Richard Levins: Cuba, Ecology and the Need for a Dialectical Approach

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[Quotes and Insights #3]

The January 2008 issue of Monthly Review includes a short memoir by Richard Levins, co-author with Richard Lewontin of the wonderful book The Dialectical Biologist.

In the MR piece, Levins discusses the long arc of his career as a scientist who was also a dedicated activist and Marxist. On the cover, Monthly Review titles his essay “On Being a Scientist and a Red,” which is an accurate description of the essay. Inside, Levin himself uses the equally accurate but more evocative title “Living the 11th Thesis,” a reference to Marx’s famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world. The point however, is to change it.”

The entire article (like Monthly Review itself month after month) is well worth reading. The following two excerpts are just to whet your appetite. These are insights that need to be understood by every partisan of ecosocialism.

* * *

“I first went to Cuba in 1964 to help develop their population genetics and get a look at the Cuban Revolution. Over the years I became in­volved in the ongoing Cuban struggle for ecological agriculture and an ecological pathway of economic development that was just, egalitarian, and sustainable.

“Progressivist thinking, so powerful in the socialist tradition, expected that developing countries had to catch up with advanced countries along the single pathway of modernization. It dismissed critics of the high-tech pathway of industrial agriculture as “idealists,” urban sentimentalists nostalgic for a bucolic rural golden age that never really existed. But there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency.

“This discussion raged in Cuba in the 1970s and by the 1980s the ecological model had basically won although implementation was still a long process. The Special Period, that time of economic crisis af­ter the collapse of the Soviet Union when the materials for high-tech became unavailable, allowed ecologists by conviction to recruit the ecologists by necessity. This was possible only because the ecologists by conviction had prepared the way.”

* * *

“The resurgence of infectious disease is but one manifestation of a more general crisis: the eco-social distress syndrome—the pervasive multilevel crisis of dysfunctional relations within our species and between it and the rest of nature. …

“The complexity of this whole world syndrome can be overwhelming, and yet to evade the complexity by taking the system apart to treat the problems one at a time can produce disasters. The great failings of scientific technology have come from posing problems in too small a way. Agricultural scientists who proposed the Green Revolution without taking pest evolution and insect ecology into ac­count, and therefore expecting pesticides would control pests, have been surprised that pest problems increased with spraying. Similarly, antibiotics create new pathogens, economic development creates hunger, and flood control promotes floods. Problems have to be solved in their rich complexity; the study of complexity itself becomes an urgent practical as well as theoretical problem.”