I was a social justice activist for many years before I ever heard of Earth First!. So it came as a surprise to me, when I joined Earth First! in the 1980s, to find that the radical environmental movement paid little attention to the social causes of ecological destruction. Similarly, the urban-based social justice movement seems to have a hard time admitting the importance of biological issues, often dismissing all but “environmental racism” as trivial. Yet in order to effectively respond to the crises of today, I believe we must merge these two issues.
Starting from the very reasonable, but unfortunately revolutionary concept that social practices which threaten the continuation of life on Earth must be changed, we need a theory of revolutionary ecology that will encompass social and biological issues, class struggle, and a recognition of the role of global corporate capitalism in the oppression of peoples and the destruction of nature.
I believe we already have such a theory. It’s called deep ecology, and it is the core belief of the radical environmental movement. The problem is that, in the early stages of this debate, deep ecology was falsely associated with such right wing notions as sealing the borders, applauding AIDS as a population control mechanism, and encouraging Ethiopians to starve. This sent the social ecologists justifiably scurrying to disassociate. And I believe it has muddied the waters of our movement’s attempt to define itself behind a common philosophy.
So in this article, I will try to explain, from my perspective as an unabashed leftist, why I think deep ecology is a revolutionary worldview. I am not trying to proclaim that my ideas are Absolute Truth, or even that they represent a finished thought process in my own mind. These are just some ideas I have on the subject, and I hope that by airing them, it will spark more debate and advance the discussion.
Deep ecology, or biocentrism, is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are part of nature, one species among many. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans. And biodiversity is a value in itself, essential for the flourishing of both human and nonhuman life.
These principles, I believe, are not just another political theory. Biocentrism is a law of nature, that exists independently of whether humans recognize it or not. It doesn’t matter whether we view the world in a human centered way. Nature still operates in a biocentric way. And the failure of modern society to acknowledge this — as we attempt to subordinate all of nature to human use — has led us to the brink of collapse of the earth’s life support systems.
Biocentrism is not a new theory, and it wasn’t invented by Dave Foreman or Arnie Naas. It is ancient native wisdom, expressed in such sayings as “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.” But in the context of today’s industrial society, biocentrism is profoundly revolutionary, challenging the system to its core.
Biocentrism Contradicts Capitalism
The capitalist system is in direct conflict with the natural laws of biocentrism. Capitalism, first of all, is based on the principle of private property — of certain humans owning the earth for the purpose of exploiting it for profit. At an earlier stage, capitalists even believed they could own other humans. But just as slavery has been discredited in the mores of today’s dominant world view, so do the principles of biocentrism discredit the concept that humans can own the earth.
How can corporate raider Charles Hurwitz claim to “own” the 2,000-year-old redwoods of Headwaters Forest, just because he signed a few papers to trade them for a junk bond debt? This concept is absurd. Hurwitz is a mere blip in the life of these ancient trees. Although he may have the power to destroy them, he does not have the right.
One of the best weapons of U.S. environmentalists in our battle to save places like Headwaters Forest is the (now itself endangered) Endangered Species Act. This law and other laws that recognize public trust values such as clean air. clean water, and protection of threatened species, are essentially an admission that the laws of private property do not correspond to the laws of nature. You cannot do whatever you want on your own property without affecting surrounding areas, because the earth is interconnected, and nature does not recognize human boundaries.
Even beyond private property, though, capitalism conflicts with biocentrism around the very concept of profit. Profit consists of taking out more than you put in. This is certainly contrary to the fertility cycles of nature, which depend on a balance of give and take. But more important is the question of where this profit is taken from.
According to Marxist theory, profit is stolen from the workers when the capitalists pay them less than the value of what they produce. The portion of the value of the product that the capitalist keeps, rather than pays to the workers, is called surplus value. The amount of surplus value that the capitalist can keep varies with the level of organization of the workers, and with their level of privilege within the world labor pool. But the working class can never be paid the full value of their labor under capitalism, because the capitalist class exists by extracting surplus value from the products of their labor.
Although I basically agree with this analysis, I think there is one big thing missing. I believe that part of the value of a product comes not just from the labor put into it, but also from the natural resources used to make the product. And I believe that surplus value (i.e., profit) is not just stolen from the workers, but also from the earth itself. A clearcut is the perfect example of a part of the earth from which surplus value has been extracted. If human production and consumption is done within the natural limits of the earth’s fertility, then the supply is indeed endless. But this cannot happen under capitalism, because the capitalist class exists by extracting profit not only from the workers, but also from the earth.
(Author’s note: At this point, Marxist scholars always object, citing Critique of the Gotha Program to say that Marx did recognize nature, as well as labor, as a source of value. But Marx makes the distinction between use value, which he says comes from nature and labor, and exchange value, which he says comes from labor alone. It is this point with which I am disagreeing. It seems obvious to me that use value, supplied by nature, helps determine exchange value. For example, redwood and fir trees grow side by side in the same forest, and at a similar rate. Yet the same amount of labor applied to cutting and mining a 600-year-old, 6-foot diameter redwood tree will produce more exchange value than if it were applied to cutting a 600-year-old, 6-foot diameter fir tree. The reason redwood is worth more is that it has certain qualities the fir lacks i.e., it is so rot resistant that it can be used for exposed siding or as foundation wood in direct contact with the soil, while the fir cannot. This quality of rot resistance does not come from anything added by human labor. It is a quality supplied by nature. So when I say that value comes from both labor and nature, I am referring to exchange value, not just use value.)
Modern day corporations are the very worst manifestation of this sickness. A small business may survive on profits, but at least its basic purpose is to provide sustenance for the owners, who are human beings with a sense of place in their communities. But a corporation has no purpose for its existence, nor any moral guide to its behavior, other than to make profits. And today’s global corporations are beyond the control of any nation or government. In fact, the government is in the service of the corporations, its armies poised to defend their profits around the world and its secret police ready to infiltrate and disrupt any serious resistance at home.
In other words, this system cannot be reformed. It is based on the destruction of the earth and the exploitation of the people. There is no such thing as green capitalism, and marketing cutesy rainforest products will not bring back the ecosystems that capitalism must destroy to make its profits. This is why I believe that serious ecologists must be revolutionaries.
Biocentrism Contradicts Communism
As you can probably tell, my background in revolutionary theory comes from Marxism, which I consider to be a brilliant critique of capitalism. But as to what should be implemented in capitalism’s place, I don’t think Marxism has shown us the answer. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that communism, socialism, and all other left ideologies that I know of speak only about redistributing the spoils of raping the earth more evenly among classes of humans. They do not even address the relationship of the society to the earth, Or rather, they assume that it will stay the same as it is under capitalism — that of a gluttonous consumer. And that the purpose of the revolution is to find a more efficient and egalitarian way to produce and distribute consumer goods.
This total disregard of nature as a life force, rather than just a source of raw materials, allowed Marxist states to rush to industrialize without even the most meager environmental safeguards. This has resulted in such noted disasters as the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, and the ongoing liquidation of the fragile forests of Siberia. It has left parts of Russia and Eastern Europe with such a toxic legacy that vast areas are now uninhabitable. Marx stated that the primary contradiction in industrial society is the contradiction between capital and labor. I believe these disasters show that there is an equally important contradiction between industrial society and the earth.
But even though socialism has so far failed to take ecology into account, I do not think it is beyond reform, as is capitalism. One of the principles of socialism is “production for use, not for profit.” Therefore, the imbalance is not as built in under socialism as it is under capitalism, and I could envision a form of socialism that would not destroy the earth. But it would be unlike Marx’s industrial model .
Ecological socialism, among other things, would have to deal with the issue of centralism. The Marxist idea of a huge body politic relating to some central planning authority presupposes (1) authoritarianism of some sort; and (2) the use of mass production technologies that are inherently destructive to the earth and corrosive to the human spirit. Ecological socialism would mean organizing human societies in a manner that is compatible with the way that nature is organized. And I believe the natural order of the earth is bioregionalism, not statism.
Modern industrial society robs us of community with each other and community with the earth. This creates a great longing inside us, which we are taught to fill with consumer goods. But consumer goods, beyond those needed for basic comfort and survival, are not really what we crave. So our appetite is insatiable, and we turn to more and more efficient and dehumanizing methods of production to make more and more goods that do not satisfy us. If workers really had control of the factories (and I say this as a former factory worker), they would start by smashing the machines and finding a more humane way to decide what we need and how to produce it. So to the credo “production for use, not for profit,” ecological socialism would add, “production for need, not for greed.”
Biocentrism Contradicts Patriarchy
Patriarchy is the oldest and, I think, deepest form of oppression on Earth. In fact, it’s so old and it’s so deep that we’re discouraged from even naming it. If you’re a white person, you can talk about apartheid; you can say, “I’m against apartheid” without all the white people getting huffy and offended and thinking you’re talking about them. But if you even mention patriarchy, you are met with howls of ridicule and protest from otherwise progressive men who take it as a personal insult that you’re even mentioning the word. But I think that the issue of patriarchy needs to be addressed by any serious revolutionary movement. In fact, I think that the failure to address the patriarchy is one of the great short comings of Marxism. (One of my favorite examples is the book “The Women Question”, which was written by four Marxist men!) The other deficiency in Marxism, in my estimation, is the failure to address ecology. I think both of these are equally serious shortcomings.
So I would like to address eco-feminism, and its relevance to biocentrism or deep ecology. Eco-feminism is a holistic view of the earth that is totally consistent with the idea that humans are not separate from nature. I would describe eco-feminism in two separate terms. The first is that there is a parallel between the way this society treats women and the way that it treats the earth. And this is shown in expressions like “virgin redwoods” and “rape of the earth”, for example.
The second thing, which I think is even more important, is the reason for the destruction of nature by this society. Obviously part of the reason is capitalism. But beyond that, destruction of nature in this society stems from the suppression of the feminine.
Let me clarify that I believe men and women have both masculine and feminine traits. I’m not saying “all men are bad — all women are good.” I define “masculine traits” as conquering and dominance, and “feminine traits” as nurturing and life-giving. And I think that the masculine traits of conquering and dominance are valued no matter who exhibits them. As a macho woman, I can tell you, I’ve gotten all kinds of strokes in my lifetime because I can get out there head to head and be just as aggressive as any man. Conversely, the feminine traits of nurturing and life-giving are devalued and suppressed in this society, whether a man or a woman exhibits them. The devaluing and suppression of feminine traits is a major reason for the destruction of the earth. So that’s my personal view of eco-feminism. I know the academics have a lot more complicated definition and description, some of which I don’t even understand, but I’m going to use my personal, easy to understand definition.
The relationship between the suppression of feminine values, and the destruction of the earth is actually much clearer in third world nations than it is in this society. Where colonial powers take over, when nature is to be destroyed by imperialistic corporations coming into third world countries, one of the ways that the colonial powers take over is by forcibly removing the women from their traditional roles as the keepers of the forest and the farmlands. The women’s methods of interacting with the fertility cycles of the earth, is replaced by men and machines. Rather than nurturing the fertility of the earth, these machines rip off the fertility of the earth. For this reason, many of the third world environmental movements are actually women’s movements; the Chipko in India, and the tree-planters in Kenya, Brazil, to mention two. In each of these situations, the way that the feminine is suppressed is very parallel to the way that nature is suppressed.
It’s less obvious, I think, in this society, but it’s still here. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, the Endangered Species Act, or anything like that knows that science is used as the authority for the kind of relentless assault on nature in this society. And science is presented to us as neutral, as an objective path to knowledge, as something that’s value-free.
But science is not value-free. The scientific methods (there’s not just one method, despite what we were taught in science class) of western science are not value-free at all. In fact science was openly described by its founders as a masculine system that presupposes the separation of people from nature and presupposes our dominance over nature. I want to give you some quotes to let you know why this is so, going back to the origin of the scientific method in the 1600’s and the Renaissance period. First of all, the initiation of the scientific method, the elevation of this as absolute truth and the only path to truth, began in 1664. For example, there was something that was called the “Royal Society” and it was composed of scientific men who were developing these theories. They described their goal as, and this is a quote, “to raise a masculine philosophy, whereby the mind of men may be enabled with the knowledge of solid truths.” So the idea is that this masculine philosophy will provide us with truth, as opposed to the more “superstitious” feminine kind of knowledge.
I’ll give you another example. This is from the aptly-named Sir Francis Bacon. He was one of the worst and actually pretty shocking. He said that the scientific method is a method of aggression. And here is his quote: “The nature of things betrays itself more readily under vexation than in its natural freedom. Science is not merely a gentle guidance over nature’s course. We have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.” And that the purpose of doing this is, “to create a blessed race of heroes who would dominate both nature and society.”
So these are the roots of the scientific method upon which CDF justifies clearcuts.
Another of the really worst was Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum,” “I think therefore I am.” He arrived at that by trying to prove that he existed without referring to anything around him. The very concept of that shows a separation between self and nature. But he did a pretty good job of it, and I thought it was pretty interesting. But he went beyond that. He also said, “Well I can doubt this room exists. I can doubt that you exist. I can doubt that I exist. The only thing I can’t doubt is that I am doubting. AHA! I think, therefore, I am!” So that was pretty smart, but it was still very narrow and very self-centered. I always said that only an oldest child could have come up with this kind of solipsistic view of the world. Descartes also named the scientific method that we learned in science class “scientific reductionism.” The idea is that in order to understand a complex problem, reduce it to its simpler form to know it, in order to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” So the very concept of “scientific reductionism” is really the problem with science and illustrative of why it’s not a neutral objective path to knowledge. This is the methodology that we’re going to look at a little piece at a time, in order to understand something complex.
One more example is a statement from Bacon to James I, who was involved in the inquisition at the time. The rise of the scientific method, of this masculine method of knowledge, emerged during the same time period as the very violent suppression of the women’s knowledge of the earth, herbal ways etc. So this wasn’t just, “Oh, we have a better way, you women stand aside.” It was “we’re going to burn you at the stake,” so it was certainly not neutral. It was a very aggressive and violent imposition of a masculine system of knowledge. In this context Bacon said to James I, “Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object — as your majesty has shown in your own example.” The only way they can perpetuate the myth that the scientific method is objective is to remove it from the context of the social conditions from which it arose. It’s not objective at all. It’s not the only method of knowledge. It’s not the only path to truth. And it’s not value-free. It’s openly masculine and it openly presupposes the separation of humans from the earth, and it presupposes that the purpose of science is to dominate nature.
What did the more feminine methods of knowledge that were being suppressed at the time involve? The “feminine” methods were based on observation and interaction with the earth in order to increase the fertility cycles in a way that’s beneficial to all. For example, we learn that if we bury a fish with the corn, the corn grows better — those kind of things. The women’s knowledge of the earth was passed down generation to generation — and was dismissed as mere superstition by the rising scientists with their reductionist methods.
However, reductionist science has indeed had a lot of success. It’s created nuclear bombs, plastic shrink-wrap, Twinkies, Highway 101, all kinds of wonders of the earth! But it has not led us to a true understanding of nature or the earth, because nature’s parts are not separate, they are interdependent. You can’t look at one part without looking at the rest, it is all inextricably interconnected. The way that reductionist science has looked at the world has brought us antibiotics that create super bacteria, and flood control methods that create huger floods than ever existed before and fertilizers that leave us with barren soil. These are all examples of the defects of a reductionist kind of science.
Contrary to this masculine system of separation and dominance, eco-feminism seeks a science of nature. And this science of nature is a holistic and interdependent one, where you look at the whole thing and the way that everything interacts, not just the way that it can be when you separate it. And also it presupposes that humans are part of nature, and that our fates are inseparable; that we have to live within the earth’s fertility cycles and we can enhance those fertility cycles by our informed interaction.
In India, where Chipko began, the women were the keepers of the forest and the keepers of agriculture, as well. So when the women brought the cows up to the trees (probably savannas rather than forests), the cows fertilized the trees, and nibbled at the limbs and branches, helping to trim them so they would produce more nuts or fruit. This kind of interaction enhanced the fertility cycle of nature. So rather than trying to conquer it, or subvert it, or disrupt it, the feminine method is based on interacting and enhancing the fertility cycle. And this is exactly what is supplanted when the colonial powers come in.
The holistic and interdependent eco-feminist view in which humans are inseparable from nature, is not any different than deep ecology or biocentrism. This is simply another way of saying the same thing. And so, to embrace biocentrism or deep ecology, is to challenge the masculine system of knowledge that underlies the destruction of the earth, and that underlies the justification for the way our society is structured.
Eco-feminism, however, does not seek to dominate men as women have been dominated under patriarchy. Instead, it seeks to find a balance. We need both the masculine and the feminine forces. It’s not that we need to get rid of the masculine force. Both of them exist in the world but must exist in balance. We need the conquering and the dominance as well as we need the nurturing. Eco-feminism seeks find that balance.
Because this society is hugely out of balance, we need a huge rise of the feminine. We need a rise of individual women, and also a rise of feminist ideology among both women and men. Fortunately, I have seen quite a few changes in that direction. I think I’m more impressed with the teenage boys than I am with the teenage girls. It’s really neat to see them being able to hug each other and want to grow gardens and things like that. That wouldn’t have happened in my generation.
Without this balance between the masculine and the feminine, I don’t believe we can make the changes that we need to come back into balance with the earth. For those reasons, I think that deep ecology/biocentrism contradicts patriarchy, and to embrace deep ecology/biocentrism is to challenge the core belief of this masculine, scientific system.
What This Means For The Movement
The fact that deep ecology is a revolutionary philosophy is one of the reasons Earth First! was targeted for disruption and annihilation by the FBI. The fact that we did not recognize it as revolutionary is one of the reasons we were so unprepared for the magnitude of the attack. If we are to continue, Earth First! and the entire ecology movement must adjust their tactics to the profound changes that are needed to bring society into balance with nature.
One way that we can do this is to broaden our focus. Of course, sacred places must be preserved, and it is entirely appropriate for an ecology movement to center on protecting irreplaceable wilderness areas But to define our movement as being concerned with “wilderness only,” as Earth First! did in the 1980s, is self-defeating. You cannot seriously address the destruction of wilderness without addressing the society that is destroying it. It’s about time for the ecology movement (and I’m not just talking about Earth First! here) to stop considering itself as separate from the social justice movement. The same power that manifests itself as resource extraction in the countryside manifests itself as racism, classism, and human exploitation in the city. The ecology movement must recognize that we are just one front in a long, proud, history of resistance.
A revolutionary ecology movement must also organize among poor and working people. With the exception of the toxics movement and the native land rights movement most U.S. environmentalists are white and privileged. This group is too invested in the system to pose it much of a threat. A revolutionary ideology in the hands of privileged people can indeed bring about some disruption and change in the system. But a revolutionary ideology in the hands of working people can bring that system to a halt. For it is the working people who have their hands on the machinery. And only by stopping the machinery of destruction can we ever hope to stop this madness.
How can it be that we have neighborhood movements focused on the disposal of toxic wastes, for example, but we don’t have a worker’s movement to stop the production of toxics? It is only when the factory workers refuse to make the stuff, it is only when the loggers refuse to cut the ancient trees, that we can ever hope for real and lasting change. This system cannot be stopped by force. It is violent and ruthless beyond the capacity of any people’s resistance movement. The only way I can even imagine stopping it is through massive non-cooperation.
So let’s keep blocking those bulldozers and hugging those trees. And let’s focus our campaigns on the global corporations that are really at fault. But we have to begin placing our actions in a larger context — the context of revolutionary ecology.