Book Review: Joel Kovel’s ‘The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?’
Joel Kovel’s book The Enemy of Nature presents a unity of red and green, socialist and environmental respectively, critiques of capitalism. Split into three sections, Kovel takes us through capitalisms responsibility for eco-catastrophe, domination of nature and critiques of eco-socialism and possible future paths, inextricably linking domination of nature and domination of labour as both under the heavy foot of capitalism. Presented as a “cold-blooded killer” (Kovel 2007 p6), the horror of the capitalist system and its effect on the ecological stability of our planet in its entirety is of such all-encompassing magnitude that it causes people to resist practical and radical intervention.
An intervention that is desperately needed in order to divert impending global ecological catastrophe. An apathy is produced by the sheer weight of the problem, a condition even Kovel admits almost being tempted by (ibid. pp14-23). However, as Kovel argues, there is too much worth fighting for, a whole world, literally, in our hands to save. Thus Kovel dispels the myth that nature is ‘other’ to human kind and he critiques the illusion of our ownership of the Earth to state that we, and our fates, are utterly intertwined with and as a part of nature (ibid. p14). Therefore we are a victim of our own persecution of nature via the advancement and sustaining of capitalism. He then takes the argument one step further by marking the difference between capital as ecodestructive and as being anti-ecological, as capital “violates the whole sense of the universe, not just parts of nature” (ibid. p95).
The plundering of natural resources, the destruction of forests to make way for farm-land and cars, and the polluting effects of industry are all due to the commodification of human beings in the form of labour. Economics is now about the trade itself, not the produced object in question. Thus money and capitalism is a monster that feeds off the destruction it creates, turning it around and making a profit out of it. This is why Kovel critiques voluntarism, because the notion of ‘buying green’ is a singular act that is not connected to the need for fundamental social change. It is, as Kovel succinctly writes, “ecopolitics without struggle” (ibid. p169). Whilst individual acts, such as using energy-saving light bulbs or using a bicycle instead of a car, are not without some merit, capitalism will tolerate any number of green initiatives and policies as long as the relentless drive for profit is protected and allowed to continue (ibid. p180). A radical overhaul of the current system is needed if we are to stem the impending global ecological disaster.
Whilst Kovel extrapolates and conjoins the radical aspects of Marxism and green politics and offers practical solutions and aims for achieving ecosocialism, he says little on the subject he claims as integral to the means out of capitalism, what he himself names as ecofeminism. Due to the “gendered bifurcation of nature” (ibid. p125) and the need for capitalism to be propagated by violence and domination – particularly in the control over the production and reproduction of future workers by controlling womens’ bodies to sustain the system – “any path out of capitalism must also be ecofeminist” (ibid.p194). Why, then, devote so little to the synthesis of ecosocialism and ecofeminism when it is so integral to the radical overhaul of societies in order to avoid impending eco-catastrophe? Also, the brevity of the critiques of other ecosocialist and green politics may alienate some readers who are entrenched by those belief systems (Gates, L.A. Unknown); thus diffusing the importance of his message somewhat, specifically with those affliated with groups that he needs to attain a synthesis with to strengthen his form of ecosocialism.
In Kovel’s idea of his future ecosocialist society, he envisions that large-scale rail and communication, powergrids and cities, would still exist yet neglects to discuss how this is possible whilst preserving the environment when the global population is at the highest it has ever been and is set to rise from six to eight billion by 2028 (GeoHive 1998). In fact, he touches very little upon the problem of population pressure and the possiblity of new demand on already overstretched and limited resources. It could be that as we feel more strongly the negative effects of climate change we could see an increase in war and fighting over the scarce resources. As one writer put it: “Precisely when, between now and doomsday, do the masses finally revolt?” (Dace, T. Unknown)
Despite these criticisms, The Enemy of Nature is an extremely insightful and important book. The minimum that Kovel claims is required to halt the crisis is that we must get rid of private ownership of the commons and productive resources and we must liberate our productive powers so that we can see and determine our own effect on nature (Kovel 2007 p160). However, from a historical perspective Kovel recognises the dangers of extremist radical change such as the abolition of money and market systems and alludes to the radical communist change that took place in Russia. Whilst such actions may create a Stalinist regime, Kovel also gives much weight to his earlier observation that the eco-catastrophe overwhelmingly surrounds us with such totality that people are practically blinded to it. Therefore, enforcing an immediate radicalisation of society would be like waking someone from the deepest sleep (ibid. p183).
This is precisely the problematic quality of Kovels’ book and of the ecological quandry we find ourselves in; radical change cannot be immediate due to the social problems it could cause, yet it must be soon if we are to survive. Ultimately Kovel is people-based rather than nature-based as, for example, he neglects to discuss population pressure and his desire to preserve contemporary cities and lifestyles. Nature has a way of adapting and has existed long before human-kind and will survive long after. What is truly ultimately the case is if we are to retain habitable conditions on Earth for humans and other present wildlife, we must have a social system that lives within and as a part of nature – not outside and therefore free to destroy nature as capitalism does. “Humanity is not just the perpetrator of the crisis, it is its victim as well” (ibid., p.23). It is not nature, as something ‘other’ and separate to us, that finds itself the enemy of capitalism, but it is in fact ourselves as we exist entwined in nature.