The Left and the Environment

Radical environmentalists point to the devastation the earth is facing, but even in this day and age too many leftists examine only the finger.

The argument I’ll be making is marxist, but it is also very critical of many who call themselves marxists:

A specter is haunting the planet — the specter of biological devastation and ecological catastrophe. The ecosystems sustaining life are being ravaged. Many familiar organisms — butterflies, frogs, bees, whole species — are in sudden danger of being wiped out. At the same time, mechanisms for propagation — even seeds! — are coming under the private ownership and control of a few very large agro-chemical corporations. These corporations seek to alter living organisms’ genetic complement and reproductive capacities in order to further their control over land and monopolize the world’s food supply.

All the good things that human beings have achieved, and all the beauty of the world around us are being grabbed, privatized and pillaged by corporate, technological and political powers. This new colonization is legitimized by new laws similar to the Enclosure Acts centuries ago, a legal framework validating the shameless orgy of material profit.

In the last 40 years, fully one-half of the world’s forests have been chopped down. Forests prevent floods, maintain soil health, defuse hurricanes, detoxify drinking water and serve as habitats for millions of species. Under Clinton and Gore more trees were clearcut in the U.S. than under any other administration in recent history. The destruction of the forests is a main contributor to global warming. (Think about THAT, Al Gore!)

No more the once magnificent old growth forests, pristine drinking water, healthy soils, seas teeming with fish. No more the idea that people have the right to own and control our own bodies, neither our reproductive capacities nor our genes themselves on a cellular level. What does all the lip-service about self-determination and democracy mean when our own cells and individual genetic sequences can now be legally owned and sold by private corporations?

With this reality in mind, I offer five proposals for leftists.

1. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels explained that the internal dynamic of capitalism propels it to nestle everywhere, batter down all the “Chinese Walls” that try to keep it out, colonizing those areas geographically as well as supplanting their prior forms of production.

Today, with the globalization of capital, capitalism is colonizing not only other countries’ economic and political systems and the natural world “out there” — but it is now colonizing the “nature within.”

We, leftists, need to understand that the privatization of the biological cell, of natural genetic sequences, is the mechanism through which this new and fundamental expansion of capitalism is taking place, via this new for of colonization. Leftists must fight to:

a) Ban all genetic engineering of agriculture, plants, pesticides, and foods — this demand becomes essential to the new anti-colonial movements of the 21st century.

b) Abolish the private patenting of genetic sequences and seeds — so-called “intellectual property rights.”

c) Take private profit out of research and development of health-related drugs.

d) And, in the meantime, require all bio-engineered products and those derived from them to be clearly labeled.

The rightwing grassroots have been rallying around these demands; the Left is missing the opportunity to organize that rightwing base out from under its leadership.

2. We need to challenge the capitalist-manufactured consensus underlying what we mean by Progress and the Good Life.

We reject the notion, to some degree promoted by the Left, that the “good life” is based on the mass production and accumulation of commodities.

Two hundred years ago, in 1811, the Luddites — like the Iroquois and other American Indian communities — offered a different measure of progress, one not defined by efficiency or acceptance of exploitation of Nature or Labor. Contrary to popular mythology, the Luddites did not oppose machines per se, but “machinery hurtful to Commonality.” In England they wielded hammers against the machines; in France, their counterparts threw “sabots” (wooden shoes) into the gears (hence the term “sabotage”). The emerging industrial system based on Grow Or Die (God!) found it could only survive by physically crushing the Luddites and other opponents of mass-factory production. They distorted and then obliterated memory of their radical direct action “critique” from history texts. So in that sense, I am proud to be a Luddite, an Iroquois, a Saboteur … a Zapatista! And so should all of us.

3. We in the industrialized capitalist world need to train ourselves to see “holistically”.

This is not something that will come about on its own within the capitalist or patriarchal frameworks — nor will it come about in the kind of socialist framework based on industrial development.

Take this item, about a malaria outbreak in Borneo in the 1950s. The World Health Organization (WHO) sprayed DDT to kill mosquitoes. But the DDT also killed parasitic wasps which were controlling thatch-eating caterpillars. As a result, the thatched roofs of many homes fell down, and the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were in turn eaten by cats. The cats perished from the poisoning, which led to the multiplication of rats, and then outbreaks of sylvatic plague and typhus. To put an end to this destructive chain of events, WHO had to parachute 145,000 live cats into the area to control the rats.

The Left, like the rest of society, is steeped in the same linear thinking. It finds a problem and then looks for the magic bullet approach for addressing it. I talk about this in a number of other essays, grouped under the general heading, “Zen-Marxism.” Leftists need to practice holistic thinking. That will not occur automatically for those of us raised in this society. It takes a lot of work, conscious effort.

To begin with, holistic thinking attempts to look at entire ecosystems, at totalities, at their underlying Unity as the starting point. We must ask ourselves how the Whole informs interactions of the “parts” within every issue. One important effect of that type of approach is the minimization of unintended consequences, but that’s not the only one. I don’t have time here to get into that in any depth, but perhaps we can discuss more about how to train ourselves — how to practice — to think holistically in the discussion period.

4. We need to stop fetishizing science and technology.

Science and Technology are not “neutral forces”; they are dripping from their very “soul” with the ideology and social relations of the system in which they formed. But we, leftists, over and over again fall for the “Technological Imperative” — technologizing one’s way out of a problem, the Lone Ranger riding to rescue us from the contradictions of existence under capitalism.

Some examples:

– U.S. communist parties endorsed nuclear power plants in the 1960s;

– they also endorsed fluoridation of drinking water, which was a means for the burgeoning aluminum industry to get rid of its waste products in the 1940s and 50s;

– they endorsed mass vaccination of children for diseases that children SHOULD get, we WANT them to get so that they don’t get these diseases as adults where they are far more dangerous — diseases such as chicken pox, measles, mumps, etc. — in societies like ours in which they have access to healthy food, clean water and adequate sanitation (obviously, this is not desirable for impoverished or colonized countries where measles is among the top killers of young children);

– the communist parties also endorsed mass spraying of pesticides and over-application of antibiotics;

– they continue to endorse the torture of animals by cosmetic companies like Gillette under the guise of “scientific research,” and refuse to hear the wide-scale protests of young people involved in animal rights struggles, ruling them out as part of the Left;

– and they even uphold genetic engineering — rationalizing it, as they did with the Rockefeller-sponsored Green Revolution, as a technological means for ending world hunger! ­ yea, right! — instead of examining the real causes of hunger to begin with.

So, what do we do? Well, for starters, we need to call not only for free universal health care, but engage in a continent-wide discussion of what that health care should consist of, instead of the factory model of healthcare that the Left promotes today! Where is that discussion, the understanding that free universal health care is by itself not enough and may even be counterproductive when not combined with those contextual demands, such as access to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropracty, nutrition, herbology, and de-toxification of the environment?

Why are there 3 times as many episiotomies performed on women in the U.S. than in Europe, percentagewise? Is it that women in the U.S. are genetically inferior to those elsewhere in the world, or that they don’t know how to give birth properly? Obviously, that’s not the case; but I’m sure some enterprising corporation will soon try to market genetic implants to “correct” that “defect.”

In Cuba, women squat in a sort-of rocking chair with the bottom removed and rock the baby out, with much lower need for C-sections. Similarly with hysterectomies, which in the U.S. are performed at a rate that is at least double that of other industrialized countries. WHY AREN’T THESE AND SIMILAR ISSUES BEING RAISED BY THE LEFT as part of the demands for Universal Health coverage? Why doesn’t the Left address widespread concerns over what that coverage should consist of, instead of leaving that to the so-called capitalist-trained “experts”? Increasingly, the choice is the Capitalist system vs. the Immune system. The left needs to stand on the side of the Immune system — don’t you agree?

Leftists have long thought that we could just take over Science and Technology as though they were “neutral”, and use them for the good of all. But one cannot just take over these frameworks and wield them for one’s own purpose, for technology is an ensemble of social relations, and every finished product is a crystallization of the history of the exploitation, organization of production, and destruction of the communality that went into making it. So, stop treating science and technology as the answer to our problems. Let’s try to imagine a different kind of future, one that is not based on factories, factory farming, and factory health care.

5. We need to actively search for the ecological dimension in every social justice issue and raise it as part of that fight.

Bob Dylan sang: “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.” For many years the left acted similarly; organizations made alliances that led to raising each others’ issues and concatenating them into laundry lists of seemingly unrelated programmatic points. But the globalization of capital has changed all that. EVERY issue now has an ecological dimension that is fundamental to it. It is our job, as revolutionaries, to search for that green dimension and unpeel it, reveal it, and organize around it even when it does not seem obvious at first. This must become a fundamental component of every fight that we enter. I call this framework “Deep Marxism.”

For example, there is currently being organized an international boycott of CocaCola (, called to protest Coke’s murder of indigenous working class organizers in Colombia. Green activists have brought to that struggle Coke’s support for the mass herbicide poisoning of the entire countryside with Monsanto’s RoundUp — the same deadly organophosphate that they are spraying to kill weeds in New York City and here in Massachusetts, and on corn in Mexico. Monsanto has patented a procedure for genetically modifying what they call “RoundUp Ready” corn so that it is resistant to the mass-spraying of ONLY Round-Up. As a consequence, corporate farms pour thousands of tons of Round-Up onto the crops, killing every living organism — weeds, butterflies, frogs, earthworms, bees. The only organism left standing is the corn itself. And then we eat it, saturated with poisons.

The Green dimension also reveals that Coke is one of the world’s leading buyers of genetically engineered hi-fructose corn syrup, which now permeates almost every processed food, and which is responsible in large part for the epidemic of overweight children in the United States.

I’ll give another example: When Greyhound went on strike a few years back, some of us not only did strike support — of course, we all do that — but also challenged the workers to begin thinking about how to reconfigure the entire transportation system, to raise the issue of alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, and to see such expansion of working class domain as valid and necessary.

Unpeeling the ecological dimension is crucial to expanding the Left, and in successfully vying for workplace and reparation of the damages inflicted upon the communities we, as workers, live in.

Imagine, for instance, how different things would be if workers at General Electric’s plant in Schenectady N.Y. fought against the company’s dumping of PCBs into the Hudson river and demanded that G.E. clean up its toxic wastes from the river as part of its union organizing and contractual demands.

The best example of actively looking for the ecological dimension of a particular issue occurred in Australia in the late 70s when unions issued “Green Bans” and refused to construct highways and malls unless they were first approved by the communities that would be impacted by such “development” at public meetings. [I talk about this more in my pamphlet “What is Direct Action?”]

We can, and must, teach ourselves to do the same with every issue — even those that seem to have no ecological connections whatsoever at first glance. We need to oppose genetic engineering not only as a social justice issue but from our understanding that it is a new and fundamental mechanism through which capitalism is colonizing and exploiting new dimensions of life. We need to oppose and reframe what is presented as “the good life.” We need to train ourselves in how to think holistically and practice how to bring out the ecological dimension to issues that are perceived solely as moral or economic social justice issues; and we need to stop fetishizing science and technology. All of these (and more, of course) are necessary in enabling our movements and the working class in general to reveal and explore the deeper connections, which then would allow us to take actions that strike more deeply into the system itself and provide the basis for more powerful, successful, and radical social movements.

MITCHEL COHEN is co-editor of “G”, the newspaper of the NY State Greens. He can be reached at:


Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: