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Joel Kovel, THE ENEMY OF NATURE: The end of capitalism or the end of the world

From Socialism and Democracy


Reviewed by Laurie A. Gates

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” it is said, and lest one be put off by the apocalyptic title, it accurately represents the main point ofJoel Kovel’s latest book. Rather than offeringfire-and-brimstone catastrophism, Kovel detailswith great sobriety the matter-of-fact implications of capitalism for nature and humanity. Also outside the realm of fantasy, he speaks of ecosocialist alternatives as real and fundamental transformations that must occur, and suggests actions to be taken today, by all people, to realize ecosocialism in the future. One thing this requires is the healing of divisions. This book contributes to that end by linking the fight against capitalism with the struggle to preserve the environment.Joel Kovel is the Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College and has been investigating the dynamics of capitalism and nature for over a decade. This most recent foray into ecosocialism furthers an ongoing effort by radical scholars to unearth the ecological foundations of Marxism and unite green and red, an opportune project as hostilities over the planet and its resources intensify. The book is divided into three sections, “The Culprit,” “The Domination of Nature,” and “Towards Ecosocialism”3/4roughly: the cause, its origin, and the remedy.

First on the agenda, capitalism is analyzed as a system, with ecological crisis occurring as the logical outcome of “the never-ending pressure to cut costs—or, from the other side, to make profits” (35). Kovel blasts capital’s growth imperative and incapacity to recognize limits, and bestows upon it the final designation, “unreformable.” He strengthens his case by providing illustrations of how capitalism permeates every aspect of human existence, from the individual to the global level.

In the second section he ventures onto more philosophical ground, beginning with a discussion of ecological concepts. One of the most valuable things about this book is its intertwining of natural and human ecosystems. It does not simply state the obvious—that we live in nature—but also argues that we are truly embedded withinnature. In one of his many brilliant moments, Kovel updates Marx’s notion of alienation by theorizing it in terms of ecological integrity:

The phenomenon of separation expresses the core gesture of ecodisintegration, for separation in the physical and social sense corresponds to splitting in the ontological sense. Splitting extends the separation of elements of ecosystems past the point where they interact to create new Wholes—or from another angle, to the point where the dialectic that constitutes ecosystems breaks down. It follows that the ecological crisis is not simply a manifestation of the macro-economic effects of capital, but also reveals the extension of capitalist alienation into the ecosphere. (132)

Kovel takes us beyond separation from nature and into the realm of an intrinsically valuable natural world. This sets the tone for his insistence upon ecological integrity in both human production and nature, within a political program of emancipation. Reflections on “the gendered bifurcation of nature” and on the relation of natural philosophy to practical concerns are other highlights in this section.

A sizeable chunk of the book (section three) focuses on the practical aims of working toward, and achieving, international ecosocialism. Many critiques tend to disregard this type of exercise, but it is exactly what is needed. Kovel admirably rises to the challenge. His repeated demands for self-governance are informed by his critical analysis of capitalism and of “actually existing socialisms,” as are his ideas for creating democratic, ecological approaches to work and organization. For Kovel, ecosocialism will begin to develop when both present and future political projects discard capitalism and actively interconnect to build areas of resistance.

The Enemy of Nature is well organized, as its various threads eventually weave together, leading up to some concise and power- ful conclusions. Incorporating poetry, ecology, philosophy, politics, social theory and psychology, Kovel enriches the analysis and draws upon his extensive knowledge to understand the diffuse nature of capitalism and its remedy. Especially useful to these aims are his work in psychology and radical political action (Kovel pursued bids for US Senator and US President under the aegis of the Green Party). The book does have broad appeal, but primarily addresses two specific audiences, one rooted in Marxism and the other in ecological thought.

Various neglected topics in environmental politics, most notably ecofascism, come in for Kovel’s attention. He analyzes different ecopolitical positions for their ability to replace capitalism and eman- cipate labor. Although I agree with most of the criticisms he presents, and with the superiorityof ecosocialism as a revolutionary perspec- tive, I would have liked a more in-depth look at the potential for anti- capitalism from within the other forms of environmentalism. As it is, his criticisms of deep ecology, ecofeminism, and social ecology are rather abbreviated, and I fear that his hasty dismissals may inhibit those committed to these “ecophilosophies” from hearing his message—which would be unfortunate since they have much in common. The smallest amount of space is devoted to ecofeminism, an odd decision in light of his desire to “splice” it together with ecosocialism. The problem here is that he simply assumes, without a proper analysis, that certain theories are fully incorporated into his own. Ultimately, though, he is to be commended for theorizing gender in his critique of capitalism, and for his earnest call for the liberation of women (among others).

None of these misgivings detract from the essential importance of thisbook for environmentalists and socialists, as well as for other anti-capitalists, nor from its significance for the concrete formation of a left beyond superficial coalitions. Kovel has comprehended the destruction of ecosystems and of human lives, binding them together to the core. In so doing, he leads readers to consider: “Are there no alternatives to the monster which continually ravages humanity and nature?” “Are we destined to perish?” He invites us to say, rather: “There are alternatives, we should create alternatives, and there’s no time to waste.”

Laurie A. Gates
Graduate Student, Environmental Studies
California State University, Fullerton