This was Joel Kovel’s Keynote Address at the International Ecosocialist Conference Quito, Ecuador, June 2013. Kovel is author of The Enemy of Nature: The end of captalism or the end of the world? (Zed Books, 2007)
by Joel Kovel
We live in an epoch of radical crisis. From the economic side, we see intractable stagnation and vicious class polarization. And from another side, which I shall call the ecological, we find that the dominant system of production appears hell-bent on destroying the natural foundations of civilization as it thrashes about in response to economic difficulties. Generally speaking, the two aspects are treated separately from each other. I would argue, rather, that they are faces of a much deeper crisis, an estrangement from nature stemming back to the origins of civilization, which has now reached global proportions and appears to be on a trajectory headed toward a Dark Age such as has never been known before and that could even foreshadow our possible extinction as a species.
Needless to say, a great deal of attention has been paid to various aspects of these matters. However, virtually all of it misses the fundamental unity arising from our relationship to nature itself. Make no mistake, there is plenty to be studied in the complexities that exist in different countries and zones of the planet, in the relations between North and South, or empires and the imperialized, or in distinct problems of energy, agriculture, water, climate change, toxic pollution, technology, and so forth. The subject matter is inexhaustible. All of these problems are important, indeed, essential to solve if we are to have a worthwhile future. Some will be brought forth here to exemplify a point; a goodly number will be debated in this conference; and any real solution to our predicament must engage them. Yet they must be bracketed for now while we attend to the deeper currents that agitate our troubled times. Thus my argument sets aside the prevailing focus on what can be called the “environment,” that is, the world as viewed outside of us, as “inputs,” “resources,” in other words, as analytically separable substances and mechanisms. It is, as stated above, essentially “ecological” in character, where Ecology connotes the connection between elements of nature—organized, as we would also say, into “ecosystems,” the coming into being of the structures of nature itself. As we are part of nature, so do the “connections” connect us as well in ecosystems. Thus the ecological crisis ought to be seen in existential terms as well as those of physical inputs. Yet because we are also alienated from nature and see it primarily in environmental terms this does not happen—a fatal rupture the overcoming of which is a prime goal of radical eco-politics.
Two focal points configure this talk. The first denotes the structure of the world as it is, hurtling toward the abyss; the second concerns the world as I would have us struggle to bring about. The word, capitalism widely serves for the first point. We know it only too well, and yet scarcely at all, even though capital is what Marx called the “all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” surrounding and penetrating our lives from every angle Grundrisse . The second I would have us call ecosocialism. It is a word that does not appear so far as I know in any established dictionary, while those who are concerned with its development are scattered loosely across the world.