The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Reviewed by Brian Tokar




This book review was published in Tikkun Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2003.

This past August, civil society representatives, public officials and heads of state from around the world converged on Johannesburg for the tenth anniversary of the landmark 1992 United Nations “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. While the U.S. media focused largely on symbolic issues such as President Bush’s absence from the proceedings, a far more disturbing scenario was unfolding there.

For many people, Rio ’92 had been a symbol of hope and renewal, a sign that world leaders were finally giving priority to pressing and long-neglected environmental problems, and that the much touted agenda of “sustainable development” had finally come of age. While corporate representatives, gathered under the banner of the “Business Council for Sustainable Development,” clearly played a disproportionate role in those proceedings, meaningful progress appeared to have been made in areas such as forestalling global climate change, protecting biodiversity, and adopting a comprehensive framework for linking environmental concerns to the needs of the world’s impoverished peoples.

Johannesburg, in contrast, seemed to merely reinforce and enshrine the virtually complete lack of official environmental progress that we have seen over the past few years. This time, corporate agendas were not only in the forefront, but may have been the only agendas given a substantive hearing. Civil society was largely silenced inside the official proceedings, and peaceful protests outside were met with vicious police attacks, replete with tear gas and concussion grenades. Behind the platitudes and self-congratulatory rhetoric about “ending” poverty in a decade or two, “Rio+10” was an overt attempt to reverse years of diplomacy around environmental issues by making environmental agreements subservient to the agendas of the WTO and other institutions of global capitalism.

Perhaps there has been no more urgent time for a book like Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature. In this very personal, thoughtful, and passionate manifesto, Kovel, a long-time psychologist, professor, and Green Party activist, examines the roots of today’s ecological problems and speaks to the urgency of moving toward a fundamentally different kind of society. Kovel labels his solution ecosocialist, but his grasp of ecological issues, social history, and ethics clearly transcends the limitations of that label and offers much food for thought to all who seek a more ecological way forward.

The scope of Kovel’s synthesis is very broad. He surveys issues from climate change, and the concomitant rise in the frequency of natural disasters, to the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, and the underlying roots of global poverty and dislocation. He enfolds themes from philosophy, history, political economy, psychology, and the analysis of popular culture, examining the origins of patriarchy, private property, and the entrenchment of class structures, all in a search for radical, systemic solutions. Kovel critiques popular environmental approaches, from the fashionable “Green capitalism” embraced by many in today’s “sustainable development” camp, to Naderite populism and the back-to-the land philosophy of bioregionalism, showing how past approaches have failed to address either the magnitude of the problems we face, or their systemic origins.

Where Kovel falls short, however, is in his proposed solutions. Having chronicled such a vast scope of issues and their origins, this is no fatal flaw, as we have long since passed the time when formulaic answers to our most pressing social problems may have appeared sufficient. Indeed, the prefigurative approach embraced by Kovel is an essential step forward. Prefigurative politics—the idea that a transformative social movement must necessarily anticipate the ways and means of the hoped-for new society—is one of the most important, lasting legacies of both the classical anarchist tradition and the 1960s’ New Left. Kovel seeks inspiration in the communistic, Christian society of the Bruderhof, the ethical traditions of Marxism, and a broad array of social experiments, from organic farms and community credit unions to direct action affinity groups. Each in their own way helps overturn the capitalist tyranny of exchange values over use values—Marxist economic categories that Kovel truly makes his own—and helps usher in a better world.

Clearly, such experiments are a necessary step toward transforming society, and the sad legacy of state socialism serves as a warning that any revolutionary movement that does not rectify its ends and its means will inevitably reproduce the worst crimes of capitalism. But is it sufficient? Where is the whole that emerges dialectically from more than the sum of the parts? How does a social and political movement develop that can truly hope to remake society? It is here that Kovel’s effort to fuse ecology and Marxism breaks down somewhat, and alternative ecophilosophies may offer some missing parts of the solution.

For example, Kovel is rather dismissive of social ecology, which emerged in the mid-1960s as perhaps the first genuinely ecological form of radicalism. Kovel tends to reduce social ecology to the personal failings of its founder, Murray Bookchin, and offers a rather caricatured account of Bookchin’s affinity for the instinctual anti-authoritarianism of classical anarchism. In fact, social ecology was perhaps the first school of thought to equate ecology with a fundamental critique of capitalism, to view social hierarchy as a more fundamental problem than class inequality, and to embrace a revolutionary politics of localism and direct democracy as the alternative to the inherently ecocidal and antisocial nature of today’s elite institutions.

Marxists, by and large, initially dismissed environmental concerns in the late 1960s and early seventies as a mere diversion from the class struggle. We were lectured ad nauseum about the advantages of “socialist nuclear power” —until Chernobyl—and the ecological industrial models in Eastern Europe, where the patterns of lung disease turned out to be a horror unimaginable even among Appalachia’s coal miners. Recent attempts by James O’Connor, John Bellamy Foster, Elmar Altvater and others to reconcile Marxism and ecology have offered important insights, especially toward explaining just why capitalism is so inherently anti-ecological. But there remains a fundamental mismatch between the economistic world-view of Marxism on the one hand, and ecological radicalisms that attempt a more holistic critique of contemporary society. Many leftist ecologists have been influenced less by Marx than they have by Mumford’s critiques of the origins of technology and the city, and by Polanyi’s plea to re-submerge the economy in social relationships, for example.

The movement against corporate globalism that came of age in Seattle during the historic demonstrations against the WTO has embraced many of the insights about the world that Kovel shares with social ecologists and other eco-radicals. This fall’s mobilization against the World Bank and IMF was the first since Seattle to embrace an explicitly ecological dimension, with the emergence of the green “Eco-Bloc.” This is most appropriate following the fiasco in Johannesburg, and a summer that submerged Central Europe’s historic cities beneath torrential floodwaters, while unprecedented wildfires raged across the Western U.S. But today’s global justice movement is already reaching beyond some of the limitations of Kovel’s approach, merging prefigurative forms of internal organization with a mission to directly confront the core institutions of global capitalism. Many embrace social ecology’s call for confederations of directly democratic communities to emerge as a revolutionary alternative to those institutions. Social ecologists such as Cindy Milstein and Chaia Heller have written articulately about the imperative to move from the short-lived democracy of the streets to a longer-range agenda of community self-governance based on democratic popular assemblies. Lessons about ecology and the resistance to globalization from thinkers and activists in the global South have become increasingly influential in recent years as well.

In the end, Kovel’s book raises more questions than answers, and it is quite appropriate for these times that he ends with a series of key, strategic questions that have plagued activists for generations. The questions he raises are fundamental ones, and his book offers one of the most compelling cases in some time for a more systemic, long-range view of today’s often overwhelming social and ecological crises.

Brian Tokar is the author of The Green Alternative (New Society) and Earth for Sale (South End Press), and the editor of the recent collection, Redesiging Life (London: Zed Books). He teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, and is the coordinator of the Institute’s Biotechnology Project.