Why We Need a Political Ecology

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Chris Gaal

Richard and Pat Nixon plant a tree on the White House South Lawn to recognize the first Earth Day, 1971 (White House Photo Office, via Wikimedia Commons)

TWENTY-THREE YEARS after the original Earth Day, most environmental problems have not improved, and many have indeed become much worse. There is an increasing awareness in the environmental movement that the tools used so far in the struggle have fallen far short of the task. Among many grassroots activists there now seems to be a genuine interest in searching for the deeper roots of the problem.

Getting to the roots of the problem implies that we examine the social aspects of how we live, and critically analyze them from an ecological perspective. To do this, however, ecological ideas are not enough. If we seek to adequately explain the reasons for the environmental crisis we must clearly understand the dynamics of society that lead to environmental destruction. Political ecology joins both ecological and social theory, providing a more comprehensive understanding, and allowing the environmental movement to be more effective.

Beyond Population

One commonly held belief is that expanding human populations present one of the greatest ecological problems yet seen. Many are convinced that the amount of land and resources used by humans have already far outstripped the carrying capacity of the planet. There is an intuitive logic here that lends itself to widespread popularity. In this view, all organisms of the species are more or less equally responsible, and the organisms with the highest birth rates and population density are the most responsible.

Yet the simple “population bomb” analysis breaks down quickly. Peoples with the highest birth rates in the Third World tend to use a fraction of the world’s resources, while a minority with low birth rates in the “developed” countries use most of those resources.

According to a 1991 Worldwatch Institute report, the First World uses per capita fifteen times as much paper, ten times as much steel, and twelve times as much fuel as the Third World. The United States generates 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide, the main gas behind the greenhouse effect; while India, with a population three times that of the United States, is only the fifth largest carbon dioxide producer. In fact, China, India and Indonesia, with 40% of the world’s population, produce only a combined 14.5% of the world’s carbon dioxide.(1)

Similarly, the United States, while having only 5% of the world’s population, uses 26% of the world’s oil.(2) The 1.25 billion meat eaters in the world, mostly the affluent, use nearly 40% of the world’s grain for livestock production.(3) Meanwhile 630 million people in the world are unable to provide themselves with a basic diet, and 40,000 children die daily from malnutrition.(4)

In spite of these facts about social reality, a crude and strictly biological version of the “population bomb” theory has been used to target “surplus peoples” for authoritarian population control measures, while ignoring social inequality. These targets have tended to be non-white, poor, mostly women, suffering from a severe lack of food, health care, education, and political power. In addition, a disproportionate amount of toxic waste has been dumped in their communities.

The problem for “surplus peoples” isn’t so much population growth and density as it is lack of control over investment. In addition to looking at the problem of resources from the narrow view of “natural limits,” one must also focus on the question of how wealth and power are distributed.

According to the research of Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins in their book Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, present natural limits do not account for scarcity and hunger. There is more than enough food produced to sustain the current level of world population. Yet food somehow manages to avoid the mouths of those who can’t afford to pay the price, being fed to livestock for the affluent to increase profitability, or simply dumped into the ocean to prop up agricultural prices. While others overconsume the natural wealth of the planet, the poor get the blame.

This is not to say that the idea of overpopulation is inapplicable; the general logic of recognizing ecological limits is correct. Population definitely plays an important role in determining the levels of resource use and environmental degradation. But it does not play the only role.

Another belief promoted in the movement is that so-called “Eurocentric humanist values upon which western society and culture are based” have led to the domination and destruction of nature. Along this line, many movement activists have called for a new ethics, taking inspiration from the sustainable values of other cultures.

While it is true that our society does promote values which see nature as something to be subdued, the idea that a change in values alone can bring about a change in society ignores the larger institutions which necessitate environmental destruction. The environmental movement sometimes seems to operate from a perspective simply of convincing those who don’t share our values until some sort of environmentally conscious critical mass is reached. The reality, however, is that the social order we live in requires destruction of the environment. If we expect new environmentally conscious values to make a difference, then we must also change the system.

Solutions that focus primarily on individual acts of green consumerism and recycling, while important in that such acts instill a sense of environmental responsibility, have not been able to stem the destruction, and have actually drawn attention away from the institutions responsible for the destruction.

The limits of “green consumerist” ideology are strikingly drawn in the following passage from the book Green Business: Hope or Hoax:

“In fact, the record shows that if everyone in the United States recycled 100 percent of what now constitutes their personal solid waste, 99 percent of the nation’s solid waste would remain. Industry would still be dumping upwards of 4.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the air, water and soil; the military would still be producing more than 500,000 tons of hazardous wastes a year; plants would still be emitting more than 281 million pounds of known carcinogens into the environment. The solution does not lie with individual consumers changing their individual habits.”(5)

If the movement is to be successful, then it must go beyond an individual focus, and identify the institutions of society responsible for the environmental crisis. History has demonstrated that individual actions and consumer boycotts have only been effective when combined with collective actions aimed at changing these institutions.

Envisioning an Alternative

The creative challenge facing the environmental movement is to envision a society consistent with ecology that is sustainable. A political ecology is useful in that it explains the social dynamics of what is wrong and why we have no control over our economic lives. It explains why in a competitive market economy the minority of people with the economic power must pollute in order to survive.

The desirable alternative is a society controlled from the bottom up, without a profit-oriented economy that necessitates exploitation of nature and people. In other words, a democratic form of socialism, with a democratic economy that produces what people need, not what an elite can buy; and that produces it within institutions that people participate in and control.(6)

Such a society would, for the first time since the rise of industry, allow genuine possibilities for ecological sustainability. With democratic control of economic activity we could realize the potential to recognize and stay within the limits of the ecological carrying capacity of the earth.

Without profit-seeking corporations or bureaucracies ruling in their own interest, we will have eliminated the major social forces opposing environmental safeguards. Protecting the environment thus moves from an economic impracticality, a cost to be minimized, to a political decision in which sustainable values may now play a role. Furthermore, the environmental movement won’t have to fight defensive battles time and again, here and there, putting out fires while the overall situation worsens.

But socialism by itself will not be enough to ensure an ecologically sustainable society. It will also take an independent and ever vigilant environmental movement to press for more sustainable forms of production and consumption in order to bring this about. A different economic basis is a prerequisite for an ecologically sustainable society, but the structures which rest on that basis must be altered as well.

The ecology movement has called into question many aspects of modern society that are complicit in the environmental crisis. If a future socio-economic arrangement is to be sustainable it must take these criticisms to heart.

A chief theme echoed throughout the ecology movement is the analysis of scale, which inevitably entails a critique of technologies of scale. Radical ecologists lead the call for human activity to become decentralized and made local so that the impact of large-scale centralized industry is reduced, and waste, like excessive transportation, is eliminated. The bioregionalist movement in particular has made important contributions to understanding the ecological limits of the land, and the need to adhere to the wisdom of living with nature instead of against it.

Bioregionalist writers such as Brian Tokar and Kirkpatrick Sale discuss the need to scale down to the land if our society is to have the least negative impact on natural systems. Such measures would also help to avoid social alienation caused through living within an out of control artificial system.

While it is important to pay attention to issues of scale, doing so does not solve all of our problems. In modern society, even with appropriate forms of technology, such as wind and solar for energy, the need for industry cannot be simply wished away. Furthermore, certain industries require centralization for efficiency, and economy of scale actually may reduce environmental impact in many of these cases.

Take for example mass transit: Each town cannot have its own factory to produce trains, yet the demand for transportation will not simply evaporate. The key is to meet this demand at an ecologically appropriate
scale (once for each region, or perhaps once for an entire country), under a system that places a high priority on protecting the environment.

Under the current system, new technologies will always be implemented in order to create new products to sell, and to increase productivity for firms attempting to be more competitive. Anti-technologists in the radical ecology movement are right in their assertion that new technologies presented to the consumer as time-savers and liberators are most often used against us in the end. Yet the introduction of a new technology does not automatically spell greater exploitation. For instance, in Germany, with its strong labor movement, new technology was translated into a struggle–at least partially successful–for a shorter work week for everyone at full pay.

An ecological vision, along with critiques of technology and scale should amend the traditional ideas of the left about radical economics and social justice.

For example, if a future democratically controlled socialist society were to decide that it is an ecological necessity to lower its level of population, how are we to best carry this out? It has been done by technocratic force, such as sterilization in Puerto Rico and other areas in the Third World. As long as children are the only social security system for vast sections of the Third World, as long as women have little control over their economic, social and reproductive lives, it will not be possible for society to rationally discuss how to control its population.

But we know that over the last 150 years women in Europe and the United States have limited the number of children they bear despite the many barriers against their doing so. By removing the institutional barriers and building an egalitarian society, the question of lowering the population level might not even be a problem. If it still were, a democratic discussion could enable us to come up with possible alternatives.

Yet even in such a democratic, socialist society we will need the ecology women’s and movements working together to push for alternatives–for in the absence of such a movement the authoritarian (or paternalistic) technocratic “solution” is the path of least resistance.

Biocentrism and the Left

Another popular concept in the ecology movement is the idea of biocentrism. A common thread which unites biocentrism is the notion that we should center our political, economic and cultural ideas on the natural dynamics and limits of ecosystems. This position is shared especially by proponents of “deep ecology.”

One may see the motivation for this idea in the search for a new ecological ethics as a foundation on which to rebuild a sustainable form of society. If “humanist” ethics, the notion that humans are the scale against which all other things are measured, has fallen short of our ecological goals, then perhaps a “biocentric” ethics will serve the interests of sustainability.

Yet biocentrism needs a clear understanding of the workings of human society. This is clear when we recall the misanthropic statements that have occasionally surfaced: that AIDS is a good thing to reduce population, or that we should militarize the border with Mexico to prevent immigration, or that famine should be allowed to run its course and reestablish a natural balance of people to resources.(7)

Activists such as those in the early Earth First!, influenced by biocentrist deep ecology short of a proper social framework, managed to pursue militant direct actions, and generate publicity around a limited set of issues. But in the end, they too fell back on either a radicalized liberalism unsuccessfully seeking no-compromise legislative reforms, or a sometimes misanthropic mythological utopianism summed up by the slogan “Back to the Pleistocene!” These strategies did little to advance any political goals, nor–by the admission of leaders at that time–were they so intended.

Nonetheless, a vision for an ecological society which functions in a complementary way with nature has been a goal of many biocentrists. But, such a society must be rooted in reality and the present. The alliances attempted by the later Earth First! during the Redwood Summer campaign were a step in the direction of such a new political strategy.

Fortunately there is a growing movement, including many prominent activists, who realize that social justice and ecology need not have opposing aims. In a 1989 public talk in New York City, Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman said:

“I certainly recognize the need for increasing the connections between the left’s social concerns and my heartfelt and longtime ecological concerns… . We need to acknowledge the many social, cultural, and economic causes of population growth as well as the biological, and we need to campaign for economic justice and an end to maldistribution of land, food, and other necessities of life as well as for the humane and long-term reduction of the human population.”(8)

These remarks may show the way to a radical ecology movement that is united in its understanding and principles. It appears that many deep ecologists have taken to heart criticisms from the social ecology school of thought, while retaining their earlier biocentric convictions. Perhaps it is time that the socialist left return the favor by dealing seriously with the difficult challenge of biocentrism.

What is missing from the left is an appreciation of the ecological wisdom that biocentrism brings to the movement. Essentially, this could be stated as the idea that there should be wilderness, that is areas in a pristine natural condition; and that these areas of wilderness should exist for their own sake apart from any narrow human utility, or enlightened self-interest. People like Dave Foreman have rejected the idea, shared by the left, that we should protect nature because we are connected to and dependent on it as humans. While this may offer a benevolent worldview toward nature, it still does not preclude the endless cultivation and reshaping of nature to suit human purposes.

In my own view, it might be best to set aside deep philosophical disagreements over whether nature should be protected for its own sake or in our own human interest, and focus instead on uniting in specific struggles to preserve remaining wilderness. What is desperately needed in the radical ecology movement is to have an emerging consensus that draws on the best of what each tradition has to offer–a synthesis of a humanism that is not anthropocentric, and a biocentrism that is not misanthropic, that is a philosophy which resolves the dualism between humans and nature into a vision and understanding of humans within nature operating sustainably. Perhaps it could be called an “ecological humanism.”

Uniting Labor and Ecology

The environmental movement has focused its energy on personal responsibility, public education, and legislative action. Many activists have spent years focused on a single issue. Such effort is indeed admirable and has made a notable difference in individual cases, but the difficulty is that even when successful in particular instances, the rest of the ecological picture has been deteriorating rapidly.

However, we cannot afford the luxury of single issues any more. Instead of focusing on one aspect of a more general crisis we could be attempting to influence the problem at the roots of economic power. This entails an understanding that the needs of corporations, and their power to control the government have led to the environmental crisis. For the environmental movement to gain the upper hand against such power it must take on a political focus.

A political strategy will mean that the environmental movement must seek to make allies. In the past organized labor and environmentalists have traditionally been pitted against one another; despite the fact that they are both in similar situations, competing over crumbs chiseled out of profits. In some instances this has changed, and a powerful anti-corporate popular alliance has been created; more powerful than either grouping by itself. It has occurred in various battles around toxics issues, and recently has begun to pick up momentum against free trade. Workers suffer from the consequences of pollution at both the workplace and in the community, and from the power of corporations to dictate their fate. In many cases, labor progressives actively seek community allies. As the International Paperworkers Union put it, occupational and community health are “really two sides of the same coin.”(9)

Whenever possible environmentalists should attempt to include a labor agenda in their demands in order to avoid being “whipsawed” over the jobs issue. This may come naturally in some areas such as toxics, but in many areas of concern there really does seem to be a genuine rift between environmental protection and jobs. Tony Mazzocchi, a long time labor progressive and vice-president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, and organizer of the Labor Party Advocates, believes that there is in fact a fundamental rift between the two concerns.

In Mazzocchi’s opinion, unionists will only be able to rally on the side of environmentalists if both groups can put a “superfund for workers” on the political agenda, allowing workers to support the phasing out of polluting industries with a guarantee of retraining and gainful employment in another sector.(10) A politicized environmental movement would be wise to build support for such a measure.

In the context of free trade, and the downward spiral of economic and social conditions, there will be a direct relationship between the degree of environmental regulation that we can enforce as a movement, and the strength of the labor movement in general. If labor is weak then the corporations will have a freer hand in restructuring the conditions of production to include greater exploitation of the environment. The only solution is to take wages, environmental standards, and community integrity out of competition through international solidarity, and solidarity between social movements.


  1. Michio Kaku, “More Hot Air Likely From Earth Summit,” The Guardian, 10 June 1992, 8. Ess also Praful Bidwai, “North vs. South on Pollution,” The Nation, 22 June 1992, 853-854: “The accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere . . . .If U.S. per capita annual missions (5.2 tons) were to be frozen and India’s (0.22 tons) were to grow at recent rates, India would not reach one ton a year until 2024–a level surpassed by the United States well before 1900.”
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  2. Alan Durning, “Enough is Enough, Assessing Global Consumption,” Dollars and Sense, June 1991, No. 167, 17.
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  3. Ibid., 16.
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  4. Ibid., 16.
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  5. Christopher Plant and Judith Plant, eds., Green Business: Hope or Hoax? (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990), 7.
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  6. For one example of a decentralized non-market participatory democratic planned economy see Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s books Looking Forward and A Political Economy of Participatory Economics. For a more transitional model that applies to an immediate program, see After the Wasteland, by Samuel Bowles, David Gordon, and Tom Weisskoff. The latter authors argue that institutional change will come about by empowering people to make the economic decisions usually reserved for the board of directors, or bureaucrats. Democratizing the economy will mean creating more social control over the market, so that the needs of people and nature provide a counterweight to the dictates of profit. tes of profit. Whatever their shortcomings, these books offer compelling arguments that the market need not reign supreme.
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  7. Steve Chase, “Wither the Radical Ecology Movement,” in Defending the Earth (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 20-21.
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  8. Dave Foreman in Defending the Earth, 107, 111-112.
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  9. “News Watch,” Labor Notes, September 1991, 4.
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  10. Laura McClure, “Labor Party Maverick Tony Mazzocchi Doesn’t Duck the Tough Questions,” The Guardian, 6 May 1992, 10-11.
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January-February 1993, ATC 42

1 comment

  1. Hi there! This is an idea that you might like:

    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
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    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
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