Ed. note: Part 1 of this essay can be found on Resilience.org here.

4. Theory and Practice of Ecocentric Socialism

Ecocentric Socialism distinguishes itself from all other theories of socialism and ecosocialism by a conscious attention to the problem of alienation from nature as manifested in anthropocentrism.

Animistic ecological materialism

For about a decade, I have proposed a rethinking of the theoretical heritage of Marx and Engels that would do away with the dualism inherent in historical materialism by arguing for a theory of history deeply embedded in ecology (For the most recent statement, see Nayeri, 2020, October 2018; also see, Nayeri 2013). Central to my reconsideration is the ecological nature of humans and the scientific understanding of who we are and where we come from so that we can better understand where we are going.

We now know that life itself emerged out of inorganic matter and humanity’s lineage is from mammals, in particular primates, that eventually led to the emergence of the Homo genus over 2.8 million years ago and subsequently Homo sapiens who emerged at least about 300,000 years ago.  That is, society has emerged out of biology which itself emerged out of physical and chemical properties of inanimate objects. It follows that we are not just the sum total of our social relations but instead we are the sum total of our ecological and social relations over at least 2.8 million years.

Humans as “collective organisms”

We are even more embedded in the web of life than we could have imagined only two decades ago. In recent decades, the study of the human microbiome, the collection of all the microorganisms living in association with human cells and organs, has advanced greatly, although our knowledge of their relationships is still at infancy.

“These communities consist of a variety of microorganisms including eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells, for a total of about 1000 more genes than are present in the human genome. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that’s 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult).” (National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project, accessed March 17, 2020)

Although most biologists treat the microbiome as separate from the human body, they also acknowledge its essential role for our wellbeing:

“These microbes are generally not harmful to us, in fact they are essential for maintaining health. For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes. An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.”  (ibid. emphasis added)

The socialist biologist Michael Friedman also notes:

“Some biologists conceive of our microbiota as a hitherto unrecognized organ or organs fulfilling important physiological functions and networking with other organ systems, while many microbial ecologists propose that we are not ‘individuals,’ but collective organisms comprised of the person (mammal) and its entire microbiome. Many other species are also collective organisms, termed holobionts, tightly bound by evolution ever since the earliest eukaryotic cells arose from fusions of independent prokaryotes (non-nucleated cells, such as bacteria).”  (Friedman, 2018)

Lynn Margulis, the celebrated biologist and evolutionary theorist, with her co-author, Dorion Sagan (Margulis and Sagan, 2002), have argued for a theory of symbiosis which refer to mutual interaction involving physical association between “differently named organisms.” In the “Forward” to their book, the prominent evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr writes: “At first considered quite exceptional, symbiosis was eventually discovered to be almost universal.”   Donna J. Haraway (216), ecofeminist and a philosopher of the interaction between science, society, and nature, has made symbiosis a foundation of her view of social life.

Thus, in a biological sense, a human maybe considered a “collective organisms,” an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its multiple constituent parts. This view of humanity is much closer to the philosophical holism of Hegel (1817) promoted also by Marx that “the truth is in the whole.”  Indeed, recent research has found a correlation between gut microbiota and personality in adults (Han-Na Kim, et.al. 2018). If microorganisms in humans may affect even our personality, how could they not have an impact on our history as a species?

“The three classical biological explanations of the individual self––the immune system, the brain, the genome––are being challenged by the new field of microbiome research. Evidence shows that our resident microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines. In particular, it calls into question the assumption that distinctive human traits set us apart from all other animals––and therefore also the traditional disciplinary divisions between the arts and the sciences.” (Rees, Bosch, and Douglas, 2019; empasis added)

In fact, humanity today is the sum total of our ecological-social relations shaped by the dynamic interrelation of four trends:

  • The geophysical trend which recognizes that life has emerged from non-life and that we are an earthbound, oxygen-breathing, energy-using species dependent upon our physical environment – especially the atmosphere, soil, and temperature range – remaining compatible with human life. (see endnote 16)
  • The transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, in particular the primates. We are animals, mammals, an evolutionary cousin of the chimpanzee. Therefore, we share certain traits with them.
  • The historical trend of our species, Homo sapiens, that goes back at least 300,000 years, including cultural heritage from earlier Homo genera: We inherited the knowledge to use of fire from Homo Erectus who controlled fire about a million years ago. 
  • The trend specific to the mode of production influences, i.e., capitalistically developed global culture today.

Nonhuman agency

This view of the ecological nature of humans, as the interpenetration of multiple kinds of beings over very long period of natural and social history, validates yet another reconsideration of Marx’s philosophical anthropology.  In the first thesis on Feuerbach, Marx writes:

“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.” (see endnote 17) 

Thus, Marx’s materialism views humans as the subjectthe agency, in our interaction with social and natural reality. This view persists  among those who consider themselves as ecological socialist and even those who subscribe to Marx’s“ecological insights” despite a mountain of evidence that nonhumans also have agency.

Although Marx and Engels praised Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection(1859) I do not find any evidence that they appreciated its paradigm shattering significance in undermining the dominant religious (Judeo-Christian) anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Darwin not only debunked the Christian creation story of the book of Genesis, he also demonstrated how all species are in reality kin and the web of life in his theory of evolution is not hierarchical. Unlike Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism built upon the four-stage theory of history that presumes progress, Darwin’s theory does not entail progress in any sense, unless one considers the tendency towards more complexity as “progress.” For Darwin himself, the rising complexity produced “higher level” species but not “better” species in any sense.  Moreover, Darwin went even further by arguing that humans are not qualitatively different from “higher animals”:

“We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.” (Darwin, 1871/1981, p. 105)

The philosopher James Rachel adds:

“In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives.  We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear.  They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud.  They know wonder and curiosity.  In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (Rachels, 1990: 57)

We now know much more than Darwin did about the inner lives of other species.  Richard Seymour (2021) recounts a number of ways nonhuman animals display qualities typically reserved for humans.  Wildlife cherish their freedom. Seymour cites from the literature a number of cases where wildlife in captivity broke out by undoing locks, bolts and nuts, etc.  Among them two dozen monkeys who broke out of the Berlin zoo, and an orangutan name Ken Allen who broke out of the San Diego zoo.  When they brought in a female orangutan to amuse Ken, she too broke out by unbolting the door. Seymour argues that some nonhuman animals also have culture. As an illustration, he cites the case of golden lion tamarinds who were released from their captivity into Poço das Antas Biological Reserve in south-east Brazil. They died of snake bites, bee stings, and starvation.  Conservationists eventually learned that to release captive wildlife into a new habitat requires staging their releases to enable them to learn before becoming fully capable to live on their own.  Seymour writes:

“..[L]iberation is not as simple as escape. These animals had been drawn into a complex social relationship with their human handlers and needed to be allowed to negotiate their way out of it.”

He goes on:

“The work of biologists, philosophers, ecologists and popularizers like Donald R Griffin, E O. Wilson, Marc Bekoff, Eva Meijer, Carl Safina, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Peter Wohlleben, Frans De Waal and others has brought to human consciousness the complex varieties of animal consciousness and emotional life. They have told us that certain animals use words (rather than merely imitating them), that fruit bats have names for one another, that dolphins in the wild call one another by name, that sperm whales communicate their identity to one another with rapid bursts of clicks, known as ‘codas’. So powerful and penetrating are their sonar clicks, Carl Safina writes, ‘that sperm whales can likely see what many things look like inside, as if X-raying them.’ They have told us that prairie dogs have a complex, open, language-like communication system that allows them to describe any humans nearby down to their size, clothes, hair color, and any objects they’re carrying. They have shown that animal communities have moral codes in which those who play foul are shunned, and that the specificities of the code varies between community not just species. Even what we call ‘instinct’ cannot be mechanical. The rabbit may be ‘programmed’ for flight when a predator is near, but if her line of flight displayed no creativity, no contextual awareness, she would be eaten.

“They have told us that chimpanzees have fashion trends. Primatologists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen observed this when Julie the chimpanzee started to wear a blade of grass in her ear, and other chimpanzees began to follow her. They have told us that monkeys and birds have the same mirror neurons that humans have, cells that appear to be involved in empathy and self-consciousness. They have found that whales have the same spindle cells that humans have, the cells that allow us to love and suffer emotionally, only they have many more of them and have had them for longer. That elephants and corvids hold funerals, and that whales and red deer grieve. That dolphins play games with objects found in the ocean, and that they spend more time playing than hunting. That cephalopods experience emotional, not just physical, pain. That cetaceans display rapid eye movement when they sleep, suggestive of dreaming.

“Whales have been dreaming, that is, for almost fifty million years before humans arrived. That vast ‘whale brain’ of which Heathcote William rhapsodizes. We are speaking, not merely of cognition, but of consciousness, of beings capable of love, play and mourning. Not merely of mechanical chirruping, gesturing, clicking, calling, scent-emission and dancing, but of complex and often generative systems verging on what we call language. The animal, contra Heidegger, is not ‘poor in the world’.” (ibid.)

Since the latter part of the 1970s, social and environmental scientists and those in science and technology studies among others have broadened their field of vision to include multiple agencies in society and history by calling for new materialisms.  For example, Wadham asserts:

“Critical Theory pioneered the theorization of human-animal relations, helping establish that agency extends beyond the human world. Nonhuman agency is now widely accepted within the ‘new materialisms’ and beyond but there are growing calls for more critical approaches that consider why and how such agency is mobilized. These calls effectively bring together the concerns of ‘old’ and ‘new’ materialisms.”(Wadham, 2020)

To go beyond the Cartesian concept of agency identified as consciousness and rationality necessary for action, let’s recall that a human actor is enabled by other beings without which his/her action would not be possible or will not lead to the intended outcome. Bread has been central to the formation of early human settlements, hence civilization. But baking bread requires not only a baker but also flour, yeast, water, oxygen, and fire.  Thus, there can be no baker if there is no grain (e.g. wheat) or no mycelium (a fungi), or a source of water, or air, or an oven. Thus, baking bread is only possible through some specific relation between all such factors. The agency is in these relationships, not in each contributing factor, including the baker. But the web of ecological social relations extends even further as each factor itself is due to multiple other factors coming together in untold number of ecological/environmental or ecological social set of relations.

Humans get an average of 48 percent of their calories, or food energy, from grains. People first began eating grains about 75,000 years ago in western Asia. These grains, including einkorn and emmer, were ancestors of today’s wheat. Thus, the history of humanity is deeply ingrained with grains, especially wheat.  I have already discussed how to be human means to be a multi-organism species and how each of these organisms themselves are formed through symbiosis, that is, intermingling of other organisms.  We know that climate change was a key contributing factor for some hunter-gatherer bands to take up farming leading to the world historic Agricultural Revolution. Scientists think that lightning sparked chemical reactions in Earth’s early atmosphere. The early atmosphere contained gases such as ammonia, methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Scientists hypothesize that this created a “soup” of organic molecules from inorganic chemicals. Thus began a chain of actions and reactions resulting to early life forms.

Thus, to place humanity in its ecological context nonhumans must have agency understood as the movement generated by inter relationality of two or more beings that can result in an emerging property. Certain fields of history, such as environmental history and natural history explicitly demand attention to the non-human actors (e.g., Thorpe, Rutherford, and Sandberg, 2018). Let us recall that Marx and Engels themselves were aware that a full-fledged historical materialism must include nonhuman environment to explain human history but they set that aside as their focus was narrowly on social classes and their dynamic relations in a given mode of production.  

Hunter-gatherers’s ecocentrism

Graeme Baker (2006, pp. 38-39), the prominent archeologist and a scholar of the Agricultural Revolution, argues that the emergence of farming coincided with the “domestication of the mind,” which I call alienation from nature characterized by the rise of anthropocentrism to replace ecocentrism of hunter-gatherers.

Our forager ancestors saw themselves deeply embedded in the world around them. We know that from anthropological studies of the contemporary forager populations. Most modern-day foragers are characterized by animistic or less commonly totemic belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.  Their environment is a treasure house of personage, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, bird, reptile, or plant. Thus, the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, other animals, and plants as persons (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry (Descola, 1996). Animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of modern-day Linnaean taxonomies. (Howell, 1996)  The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities.  Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.

The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance. (Carmichael et al., 1994) It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other.  In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences. (C.L. Martin, 1993, p. 14) (citations are taken from Barker, 2006, p. 59)

I submit that these ecocentric worldviews are closer to what science now knows about the inner lives of animals, plants, fungi, even entire forests in which the roots of its trees are connected by a network of mycelium that enables inter-tree communication. Mycelium is the same agent (yeast) that makes bread, a staple of humanity since the dawn of civilization.

Thus, I call for an animist materialism, a materialism that views each being on Earth as part of a network of animate and inanimate beings who in combination create ecosystems which in turn enriches life within and without it through connections with other ecosystems that together makes a living planet. In this materialism, all beings are actors as no actors can act alone.

Multinaturalism

This sort of materialism is already in the making.  Donna Haraway draws attention to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his notion of multinaturalism and perspectivism.

“Working with Brazilian Amerindian hunters, with whom he learned to theorize the radical conceptual realignment he called multinaturalism and perspectivism, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro wrote, ‘Animism is the only sensible version of materialism.’ I am not talking about people like me—or kids like Nuna— ‘believing’ in the spirit world. Belief is neither an indigenous nor a ‘chthulucenean’ category. Relentlessly mired in both internecine and colonizing disputes of Christianity, including its scholarly and civic secular forms, the category of belief is tied to doctrine, profession, confession, and taxonomies of errors. That is, believing is not sensible. I am talking about material semiotics, about practices of worlding, about sympoiesis that is not only symbiogenetic, but is always a sensible materialism. The sensible materialisms of involutionary momentum are much more innovative than secular modernisms will allow. Stories for living in the Chthulucene (see endnote 18) demand a certain suspension of ontologies and epistemologies, holding them lightly, in favor of more venturesome, experimental natural histories. Without inhabiting symanimagenic sensible materialism, with all its pushes, pulls, affects, and attachments, one cannot play Never Alone; and the resurgence of this and other worlds might depend on learning to play.” (Haraway , 2016, p. 88)

Given the limited scope of this essay, I can only argue the need of developing such materialism in which history in not limited to human history nor is materialism focused on the human agency but instead a materialism that givesagency to all beings in a dynamic ever changing reality that existed long before humanity emerged and will still exist long after humanity goes extinct.

Ecocentric ethics

As I have explained already, the Marxian theory is focused on the humanist project of emancipation through a socialist revolution led by the industrial working class. Thus, there is no environmental ethics in the Marxian theory or even in the ecological socialist theories.  Marx’s discussion of the metabolic rift is an argument about the fertility of soil undermined by capitalist agriculture with a promise that under socialism rational application of soil science will maintain soil fertility for continued productive use. There is no criticism of agriculture as a mode of expropriation of wealth from nature, of objectification through domestication of plants and animals, of the use of science and technology and machinery in agriculture. Thus, society/nature dualism and anthropocentrism remain.

Let me also note that even prominent naturalists and biologists like Darwin and E. O. Wilson remained anthropocentric in their outlook (see endnote 19), with accumulation of knowledge about nonhuman animals and expansion of ecological understanding of life ecocentric ethics have developed.

Rachels (1990) has used Darwin’s theory to argue for moral consideration for all animals.  He recalls that before Darwin the doctrine of “dignity of man” (or human superiority over the rest of nature) was defended either by the claim that “man is made in the image of God” or by the notion that “man is a uniquely rational being.”  Rachels painstakingly debunks both of these arguments in light of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. To replace the “dignity of man” doctrine, Rachels proposes the concept of “moral individualism.”

“How an individual should be treated depends on his or her own particular characteristics, rather than on whether he or she is a members of some preferred group–even the ‘group’ of human beings…This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased.”  (Rachels 1990:5)

By “devaluation” of human life, Rachels means the process of dethroning human beings as the apex of creation. It should be understood in the sense of leveling of hierarchical value systems as in the case of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa.  It was not so much “devaluing” the lives of white South Africans as it was for equality of all regardless of their “race.”  In a true sense, the eradication of Apartheid also elevated the lives of white South Africans!  It would be so by overcoming anthropocentrism, it would be de-alienation of civilized humanity from nature.

Among other contemporary philosophical contributions informed by Darwin’s teachings and advances in biology is Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) that is a milestone in the animal rights literature. Singer takes a utilitarian approach derived from Bentham and Mill to argue for certain rights for sentient beings which he identifies with the capacity to experience pain or pleasure.  Tom Regean in The Case for Animal Rights (1983) adopts a Kantian deontological approach to make a case for animal rights.  However, as Gary L. Francione (Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation2008) shows neither Singer nor Regan have overcome the Western philosophy’s anthropocentric worldview in relation to the moral status of animals.  He argues that the fundamental human rights are based on freedom for individuals that denies their commodification.  Francione then maintains that commodification of nonhuman animals denies their freedom and to rid society of institutionalized animal exploitation we must abolish commodification of animals.

In “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Christopher D. Stone (1972), a law professor, argued basing himself on Darwin for legal standing for natural objects.

“In Descent of Man, Darwin observes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension in the objects of his ‘social instincts and sympathies.’ Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later, he came to regard more and more ‘not only the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellowmen’; then ‘his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals …. “ (Stone, 1972)

Arnes Naess (2008, pp. 230-51), the Norwegian philosopher builds on Spinoza who held that God and Nature argued for what came to be called Deep Ecology that adopts an ecocentric approach to the world. He called his own philosophy, Ecosophy T, close to the animistic worldview of our forager ancestors. (see endnote 20) He argues that every living being, human or not, has an equal right to live and flourish (Naess, 1989, pp. 164-65), a right that is not conditional on how humans perceive it. According to Naess, each person has her own ecosophy (philosophy of nature) that can become ecocentric based on experience and contemplation. To suggest just one example of such ethical approach to nature, he and George Sessions, also a philosopher, proposed an Eight Point Platform (1984) for the Deep Ecology movement that seeks to address the planetary crises.  They are as follows:

  • The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  • The flourishing of human life and culture is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.
  • Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  • Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  • The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasing standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.
  • Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Naess and Sessions invited others to draft their own platform or adopt theirs with revisions as they like. Their point is that there can be and there are many ecocentric views of the world  and all can contribute to healing of the 12,000-year-old rift with nature.

I would place Deep Ecology’s teachings in the context of what we can learn about our place in the world from recent developments in history called Big History (Christian 2004, Brown 2007, Spier 2010; for more information see the International Big History Association website).   Big History aims to place human history in the context of the history of the universe.  One advantage gained in David Christian’s view is a better understanding of increasing complexity from the Big Bang to the present human society.

Finally, let me cites the naturalistic ethics of Native Americans.  Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) provides a marvelous presentation of it. Kimmerer who is a botonist show us how Native American view of ourselves and our relationship with the rest of nature is superior to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization’s scientific mechnical and reductionist view.  Among many things the reader learns is why it is wrong to call nonhumans “it” a term of objectification.  She argued how much better our relationshio with the rest of natural world would be if we began each day with the the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. She argues for a cultural of receiprocity and gratitude and a gift economy to replace market economy.

Key implications

Table 1 offers a summary of differences between the Marxian theory and Ecocentric Socialism on some key issues. Ed.note: Please see the original table in the article here on Kamran’s website.

In previous essays, I have offered critical discussion of key aspects of socialist theory (Nayeri, 2020) as well social actors that can contribute to the transition from the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to a future Ecocentric Socialist humanity and some of its key features. (Nayeri October 2018; Nayeri March 2020).  I have also outlined a suggested program of action for the early phases of Ecocentric Socialism in the United States (Nayeri, October 2018, section entitled “Ecocentric Socialism”; Nayeri 2017) as well as a discussion of strategy and tactics (Nayeri July 2017; Nayeri October 2017). To close this essay, I will touch upon four key implications of Ecocentric Socialism that sets it apart from theories of socialism and ecosocialism: The theory of history, dismantling all power relations, volunteer simplicity and simplification of social and economic life, and the need for a culture of being and loving.

Theory of history

Ecocentric Socialism’s theory of history will focus attention on the dynamics of ecological social forces and relations of subsistence and production for the entire history of the Homo genus going back 2.8 million years.  As Marx and Engels set aside the natural context of social life in their construction of historical materialism, they focused attention on forces and relations of production.  This carries over to Marx’s critique of political economy which centers on the capitalist mode of production to develop a theory of exploitation of the working class (theory of surplus value) and uncovering of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy so conceived. As I have already discussed the current pandemic and its impact on the world economy falls outside the Marxian theory of crisis (Nayeri, March 2020).

The recent welcome attention to Marx’s discussion of metabolic rift and subsequent discussion of ecological rift by Foster, Clark, and York (2010) would not break out of the problems inherent in historical materialism and Marxian theory of capitalism for a number of reasons.  First, Marx’s discussion of “metabolic rift” is a critique of capitalist agriculture where soil fertility is undermined in the interest of making a profit. “Marx argued that it was necessary to ‘restore’ the soil metabolism to ensure environmental sustainability for the generations to come.” (Foster, Clark, and York, 2010, p. 46).  Foster and his colleagues have expanded Marx’s critique to the entire scope of today’s ecological crises by calling them “ecological rift.”  It is clear that “metabolic rift” nad “ecological rift” are what ecologists call ecological disruption or if warranted ecological crisis.  Thus, the new language does not add ecological insight to what we already know. 

Second, Marx’s “metabolic rift” critique is an instrumentalist and anthropocentric because its concern for a healthy soil for superior agricultural output is for human use. There is no interest in a healthy soil except from a humanist point of view. Thus, Foster, and his coauthors write:

“The ecological rift is, at the bottom, the product of a social rift: the domination of human being by human being. The driving force is a society based on class, inequality, and acquisition without end.” (ibid. p. 47).

Third, the proposition associated with “metabolic rift” and “ecological rift” is that capitalist accumulation is responsible for ecological problems. But this much has been proclaimed by the socialist movement without any reference to “metabolic rift.” (see, for example, Mandel, 1977, p. 178)  In fact, some Marxists (Mandel is again an example) have already written about how acts of production are at the same times acts of destruction (See Nayeri, April 2018)

Fourth, there is no criticism of the idea of domination and control of nature through science and technology and specifically in agriculture in current discussions of “metabolic rift” or “ecological rift” or any other ecosocialist theories and in Marxist writings before it.  While in Marx’s free associated producers mode of production and social relations become unmediated, that is, un-alienated, the same does not seem to hold for interactions with nature because an appeal is made to the scientific knowledge to rationalize and manage nature for human benefits.  As such, not only humanity remains alienated from nature, given that science and technology have a tendency to specialize, it is doubtful that any society of associated producers can enable all its members to be armed with the necessary scientific knowledge to contribute directly to the management of such interactions with the rest of nature.  There would be a need for a group of scientists and technologists to decide or at best help others decide how to manage nature.  Not only managing nature implies its objectification which runs contrary to the ideal of de-alienation from nature, this entails a need for an elite that runs contrary to the ideal of a classless society.

Finally,“metabolic rifts” and “ecological rifts” have been with us since the dawn of civilization.  Sumer, the first civilization, collapsed due to salinization of soil. Of course, the dynamics of class societies matter as they are social formations to expropriate wealth from nature through exploitation of working people. But the primary reason, alienation from nature which conditioned and was conditioned by the Agricultural Revolution beginning 12,000 years ago is still the root cause of social alienation. To do away with social alienation, we must do away with alienation from nature, hence the idea of domination and control, that is, management, of nature.

The idea that nature has value in and of itself without any benefit to humanity is at the center of this discussion. Let Rosa Luxemburg, an exception among leading Marxists who began a break with anthropocentrism, explain. In a letter written to her friend Sophie Liebknecht from the Breslau Prison on May 2, 1917 she wrote:

“I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. ” (emphasis added)

In the same letter, Luxemburg expresses concern that her comrades in the German Social Democratic Party would not be understanding of her feelings for the natural world.  She writes about wildlife as an end in themselves not as object of utility for humans and she describes the misfortune of the North American indigenous populations as being similar to the misfortune of songbirds in Germany. Pay attention to her criticism of science, technology, agriculture, and modernity:

“Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of songbirds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart. I was not thinking so much about the loss of pleasure for human beings, but I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenseless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilized men. (ibid.)

She goes on identifying herself not with her fellow humans but with wildlife:

“Sometimes, however, it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than – at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison.” (ibid.)

A century later, I have found negative reaction from my socialist and ecosocialist friends that Luxemburg feared when I have spoken up in defense of nonhuman species and Mother Nature and advocated ecocentrism opposing manifestations of human superiority and anthropocentrism.

Ecocentric Socialism is based on unconditional love for nature and Mother Earth. It calls for unmediated loving of and respectful relation with the rest of nature, not one determined by rational calculations informed by science and technology. Thus, Ecocentric Socialism advocates a combined cultural and social revolution that begins from the wombs of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to transcend it in the direction of oneness with the rest of nature and social harmony.

Dismantling all power relations

 A.J. Mustea pacifist labor and socialist leader, once argued that: “There is no road to peace, peace IS the way.”  All politics is about power relations.  We live in a vast web of power relations. Socialists and ecosocialist movements often condemn such power relation in capitalist society when they oppose classicism, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, imperialism, etc.

Yet, socialist and ecological socialist movements have been largely blind to human domination of nature. Just one example should suffice.  In just one year, 2011, for which statics are available, the international meat industry slaughtered 58,110,000,000 chicken, 2,917,000,000 ducks, 1,383,000,000 pigs. Other farm animals slaughtered for the meat and poultry markets numbered in hundreds of millions each: 654,000,000 turkeys, 649,000,000 geese, and guinea fowl, 517,000,000 sheep, 430,000,000 goats and 296,000,000 cattle (Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, p. 15).  In the same year, over 156 million tons of seafood (capture and aquaculture) was consumed worldwide (FAO, “World Fisheries Production,” accessed June 2, 2014). There is also “exotic food” that in the United States includes alligator, alpaca, armadillo, bear, beaver, bobcat, caiman, crocodile, camel, coyote, capon, dove, frog, iguana, kudu, lion, llama, monkey, muskrat, opossum, otter, ostrich, pale, quail, turtle, venison and zebra meat (see, for example, this marketplace for mail order exotic food).  Other countries and cultures have their own choice of meat. In China, Korea and the Philippines cats and dogs are eaten.  Japanese prize whales as food.  The French eat horse meat. In Africa, bushmeat is treasured.

Ecocentric Socialism proclaims: without animal liberation there will be no human emancipation!  Without doing away with alienation from nature there will be no end to social alienation.  In this, Ecocentric Socialism finds common ground with anarchist tradition set by Élisée Reclus (2013). as John P. Clark puts it:

“[A]narchy consists of the critique of all systems of domination and the struggle to abolish those systems, in concert with the practice of free, non-dominating community, which is the real alternative to these systems. Anarchy is the entire sphere of human life that takes place outside the boundaries of arche, or domination, in all its forms – statism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, racial oppression, heterosexism, technological domination, the domination of nature, etc. ” (Santoro, 2014)

Reclus was a pioneer in critical thinking about humanity’s reltionship with the rest of nature. In his essay, ‘The feeling for Nature in modern society’ (1866), he dealt with the relationship between humanity and nature suggestiong a goal of reaching a harmonic equilibrium between society and the rest of nature.

Of course, as Marxian socialist theory teaches us, we must do away with all power relations among people as well. But that cannot happen unless we also embark on the path to dealienation from nature. 

For simplicity

The Marxian theory of socialism envisions a society of plenty: to each according to her needs from each according to her ability. At the same time, human development is associated with free time. These are predicated on a highly advanced division of labor hence a highly technological society. But social dealienation in a technologically complex society seem unlikely for two reasons. First, as we know science and technology are used mostly for domination and control of nature which runs counter to the ideal of dealienation from nature.  Second, a high technology society cannot become socially dealienated as it will depend at least on a scientific and technological elite.

Ecocentric Socialism favors a different approach by gradually reducing domination and control over nature as part of the process of de-alienation from nature.  At the same time, it views un-alienated work in a subsistence or low-impact production economy to provide basic necessities for human wellbeing and development as enlightening and necessary for de-alienation from nature. The need for science and technology will decrease over time to a minimum to secure a healthy, enabled, small human society.  

While the idea of voluntary simplicity has been around for a long time, it is the degrowth movement, an offshoot of the Green movement, which proclaims:

“[W]e have to produce and consumer differently, and also less.  That we have to share more and distribute more fairly, while the pie shrinks. To do so in ways that support pleasurable lives in resilient societies and environments requires values and institutions that produce different kinds of persons and relations.” (Kallis, et.al., 2020, p. 5)

Ecocentric Socialism shares a similar approach while taking notice of the uneven world development. According to the World Bank about 85% of the world live on less than $30 per day and 63% live on less than $10 per day. Clearly, much of the world resources are used in the Global North by the well-to-do population.  Thus, Ecocentric Socialism emphasizes the need to transfer wealth and know-how from the Global North to the Global South which will require ecologically sound economic growth to ensure basic needs for all.

There is much to learn from indigenous cultures about the wisdom of contentment and gratitude as our moral compass in our ecological socialist relations. (Kimmerer, 2013, chapter “Allegiance to Gratitude’).

But social simplicity must also be combined with much smaller human societies engaged in activities sufficient to ensure wellbeing and human development.

Exponential human population growth has accompanied the rise of capitalism from 1 billion in 1802 to 7.9 billion in 2019, projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. A growing population is part of the calculus of valorization of capital as surplus value comes from unpaid labor time so the ever growing mass of profit will require an ever growing workforce.  But the same workforce will also provide the much needed consumers for the conversion of commodity capital into money capital to restart the process of accumulation on an expanding basis.

Ecocentric Socialism will work for empowerment and education of women and for democratic family planning to gradually but dramatically reduce human population.  Humans are not only part of megafauna but also the top predator due to our ability to use science and technology and ability to mobilize large groups to dominate and control nature to expropriate wealth from it.  We must undo this malignant relation of domination and control over nature which requires reducing human population to come more in line with the population size of other megafauna. Ecocentic Socialism celebrates an unaliented humanity. It is quality of human life not how many of us are on the planet that matters.

For a culture of being and loving

While I have presented a rational argument for Ecocentric Socialism, it is not just a rationalist argument.  In fact, to save the world, we must love the world.  Ecocentric Socialism is about loving the world of which we are just a small part. Its politics is to do away with all power relations, its appeal to scientific knowledge is to do away with scientism and technology worship. Ecocentric Socialism is not just a theory but a practical guide to life even in the midst of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. Its goal is to end a relatively brief anthropocentric detour in the long history of humanity. The transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, an idealist, insists that nature is primary and society secondary when he writes:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Thus, he proclaims: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” (Thoreau, 1862)

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013,

“Mishkos Kenomagwen : The Teachings of Grass”) contrasts indigenous knowledge of working with sweetgrass with objectifying and reductionist methodology of science to understand why the plant flourshing where harvested by natives and why it is diminshing where it is not. A people rooted in the rest of nature can help it thrive while anthropocentrist colonial settlers have undermined it.”

Ecocentric Socialism is rewilding the world, including our own human world as we learn how to feel safe and happy in the bosom of Mother Earth as our ancestors did for two million years (Nayeri, May 2017).

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Endnotes

16. I would like to thank Fred Murphy for this suggestion.

17. Foster and Burkett (2017, p. 79) following Maurice Mandelbaum, define nineteenth century materialism “of which Marx and Engles were among the greatest representatives” by the following propositions: “that there is an independently existing world; that human mind does not exist as an entity distinct from the human body; and that there is no God (nor any other nonhuman being) whose mode of existence is not of material entities.”

18. Haraway eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices. The Chthulucene, Haraway explains, requires sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making.

19. Darwin’s daughter, Francis, wrote: “Two subjects which moved my father perhaps more strongly than any other were cruelty to animals and slavery.” Yet, when Darwin was asked about his position on the anti-vivisection he wrote: “I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word or I shall not sleep tonight.” (Rachels, 1990, pp. 212-14). E. O. Wilson writes: “[H]umanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and—who can say?—perhaps the galaxy….We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look almost to its edge.” (Wilson, 2012, p. 288)

19. Darwin’s daughter, Francis, wrote: “Two subjects which moved my father perhaps more strongly than any other were cruelty to animals and slavery.” Yet, when Darwin was asked about his position on the anti-vivisection he wrote: “I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word or I shall not sleep tonight.” (Rachels, 1990, pp. 212-14). E. O. Wilson writes: “[H]umanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and—who can say?—perhaps the galaxy….We will soon create simple organisms in the laboratory. We have learned the history of the universe and look almost to its edge.” (Wilson, 2012, p. 288)

20. One of my reviewers suggested that should I delineate how Ecocentric Socialism differs from Deep Ecology. After all, he argues, Deep Ecology is not socialist. If he as a reader understands this, why is there a need for me to stress the point?  In this essay as in my earlier writings I have drawn of ideas from traditions, thinkers, and writers who are not socialist including hunter-gatherers, indigenous cultures, various philosophers and ethicists, etc. Why should Deep Ecology pose and exception? In this essay, I cite Naess’s and Sessions’s Eight Point Platform of Deep Ecology because I believe it provides a simple uncontroversial ecocentric guide to everyday life. As such it is also incompatible with the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. In fact, in my earlier writings I count Deep Ecologists as allies in the Ecocentric Socialist revolution (see, Nayeri, October 2018).

Dedication:  This essay is dedicated to Mother Earth who has given us life and sustains all the beauty that surrounds us.

Acknowledgment:  I am grateful to R. Hassanpour for correcting many grammatical and typing errors and to Farrokh Jafari for comments that helped improve the narrative. Deep gratitude to Fred Murphy who edited the latest version and provided substantively to my argument.  They bear no responsibility for any remaining errors and shortcomings and the argument presented in this essay.