The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism
Kamran Nayeri | January 5, 2019
The following is a slightly edited text of a presentation by Kamran Nayeri to the Revolutionary University conference in Berkeley, California, Saturday, October 13.
I would like to thank the organizers of the Revolutionary University for inviting me to share some of my thinking about the critical state of the world and what may be done to resolve it. As the focus of the conference is on social revolution, let’s remind ourselves that to be successful, a revolution must go to the root causes of the problems at hand. We are reminded of this with so many failed and “unfinished” revolutions.
I would like to thank the organizers of the Revolutionary University for inviting me to share some of my thinking about the critical state of the world and what may be done to resolve it. As the focus of the conference is on social revolution, let’s remind ourselves that to be successful, a revolution must go to the root causes of the problems at hand. We are reminded of this with so many failed and “unfinished” revolutions.
In what follows, I will outline my argument that we face a crisis of civilization, not simply a crisis of capitalism as is commonly proclaimed by the socialist movement, or a crisis of industrial societies as proclaimed by the Green thinkers and activists. It is a crisis of Our Way of Life as articulated by the industrial capitalist world economy. In particular, I will argue that we face the crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization and to overcome it we must transcend it in the direction of ecocentric socialism.
What is a civilization?
As we will see in a moment, how civilization is defined and assessed has become an increasingly contentious task. There is no entry for it in the current online Encyclopedia Britannica perhaps reflecting the current scholarly doubt. But volume 4 of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica suggested that the word “civilization” is a derivative of the Latin civis, a citizen, and civilis, pertaining to a citizen, and etymologically speaking, defined it as “the entire period of human progress since mankind attained sufficient intelligence and social unity to develop a system of government.” This view of civilization is based on the concept of progress which itself is rooted in Western civilization. Since the 1960s, historians have expanded this view to encompass other world civilizations. In the last two decades, David Christian (2004) has introduced the new field of Big History which aims to place human history in the context of life on Earth and the history of the universe.
Still, the overwhelmingly predominant view was and probably still is that civilization whether Western, Chinese or African, has been a positive development and a sign of human progress. Even Big Historians consider civilization as the apex of complexity which they see as the logic of the unfolding universe. Yet, increasingly archeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, paleoanthropologists, some historians, and others have questioned this assumption as we have learned more about the so-called “prehistory,” which refers to the time our forager ancestors lived going back almost 2.5 million years. Just last year, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin and his co-authors published their findings based on the study of fossil remains in Morocco that Homo sapiens emerged at least 300,000 years ago, 100,000 years earlier than the previous estimate. Thus, the so-called “prehistory” of our species is at least 290,000 years while the history of civilization is at most 5,000 years, that is just 1.7%, of our species existence and the history of the capitalist civilization is a mere 0.0003%, a negligible time span yet decisive part of our journey as we will see in a moment. Anyone concerned with the problems of the present day civilization would do well to place it in this much larger context as I will explain in this presentation.
But let’s first take note of why scholars of deep history question the prevalent approving view of civilization.
In his book Against the Grain: The Deep History of Early States (2017), the Yale scholar James C. Scott, who himself held a progressive view of civilization and taught it in his graduate courses for two decades, provides a well-documented revision based on a review of the recent multidisciplinary literature about the transition from hunter-gatherers (foragers) to first farmers, regional farming settlements, and early states. This literature disputes the idea of the early agrarian civilizations as progressive. Scott writes:
“Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the margin of refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famine-stricken, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, their leisure.” (ibid, p. 9-10)
“The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of overcrowding. …[T]here is a strong case to be made that the life outside the state—life as a ‘barbarian’—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than the life at least for non-elite inside civilization.” (ibid. p. xii)
Scott concludes: “The wounds the standard narrative has suffered at the hands of recent research are, I believe, life-threatening.” (ibid. p. 10)
As ancient civilizations were built on bondage and fell apart due to social and environmental crises, in Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries the so-called “Dark Ages” arrived with the institution of serfdom. (see, endnote 1) And when it disintegrated making room for the transition to capitalism, we have, as some aptly have called, a dominant system of wage-slavery.
The unintended consequences of civilization
Now, you may protest that not everything in civilization has been bad and point to the development of such things as the productive forces, science, medicine, and culture.
No doubt all social development is a dialectical movement with unintended consequences some useful for human development. But if we recall that all civilization has been the development of various class societies (not in any predetermined fashion), the predominant character of the historical process has been to advance the interests of such ruling classes. After all, all civilizations have been essentially social formations for the extraction of wealth from nature using subordinated, oppressed, and exploited people. Let’s remember that our forager ancestors like all other species lived by various modes of subsistence, that is, they appropriate from nature what they needed for their livelihood and reproduction. As Scott notes, these depended on the ecosystem they were part of and sometimes included “low-level production” such as planting seeds and tubers of desirable plants. First farmers elevated “low-level production” to their core activity by the domestication of plants and animals. But they lived as subsistence farmers for thousands of years and in conditions less desirable than that of their hunter-gatherer cousins. When the farmers began to turn an economic surplus, social stratification became possible and happened and gradually private property, patriarchy, and early states and civilizations emerged. Thus, it must be crystal clear that all modes of production have aimed at extraction of wealth from nature either by subsistence producers or in class societies by subordination, oppression, and exploitation of the non-elite people. All the while, domestication of plants and animals remained key for all agrarian societies and the present-day capitalist civilization also crucially depends on it.
Thus, development of forces of production, science, medicine, and culture all have been conditions by the requirements of the dominant mode of production which served the interests of the existing ruling classes. An example may be helpful. Scott open’s his book with the following epigraph about the function of writing in civilization from the French anthropologist and ethnologist Lévi Strauss:
“Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…Writing is a strange thing…The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals…into a hierarchy of castes and classes…It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”
Marx (1857-58/1973, pp. 703-04) argued that under the capitalist mode of production “invention becomes a business.” By the same token, today’s institutions of higher learning also serve the interest of the capitalist system even though a fair number of academic scholars like Professor Scott are in search of truth and advancement of knowledge in their field of study. And, I might add the invention of writing has also brought us the world of literature, and such text as the Communist Manifesto. One can point to other such unintended consequences of civilization, but in all cases, these are not their primary purpose and in many cases, they would not be necessary if there were no civilization.
The crisis of the capitalist civilization
The English Industrial Revolution (1760-1820), revolutionized forces of production and unleashed the powers that made the industrial capitalist civilization global. In 1800 when the world population was about 0.9 billion, only 3 percent lived in urban areas. By 1900 the world population had increased to 1.65 billion of whom almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, world population had reached 2.67 billion and 30 percent of them resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83. The world has experienced unprecedented urban growth in recent decades. In 2008, the world population was 6.7 billion evenly split between urban and rural areas and the number of cities with 1 million or more was 400. As of this writing in 2018, it has reached 7.7 billion and is expected to reach close to 10 billion by 2050. At the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, world population is estimated to have been between 1 to 10 million. Four hundred generations later, there are now 46 megacities and metropolitan areas with population sizes between 10 and 38 million people. (see, endnote 2)
If we use population growth and per capita income as proxies for “ecological footprint,” (a murky but important measure) Angus Maddison’s calculations (2006, p. 19) shed some light on how it has increased between the years 1,000 and 2,000. The population rose 22-fold, per capita income 13-fold, and world GDP nearly 300-fold. Since 1820, per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold.
As Haydn Washington (2013) shows humanity is utterly dependent on the rest of nature, yet all ecological crises we face today are socially caused and/or conditioned as documented in detail by scientists. Take, for example, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme’s research paper, The Great Acceleration (2015), that concludes as follows:
“The effects of the accelerating human changes are now clearly discernible at the Earth system level. Many key indicators of the functioning of the Earth system are now showing responses that are, at least in part, driven by the changing human imprint on the planet. The human imprint influences all components of the global environment - oceans, coastal zone, atmosphere, and land.”
The paper cites data that show exponential growth of human population, urbanization, real GDP growth, foreign direct investment, primary energy use, large dams, air travel and tourism, water use, paper production, fertilizer consumption, transportation, telecommunications, emission of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen dioxide, surface temperature, stratospheric ozone, marine fish capture, ocean acidification, coastal nitrogen, shrimp aquaculture, tropical forest loss, domesticated land, terrestrial biosphere degradation since 1750 or since data was first collected. Clearly, left unchecked, these trends point to ecological collapse sometimes in the future.
In fact, we already face three existential threat to humanity and much of life on Earth:
- Nuclear holocaust: On July 16, 1945, the United States detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the project, reciting a passage from an ancient Hindu text said: “Now I become death, destroyer of worlds.” On August 6 and 9 the United States detonated two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own atom bomb. The nuclear arms race has been underway since. Today nine countries: The United States, Russia, the UK, France, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel have nuclear weapons. We know about the nuclear standoff in the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. But on October 6, The New York Times reported a proposed plan in 1968 to use nuclear weapons in the Vietnam war. On October 9, in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Sergey Radchenko reviewing recently declassified documents reported that in October 1973, Washington and Moscow almost went to nuclear war during the Yom Kippur war between Israel, and Egypt and Syria. Finally, on May 4, 2018, it was reported that President Trump had considered an option of a war against North Korea known to be armed with nuclear weapons. The threat of a nuclear holocaust is very real as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world.
- Catastrophic climate change: On September 1o, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, warned in a press conference in New York about a lack of implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change: “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.” That is a mere two years window for the world governments to change course! In a much-read essay in the New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” (July 7, 2017) David Wallace-Wells, who interviewed a few hundred scientists, recounts the devastation that can be caused by a runaway climate change. Wallace-Wells writes about a doomsday characterized by death from heat, lack of food, the spread of plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, poisoned oceans, and permanent economic collapse.
- The Sixth Extinction. Biologists, ecologists, and other life scientists warn that we are in the midst of the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction. Eminent Harvard University entomologist and conservationist, E. O. Wilson, documents this crisis in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life and proposes setting at least half the land and sea surface of the planet for wildness (2016, see chapter 15 for parts of the planet he identifies for this purpose; for a critical discussion of Wilson’s overall proposal, see, Nayeri, 2017). He and others warn that if at least half the land and ocean surface of the planet is not set aside as wildlife reserves, by the end of the century half of the species on Earth will become extinct, including perhaps humanity.
Alienation from nature
How did we get here? We know the crisis of civilization is rooted in its foundation: systematic domestication of plants and animals for human purpose, systematic attempt to dominate and control nature, and stratification of society into a subordinated, oppressed, and exploited majority and a ruling elite presiding over the state as an alien force standing over society, in brief, social alienation.
We also know that for the 98.3% of our existence our forager ancestor lived in egalitarian small groups in relative harmony with the rest of nature. Let me elaborate what I mean by “relative harmony” a little.
Humans are similar to other animals in many ways. Like other mammals and many other species, we engage in “niche construction,” changing the ecosystem in ways more useful for our purpose. After Homo Erectus managed to make and keep fire some 400,000 years ago, “slash-and-burn” of the landscape to change the ecosystem in favor of the plant and animal species that are food for humans has been used by our forager ancestors and continues to be used by some of our contemporaries. The use of fire also made it possible to consume a wider range of plants and animals for food by cooking them which providing foragers with more calories and the possibility of population growth in a given range. These, in turn, helped enable the migration out of Africa and dispersal of humanity across the continents.
But human population growth and dispersal to all corners of the world had some ecologically undesirable effects: extinction of other species. Over the last 100,000 years, the mean body mass of mammals in Eurasia dropped by 50% and by an order of magnitude in Australia. More recently, there was a tenfold drop in the average size of mammals in the Americas. Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico, and her co-authors have published a groundbreaking study in Nature (2018) that correlate these species extinction events with the migration patterns of humans.
There is also evidence of early semi-domestication of some wolves who developed a symbiotic relationship with hunter-gatherers (some scientists hypothesize due to a mutant gene in some wolves) and we have firm evidence of domestication of dogs about 15,000 years in Asia.
But then came the full-scale, systematic domestication, agrarian “niche construction,” and the rest that made us into a civilization. Sheep were domesticated (10,000 years ago in what is now the Middle East), pigs (8,000 years ago in what is now the Middle East and possibly China), cattle (8,000 years ago in what is now the Middle East), zebu cattle (6,000 years ago in what is now Pakistan), horse (6,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia), lama (4,500 years ago in what is now Peru), and so on.
Today, the capitalist civilization rests mostly on a dozen crops (banana, barley, maize, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, sweet potato, and wheat) and only five large (over 100 lb.) domesticated animals (cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse) (Barker, 2006, p. 1).
But what is domestication and what does it entail for the domesticated species and for us? Domestication is “the evolutionary process whereby humans, modify, either intentionally or unintentionally, the genetic makeup of a population of plants or animals to the extent that individuals within the population lose their ability to survive and produce offsprings in the wild.” (Blumler and Byrane,1991, p. 24; cited in Barker, 2006, p. 2) Scott writes about the effects of a more sedentary lifestyle, confinement, crowding that resulted in the spread diseases of domesticated animals, and even radical changes to their morphology and physiology.
“Compared with their wild ancestors, sheep have undergone a reduction in brain size of 24 percent over the ten-thousand-year history of their domestication; ferrets (domesticated far more recently) have brains 30 percent smaller than those of wild polecats; and pigs (sus scrofa) have brains more than a third smaller than their ancestors.” (Scott, 2017, pp. 80-81)
He also discusses at some length the adverse effects of domestication on humans, including becoming more of a herd animal than our forager ancestors, effects of overcrowding and spread of infectious diseases, including zoonotic diseases, and even morphological and physiological consequences (Scott, 2017, pp. 83-92)
But domestication and the march of civilization has had an even more terrible impact on wildlife as evidenced by the ongoing anthropogenic Sixth Extinction. There are at least 7.7 million Eukarya, which include plants, algae, fungi, and many kinds of eukaryotic microorganisms, give or take a million (Wilson, 2016, pp. 22-23), plus perhaps another one trillion species of bacteria (Locey, et.al., 2016)
Recent research concludes that current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction and future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher. (De Vos, et. al., 2015)
Humans have literally taken much of the “fuel of life” from other species. Today per capita energy use of humans is 12,000 times more than what it was at the dawn of agriculture (Vitousek et al, 1986). In the twentieth century, global human appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (NPP) doubled to at least 25% of NPP. Ultimately, all species live off energy that arrives on Earth via sunshine. Through photosynthesis, green plants (primary producers) convert two to three present of the solar energy that arrives on Earth into sugars. They consume about half of it for their own livelihood. What remains is called Net Primary Productivity (NPP). The NPP is the basis for all animal life. Herbivores eat plants to gain energy for their own livelihood (primary consumers). Some carnivores (secondary consumers) live off herbivores. Some omnivores (tertiary consumers) eat secondary consumers. The final link in the food chain is the decomposers that live off the organic matter of plants, herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores. In each step in the food chain, about 90% of the energy is lost.
No wonder some have called us the God Species. Just one example to see it is true: The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering the fate of the Dusky Gopher Frog and by extension the status of the Endangered Species Act. Historically inhabiting the southern United States, today the Dusky Gopher Frog exists in less than 100 square kilometer and its Area of Occupancy is less than 10 square kilometers (Harrison County, Mississipi), all individuals are in a single location, and there is a continuing decline in the extent and quality of their habitat, and in the number of mature individuals Because its population size is estimated to number fewer than 250 mature individuals, with all individuals in a single sub-population, it is experiencing a continuing decline.
The question of what species will live to serve us and which ones to die because they seem not useful to us has become part of our culture since the dawn of civilization. It is so much part of the normal life that we simply pretend it does not exist. Here is another example. In 2017, there were 88 unconfirmed reported shark attacks and five fatalities. But 100 million sharks were killed mostly for their fins as shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in southeast Asia, and especially China, which has 300 million in its middle class. Of course, all the alleged shark attacks and fatalities were reported in the media. But how many of us know about the gruesome death of 100 million sharks by humans (the practice of shark finning entails capturing sharks, cutting their fin alive and throw them back into the sea to die a painful death).
The anthropocentric detour
But how did we become the God Species? Graeme Baker, a prominent archeologist and a scholar of the Agricultural Revolution, calls the emergence of farming “domestication of the mind.” (Barker, 2006, pp. 38-39) Let’s us explore this idea for a moment.
Our forger ancestors saw themselves deeply embedded in the world around them. We know that from anthropological studies of the contemporary forager populations. Most modern-day foragers are characterized by animistic or less commonly totemic belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons. Their environment is a treasure house of personage, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus, the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plant as persons (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry (Descola, 1996). Animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of our own Linnaean taxonomies. (Howell, 1996) The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities. Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.
The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance. (Carmichael et al., 1994) It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other. In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences. (C.L. Martin, 1993, p. 14) (citations are taken from Barker, 2006, p. 59)
I call these worldviews ecocentric. The transition from ecocentrism of the hunter-gatherers to anthropocentrism of civilization probably has been the most crucial cultural change in our species as anthropocentrism, also known as homo-centrism, human supremacism, and speciesism, holds humans as the central or most significant species on Earth giving us moral superiority over all other beings in the same sense that racism gives moral superiority to whites and sexism gives moral superiority to men. A key concept in environmental philosophy and ethics, anthropocentrism is culturally the foundation of all civilizations. It has been central to both religious and secular worldviews. Ancient Greek gods were imagined as human-like. In Abrahamic religions, humans are God’s agent on Earth. In the Old Testament, God creates Adam and Eve in his own image and creates other species for them. A similar anthropocentric worldview has dominated Western philosophy from Aristotle and the Stoics to Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas to Descartes and Kant (Steiner, 2005).
According to the philosopher Sessions (1995), the leading philosophical spokespersons for the Scientific Revolution--Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz--were all strongly influenced by Christian anthropocentrism. Bacon held that modern science would allow humans to regain command over nature that had been lost with Adam’s Fall in the Garden. Descartes argued that the new science would make humans the “masters and possessors of Nature” and that only humans had souls (minds) while all other creatures were machines. Animals had no sentience (mental life) and so, among other things, could feel no pain.
The same Christian anthropocentrism carried over to Renaissance humanism which preceded the Scientific Revolution and was continued by the Enlightenment philosophers “and on into the twentieth century with Karl Marx and John Dewey, and the humanistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre....Renaissance humanism portrayed humans as the central fact in the universe, while, in addition, supporting the exalted view that humans had unlimited powers, potential, and freedom..” (Sessions, 1995, p. 161). Anthropocentrism is prevalent even among socialist and ecosocialist theorists of today (e.g., Sarkar, 1999, p. 10, for a discussion of it, see, Nayeri, 2014; also see, Nayeri, 2015, for another ecosocialist's anthropocentrism).
But anthropocentrism is an ideology and there is no basis for it in science. Darwin’s view of human standing in relation to other species was altogether different (Nayeri, 2009). He writes about the difference in mind between humans and “lower animals”:
“[T]he difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. (Darwin, 1871/1981, p. 105, emphasis added)
The philosopher James Rachels adds:
“In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives. We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear. They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud. They know wonder and curiosity. In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (Rachels, 1990: 57)
Given that foragers, in deep history or today’s world, held and still hold an ecocentric view of the world, anthropocentrism of civilization can be seen as a mere detour. To save the world we must love the world which is incompatible with anthropocentrism.
Most critical theories of society are actually based on a small recent subset of the long human history (1.7% of our history) whether they are theories of capitalism (0.003% of our history), theories of class societies (0.6% of our history), or theories of civilization (0.15% of our history). They exclude the long period of ecocentrism before the world-historic transition to agrarian societies and civilization.
But this transition required alienation from nature without which domestication, “niche construction” by the destruction of wildness on an expanding scale, and attempts to dominate and control nature, would have never occurred. Thus, the very idea of the modes of production, social classes, and class struggle presupposes the anthropocentric culture.
Yet critical theories of the current crisis whether socialist, ecological socialist or Green ignore this world-historic transition hence the root-cause of the crisis of all civilizations and downfall of many. Even so, human emancipation, which is the focus of all emancipatory theories, including Marx’s theory of socialism, would require a fundamental break with anthropocentrism. Humanity cannot be emancipated if it holds many species in subjugation and wages a war against the wildlife and the rest of nature.
As a student as Marx and Engels, I suggest we must extend their materialist conception of history to account for the entire process of human history, not just history since the rise of first modes of production. This would mean that we must consider modes of subsistence, which characterizes the foragers' long history but also includes more recent modes of life which continue to the present, as well as modes of production since the dawn of agriculture.
Further, instead of a focus on social relations of production, we must consider the ever-changing matrix of eco-social relations of subsistence and production. Some means of subsistence and many modes of production are at the same means of destruction.
Finally, modes of subsistence and modes of production must not be seen simply as modes of social reproduction but also as definite social forms of activity that shape our lives and our human nature. Thus, workers engaged in work that is harmful to life are alienated from nature by the very process they engage in. This problem is relatively well-understood in anthropocentric terms. Thus, few socialists would disagree that the wage-earning torturers, security guards, spies, police, etc. are part of the working class that has the potential to emancipate itself and the humanity. But the same socialists and ecosocialists would have difficulty to accept the workers in the industries that destroy nature may be similarly compromised in their ability to serve as part of the revolutionary working class.
This reformulation of the materialist conception of history integrally is united with the materialist conception of life and nature to place human history as part of the evolution of the ecosphere. It will then become easy to see how the human agency contributes to the enrichment of the ecosphere or undermine it by Our Way of Life.
This reformulation also elevates, as we should, the historical standing of our forager ancestors and contemporaries, the “barbarians” who have lived outside of civilization and resisted becoming part of any state, and aboriginal and indigenous people and their resistance to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.
It also elevates, as we should, that part of humanity that has defended the present day foragers, “barbarians,” and aboriginals, indigenous people, and the rest of the ecosphere against the capitalist civilization’s onslaught. These include, but by no means is limited to, the indigenous people, the so-called tree-huggers, animal liberation activists, Deep Ecologists, and those who are fighting for the rights of Mother Earth. They are not simply allies of the working class but co-equals. In fact, politically aware working people would see their fights as their own. Thus, the so-called Reds and Greens are actually co-equal fighters against the anthropocentric capitalist civilization except they have focused on different aspects of the same monster.
Of course, the class struggle still matters and centrally so. Given the preponderance of the capitalist civilization and the marginalization of the resistance by those who live outside of it, the working class is decisive for the movement to transcend it in the direction of ecocentric socialism. In fact, in countries that constitute the core of capitalist civilization the working class constitutes the great majority of the population and the main agency to fight capitalist domination and exploitation of humans and the rest of nature. But just as defending the rights of the subordinated and oppressed sections of the population and universalization of human rights is key for working-class unity and the transition to an ecocentric socialist future, so is the fight to extend equal moral standing to those who live outside of capitalist civilization and to all other species and the Mother Earth in the face of the onslaught of the anthropocentric capitalist civilization.
As Marx’s theory of socialism maintains, only a self-organized and self-mobilized working class can transcend the industrial capitalist civilization. In the U.S. it constitutes about 150 million workers out of the population of about 330 million. How would the transition to the ecocentric socialism begin and how would it look like in its very early phase? I can only give you one person’s opinion.
According to the Credit Suisse report (2016), the richest 3.5 million people worldwide (o.7% of world population) control $116 trillion or 45.6% of the world’s wealth (Of course, even in this tiny group wealth is highly concentrated in an even tinier subgroup). The share of the poorest 3.5 billion people (73% of the world population) is only $6.1 trillion of wealth or on average less than $10,000 in wealth each (Of course, a majority in this group have no wealth or even have negative wealth, debt).
It follows that if we stop accumulation of wealth by a tiny fraction of people on the planet (0.7% of total) and provide this ruling elite with all they can consume for a very comfortable existence for the rest of their lives, we can use the bulk of the existing wealth to improve the lives of the 3.5 billion people whose basic needs are not met. Second, the simple act of refusing to produce in order to accumulate immense wealth for a tiny fraction of the world population will reduce the ecological footprint of the humanity radically and immediately, a giant step towards restoring the health of the ecosphere.
Of course, much of this wealth is in the form of capital goods and other economic and financial assets that are used by the capitalist class to extract even more wealth from nature. The socially just policy would be for the working people who maintain or operate these assets to appropriate them in public trust for the benefit of the humanity and the planet and manage them through democratically run by workplaces and consumers councils on the local and regional levels. Such working people’s councils will pursue a mode of subsistence (or low-level production) that aim to follow a “do no harm” policy in relation to the ecosphere and other species yet support a modest level comfortable (such as suggested by volunteer simplicity) consistent with human development. If I would be part of the deliberation of such councils considering the transition in the U.S. economy, I would suggest the following for their deliberation.
Restructuring, downsizing, and repurposing
In the sphere of production large sections of manufacturing industries that serve U.S. militarism or its arms trade (which makes up for half of the world market share), chemicals and petrochemicals (for a sober critique, see, Latham, 2016), and petrochemical industries (which includes most fossil fuels), coal mining, nuclear energy, hydraulic energy, power plants that use polluting sources of energy, and industrial agriculture will be phased out as quickly as possible. In the service sector, financial, insurance, and real estate industries will be drastically downsized and what is left as necessary would be run by workers and consumer councils. This will eliminate the management services industry. Wholesale and retail trade and international and national transportation will be reduced to the minimum as the economy will become increasingly local and regional and people will be rooted in their local communities where the bulk of what they require is produced locally. Marketing, including advertisement, and much of the sales force would become unnecessary and phased out. The food system, as well as housing, health, education, clothing, and transportation industries, will be radically restructured, transformed and repurposed in line with making the economy work for human needs, not profits, consistent with “do no harm” ecological policy and will be largely local and regional.
Likewise, state bureaucracies that are detrimental to peace, social justice and ecological health of the planet will be closed down. These will include the so-called Department of Defense and the U.S. armed forces, spy agencies, domestic repressive forces such as the F.B.I., Homeland Security, I.C.E., the police, etc. that would be shut down. The task of public security and administration of justice would be taken up by the working people’s militias and people’s courts. Other federal agencies (and their state-level counterparts) such as Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Labor would no longer serve a function as they serve the interests of the capitalist class. Other federal departments dealing with education, energy, health, housing, justice, transportation would be shut down as they serve the interests of the capitalist ruling class or they will become unnecessary as the economy becomes local and regional or downsized and radically restructured and repurposed.
All activities hostile towards other species such as part of the food system that raises farm animals and aqua-agriculture (see, Nayeri, 2014), “sports” fishing and hunting, “pet” trade, dogfighting and cockfighting, rodeos, abuse of animals in the name of science and medicine, etc. will be banned and eliminated through public education. All manners of ownership of animals will be phased out through public education as quickly as possible (for a discussion, see, Nayeri, 2017, Section on “Ethics of biodiversity”). Hunting and fishing would only be allowed for human survival (there will be hunter-gatherers and they may expand their range).
Jobs for all
What would happen to the workers in those sectors that would be phased out and they are many? First, the affected workers will be key participants in the democratic discussion of why such economic restructuring is necessary and how to proceed. Second, affected workers will receive their wages and benefits to be part of a “jobs committee” that look for a socially useful and ecologically grounded alternative employment for them and ensure they are adequately trained to take it up. Third, workers councils discuss and reduce the work week and the working day to ensure employment for all as well as increased leisure time for human development. Fourth, the dismantling of undesirable economic sectors will coincide with a massive restructuring and redesigning of the housing, health, education, clothing, food, culture, communication and transportation sectors. For example, currently, the agricultural sector currently employs a mere 1.6% of the total employment and is dominated by a handful of agribusiness companies using high input industrial methods to grow food. The result has been horrendous misery and death of billions of farm animals annually, and exploitation of farm workers, poisoning of the population and the environment. In the new economy, plant-based food production would be the goal of the food system which will become localized using organic farming, permaculture and agroecology methods. Every able-bodied person will contribute at least through home or community food gardens. Thus, the new economy will employ many more people in these socially useful and ecologically sound economic activities. There will be massive effort to provide environmentally sound, modest but comfortable, housing for all. There will be a massive expansion of healthcare provision focusing on well-being and prevention. Well-paid employment in education, culture and the arts to provide for the entire population would become locally and regionally centered. Technology, historically used to dominate and control nature and labor, will be scaled back leaving only what is needed for human development that is not harmful to nature. In all such decisions working people’s councils will be guided by an ecocentric worldview, a love of Mother Earth and all species that make up the web of life. Adoration, not fear of wildness, will become universal. In fact, new ecocentric humanity will be proud to be part of the animal kingdom and the rest of nature, not opposed to it and above it. Finally, and equally importantly, the working people’s councils will immediately extend a hand of friendship to the peoples of the Global South with material and moral internationalist solidarity, including countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen that most recently have been subject to the American imperialist war effort. What if instead of Washington spending more than two trillion dollars to bring death and destruction to these countries, American people would have helped build homes, schools, clinics, hospitals and cultural centers for them?
In tandem, working people and their council movement and other grassroots organizations will work to gradually and voluntarily reduce the world human population that has been growing exponentially since 1800 through education and empowering of women and democratic family planning. The world working people’s councils will immediately set aside at least half of the planet that is home to over 80 percent of the world species as wildness reserves as suggested by the eminent biologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson (2016, Chapter 15; for a critical revision of Wilson’s plan, see, Nayeri, 2017). As the U.S. and world population declines, human settlements will shrink making more land and sea areas available for re-wilding. The ecosphere is resilient and will bounce back quickly.
Of course, none of these will happen unless a mass radicalization happens especially in the centers of capitalist civilization involving billions of working people. If that happens, there will be many other visions and superior ones on how to transcend the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. Yet the time for action is short, perhaps only a few decades, before we entirely lose any control over our own destiny and perish along with much of wildlife all due to a mere anthropocentric detour of 10,000 years. My only solace is that in the past five mass extinction events the ecosystems bounced back each time with a much richer life. We must do the best we can but even if we fail, there is hope for life until the day when the sun burns out well over a billion years from now.
Berkeley, California, Saturday, October 13, 2018
Dedication: I dedicate this essay to the memory of my paternal grandmother, Monavar Noori, who told me many mythological stories when I was a very young child. I treasure them, even more now, as I have learned many years later that they were reflecting culture and nature relations going back to the dawn of civilization. I am saddened that in my lifetime such folklore has been largely forgotten as bourgeois modernity has invaded even children’s imagination.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Robin Chang and Fred Murphy for reading the first draft of this paper and offering helpful improvements. Endnote 1 is entirely by Fred. Robin helped me with reading a succession of rewriting the first section of ecocentric socialism to ensure it is clearly stated where I outline my reformulations of Marx’s and Engels’ materialist conception of history. Of course, neither is responsible for the argument presented in this paper or any shortcomings and errors it may contain.
1. Historians have largely dropped the label "Dark Ages" and shown how the centuries after the "fall" of Rome weren't necessarily that bad for European peasants, as compared to slaves under the Roman Empire. Even those bound to the land as serfs had direct access to means of production and some autonomy. In the later 14th century and the 15th, peasant revolts ended serfdom in the West and temporarily shifted the relationship of forces against the feudal nobility. See Chris Wickham (2016), Silvia Federici (2004), and Perry Anderson (1996).
2. Human population growth has become exponential due to three factors: 1) increases in food production and distribution, 2) improvement in public health (water and sanitation), and 3) medical technology (vaccines and antibiotics), along with gains in education and standards of living in many developing nations. Of course, gains in education and autonomy of women have also contributed to lowering population growth.
- Anderson, Perry. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. 1996.
- Barker, Graeme. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. 2006.
- Carmichael, D. L., Hubert, J., Reeves, B., and Schanche A. (eds.). Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. 2004.
- Credit Suisse. The Global World Report 2016. 2016.
- Descola and G. Palsson (eds.) Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives: 127-144. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871/1981.
- De Vos JM, Joppa LN, Gittleman JL, Stephens PR, and SL Pimm. “Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction,” Conservation Biology, pp. 452-62, April, 2015.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Civilization.” Volume 4, 1911.
- Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. 2004.
- Felisa A. Smith, Rosemary E. Elliott Smith, S. Kathleen Lyons, Jonathan L. Payne. “Body size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary.” Science, April 20, 2018.
- Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective, Volume 2: Historical Statistics, 2006.
- Howell, S. “Nature in Culture or Culture in Nature?” Chewong Idea of ‘Humans’ and Other Species,” n P. Descola and G. Palsson (eds.) Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives: 127-144. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Latham, Jonathan. “Unsafe At Any Dose? Diagnosing Chemical Safety Failures, from DDT to BPA.” Independent Science News, May 16, 2016.
- Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. 1857-58/1973.
- Nayeri, Kamran. “On Darwin’s Ecocentrism.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. August 7, 2009.
- —— “How Veganism Can Help Save the World.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. June 12, 2014.
- —— “On Michael Löwy’s Ecosocialism.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. June 6, 2015.
- —— “How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth.” May 14, 2017.
- Rachels, James. Created from Animals: The Moral Implication of Darwinism. 1990.
- Sarkar, Saral. Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?: A Critical Analysis of Humanity's Fundamental Choices. 1999.
- Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. 2017.
- Sessions, George. “Ecocentrism and the Anthropocentrism Detour,” in Sessions, George (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, 156-184. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1995.
- Steiner, Gary. Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005. Steiner, Gary. Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.
- Steffen, Will. Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. "The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration," Anthropocene Review, January 16, 2015.
- Wallace-Wells, David. “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine. July 11, 2017.
- Washington, Haydn. Human Dependence on Nature: How to Help Solve the Environmental Crisis. 2013.
- Wickham, Chris. Medieval Europe. 2016.
- Wilson, Edward o. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, 2016.