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 technologi