by it – 80% of Europe’s forest cover was removed over hundreds of years in the Middle Ages, while the available logging technology allowed industrialists to remove 90% of Appalachian boreal forest in the US in 30 years – capitalism coupled with technology accelerates rather than creates environmental destruction), all we have to do is get rid of capitalism and then the ecological crisis will go away. I identify as anticapitalist and welcome efforts to get rid of the current economic system, but what this thinking implies (and I’m not saying that people who subscribe to such beliefs think this) is that climate change will go away once we get rid of capitalism. Scientifically, that makes no sense. The time for action is NOW (although yesterday would have been better). It’s not enough to decide that the struggle that this planet is facing, along with the struggles of the trillions of living things that inhabit it, can continue. This is especially true for activists (like myself) in the Global North, for whom the consequences of climate change are and will be far less debilitating than the inhabitants of the South. Climate change continues to exist not only because of capitalism, but also because so many would-be activists in the North refuse to check their privilege on this count.

    One of the funny things about the “check your privilege” discourse is that the people who seem to hate it the most are almost always, ironically, white men.

  9. You might both like to read two books by Gregory Bateson.

    In his “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” he points out, for example, that the unit of evolution (that thing which evolves) is not a species. Faster antelopes create faster leopards. Taller giraffes create taller trees. And so on. The unit of evolution IS the ecology. That is what evolves.

    Bateson’s “Mind and Nature — A necessary unity” is also enlightening. Its subject is the difference, or rather the connection/unity, between our minds, our understandings of the world (Marxist and otherwise), and the world itself.

    • hi thanks Finn for mentioning Gregory Bateson. I have described him in my PhD as one of the most important ecological theorists whose work is foundational to all good theory that came afterwards. I am especially committed to his idea of ‘epistemological error’.

  10. Pingback: Confronting Despair in an Age of Denial + Righteous Anger | EcoLabs

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