Slaying the Growth Monster


The Enemy of Nature. Kovel, J. 2002. Zed Books, London. $65.00 (hardcover ). ISBN 1-84277-080-2. $19.95 (paperback ). ISBN 1-84277-081-01.

In 1990, Gary Snyder wrote that the

[c]reatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat—and the old, old habitat of humans—falls before the slow motion explosion of expanding world economies. If the lad or lass among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. ( Snyder 1990: 5 )

Joel Kovel's intent is to identify unmistakably the Growth Monster's heart and tell us where to shoot to stop it, not just slow it down. Surely that is enough to warm the cockles of any conservationist's heart. Snyder's request is a tall one, however, and Kovel, despite his intent, only partly delivers and leaves unanswered many questions important to conservation. Kovel does, however, offer a useful summary of what is ecologically destructive about a form of economic organization based on institutionalized greed and growth.

In the first part of the book, Kovel argues that capitalism represents the economic organization most estranged from nature. He includes the “state-capitalism” of the old Soviet Union and similar countries. Capitalism's very productivity, he argues, directly converts ever more of the Earth to human use, notwithstanding efficiencies. Capital tends to reduce all things, living or not, to their exchange value: objects are produced and traded for profit. The very dynamic of capital, he argues, requires endless growth of profits. Firms that do not deliver cease to exist because they cannot attract new investment or are swallowed up by competitors. This growth dynamic not only generates problems but constrains “solutions” to those that can be made profitable. To make his point he catalogs the human impacts of the last hundred years against those of the previous several thousand. Moreover, as capital penetrates every corner of the globe, it brooks no alternative forms of economic organization, using the World Trade Organization ( WTO ), the International Monetary Fund ( IMF ), and armies to coerce compliance.

Kovel turns frequently to Bhopal as an illustration. Behind the poison gas that killed several thousand people was a system, not just a company with poor management. Union Carbide decided to make fertilizer by the poison gas method because it was cheaper. Back-up systems were down and critical maintenance had been neglected in order to cut costs. The plant was understaffed for the same reason. When Union Carbide announced its US$470 million settlement with the Indian government, a settlement that cost $0.43 a share, share value rose $1.57. The markets, he argues, rewarded murderous cost cutting.

In part 2, Kovel examines the meaning of ecosystem health and degradation. He defines ecosystem integrity as the maintenance of nonreducible wholes. Ecosystems are degraded when the relations between the parts, or the parts and the whole, are disrupted. He also believes that human nature includes an innate propensity to transform nature, to “garden.” Our gardening can either help evolution along, as he argues Native Americans in the Amazon did over millennia. Or gardening can degrade ecosystems, as indigenous people sometimes did but capitalist society always does.

Kovel continues part 2 with criticism of those who think capitalism is reformable. He considers unrealistic Korten's ( 1996 )  call for a global civil society to counter corporate globalization. Daly ( 1996 ) , he believes, understands the problem of capital but does not go far enough in offering alternatives. Deep ecology, with the exception of the work of Naess ( 1989 ) , who has had kind things to say about socialism, is at best mushy and at worst neofascist. Bioregionalism is also fuzzy and impractical. Populism is often critical of the status quo but is not reliably progressive, looking backward as often as it looks forward. Mainstream conservation groups, in exchange for their seat at the table (such as it is ), serve ecological decline by channeling activism toward timid demands and by helping to cure the worst faults of capital while the machine continues to destroy healthy tissue like a cancer.

In part 3, Kovel proffers his own solution to the destructiveness of capitalism. Capitalism must be replaced with “ecosocialism,” a system in which economic and political democracy replaces the existing oligarchy and in which production is organized to meet human needs and not to serve the goals of accumulation of profit or to prop up damaged egos. Free of the compulsion of capital, and of alienation, people will not be driven to destroy nature. The path to ecosocialism lies in nurturing the seeds that already exist here and there: a strong spiritual sense that life is about things other than making money, that nature has intrinsic value, and that there are ways to create a livelihood outside profit-driven markets. Kovel sees no single agent that will lead the way, like the working class of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxism.

For conservation biologists looking for advice on politics and policy, Kovel's book is disappointing in a number of ways. Why, then, read it? Because growth in human consumption and human numbers are the heart of what threatens biodiversity. We need to understand what drives both, and Kovel offers important insights, including those about the limits of reform and the need for systemic change.

The book's shortcomings may be its strengths in disguise, prompting important questions. Given the rate of species loss and ecosystem decline, and admitting that establishment of ecosocialism will take time, one would expect Kovel to offer some suggestions about near-term conservation policy. Although he discusses near-term political tasks, his focus is exclusively on relationships internal to human society. How will nurturing ecosocialism help protect biodiversity here and now? More generally, his omission prods us to ask what a comprehensive political program would look like, rather than the ad hoc defensive one we have. Kovel is equally vague on how ecosocialism, when realized, will restore all native species to natural patterns of abundance and distribution. His argument, that confining capitalism to history and freeing humanity from hierarchy and alienation will result in societies that behave with respect toward the rest of nature, is too vague to bet on.

Kovel's almost exclusive focus on capitalism ignores the fact that the current extinction crisis did not start with the birth of this economic system. It started with the birth of agriculture and pastoralism. Even hunting and gathering societies have been implicated in extinctions as far back as 40,000 years ago. It is not just capitalism that has externalized costs or sought caloric subsidies by dominating other species and ecosystems. To create a human society that does not damage nature requires transcending not only capitalism but all ecologically destructive economic systems.

If we accept Kovel's argument that ecosocialism will leave behind human hierarchy and that this is the precondition for the end of the human domination of nature, then it is critical to understand the conditions that generate hierarchy or its absence. The last time our species lived globally without hierarchy was in Paleolithic times. In Paleolithic societies, technology was not the product of institutions but of individuals and communities. Consumption was low ( although people had a better diet on average than today ), and best estimates are that humans at the threshold of the Neolithic numbered approximately 10 million. Can nonhierarchical forms of social organization and technology provide for billions of us? At what level of consumption? This question is especially problematic given Marx's ( and much of Marxism's ) view that a rational, emancipatory human society can be founded only on the absence of scarcity and that our material needs are open-ended. Kovel devotes one paragraph to human population, and his discussion of the relationship of technology to hierarchy is extremely limited.

Kovel does briefly look into deep time, but his command of the anthropological literature is poorer than his command of the biological. His understanding of the origins of human hierarchy is archaic and shows no familiarity with the enormous literature on the subject. His claim that we are innate gardeners also is puzzling given horticulture's relatively recent origin. For most of our species' history we have collected, gathered, and hunted.

Finally, although Kovel speaks of the intrinsic value of nature, it is not at all clear what this means in the face of the priority he gives to the human need to engage nature by transforming it ( production ). He claims for human nature what David Ehrenfeld ( 1978 )  describes as hubris in the Arrogance of Humanism, a belief that our destiny is to manage nature and that we can manage it successfully. Many biologists ( and there are few of them in Kovel's bibliography ) would challenge this belief on the evidence that humans make poor ecosystem dominants. We cannot successfully manage nature because it is too complex to model adequately. That leaves aside the question of whether we possess the requisite wisdom to do so. The historical and prehistorical record suggests that we do not. Kovel's ecosocialism seems to have no place for vast areas of self-willed land ( i.e., wilderness ), something that many wide-ranging species and top predators require for survival. And he suggests no criteria for resolving future conflicts between non-alienated humans and the needs of other species for survival.

Despite Kovel's criticism of those leftists who have tried to latch on to environmental and conservation issues in order to ride the wave of public interest and concern, The Enemy of Nature seems to be in that tradition. There is no doubt that Kovel is genuine in his concern for nature, but he tries to fit ecological processes and problems into categories long used to describe human society.

Conservation biology, with its focus on direct protection as a response to the extinction emergency, often fails to look beyond immediate threats, despite an awareness that the threats to nature are not recent in origin or superficial in terms of human predispositions. Conservation biologists need to better understand the dynamics of human societies and the ways in which these dynamics make direct protection possible or difficult in the near term and the long haul. Conservationists need to better understand which obstacles to conservation are structural, requiring systemic change, and which are matters of individual or group discretion. Kovel offers valuable insight into these matters. Without a good understanding of these issues, successful strategies cannot be crafted and alliances will not succeed. The results of failure are too terrible for most of us to contemplate. Kovel's analysis is one with which conservationists should be familiar, and although his answers are wanting in many respects, he is asking many of the right questions.