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The Origins of Environmental Degradation

While Worster's writing is full of many ideas, one central feature of his work is the location of the origins of environmental degradation in capitalist world-views and modes of production that are as alive in the present as they have been in the past.  This admittedly Marxist and materialist interpretation runs counter to most historical narratives produced 'these days.'  What responses do you have for this point of view?

Worster Toward.pdf

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  • I agree with a lot of what Worster has to say about the modes of production, in particular food production. He does not idealize too much the early subsistence farmers and points out that ever since humans have been growing food, we have manipulated the environment to better serve our needs. He points out that some of the forms of manipulation can be rather dramatic, like slash and burn agriculture. I also agree with much of what he has to say about the effects of capitalism on the “agroecosystem.” As people moved from growing plants for subsistence to growing plants for profit, they began to focus on producing fewer plants that were often seen as “cash crops” or plants that held the most productive value for them. I think that a lot of times this focus on profit, tipped the balance of the “exports and imports” of soil nutrients that he refers to making us more heavily dependent on artificial fertilizers. If profit is the driving force, sometime we are more interested in the quick buck rather than the long run stability of the land. In a hundred years, what does it matter what the earth looks like because I will be dead? Right? That seems to be the attitude that has gotten us into a lot of the environmental problems that we do face.

    I do question if there has been a shift recently in the diversity of our agricultural crops. Worster refers to the idea that as people moved to capitalism from subsistence farming and began to produce single crops, diversity decreased. I think recently there has been a trend to increase the diversity in the fruits and vegetables being produced for consumption in American markets. I remember growing up thinking apples came in three varieties-red, yellow, and green, but now it seems like there are 20 different types of apples at the store to choose from. Has this lead to a greater complexity in the agroecosystem? It seems like it when I enter the produce section of my grocery store. It also seems like the push for organic growing is also changing and hopefully we are learning some of the lessons that Worster points out.
  • Before getting to the heart of the question regarding the relationship between capitalism and the environment, I think it is useful to take a step back for a broader perspective. From their origins, humanity has been an agent for environmental trauma and transformation. Since leaving Africa 60,000+ years ago, they have left a wake of ecological havoc everywhere they have went. Arriving in Australia 50,000 years ago they wiped out the majority of existing megafauna. This pattern was followed in North Europe (where our fellow hominids Neanderthals were one of the victims), North America (where 95% of large mammals went extinct coincidentally when the first humans arrived), Mediterranean Islands (which had dwarf elephants and hippos until the first human arrived 10,000 years ago), Madagascar (where 15% of lemur species went extinct coincidentally again when the first humans arrived),and most recently in the South Pacific, where it is estimated some 2,000 bird species have gone extinct since the first humans arrived. It should be noted that all these extinctions were caused by stone-age cultures and in many instances pre-agrarian societies.

    This does not mean that things have not changed over the last 500 years of human history. The environmental impact of human activities has changed dramatically both quantitatively and qualitatively (i.e. global warming and environmental pollutions). Part of this is the exponential increase in population and technology. But Worster makes a convincing argument that modern society’s capitalistic system of organizing economies certainly is a major factor.

    While traditional Marxist historical approaches may seem overly rigid and doctrinaire in their attempt to impose an ideological framework on history, Worster’s essay seemed to me to offer something different. His arguments seem very reasonable. Every society in human history has had systems and institutions to organize their economy. These systems take various forms, including conceptual frameworks and political and social institutions. It seems intuitive that each unique way of organizing an economy will have a profound effect on the environment which sustains it. Our current society, which is rapidly becoming a global one, organizes the economy around capitalistic principles (although not exclusively as most nations have mixed economies). Capitalism, by its very nature, turns resources into commodities and incentivizes short term gain vs long term sustainability. It seems reasonable to conclude that economies based on capitalism will increase environmental degradation.

    I would argue that there are two forces which can act to counter this. The first is government. A central function of government in the modern world is to regulate and direct capitalism so that it works for the benefit of society as a whole (or at least moderate its worst abuses). Of course this is predicated on responsible and wise leadership, and in a democracy, such leadership is predicated on a knowledgeable and mature electorate (I’m not making any comments on the state of this one in our country). The second is technology. Humans have been amazingly adept in their brief history at finding technological solutions to their problems. If nothing else can be said about us, we are a very adaptive species. Unfortunately for many of the species which share this planet with us, our adaptations have created a rate of environmental transformation few species can keep pace with.
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