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The Concept of Environmentalism: Review of Studies Essay

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Updated: Oct 17th, 2020


Within the modern environment of industrialization and globalization that expanded the barriers of what was possible before, the concept of environmentalism (or eco-consciousness) has become more prominent. Despite the fact that many associates the term with reusable products such as plastic bags and the utilization of energy-efficient light bulbs, real environmentalism do not place nature in the position above people. Essentially, environmentalism is about preserving and conserving nature, keeping it as untouched as it used to be two thousand years ago. However, the destruction of the nature that took place during the last millennium cannot be turned back; therefore, all the current global society can do is preserve what is left.

Scholars from around the globe were trying to explore the damage globalization caused to nature and identify specific efforts that could be targeted at resolving the current issues and promoting the concept of environmentalism in the political and social lives of the worldwide community. The key four authors that expressed their views on environmentalism and fought against the status quo chosen for the analysis are Vandana Shiva, David Harvey, Nicole Shukin, and Anna Tsing. Each of them studied environmentalism within a different context, which will allow for an extensive analysis of their work.

Review of Research

Vandana Shiva and Earth Democracy

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned ecologist and physicist who dedicated her research to the protection of women’s and farmers’ rights. In her academic writing, Shiva strongly pointed out at the economic and ecological crises of modern times, their origins, and a way for achieving a sustainable and democratic future for the global societies. In her article “Earth Democracy: Beyond Dead Democracy and Killing economies,” Shiva stated that the will of people is no longer relevant when it comes to the considerations of economic growth or political affairs. As a positive example, Shiva mentioned Canada as one of the few countries committed to global justice and environmental sustainability.

The key idea of her article revolved around large corporations taking over natural resources as if they had a monopoly on them. She stated that the modern life is a “manufacture […] an invention; therefore, life is the monopoly of companies, and companies can now collect rents from life itself” (Shiva, “Earth Democracy: Beyond Dead Democracy and Killing Economies” 85). In her opinion, the biodiversity of the planet subsequently turned into property, and large corporations are collecting natural resources as if they were collecting rent. The concept of patenting in life was also broadly discussed in Shiva’s writing. Patenting on life may be considered one of the most unethical and disturbing actions large corporations ever undertook. For example, companies began to patent crops so that those planting them independently had to pay a significant fee. This can be considered as the privatization of natural resources, which should not be limited or controlled in any way.

Large corporations deciding to patent crops were predominantly targeting farmers that would be forced to pay fees in order to survive. This led to “farmer suicide on an epidemic scale” (Shiva, “Earth Democracy: Beyond Dead Democracy and Killing Economies” 87). Essentially, that was the plan and logic behind corporations patenting crops – there should be no small and independent farmers that grow organic products. This was supported by the illusion that industrial manufacturing can produce more food and, subsequently, benefit the economy, but in reality, it can’t. In reality, all that was left from industrialization was a “selfish man over-utilizing the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever-increasing needs” (Shiva, “Earth Democracy: Beyond Dead Democracy and Killing Economies” 95). Despite the fact that the planet can provide everyone with enough resources for life, the greed of large corporations is what destroys the natural resources and turns into ‘cancer’ of the societies.

In “Earth Democracy: Creating Living Economies, Living Democracies, Living Cultures,” continued to explore the devastating effects of nature’s privatization and assessed the concept of globalization as similar to terrorism. While for some, equating globalization to terrorism may seem a far stretch, Shiva went to great effort to explain her position and show how globalization does not support environmental sustainability, nor does it care about true economic prosperity. Globalization was equated to terrorism due to the devastation of vital resources such as water, food, and biodiversity. The author contested that in this sense, globalization could be considered not only genocidal but also suicidal (Shiva, “Earth Democracy: Creating Living Economies, Living Democracies, Living Cultures” 5).

The key idea of the article was that globalization was going against the poor, excluding and alienating societies in order to establish a climate of fear and demolish economic and ecological freedom. However, Shiva’s argument did not only persist on the criticism of the globalization policies since she offered an effective solution to the problem of the devastation of the biodiversity and the exhaustion of the natural resources. The proposed solution was ethical globalization, which should be grounded in the concern for all lives, participation in the preservation of cultural, social, and economic integrity, as well as the policies of compassion and caring.

Ethical globalization, in Shiva’s opinion, will facilitate the emergence of Earth’s democracy that will ensure the support of living cultures, democracies, and economies (“Earth Democracy: Creating Living Economies, Living Democracies, Living Cultures” 9). Again, apart from extensively criticizing the actions of the major political and economic players, Shiva offered a list of recommendations as to how Earth Democracy could be achieved. Among the advice were the protection of all species’ rights, defense of the cultural and biological diversity, promotion of sustainability, conservation of earth’s resources, etc. Overall, in her writing, Shiva strongly advocated for preserving what nature gives to people and the abandonment of the ‘terrorist’ ideas to globalize and privatize what belongs to every person and every animal on the planet.

Harvey’s Imperialism, Capital, and Nature

The main idea Harvey wanted to convey in his writing was the abuse of nature by humans because of the perception that the earth’s resources are a commonality. With respect to this, Harvey aimed to challenge the status quo and provide an ecological perspective for interpreting socialist politics (The Ways of the World 162). In chapters 7 and 9 from The Ways of the World, the author explored the value of money within the modern capitalist society, questioned whether money could be substituted for other ways of expressing value, discussed the contradictions surrounding global capitalism, and provided commentary on the idea of ‘new imperialism.’ In Harvey’s writing, the concepts of capital and nature are not opposed to each other in any way; this, in turn, sparks a discussion about environmental values, a moral community, and the rapid pace of technological domination over the natural values.

One of the most interesting insights Harvey gave in his wiring was the understanding of the shifting global dynamics of capital accumulation through the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession” (The Ways of the World 270). This term began to gain extensive recognition in many global capitalist economies, especially in those where the predatory practices on land ownership and housing were of great popularity. In Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Harvey further explored the capital’s relation to nature and asserted that capital had been successfully used for dealing with ecological problems (246).

Despite the fact that the popular opinion is that nature and capital are two separate entities, Harvey contested that they were in constant interactions with each other, and there was nothing suggesting that one should completely dominate over the other. According to him, capital is a “working and evolving ecological system” (Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism 245), in which nature and capital are constantly growing and developing. Furthermore, the author put forward an argument that capital reshaped the nature of environmental problems in such a way that they became key sources for big businesses (for example, environmental solutions and technologies), so nature acquired some qualities of an accumulation strategy. This may subsequently lead to the circulation and accumulation of capital in the environment of spreading ecological issues. Therefore, despite the fact that capital has a full potential to resolve environmental problems and facilitate the preservation of nature, human greed, and the desire for wealth chose money over environmental integrity.

Anna Tsing’s Matsutake

In her book Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing explored the most unexpected places where capitalism manages to prevail by studying the unique nature of the Matsutake mushroom, one of the most sought for and valuable fungi on the planet. In Part 1, “What’s Left,” she explained how capitalism and industrial transformation deeply damaged the precious landscapes and took away the hope of restoring the ‘mother nature’ to its past glory. She contested that with the advent of modern capitalism, the diverse ecologies and landscapes began to be destroyed for the sake of technological progress (Tsing 19).

Tsing also explored the concept of contamination, which drastically changed the world from what it used to be. However, the author offered to equate contamination to collaboration, which may lead to the evolution of the society as well as its diversification. By providing an example of Oregon’s national forests’ devastation, Tsing explored how the efforts to preserve the forest consequently turned into efforts to capitalize the natural resources. The qualities of the Matsutake mushroom (the ability to nurture trees even in the most heavily devastated forests) became invaluable to the forest services that wanted to capitalize on the fungi and acquire gain from it. Overall, the ideas presented in Mushroom at the End of the World turned out to be an in-depth examination of the connections between the capitalist destruction and devastation of the natural resources and the ‘collaborative survival,’ a prerequisite to continuing the life of nature on this planet.

Shukin’s Animal Capital

While the research of the three scientists explored above examined the relationship between capital and nature in broad terms, Nicole Shukin went farther to challenge the philosophical idealism and examine how animal life and the politics of capital collided with one another within the environment of modern market cultures. The relationship between capital and the animal resources available on the planet has long been a subject of a heated environmentalist debate that seems never to come to an end. In her research, Dr. Shukin aimed to discuss the process of “rendering,” which referred to the cultural phenomena and economic principles of the carnal business that recycled animal remains. The discrepancy in the logic of boiling down the animal resources was critical for evaluation and tracking of Shukin’s research since, in her opinion, animals should not have become “forms of capital” (7). As Harvey discussed the interdependence between capital and nature, Shukin explored the historical predicament of the connections between capital and animals as pivotal to the analysis of biopower.

In her exploration of animal capital, Shukin put forward a notion of zoo politics, which implied an inescapable adjacency between the politics of human social life and the politics of animality (Shukin 9). The author’s work has taken a strong trajectory towards criticizing zoo politics and challenging the already established assumption that only the human ‘social flesh’ is at stake in the logics of biopower. Shukin further explored the violent nature with which animals were treated as experimental subjects to testing. Through providing an example of 28 Days Later, a popular thriller movie, Shukin, also examined the trope of mobility, a threat to the social flesh of a globally connected life world (Shukin 182). The technological efforts to somehow secure the human health through abusing the animal life were also widely criticized in Shukin’s writing, contributing to the argument of animal capital being subjected to various sorts of an experiment for the sake of the prosperity of the human ‘social flesh.’

Research Question

The analysis of the key ideas presented by Shukin, Shiva, Harvey, and Tsing has shown that there is a strong connection between capital and earth’s resources, which points at the need to further exploring their interdependence in the context of the social and political theory. While these key authors explored in the analysis discussed the processes that surround the global social and political environment with regards to issues such as globalization or climate change, there was a lack of research as to the reasons for humans wanting to dominate over nature and capitalize all resources that can bring some gain (for example, crop patenting). Therefore, a research question developed for further study will be “What are the implications for the human’s social and political domination over nature and how the efforts to capitalize natural resources could be diminished?

While the research question was formed on the basis of the analyzed materials that explored the notions of globalization, animal capital, Earth Democracy, accumulation, and climate change, it is also associated with Bookchin’s idea that the desire of humans to dominate over nature stemmed from the desire of some humans dominate over others (qtd. in Eckersley 148). Furthermore, the ideas of humans’ domination over nature were also raised by the philosopher Francis Bacon who supported experimentation and scientific progress in order to take advantage of what the Earth had to offer. It is important to explore the desire to control the natural resources to the fullest extent since the established social and political practices significantly contributed to the ideas of globalization and capitalization.

While some may regard the exploration of human’s desire to dominate over nature as a question for historians, the ideology of domination should be analyzed within the context of political and social practices since culture can be considered human’s second nature. Furthermore, the research question should predominantly focus on the analysis of the Western cultures since the bulk of technological progress and the move towards globalization occurred predominantly in Western societies (Pattberg 2). It will also be important to discuss the impact the Western societies had on the rest of the world in terms of industrialization and globalization practices since the rise of capitalism further manifested itself even in the most remote locations such as Siberia. The patterns of nature’s devastation should also be examined when it comes to the exploration of domination practices since the advent of the Western financial systems caused the increased spreading of various resource devastation activities such as mining and deforestation that had an adverse effect on the environment.

Apart from exploring the social and political practices that directly impact the integrity of earth’s resources and the demolition of the ecosystems, discussing the forms of human domination over nature (e.g. genetic engineering, construction of dams, fire control practices) will also be a fruitful area for research. Such forms of human domination over nature should be explored within the context of social and political theory since the efforts to somehow influence the natural flow of events stem directly from the desire of the society to have a certain level of security and control over the events that may not be controlled to the fullest extent. Moreover, it will be interesting to incorporate Shukin’s ‘animal capital’ argument into research since it directly relates to the efforts to capitalize on natural resources and use them to the advantage of society.

While globalization is one of the key facilitators of progress and technological advancements, such environmental issues as pollution, global warming, overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity should become main reasons for why the society should rethink its views on globalization and start taking the emerging environmental issues seriously. As mentioned by Shiva, globalization became to be associated with environmental terrorism that devastates natural resources and does not allow some layers of the society to use the resources to which they have a right. Therefore, the hypothesis that human beings have a desire to dominate nature because of the desire to dominate over other less powerful humans may be true.

The proposed research question is especially relevant within the context of the modern political and social environment since the desire of some cultures to dominate nature and capitalize on natural resources is still prevalent, for example, patenting of crops. It can be asserted that those cultures that have a desire to dominate nature also present themselves as those superior to others, once again supporting Bookchin’s hypothesis. Lastly, it will also be important to incorporate the notion of capital into the discussion about human domination over nature since it was concluded that capital has the capability to resolve the arising environmental issues but chooses to exploit biodiversity for monetary gain. Overall, the proposed question take have a variety of directions for exploration since the issue of men exhausting nature has already been extensively researched by scientists. The summary of the scientific research conducted by Shiva, Harvey, Shukin, and Tsing will provide a background for the proposed question since each of them explored the broad context of environmentalism from different angles.

Works Cited

Eckersley, Robyn. Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach. Suny Press, 1992.

Harvey, David. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Profile Books, 2014.

The Ways of the World. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Pattberg, Philipp. “Conquest, Domination, and Control: Europe’s Mastery of Nature in Historic Perspective”. Journal of Political Ecology, vol. 14, 2007, pp. 1-9.

Shiva, Vandana. “Earth Democracy: Beyond Dead Democracy and Killing Economies.” Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 83-95.

“Earth Democracy: Creating Living Economies, Living Democracies, Living Cultures.” South Asian Popular Culture, vol. 2, no.1, Spring 2004, pp. 5-18.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Posthumanities). University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.

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