Capital, History and Environmental Politics
A panel held on April 6, 2013, at the 2013 Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Today, to perceive the link between human society and the natural environment does not require that we engage in an effort of great abstraction. Indeed, environmental issues and problems are all around us—e.g., in erratic weather patterns and resource depletion, on the one hand, and reflected in advertisements and political discourse, on the other. What remains paradoxical, however, is the fact that the intensity and scale of societally-induced environmental degradation, which rose to historically unprecedented levels during the latter half of the twentieth century, is synchronous with an equally impressive increase in public concern for and attention to the biophysical world. Intuitively, one would expect wide-spread attention and concern—not to mention the increasing amount of intellectual energy both natural scientists and social scientists have devoted to analyzing the environment-society problematic with an eye toward ameliorating human-induced environmental destruction—to at least lead to a decline in the rate of destruction increasing. Yet, this has not been the case.
Similarly, although societally-induced global ecological despoliation has spurred a felt need for urgent action expressed on behalf of those on the Marxian Left, effective collective mobilization is virtually absent. During the 1960s, the Left became increasingly involved in environmental politics. Some of those committed to Marxism have even refocused their efforts to consider a Marxian understanding of the relation between capitalism and biophysical destruction. Yet, capitalism’s destruction of the environment continues unabated.
Environmental politics remain situated in an uneasy relation to the Marxian Left. On the one hand, the rise of the environmental movement in the 1980s, particularly in Europe, marked the sharp migration of people drawn to Marxism in the 1970s to Green politics. On the other hand, a common theme of environmentalism is to impose limits to growth, sometimes expressed in conservative sentiments against technology, urbanization and cosmopolitanism, things that the Marxian left historically took to be signals of progress. One gets a sense that environmentalism is not motivated by the utopianism that Marx sought to clarify in his own time, but a dystopia to which the Marxian Left hopes to mobilize in the service of Marxism. However, if the linkage between capital and ecological despoliation is itself historically specific, then by extension, the possibility of overcoming capital (and hence, the current nature-society antithesis) must be historically specific as well. This panel invites you to consider the relationship between a) the history of capital and the Marxian Left—and thus the issue of history and freedom; and b) the entwinement of capital and biophysical nature in history in ways that challenge us to scrutinize the present and the contemporary ecological crisis in particular.