"Value-free" science and ecological ethics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 16 07:51:20 PDT 1998

In David Harvey's attempt to debunk the notion that communal, indigenous societies are somehow more ecologically-minded than bourgeois society, he calls upon Marxist biologist Richard Levins as an authority. Harvey finds Levins's observation in "Humanity and Nature" (co-authored with Yrjo Haila) most convincing: "The possibility of over-exploitation of a resource is perfectly compatible with our notion of peoples living close to nature, observing and acting accordingly." In other words, people like the Blackfeet or the Lakota are just as capable of hunting buffalo into extinction as the European settlers, no matter how strongly they believe in living in balance with wildlife.

This is not the first time I have noticed Richard Levins mobilized in this sort of anti-green effort. The Fall 1996 Science and Society contains an article by Douglas Boucher called "Not With a Bang, but a Whimper." He writes:

"As ecosystems are transformed, species are eliminated -- but opportunities are created for new ones. The natural world is changed, but never totally destroyed. Levins and Lewontin put it well: 'The warning not to destroy the environment is empty: environment, like matter, cannot be created or destroyed. What we can do is replace environments we value by those we do not like'. Indeed, from a human point of view the most impressive feature of recorded history is that human societies have continued to grow and develop, despite all the terrible things they have done to the earth. Examples of the collapse of civilizations due to their over-exploitation of nature are few and far between. Most tend to be well in the past and poorly documented, and further investigation often shows that the reasons for collapse were fundamentally political."

It is apparent that both Boucher and Harvey, who want to disassociate Marxism from environmentalism, find the arguments of Richard Levins and his frequent writing partner Richard Lewontin most useful. Another Marxist scientific expert who is frequently recruited against the greens is Stephen Jay Gould, who has made the observation that their worries over "destroying" the planet are ludicrous. Even if there were thermonuclear warfare or catstrophic global warming, bacteria would survive.

In general, the stance of Levins, Haila, Lewontin and Gould is that of the impassive observer of nature. Their interest in ecology is similar to that of any scientist. They are interested in seeing how various organic and inorganic processes interact with each other in "ecosystems." Some ecosystems are in "balance" while others are not. For instance, the gentle Arawak who Columbus wiped out in the 15th century were, by his own admission, living in balance with nature. Meanwhile, the European cities of the 15th century with their paupers, congestion, open sewers and rat infestation were also ecosystems, but somewhat out of balance. Scientists study such ecosystems in the same manner as astronomers study the stars. This is the way scientists have always functioned, isn't it? Mother nature does not embody good or evil. It just _is_. Moreover, aren't we being charlatans when we refer to the blob of matter in orbit around the sun in such sentimental terms?

Levins and Haila wrote "Humanity and Nature" specifically to refute the notion that at some point in history human beings existed in harmony with nature, and that this harmony has somehow become 'unbalanced.' In a most telling passage, they take a contrarian position on the problem of global warming:

"Consider for example the tundra, an ecological formation only a few million years old. One might propose that life has not yet had time to adapt to tundra conditions and propose intensive plans to make the tundra more hospitable for life. An evolutionary argument might further rote that extant groups of organisms, such as the grasses, are historically new. By clever artificial selection and biotechnology we could help evolution along and create whole new families of plants that would be able to colonize environments now on the margin of life. A geo-climatological argument would point out that the climate of the recent million years or so is abnormal for the earth. If we provoke the 'greenhouse effect', it will be only restoring nature to its normal condition that prevailed before the Ice Age, a few million years ago. Finally, it could be argued that like it or not we are changing nature, as do all species. The only option we have is to determine how we shall change it, whether by conscious planning based on our best knowledge or capriciously in the service of narrow interests.

"Most of us would find such reasoning chilling. It presumes a level of knowledge and understanding far beyond anything ever achieved, planning on a scale greater than has previously been attempted, a communality of interest of all humanity that does not exist, and a consensus that has never been approached even for more modest goals. The point, however, is that nature herself does not tell us what to do. Thus, nature is not immediately given as a factor in social scenarios. Nature is mute, she does not give us explicit advice; she only forbids, sometimes only post festum. We cannot evade responsibility by pretending that our choices are dictated to us from outside or assume that doing nothing is acting wisely."

Levins's aim is clearly to throw a bucket of ice water in the face of all the Gaia theoreticians, who romanticize our early origins. While one can applaud his efforts to root out such superstitions, there is a serious problem in his approach as well. It presumes that there has not been any radical break between society and nature since the introduction of capitalism. When the capitalist class begain to view nature as input to commodities, there was no qualitative difference with the hunting-and-gathering societies it displaced who viewed nature as something to be revered. The Lakota viewed the prairie grass as the hair of mother earth, while the 19th century ranchers simply viewed it as input to their livestock. Once the grass was used up, they'd find new pastures. And throughout these interactions with nature, Levins views "humanity" one on side and inanimate matter on the other. What happened to class distinctions? "Humanity" is a rather peculiar category for someone so steeped in Marxism to be using.

The reason that capitalism breeds ecological crisis is that it operates on the basis of M-C-M. In this stark formula is contained the falling rate of profit and other nasty tendencies. The accumulation of capital requires intense exploitation of nature in such a way that has little to do with use-value. Exchange value is what is important. Hence, the Amazon rainforest is viewed not as a source of atmosphere-cooling old growth or medicines, but as a source of timber, gold and cattle pasture. Capitalism represents a radical breach with the way society and nature interact and this doesn't seem to register on the impassive scientist Levins, who is much more interested in the "laboratory" aspects of his investigations.

In a very real sense, the problem with Levins, Lewontin, Haila and Gould is that they play by the rules of Western European "value free" science. It is the job of scientists to understand the world and it is the job of politicians to change it. In the case of Stephen Jay Gould, one might make the observation that his "Marxism" is rather well-isolated from his popular, scientific investigations into a wide variety of topics. Unlike the outspokenly green but non-Marxist paleontologist Richard Leaky, Gould has never made a big issue of how dinosaur extinction might relate to the threat of our own extinction. A comet might have caused the climate changes that cooled off the atmosphere to such an extent that dinosaurs perished. By the same token, greenhouse gases might have the opposite effect and make our own continuing existence impossible. In Gould's view, there will always be the consolation of the surviving bacteria.

This breach between science and ethics is particular to the world-view of the ascendant European bourgeoisie, as Immanuel Wallerstein pointed out in the Nov.-Dec. 1997 New Left Review:

"What is specific to the structures of knowledge in the modern world-system rather is the concept of the 'two cultures'. No other historical system has instituted a fundamental divorce between science, on one hand, and philosophy and the humanities, on the other hand, or what I think would be better characterized as the separation of the quest for the true and the quest for the good and the beautiful. Indeed, it was not all that easy to enshrine this divorce within the geoculture of the modern world-system. It took three centuries before the split was institutionalized. Today, however, it is fundamental to the geoculture, and forms the basis of our university systems.

"This conceptual split has enabled the modern world to put forward the bizarre concept of the value-neutral specialist, whose objective assessments of reality could form the basis not merely of engineering decisions --in the broadest sense of the term--but of socio-political choices as well. Shielding the scientists from collective assessment, and in effect merging them into the technocrats, did liberate scientists from the dead hand of intellectually irrelevant authority. But simultaneously, it removed from the major underlying social decisions we have been taking for the last 500 years from substantive--as opposed to technical--scientific debate. The idea that science is over here and sociopolitical decisions are over there is the core concept that sustains Eurocentrism, since the only universalist propositions that have been acceptable are those which are Eurocentric. Any argument that reinforces this separation of the two cultures thus sustains Eurocentrism. If one denies the specificity of the modern world, one has no plausible way of arguing for the reconstruction of knowledge structures, and therefore no plausible way of arriving at intelligent and substantively rational alternatives to the existing world-system.

"In the last twenty years or so, the legitimacy of this divorce has been challenged for the first time in a significant way. This is the meaning of the ecology movement, for example. And this is the underlying central issue in the public attack on Eurocentrism. The challenges have resulted in so-called 'science wars' and 'culture wars' which have themselves often been obscurantist and obfuscating. If we are to emerge with a reunited. and thereby non-Eurocentric, structure of knowledge, it is absolutely essential that we not be diverted into side paths that avoid this central issue. If we are to construct an alternative world-system to the one that is today in grievous crisis, we must treat simultaneously and inextricably the issues of the true and the good."

Louis Proyect (http://www.panix.com/~lnp3/marxism.html)

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