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.