Can Political Ecology Save Us?

Monarch butterfly in my backyard, Claremont, California. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.


Ecology in America barely exists. Business as usual capitalism is so entrenched, it acts like a religion. It has its hierarchies of billionaires, and armies of economists and political (and other social) “scientists” preaching its dogmas. The countless faithful are willing to transfer even more of the national wealth to the billionaires, lest they, too, become servants of the elect. Their church is about monopolies and national and global control.

America of the Republicans and Democrats

The two parties, the Democrats, and the Republicans, antagonize each other not so much for ideological reasons but for favors they seek from the billionaires. The Republicans protect the plutocracy run by the billionaires. They may even dream of a monarchy for the country. The Democrats want to keep calling themselves democrats. Yet their ambition is to strengthen the military-industrial complex of war and empire. That is their connection to the Republicans and the billionaire class. Obama-like administrations remain the political model for the Democrats. That gives them the pretense of sharing the country with non-whites.

My ecological vision

In this presidential plutocracy of America there’s no place for ecology. By ecology I mean affection for the natural world, our life-giving Earth. Ecology would also mean politics of environmental protection, which would override all military strategies and business priorities and profits. Alas, we are far from that goal.

Environmental Protection Agency

However, one can safely speak of an ecological lipstick named Environmental Protection Agency. The Republican President Richard Nixon founded EPA in December 1970. Despite the wars and war politics of the 1970s, EPA did some good during its baby tears. It tried to protect the health of Americans and nature from industrial toxins. It published important reports, which warned of the dangers of DDT and DDT-like chemicals. It banned DDT in 1972 and other similar organochlorine compounds in the 1970s.

The Republican President Ronald Reagan’s accession to power in 1981, however, ended the good works and idealism of EPA. The Reagan men and women made EPA a business department, the result of which is an EPA that has been doing just about everything on the basis of dollars and cents. It nearly always weighs lives in dollars, including the costs of protecting people and the natural world from pollution. These costs are compared to the benefits of doing nothing and allow pollution to injure and kill humans and wildlife. EPA does not reveal that the real purpose of the “benefits assessment” is about the benefits of unregulated pollution flowing to industrialized farmers, businessmen and manufacturers.

In other words, spraying crops, fruits and vegetables with nerve poisons and cancer-causing chemical pesticides is certain to kill or harm farm workers and, eventually, kill or give deadly chronic diseases to millions of Americans eating sprayed food. That deadly consequence, however unconscionable and barbaric, brings benefits to large farmers and chemical merchants.

The tragedy of this national crime is that it is invisible for the simple reason that the government-industrial-public health-academic-media complex has brained washed Americans that pesticides are practically harmless. This is not a conspiracy theory. Read my EPA book, Poison Spring. As for the immediate victims, farm workers, there’s practically no concern about their safety because farm workers have almost zero political support in the United States.

EPA is not different than other bureaucracies. It works silently, assuring few people know what it does. For example, despite extensive evidence of systemic pesticide industry fraud, EPA allows pesticide companies to test their own chemicals. Inevitably, this corruption leads the industry to have a final say on what EPA does. Their chemicals are approved through the influence of the President’s political appointees at EPA. In addition, Congressional politicians are largely funded by the petrochemical industry.

The other corrupt spiral supporting polluters is often the regulation itself. In the case of farm workers, regulations forbid them to enter sprayed vineyards before “all sprays have dried, dusts have settled, and vapors have dispersed.” Then polluters and regulators can argue that pesticides have not been shown to be human carcinogens. In addition, farm workers themselves are supposed to wear protective clothing. These “scientific” arguments are infected with the forbidden logic and uncertainties of science that only the most intimate insiders can show them to be fraudulent.

I was one of those intimate insiders. That’s why I said to the skeptics to read my book, Poison Spring. After I retired from EPA, I wrote Poison Spring, in which I documented the corruption that keeps pesticides flowing year round to farmers, landscapers, homeowners, and those managing golf courses, gardens, parks, schools, cities, etc. These synthetic petrochemical poisons harm ecosystems and humans alike. This violence has been undermining and, possibly, destroying the future of human beings and that of the land that gives us food.

Insects are nature

Insects, against which farmers are continuously upgrading their armory, are absolutely essential in the workings of nature. In fact they are nature, making up some 75 percent of all life in the world.

I concluded early on that the cultural machinery of exterminating insects with synthetic poisons is a concrete expression of cultural madness. It follows that the panoply of science, scientists, government regulators and money serve only to legitimize that madness. However, there is a kind of logic to that cultural warfare on the land – the logic of profits.

Writing in 2005, Professor of entomology David Pimentel of Cornell University, said: “Worldwide, about 3 billion kg of pesticides [pesticide active ingredients] is applied each year with a purchase price of nearly $40 billion [per] year). In the USA, approximately 500 million kg of more than 600 different pesticide types are applied annually at a cost of $10 billion. Despite the widespread application of pesticides in the United States at recommended dosages, pests (insects, plant pathogens, and weeds) destroy 37% of all potential crops. Insects destroy 13%, plant pathogens 12%, and weeds 12%.” By 2023, the potential profits from pesticides in this country may well exceed $ 40 billion per year.

The power of the industrialists overwhelms the government and the scientific establishment so much that both are serving the insidious purpose of spraying people and insects with the same cold indifference. The price for this immoral policy is extremely high: The overwhelming majority of American citizens, removed from the land and the raising of food, are victims of deception where what they hear about pesticides has the appearance but not the substance of truth.

For example, EPA documented the ecological harm of DDT. In the 1950s and 1960s, spraying DDT to marshes and tidelands killed many billions of fish and aquatic invertebrates, including fish eating birds like the eagle. DDT-like sprays like dieldrin and heptachlor killed about 80 percent of songbirds, wiping out some game birds while decimating wild mammals. Just the runoff of cotton insecticides, said an EPA report, “caused staggering losses of fish.” It boggles the mind to think of so massive a “potential” loss we put up with year after year in complete ignorance and or indifference.

The responsibility for this ecological crime comes out of a political culture that, increasingly, looks and sounds like the violent world of George Orwell: Two plus two equals five. In the same way, the very existence of industrial one-crop farming, that lives or dies on toxic sprays, is a negation of science and a rejection of eons-worth and eons-tested agrarian wisdom.

Ecology is us

Some of my EPA colleagues challenged the violence against nature. For example, a few of them working out of Dallas, Texas, reported on the ecological and human impacts of policies in Region 6 – a huge geographical area in South Central United States covering Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In their November 1990 Region 6 Comparative Risk Project: Overview Report, they reached these conclusions:

“All ecological threats are ultimately threats to human health. Man depends upon a predictable global ecology for air quality, water, food, shelter, and medicines. Ecological problems such as loss of terrestrial and wetland habitats result in species extinction and overall loss of biological diversity. Humans depend upon a diverse plant and animal gene-pool for food production. If genetic diversity is diminished, adaption to changing environments will decrease as will resistance to diseases, pests, and the elements. The end result will be fewer and less productive varieties of food and fiber crops. The net effect of decreasing diversity in ecosystems is an unstable system.

“Ecological problems in Region 6 with far reaching human health and economic impacts include threatened elimination of an underground water supply in the high Plains ecoregion (Ogallala Aquifer), elimination of wetlands in Louisiana, and the additive discharges of chemicals to surface water from agriculture (nitrogen, phosphates, pesticides, and animal waste), industrial discharges (organic and non-organics), and urban runoff (organics, sewage, pesticides).

“Although humans are one species among thousands, they are the only species that can chemically and biologically alter the planet. Human activity has changed the course of evolution through agricultural and industrial technology; we must begin to understand that, ecologically, humans have a responsibility to preserve the earth’s life if but to protect human life. We have not demonstrated the knowledge, wisdom, or compassion to accept this role.”

This advice is timeless. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama had an opportunity to end this deadly practice of extracting oil from the depths of the sea, especially from the Gulf of Mexico often devastated by oil spills. They should have convinced Americans to “preserve the earth’s life if but to protect human life.” But neither Carter, nor Clinton, nor Obama nor Biden, nor Republican presidents Bush and Trump took human and environmental health seriously. Despite climate emergency, business as usual is the king. Science is telling us that business as usual (of burning fossil fuels) has been boosting climate change, which is causing chaos among wildlife and humans.

The fate of the dinosaur-era sturgeon

One of the species that business as usual has pushed to the verge of extinction is the sturgeon. In 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warned that the sturgeon faces a dire future if any. It said: “The latest global assessment conducted by the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group… classified all 27 species that compose the order of Acipenseriformes [sturgeons] as Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. This has earned the Sturgeons the undesirable title of the animal group most at risk of extinction in the world.”

The tragedy of sturgeons demonstrates the abysmal illiteracy and cruelty of commercial fishing and shipping and government agencies. This fish survived the cataclysm that wiped the dinosaurs. But now sturgeons face the real enemy, the human business, and bureaucratic dinosaurs.

The eggs of the sturgeon, caviar, almost did the sturgeon in. According to a lengthy and timely report by the New York Times, “In 1900, a barrel of crude sold for $1.19, a keg of caviar for $100. It was a wildly unsustainable trade… In 1870, fishermen were hauling an average of 65 sturgeon from every seine. By 1899, the average was down to eight. A decade later… [another article by the New York Times concluded that] the total extinction of the sturgeon is inevitable unless the fishing shall cease for a period of years.”

Agency corruption also dooms good science and species survival. Craig Johnson, who like me, worked for the federal government, has a cautionary tale about how bureaucrats fail to protect the endangered sturgeon. He worked for the two federal agencies managing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Despite what the statute says,” he told the New York Times reporter, “the goal within both services is to always produce a no-jeopardy opinion… It’s an open secret that consultations [between agencies] often have pretty intense political pressure to produce very specific outcomes,” Johnson says. “Agency doctrine is: If you write a jeopardy opinion, you have put your career at risk; you put the agency at risk.”

That’s precisely what I said in Poison Spring about decisions within the EPA. The same corruption. The same bosses. And who really is fighting on behalf of the sturgeons or honeybees or the rest of wildlife? Ecology is important and, like my EPA colleagues said in 1990, ecology is us.

I painted this grim picture because that’s the way it is. In my 25 years at EPA, I witnessed unbelievable cruelty or perhaps political and bureaucratic confusion of what is important in life. Good, wholesome food grown on the basis of traditional knowledge and the science of ecology or food produced by giant factories in the field? Allowing sturgeons to thrive as they have dome for most of their millions of years of existence or kill them as fast as we can so we can go on overfishing them and dredging rivers for more ships?

Political ecology

There’s a gap between ecocidal civilization, the civilization of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and ecology as a science and way of life. I spoke briefly about my ecological vision. The science of ecology, even agroecology, exist but barely. It follows the model of other sciences in cutting up nature to tiny pieces. Agroecology is bolder and talks of ecosystems and the right way of raising food in balance with the natural world. So, agroecology is the only ecology path that, potentially, can bring about political ecology.

These critical ideas don’t seem to excite many scientists. Yet two French social scientists, Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz, wrote a brief book about the prospects of ecology becoming political. Their book has the interesting and provocative title, On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo (Polity, 2022). This is an insightful and timely political “memo” addressed to all sensitive humans, urging them to transform ecology into an ecological class. They say ecology “is both everywhere and nowhere.” They want political ecology, however, to define itself and “identify by itself and for itself the new sources of injustice it has spotted and the new battlefronts it has discovered.” In other words, Latour and Schultz want political ecology to follow on the path of liberalism or socialism or other movements and become a defining force at a time of climate emergency. They say protecting nature (fighting climate change, species extinction, and saving biodiversity) intensifies conflict. Nevertheless, the confrontations between political ecologists and destroyers of nature have not “taken the form of a general mobilization” resembling the struggles triggered by the rise of liberalism or socialism.

True, there are countless environmental / ecological organizations caring for the integrity of nature, each one of them, however, fighting tiny battles alone. We can probably talk or “recognize a generalized state of war … [yet] it’s hard to draw up clear fronts between friends and enemies.” This is because ecological consciousness, much less ecological class struggles barely exist. “Political ecology,” they say, “remains the name of a war zone.”

True, we have a long way to go. Political ecology is still mostly theory in America, not action. Americans in the twenty-first century mirror legacies of nearly permanent war, monotheism, colonialism, slavery, overpopulation, extreme disparities between the few billionaires, the rich, the declining middle class, and the many poor. As if these maladies were not enough, war and oligarchies nearly destroyed democracy and fashioned industrialized farming, thus creating apolitical populations in large cities. These city folk were divorced from the land and the natural world. It happened, however, that these city people were educated and trained in industrialization. Under the guidance of the billionaire class, they run the world. The idea of ecology remains alien to them.

These forces also shaped the authors of On the Emergence of an Ecological Class. Read their memo book. They address the emergency of why we must allow political ecology to thrive, if not in the Marxist model but, at least, in the paradigm of agroecology. This new science and politics unites traditional agrarian knowledge and wisdom with ecological science. This way we have the synthesis or the best of the old and the new, merging and healing cultures and liberating the power of ancient traditions in guiding us to defeat the climate dragon in the room.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.