Marx’s insights for ecology are many. The four “informal laws of ecology,” as Levi Bryant points out in his post on John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology, are not one of them (let alone four). These “laws” have been making their rounds ever since biologist and eco-socialist (and one-time Citizens Party candidate for the U.S. presidency) Barry Commoner proposed them around 1970. Numerous iterations afterward have suggested three, four, or five such laws, with Greenpeace’s Declaration of Interdependence being particularly influential. I’m not aware of any scientific ecologists today who think of them as actual scientific laws, though others have been proposed for the science of ecology (see, e.g., here or Pierre Dansereau’s 27 laws of ecology). Foster’s point is that they are “informal,” and therefore intended to provoke thought, not to serve as a foundation for a science.

But let’s look at them, and then at Marx. The first of Foster’s (Commoner’s) “laws,” that “everything is connected to everything else”, is (as Levi points out) a platitude. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t take us very far. (Except in the mystical experience, which has its place, and an inspirationally important one for many environmentalists; but let’s leave that aside.) The point it makes is intended as a corrective to the common-sense notion that things are simply what they are (people, animals, possessions, units of one thing or another, etc.) and that’s all. The law says that they aren’t just that: everything arises out of its own set of originating conditions, and passes away into other conditions, affecting other things in the process. Not everything directly affects everything else — that would be impossible, since two things that arise simultaneously but in different places don’t normally affect each other (unless by way of some “holographic universe” or superstring-like mechanism that scientists haven’t figured out yet). But if you traced the lines of causal connection from any thing in the universe, you could, in principle, trace it back/forward/across to anything else. That’s what the theory of evolution and the Big Bang both propose, and the science of ecology shares the supposition (though theoretical physicists may not): there is a single universe that has unfolded along a single (branching/diversifying/multiplying/expanding) trajectory, and everything in it is connected through this shared ancestry/descent/line of development. That’s all. The more pragmatic point (which was Commoner’s point) is that our actions have effects and that we normally don’t give them enough thought.


Point three, that “nature knows best,” says even less, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say what “nature” is or what its “knowing best” might mean. (That’s why this law doesn’t appear in many other renditions of these “laws.”) Generally, what those who say it have in mind is something more like “nature bats last” –- which isn’t inconsistent with Slavoj Zizek’s “nature is a crazy bitch” (cited by Bryant), except that the latter is not just hyperbolic and sexist, but more than a little paranoid. Or else they mean something like what the biomimicry folks are getting at: that we could learn a lot from studying the world and emulating the patterns that have evolved in and through it over millennia. I think they are quite right about this.

But then there are all kinds of other folks who say that this or that “deviance” is “unnatural,” and who thereby use “nature” as a club to beat others with. So it’s better to just agree that nature is a mystery, and that it might know best, but it probably won’t tell you what it knows without a lot of effort on your part. (In other words, if nature knows best, science is a pretty good means of getting to know what it knows.) Kate Soper’s excellent What is Nature? dealt with many of these themes quite adroitly years ago. Peter Taylor’s always good for a round-up of these kinds of debates.

The other two laws (“everything must go somewhere,” “nothing comes from nothing”) are the more substantial ones, and they both have to do with process. They main reason for repeating them is because people tend to forget them, and because capitalism has conditioned us to forget them even more. This 4-H environmental education page on the (five) “laws” explains well enough why they’re useful; and the source tells us enough about how seriously they should be taken by scientists (not too).

None of these are particularly rooted in Marx. The topic of Marxism and ecology is huge, but if I had to distill Marx’s (and Engels’s) main insights contributing to a better understanding of ecology, they would be these:

(1) the idea of the “mode of production,” which accounts for the particular ways in which a human society produces and reproduces itself from out of the material world that supports it (this concept is central to any Marxist analysis);

(2) an understanding of humans as laborers working to make our living from a difficult, but ultimately rewarding, Earth; and of human agency as capable of transforming ourselves through our efforts;

(3) the idea that “alienated labor” results from capitalist wage/commodity relations, and that the opposite — a labor that mixes love for what one does with a responsibility to the whole process of it — should be the goal of any plausible alternative;

and

(4) a detailed analysis of how the takeover/”enclosure” of socially embedded economic relations by a capitalist commodity economy has led inexorably to problems of overproduction, overaccumulation, an insatiable drive to extend and expand commodity production into new markets, the dispossession of those who would resist commodification, and the amassing of wealth by some at the expense of others, vesting the whole system in unequal power relations and making it that much more resistant to change.

These and other ideas have been applied to ecology by the likes of Marx-inspired thinkers including Jim O’Connor, Martin O’Connor, Neil Smith, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Ted Benton, Joel Kovel, Kate Soper, Enrique Leff, David Pepper, Raymond Williams, Karl Polanyi, and John Bellamy Foster.

Marxists (to my mind) don’t have a well-worked-out treatment for the illness they have been diagnosing for 150 years now, and their efforts to enact the programs that have been proposed have ranged from the ambiguous to the monumentally disastrous. (So any Marxist who doesn’t understand that the Soviet Union screwed up is a little out of touch with reality; but there aren’t many of them, at least among ecologists.) At the same time, capitalist market economies have combined relatively well, here and there (though not so well in the United States), with democratic politics, where those market relations have been managed by responsive representative institutions (i.e., where capitalism has been mixed and tendered with socialism and democracy). But Marxists’ analysis of the ecological crisis — in spite of the Promethean strain within Marx’s own writings — has been as acute as any, and that’s something that goes all the way back to Marx and Engels.

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