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Revolutionary Ecology

I was a social justice activist for many years before I ever heard of Earth First! So it came as a surprise to me, when I joined Earth First! in the 1980s, to find that the radical environmental movement paid little attention to the social causes of ecological destruction. Similarly, the social justice movement seems to have a hard time admitting the importance of biological issues in today's schemes of social oppression. Yet in order to effectively respond to the crises of today, I believe we must merge these two issues.

Starting from the very reasonable, but unfortunately revolutionary concept that social practices which threaten the continuation of life on earth must be changed, we need a theory of revolutionary ecology that will encompass social and biological issues, class struggle, and a recognition of the role of global corporate capitalism in the oppression of peoples and the destruction of nature.

Recent essays on this subject by various authors show that others are also looking for such a theory. But I believe we already have it. It's called deep ecology, and it is the core belief of the radical environmental movement. The problem is that, in the early stages of this debate, deep ecology was falsely associated with such right wing notions as sealing the borders, applauding AIDS as a population control mechanism, and encouraging Ethiopians to starve. This sent the social ecologists justifiably scurrying to disassociate. And I believe it has muddled the waters of our movement's attempt to define itself and unite behind a common philosophy.

So in this article, I will try to explain, from my perspective as an unabashed leftist, why I think deep ecology is a revolutionary world view. I am not trying to proclaim that my ideas are Absolute Truth, or even that they represent a finished thought process in my own mind. These are just some ideas I have on the subject, and I hope that by airing them, it will spark more debate and advance the discussion.


Deep ecology, or biocentrism, is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are part of nature, one species among many. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans. And biodiversity is a value in itself, essential for the flourishing of both human and non-human life.

These principles, I believe, are not just another political theory. Biocentrism is a law of nature, that exists independently of whether humans recognize it or not. It doesn't matter whether we view the world in a human centered way. Nature still operates in a biocentric way. And the failure of modern society to acknowledge this — as we attempt to subordinate all of nature to human use — has led us to the brink of collapse of the earth's life support systems.

Biocentrism is not a new theory, and it wasn't invented by Dave Foreman or Arnie Naas. It is ancient native wisdom, expressed in such sayings as “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.” But in the context of today's industrial society, biocentrism is profoundly revolutionary, challenging the system to its core.

Biocentrism Contradicts Capitalism

The capitalist system is in direct conflict with the natural laws of biocentrism. Capitalism, first of all, is based on the principle of private property — of certain humans “owning” the earth for the purpose of exploiting it for profit. At an earlier stage, capitalists even believed they could own other humans. But just as slavery has been discredited in the mores of today's dominant world view, so do the principles of biocentrism discredit the concept that humans can own the earth.

How can corporate raider Charles Hurwitz claim to “own” the 2,000-year-old redwoods of Headwaters Forest, just because he signed a few papers to trade them for a junk bond debt? This concept is absurd. Hurwitz is a mere blip in the life of these ancient trees. Although he may have the power to destroy them, he does not have the right.

One of the best weapons of US environmentalists in our battle to save places like Headwaters Forest is the (now itself endangered) Endangered Species Act. This law, and other laws that recognize public trust values such as clean air, clean water, and protection of threatened species, are essentially an admission that the laws of private property do not correspond to the laws of nature. You cannot do whatever you want on your own property without affecting surrounding areas, because the earth is interconnected, and nature does not recognize human boundaries.

Even beyond private property, though, capitalism conflicts with biocentrism around the very concept of profit. Profit consists of taking out more than you put in. This is certainly contrary to the fertility cycles of nature, which depend on a balance of give and take. But more important is the question of where this profit is taken from.

According to Marxist theory, profit is stolen from the workers when the capitalists pay them less than the value of what they produce. The portion of the value of the product that the capitalist keeps, rather than pays to the workers, is called surplus value. The amount of surplus value that the capitalist can keep varies with the level of organization of the workers, and with their level of privilege within the world labor pool. But the working class can never be paid full value of their labor under capitalism, because the capitalist class exists by extracting surplus value from the products of their labor.

Although I basically agree with this analysis, I think there is one big thing missing. I believe that part of the value of a product comes not just from the labor put into it, but also from the natural resources used to make the product.

(At this point, Marxist scholars always object, citing Critique of Gotha Program to say that Marx did recognize nature, as well as labor, as a source of value. But Marx makes the distinction between use value, which he says comes from nature and labor, and exchange value, which he says comes from labor alone. It is this point with which I am disagreeing. It seems obvious to me that use value, supplied by nature, helps determine exchange value. For example, redwood and fir trees grow side by side in the same forest, and at a similar rate. Yet the same amount of labor applied to cutting and milling a 600-year-old, six-foot diameter redwood tree will produce more exchange value than if it were applied to cutting a 600-year-old, six-foot diameter fir tree. The reason redwood is worth more is that it has certain qualities the fir lacks, i.e., it is so rot resistant that it can be used for exposed siding or as foundation wood in direct contact with the soil, while the fir cannot. This quality of rot resistance does not come from anything added by human labor. It is a quality supplied by nature. So when I say that value comes from both labor and nature, I am referring to exchange value, not just use value.)

And I believe that surplus value (i.e., profit) is not just stolen from the workers, but also from the earth itself. A clearcut is the perfect example of a part of the earth from which surplus value has been extracted. If human production and consumption is done within the natural limits of the earth's fertility, then the supply is indeed endless. But this cannot happen under capitalism, because the capitalist class exists by extracting profit not only from the workers, but also from the earth.

Modern day corporations are the very worst manifestation of this sickness. A small business may survive on profits, but at least its basic purpose is to provide sustenance for the owners, who are human beings with sense of place in their communities. But a corporation has no purpose for its existence, nor any moral guide to its behavior, other than to make profits. And today's global corporations are beyond the control of any nation or government. In fact, the government is in service of the corporations, its armies poised to defend their profits around the world, and its secret police ready to infiltrate and disrupt any serious resistance at home.

In other words, this system cannot be reformed. It is based on the destruction of the earth and the exploitation of the people. There is no such thing as green capitalism, and marketing cutesy rainforest products will not bring back the ecosystems that capitalism must destroy to make profits. This is why I believe that serious ecologists must be revolutionaries.

Biocentrism Contradicts Communism

As you can probably tell, my background in revolutionary theory comes from Marxism, which I consider to be a brilliant critique of capitalism. But as to what should be implemented in capitalism's place, I don't think Marxism has shown us the answer. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that communism, socialism, and all other left ideologies that I know of speak only about redistributing the spoils of raping the earth more evenly among classes of humans. They do not even address the relationship of the society to the earth. Or rather, they assume that it will stay the same as it is under capitalism — that of a gluttonous consumer. And that the purpose of the revolution is to find a more efficient and egalitarian way to produce and distribute consumer goods.

This total disregard of nature as a life force, rather than just a source of raw materials, allowed Marxist states to rush to industrialize without even the most meager environmental safeguards. This has resulted in such noted disasters as the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, and the ongoing liquidation of the fragile forests of Siberia. It has left parts of Russia and Eastern Europe with such a toxic legacy that even the rate of human fertility has slowed. Marx stated that the primary contradiction in industrial society is the contradiction between capital and labor. I believe these disasters show that the primary contradiction is between industrial society and the earth.

But even though socialism has so far failed to take ecology into account, I do not think it is beyond reform, as is capitalism. One of the principles of socialism is “production for use, not for profit.” Therefore, the imbalance is not as built in under socialism as it is under capitalism, and I could envision a form of socialism that would not destroy the earth. But it would be unlike Marx's model.

Ecological socialism, among other things, would have to deal with the issue of centralism. The Marxist idea of a huge body politic relating to some central planning authority pre-supposes (1) authoritarianism of some sort, and (2) the use of mass production technologies that are inherently destructive to the earth and corrosive to the human spirit. Ecological socialism would mean organizing human societies in a manner that is compatible with the way that nature is organized. And I believe the natural order of the earth is bioregionalism, not statism.

Modern industrial society robs us of community with each other and community with the earth. This creates a great longing inside us, which we are taught to fill with consumer goods. But consumer goods, beyond those needed for basic comfort and survival, are not really what we crave. So our appetite is insatiable, and we turn to more and more efficient and dehumanizing methods of production to make more and more goods that do not satisfy us. If workers really had control of the factories (and I say this as a former factory worker), they would start by smashing the machines and finding a more human way to decide what we need and how to produce it. So to the credo “production for use, not for profit,” ecological socialism would add, “production for need, not for greed.”

What This Means for the Movement

The fact that deep ecology is a revolutionary philosophy is one of the reasons Earth First! was targeted for disruption and annihilation by the FBI. The fact that we did not recognize it as revolutionary is one of the reasons we were so unprepared for the magnitude of the attack. If we are to continue, not just Earth First!, but the entire ecology movement, must adjust our tactics to the profound changes that are needed to bring society into balance with nature.

One way that we can do this is to broaden our focus. Of course, sacred places must be preserved, and it is entirely appropriate for an ecology movement to center on protecting irreplaceable wilderness areas. But to define our movement as being concerned with “wilderness only,” as Earth First! did in the 1980s, is self-defeating. You cannot seriously address the destruction of wilderness without addressing the society that is destroying it. It's about time for the ecology movement (and I'm not just talking about Earth First! here) to stop considering itself as separate from the social justice movement. The same power that manifests itself as resource extraction in the countryside manifests itself as racism, classism, and human exploitation in the city. The ecology movement must recognize that we are just one front in a long, proud history of resistance.

A revolutionary ecology movement must also organize among poor and working people. With the exception of the toxics movement and the native land rights movement, most US environmentalists are white and privileged. This group is too invested in the system to pose much of a threat to it. A revolutionary ideology in the hands of working people can bring that system to a halt. For it is the working people who have their hands on the machinery. And only by stopping the machinery of destruction can we ever hope to stop this madness.

How can it be that we have neighborhood movements focused on the disposal of toxic wastes, for example, but we don't have a worker's movement to stop the production of toxics? It is only when the factory workers refuse to make the stuff, it is only when the loggers refuse to cut the ancient trees, that we can ever hope for real and lasting change. This system cannot be stopped by force. It is violent and ruthless beyond the capacity of any people's resistance movement. The only way I can even imagine stopping it is through massive noncooperation.

So let's keep blocking those bulldozers and hugging those trees. And let's focus our campaigns on the global corporations that are really at fault. But we have to begin placing our actions in a larger context. And we must continue this discussion to develop a workable theory of revolutionary ecology.

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