This week in environmental studies, we focused on the chapters of the textbook dealing with radical frameworks for thinking about nature—political economy and social construction. The former is based in Marxist discourse, speaking of fundamental contradictions of capitalism and analyzing power relationships. Though Marx wrote little directly about the environment, later thinkers, such as James O’Connor, David Harvey, and Neil Smith, have adapted the concept of capitalism undermining itself through exploitation of workers and nature. As in traditional Marxism, these contradictions eventually inevitably lead to a radical restructuring of society for the better. Some political economists have pointed to the “spatial fix” as an example of how capitalism reacts to the problems it creates—namely, by establishing new markets, resources, and sites of production and pollution. Globalization may be seen as just the large scale enactment of this spatial fix, with corporations expanding to developing countries to cut wages and increase profits, thereby degrading the stability of domestic capital markets. I am quite interested in the political economy approach; I agree with its core concepts regarding the inherent contradictions of capitalism, and I appreciate its consideration of power and class dynamics. That said, I take issue with the optimistic inevitability of social revolution advanced by streams of Marxist thought. The neatness of Figure 7.2 seems suspect, with the arrows between capitalist exploitation, crises, revolution, and a “sustainable socio-ecoloigcal economy” hiding complexity underneath apparent inexorability. In this figure, all the challenges and failures of revolutionaries is reduced to a short arrow between “crisis” and “radical restructuring” labelled “social action.”
The second chapter we dealt with this week, on the social construction of nature, shares the political economy’s awareness of power relationships. Indeed, these two frameworks overlap and tie together in important ways, though they have different focuses. A constructivist perspective examines the assumptions behind discourse, and in this case, specifically about that around nature. The textbook points out how this constructivist perspective must be reconciled with scientific investigation, lest it lead to meaningless relativism, yet overall it is an interesting perspective that can add much to examination of environmental issues. The central claims of constructivism about “wilderness” and “nature”—namely that the paramount examples of wilderness have in fact been managed and shaped by humans—fly in the face of mainstream nature discourse while being (apparently) factually indisputable. The additional aspect of constructivism, the focus on who benefits from socially constructed discourses, is where one sees more philosophical overlap with the previous chapter, as those benefiting from constructed discourse are frequently also those profiting from the exploitation of labor and nature. Overall, these past two chapters have shown the ideologies hidden behind markets and conservationist and preservationist ethics.