Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:35 pm

 Christian Parenti

As I stated in my article on Edward Abbey in last weekend’s CounterPunch, there are tensions between Marxism and ecological thought over the role of capitalist development. In the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to regard the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class. The Communist Manifesto, includes “the subjection of nature’s forces to man” as part of capitalism’s forced march toward civilization. So when both FDR and Stalin viewed massive hydroelectric dams as necessary for social progress, it was logical for Communists to celebrate their creation even though they came at huge costs to the environment.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”
Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody Guthrie, “Grand Coulee Dam”

Not long after I wrote the article, the issues resurfaced in a Christian Parenti interview in Truthout on “The State, Humanity as Part of Nature and the Malleability of Capitalism” in which he offered his thoughts on a number of scholars who are trying to integrate political economy with ecology such as John Bellamy Foster, Jason W. Moore, and William Cronon. I am very familiar with Foster and Moore’s work—less so with Cronon’s. However, what I have read of Cronon makes me question Parenti’s praise of his work.

The key part of the interview is a reply to the question “What are the limitations to using Marx’s work when thinking about ecology?” Parenti claims that Moore’s approach is superior to John Bellamy Foster’s because it avoids a Cartesian duality between nature and society by placing humanity within nature. Although these distinctions might sound abstract, the political consequences are dramatic according to Parenti.

It’s very, very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature. If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave. Sadly, that notion is at the heart of most American environmentalism. Just look at the misanthropic politics of deep ecology.

As someone who confessed to “Abbeyism” in my last article, I felt a bit defensive reading this. Reading it carefully, however, I cannot help but wonder what Parenti meant by stating that “most” environmentalists want “humans to leave”. Maybe I haven’t been reading articles by John Bellamy Foster critically enough but I have never found anything resembling those space colonization schemes put forward by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and company. (Granted, MRZine sometimes reads like it has been written by Martians.)

If Parenti is not quite in favor of ”man’s subjection of nature”, there are hints of coming too close for comfort. He states that when Native Americans burned the landscape, they increased biological diversity. This is the lesson he drew from William Cronon’s “Changes in the Landscape”, a book that reviewed native peoples in early New England history.

Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place. Native Americans didn’t necessarily tread lightly in the region. No, in fact, indigenous people throughout North America had a robust and quite aggressive role in shaping the ecosystem. Some communities would burn the landscape twice a year. This created edge habitat meadows amidst forests, the ideal environment for deer.

Now if this were all that there was to Cronon’s theories, it would be hard to mount any great objection even though it has a bit of a straw man character. As someone who has studied Blackfoot and Comanche history in some depth, I have never heard them described as living in “some sort of pristine, natural space”. They hunted bison and even created quasi-statal institutions that marked out their control of such resources. What distinguishes such precapitalist societies from “civilization”, however, is that they lived in balance with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. This was not a function of their spiritual beliefs but one dictated by the need for survival. If you hunt bison to extinction, you will die just like the beasts. It is only under capitalist “civilization” that we face such threats.

Indeed, as Cronon turns his attention to that very capitalist civilization that his theories begin to spin off the tracks. His 1992 “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” explored “ecological changes” in the Midwest that helped to create America’s most dynamic city as the Amazon blurb puts it. Undoubtedly the work was a major contribution to understanding the transformation of the American west but my reading made me wonder what it had to do with ecology. Was the creation of stockyards and the rail system that delivered steers “ecological”? If there is a place for a book that documents how capitalism transformed nature in a major American city, one can understand the acclaim for “Nature’s Metropolis”. However, nobody could ever mistake what Cronon was writing with Mike Davis’s on Los Angeles that were filled with a moral imperative to resist man’s subjection of nature.

It is only when Cronon decided to write “The Trouble with Wilderness” that the issues became more sharply posed. Like Moore, Cronon is a critic of Cartesian dualism: “This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

Once he gets past such abstractions, Cronon strays uncomfortably into a kind of contrarianism that suggests a detachment from the more practical matters of wildlife preservation:

The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use. The ease with which antienvironmental forces like the wise-use movement have attacked such single species preservation efforts suggests the vulnerability of strategies like these.

This seems dubious at best. Arguments that I am familiar with over the spotted owl or the snail darter are presented in terms of the creature’s integration with the ecosphere. That which threatens the spotted owl or the snail darter threatens others in the food chain, including homo sapiens ultimately.

Cronon directs most of his polemical heavy artillery against Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, a group that was inspired by Edward Abbey’s writings as I explained in my last article, especially Foreman’s view that our troubles began with farming:

In this view the farm becomes the first and most important battlefield in the long war against wild nature, and all else follows in its wake. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.

Given Cronon’s breathless take on the explosive growth of Chicago as a nature-transforming supplier of grain and beef to the rest of the country, there is something to be said about the problems of “civilization” and its handmaiden agriculture. While no doubt responsible for the emergence of urban life and modernity, agriculture has obvious costs as the midwife of class society. Without an agricultural surplus, there is no ruling class. Cronon belittles Foreman’s belief in the democratic norms of hunting-and-gathering societies but there is every reason to believe that Marx and Engels would find more to agree with in Earth First! than Cronon, if you are familiar with their writings on the American Indian, especially Engels’s take on the Iroquois constitution:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization.

Finally, I was rather amused to read Cronon’s dismissive remarks on Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system, something he regards as elitist and reactionary:

The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity. [Owen] Wister’s contemptuous remarks about Wall Street and Newport suggest what he and many others of his generation believed—that the comforts and seductions of civilized life were especially insidious for men, who all too easily became emasculated by the feminizing tendencies of civilization. More often than not, men who felt this way came, like Wister and [Theodore] Roosevelt, from elite class backgrounds.

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

As it turns out, Theodore Roosevelt’s wilderness preservation program found eager backers in a place that was arguably much more important for the legacy of Marxism than anything that William Cronon ever wrote—I speak of the Soviet Union in its early years before Stalin’s forced industrialization took shape as an exercise of the “subjection of nature” gone mad.

The Communist Party issued a decree “On Land” in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal “Forests of the Republic” complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree “On Forests” at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that took place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia disappeared, all in the name of heightened “productiveness.”

What’s surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons” was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of zapovedniki, roughly translatable as “nature preserves.” Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the natural equilibrium that is a crucial factor in the life of nature.

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan’ region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well.

And where did the inspirations for such measures come from? Chris Williams supplies the answer in “Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis”:

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

If it is William Cronon versus the shamans, Abbeyism and V.I. Lenin, I’ll go with the latter group—thank you very much.


  1. Louis, the following quote from the article is laughably wrong:

    “What distinguishes such precapitalist societies from “civilization”, however, is that they lived in balance with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. This was not a function of their spiritual beliefs but one dictated by the need for survival. If you hunt bison to extinction, you will die just like the beasts. It is only under capitalist “civilization” that we face such threats.”

    This has rarely, if ever, been true. People just do not grasp in general the finite nature of resources. Many of the large mammals of North America were hunted to extinction long before the arrival of capitalism. It was not until the invention of 3-field planting, with one field left fallow yearly and pastured to add manure to it, that stable agriculture came to exist in non-alluvial environments. It was precisely the alluvial valleys that became the incubators of stable civilizations because nature herself provided a workaround to humanity’s tendency to use it until it’s gone, because it always came back with the floods.

    It is true that capitalism adds a systemic process to this — “maximize shareholder returns” — but still. The guy should get a clue.

    Comment by davidbyrnemcdonaldiii — May 23, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

  2. Many of the large mammals of North America were hunted to extinction long before the arrival of capitalism.

    This is not something that is a scientific consensus as this article should make clear:


    I should add that the Mayans have been accused of destroying their civilization using unwise agricultural methods and that the Anasazi were cannibals, etc. Most of these charges are based on reading backwards into history using the relics that have been left behind. For me, the acid test is not what happened 20,000 years ago but what happened after 1492, a period that has been documented in great detail by eyewitnesses.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

  3. No way, dude.

    Comment by godoggo — May 23, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

  4. Sorry, wrong thread.

    Comment by godoggo — May 24, 2015 @ 5:31 am

  5. “If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave.”

    There are many variations of this. British anarchist Colin Ward wrote about how the preservation of the British countryside served as an excuse for the expulsion of the native working class, replaced by upper middle class and upper class people who transformed it into an recreational preserve.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 24, 2015 @ 6:33 am

  6. […] – Louis Proyect: “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda” […]

    Pingback by The Weekend Roundup for May 23-24th, 2015 | AnnaMarieValentine — May 24, 2015 @ 8:00 pm

  7. You say “I speak of the Soviet Union in its early years before Stalin’s forced industrialization took shape as an exercise of the “subjection of nature” gone mad.”
    There is a whole book on Stalin’s environmentalism although Soviet development exhibited some of the features you note.
    Song of the Forests is the name of the Shostakovich oratorio a propaganda piece but I like some of the music. Stalin liked to be called A”The Great Gardener:
    Dmitri Shostakovich composed his oratorio The Song of the Forests, Op. 81, in the summer of 1949. It was written to celebrate the forestation of the Russian steppes following the end of World War II. Premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky on 15 December 1949, the work was well received by the government, earning the composer a Stalin Prize the following year.

    The oratorio is notorious for lines praising Joseph Stalin as the “great gardener”, although its later performances have normally omitted them.

    Here is one You Tube rendition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmZJeImdz0g

    Comment by ken — May 25, 2015 @ 4:14 am

  8. I wonder if there’s a chapter on the Aral Sea.

    The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland lake with a thriving ecosystem, has shrunk to just 15% of its original size, mainly as a result of irrigation for the cotton industry.

    The salinity of water and the soil has increased, and as desperate farmers apply more water to the fields they exacerbate the problem. This leads to infertile soil and huge areas of salty desert contaminated with pesticide residues. Toxic salty dust poisons the population around the Aral Sea, and in some regions half of all deaths are respiratory in nature.

    The Aral Sea used to host a thriving fishing industry. It is now almost completely lifeless. Wrecks of stranded boats now mark where busy fishing communities once existed.

    Only about 27% of cotton is grown under rain-fed conditions. The rest is produced in irrigated fields which leads to greater water loss through seepage, evaporation and poor water management. In Uzbekistan it is estimated that 60% of water is lost through the irrigation system.

    Toxic industry

    Huge amounts of pesticides are used on conventionally grown (i.e. non-organic) cotton.

    In India, cotton accounts for 5% of the land under crops and 54% of annual pesticide use.
    These chemicals can have a serious impact on the health of the people who apply them. Most pesticides are applied in developing countries, where farmers often lack the equipment, information and training to handle pesticides effectively.

    Aldicarb, the world’s second biggest selling pesticide is classified as extremely hazardous by the World Health Organisation. One drop absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult, yet this pesticide is still widely used in cotton production.

    After years of dangerous pesticide use in Uzbekistan, the population of the region of Karakalpakstan face a host of appalling health problems. Malnutrition is rife as vegetables will no longer grow in the polluted soil; 99% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia and rates of throat cancer are the highest in the world. Scientists have found a level of DNA mutation 3.5 times higher than normal — meaning health problems could be around for generations.

    full: https://peopleandplanet.org/redressfashion/briefing/dirty

    Comment by louisproyect — May 25, 2015 @ 5:34 am

  9. […] is an analysis I first ran into from William Cronon that I alluded to in a May 23rd post titled “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda”. Cronon is very big on the reactionary character of Teddy Roosevelt era wildlife preservation […]

    Pingback by The racism of early environmentalism–or environmentalists? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 17, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

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