Value Free Science and Ecology

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

"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."