Douglas Boucher: a Critique


The Fall 1996 Science and Society, edited by PEN-L'er David Laibman, contains an article by Douglas Boucher called "Not With a Bang, but a Whimper." It includes a paragraph that I find highly disturbing:

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.

The reference is to an article that Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin's published in Jim O'Connor's 1994 Vol.5-4 Capitalism Nature Socialism titled "Holism and Reductionism in Ecology." Apparently this article has had a big influence not only on Boucher, but on David Harvey, who draws upon it extensively in his new book "Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference." Levins, Lewontin, Boucher and Harvey are all aggravated by the claim that some make that the planet is being destroyed by capitalism. On their hit-list are the usual suspects like Kirkpatrick Sale. They are also miffed at Marxists like John Bellamy Foster who has the temerity to think of the planet as "vulnerable."

My reaction to Boucher and company is that their counter-arguments undermine whatever moral legitimacy Marxism has left.

It leaves you with the impression that as long as humanity survives, it is not catastrophic if every last living species except homo sapiens becomes extinct. If our planet ends up containing nothing but us, the rats and the cockroaches, then our "survival" seems moot. The disappearance of bald eagles as a result of DDT was noted by Rachel Carson in the legendary New Yorker "Silent Spring" articles of the 1950s. Bill McKibben, who gets bashed by Boucher and company, followed in Carson's footsteps when he wrote a series of articles in the same magazine titled "End of Nature." The point of these articles is to remind us, as Engels said in Dialectics of Nature, that we "are part of nature." Boucher and company place us above it.

Any young person who was becoming politicized around ecological issues would find Boucher's argument deeply repellent. As it turns out, tens of thousands of young people have developed inchoate anticapitalist ideas because of what corporations have been doing to dolphins and other endangered species. If you gave that young person a sample of Boucher's prose, they'd retreat in horror. There is empirical evidence for the sort of disjunction between Marxism and the young generation I am describing. Next month many of us will attend the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, where we will see about a thousand middle-aged white people. Inevitably we will turn to an old friend and say something like, "God, everybody is so OLD."

Meanwhile, at a conference on globalization held at the Riverside Church 2 years ago, there were twice as many participants and the average age was probably in the mid-20s. I have no doubt that if you asked the average attendee what the official Marxist position on ecology was, they'd say it was something like the position that Boucher puts forward.

Suffice it to say that Russian Marxism did not hold this view at all. The government set aside huge portions of Soviet territory in nature conservancies in 1921. It was so important to Lenin that this be done correctly that he took time away from high-level military meetings during the civil war just so he could guide the efforts of ecologists. Key to the Bolshevik nature conservancy program was the notion that "natural monuments" like trees and rivers had to be preserved just like paintings or buildings. They were part of our civilization.

Meanwhile, Marxism's irrelevancy deepens. It clings to schemas that were appropriate to the mid-19th century. When the subject of ecological catastrophe comes up, people like Boucher blather on about Malthus as if nothing has changed since the 1840s. The Worldwatch Institute tells us that there are twice the capacity of fishing trawlers as there are fish stocks in the world's oceans. Extinction of so-called class 1 species like swordfish and tuna is a distinct possibility. What does it matter to Boucher. We can eat sardines, after all. And when the sardines are gone, we can eat genetically engineered cockroaches.

The bloodlessness of Boucher's response has an ancient history in Marxism. It is no doubt what led to the creation of the Frankfurt School. Whatever people like Adorno lacked in scientific precision, it was more than made up by conscience. When Marxism loses the ability to act and speak prophetically, it loses much of its power.

At the heart of Boucher's neutrality is the "value free" stance of bourgeois social science: Cockroaches or Eagles--its all the same--so what. Bourgeois social science has haunted Marxism since its inception. 18th century social science believed in a racist notion of 4-stages of civilization, where agricultural people are superior to the primitive hunters and fishers. This schema influenced Lewis Morgan, who influenced Engels.

We have to break with this tradition in order to provide a political alternative to the bourgeoisie. In the latest New Left Review, Immanuel Wallerstein has some interesting comments on this peculiar notion of "value free" science:

"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