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Foreword to Creating an Ecological Society

| Creating an Ecological Society | MR OnlineAs Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams point out in their new book, Creating an Ecological Society, the word “ecology” (originally œcology) was first coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s leading German follower, based on the Greek word oikos, or household. Ironically, the word “economy,” to which ecology is often nowadays counterposed, was derived much earlier from the same Greek root—in this instance oikonomia, or household management. The close family relationship between these two concepts was fully intended by Haeckel, who defined ecology as the study of Darwin’s “economy of nature.”1

What the ancient Greeks had to offer to the understanding of today’s ecological predicament, however, extended well beyond such linguistic roots. In Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy, one already finds a powerful intuitive grasp of the twofold estrangement of nature and society brought into being by the development of a commercial money economy, leading to the conflict between a system of wealth that was unlimited in its aspirations—set against a world of natural limitations. From Aristophanes’ Wealth to Aeschylus’s Oresteia to Aristotle’s Politics to Epicurus’s On Nature, and—in Roman times—to Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical critique of unlimited acquisition is a theme that is repeated over and over. For Epicurus, “The wealth demanded by nature is both limited and easily procured; that demanded by idle imaginings stretches on to infinity.” He added: “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”—thus, “unlimited wealth is great poverty.”2

Greek and Roman mythology dramatized the contradiction between the pursuit of unlimited wealth and ecological limits in numerous places, the best known of which is the legend of Midas. But the most poignant of all—as Richard Seaford declared in “The Ancient Greeks and Global Warming,” his presidential address to the British Classical Association in 2009—is the myth of Erysichthon.3 In the version provided by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, King Erysichthon of Thessaly cuts down a massive ancient oak tree in the sacred grove of the goddess Ceres (Demeter) in order to build a banquet hall. In the process he kills those who stood in his way, inviting down upon himself the curse of a dying dryad or tree nymph. Ceres, responding to the pleas of the dead nymph’s sisters, punishes him by calling upon the goddess Famine to enter his body and breathe her essence into him, giving him an insatiable search for wealth and consumption:

Just as the sea receives from round the world
its rivers, and is never satisfied,
no matter from what distant source they flow,
and as a raging fire spurns no fuel,
devouring innumerable logs
and wanting more with every one it gets,
growing more voracious from
just so the greedy lips of
even as they took in,
were seeking out;
the cause of one
feast was the one before,
and all his
eating only left him empty.4

Erysichthon seeks to extract everything from nature and the world around him and in the process sells his own daughter in marriage, from which she escapes (by means of shape-shifting), but returning to him only to be resold again—a process that is repeated over and over. Erysichthon’s fate is quite different from that of Midas, who, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is eventually released from his ill-considered wish, granted by the god Bacchus, of turning everything he touches into gold, and who then turns to the worship of the god Pan and nature. In contrast, Erysichthon eventually eats himself as a product of his insatiable desire for more. According to Seaford, the myth of Erysichthon “contains a unique combination of unusual features: the transformation of nature into a product, selling to obtain food, and eating the self. The constant return of the daughter from marriage excludes progeny (the future). The Greeks had a myth for many of our central concerns, and here is one for global warming: exploitation of nature produces pathological insatiability, the unlimited need for a source of income that sacrifices the future, and self-destruction.”5

How is it that ancient Greeks (and Romans) had such a powerful critique of unlimited wealth in a precapitalist economy? Seaford argues, based on his own seminal research in Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, that as the earliest society to introduce a systematic money economy based on coinage, the Greeks generated a concept of unlimited, abstract wealth that tore at the whole fabric of the Greek polis. It was this more than anything else, he indicates, that helped generate the sense of contradiction and estrangement of nature that came to pervade Athenian drama and philosophy.6

It is not until the rise of the generalized commodity economy of capitalism that one discovers as powerful a critique of the alienation of nature and its relation to the pursuit of unlimited wealth in a money economy, and then it is frequently overridden by the notion of the mastery and the domination of nature and the struggle over class and production. Writing of the alienation (the sale) of nature in terms of land, which in classical political economy had stood for nature as a whole, Karl Polanyi stated in The Great Transformation:

What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.… And yet to separate land from man and organize society in such a way as to satisfy the requirements of a real-estate market was a vital part of the utopian concept of a market economy.7

Those opposing the rise of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries tended to split between Romantics, who deplored the destruction of nature, and socialists, who were concerned almost exclusively with the class struggle. However, a number of thinkers whose worldviews can be properly described as dialectical, drew from both traditions, recognizing (albeit in different ways) that the alienation of nature and the alienation of labor were two sides of the same coin, and related to production. Among the most radical and perceptive in this regard were such diverse figures as William Blake, P. B. Shelley, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, John Ruskin, and William Morris.

It is here in the context of the Industrial Revolution that natural science also began to exert a critical influence. Throughout the growth of modernity, the notion of the “domination” or “mastery of nature” was seen as referring to the harnessing of the powers of nature by means of science and technology. Even for Francis Bacon such mastery of nature was seen as only possible by following nature’s laws, with the result that some of his earliest seventeenth-century followers, such as John Evelyn, the author of Fumifugium (a treatise on air pollution) and Sylva (a treatise on deforestation), pioneered in raising issues of conservation and environmental management.8 The eventual triumph of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 encouraged an understanding of the historicity of nature, and ultimately processes of co-evolution.

At the same time, the discovery in the nineteenth century of the concept of metabolism in cell physiology and its spread to other fields, coupled with the rise of thermodynamics, pointed within science to the rise of a more unified organic view of what Blake and many others had metaphorically called the “Web of Life.”9 Among the first to see the larger implications of the concept of metabolism was Marx, who defined the labor process as the “social metabolism,” thereby tying the critique of alienation of labor and the alienation of nature under capitalism, to a materialist-scientific worldview.10 Aspects of this developing ecological view are to be found in the work of the zoologist Ray Lankester, Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protégé and Marx’s close friend. But it was not until Arthur G. Tansley, Lankester’s student, introduced the concept of ecosystem in 1935, drawing on sources as diverse as Lucretius in ancient materialism and Marxian conceptions of science, that the critical-dialectical potential of ecology came to the fore. “Ecology,” Tansley argued, “must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity.”11

Tansley’s ecosystem analysis was introduced in part as a critical-materialist response to idealist and racist conceptions of ecology prevalent in his time.12 The emerging ecosystem critique, however, was drowned out by other developments. In the late 1930s and 1940s a general conflagration ensued in the form of the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, faith in the power of science and technology was at its height, and with it the belief in “human exemptionalism.”13 Nothing could have been further from the popular mind of the immediate postwar period than the notion of natural limits. Yet it was in this same period, which we now associate with the Great Acceleration and the emergence of the Anthropocene epoch, that ecology began to come into its own, both as an integrative science and as a critical standpoint on the development of capitalist society.14 The first great ecological revolt of the postwar period was the struggle of scientists internationally in the 1950s against aboveground nuclear testing. Hence, it is no accident that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was the eventual result of this scientific revolt, in which figures like Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Barry Commoner played important roles, was finally concluded around the time of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—usually thought of as signaling the rise of the modern ecology movement. Carson applied the new specters of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of radiation (the processes whereby toxins accumulate within organisms and then are magnified at higher levels of the food web) to the way in which this was also manifested by synthetic chemicals in pesticides (which she called “biocides”)—with both the nuclear and biocide threats having emerged out of scientific advances within war industry.15

Of greater long-run significance perhaps than Silent Spring itself was Carson’s 1963 speech, “The Pollution of Our Environment,” in which she introduced the concepts of ecology and ecosystem to the U.S. public.16 Within a decade, ecology took off as both a scientific field and as a social-political movement, each feeding on the other. This was evident in the appearance of a whole issue of Scientific American in 1970, introducing the concept of the biosphere to the wider population, and by the publication in the following year of Commoner’s The Closing Circle—the first in a series of pathbreaking works, which included The Poverty of Power (1976) and Making Peace with the Planet (1990). In this analysis, Commoner brought together the critique of the capitalist ecology and the critique of the capitalist economy. “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick,” he wrote in Making Peace with the Planet, “the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production.”17

As David R. Keller and Frank Golley explain in The Philosophy of Ecology, “ecology is a science of synthesis”—directed at a world of widening ecological rifts. Ecology, they write,

is captivating due to the sheer comprehensiveness of its scope and complexity of its subject matter; ecology addresses everything from the genetics, physiology, and ethology of animals (including humans) to watersheds, the atmosphere, geologic processes, and influences of solar radiation and meteor impacts—in short, the totality of nature…

The word ecology connotes “ecological worldview.” An ecological worldview emphasizes interaction and connectedness. The theme can be developed in several ways:

  1. All living and nonliving things are integral parts of the biospherical web (ontological connectedness).
  2. The essence or identity of a living thing is an expression of connections and context (internal relations).
  3. To understand the makeup of the biosphere, connections and relations between parts must be considered, not just the parts themselves (holism).
  4. All life forms—including Homo sapiens—result from the same processes (naturalism).
  5. Given the affinities between humans and nonhumans, nonhuman nature has value above and beyond instrumental, resource utility for human beings (nonanthropocentrism).
  6. Humans have caused serious negative impacts (pollution, anthropogenic extinction) on the earth, leading to the need for environmental ethics.18

In short, ecology raises the kinds of complex and interconnected relations and contradictions in the human interface with the web of life that is traditionally associated with a materialist-dialectical worldview.19 It should not be surprising, therefore, that although ecology was for decades viewed exclusively as a specialized scientific pursuit, the concept has now taken on a popular, political meaning related to environmentalism. Yet the science of ecology and the politics of ecology, while different, have come to feed into each other in present-day society, since the science itself points continually to anthropogenic rifts in natural processes and the degradation of ecosystems (and increasingly the Earth system), resulting from human production.

In the Anthropocene, we live in an age where the implications of ecological science are radical—often more radical than mainstream environmentalism itself, which is trapped in the purely incremental, ameliorative social status quo. Figures like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and the late Richard Levins, as well as many others, thus point toward the need for social-system change on a massive scale. For Carson, speaking in terms the ancient Greeks would undoubtedly have understood: “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.”20 Marx, observing the emergence of ecological concerns within soil science in his day, called this “an unconscious socialist tendency,” in the sense that it pointed to the need for a shift to a society governed by the associated producers, which would rationally regulate the metabolism of humanity and nature.21

Magdoff and Williams are among the foremost heirs to this broad heritage of ecological thought within science and social criticism. Magdoff is by profession a soil scientist and ecologist. Williams is a science educator. Both have wide backgrounds as well in the critique of capitalist political economy. Magdoff is coauthor of The Great Financial Crisis (2009) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (2011)—both with the present author. Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism (2010).22 Both exemplify the new tradition of ecosocialism, rooted in a natural-scientific understanding of ecology and exploring the evolution, interconnections, limits, and resilience of natural systems. They stress the dangers of a society in which accumulation of profits is based on the exploitation of humanity and the expropriation of nature. It is their ability to bring these various aspects of our present-day reality together in an interconnected, and ultimately hopeful, ecological worldview that constitutes the great value of their book. They seek to transcend two one-sided views: that of ecologists who do not yet recognize that capitalism is the main source of our unprecedented levels of ecological disruption; and that of leftists who have not yet recognized that ecological imperatives are “allies” in the global struggle.23

Today the world is faced with an epochal crisis with two interconnected features. On the one hand, this is a crisis of the overaccumulation of capital, leading to economic stagnation, and the financialization of all aspects of life, manifested in the pervasiveness of debt. This is tied to imperialism and to the widening of human oppression in all its forms—including oppressions of gender, race, and the general devaluation of almost all individuals in today’s global capitalist culture. On the other hand, there is the Anthropocene crisis marked by the continuing acceleration of human impacts on the environment and the crossing of numerous planetary boundaries—the best known of which is climate change, but also including the decline in genetic diversity, ocean acidification, the rifts in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of freshwater resources, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and other ecological rifts. Magdoff and Williams courageously face up to these cumulative contradictions, examining the epochal crisis of our times in its entirety and its relation to capital accumulation, while providing an ecological and socialist exit strategy—one that builds on the strengths of natural science and social science, critical ecology and critical economics.

Creating an Ecological Society, despite its engagement with the most serious problems of our time and its deep realism, is an irrepressibly optimistic work—at a time when most environmental analyses seem to be about simply digging in and awaiting a planetary disaster made inevitable by acquiescence to the existing system. It’s not too late, the authors argue, to address the ecological problems facing us. Time is a factor, of course, but what is required in this situation is a speeding up of the process of social transformation and thereby the creation of new integrative levels of social existence. The movement toward socialism, that is, toward a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality, will have to proceed much faster: by big steps, if not leaps. We can no longer depend—if we ever could—on a process of gradual evolution. Power must be wrested from the 1 percent. The expropriators must be expropriated. Our primarily quantitative society, geared always to more, and enforcing a perpetual deprivation in the population, must give way to an emphasis on qualitative human relations and a more sustainable relation to the environment.

Creating an Ecological Society presents a forward-looking perspective, which derives from three qualities that characterize their analysis: (1) the unification of all the major social-ecological problems, so as to transcend the contradictions of the usual reductionist ways of seeing; (2) a pedagogical approach in which the goal is to map out the social and ecological terrain of struggle for mass popular movements; and (3) the ability to project concrete, meaningful, and practical solutions to problems that are insoluble within the confines of the present system—but only if we are willing to be revolutionary enough to break with the present. Thus oppressions of class, race, and gender are not afterthoughts in an ecological analysis; they are the very nodes of struggle in which an ecosocialist society will be built.

Along the way Magdoff and Williams teach us many things: About Marx’s metabolic rift and the “three rifts” in the soil-nutrient cycle. About the relation of soil to climate change—where they provide a real scientific basis for understanding the importance of the soil’s potential impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. About the growth of epigenetics and its relation to the “triple helix” of gene, organism, and environment, pointing to the breakdown in genetic determinism.24 About how race and gender are tied into environmental injustices. About the construction of healthy cities. All of this is presented in terms as clear as crystal, and crystallized in proposals for revolutionary ecological and social change.

Marx once wrote that humanity “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”25

One cannot read Magdoff and Williams’s book without recognizing that the dire crises associated with our present globalized (and at the same time localized) problems are capable of solution—since the material and human resources for doing so already exist. Never before in human history has the need for change been so great. Yet, it is a struggle, they tell us, that can only be won by “revolution” as a “continuous process”—unceasing radical change.

“After more than two and a half millennia,” Seaford writes, “money remains isolating, unlimited and homogenizing. Unlike us, who either do not see this or take it for granted, the Greeks were struck and sometimes horrified by it. Aristotle maintained that using money to make money is—in contrast to other forms of economic activity—unlimited and unnatural.”26 Marx strongly seconded Aristotle’s critique in this respect.27 And yet today we live in a highly financialized system where we are frequently offered carbon markets as the only solution to global warming—as if accumulation and financialization were the answers to Earth system crisis. For such a capitalist society, in which each expansion is only the basis for the next expansion ad infinitum, everything is turned into a commodity to be sold for the highest profit: the tape by which efficiency is measured. The end prospect of the continuation of capitalist business as usual is thus the fate of Erysichthon:

But when at last his illness had consumed
all that she brought him, and he still craved more,
the wretched man began to tear his limbs
asunder, mangling them in his maw,
and fed his body as he shrank away.

None of this is foreordained, as in a Greek tragedy. Rather, the challenge before us, Magdoff and Williams declare, is to join the struggle to create an ecological society: a revolutionary transformation of the present.

—October 14, 2016 Eugene, Oregon


  1. Frank Benjamin Golley, A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 2, 207; J. Donald Hughes, Pans Travail (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 4. Haeckel’s focus on ecology as the study of the economy of nature was directed at Darwin’s view of the competition of species for environmental niches: “All organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature.” Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964; facsimile of first edition), 102. Darwin used the concept of the “economy of nature” throughout his magnum opus.
  2. Epicurus, The Extant Remains of the Greek Text Translated by Cyril Bailey (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1947), 145, 161, 171. It should be noted that although the ancient Greeks perceived the world dialectically and recognized with some horror the systematic estrangement associated with the money economy, their society was nonetheless rife with contradictions, more so perhaps than other societies in their day, which were related to the development of the property relation. Among these was a more extreme enslavement of women than in the societies surrounding them. At the same time, the polis at its roots was a system of slavery. On the latter see G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London: Duckworth, 1981). Among the ancient schools of philosophy, only Epicureans admitted women and slaves.
  3. Richard Seaford, Ancient Greece and Global Warming (London: Classical Association, 2009). Coinage is thought to have developed in the West first in Greece’s neighbor Lydia and then was given systematic form in the Greek city-states. Although the indications are that China developed a form of coinage earlier, its systematic character, significance to the society, and pervasiveness remain open questions. Quite apart from this, Seaford argues that the Greek adoption of coinage on a large scale and systematic basis, creating a money economy, was a sui generis development—one that separated the Greek city-states from the Near East and India, where a coinage-based money economy developed later. Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4, 129–136.
  4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. and ed. Charles Martin (New York: Norton, 2004), 298. The above account of the Erysichthon myth follows Ovid, except with reference to the banquet hall, which is included in Seaford’s account, which also relies on Callimachus’s version of the myth.
  5. Seaford, Ancient Greece and Global Warming.
  6. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 1–20, 125–136, 147–172.
  7. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944), 178.
  8. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 29, 43. On Bacon and the domination of nature, see William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 45–71.
  9. “The Web of Life is woven: & the tender sinews of life created / And the Three Classes of Men regulated by Los’s hammer.” William Blake, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Random House, 1982), 100.
  10. See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 141–177.
  11. Arthur G. Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” Ecology 16, no. 3 (July 1935): 299–300, 304; Joseph Lester, E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern British Biology (Oxford: British Society for the History of Science, 1995), 185–87; Peer Ayres, Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 41–44. It is worth noting that the word “œcology” first entered English in the 1873 translation under Lankester’s supervision of Haeckel’s History of Creation. See Oxford English Dictionary: Compact Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 1975.
  12. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 152–156.
  13. The rejection of “human exemptionalism” and the promotion in its place of the “new ecological paradigm” constituted the basis on which environmental sociology arose as a field in the United States. See Riley E. Dunlap and William R. Catton, “Struggling with Human Exemptionalism,” American Sociologist 13 (1978): 41–49.
  14. See J. R. McNeil and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration (Cam-bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  15. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Rachel Carson’s Ecological Critique,” Monthly Review 59, no. 9 (February 2008): 1–17.
  16. Rachel Carson, Lost Woods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 231.
  17. Barry Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet (New York: New Press, 1992), ix; The Closing Circle (New York: Knopf, 1971); The Poverty of Power (New York: Knopf, 1976); G. Evelyn Hutchinson, “The Biosphere,” Scientific American 233, no. 3 (1970): 45–53.
  18. David R. Keller and Frank B. Golley, “Introduction,” The Philosophy of Ecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 1–3.
  19. This connection between materialist dialectics and ecology is best exemplified in Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007).
  20. Carson, Lost Woods, 194.
  21. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, 42 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 558–559.
  22. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010).
  23. See Herbert Marcuse, Counter-Revolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 59–60.
  24. Richard Lewontin’s Triple Helix focuses specifically on the complex dialectical relation between gene-organism-environment (seeing each of these as dynamic and variegated), breaking with traditional Darwinian natural selection as a crude adaptationism. Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  25. Karl Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), 21.
  26. Seaford, Ancient Greece and Global Warming.
  27. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin), 253–254.
  28. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 299–300.