Thursday, March 19, 2020

3330. The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization

By Kamran Nayeri, March 19, 2020
Chinese made half a billion trips before the start of the Lunar New Year

The Coronavirus pandemic (endnote 1) underscores how infectious diseases are presenting the fourth existential threat to humanity. All are caused by the crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization; The other three are already acknowledged: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. The trend has been marked by the outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, dengue, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and influenza, and by the looming threat of rising antimicrobial resistance. The danger is increasing due to rapid population growth in areas with weak health systems, urbanization, globalization, climate change, civil conflict, and the changing nature of pathogen transmission between human and non-human animal populations (Bloom and Cadarette, 2019).  Not only does the deepening of each existential threat undermines human society, beginning with its most vulnerable groups and regions, but all threats interact in a nonlinear dynamic that amplifies the overall crisis.  Unless this crisis of civilization is addressed in the coming decades, the collapse of global anthropocentric industrial capitalist society is nigh inevitable, and humanity may not survive the consequences. 

The Coronavirus and the economic crisis
Global stock markets lost $16 trillion in less than a month (CBS News, March 13, 2020) and their losses continue as the evidence for an economic recession in the U.S. and worldwide mounts (Officially a recession is always called well after the fact since it is defined by two successive quarters of GDP decline) (2).  The financial and economic crisis the Coronavirus has touched off is exposing the structural weaknesses of the U.S. and world economies.  As Warren Buffet famously quipped, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” (April 2, 2009) There is mounting evidence of a financial crisis. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, has already remarked about the similarity with the 2008 Great Recession: “In many ways, it’s far worse than 2008.” (Goodman, March 13, 2020) As the crisis spreads and deepens daily, the central banks in the U.S. and around the world have employed what is left in their toolbox to slow, if not stop, the unfolding recession. Republican and Democrat politicians, the Congress and the White House have come together to devise fiscal policies to do the same.  

There is nothing in mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories or Marxist economic theory that account for the emergence and the damage caused by “natural” events such as the Coronavirus.  In neoclassical theory, Keynesian theory, and even Marxist economic theory (e.g., Shaikh 1978, 2014, 2016) such events are treated as “external shock,” that is, a “given” factor external to the economic system. 

Philosophical and methodological issues
It is important to recall the philosophical and methodological underpinning of these theories and why “natural events” fall outside their scope.  Both neoclassical and Keynesian theories are rooted in the liberal social philosophies of the nineteenth century that view society as an aggregate of individual human action driven by human nature — expressed as Homo economicus — assumed to be most fully expressed in a capitalist market economy. The labor theory of value as developed by Karl Marx in his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy is a specific application of his materialist conception of history. What is often overlooked is the underlying philosophical anthropology of Marx, who held human nature to be the sum total of social relations among all humans:

“This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (Marx and Engels, 1945)

Thus for Marx, history is made through class struggle.  In The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) Marx and Engels argued that class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would lead to socialism. The primary purpose of Marx’s critique of political economy was to lay bare the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production that invariably lead to a systemic crisis, hence class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. 

Thus, neither bourgeois economic theories nor Marxist economic theory require the inclusion of ecology in the workings of the capitalist economy, except in limited cases such as the theory of ground rent, where soil fertility or other qualities such a mineral deposit or location of land matters. But even then, this is mostly treated as a given.

In the last two decades, John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues at Monthly Review have provided important insight into what they call the ecological aspects in Karl Marx’s writings, from which they derive the notion of “metabolic rift.” To put this characterization in historical perspective, the term oekologie (ecology) was coined in 1866 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a passionate disciple of Charles Darwin whose On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection appeared in 1859.  If Marx’s insights are to be characterized as ecological, then we must acknowledge ecological insights in the Western tradition going back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Theophrastus who first described the interrelationships between organisms and between organisms and their nonliving environment. And the host of writers with “ecological insight” would even include for some scholars Thomas Malthus who is credited with inventing “population ecology.” 

Michael Friedman, a biologist writing in Monthly Review summarizes “metabolic rift” as follows:

“‘Metabolic rift’ is the concept popularized by environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, following Marx and others, to describe the disruption of ecological processes and the tendency to sever the connection between ecological and social realms. Foster attributes the metabolic rift to the intrinsic dynamic of capitalist production, with its private ownership of the means of production, drive for profits, ever-expanding markets, and continuous growth. Marx employed this idea to describe the effects of capitalist agriculture on the degradation of soil fertility. Foster and his co-thinkers have employed the concept in analyses of climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries, and many other aspects of human interaction with our biosphere.” (Friedman, 2018, emphasis added) 

Thus, in this rendition of “metabolic rift” the ecological crisis is seen as the outcome of the process of capital accumulation (endnote 2).   This raises a number of questions.

First, how does the discovery of Marx’s ecological concerns influences the makeup of ecological socialist theories that also build on capitalist accumulation as the root cause for the eco-social crisis, say for example, Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (2007)?  Kovel and others have also made critical assessments of Marx’s work.  But in terms of what is causing the ecological crisis, it would be hard to argue that Kovel and Foster hold uncompromisingly different views. 

Second, while the scholarly work of Foster and his colleagues is a commendable enrichment of our understanding of Marx, it offers no innovations as to the root cause of the ecological crisis. To put it differently, the task of a scientifically based study of the ecological crisis and the task of discovering what Marx thought about the ecological damages done by the process of capitalist accumulation are not one and the same thing. It is perhaps no accident that the entire scientific effort to understand climate change and the Sixth Extinction is carried by scientists in the related scientific disciplines, not by Marxists generally or by those who subscribe to metabolic rift conception in particular.

Third, the attempt to pack all knowledge and understanding about various ecological crises into Marxist categories has blinded its practitioners to some factors so obviously related causal factors. One example would suffice: exponential population growth since 1800 is closely related to the rise, dominance, and global expansion of the capitalist system.  Is it lost on anyone that the emergence and spread of the Coronavirus and the danger it poses to humanity is closely related to high population density? Yet, the metabolic rift advocates like most other socialists have consistently ignored or even labeled as “Malthusian” or “populationist” anyone who argued that the exponential rise in human numbers is a contributing factor to the ecological crisis such as species extinction. But that is what biodiversity and conservation biologists have shown to be the case historically and in modern times (Nayeri, 2017). For example, the authors of a 2017 review essay in Science conclude: 

“Research suggests that the scale of human population and the current pace of its growth contribute substantially to the loss of biological diversity. Although technological change and unequal consumption inextricably mingle with demographic impacts on the environment, the needs of all human beings—especially for food—imply that projected population growth will undermine protection of the natural world.” (Crist, Mora, and Engelman, 2017)

The authors propose: 

“An important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality.” (ibid.)

Finally, the concept of “metabolic rift” leaves out non-economic and pre-capitalist factors and in effect ignores the fact that ecological crises have been endemic to human society since the dawn of civilization. 

The Ecocentric Socialist approach
For about a decade, I have proposed another approach to rethinking Marx and Marxism that takes a very long view of ecological and social crises (For the most recent statement, see Nayeri, 2018; also, see, Nayeri, 2013A and 2013B). Central to my reconsideration is the recognition of the scientific understanding of who are and where we come from so that we can better understand where we are going.  

We are literally the product of our natural and social history and the sum total of our ecological-social (eco-social) relations in any given social formation.  Marx would have reconsidered his own philosophical anthropology as from the 1840s he replaced philosophy in favor of scientific inquiry. Even in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels wrote:

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, emphasis added)

Thus, the founders of the materialist conception of history believed that “the consequent relation to the rest of nature” would matter to historical investigation even though they clearly and consciously set aside the “actual physical nature of man” and his/her “natural conditions” of which they named the “geological, hydrographical, climatic” aspects.

But if we are not just the sum total of our social relations but instead the sum total of ecological and social relations, then we must revise and update the materialist conception of history in light of 150 years of accumulated scientific knowledge.

In recent decades, the study of the human microbiome, the collection of all the microorganisms living in association with human cells and organs, has advanced greatly, although our knowledge of their relationships is still in infancy. 

“These communities consist of a variety of microorganisms including eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells, for a total of about 1000 more genes than are present in the human genome. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that's 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult).” (National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project, accessed March 17, 2020)

Although most biologists separate the microbiome from the human body, they also acknowledge its essential role in human health:

“These microbes are generally not harmful to us, in fact they are essential for maintaining health. For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes. An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.”  (ibid. Emphasis added)

In his essay entitled “Metabolic Rift and the Human Microbiome” cited earlier, Michael Friedman notes that:
“Some biologists conceive of our microbiota as a hitherto unrecognized organ or organs fulfilling important physiological functions and networking with other organ systems, while many microbial ecologists propose that we are not ‘individuals,’ but collective organisms comprised of the person (mammal) and its entire microbiome. Many other species are also collective organisms, termed holobionts, tightly bound by evolution ever since the earliest eukaryotic cells arose from fusions of independent prokaryotes (non-nucleated cells, such as bacteria).”  (Friedman, 2018)
Thus, not only humans but all other complex species might more fruitfully and accurately be called “collective organisms.” In a scientific sense, a human is an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its multiple constituent parts. Biologists call such phenomena emergent properties. Life itself is understood as an emergent property.  I suspect this is much closer to the holistic view of Hegel (1817) and Marx, that "the truth is in the whole."  Indeed, recent research has found a correlation between gut microbiota and personality in adults (Han-Na Kim, 2018). If microorganisms in humans can affect even our personality, how could they not have an impact on our history as a species?  

This view of the ecological nature of humans, as the interpenetration of multiple kinds of beings, validates yet another reconsideration of Marx’s philosophical anthropology. As revolutionary as Marx’s advance over Feuerbach’s materialism was in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845) where humans are viewed as the agency in history, his view still remained firmly anthropocentric. We now know that other organisms and species play a decisive role in history. As I will outline in a moment, infectious diseases caused by various pathogens have been particularly crucial at certain moments throughout the history of civilization. But let me first cite one example of how the application of the materialist conception of history to explain the successful occupation of the Americas by the European colonists fell short of the historical truth.  As a young socialist, one of my teachers was George Novack, an American Marxist philosopher.  In 1975, I translated his essay “The Long View of History” (1974) into Farsi; it was published in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Novack used the interpretation of the materialist conception of history that privileges forces of production to explain how the colonists overcame the Native American population.  In a nutshell, Novack attributed this to the superior firearms of the Europeans who overwhelmed the Native population armed with bow and arrow.  However, in the decades since, historical research has shown that the European colonists exposed the Native Americans to new infectious diseases for which they lacked immunity. These communicable diseases, including smallpox and measles, devastated entire Native American populations which numbered in millions. Smallpox was one of the most feared because of the high mortality rates in infected Native Americans. 

Marx’s anthropocentric view was invalidated even in his own time with the publication of Darwin’s researches.  As Darwin clearly stated that  “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” He went on: 

We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. (Darwin, 1871/1981, p. 105)

The philosopher James Rachel adds:

“In thinking about non-humans, Darwin said, we have always under-estimated the richness of their mental lives.  We tend to think of ourselves as mentally complex, while assuming that ‘mere animals’ lack any very interesting intellectual capacities. But this is incorrect. Non-humans experience not only pleasure and pain, but terror, suspicion, and fear.  They sulk. They love their children. They can be kind, jealous, self-complacent, and proud.  They know wonder and curiosity.  In short, they are much more like us, mentally and emotionally, than we want to admit.” (Rachels, 1990: 57) 

Thus, human nature is the sum total of our eco-social relations shaped by the dynamic interrelation of three trends: (1) The transhistorical trend which recognizes and celebrates our continuity with other animals, in particular the primates. We are animals, mammals, an evolutionary cousin of the chimpanzee. Therefore, we share certain traits with them. (2) The historical trend of our species, Homo sapiens, that goes back at least 300,000 years, including cultural heritage from earlier Homo genera: We inherited the knowledge to use of fire from Homo erectus who domesticated it 400,000 years ago.  And, (3) the trend specific to the mode of production influences, e.g. capitalistically developed global culture today. 

This dynamic mixture of nature and nurture makes us who we are and is key to how history unfolds. 

In “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism” (Nayeri, 2018) I began the task of reconsideration of the materialist conception of history in the spirit of the above insight gained from Marx and Engels including factors they acknowledged but never had the opportunity to sufficiently elaborate, and drawing as well on the scientific knowledge we have gained since the latter years of the nineteenth century. I will not recapitulate that discussion here in the interest of brevity.  Let us now return to the Coronavirus pandemic from the perspective just laid out. 

The origins of the Coronavirus
Virologists and other experts are not yet certain about the origins of the current Coronavirus (there is a large family of Coronaviruses).  But there is little doubt among the experts that a confluence of anthropogenic factors is responsible for the present pandemic. 

Rob Wallace (2020), an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer and the author of Big Farm Makes Big Flu (2016), has highlighted factors that may have played a role in the emergence of novel pathogens in China. 
“… wet markets and exotic food are staples in China, as is now industrial production, juxtaposed alongside each other since economic liberalization post-Mao. Indeed, the two food modes may be integrated by way of land use.
"Expanding industrial production may push increasingly capitalized wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens. Peri-urban loops of growing extent and population density may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild nonhuman populations and newly urbanized rurality.
“Worldwide, even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains: among them ostrichesporcupinecrocodilesfruit bats, and the palm civet, whose partially digested berries now supply the world’s most expensive coffee bean. Some wild species are making it onto forks before they are even scientifically identified, including one new short-nosed dogfish found in a Taiwanese market.”
Wildlife meat market in China

Thus, Wallace highlights the complex interaction of traditional Chinese culinary preferences, the newly emergent industrial capitalist economy, and the reshaping of the ecology of China’s hinterlands to suggest the eco-social context of the emergence of the Coronavirus. 

Wallace’s emphasis is on Chinese capitalist industrialization.  However, Tong et. al. (2017) highlights the interplay of economic growth, urbanization, globalization and the risk of emerging infectious diseases in China. 

“Three interrelated world trends may be exacerbating emerging zoonotic risks: income growth, urbanization, and globalization. (1) Income growth is associated with rising animal protein consumption in developing countries, which increases the conversion of wild lands to livestock production, and hence the probability of zoonotic emergence. (2) Urbanization implies the greater concentration and connectedness of people, which increases the speed at which new infections are spread. (3) Globalization—the closer integration of the world economy—has facilitated pathogen spread among countries through the growth of trade and travel. High-risk areas for the emergence and spread of infectious disease are where these three trends intersect with predisposing socioecological conditions including the presence of wild disease reservoirs, agricultural practices that increase contact between wildlife and livestock, and cultural practices that increase contact between humans, wildlife, and livestock. Such an intersection occurs in China, which has been a ‘cradle’ of zoonoses from the Black Death to avian influenza and SARS. Disease management in China is thus critical to the mitigation of global zoonotic risks.” (Tong, et. al. 2017; numerals inside parentheses are added to emphasize contributing factors) 
Key to the development of any capitalist economy is division of labor, which depends in turn on the extent of the market, which itself depends on population growth and the rise in per capita income. Even though the Chinese economy has followed an export-led growth model capitalizing on the international market for developing its division of labor, hence industrialization, by hundreds of millions of Chinese have been moved from rural areas to ever-expanding cities and lifted out of poverty.  According to a 2013 report by McKinsey & Company, a major international business consulting firm, by 2022, “more than 75 percent of China’s urban consumers will earn 60,000 to 229,000 renminbi ($9,000 to $34,000) a year.In 2018, some 823 million Chinese, more than half the population, was urban.  The population density in China which in 1950 had 551,960,000 people (the Chinese revolution was 1949-51) in 2018 had 1,433,783,686 people, almost three times as many despite the one-child policy introduced in 1979 and modified in the mid-1980s.   Meanwhile, population density in China increased from 57.98 persons per square kilometer in 1950 to 150.1 persons in 2019. (, China Population: 1950-2020) The epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak Wuhan had a population of slightly more than 1 million in 1950. Today it has 8.3 million.

Live meat market in China

To better understand the Chinese demand for exotic animals, let me cite a recent article by Yi-Zheng Lian (February 20, 2020) that offers further insight into how Chinese cultural mores have contributed to the emergence of novel viruses in China.  He discusses the ancient Chinese beliefs about the powers of certain foods known as “jinbu" meaning roughly “filling a void.”  He writes:

“I’ve seen snakes and the penises of bulls or horses — great for men, the theory goes — on offer at restaurants in many cities in southern China. Bats, which are thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are said to be good for restoring eyesight — especially the animals’ granular feces, called “sands of nocturnal shine” (夜明砂). Gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone is for erections.
“More mundane yet no less popular is the palm civet (果子狸), a small, wild quadruped suspected of having passed on the SARS virus to humans. When stewed with snake meat, it is said to cure insomnia.”

Wildlife meat market in China

It must be plain that the Coronavirus pandemic has as much to do with centuries-old Chinese traditions as it does with the rise of China as the second-largest industrial capitalist economy in the world.  

Crisis of civilization and infectious diseases
While the “metabolic rift” writers focus attention on capitalist industrialization, the deeper underlying cause of the ecological crisis lies in the emergence of fixed human settlement and farming before the rise of early states between approximately 10,000 to 5,000 years ago. 

 If we wish to speak in the language of the metabolic rift in discussions of infectious diseases, we must trace it all the way back to the dawn of farming in Mesopotamia. The farm itself is an entirely human-made ecosystem, which, in combination with the sedentary and crowded lifestyle of early farmers, also attracted a host of species from ticks and flees to rats and cats, sparrows and pigeons. These brought with them a host of infectious diseases.  Yale University political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott (2017) argues these were a major contributing factor in the collapse of many early civilizations. In a chapter entitled “Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm” in his 2017 book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Scott details the confluence of factors that gave rise to the early chronic and infectious diseases. He compares the chronic ailments of early farmers to the modern-day repeated motion syndrome, a family of muscular conditions that result from repeated motions performed in the course of normal work or daily activities. Scott calls this the rise of drudgery in early farming.  Hunter-gatherers’ rugged mobile lifestyle in contrast never included such tedium as those introduced by farming activities.  Furthermore, sedentism brought with it crowding: 
“[V]irtually all infectious diseases due to microorganisms especially adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.  They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’ These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginning of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture.”  (Scott, 2017, p. 101)
A key role in the rise and spread of infectious diseases was played by livestock, commensals, cultivated grain and legumes, where the key principle of crowding again is operative. 
“The Neolithic was not only an unprecedented gathering of people but, at the same time, a wholly unprecedented gathering of sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, dogs, cats, chicken, ducks, geese. To the degree that they were already ‘herd’ or ‘flock’ animals, they would have carried some species-specific pathogens of crowding. assembled for the first time to share a wide range of infective organisms. Estimates vary, but of the fourteen hundred known human pathogenic organisms, between eight hundred and nine hundred are zoonotic diseases, originating in non-human hosts. For most of these pathogens, Homo sapiens is a final ‘dead-end’ host: humans do not transmit it further to another host.” (ibid. p. 103)
Thus, there is an unmistakable similarity between the conditions that gave rise to infectious diseases thousands of years ago and what we find happening in the twenty-first century, including the current pandemic caused by the Coronavirus.  

What is markedly different is the scope, scale, and speed by which the Coronavirus has impacted the world population.  This is due to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.  Wallace cites the “connectivity” of the world population in his discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic, and Tong, et. al. (2017) cite “globalization.”  In 2018, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) there were 4.1 billion passengers on scheduled services, an increase of 7.3% over 2016.  Air travel is projected to reach 5.4 billion passengers by 2030 (this was before the pandemic).  Clearly, infectious diseases can and will spread across the globe like wildfire in the coming years and decades.  

Thus, there is no doubt in my mind that infectious disease must be seen as the fourth existential crisis humanity faces. Again, the other three are: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. Scott argues that infectious diseases were a contributing factor in the collapse of earlier civilizations. There is no reason to doubt that the collapse of anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization would be any different.  To overcome the crisis, we must transcend civilization, a Herculean task no doubt given that even Marxists, whether socialist or ecosocialist, still conceive of a post-capitalist anthropocentric industrial civilization. This is in part due to a theoretical blind spot. Marxists remain hostage to the anthropocentric ideology that has been at the base of every civilization all based on agriculture in which domination and control of nature are paramount for the extraction of wealth from it. The Marxian theory promises only to do away with the exploitation of the working masses who perform such extraction of wealth from nature. There is no environmental ethics built into their socialist or ecosocialist theories which are based on socialist humanism.

Ecocentric Socialism argues that the root cause of social alienation, hence all forms of exploitation since the dawn of civilization, is alienation from nature. Human emancipation, even human survival, demands a process of de-alienation from nature.   

Transcending civilization as de-alienation
All civilization is based on a 10,000-year-old anthropocentric detour that constitutes only a mere 3.3% of the history of our species which, as we recently learned, emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago.  During the 290,000 years before the rise of early farmers, humanity lived and prospered as ecocentric hunter-gatherers.  While it is true that the successful life of hunter-gatherers which led to population growth sometimes caused ecological damage, including extinction events, by-and-large they lived in relative harmony with the rest of nature. There was no systematic attempt to dominate or control nature, something that became the cornerstone of every civilization since, reaching its zenith in the industrial capitalism of the past 250 years. The combination of the anthropocentric world view, advances in science and technology, and the capitalist drive for ever more accumulation of capital has brought us to the Anthropocene (Age of Man) and the existential planetary crisis.  

Ecocentric ecological socialist politics is the wisdom and the art of undoing power relations that have been thrown up during the past 10,000 years, relations of subordination, oppression, and exploitation of humans and between humans and the rest of nature.  Thus, the class relations and class struggle that Marx and Engels correctly placed at the center of their theoretical and practical concerns must be supplemented with non-class struggles against the subordination of various strata of people and with a cultural revolution that aims to end anthropocentrism in all its manifestations.  Some of these, like the struggle for gender, racial, sexual orientation, and national origin equality must be seen as essential for fostering the unity of the working people. Others like the fight to stop and reverse climate crisis, the ongoing Sixth Extinction, and the sharpening threat of nuclear war involve existential struggles. But struggle against all manifestations of anthropocentrism must be seen as the core struggle because it is anthropocentrism that helped to create the material basis of social alienation and has served as the ideological basis for the Anthropocene.  The fight for ecocentrism, like the fight for human emancipation, is a fight for universal values.  Without ecocentrism, that is not just an intellectual point of view but a genuine love for nature and for life on Earth, there will be no humanity and no human emancipation. They are one and the same fight, the fight to overcome human alienation.

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this essay to Panther and Siah (means black, in Farsi). They are two male black tomcats whose names taken together mean "black panther," who live with me in La Casa de Los Gatos. Their friendship enriches my life in ways few humans ever have. 

Acknowledgment: I am deeply grateful to Fred Murphy who read a draft of this essay and made valuable suggestions for the improvement of the text as well as corrected my grammar. He also directed me to the Hegel’s text as the source for his well-known philosophical proposition that “The truth is in the whole.” 

1. In this essay, I use “Coronavirus ” and Coronavirus pandemic where others may use 2019-nCoV or Convid-19.

2. As I am publishing this essay, I received in the mail today,  Foster and Clark’s “The Rubbery of Nature” (Monthly Review, 2020).  I do not know if there is anything in this new contribution that adds to the issues discussed here about “metabolic rift.” Of course, if there is I would hope to address them in a future essay as needed.

Barton, Dominic, Yougang Chen, and Amy Jin. “Mapping China’s Middle Class.” McKinsey Quarterly. June 2013. 
Bloom, David. E. and Daniel Cadarette. “Infectious Disease Threats in the Twenty First Century: Strengthening Response.” Frontiers of Immunology. 10: 549. March 29, 2019.   
Crist, Eileen, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman. “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection.” Science, Vol. 356, Issue 6335, pp. 260-264. April 21, 2017. 
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871/1981.  
Friedman, Michael. “Metabolic Rift and the Human Microbiome.” Monthly Review, July 1, 2018. 
Goodman S., Peter. “Markets Plunge. Economies Stall. Panic Spreads. It All Feels Very 2008.” The New York Times, March 13, 2020.
Han-Na Kim, Yeojun Yun, Seungho Ryu, Yoosoo Chang, Min-Jung Kwon, Julnee Cho, Hocheol Shin, and Hyung-Lae Kim. “ Correlation Between Gut Microbiota and Personality in Adults: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 69, Pages 374-385, March 2018. 
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Mind: Preface. 1817.
Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” 1845.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. 1845. 
—————————————————. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. 
Nayeri, Kamran. “Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 1.” Philosophers for Change. Republished in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. July 16, 2013.
-------------------.“Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 2.” Philosophers for Change. Republished in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. October 29, 2013. 
—————————. “How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. May 24, 2017.
—————————. “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. October 15, 2018.
Novack, George. “The Long View of History.’ In Understanding History: Marxist Essays. 1974.
Rachels, James.  Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 
Scott, James. Against the Grain: A Deep History of Early States. 2017. 
Shaik Anwar. “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories in 'U.S. Capitalism in Crisis', Union for Radical Political Economics. 1978. 
———————. “Profitability, Long Waves and the Recurrence of General Crises.” September 2014. 
----------------. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises. 2016. 
Smialek, Jeanna, and Matt Phillips. “Troubles Percolate in the Plumbing of Wall Street.” The New York Times, March 12, 2020.
Yi-Zheng Lian “Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?” The New York Times, February 20, 2020. 
Tong, Wu, Charles Perrings, Ann Zinzig, James P. Collins, Ben A. Minteer, and Peter Daszak. “Economic Growth, Urbanization, Globalization, and the Risks of Emerging Infectious Diseases in China: A Review.” Ambio 4618–29 (2017).
Wallace, Rob. Big Farm Makes Big Flu. 2016
——————. “Notes on a novel coronavirus.” MRonline, January 29, 2020.


Kamran Nayeri said...

A reader, the mathematician Chandler Davis, shared the following comment with me by email:

"The Permian Mass Extinction wiped out the trilobites and more; but there
remained a number of other arthropods and vertebrates to repopulate the
planet. The Cretaceous Mass Extinction wiped out the pterosaurs and many other
reptiles; but there were still some other reptiles and birds and mammals who
carried on. The new Mass Extinction that the Koch brothers and their
confederates have planned for us threatens to be more thorough. A real runaway
greenhouse effect could leave the Earth unfit as habitat for much beyond a few
cyanobacteria. Well, maybe some tardigrades too: they’re so tough.

"Too bad we can’t check-in after a few hundred million years to see what they
made of the place. Maybe left to themselves the tardigrades can do a better job
of evolving an intelligent species than the vertebrates did."

davidbyrnemcdonaldiii said...

Hi Kamran, I've been meaning to get back to you following your vacation. You may remember that we talked a bit about Marxist currents and their various relations to the climate change movement, and you kindly referred me to your article on Jason W Moore, which I found very agreeable since it mirrored my irritation with all the dialectical
trimmings which I found added nothing.

I did read your manifesto and I have some questions.

1. If alienation from nature began with agriculture and we are to overcome this alienation, what will replace agriculture to produce (make, gather) food? If we become hunter-gatherers what level of human population could the earth sustain, in your view? It also seems that you would advocate abandoning the hunter part of hunter gatherers so we would be gatherers only.

2. Would all knowledge be passed down verbally, or would there be production of books or other artifacts containing accumulated human wisdom? If knowledge is written down, what is it written down upon if not animal skins or paper made from farming (i.e. agriculture) for papyrus or other plants, or do you imagine we can simply gather enough papyrus (or whatever) to sustain our needs? How would knowledge remain the common heritage of all humans if no one specialized in knowledge?

3. Georgescu-Roegen situates bureaucracy and state institutions as arising from what he calls the irreducible human desire to reduce the drudgery of labor, so therefore since people seek not to drudge about the division of labor inevitably reduces labor for some while increasing it for others. As a lazy mofo I am moved by this argument.

I have many more questions but this will give you a sense of what I'm after. Cheers!

davidbyrnemcdonaldiii said...

Wow I just had a long comment deleted when I clicked "publish".

Kamran Nayeri said...

Dear David,

Thanks for your comments and questions. My response follows:

1. In a couple of essays, I suggest my own thinking about what must follow the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. Please take a look at the concluding section of "The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism" (2018) where I discuss this. As you will see, what is needed is a radical restructuring and repurposing of the existing productive structure in lockstep with democratically and drastically reducing the human population through the empowerment of women. Here is what I wrote about the food system: "In the new economy, plant-based food production would be the goal of the food system which will become localized using organic farming, permaculture and agroecology methods. Every able-bodied person will contribute at least through home or community food gardens. Thus, the new economy will employ many more people in these socially useful and ecologically sound economic activities."

Of course, this is just the beginning of the conversation which will be enriched with ideas from those who know much more about me about permaculture and non-animal using agroecology.

Please note that nowhere I have suggested going back to becoming hunter-gatherers although we must support and reinforce such cultures that still exist in small regions of the globe. Anyone who wants to become hunter-gatherers who be also supported by the rest of humanity. In fact, we must admire the resilience of such communities and help them transition back to their full-ecocentric culture which has been undermined by civilization. Hunting by hunter-gatherers is not a problem as long as it is limited to small numbers of humanity and poses no danger to other species. Hunting for recreation or for commercial purposes would be banned. In general, humanity must reclaim the ecocentric values system which gave moral standing to all beings.

2. Again, I am not advocating giving up unintended but beneficial gains of civilization such as writing, literature, etc. Those will be preserved and culture becomes everyone's preoccupation. Again, please read the relevant section of the essay cite above.

3. What Georgescu-Rogen calls "irreducible human desire to reduce the drudgery of labor" must be qualified. In the essay above, I cite James C. Scott's notion of what "drudgery" is and how it arose in history. In his account, drudgery arose with early farming where a repetition of the same tasks became necessary. In Scott's view, the rugged lives of hunter-gatherers did not include drudgery as gathering and hunting were limited to about 6 hours a day in most cases and there were no hard lines between work and play. In the modern capitalist society, even though office work is not drudgery in a normal sense of the word it is alienated labor and tedious. It is not the physical effort that is a problem it is alienated work.

Please write to me or call me with your other questions. I would be happy to discuss them.

Again, whatever I suggest is really just that: one person's suggestion and I freely admit not to be knowledgeable in many areas where others know so much more than I do. A world-historic transition to post-civilization Ecocentric Socialism is no one person's figment of imagination but the result of the collective effort of billions of working people.

I hope this helps.

Thank you again.


Kamran Nayeri said...

The following comment was sent to me by email by Thomas Piazza, a UB Berkeley statistician who specializes in sampling, who has been closely involved in research effort of earlier epidemics beginning with the AIDS epidemic.

"Hi Kamran,

I read your paper, and I agree with your analysis. The way I look at the issues, I see 3 phases in our recent history of the last few thousand years or so:

1. Religious phase: Causality attributed to some kind of spirit world.

2. Anthropocentric phase: Rationality replaces dogma, and “Man is the measure of all things.”

3. Ecocentric phase: Realization that we are part of, and dependent on, the whole web of life on this planet and in the whole universe.

Different groups of people pass from one phase to another at different rates. Getting to this 3rd phase is just beginning, and that is our challenge these days.

So you can see why your analysis makes sense to me. Also I think you are right to question Marxists who try to retrofit Marx with ecological awareness. He lived in a different time, and it is only in the light of recent science that we are aware of the “universe story.”

RSmith said...

I came to this post through the SoCoCan link. Here are my basic and crude thoughts:
1. There are many interesting aspects to your writing here, but it is far too much for the average reader to parse.
2. I suggest breaking such a post down into several separate entries, or editing down to your core message.
3. It comes across as purely an academic discussion. Interesting to a minority, but detached from most readers, even in high-brow Sonoma County circles.
4. I suspect I am full agreement with your thoughts and assessments. However, I fear we have already moved beyond the question of political theory, and are now on the course of crisis management. We are likely looking at a span of mere decades before a global collapse in complex civilization, and it seems we should be focusing on triage.
5. As an animal farmer, I will include the necessity of (quickly) re-learning the utility of livestock-integrated farming as a robust method of maintaining food production during increasing climate instability. Veganism has no future even with full return of human manure to the fields; livestock are key to maintaining soil fertility purely for continued crop harvest.
Thank you for your work. We need more such deep thinking.
- Roy Smith. Green Goose Farm

collectivist said...

"Ecocentric ecological socialist politics is the wisdom and the art of undoing power relations that have been thrown up during the past 10,000 years, relations of subordination, oppression, and exploitation of humans and between humans and the rest of nature. Thus, the class relations and class struggle that Marx and Engels correctly placed at the center of their theoretical and practical concerns must be supplemented with non-class struggles against the subordination of various strata of people and with a cultural revolution that aims to end anthropocentrism in all its manifestations. Some of these, like the struggle for gender, racial, sexual orientation, and national origin equality must be seen as essential for fostering the unity of the working people. Others like the fight to stop and reverse climate crisis, the ongoing Sixth Extinction, and the sharpening threat of nuclear war involve existential struggles. But struggle against all manifestations of anthropocentrism must be seen as the core struggle because it is anthropocentrism that helped to create the material basis of social alienation and has served as the ideological basis for the Anthropocene. The fight for ecocentrism, like the fight for human emancipation, is a fight for universal values. Without ecocentrism, that is not just an intellectual point of view but a genuine love for nature and for life on Earth, there will be no humanity and no human emancipation. They are one and the same fight, the fight to overcome human alienation."

ALL ecosocialism should seriously discuss this.

"Ecocentric Socialism argues that the root cause of social alienation, hence all forms of exploitation since the dawn of civilization, is alienation from nature. Human emancipation, even human survival, demands a process of de-alienation from nature."

I first came across this perspective from Erich Fromm's writings. It made sense to me at the time until I read a collection of essays entitled, Marxism and the Native Americans. Most of the latter - N.A(s) - essayists said, among other thought-provoking things, alienation from nature is mostly a Euro- capitalist phenomenon and that land-based people are generally not alienated from the natural world.

"Thus, there is no doubt in my mind that infectious disease must be seen as the fourth existential crisis humanity faces. Again, the other three are: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. "

Totally agree here.

Population control as a CENTRAL tenet of ecological socialism?

I'm sceptical. . .