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From Masters to Caretakers

David A Powers

June 10, 2022

We are living through an age of massive environmental catastrophe. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health estimated that “pollution remains responsible for approximately 9 million deaths per year, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide” . According to a recent UN report, 40% of the world's soil is now degraded. Species are going extinct at between tens to hundreds of times higher than the natural extinction rate, and the extinction rate continues to accelerate. 300-400 million tons of toxic sludge and industrial waste get dumped into the oceans every year. Nuclear-armed states continue to upgrade their arsenals, while nuclear waste poses serious long-term environmental threats. Climate change threatens to drown major cities and may produce “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals”.

Two Responses to Crisis

There are two primary responses to these catastrophes within contemporary environmental discourse, which, following Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss, could be characterized as Promethean accelerationism and Gaian romanticism. The accelerationists hope to solve environmental crises within the context of capital growth and accumulation, through continued technological development. Accelerationist solutions oscillate between half-measures like a Green New Deal, and utopian visions of impossible technologies which will miraculously resolve environmental crises, but cannot be built given our current level of scientific knowledge. What accelerationist capitalist solutions share is a quasi-religious faith in the power of technological progress as a form of accumulation, a form rooted in capitalist accumulation of surplus value.

This quasi-religious position tends to underestimate the seriousness and severity of mass extinction and climate change. This position is, as Slavoj Žižek points out, a form of disavowal, an “unwillingness to take the ecological crisis completely seriously; hence the fact that the typical, predominant reaction to it still consists in a variation on the famous disavowal, ‘I know very well (that things are deadly serious, that what is at stake is our very survival), but just the same (I don’t really believe it, I’m not really prepared to integrate it into my symbolic universe, and that is why I continue to act as if ecology is of no lasting consequence for my everyday life)’” [1].

On the other hand, the Gaian romanticism embraced by many environmental activists tends to view nature as a self-organized and self-correcting whole which has been disrupted by humanity. In its mild form, such a view tends to promote austerity and degrowth, which in a class society disproportionately impacts the working class. In its extreme form, such a position authorizes mass murder, as some humans are categorized as pests and exterminated in order to restore balance to Mother Earth. According to Landon Frim, Gaian views tend towards eco-pessimism, which is a general pessimism about “human's reason's capacity to know nature, [to know] that nature has natural laws which are intelligible to us,” along with skepticism that humans can “manipulate and modify nature to increase human happiness, comfort, and flourishing”.

Mastering Nature?

Ralph Leonard’s recent article in Sublation Magazine, “Mastering Nature,” presents a typical Marxist-humanist response to these positions, by insisting we reject both Promethean accelerationism and Gaian romanticism, and instead seek to transform capitalism and change the social relations within society. While Marxists can agree that we should indeed seek to transform capitalism, we should be suspicious of the tendency to privilege Promethean technological discourses while rejecting eco-pessimism and critiques of industrial technology. When Marxists insist that we must maintain the humanist discourse of enlightened reason and repudiate all forms of romantic anticapitalism which are “hostile to industry, growth and plenitude”, they merely reproduce the logic of accelerationism. In doing so, they idealize technology while postponing any reckoning with ecological issues, which are deemed to be irrelevant to the present-day struggle of workers against capitalism. Just like accelerationists, they disavow the seriousness of current ecological crises, and “continue to act as if ecology is of no lasting consequence” [2].

Instead of explicitly theorizing contemporary ecological crises, Marxist-humanist critiques of eco-pessimism rely on conceptions of science inherited from the nineteenth century. They ignore the discoveries and developments which have occurred within science itself since Marx’s time, discoveries which problematize any simplistic conception of the manipulation of nature. These critiques idealize and romanticize the revolutionary project itself, fantasizing that all human ills will disappear after the Event of revolution, at which point “human society will gain a more self-conscious and complete mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will.” This position disavows the contradiction, contingency, chaos, and complexity within nature itself, and instead tends to regress towards a view of nature as merely “dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical laws, which [can] be discovered, understood, and mastered through careful study and observation”.

Attempts to valorize “mastery over nature” are not actually rooted in scientific thought and practice as it has unfolded since the nineteenth century. Instead, they are faith-based forms of magical thinking about scientific practices. Marxist-humanists tend to disavow the potentially traumatic scientific discoveries of the last century, including General Relativity, quantum mechanics, ecology, and chaos theory. What critics of eco-pessimism fail to acknowledge is that scientific discoveries have greatly complicated the simplistic idea of nature as an object which can be transparently analyzed, and is governed by a set of linear laws that rational human subjects can discover. This does not mean that humans cannot know anything at all about how the cosmos works, but it does imply that there may be limits to human thought and that as finite human beings acting from within complex systems, we can make terrible and tragic mistakes.

Ideas from modern physics, such as the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics, or “spooky action at a distance,” actually violate basic principles of naturalism as it was historically understood. Scientific thought has not led us to a comprehensive understanding of and mastery over an object called "nature". Rather, it has discovered a weird, chaotic, nonlinear cosmos that we often struggle to understand using human conceptual tools. Our position as finite observers examining complex systems from within implies that there are limits to our ability to manipulate nature.

The Reality of Chaos

Chaos Theory has made us aware that even the interaction of a few elements following apparently simple laws can actually exhibit highly unpredictable and chaotic behavior. As an example, Hyperion, one of Saturn’s moons, has a chaotic orientation. As Sean Carroll notes, “If you knew Hyperion’s orientation fairly precisely at some time, it would be completely unpredictable within a month or so... More poetically, if you lived there, you wouldn’t be able to predict when the Sun would next rise.” Žižek puts it this way:

One of the achievements of the theory of chaos is the demonstration that chaos does not necessarily imply an intricate, impenetrable web of causes: simple causes can produce “chaotic” behavior. The theory of chaos thus subverts the basic “intuition” of classical physics according to which every process, left to itself, tends toward a kind of natural balance (a resting point or a regular movement). [3]

The discourse of mastery over nature within the Marxist tradition claims to be rooted in “enlightenment, self-enrichment, and liberation”, but actually offers “magical explanations of nature” that are not grounded in contemporary science. At the heart of these magical explanations is the failure to acknowledge the complexity of material reality, and of dynamic systems that can exhibit surprising and chaotic nonlinear behavior. It is precisely the unexpected complexity of feedback loops between human activity and the biosphere that created the unforeseen consequence of climate change in the first place. Humans only learned recently that development of industrial society can disrupt the biosphere, which is the basis of human life. Here, we should keep in mind Bernard Stiegler's idea of the pharmakon: technology as both poison and cure [4]. The fire you use to keep warm and cook your food can burn down your house. This is why, although Marxist revolutionaries can and must use technology, it is crucial that we critique inherited ideas about technology, science, and mastery over nature, in order to avoid making catastrophic mistakes in our strategic use of technology.

Because of chaos and complexity, attempts to master nature have a tendency to produce unexpected consequences and reversals: bacteria and fungi develop antibiotic resistance; nuclear power plants melt down; space shuttles explode in midair. Every project aimed at mastery over nature contains the possibility of catastrophic failure, which is why we can never uncritically embrace ideas of technological progress rooted in scientific mastery. The terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation, which hovers on the horizon of human existence, reveals what is truly at stake in hubristic conceptions of mastery over nature.

What is “Nature”?

But it is not only cosmic chaos that calls the concept of mastery over nature into question. The concept of nature itself is a fuzzy category with no determined content. In European history, the concept of nature as a distinct category opposed to human activity and technology arises as a response to the industrial revolution. Nature in this context is not a clearly defined object; it merely refers to images of organic life undisturbed by the processes of industrial production, which contrast with the polluted and ravaged landscapes frequently produced by industrial processes. In general, as an object of mastery, nature refers to any entity that can be dominated and mastered using scientific methods, whether it is human or nonhuman, organic or inorganic. Because scientific methods can be used to study and manipulate all types of objects, the category of mastery over nature includes not only industrial and technological practices, but also forms of social domination including chattel slavery, colonialism, psychopower, and capitalist wage labor.

The Marxist critique of mastery over nature should begin by interrogating its roots in private property relations. The reification of nature in the form of private property transforms a category of human experience into a thing that individuals can own and possess. Private property implies land sovereignty; the landowner has the right to exercise absolute sovereignty over that land, and to determine which organisms live or die, as long as he does not obviously infringe on the sovereignty of his neighbors, or perform acts in violation of the state’s legal codes. Even from within the narrow framework of capitalist private property, experience has taught us that this notion of land sovereignty has a fatal flaw: since ecosystems are interconnected, and property boundaries are essentially arbitrary, many landowners have chosen to engage in actions that not only damage and pollute their own land, but also end up causing harm to people and other living beings who do not dwell within the property boundaries. In heavily polluted areas, corporations have essentially been granted sovereignty over entire communities, and exercise the right to harm or kill their neighbors with impunity.

Thus, we should follow Slavoj Žižek and Timothy Morton, and recognize that “nature does not exist” [5] and that we must pursue “ecology without nature” [6]. After all, if the concept of nature does not refer to a stable object that we can study, but instead, refers to human fantasies about the cosmos and our place in it, then any statement we make about nature is likely to amount to some form of ideology. Every view of nature remains caught within ideological fantasies and mystifications, whether we view humans as gods with unlimited power to dominate nature and reshape the fabric of the cosmos, or as humble sinners who should confess our sins against nature and return to a state of harmony, or as self-conscious beings who through a dialectical process will attain “complete mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will” leading to a “humanization (or socialization) of nature, an integration between the natural and social worlds to create a new whole”.

Virtuosos of Biosphere

Unlike the fuzzy idea of nature, the concept of the biosphere is a coherent abstraction which we can use to help understand and regulate the interaction between human beings and nonhuman elements of the biosphere. According to Simon Levin, “Undergirding the dynamic Earth–its atmosphere, its physical and chemical fabric, and its biological essence–is a prototypical complex adaptive system (CIS), one that we call the biosphere[7]. According to Levin, the biosphere is “an integrated network, with characteristic flows of materials, energy, and information that exhibit regularity in dynamics over long periods of time. Understanding the essential features of the biosphere’s internal organization, and what maintains it, is fundamental to developing a rational and effective strategy for preserving the environment with quality sufficient to sustain us, our children, and our children’s children.” [8]

At this point, we should make a dialectical move, and recognize that what we need is not mastery over nature, but mastery over mastery itself, in the context of practices that transform the biosphere. This view of mastery recognizes that technological and scientific practices have the potential to both heal and harm, depending on how they are used. For example, in order to not get sick from medicine, one must ingest the proper dosage and follow recommended guidelines. Avoiding the toxic effects of a pharmakon is only possible through the development of proper technique.

The importance of technique becomes clear when we examine the role of technique within the cultural sphere, where individuals who demonstrate mastery over mastery are known as virtuosos. The virtuoso is someone who has mastered technique through long years of patient training, in order to create new capacities to act in the world, and perform feats that appear miraculous. But the successful virtuoso is not one who ruthlessly exploits their own body: artists who do this injure themselves and are ultimately unable to perform. Instead, the virtuoso has a complex relationship with their body, a relationship that involves care, love, attention, discipline, repetition, and rehearsal.

For the virtuoso, the body is not just a form of private property owned and exploited by a dominating mind. Those who believe they can ruthlessly exploit their own bodies may have temporary success, but this form of mastery undermines itself, since ruthless exploitation actually harms the body, and erodes the capacity to think; at its extreme, ruthless exploitation transforms the living human body into a lifeless corpse. This is precisely what capitalism does to the bodies of workers, as it seeks to squeeze every last drop of surplus value out of them. In contrast, the virtuoso does not exploit the body but instead cares for, develops, and transforms it, through the attentive application of proper technique.

If we reject mastery over nature, how should we conceptualize our transformation of the environment? One possibility is to become ecological virtuosos, as we master proper techniques for taking care of the biosphere. While recognizing that the lion will never lay down with the lamb and that there may be moments of necessary violence in our relation to the environment and other organisms, we should seek to minimize such violence. Where we must intervene, we should seek to do so as gently as possible, without creating false dichotomies between human flourishing and the flourishing of other life forms.

This is not just a moral imperative, but also a matter of profound human self-interest. The biosphere is the foundation for all human life on Earth, and we collectively produce it as we interact with the environment and other life forms. Ecological science teaches us that biodiversity contributes to a healthy biosphere, while mass extinction undermines the long-term viability of the biosphere and its ability to sustain human life. We must recognize “the fundamental importance of biodiversity for the sustenance of life as we know and enjoy it, and the degree to which the evolutionary process operates to maintain that critical support system”[9].

A Communist Biosphere

Furthermore, there are political reasons to make this conceptual shift. Terms such as “mastery over nature” are rooted in the discourses of slave-holding societies and colonial projects; they are not helpful when we are building a project that seeks to end relationships of domination and exploitation. The concept of caretaking, on the other hand, aligns with the concept of solidarity; solidarity with other living beings can be seen as an extension of the solidarity workers demonstrate and develop in the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

We should recognize that humans actually enjoy taking care of the environment; studies of biophilia have demonstrated that direct experience of and interaction with plants can be a source of healing. Instead of dismissing ecologically minded potential allies as simply prone to eco-fascism or eco-pessimism, we should invite them to participate in the project to overthrow capitalist relations, arguing that only such a project can overcome the contradictions between humans and the biosphere that are generated by capitalism. We should argue that science and technology can and must be developed along new lines, in ways that minimize the toxic effects of industrial production and do not cause mass extinction or wreck the climate we all depend on.

The appearance of crisis in the biosphere thrusts a new task upon the working class. Now, we are not only fighting to abolish capital and class relations. We are also fighting for the sake of all life on earth. In the age of the Anthropocene, we should seek not to be masters, but rather, caretakers, and our concept of communism must evolve. The fate of the human race may depend on us: the time has come to struggle for a communism of the biosphere.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. MIT Press, 1991, p. 34-35

[2] Žižek. Ibid.

[3] Žižek. Ibid. p. 38.

[4] Stiegler, Bernard. What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Translated by Daniel Ross, Polity Press, 2013, p. 19-26.

[5] Žižek. Ibid.

[6] Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard University Press, 2007.

[7] Levin, Simon A. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Perseus Publishing, 1999, p. 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p.5.

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