remaking the environmental movement

The Long Death of Environmentalism

There are good environmentalists and bad environmentalists. Or, it is more accurate to say that more often than not there are good and bad ideas about environmental questions that exist within the same person. In this article I depict this complex reality in simple terms: good Green and bad Green.

The Green Party has a leader, Bob Brown, who makes things up (that the Queensland floods were the direct responsibility of the coal industry), promotes policies that are incompatible with immediate low cost economic growth (coal is bad) as well as longer term economic growth (nuclear is bad too).

Bob Brown represents the dying Greens, the bad Greens. Sooner or later his ideas will be replaced by good Green ideas. My estimate is that the bad Green ideas have peaked and are now in decline.

Let it be said that concern for the environment is a good thing. The environmental movement has alerted us to the real dangers of anthropogenic global warming, real threats to endangered species, etc. These issues are not the most important issues in the world but they are significant. There is a real need for some sort of environmental political movement.

The bad Green movement may appear to have real strength in Australia, with the Gillard minority government (enmeshed in an alliance with The Green Party) recently announcing her carbon tax plan. Or, as she prefers, her carbon price plan. The appearance of strength is illusory. The politics of The Greens has peaked and Gillard’s embrace of a carbon tax will quite likely contribute to her demise at the next election, whenever that is held.

Internationally, the bad Green movement is on the retreat.

The IPCC and Al Gore had a high a few years ago with the release of the movie, An Inconvenient Truth and their subsequent award of the Nobel Prize. But the actual impact of this movie was to decrease support for climate legislation. Gore claimed that, “the truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives”. This led to a backlash in the mainstream from people who were not prepared to fundamentally change their lives.

To an extent, significant sections of the green movement recognised that BIG FEAR, the alleged end of the earth, was not working and so they altered their propaganda, with more emphasis on the allure of green jobs. However, the people do not believe this either because rising energy costs leads to a greater loss of jobs than any new jobs that might be created.

Hence, the need to remake the environmental movement, as outlined in the above article by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. They advance 12 theses for a Post-Environmental movement. These theses are a mixture of what the environmental movement should stop doing (critique) and what it should start doing (rebuilding). I’ll provide a brief summary here:

1. Better or louder climate science is not going to change opinions
2. Big FEAR is counterproductive
3. There are good reasons apart from anthropogenic global warming to decarbonise the economy
4. Behaviour change won’t solve global warming
5. Climate change is not a traditional pollution problem
6. Price regulation won’t work
7. We need more energy and renewables are currently too expensive and so can’t provide what is required
8. Future projections using economic models are too open to manipulation
9. Cheaper energy is the bottom line
10. Nuclear is good
11. The scale involved requires State intervention
12. Big is beautiful

I think they are on the right track. The environmental movement will become more successful when it takes itself off the front page and resumes it proper place as a minor political issue. It needs to become the tail that the dog wags and stop pretending it can be the tail that wags the dog.

24 Responses to “remaking the environmental movement”


  1. 1 informally yours

    Having taken the Environmental ethics course because I was kind of into the hippie, feminist mother-earthy Gaia thing when I began Uni, so I can speak from an understanding of the deep greens position and can say that I eventually concluded (in hindsight I’d say correctly) that the so-called ‘good aspects’ of the green philosophy were well covered by long standing government and non-government organisations and required no encouragement on my part to fulfil or renew their so-called political agenda and I still think that is the case.

    I found the so-called green left group a hindrance to the on campus student movement work I was engaged in, so it was easy to see and conclude the dead end the environmental movement was for red politics.

    The idea of sustainability was politically undefinable, and the ‘conservation’ movement deeply divided over how to manage even the animals, weeds and rubbish collection in National Parks, let alone the implications of new technology and the existence of modern cities and other ‘human foot print’ Malthusian obsessions.

    Friends of the Earth FOE split and generated FOE Nouveau that embraced the technological and modern world with ‘sustainability’ solutions and eco-cities projects. Green Peace was and still is questionable in its organisational and strategic direction in just about every way and the question about National parks and ‘native use’ rages wherever it raises issues of indigenous access and food resources.

    Clearly for me the correct approach is to allow indigenous use and management of these areas but that is most often not occurring (see furore over such as National Parks provisions and the wild rivers legislation) and so-called environmental focus trumps indigenous aspirations/agenda. (Note talk of mining in Arkaroola where people speak in cliche about the environmental value/issues when the real issue at stake is the ancient cultural and artistic value of some of the first art produced by mankind – raising again significant legal issues associated with Land Rights and showing evidence of continuing libnks between people and the land.)

    For these reasons the question has always been for me about re-making the Communist movement and I see any real concern or focus on so-called green issues as a diversion away from that project, as at best counterproductive.

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    Informally Yours,

    I helped setup an environment group in the 1980s and in looking for a broader rationale I read James Lovelock’s book about Gaia. I think why people do this is that they are wanting the environment issue they are putting time and effort into to become more important than it really is. Just as today many people want global warming to be more important or more certain than it really is. Often it is mentally easier to be black and white about issues and miss the shades of grey. The map in our heads and the map of reality out there do not always match.

    Luckily, I kept searching and eventually found a better guide, Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. But of course that process of searching for reality is ongoing.

    I think you are right that it is not hard to examine a variety of environmental groups – FOE, Greenpeace etc. – and find major faults with them. I also agree that the whole notion of sustainability is suspect. Like it or not the world is and always has been in dynamic change.

    Nevertheless, green politics has become quite influential. In the last Australian election, 11% voted for The Greens. So, I would argue we have no choice but to analyse and differentiate the good bits from the bad bits just for the purposes of engaging the many people influenced by green politics in constructive and critical discussion. I thought the 12 theses outlined in The Long Death of Environmentalism made a good start in this direction.

  3. 3 tom

    Hi Informal,
    Thanks for your post. You are spot on to suggest that green politics represent a dead end for red politics. And I’m tempted to chuck in “death knell”.
    By the time green politics began to emerge in a serious way in the 70′s the left was already in deep crisis as evidenced by the rapidity of it’s degeneration after the Vietnam war (and the collapse of the Maoist movement following Mao’s death also indicated that the crisis was very deep).
    In hindsight the seduction of green radicalism and the green critique was a lay down misere as the left in general and most of what passed for the revolutionary left was utterly confused about what it was about capitalism that it was opposed to and had lost any real understanding or sympathy with working class aspirations. Middle class ones were another matter and these were quickly identified with and adopted (I am reminded of Brecht’s poem The Swamp).
    I agree that a re-making of the Communist movement can very easily be side tracked by focussing on green issues (or any other reformist issue) although we will need to be clear about which aspects we may share common ground with and which we line up on differnt sides. In considering Bill’s post, several of Nordhaus’ and Schellenberger’s theses, for example, strike me as pretty sensible bourgeois positions that we would support, particularly “Cheaper energy is the bottom line”. Such a view used to be thoroughly identified as the capitalist position and as the communist position. The capitalists are now no longer so sure and there is certainly ideological and policy confusion in their ranks. We should not be so ambivalent or squeamish, so some focus is necessary.

  4. 4 Bill Kerr

    The perception I had in the 80s was that environmental issues had broken through into the mainstream media somehow and that they were progressive because the polluters were big capitalists. My “red politics” was somewhat deficient.

    That red politics is different from green politics is a correct analysis for those who believe that red politics is different from green politics. Beyond that it is a nice slogan that leads no where in particular. Given that red politics had died then it becomes even more problematic.

    The “bourgeois” work of Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg is a more useful starting point – and others like them who have actually critical analysed various environmental issues from a scientific, social and economic standpoint (eg. John McCarthy, Roger Pielke jnr etc.)

    A pretty good recent critique of green politics (in this case, The Wilderness Society) in Australia has been done by Noel Pearson wrt the “wild rivers” issue since it is a concrete application by him of his analysis of what he calls progressivism. This arose from a real struggle and real analysis not from any proclamation of redness.

  5. 5 informally yours

    I definitely like the sound of cheaper energy is the bottom line, and agree that we do need some focus on green issues, my point was about engaging much in ‘re-making the environment movement’ because they are unlikely to support something that puts them in their place.

    When in the student movement my broad group Left Alliance was one that was established as an alliance of socialist, feminist, progressive and environmentalist activists. Usually not members of an established left party, but party membership did not preclude membership in the alliance so there were a few defuncto ex Communists, ISOers, and SPAers at some stages which made for ‘interesting’ conferences.

    At the time, the environmentalism aspect took the form of anti-uranium mining, (and wilderness/forest camapigns) but it didn’t take long to have medical students involved talking about ways that uranium mining serves human health interests, and from there to the position finally adopted by the ALP to support uranium mining in SA.

    (The efficacy of the four mines policy is what is mentioned within ALP debates now – there would be no question of actually gaining support to ban uranium mining, but focus has moved to opposition to the establishment of a nuclear waste dump, so if nuclear is good then what about the waste?)

    Most of us saw the correctness of this position and focussed on campaigns against military uses of uranium, and opposition to the U.S. military alliance – Nurrungar protests etc.. MMM Well we all make mistakes – lucky I am alive to tell the tale but since then the Kuwait war and 9/11 certainly brought those issues into proper perspective.

    Taking South Australian examples which I understand best and illustrates well the dilemmas associated with developing a coherent green policy development and action plan, University of Adelaide (UofA) academics have wide ranging opinions about both climate change, uranium mining, and ‘sustainable’ electricity generation options. (e.g. Barry Brook, Ian plimer, Victor Gosden etc..) In South Australia, as a major world producer of uranium these issues come up consistently both commercially, academically and politically.

    It is the U of A’s ‘rival’/sister Flinders University which has/had the joint German meteorological research program and their expert http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CDoQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fclimaterealists.com%2Findex.php%3Fid%3D3622&rct=j&q=Dr.%20Peter%20Schwertweger&ei=RcB2TfX-McOecZzrgIIF&usg=AFQjCNHEUNMoirsd17hlvxtxNI7fpFgpJQ&sig2=xRPDpIdrpZFwnpPJ9zAXEw&cad=rjais sceptical about the current hoo haa.

    As I see it the so-called green movement has consistently shown poor leadership and focus, particularly as it relates to the nuclear waste issue – typically taking actions that makes things more dangerous than less so, and generally causing disruption and conflict while naming it ‘peaceful’ protest.

    As I saw in the past and i haven’t detected change the contradictions within the so-called greeen movement are such that any coherent local strategy is out of the question, and generally being anti-human in essence, the focus is top down and disempowering to the masses. (Ohh you can feel good recycling and purchasing ‘organic’ food, but it is ultimately passively changing the face of the ‘environment’ but nevertheless maintaining the status quo)

    For instance, in South Australia people whinged about the Murray river dying and couldn’t agree about whether the water in the lower regions ought be fresh or saline, not properly recognising the dynamic change aspect and instead focussing on commercial environmental aspects. i.e Farmers need fresh water and recreation needs any water. So the state politicians had to do something, and so put in a ‘temporary wall’ in the river. With the rains it was supposed to be removed by now but it is far more complicated than expected by the so-called experts who were given the contract for getting the job of politicians-being-seen-to-do-something done. Last I heard there is some wrangle between state and Feds over further funding to remove the debris deliberately dumped ‘temporarily’ in the river!!!

    In SA, green thinkers I know are apalled by the establishment of the desalination plant as the outcome of their bleating about the drought and the river dying, and other extraordinary weather ‘climate’changes, and other things generally going from bad to worse thanks to OVERPOPULATION and irresponsible, procreating others.(Remember the teeming masses)

    Talk of drought has gone to flooding rains – (ohh what a revelation)and that desal plant (and others like it) are looking like great big white elephants with nasty potential side effects to deal with sometime in the future.

    So, instead of spending money on generating power/cheaper production options etc., the SA state government spends it creating a potential problem for fish breeding stocks etc., where the super saline waste is deposited into the sea. So, rather than harvesting the storm water we did and will have in future, even under previous quite severe drought conditions the short term political and electoral interests won the day. This is what is so concerning imv.ist movement and I see any real concern or focus on so-called green issues as a diversion away from that project, as at best counterproductive.

  6. 6 dennis belk

    You wacko”s need to get your act together. This country. USA. needs to drill for oil, and do it now. Get out of the way. This country id in dire straights now and YOU are in the way. If you want to do something get Al Gore out of the pollution business. HE is the one whose is letting pollution form in our skies in the form of jet aircraft pollution. I t covers the skies and stop natural light from the sun to shine thru to the GREEN EARTH. Check out Jet Pollution on the internet, it is very graphic, or just go outside in your area and LOOK UP!!!!!!!!! Dennis Belk

  7. 7 Ross Wolfe

    Strange synchronicity on this, though I am only coming across this months after the fact.

    I am a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, a group with whom members of this site have interacted here and there.

    Earlier this year I attempted to trace out a Marxist conceptualization of the problem of man’s relationship to nature, in an essay that was later published in the Speculative Realist online journal, Thinking Nature. The essay is divided into four sections, tracing out the past ideological configurations of the problem, the relevant Marxist literature, the historical legitimacy of the structuralist opposition between nature and culture, and finally a trenchant critique of the modern environmentalist movement:

    “Man and Nature”

    Feel free to repost it for your readers if you think they might find it interesting.

  8. 8 Arthur

    Hi Ross Wolfe, I just read “Man and Nature”. Thanks!

    You might be interested in a 40 year old article on related themes:

    http://www.lastsuperpower.net/Members/anita/altechandprog

  9. 9 jim sharp

    engels it seems to me had other thoughts when he published this poem by the industrial proletarian
    Written by Edward P. Mead of Birmingham, it is a correct expression of the views prevailing among them.

    There is a King, and a ruthless King; Not a King of the poet’s dream; But a tyrant fell, white slaves know well, And that ruthless King is Steam.

    He hath an arm, an iron arm, And tho’ he hath but one, In that mighty arm there is a charm, That millions hath undone.

    Like the ancient Moloch grim, his sire In Himmon’s vale that stood, His bowels are of living fire, And children are his food.

    His priesthood are a hungry band, Blood-thirsty, proud, and bold; ’Tis they direct his giant hand, In turning blood to gold.

    For filthy gain in their servile chain All nature’s rights they bind; They mock at lovely woman’s pain, And to manly tears are blind.

    The sighs and groans of Labour’s sons Are music in their ear, And the skeleton shades, of lads and maids, In the Steam King’s hell appear.

    Those hells upon earth, since the Steam King’s birth, Have scatter’d around despair; For the human mind for Heav’n design’d, With the body, is murdered there.

    Then down with the King, the Moloch King, Ye working millions all; O chain his hand, or our native land Is destin’d by him to fall.

    And his Satraps abhor’d, each proud Mill Lord, Now gorg’d with gold and blood, Must be put down by the nation’s frown, As well as their monster God.

    — Condition of the Working Class in England, by Engels, 1845

  10. 10 barry

    Surely jimsharp you’re not seriously suggesting that Engels (and Marx) opposed steam power. Marx was in such awe of the Industrial Revolution that he compared its achievements favourably to the best achievements of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Like Engels, he supported humanity’s conquest of Nature through technological and scientific advances which ultimately play a part in transforming social relations. Neither would be impressed with today’s greenies or those commentators (like Andrew Bolt) who actually think they are somehow ‘red’ or communist. As Mao said: “Man (humanity) must conquer Nature!”

  11. 11 Bill Kerr

    Marx and Engels were both delighted by our abilities to increase productivity and also highly condemning of the way in which capitalists used new machinery to exploit workers, including women and children to a higher degree than before. They were in particular critical of The Factory. Both sides of the coin need to be pointed out. Praise for what capitalism has achieved stands out in The Communist Manifesto. The horrors of The Factory are stressed by Marx in Ch. 15 of Capital, vol 1.

  12. 12 jim sharp

    b.y.all i’m saying is i feel marx used dialectics not metaphyisics
    Marx, Letter to Bracke (1875)
    Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

  13. 13 dennis belk

    Two things come to mind….stop air pollution, by making the airline industry, government, air jet planes from polluting the air and SKY again I say SKY!!! These bastards actually stop the sun from shining thru THEIR pollution mess, period!!! NEXT these gas and electric companies and their old/antique ideas using telephone poles to transmit electricity. Get real!!!! Start a program to stop using TELEPHONE POLES. WHY, you say……every rain or storm severe or not, the gas and electric company send out trucks and men to to repair or replace lines or transformers or poles. In a major storm they ask as many as 3 other states to help them repair all this mess. VERY VERY VERY costly to you who foot their bill in higher costs. PUT these line under ground now, I have lived in an area for 20 years, all lines are underground….no repairs for 20 years DENNIS BELK

  14. 14 Arthur

    The quote was from Engels, “Dialectics of Nature”:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch09.htm

    Naturally the surrounding context was omitted:

    In short, the animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.

    And, in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly, and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances of natural science in the present century, we are more and more getting to know, and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences at least of our more ordinary productive activities. But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose in Europe after the decline of classic antiquity and which obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.

    But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions. We mentioned the potato and the resulting spread of scrofula. But what is scrofula in comparison with the effect on the living conditions of the masses of the people in whole countries resulting from the workers being reduced to a potato diet, or in comparison with the famine which overtook Ireland in 1847 in consequence of the potato disease, and which put under the earth a million Irishmen, nourished solely or almost exclusively on potatoes, and forced the emigration overseas of two million more? When the Arabs learned to distil alcohol, it never entered their heads that by so doing they were creating one of the chief weapons for the annihilation of the original inhabitants of the still undiscovered American continent. And when afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic. The men who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries laboured to create the steam engine had no idea that they were preparing the instrument which more than any other was to revolutionise social conditions throughout the world. Especially in Europe, by concentrating wealth in the hands of a minority, the huge majority being rendered propertyless, this instrument was destined at first to give social and political domination to the bourgeoisie, and then, however, to give rise to a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, which can end only in the otherthrow of the bourgeoisie and the abolition of all class contradictions. But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.

    To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.

    All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of labour. The further consequences, which only appear later on and become effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally neglected. Primitive communal ownership of land corresponded, on the one hand, to a level of development of human beings in which their horizon was restricted in general to what lay immediately at hand, and presupposed, on the other hand, a certain surplus of available land, allowing a certain latitude for correcting any possible bad results of this primitive forest type of economy. When this surplus land was exhausted, communal ownership also declined. All higher forms of production, however, proceeded in their development to the division of the population into different classes and thereby to the contradiction of ruling and oppressed classes. But thanks to this, the interest of the ruling class became the driving factor of production, in so far as the latter was not restricted to the barest means of subsistence of the oppressed people. This has been carried through most completely in the capitalist mode of production prevailing to-day in Western Europe. The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect – in as much as it is a question of the usefulness of the commodity that is produced or exchanged – retreats right into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be gained on selling.

    The social science of the bourgeoisie, classical political economy, is predominantly occupied only with the directly intended social effects of human actions connected with production and exchange. This fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the theoretical expression. When individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results can be taken into account in the first place. When an individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with only the usual small profit, he is satisfied, and he is not concerned as to what becomes of the commodity afterwards or who are its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What did the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees, care that the tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock? In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, tangible success; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different, mainly even of quite an opposite, character; that the harmony of demand and supply becomes transformed into their polar opposites, as shown by the course of each ten years’ industrial cycle, and of which even Germany has experienced a little preliminary in the “crash”; that private ownership based on individual labour necessarily develops into the propertylessness of the workers, while all wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of non-workers; that …[12]

    The whole of this important chapter is also available separately as “The Part Played by Labour in the transition from Ape to man”:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm

    The point is of course that Engels, like Marx, stressed understanding nature to conquer and control it in the interests of humanity (and the same for society). This is directly opposite to the Greenie subservience to and worship of nature that seeks to cramp humanity into accepting its “limits”.

  15. 15 Bill Kerr

    I think the Engels dialectic was mastery and control of nature on the one hand and our human unity with nature on the other. In the quoted extract he didn’t use the word “conquer”, which I don’t see as synonymous with mastery.

    Jane Goodall, for example, didn’t set out to conquer the chimpanzee. Her approach was to get close to them and to learn more about them. Hence, with time and patience she was the first human to discover that chimpanzees used tools to catch termites, hunted and ate meat, were warlike with regard to other tribes etc. Subsequently, chimpanzees have demonstrated computer skills, learnt sign language (300+ signs), invented new signs (eg. wanting a Brazil nut signing “rock berry”) and once having been taught signs can teach them to their children without human help. I think the expression “mastery of nature” in a dialectic of unity with nature fits better than the expression “conquest of nature” in describing these significant advances in our knowledge.

  16. 16 informally yours

    As we were out driving yesterday noticed new BIGraffiti on the side of a major Adelaide road train overpass the words NUCLEAR = ZERO Emissions. I will get a pic soon (How do they do it?), but is this a notable paradigm shift?

  17. 17 barry

    Informally yours, Green alarmism has served nuclear well. Any risks from nuclear are lessened as the magnitude and imminence of global warming catastrophe is exaggerrated. I’d expect more greenies to support nuclear from now on, though in Australia the basic economics work against it at this stage.

  18. 18 barry

    bill, I think mastery is fine as the descriptor for ‘advances in our knowledge’. A hydrologist, for instance, masters nature by researching the movement, distribution and quality of water and enhancing understanding. But when humans build a dam to stop the natural flow of a river system, using that (and other specialist) knowledge, we are doing more than mastering, we are conquering – subjugating – that river system to our own purposes. We are doing this by unnatural means – collective self-conscious human labour. Needless to say, we do so to keep ourselves going, and to improve our life, as a human species. Conquering is part of the dialectical relationship, and the times cry out for the notion to be asserted again. If leftists influenced by Marxism don’t use the concept, then no-one will and efforts by the Right (including the pseudo-left) to portray Marx as some kind of green believer in sustainability will gain ground.

  19. 19 Arthur

    “makes it serve his ends, masters it” sounds pretty synonymous to “conquers”.

    The words “master” and “conquer” are generally listed as synonyms:

    http://www.synonyms.net/synonym/conquer
    http://www.synonyms.net/synonym/master

    Like any synonyms they can have different shades of meaning, but I don’t see that “mastery and control” would fit a description of Jane Goodall’s work with Chimpanzees any better than “conquer” (ie both inappropriate).

    I haven’t found the term “conquer” nature in Marx or Engels but usage of conquer in this context can be found in the following:

    http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sino-soviet-split/cpc/leninism.htm

    http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-7/mswv7_478.htm

    http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-7/mswv7_479.htm

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1906/ethics/ch05.htm

  20. 20 barry

    I think ‘conquer’ is more jolting, more confronting. Which is why it should be used.

  21. 21 jim sharp

    arfur lad ‘Naturally the surrounding context was omitted’
    now that’s taking your green willies a tad beyond rationality
    coz it suggests they’ve gone as far as infiltrating & or set up the 130 Karl Marx Quotes & 30 Frederick Engels Quotes site as a disinformation tool
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/quotes/index.htm

  22. 22 Bill Kerr

    In this sentence Engels is clearly using “conquer” and “master” to mean different things:

    “Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”

    I happen to agree with him. Since humans are part of nature you don’t conquer yourself.(except perhaps in a Freudian sense of being continually at war with yourself, but that’s another perspective, which has truth IMO but it’s a war without end, so not relevant here) It is more appropriate to master yourself or master nature, in the long term, as part of ourselves, not separate from ourselves. I don’t see building a dam as unnatural, Barry, since humans are planning and building the dam. Put it this way, there is a dialectic between human mastery of and unity with nature that continually transforms nature, the dialectic is dynamic not static, but it does not negate or conquer nature. Nature, of which we are part, does not end up being defeated, it ends up being continually transformed. This dialectic doesn’t go away any time soon, it is not an antagonistic contradiction. It is only the bad Greens who are antagonistic by placing the needs of a mythical abstract or static nature (see ancient myths and their corollaries) above the needs of humans in the abstract. ie. the bad Greens say tread lightly on the earth as a general rule which is a denial of the real capabilities of humans. Sometimes we should tread lightly (eg. Jane Goodall could not have achieved her knowledge about chimpanzees without that approach) and sometimes we shouldn’t, eg. build more dams in strategic locations but not for the sake of conquering nature.

  23. 23 barry

    bill, we disagree in so far as I would argue that building dams is unnatural: that is, it does not happen without self-conscious intervention and exploitation of Nature by humans through collective or social labour. It cannot happen any other way: ie, cannot happen through some unconscious natural process. I do, however, agree with this bit: “There is a dialectic between human mastery of and unity with nature that continually transforms nature, the dialectic is dynamic not static”.

    I agree that dams should be built in strategic (appropriate) locations and have written in the mainstream on this topic: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/seeing-red-on-dams-not-green/story-e6frg6zo-1225987397128 .

  24. 24 Steve Owens

    I know Patrick that you have been a firm opponent of the Peak oil idea. Looks like you were correct
    http://www.monbiot.com/2012/07/02/false-summit/

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