Some Remarks on Environmentalism

8 July 2010


There is an excellent documentary on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright that describes some of his lean years when he wasn’t getting any commissions. Eventually he got a call that turned out to be the commission that resulted in his Falling Water house, perhaps his most notable contribution to residential architecture. Though according to witnesses he played the call very cool, after he hung up he posted a note on a bulletin board that said, “Hallelujah, a client!” This is how I feel when I get a comment.

Today I received a comment from South Africa on a piece that is not read very often, A Short Note on Marxism and Environmentalism. To make sense of the comment I received I read my past post, and saw a connection between some of the ideas I had put into that post and what I’ve been writing more recently.

In A Short Note on Marxism and Environmentalism I wrote regarding the literary classics of the environmental movement, “One immediately notices the local focus of such works, which stands in sharp contrast to the internationalism of early Marxism. (However, the slogan “Think globally, act locally” is widely used in environmental circles.)”

In this passage I explicitly noted the internationalism of early Marxism, and that is an important qualification. Yesterday in Dynastic Communism and a few days before that in The Evolution of Marxism I noted the extent to which Marxism had evolved from a movement ideologically committed to internationalism and the unity and brotherhood of all the proletarians of the world to a movement that is almost exclusively identified with national independence struggles and the aspirations to self-assertion and self-determination of ethnic and national minorities.

The evolution of Marxism has been a dramatic change over time. Environmentalism understood as an ideology has exhibited dramatic differences over space, that is to say, the ideological content of environmentalism can change significantly depending upon where in the world one is located, and what one’s environmental issues are understood to be.

What we see in both environmentalism and Marxism is a tension between the local and the global conception of these ideologies, with the tension exhibiting itself in Marxism over time and in environmentalism over space. The universality of any idea, once transformed into an ideology and taken up into the political process, becomes an idea particularized in terms of time and place. There is a reason that there is an old slogan that, “All politics is local.” There are always idealists within a movement that try to approximate the ideology to the pure idea that preceded it, but there are always many more pragmatists who see the idea only in relation to their interests, and this is what drives the particularization of ideas.

Environmentalism in its many forms are particularizations of a pure idea. What is the pure idea underlying environmentalism? Is the principle that any private property is absurd, as Marx has said? Or is it based on some other principle? I will not attempt to settle this question here.

Another point about environmentalism struck me today in re-reading my past post, and it is this: one could scarcely imagine a more dialectically perfect reaction to industrialization than environmentalism. Any regular reader of this blog will know that I frequently focus on the fact that our present world constitutes an industrialized society. I think it is important to stress this because we do not usually explicitly think of ourselves as representatives of industrialized society, in the same way as most Westerners today do not explicitly think of themselves as products of and representatives of Western civilization. Both our identity as Western and as industrialized are so deeply a part of our nature now that it has become invisible to us. Thus industrialization does not seem like an ideology, but in so far as the vast majority of us cooperate and contribute to the growth of industrialized society, we are implicitly and obliquely lending our support to the ideology of industrialization.

The same is not yet true of the ideology of environmentalism, but it may well become true in the future. In the meantime, the explicit and conscious ideology of environmentalism finds itself locked in a struggle with the implicit and unconscious ideology of industrialization. As I noted above, one could not formulate a more perfect dialectical opposition than that between industrialization and environmentalism, so that one could well and truly say that it was inevitable, with the emergence of industrialization with the developing Industrial Revolution, that the opposite number of industrialization — environmentalism — would eventually emerge from the same socio-political fabric that generated the original industrialization.

This is the future history of our Western industrialized society, and this is what would constitute a third paradigm of social consensus of industrialized society: a synthesis that would transcend and unify the dialectical contradiction that is emerging from the struggle between industrialism and environmentalism.

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Hegel is as evergreen as a temperate rain forest: he could not have predicted the form his historical dialectic would take, but we cannot yet get beyond Hegel because history continues to be a dialectical struggle.

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