Exchanges on Marxism and ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Oct 19 19:17:11 MDT 1999

1) John Bellamy Foster replying to Michael Perelman's query whether ecology
existed prior to the 1850's:

Dear Louis,

Thanks for sending me Michael Perleman's query.  Could you pass this answer
on? It is not correct to say that environmental writings (with the exception
of literary works) begin only in the 1850s.  There are important
environmental writings already in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (which
were inspired not only by the conditions of early modernity but also by
ancient sources on the subject).  For an important example of this see John
Evelyn's FUMIFUGIUM (1661), the greatest critique of air pollution ever
written (part of which was reprinted with an intro by me in a recent issue
of ORGANIZATION & ENVIRONMENT). Another example would be Evelyn's SYLVA on
deforestation.  These were not minor works but came from the Royal
Society--products of the Baconian tradition.  Even if we look at an area
like agriculture where the turning point is clearly Liebig's work in 1840,
much of the ecological critique is anticipated by James Anderson, the
discoverer of the classical theory of rent, in the late eighteenth century.

John Bellamy Foster

2) Michael Perelman replies:

>I agree with John all the way.  When I mentioned forests, I was
>specifically thinking of Evelyn.  The ancients wrote about earlier
>environmental decay.  Others wrote about specific problems, such as the
>shortage of timber for ships.  My feeling is that as the idea of
>progress took hold, the concept of environmental problems fell by the
>wayside.  Then, in the middle of the 19th C., environmental writing
>bursts forth.  Liebig is important, but you also have the George Perkins
>Marsh type literature, which is more wholistic.
>I hope that John comes onto pen-l for a while and can help this
>discussion along.

3) more from Foster :

Dear Michael,

I would like to get in to this discussion but I leave at 6:00 tomorrow
morning for the University of Victoria to deliver a series of three public
lectures and I am very short of time (I teach until 9:00 tonight).  Here is
a brief note that you can relay if you wish.  In general I agree with your
succinct statement below.  I don't think that Marsh was more holistic than
Liebig though.  The difficulty with Marsh is that he did not deal with the
social-political-economic aspects but stuck narrowly (but brilliantly) to
the human transformation of the earth.  (His method as he explained it was
to invert the ecological assumptions of the historical geography of Karl
Ritter. Interestingly, enough Marx studied under Ritter and started out with
a similar inversion in the area of ecology.)  Liebig was more holistic than
Marsh in the sense that he developed a critique of capitalist agriculture
and ecological imperialism as carried out by the British, crossing the
natural science-historical science divide.  His greatest critique was in the
intro to the 6th edition of his Agricultural Chemistry.

More important I think one could exaggerate the degree to which the concept
of progress in and of itself derailed ecology.  In the Marxist tradition
ecology was strong until the mid-1930s.  He died twice in this period.  Once
in the West and once in the East.  But prior to this there were important
ecological discussions--to be found in Morris, Bebel, Kautsky, Lenin and
Bukharin. From the standpoint of today the three greatest ecological
discoveries all came from the Marxist theorists and Soviet scientists: the
idea of the biosphere, the discovery of the original centers of agriculture
and the sources of germplasm, and the theory of the origins of life.  It was
the Oparin/Haldane theory of the origin of life that provided the foundation
for Rachel Carson's most comprehensive ecological statement.  Anyway, I
think we do a disservice if we ignore all of this.  Incidentally, the most
powerful statement on ecological destruction in the first decade of the
twentieth century that I know of came from E. Ray Lankester, a protege of
Darwin and Huxley--and strangely enough a close friend of Marx.

Yours, John

Louis Proyect
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