David Harvey, dialectics and ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 1 07:41:02 PST 1998

I don't believe that John Bellamy Foster has taken up this aspect of Harvey's thought--and I'm sure that I haven't--but the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Mitch highlights one of the biggest flaws in his methodology. Harvey draws a sharp distinction between environmental justice issues on one hand, and the concerns of middle-class greens on the other, who appear more interested in whether old-growth trees survive than whether ghetto kids get sick from eating lead paint.

In Harvey's schema, questions of whether rainforests survive get relegated to Prince Charles and Sting, as he himself becomes Marxist guardian against all wavering elements in our ranks who get sentimental over the fate of snail darters or redwood trees. A true Bolshevik would not flinch at the Amazon being turned into matchsticks as long as those matchsticks serve the working-class in some fashion.

The problem with this workerist bullshit--and that is what it is--is that it does not see the relationship between deforestation, global warming and other "middle-class" green issues with the everyday lives of working people and farmers. As should be clear by now, upwards of 10,000 Central Americans have died because of global warming and destruction of the rainforest. Now while it is true that someone like Sting seems more interested in nature than in humanity, it would be extremely stupid for us to assume that the connection can not be made. It is really up to Marxists to make these connections, which leads me to the most glaring shortcoming of "Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference." The entire first part of the book is a call for the need to take dialectics seriously. It is only through a dialectical approach that we can make connections between workers, nature and the capitalist system.

And then he turns around, once he begins talking about "green" issues, and stops thinking dialectically. A dialectical approach would emphasize the connection between rainforest destruction and the catastrophic loss of life in Central America. It is UNDIALECTICAL to separate the fate of the forest with the fate of people living in the cities of Jinotega or Matagalpa, where flooding from nearby mountainsides has poured into city streets.

Harvey's boneheaded approach to these questions is part of a general trend among Marxists who write about environmental issues to sneer at questions of biodiversity, etc. Another notable example is William Cronon, who wrote a book about the ecological "splendors" of Chicago. He marvels at the ability of the working class to transform nature by erecting huge skyscrapers and underground transportation in a fashion reminiscent of 1950's Chamber of Commerce press releases, but barely provides an insight into what this has to do with the town/countryside contradictions explored by Marx. The most howling demonstration of how wacky this can get is his treatment of how cattle replaced bison. He provides all the facts, except the most important one: how cattle destroy the environment, while bison respect it.

The interesting thing is that all these characters write for Jim O'Connor's CNS, but you wouldn't have a clue that this debate is raging behind the scenes. One of the most positive results of the Harvey/O'Connor debate is that it brings out into the open some of the simmering issues.

Louis Proyect


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