The Alien Has Landed: Karl Marx on Nature

After our interview with Steve Vogel, he emailed us a copy of a chapter he wrote called “Alienation and the Commons” from the book Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change.  This followed up on a point he made during the interview: that there is a similarity between nature-as-other and “the market.”  It was a powerful idea and one that I was eager to investigate further.

Briefly: Marx thought that capitalism alienated people from the products of their labor.  While the things we produce are social products – created by us and countless other people – we see instead “facts” over which we have no control.

Similarly, when we fail to see the extent to which our environment is human-built, and see instead “nature”, we are experiencing alienation from our individual and collective actions.  Vogel writes:

For Marx, then, the appearance of nature is itself a symptom of alienation.

Vogel says that he’s referring to alienation from the environment – not nature in the sense of forests and mountains.  I wonder, though, does Marx’s concept of alienation not permit alienation from nature-as-forest?  If we fail to see our impact on nature, and see instead “facts” over which we have no control, aren’t we alienated from nature, too?

Vogel stresses that humans transform the environment – that’s what we do.  But he seems to focus on intentional transformations.  What about unintentional impacts?  For instance, what about ecological relationships between us and our surroundings, common to all organisms?  Can’t we be alienated from those, too?

No, we cannot.  Marx’s idea of alienation was that workers put themselves into their labor (e.g. “to throw oneself into one’s work”), and so the alienation they experience is alienation from themselves.  So alienation requires intentional transformations, and thus, we cannot be alienated from nature-as-forest.   

Regardless, Vogel focuses on alienation from “the environment” – not nature-as-forest. In fact, he says that we “alienate ourselves from nature when we transform it.” So he’s referring exclusively to the human-built environment, which is, today, much of the world.  He wants us to appreciate our transformations – our own, and everyone else’s –  and to take responsibility for them.

Marx wrote about alienation from labor.  What does Vogel think we’re alienated from?  Nature-as-forest?  So many people (in my circles, at least) are concerned with “nature deficit disorder” and reuniting people with nature-as-forest.  But I don’t think this is Vogel’s concern here.  Yet if neither our labor nor nature-as-forest, from what are we alienated?

We’re alienated from our responsibility.  Sure, there are environmentalists shouting at the top of their lungs: “Do the right thing for the Earth.”  And the environmental philosophers murmur to each other about what “the right thing” might be.  But how many are shouting, “Look around – be amazed – see how you and I are able to transform the world!”

We are alienated from our ability to transform our environment.  And if Vogel is right – if what it means to be human is to transform the world – then we are, incredibly, alienated from our very nature.

What causes this alienation?  Is it a moral failing?  A vice?  A lack of virtue?

The problem here is a structural one: it has to do with how our practices are organized, and not with who we are as people or with our moral failings.

But what “structures” are blinding us to our environment-transforming abilities?  Are they the same processes that alienate us from our labor?

And aren’t “structures” human-made – i.e. are themselves transformations of the social/cultural environment?  Wouldn’t recognizing our responsibility for the physical environment first require recognizing our responsibility for our “structural” environment?

Elsewhere, Vogel writes about the virtue of self-knowledge.  Is this not part of the problem, too, and not a structural one?

 

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