Environmental Justice is as Much Social as It is Scientific

By Jibran M.

For those that know me well, I spent a lot of time outside this summer. Although I grew up in Maine, it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made an earnest effort at connecting to nature. However, at best I’ve only managed to scrounge up time for a few weekend sprints up 4,000 foot peaks, before being called back to work at the job that enables me to sustain my way of life, among other things.

However, a certain dissonance rings within me when I attempt to connect with nature. This discomfort stems simply from the fact of how I, and the majority of other folks in our society, tend to treat nature. For most, there is this vaguely romantic idea of “The Great Outdoors” as something of an escape, an event that needs to be “experienced” and documented as an “adventure” on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s as if our occasional sojourns lead us to some level of abstraction where we can extract ourselves from the mundanities of modern society to arrive at some profound conclusions about ourselves; a god’s-eye view or Archimedean Point, if you will. However, this is the planet we live on – surely place and experience aren’t commodities from which some value can be extracted? Why is it that we are so fascinated with nature?

The young Karl Marx investigated man’s relationship with nature in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx, the increased objectification of labor under capitalism leads to a “loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” In other words: the product of a worker’s labor only serves further alienate them from their peers. Unlike in his later writings, young Marx includes thoughts on an estrangement from nature as well. Marx explains,

“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.”

While man cannot create without nature, he is separated from the immediacy of it by simply acting upon it,

“Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life […] Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body.”

We are only able to perceive the natural world through a filtered and processed lens through the labor we undertake. Our organic connection to nature is stripped from us.

Our fascination with the great outdoors is born from the fact that the natural world that surrounds us is as alien to us as the deepest reaches of the ocean or the furthest stars in space. This state of individual alienation is exacerbated by the fact that this condition is shared by all our peers, “every self-estrangement of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.”

With its intersecting alienations, capitalism not only demands competition between our peers, but it demands a contradiction between nature and society or culture.

Could this contradiction, this conflict between man and society contribute to a sense of dread concerning the state of the environment? Perhaps climate justice must not only proselytize the science behind impending peril, but must also lead a project to reconceive the relationship between man and nature to bring an end to this mutual alienation. Unfortunately, Marx pretty much ends his analysis there. Good thing we have Engels! For all the benefits the sciences have to offer, he argued, its microscopic dividing-up of nature has only served to reinforce our anxiety towards it.

As Engels writes in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole (emphasis mine); of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.”

For decades, the popular discourse on the environment, thanks to neoliberalism, has been the domain of mechanistic thought, as opposed to the rigors of dialectical thought, which would serve to expose to the natural contradictions between society and the natural world. Examining ecological phenomena from a purely deterministic standpoint, or in purely physical terms, renders the outside world as a great “other” — in one sense, “primitive.” However, it is undeniable that the current state of the world, and its climate, is anthropogenic, chiefly originating from humanity’s exploitation of the Earth. Since humanity emerged we have always been, at least in the context of the development of western civilization, estranged from the planet itself.  As Engels brilliantly writes in his Dialectics of Nature:

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place […] step by step with the development of the hand went that of the brain; first of all consciousness of the conditions for separate practically useful actions, and later, among the more favoured peoples and arising from the preceding, insight into the natural laws governing them.”

Essentially, the more great scientific discoveries are made, the more we are alienated from nature’s original context as our understanding becomes more microscopic. The more microscopic nature becomes, the more we are callously alienated from it.

The conditions for mankind to flourish require that we have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with nature. In order to survive and thrive, humanity must expropriate its bountiful resources. However, the way capitalism has presented itself, and how quickly it has spread like a virus throughout the world obviates the need for the proletariat to engage in the opposing relationship between the natural world and society through dialectical materialism, to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions. Marx and Engels highlighted the dangerous path humanity has progressed without this kind of dialectic,

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Without a proper dialectic, nature is simply a problem to be conquered. When nature is simply something to be conquered, and when our understanding of it is microscopic and mechanistic, we seek to break it down even more with even bigger displays of expropriation. With the bourgeois firmly in control, a society has been built that subsists on toxic gas spewing automobiles; that is nourished on the sale of even more dangerous weapons. Even so, we can still sense how alienated we are and preserve “artifacts” of nature in zoos, museums, and natural parks. Theodor Adorno laments this in his Minima Moralia,

The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated. […] . The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”

We participate in this grand illusion of uncritical domination through our dates to botanical gardens, our Instagram-worthy hikes, and our family camping trips. So, if we can’t forge a proper connection and respect for what’s natural through the integration of our current culture, does this mean the proper solution is to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months? Should we fully capitulate to nature? What I hope we’ve come upon through this analysis is to realize that there were various discrete historical events related to the development and spread of capitalism (from the so-called “enlightenment” and the industrial revolution, to the imperialism of Baconian science) which has brought us to this inflection point in the development of humanity and nature. The very fact that climate change is such a political issue necessarily exposes it to dialectical examination.

However, instead of pushing for milquetoast legislation such as “carbon tax credits” or an encouragement to simply regress to a “primitive” state, we must, as socialists, pursue a radical transformation not only of our social relations with each other, but with nature as well.

What we need is a global revolution which totally eliminates the very concept of “capital.” It is only then we have even a possibility of forging a more collaborative existence with the world around us. When we unite as the proletariat to forge the world according to our “own taste,” then we can have a better shot at saving the planet from climate disaster and finally “connect” with nature.

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