James O’Connor: Selling Nature
Let’s start by posing a couple of questions. First, what is humanity’s relationship to nature? Second, what is capitalism? If you stop and think about it, there is something odd about the first question. At first glance it appears to be similar to asking “what is your relationship to your car?” This is a question we might ask of somebody who spends too much time customizing his or her car. And the question is reasonable. But what I want you to see is that the question is reasonable not only because of a value system, but also because the car exists apart from the person. In order to ask about the relationship, we have to first assume that the two are intrinsically separate. We wouldn’t, for example, ask what somebody’s relationship to their hand is. We might ask why they tattooed their hand or why they wear so many rings, but we wouldn’t (and almost couldn’t) form the question in terms of a relationship: relationships can only exist between two separate entities. That’s why the first question is odd: to ask the question we must first assume that nature and humanity are different entities. Our second question isn’t really odd, but it is one that many people in Western society don’t think about. Or, at least, they don’t think about the ramifications of the character of capitalism. The basic definition of capitalism is the use of capital to obtain profit, the bulk of which is reinvested to obtain more capital. Now, let’s pose a third question: what is intrinsic to capitalism that determines a particular kind of relationship between capitalism and nature? This is James O’Connor’s question. To get to his answer, we must initially consider our first question: what is humanity’s relationship to nature? The basic (and not very well publicized) fact is that by its nature, capital is bad at preserving things, whether the social well-being of people, land, community values, urban amenities, rural life, nature, or private fixed capital, including structures. (O’Connor, 1998, p. 317)
The Subjugation of Nature
The current version of capitalism, and of course modernity, had its beginnings in the Enlightenment. O’Connor points to one particular feature of this time period as important: the conceptualization of nature. Let’s begin with work of René Descartes. Descartes wanted to change the structure of philosophy. He began by making skepticism and doubt central to philosophic inquiry. To get to the basic issues, Descartes doubted all that could be doubted. In other words, doubt everything and whatever is left is the foundation of philosophy and life. Where Descartes ended up is famous: “I think
JAMES O’CONNOR 2
therefore I am.” The only thing that he could not doubt was his own awareness. But thinking originates somewhere. For Descartes, the origin of thought is the soul or mind. The one certainty of mental thought led to the Cartesian dualism between the mind and body. Descartes argued that the mind and body exist differently; that is, they are two different classes of substances, kind of like oil and water. And like oil and water, they are utterly separate; the body exists in space but mental properties do not. This idea of dualism had profound effects on Western thought, especially occurring as it did during the Enlightenment. One of the most important distinctions the idea helped to validate is the separation of human beings from nature. Other cultures at other times have seen humankind as part of nature; everything existing holistically. A good example of this idea of nature is found in a quote from Geronimo, the Apache leader: For each tribe of men Usen [God] created, He also made a home. In the land for any particular tribe He placed whatever would be best for the welfare of that tribe …. thus it was in the beginning: the Apaches and their homes each created for the other by Usen himself. When they are taken from these homes they sicken and die. (as quoted in Miller, 1996, p. 286) In this...
References: Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity (M. Ritter, Trans.) London: Sage. (Original work published 1986) Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978). Manifesto of the communist party. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1848) Miller, L. (Ed.) (1996). From the heart: Voices of the American Indian. New York: Vintage. O’Connor, J. (1998). Natural Causes: Essays in ecological Marxism. New York: The Guildford Press. Olson, E. (1998, April 5). West hinders inquiry on dumping as rights issue. New York Times. Singer, P. (2002). One world: The ethics of globalization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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