Toward a Socialist Land Ethic: the Foundation of an Ecosocialist Future

This is the vision of a future society the left can carry forward: one where we enjoy the aesthetic, spiritual and educational benefits of preserving natural areas, retain and enhance our ability to live free of physical needs, and increase democratic control over the land upon which we all rely for life.

 Photo by  Ramdan Authentic .

There will be no future on a dead planet, socialist or otherwise. If the left seizes power, we will simultaneously face a host of environmental crises that will have to be overcome if we are to bring our planet into the rational egalitarian age we envision. Failure to effectively address these crises will doom our project from the onset; even the most firmly grounded socialist society could not survive ecological collapse.

At this point many readers will be vigorously nodding their heads. Yes, of course we need to decarbonize. Of course we need an environmentally sustainable society. Yet, my fear is that decades of being exposed to capitalist conceptions of Earth and her gifts, and an almost myopic focus on global warming, have left many to still underestimate the scale and number of the problems that face us. Even among committed ecosocialists, there is a dearth of the sort of understanding necessary to address these crises effectively.

Ecological problems cannot be overcome by sheer force. In fact, it is this very notion—that we can force ecological processes to do what we want—that has gotten us into many of the ecological problems we are in today. Nor can ecological issues be addressed piecemeal. Earth’s systems are too interconnected, and complicated beyond our understanding. In the words of John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This is the way we need to be thinking. We must conceive of Earth, the biosphere and humanity as a continuous whole, realizing that when we structure our society, when we utilize natural resources, when we make alterations to natural systems, we are never “picking out anything by itself.” Rather, every one of our actions will have rippling effects, and therefore we should undertake them cautiously and with humility about our place in the Earth system. Without such an outlook, we risk continuing to commodify the land and our fellow species, and carrying on the colonial capitalist conquest that began over 500 years ago. Undoing our mistakes and building the future we want means undoing the commodification of Earth.

We must learn to live in an ecological society, as opposed to a colonial one. An ecological society simply means that we must practice what Indigenous activist Daniel Wildcat calls “indigenuity”: learning to live as one part of the life system. This means adapting our economic and social practices to harmonize with local ecosystems, instead of copying and pasting the same modes of production and extraction onto any landscape, regardless of who lives there or what processes sustain that particular environment. We must develop what Aldo Leopold, often described as the father of wildlife conservation, called a “land ethic”: widening our definition of community, and our circle of compassion, to include the non-human biotic and abiotic natural world. In so doing, we avoid merely protecting what is obviously useful to us because it is useful to us, and instead protect all of Earth’s networks and processes because of their innate value and right to survive and thrive.

Practicing a land ethic is the secret to living viably upon a tract of land for tens of thousands of years, as the original people of North America did, and as indigenous people have done all over the world. Juxtapose this ideal with the current system, which has brought the biosphere to the brink of apocalypse in the short span of a couple hundred years.

It is tempting to argue that this system has brought about the current sad state of affairs by putting human needs over the needs of Earth. Socialists must reject any such argument out of hand. We know that capitalism is not a system designed for meeting the needs of human beings: capitalism is a system that serves capital, and nothing else. It is for capital and not humanity that this system has put Earth on the sacrificial altar. In fact, human well-being depends on the well-being of the ecosystems that support us. When Leopold first introduced his land ethic, he made a basic observation that the biosphere is a pyramid, with the soil making up the wide base, plants supported on the soil, herbivores on plants, and on up to human beings. While we now know the analogy of a web is more appropriate to describe the myriad ways life forms interact and depend on one another, the same basic principle applies: if we destroy the soil, as capitalist agriculture has done, if we destroy plant assemblages, as capitalist real estate has done, organisms “higher up” the pyramid will suffer—humans included.

This is an important distinction, because there is another argument, one that comes from the right, for trying to save the Earth. This argument frames the situation as being a conflict between humanity and Earth, and as a result its solutions are anti-human: racist calls for population control, the denial of resources to certain segments of the population and other such measures that we must resist at the same time we fight for Earth and its non-human species out of compassion and a sense of justice. We cannot conscience an “ecological” world that provides for all other species, but denies human beings what they need to thrive. We undertake our ecological work to provide the highest possible standard of living for all species, and for humanity that means being able to be creatively productive, in freedom from physical need.

This is what is meant by a socialist land ethic. It is possible to meet both all the needs of humanity and the needs of other species as well. Capitalism cannot accomplish this because it must continuously create new needs for people in order to resolve crises of overproduction. Socialism can do this, if we plan it ecologically. If we fail to establish a politic on the left that addresses the needs of humanity and the rest of nature—if we continue to offer the sort of doomed techno-utopian “solutions” or head-in-the-sand platitudes of the capitalists, we will cede the debate to the misanthropic eco-chauvinism of reactionaries and fascists.

I have written elsewhere about a handful of the non-climate-change ecological crises facing modern society. They span everything from the potential collapse of agriculture as topsoil is denuded and eroded, to the poisoning of water and the extinction of entire species from the face of the Earth. While the effects of capitalism and colonization on Earth’s biodiversity are cumulative and likely impossible for us to totally unravel, we can make a good start by setting aside areas where evolutionary and ecological processes can continue self-willed, literally “wilderness.” Leaving habitable ecosystems and functioning assemblages of plants and animals intact will ensure functions performed by these ecosystems that we rely upon for the continuance our civilization, such as pollination and nutrient cycling, continue in perpetuity.

Ecomodernist and techno-utopian schemes that maintain that human systems or technology can replicate these necessary ecosystem functions amount to nothing more than blind ideology and ecological ignorance. The best scientists in the 1920s didn’t predict that removing wolves from Yellowstone would negatively affect almost every aspect of the ecosystem there; the best scientists of the 1960s didn’t predict that an insecticide would have a devastating effect on bird populations (as was revealed in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). In both of these cases, capitalist society was attempting to solve what it perceived as ecological problems by circumventing natural processes. There is no evidence, historically speaking, that ecomodernist calls to manage every aspect of the world like a garden would end any less disastrously.

The truly scientific and Marxist approach would be that of the precautionary principle—we should not assume that our addition or subtraction from any already-established ecological process will be a beneficial one. This is something that leftists can incorporate into their own projects immediately. For any given issue of resource distribution or utilization, we can ask how natural systems could provide these resources with minimal effort on our part, or how human systems might mimic natural systems. For instance, the food-producing systems of agroecology and permaculture have the potential to net more food, of better quality, closer to the source of consumption, than do industrial, capitalist monoculture farms, all while sequestering carbon in vegetation and in the soil. Natural wetlands can clean water for a fraction of the price and effort of wastewater treatment plants, while also protecting shorelines from catastrophic storms. Socialists should furthermore insist that these areas be under democratic community control, so that people have a say in how they are managed, through land trusts and other cooperative mechanisms.

This is the vision of a future society the left can carry forward: one where we enjoy the aesthetic, spiritual and educational benefits of preserving natural areas, retain and enhance our ability to live free of physical needs, and increase democratic control over the land upon which we all rely for life. It should never be seen as a violation of our ecological ethic to accommodate truly human needs into our ecological society. Attempts to frame our mission in eco-chauvinist terms, that humanity (or certains segments thereof) must be deprived in order for nature to flourish, must be resisted. Any attempt to force asceticism on the present human population could, at best, only last a short time until someone got it in their head to promise all the comforts of the old system to any that would help in overthrowing the new. Anyone who attempted to impose such a system would not yet have thrown off the yoke of capitalist morality which, as Marx put it, is “the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave.” To stop imagining humans are separate and above nature, to acknowledge that we are one part of the whole, magnificent, Earth system, is not to place us separate and below the rest of the system. Human beings are members of ecological communities, even if we act as devastating ones under colonial capitalism. Just as our ecological society would fail if we failed to take in to account the species needs of wolves for space, or ponderosa pines for fire, it will fail if we do not take into account the species needs of humans for creative production and self-actualization.

Capitalism is unsustainable. If it is not overthrown, it will collapse under its ecological contradictions. If we want the future that follows it to be a socialist one, we must avoid the same mistakes. We must adopt a socialist land ethic, reaffirming humanity’s place as a member of the Earth system. If we can do so, and manage the socialist society in a way that enhances the Earth system, we can have a socialism that lasts for tens of thousands of years.

Nathaniel Owen is an ecosocialist studying conservation biology at Oregon State University. He is co-chair of the Benton County DSA. He tweets @real__radicle.