by Rick Elmore
I was talking to a student from my Multiculturalism seminar after class last week. We had been reading sections of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in particular, those concerned with the industrialization of corn. I had gone to some lengths to show how the Nixon era changes to the US Farm Bill contributed to the over production of corn, in addition to the link between fossil-fuels and the move of the arms industry into agriculture after WWII. This student had several questions and small points of clarification. However, during this conversation he mentioned that he had found it interesting how so many of the concerns of our class (hospitality, language, law, the public and private, food, etc) seemed to come back to a critique of capitalism. He brought this point up several times. It wasn’t clear to me if he thought this was a criticism or not, but, as the conversation went on, it began to seem like he thought of me as some sort of Marxist Green Lantern, turning everything I had the will to imagine into a concrete critique of capital. Now of course the Green Lantern is the most Hegelian of all superheroes. I mean good lord, the Green Lantern Corps fights fear and chaos with Will, one can’t get much more Hegelian than that (although in fairness, Hegel would call it Spirit and not Will). Given this, it would only make sense that a young Hegelian such as Marx would be somewhat Green Lantern like. Now perhaps this characterization was not my student’s intention. Not everyone I guess sees the analogy between philosophers and superheroes with the same clarity. However, his comments reminded me of just how important making the connection to capitalism is for those of us working in environmental philosophy.
The simple fact of the matter is that one can’t responsibly take up or teach anything resembling environmental thought without addressing capitalism, and addressing it, necessarily, in a critical way. If the need for this criticalness is not immediately self-evident, I find Chris Williams’s book Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010) particularly helpful.
For those not familiar with Williams’s work, Ecology and Socialism is a great introduction to the essential conflict between capitalism and environmentalism. It offers a remarkably clear, concise, and compelling case for the ways in which capitalism can’t possibly offer real or lasting solutions to the environmental degradation it creates. One of the key claims Williams makes to support the thesis of his book is that although, in principle, capitalism can make basically anything profitable, the historical evolution of capital in relation to fossil-fuels seriously limits the possibility of a capitalism fueled by “green” energy. As he puts it, “now that capitalism has evolved in a particular way and has developed a world economic system predicated on fossil fuel-driven growth, it is caught on the horns of its own historical development” (74). Williams here follows out Marx’s insight in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that outmoded forms of social production can limit the ability of society to address peoples’ real needs. The massive investment of fixed capital in the extraction, production, and use of fossil-fuels (over 13 trillion dollars according to Williams) functions to vastly curtail the possibility for capitalism to pursue more environmentally friendly forms of energy consumption. The weight of historical development shapes the material possibilities of capitalism in a way that flies in the face of the logic of capitalism. Capital can’t go green, not because green energy isn’t or can’t be made profitable, but because it has too much invested in fossil-fuels to give them up. I find this argument remarkably compelling, and it seems to me difficult to take up issues of the environment without addressing the logic laid out above. However, even if one holds out the hope that some form of capitalist alternative could be developed, it certainly would not resemble the form of global capital we have on the ground at present. Hence, as my student observed, one is forced to return to a critique of capital, not because one is an ideological Marxist (although one might be) but rather because this conflict of capital and environmentalism is what we have on the ground. Now, I think this is more than a moralist point, since once we accept that a critique of capitalism is important to our environmental thinking, it opens up a connection between such a critique and the kinds of environmental thinking we might do. For example, given the prominence of OOO in several recent posts, it would be interesting to revisit the links between OOO and Marxism (something Levi Bryant, among others, has written about). What is the link between our relationship to objects and our thinking of capital? What is the link between ethics and OOO? This is something I’d like to pursue perhaps in a subsequent post. However, in the mean time, it seems like it might be wise to all break out our green power rings and get to work willing those concrete critiques.