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.

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Audio interview: Steven Vogel

Following up on an earlier post, Matt Leudtke and I interviewed Professor Steven Vogel about his article “The Nature of Artifacts.”

Professor Vogel says, “nature, shmature,” Matt compares Vogel to an old man telling riddles, and Zach’s mind is blown – live, on radio – by a comparison between wilderness and the free market.  Oh, and Matt’s dog makes an appearance as a natural object/artifact/you decide.

Enjoy the ideas, and please comment below.  Background music from composer Chris Zabriskie.

Is the nature/artifact distinction meaningful?

Here’s a response to Professor Katz’s nature/artifact dualism.  It comes from Steven Vogel, who published an article called “The Nature of Artifacts.”  He points out that there is little left in the world that humans have not interfered with.

What we call nature generally turns out to be already humanized in one way or another, and so already in part “artificial.”

But more importantly, he asks why we place the nature/artifact distinction between the human world and the non-human world.

Why, after Darwin, do we treat this particular species, which after all evolved naturally in the same unplanned way as any other, as something outside of nature?

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What does it mean to “restore” nature?

This is a big topic for The Socratic Trailhead, in part because I’m working in restoration ecology.  One of the things I do is organize volunteers at nature preserves to remove invasive species and install native plants.  So I’m particularly interested in asking whether these projects are really what they’ve been made out to be: attempts to “heal” nature for nature’s sake.  But it’s also a fascinating topic because it asks what it means to be human in a non-human world.

Professor Eric Katz is a critic of restorations.  He recently published an article, “Further Adventures in the Case Against Restoration.”  Katz thinks restorations can have positive purposes, such as mitigating damage caused by pollution or recreating wetlands that were destroyed by development.  But he takes issue with their meaning:

To call the product of an ecological restoration project the restoration of nature is, as I provocatively proclaimed twenty years ago, a “big lie.”

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