Swans Commentary » swans.com December 1, 2008  





by Martin Murie





"Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a constant dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature." (1)


(Swans - December 1, 2008)   I take the above quotation from Karl Marx as an excellent definition of humankind's actual relation to nature. And a warning too: we must keep up the dialogue.

This earth does not belong to any one species, any one zillionaire, any one individual. The Earth is our commons. Marx, in his younger years, witnessed the conflict between German common folks and people lusting to make the commons a personal and private ownership.

However, beyond the intellectual's world of abstractions, the firm understanding that we are part of, or even victims of, nature is widespread across the tribes and nations of the earth. People, the majority, work in all weathers, hunt and fish and trap, endure blackfly seasons and mosquito seasons and the hazards of disease -- carrying ticks and other bad and good happenings of the natural world. The work gets done and workers walk away with a healthy, though sometimes daunting, appreciation of nature, its creatures, its diverse and magnificent flora, its unpredictability.

In New York's north country, survivors of the ice storm that left most of us without power for two weeks or longer know that Mother Nature is in charge. We knew it long before that storm, because we worked with whatever nature brought us, day by day, year by year. Dairy farmers knew the awesome routine and monotony of tending their cows, 24/7. Alison and I knew the same, tied to the necessities of a small herd of goats.

The masters of capital flows are far removed from such intimate contacts. They are masters of labor. They issue orders. Recently, government-subsidized industrial wind turbine corporations moved into the north country, leasing land and promising substantial tax relief to towns that accept their presence. We happened to live in the town of Brandon where Noble Corporation was held at bay by way of mass meetings while a zoning ordinance was drawn up. Brandon is now turbine-tower free, though individual residents can erect their own wind catchers. Wind power is one of those technological fixes that have many disadvantages, including fickle wind, but are still included in liberal and left writings on "sustainability," following blindly Al Gore and other green capitalists.

I am convinced that we writers underestimate the power of understanding exhibited daily by those of our species who come in contact with nature, whether it be in hospitals or on power poles or trash trucks bound for landfills, or in rural areas and wildernesses. The hard fact is that we writers live on a planet whose atmosphere is under constant and pervasive propaganda that reaches all of us in a vast multitude of disguises. Let's acknowledge that millions of people experience miserable weather (right now, as we speak, killing cold and snow on Native American reservations in South Dakota where living conditions and unemployment are many times the national average). There are many places and jobs where work has to go on, no matter what nature deals from its inter-related packs of cards.

But, as multiple disasters loom and converge, we are also granted a privilege, a window of opportunity. A window like that opened during the Clinton years, but most of us stood aside, didn't demand real and meaningful changes. Let's raise the ante now, because many more citizens see behind the foolish masks. We need to take seriously Frederick Douglass's statement.

Power concedes nothing without a demand, It never did and it never will. (2)

Above all, we need to take in a healthy dose of humility, step decisively off this dependence on corporate profit-seeking insistence that we can build an Archimedes lever. We are not masters; we are not captains in the wheelhouse, and technology alone will not save us.

Most of the peoples of Earth already have this deep awareness in their gut and in their individual backlog of tough experiences. They have endured one or more tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, forest fires, chaparral fires, disease, floods, ice storms, and blizzards that can kill. They already have that essential realism, though their experiences normally coexist with faith in technological fixes.

Can we insert a dose of humility toward nature into our writings and our give-and-take talk with those with whom we agree and those with whom we don't? The ecosystems of earth require that shift of gut and mind. And we need, desperately, the daily dialogue with earth's fundamental systems.

Enough of caretakings and stewardships and other extravagant, self-obsessed claims. Let's go whole hog to the truth, that we are part of nature and our very survival depends on our maintaining a close intimacy with our as yet meager understanding of the contradictions and processes of this, our only habitat. From that base we can move to ever more powerful demands.

As long as fresh land and labor existed beyond the reach of capital (but still within capital's reach), the system's socio-ecological contradictions could be attenuated. With the possibilities for external colonization foreclosed by the twentieth century, capital has been compelled to pursue strategies of "internal" colonization, among which we might include the explosive growth of genetically modified plants and animals . . . drilling in ever deeper and ever more distant locales for oil and water, and perhaps most ominously, converting human bodies into toxic waste dumps for a wide range of carcinogenic and otherwise lethal substances. (3)

We are entering a new era, one that requires much more than routine responses.



1.  John Bellamy Foster,Monthly Review, November, 2008. The citation is from Karl Marx, Early Writings, Vintage, 1974.  (back)

2.  I take this statement from a mug presented to us by a couple of peace activists.  (back)

3.  Jason W. Moore, "Ecological Crises And The Agrarian Question In World-Historical Perspective," Monthly Review, November, 2008. Moore, in the last sentence of the quotation, cites Devra Davis's book, The Secret History Of The War On Cancer, Basic, 2007.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 1, 2008