Ecosocial ismUtopian and Scientific
One of the most urgent intellectual tasks of our time is to
understand the implications of ecology for social and political
theory. Given that environmental degradation is increasingly
undermining the biological (and in some ways the psychological)
basis of human social life, it is evident that no social theory can
now proceed ignoring or abstracting from the natural conditions
of its existence and reproduction. It is a fortiori the case that socialist theory and practice can ignore neither the relationship
between ecological devastation and the deteriorating quality of
human life, nor, more particularly, its incidence – how it hits
hardest at those who already suffer the greatest economic exploitation. Now more than ever, the exploitation of nature goes hand
in hand with the exploitation of humans.
These ineluctable facts of life (and death) have been appreciated for some time, but in much of the literature of social and
political ecology more or less correct intuitions have not always
been brought under adequate concepts, and resistance to ecological
thinking has in consequence often been rendered too easy. I
Whereas those publications which first drew the attention of a
wide public to the adverse environmental’ side-effects’ of industrial
production were based on well-researched evidence, 2 the boom of
non-scientific ecology works which followed in their wake, and
accompanied the birth of the green movements, tended to jump
too quickly from warnings of environmental crisis to political and
philosophical conclusions, with the result that they ended up
oscillating between catastrophism and utopianism. 3
It is not my purpose here either to criticise or to defend the
whole spectrum of ‘green’ thinking, though it is high time (and
time is pressing) that its proponents recognize that it does not
suffice to proclaim its radical ‘newness’, or simply to state what
they are ‘for’ and ‘against’, without subjecting the coherence of
the whole to any test of logic or reality.4 The specific concern of
this paper is to argue that if ‘ecological politics’ is to be taken
seriously, its proponents, in turn, must take seriously the dominant alternatives (in particular, liberalism and Marxism) – to offer
a determinate critique of what is opposed (which would also be to
keep open the possibility of a self-reflexive learning process).
In order to show that ecological politics has at least a prima
facie claim to be taken seriously, and to situate my argument, it
may be useful to begin by referring to three basic lines of criticism
directed against the introduction of ‘ecology’ into social and
political thought. Firstly, that of ecological scientists who maintain that the extension of ecology into the social world is simply
illegitimate. 5 Secondly, the objection of those who, for economic,
political or ideological reasons, seek to minimize the threat posed
by industrial growth, and argue that the social world is immune to
ecological constraints because for any ecological threat there is
the possibility of a ‘technological fix’ . Whilst the latter view is by
no means confined to the Right, we may say, for simplicity’s sake,
that the specific objection of the Left is different – namely, that
ecologism is simply a middle-class ideology.
Now as regards the objection of the ecological scientists,
insofar as they mean that the social world cannot be reduced to
biochemical interchanges, energy flows, etc., I am sure they are
right, and the point is work making against those who go in for
‘eco-systems theory’ – ecology as a Leitwissenschaft or ‘integrative science’ – and other kinds of rhetorical closure of the
nature-society dualism. 6 Nevertheless, given that energy flows
and biological processes do constitute the material basis of any
society, ecology does enter the social world. So, whilst the
description of ecological and thermodynamic limits is a matter
appropriately dealt with by natural scientists, nevertheless their
significance as limits – limits to which humans must respond can only be fully grasped when considered in relation to human
ends. Insofar as the environment is not simply ‘nature out there’ ,
but the environment ofhuman society, a task for social thought is
to grasp social practices (symbolic and productive) in relation to
their conditions of production (,natural nature’, ‘human nature’,
and ‘humanized nature’).
The recognition that ecological limits are not even in principle
simply a technical problem informs a reply to the second objection, that of the ‘technical fix’ advocates. Nature may, as they
suppose, be almost infinitely malleable, but it nevertheless presents
definitive limits to the extent it can be ‘humanized’.7
So just as ecology conditions, but does not completely determine the social, so ecological social philosophy must be informed, but not determined, by physical and biological sciences.
This is a basic premise of a recent book by Keekok Lee (1989).
The present article is in good part a critique of her book, but as
regards her starting-point I am in agreement with her, and in the
first section of this paper I review her argument that it makes sense
to talk about ‘ecological scarcity’; and that this implies the need
for a radical criticism of the assumption of political economists
and liberal philosophers that scarcity is merely a relative problem.
Still, whilst granting that it is appropriate and necessary to talk
about ecological scarcity, it would be a serious mistake to deny the
problem of relative scarcity altogether. If it is true, as Commoner
says, that’ there’s no such thing as a free lunch in nature’ , this does
not alter the fact that there are some who are eating on cheap credit
and others who are not eating at all.
Although Lee is aware of this problem, I find her account of
ecological social justice unsatisfactory for a number of reasons
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
and, in section 11, I focus on how her moral argument for the
distributive value ‘to each according to their needs’ systematically fails to reflect on the social conditions required for its
actualisation. Despite her sweeping critique of the ‘premise of
abundance’ underlying liberal philosophy, she leaves unquestioned a host of its other assumptions. This brings us to the
question of ‘ecology as ideology’ in the sense of the third
objection noted above. When political ecology was still relatively
novel, many socialists saw it as an essentially middle-class
phenomenon, as indifferent or hostile to the interests of the
working class, and hence as a secondary issue. 8 However, it now
seems to be widely recognised that to give exclusive attention to
the plight of the working class in the rich portion of the world is
no less at odds with the aim of an international socialism than with
that of environmentalism. 9
From the side of the greens, on the other hand, I think it is also
possible to identify a gradual abandonment of hostility or diffidence towards socialism. This process is at different stages in
different countries, but looked at from a trans-national perspective the convergence between ecology and socialism seems to be
a concrete trend. JO In the West, at least, this convergence has so far
been very much oriented to the themes of utopian socialism. Whilst
this trend may be quite welcome inasmuch as it seeks to restore
socialism to its historical and ethical roots, unfortunately it also
frequently leads to an uncritical rejection of Marx. So without
denying the usefulness of utopia as a kind of ‘regulative idea’ in
the development of ecosocialist theory and practice – for it is
surely necessary as part of a politics whose aim is to bring our
human future under human control – it is nevertheless clearly
insufficient. II In the third section I argue against this contemporary tendency in ecosocialist thought that Marx and Engels’
critique of utopian socialism is still pertinent – a consideration
based on the view (to be developed elsewhere) that a theory of
politics and society which is both ecological and socialist can and
must benefit, on both counts, from certain non-renouncable
insights of the Marxist tradition.
if the logical derivation of an ‘ought’· from an ‘is’ constitutes a
fallacy, this does not mean that norms cannot be justified
(‘epistemically implied’) by reference to facts about the world. In
any case, observes Lee, if we look at real-life moral disputes rather
than the artificially constructed, counterfactual and counterintuitive
situations which typify so much of analytic moral philosophy,
then we see that disputants do very often crucially differ about
matters of fact. So, as she states in her preface:
Through our understanding of how living processes interact with non-living (physical/chemical) processes in the
biosphere, we can begin to work out new conceptions of
what the good society and the good life amount to. In other
words, we will be able to answer afresh, hopefully, more
rationally and adequately, the perennial central questions
of social philosophy (p. x).
Her account of the basic concepts and philosophical implications
of the science of ecology is brief and to the point. This is in
Social Philosophy and Ecological Scarcity
Lee offers a clear and direct account of how ecological science
and the principles of thermodynamics have a bearing on the
sphere of practical philosophy; she seeks to meet mainstream
Anglo-Saxon social and moral philosophy on its own terms to
show why ecology, and ecological socialism, must be taken
seriously. (She also has some things to say about Marxism, but I
will consider these separately in section III below.)
Lee’s central message is that no society is sustainable in the
long term (and now perhaps not in a much shorter term either) if
it persists in practices inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics and the principles of ecology – that is, as ifimmune to the limits
they pose. For the same reason any social theory which abstracts
from these essential limits must be condemned and rejected as
‘fantastic’. In particular, she regards as ‘fantastic’ all those social
philosophies premised on a notion of progress which assumes the
possibility and desirability of unlimited economic growth. Such
philosophies embody ‘ecologically insensitive values’, and so
must forfeit any claim to enlighten us as to the nature of the good
life or social justice under existing conditions.
By contrast, ‘ecologically sensitive values’ – Lee’s organising
concept – can be comprehended in terms of a hierarchy of more
and less fundamental needs – needs both of humans and of the rest
of the natural world. Such values can be established rationally,
even if fallibly, without committing the ‘naturalistic fallacy’; for
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
keeping with her aim of ‘constructing the outline of a social
philosophy, which is in accordance with a proper understanding
of the biophysical foundation of life’ (p. xii, my emphasis). That
is to say, she is not seeking, as some authors do, to derive ethical
imperatives from ecological studies of nature in a quasi-natural
law manner; she is rather seeking an understanding of human
practices which is consistent with what we know about the ecological constraints on them. 12 In fact, the burden of her argument
depends more directly on the laws of thermodynamics than on
principles of ecology in the strict sense. 13 It is the second law of
thermodynamics which shows why limits to growth and expansion are not surmountable, even in principle, by any technological
work may be performed but only at a price, the price being
that the amount of available energy for further work in the
future has diminished …. the faster the rate of transformation
by human agents in their productive activities, the greater
the entropy, or the greater the rate at which available
energy for work decreases (pp. 74-75).
As (low entropy) resources are dissipated, the attempt to substitute them involves a greater expenditure of energy and increase of
entropy. There is no technological solution to this, and interim
attempts to find them will simply add to existing problems, like
global wanning. Thus, she says, the second law ofthennodynamics assures us that scarcity is absolute, not merely relative.
Ecological scarcity, then, is the key concept linking the
principles of ecological science and the laws of thennodynamics
with social and political theory. Once the premise of ecological
scarcity is established, Lee argues, the fundamental presuppositions of liberal social and ethical thought are undennined. Her
critique of liberalism centres on the fundamental presupposition
that scarcity is merely a relative and not an absolute problem. 14 It
is this assumption which makes plausible some of the classic
accounts of social justice – paradigmatically, those which appeal
to the’ trickle-down effect’ or the’ invisible hand’ . Such theses are
premised on the possibility of continuing growth and expansion;
but in the light of twentieth-century knowledge and experience
they are revealed to be not only ideological (because redistribution never works out like this), but ‘fantastic’ (because it couldn’t
even in principle).
This means that a realistic theory of social justice cannot
simply be framed in tenns of fonnal rights and freedoms on the
supposition that their ‘content’ will take care of itself. On the one
hand, it is also necessary to enter into account considerations of
concrete needs, and the nature of the ‘good society’. In particular,
an ecosocialist transfonnation would entail a redefinition of the
very concept of wealth, in turn implying a practical transfonnation of the human ‘life-world’ – a revaluation and fostering of
human activities which do not confonn to the logic ofthe market,
cultivating the ‘internal’ wealth of individuals and allowing a
greater emphasis on human relations. On the other hand, as well
as substantive (ecologically sensitive) values, a distributive value
is also necessary. Taking a stand on the principle of equality
means radically rethinking the problem of distributive justice.
Once it is recognised that resources are finite, then the problem of
redistribution can be addressed in two contrasting ways: one
involves transferring wealth from the richer to the poorer – the
‘Robin Hood Principle’. The other is the ‘Matthew Principle’,
which has two sub-varieties:
(i) the benign fonn where it is simply the case that to those
who have, more will be given, to those who have less, less
will be given; (ii) the malign fonn where it is the case that
wealth will be transferred from those with little or less to
those who have more or the most (p. 280).
Historically, Lee points out, especially in the process of industrialisation, the malign fonn of the Matthew Principle has played a
major role: in England a striking case being the Enclosure Laws;
on a global scale the role of slavery and colonialism of the past,
which have been transfonned into the economic imperialism of
the present. She notes that, insofar as redistribution according to
the benign fonn of the Matthew Principle can occur, it is only in
conjunction with a specific fonn of politics committed to intervening in the free play of market forces – typically the welfare
state of Western industrialised societies. Without this, the Matthew Principle cannot be benign.
Theorists, who advocate the trickle down theory, are really
advocating a particular type of politics to go with the
growth, which makes it possible to transfer some of the
wealth generated to the worse off. … The trickle down
theory is, in other words, not so much an empirical thesis
about wealth distribution as envisaged by its proponents,
but a nonnative theory which makes sense, and works
only, when it is underpinned by a particular type of
political prescription (pp. 285-86).
Given that nothing resembling such redistributive measures
pertains in fourth-fifths of the world, it is evident that there the
Matthew Principle cannot be benign. Moreover, even when
fonnally benign, the principle can work out in practice to mean
that those who have less may still receive too little, with an
outcome therefore just as tenninal as the malign fonn.15
From the premise of ecological scarcity follows the conclusion that we are ultimately faced with a stark choice between
ecosocialism and ecofascism. 16 For either society can be democratically self-disciplined to work within the limits of ecological
scarcity; or else those limits will divide society from within,
pushing to even further extremes the present relationships of
inequality between those who gain economic benefit from the
exploitation of human resources and those onto whom their costs
are ‘externalised’ (both directly and indirectly through environmental degradation).
The’ limits to growth’ cut not only through individual societies,
but even more deeply into the international division between a
rich North and a poor South. So, as Lee seems to recognise, the
question oflimits to growth (,absolute scarcity’) and the question
of distribution (‘relative scarcity’) are interdependent but distinct
questions. The slogan ‘no growth’, says Lee, is too crude: in
affluent countries ‘there is room not merely for zero growth, but
also for reduced growth …. The resources, thus saved, could be
channelled into growth, which is needed in the poorer parts of the
world’ (p. 360). So, ‘there must be redistribution away from the
rich to the poor’.
Now whilst this is certainly a point worth making against
those liberal theorists who abstract from the facts about the world
which lead to this conclusion, nevertheless, to say that ‘there must
be redistribution’ is merely to state the problem. And it is a
problem which could be stated without the argument from ‘ecological scarcity’. So it clearly does not suffice to criticise the
liberals’ ‘premise of abundance’. Passing an ‘ecologically sensitive’ moral judgement on global inequality is one thing; fonnulating a critique which could provide a platfonn for concrete
political proposals is something more. The development of
ecosocialist politics and economics will presuppose not just a
moral critique of market values, but also an immanent critique of
the institutions which instantiate them. 17 It is around this issue that
I think the strengths and limitations of Lee ‘ s book can be identified.
The argument from ecological scarcity shows that the ecological and social costs of production, which in conventional
economic theory and tis socio-philosophical reflexes are dis-
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
counted as ‘externalities’, can no longer remain external to
theories of social justice. The question is, how do they enter? As
well as articulating criteria for identifying (or redefining) these
‘eco-social’ costs, there must be principles for (a) minimising and
(b) distributing them. Now whereas environmental and ‘pure
green’ political thought concentrates on (or at least strongly
prioritises) the former, Lee recognises that this problem cannot be
taken in isolation from that of distribution; 18 and therefore that the
objectives of ecology and socialism converge on the principle of
equal distribution as fundamental for ecosocialist justice. Furthermore, she also recognises that the tension between the
‘cornocopian’ aspect of socialism (maximisation of productivity),
on the one hand, and ecology’s emphasis on minimising destruction of conditions of production, on the other, is in principle
resolvable via a redefinition of what constitutes wealth. However,
as just observed, the redefinition of wealth (or good life) does not
dispose of the problem of its distribution (justice). A question
which therefore remains is to what extent the principle of equality
before the law can be co-opted in the service of ecosocialist social
Lee is one of the first to broach this problem explicitly and
directly. However, I find her treatment of it unsatisfactory in
important respects. So, while her attempt to span the divide
between mainstream analytic and ecosocialist philosophy is to be
welcomed, nevertheless both her critique of the former and her
construction of the latter involve certain weaknesses which, as I
seek to show in the following two sections, derive, first, from
underestimating the coherence of liberal thought and its relative
truth with respect to actual social relations; and secondly, as a
consequence, from underestimating the real challenges facing
ecosocialist theory and practice.
An Ecosocialist Perspective on Rights and
other words, how needs can be translated into rights.25
Lee points out that many of the rights regarded as especially
important by ecosocialists – such as those of future generations,
other natural beings, subsistence rights of the worst off, and so on
– cannot easily be accommodated within the model of private
legal rights. One of the problems which she correctly perceives is
that an adequate conception of rights cannot be developed as a
straightforward replication either of legal rights correlative to
duties (‘claim-rights’ in Hohfeld’s terminology) or of legal liberties (Hohfeldian ‘privileges’).26 On the one hand, when a legal
claim-right of A is correlative to a duty ofB, the nature of the duty
is determined by an express or tacit contractual relation between
the two parties; and its only morality is the principle ‘give to each
his own’ – where ‘his own’ is already settled, and does not admit
of the possibility that justice might lie precisely in redefining what
is his, or her, own.27 The form of the claim -right is determined and
limited by the’ content’ of’ contractual morality’ , and is completely
indifferent to the question of what a human being might have a
right to in virtue of being human – in Lee’s terms, substantive
human freedoms. On the other hand, however, a moral or human
right cannot be an extrapolation of a legal liberty, as usually
understood, because in itself a liberty is correlative to no duty on
the part of anyone else: a person has a legal liberty to do X when
they have a duty not to. This is often called a ‘bare liberty’ in the
literature because what it amounts to is a mere permission to do
X if you can, but if for any reason you can’t, then tough luck. In
a human rights context it would be like saying to the starving
millions ‘You have the legal liberty to eat as much as you want.’
So given this stark difference between a formal legal liberty
and a substantive human freedom, one might expect the task
which follows to be an investigation of the conditions under
which freedoms could be effective. However, Lee adopts a
different approach. She argues that the poor do not have a legal
liberty to eat if they do not have effective access to food. (With
reference to the classic example of a ‘bare liberty’, she says that
‘the penniless do not enjoy the legal freedom to dine at the Ritz’.)
Ecological political theory is not a very well-developed field. The
most notable contributions hitherto tended to recycle the ideas of
anarchism and primitive communism. 19 This may be largely because the ‘radical democracy’ of ecological politics is orientated
to the values of concrete particularity, personal reliance, local
autonomy, respect for differences, site-specificity and so on – in
opposition to abstract universality. In this there is a strong antimodernist tendency; and without entering into polemics as to
whether this tendency should be described as pre-modern, postmodem or something else again,20 it suffices to note that the
emphasis placed on defining the’ good life’ in radical opposition
to the universalist norms of ‘justice’ can imply a down-playing of
the role of struggles to democratize the state’. 21 Nevertheless, it is
evident that ecological politics cannot get by without some way
of identifying and pursuing generalisable interests. 23
The specific problem I want to consider in this section is how
a focus on concrete human needs which defy the logic of the
market can provide the basis for a determinate critique of the
formal freedom and equality of liberal democracy.
‘To each according to their needs; from each according to their
abilities’: this is the implicit distributive value of Lee’s social and
moral philosophy. 23 However, as she emphasises, this value is not
automatically satisfied, and indeed may be contradicted, by the
principles embodied in universal rights and freedoms.
To begin with, for freedom to be effective it must also involve
access to certain physical things – things which can and must be
specified by reference to substantive needs (e.g., as a minimum,
means of subsistence).24 This leaves the problem of how needsatisfaction can become a socially instantiated principle, or, in
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
This, it seems to me, involves an avoidable confusion between
enjoying an effective freedom and being the subject of a legal
liberty (even when it is not the source of much enjoyment): formal
freedoms may not be genuine human freedoms, but they are
genuine legal freedoms – which is precisely the problem.28
Failure to observe this distinction is bound to debilitate any
socialist critique of formal freedoms, for they are precisely thatformal- and it needs to be recognised. Instead, Lee offers a moral
criticism which involves a counterfactual redescription of their
reality. By introducing a ‘neo-Benthamite’ concept of a rightcum-freedom, she basically defines the problem away, asserting
… if agent A is legally free (or has the legal right) to do X,
this implies that there is a legal obligation on the part of B
… not to prevent A from doing X (p. 318).
Then, following a rather shaky chain of reasoning, B’ s duty seems
to be further transformed into a duty to enable, even provide
material requirements (pp. 333-34). However, confining attention to the first link just quoted, as a statement about legal
relations, as opposed to a moral evaluation, it is simply unwarranted.
The bearing of a legal freedom does not necessarily imply any
particular duty of ‘B’, and, as Hohfeld points out, this kind of
argument involves a non sequitur. 29
Hart, who in other respects is closer to Bentham than to
Hohfeld, recognises this: there is a clear difference, he says,
liberal thought which needs to be disposed of. Rights exist when
they are recognised as existing – when relevant obligations are
enforced – and the problem with human rights like the right to
basic means of subsistence is that they are not enforced duties. A
minimum requirement for moral criticism oflaw is to show where
these duties are supposed to fall.
In the real world human rights issues seldom involve isolated
individuals: normally, deprivation of human rights, and struggles
to secure them, occur in broader specific social contexts. Unless
this basic point is taken into account, no amount of talk about the
‘concrete’ needs of individuals will save the corresponding account of rights from abstraction. 31 A similar point applies to the
question of duties .
Now, if many human beings do not have access to the basic
means of life, this is very often because they have been deprived
of it; note also, that this deprivation is closely analogous to, and
in the real world frequently identical with, environmental damage. When there is a case of deprivation it is possible in principle
to say that someone is responsible for the deprivation; and where
someone is responsible for an undesirable state of affairs, it is not
difficult to make a moral case for saying they have a duty to
remedy it. I take this moral proposition for granted; the problem
is to identify who this someone is in terms which can be fairly and
effectively translated into policy.
between a liberty-right to do some kind of act protected by
a strictly correlative obligation on others not to interfere in
it, and a liberty-right protected only by a normally adequate
perimeter of general obligations. 30
This is important because if the ‘protective perimeter’ (of duties
not to interfere with individual freedoms) is not adequate, then
there may be a moral case for arguing that certain ‘strictly correlative obligations’ should be introduced. Such is the situation,
for example, where freedom from trespass or assault is not
adequate to protect those whose physical security is not immediately threatened by others’ violence, but by a lack of physical
necessities – precisely the kind of situation Lee is principally
concerned with. But this would raise the question as to who bears
the correlative duties (who ‘B’ is in Lee’s formula) and what they
The inadequacy of Lee’s abstract moral criticism can be seen
from the reply she gives to these questions:
on my analysis of what it is to have the legal right to a social
minimum, it is obvious which party has the right, and
which parties the corresponding legal duties …. Those who
are said to have such a right, and those deemed in that
particular society to earn less than a certain amount per
month or per annum. The duties lie with B, the DHSS
officials in the first instance, then with C, the Welfare
Ombudsman (p. 381).
It follows with equal obviousness that for those who do not have
the good fortune to reside in ‘that particular society’, but instead
in one which does not have a DHSS office, then there is no legal
right. In fact, it is obvious even without Lee’s analysis that some
four-fifths of the world do not have basic subsistence rights. What
is not so obvious is what might be done about it. This, I would
suggest, necessitates engagement with the problem of correlative
duties, not describing it away.
Rights, and it is a virtue of Hohfeld’s account to make this
crystal clear, are relations between persons. In considering them
immediately as ‘capacities’ or ‘properties’ of the individual moral
subject, Lee is precisely reproducing an element of classical
The concept of responsibility has assumed a central role in the
development of ecologically-orientated ethics. 32 The concept
spans, in a potentially fruitful way, the factual, legal and moral
spheres. For it may be argued that those who are de facto
(‘causally’) responsible for ecologically (and also socially)
damaging practices can be held responsible de jure, and that it is
morally justifiable to insist that they are. On the other side of the
same coin, each can claim the right to be responsible – the sense
of Miindigkeit when not understood simply as abstract moral
freedomY This is obviously not the place to work out the relevant
theory of responsibility, but I do want to point out what I see as a
missed opportunity in Lee.
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
As has become something of a tradition, at least in the ArigloSaxon ecological literature, Lee discusses the problem of responsibility with reference to Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’.34
This is a paradigm of a kind of situation where individuallly
innocent actions, if taken in combination, have catastropic undesired consequences. The problem then is that there is no single
individual who can be held responsible for the harm. For this
reason she says we need a theory of collective responsibility.
However, she does not get very far towards such a theory for
reasons which soon emerge.
Firstly, to get a grip on the problem she takes the tragedy of the
commons as a case of a collective bad which can be seen in terms
of the ‘free rider’ problem:
In our society which assumes that everyone, as a rational
egoist, is trying to be a free rider, the logic of free riding
leads to either (a) a failure to attain a collective good, or (b)
production of a collective bad, that is, the tragedy of the
common (p. 124).
Given that rational egoists cannot generally be relied on to act in
the common interest when this conflicts with their private interests, Lee agrees with Olson (1965) that there is a need for coercion
orincentives (sticks or carrots) in order to secure collective goods.
Now, within his own terms of reference, Olson may be right. 35
Nevertheless, we then have the questions as to how specific sticks
or carrots are to be justified and applied; and here I think Lee’s
account contains serious weaknesses.
As regards justification, she is sensitive to the libertarian
counterargument that coercing people to be ecologically sensitive
could involve an unacceptable cost against freedom because, for
the individual entrepreneur does not directly and deliberately intend any disastrous ecological outcome. Such
outcome is simply the accumulation of the unintended
consequences of individual acts of improving profits, of
being competitive, trying to avoid bankruptcy, or not
being squeezed out of business altogether, etc. (p. 137).
However, she says, this only appears to be the case within the
framework of rational egoism. Coercion can be justified, she
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
argues, because ‘the free rider may be morally censured and
criticised within a framework which is non-egoistic and nonindividualistic’ (p. 131). This framework, it turns out, is supplied
by the neo-Kantian conception of ‘justice as fairness’ where ‘To
behave fairly is (a) to adhere to a rule, which all could assent to and
which it would be rational to assent to … ; (b) not to abrogate it by
making an exception of oneselfto the rule … ‘ (ibid.). Thus, rather
surprisingly, the key to a non-individualist concept of responsibility depends on the enlightened self-interest of the individual
In the real world, however, it is not simply the assumption of
rational egoism which makes the ‘individual entrepreneur’ seem
not to be responsible for the harm he does. 37 The abstractness of
Lee’s treatment of responsibility can be seen by considering how
it could be used to justify coercion in a concrete situation of a
‘collective bad’. A fitting example might be the ecologically and
socially disastrous practice of cash-cropping. ’38 Here a whole chain
of agents is involved – among whom are poor farm workers,
relatively well-off farmers, company agents, domestic politicians,
international lawyers, multinational companies and their individual
shareholders, who, let us add for good measure, might be fund
managers for old-age pensioners. At each and every link of the
chain there are agents who can be attributed a ‘causal power’
which is necessary, though insufficient to bring about the undesired consequences. How if we simply apply Lee’s principle of
justice as fairness – i.e., ‘those responsible for the production of
the collective bads ought to choose an alternative course of action’
– then it would be possible to conclude that the labourer, for
instance, ought to choose to starve, or the company agent to
become unemployed, and so on. This is not a conclusion Lee
actually wants to draw; indeed, she has assumed that the entire
responsibility must fall on capitalist enterprise. However, the
problem is that such an assumption is not warranted in the terms
of her own theory.
If we want to hold that the multinational company plays a
determining role, then we need, as a minimum, ‘criteria for
distinguishing this role from the others. This possibility is systematically blocked off by Lee’s insistence on discussing the
problem in terms of human agency. If we look at the real relations
involved in the cash-crop model, what this shows is that responsibility cannot be directly linked to human agency. The
Kantian injunction which Lee revives will cut no ice morally or
practically in such situations; and her criticism of rational egoism
merely shifts attention from the real problem. 39 For, as is particularly clear in the case of the labourer who is uprooting food
crops to plant coffee, slhe does so not simply because slhe is a
rational egoist, but because slhe literally has no choice.
To break such vicious circles means intervening structurally,
and at critical points. This would certainly involve rethinking
responsibility: in the first place recognising that, since responsibility positively correlates with power, unequal powers will entail
This leads us to consider how responsibility attaches to the
individuals concerned not qua agents, but qua role bearers. It is
not by chance that responsibility is typically discussed in the
literature by reference to ‘holding an office’.40 ‘Holding an office’, or more generally, occupying a specific place within a
complex of social relations, entails particular responsibilities
specific to that’ office’ . Any individual office holder (agent) may
carry out his or her responsibilities with greater or lesser assiduity,
but the definition of what these responsibilities are is not decided
by the agent.
Hence, using this kind of model, we would be led to develop
a theory of social responsibility, focussing on concrete differentiated roles: roles which are characteristics of groups, classes or
social strata rather than single individuals~ of situated practices
rather than isolated actions. In short, we would be led to pose the
problem in terms of a division of social labour.
This is precisely what is missing from the tragedy of the
commons model, and correspondingly, from so much social
ecological theory which generalises from it.41 In truth, Lee’s
philosophy is not at all ‘ecological’ in this respect for, despite her
emphasis on the ecological principle of what she calls ‘loopish
causality’, she retains the assumption that collective bads arise as
the result of a straightforward aggregate of individual actions
within one homogeneous group~ she overlooks the distinction
between collective goods of a collectivity narrowly understood,
and common goods of a whole society which is composed of
many different’ collectivities’ . It is this which makes her think it
appropriate to discuss ecological scarcity as a free-rider problem.
And here again she seems to have forgotten her own ecological
principles, for Olson’ s treatment of the free-rider problem precisely
depends on assumptions about equality and autonomy of economic
agents which Lee’s ‘ecological social philosophy, in restoring
biology and biography to its agents, was supposed to have
Finally, if her confinement within the free-rider paradigm
leads her to overestimate the force of moral imperatives, it also
encourages her to underestimate the potential force of law. She
says: ‘On the theory of individual responsibility extrapolated
from the common law of murder, no individual contributing to the
production of a collective bad could be held responsible. ‘ Yet this
is not necessarily so, and only appears to be so if all the assumptions of the free-rider problem are held to apply. Whether any
individual contribution to the bad can be identified and condemned
as a cause of foreseeable adverse consequences, I would suggest,
cannot be decided a priori and in the abstract: for it depends on
concrete considerations, such as whether one or more causal agent
is identifiable~ whether the consequences are reasonably foreseeable (where ‘reasonable’ refers to the state of a society’s
knowledge)~ and whether there is the political will that the
provocation of a particular consequence be deemed an appropriate
matter for coercion. When such criteria are satisfied then the
principle of strict liability can be applied~ and in fact sometimes
already is, as in the field of environmental protection for instance. 42
Hence it seems to me that an appropriate political focus would be
on extending this to cover greater areas of environmental and
Success here would obviously depend on a democratization of
political decision-making processes. If the aim of ecosocialist
theory is to give content to the struggle for democracy ,then it must
be capable both of revealing thep otentialities of a democraticallydirected legal order, and of criticising the fundamental presuppositions of its specifically liberal form. Lee’s moral criticism of
law, I have argued, achieves neither.
Ecological Scarcity and Social Relations: How Marx
Might Reply to his Green Critics
A central task for the development of ecosocialist theory must be
an ‘ecological’ interrogation of Marx – not, of course, to attribute
to him an ecological perspective which he did not (and could not
necessarily be expected to) have, nor to criticise him simply
because he didn’t, but to rethink the relevance of his critique of
political economy in the light of ecological developments. Yet in
the ecological literature, the requisite critical interrogation is
sometimes conducted in a manner more reminiscent of an inquisition: the evidence of Marx’s complicity in the domination of
nature is almost ritually reeled off, and his criticisms of ‘true
socialism’ are made to appear as unecological heresy. Unfortunately, Lee perpetuates this tradition. 43
She ‘is not concerned with Marxist scholarship’, she warns,
but with ‘the general thrust of Marx’ s thinking’. So since a
scholarly defence would be to no avail, and I would anyway not
presume to offer one, in what follows I limit my observations to
a problem which is central to all green critiques of Marxism,44 and
which Lee discusses in her chapter on ‘Work and the Two
Socialisms’ (a chapter which Lee herself sees as crucial to
specifying the difference between ecologically sensitive and
insensitive values), the two socialisms being those of Fourier and
Lee argues that, when tested for compatibility with thermodynamic and ecological reality, Fourier’s version is superior to
Marx’s. Now, whilst I agree that ecosocialism has something to
learn from the utopian socialists, and something to criticise in
Marx, nevertheless the conclusion that the former are now to be
preferred rests, it seems to me, on a superficial understanding both
of Marx and the reality he – and we – have to deal with.
Since Fourier is here the counterfigure, let us acknowledge
some points he makes which are well-taken. His socialist utopia
is orientated to the fulfilment of concrete human needs rather than
to the expansion of abstract needs as generated in a market
economy. Men’s hostility to nature, both ‘internal’ and ‘external’,
is rooted in the hostility amongst human beings themselves especially the competitiveness of the economic system which
distorts the value of both humans and nature. Thus, for example,
struck by how the price of goods bore no apparent relation either
to the costs of their production or their quality as goods, Fourier
condemned the absurdity of an economic system orientated
towards profits rather than to human needs. For Fourier, the goal
of ever-increasing possession and consumption of external goods
is to be transformed into a liberating development of ‘internal
goods’ ~ and this also implies a critique of the formal freedoms of
bourgeois democracy, for these ‘have nothing to say about the
liberating of the libido from crippling repression and hypocrisy,
and of the agent from the Protestant work ethic’ (quoted on p.
247). Thus, for Fourier, true freedom was to be found in emancipation from these two kinds of repression associated with
‘civilisation’. Lee sums up Fourier’s vision of socialism as
a socialism which rejects the logics of capitalism, of
industrialism and of economic growth. It is an ascetic
socialism, that is, one which is sufficient but frugal in
material possession and consumption but paradoxically
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
rich in spirit – in the possibilities of self-development, in
the achievement of internal goods (p. 245).
Human emancipation entails transcending the very dichotomy
between work and leisure; which means moving from a system of
production based on wage-slavery to one of cooperative association. Thus Lee sees Fourier as an advocate of what she calls an
‘artistic mode of production’ .45
Now Lee does recognise that what Fourier advocates basically
corresponds to the regulative idea of ‘unalienated labour’ – a
humanist ideal also shared by Marx and Engels; but she argues
that in their mature works they rejected this in favour of a SaintSimonian influenced exaltation of technological domination of
nature. 46 Setting aside the hyperbole here, we may note one
element that they did accommodate of Saint-Simon’s utopian
thinking: ‘Men would no longer dominate men – the substance of
politics – but would together sugdue and dominate Nature’ (p.
250). It is true that Marxist theory sees a positive correlation
between the development of industrial production and progress
towards emancipation. For Marx, the possibility of human emancipation is premised on an expansion of productive forces which
apparently knows no limits, other than those posed by the social
relations of production; he therefore considers it necessary to
change the ownership of the means of production, not transform
the industrial system itself. He also implies that with the eventual
achievement of communism, politics, understood as a sphere of
conflict resolution, will be rendered obsolete – the domination of
men will be displaced by the administration of things. 47
It is uncontroversial that ecological socialism must depart
from Marx in these respects; the experience of ‘actually (formerly?) existing socialism’, as regards both human and ecological
relations, suffices to dampen such nineteenth-century optimism.
However, pace Lee, it does not suffice as a reason to dismiss the
critical import of Marx’ s work. 48 In truth, she does not seem to
have grasped the latter, for she writes:
If Marx took seriously the view that the truly human
society was a society of artists, then he should have come
to the same conclusion as Fourier. But along the way, Marx
appeared to have been seduced by Saint-Simon’ s logistics
of industrialism and of economic growth, based on the
(economists’) concepts of productivity and efficiency ….
It is the retention of these other assumptions which
made it necessary for Marx to repudiate Fourier, and to
accept the dichotomy between labour and leisure as something impossible in principle to supersede (pp. 253-55).
Whether Marx really thought this dichotomy impossible to
supersed is not a question I want to address here. Rather, it is the
claim that it was his retention of capitalist assumptions that led
him to repudiate Fourier. For it is not the assumptions, but the
reality of these ‘assumptions’, which obliged Marx to look
beyond socialist utopia to a realizable social project. Lee thinks
this project was bound to fail; and her basic reason brings us to her
central charge against Marx – his treatment of scarcity.
The Marxist solution would work if its fundamental assumption were correct, namely, that science and technology
could render ecological (that is, absolute) scarcity into
relative scarcity, an assumption also shared by bourgeois
capitalism (p. 256).
However, this statement betrays a number of confusions regarding scarcity which it is important to straighten out, especially
because of the risk, which Lee herself runs, that utopian socialism
will pass via catastrophism into a neo-Mathusian ecofascism. 49
Firstly, to the extent that Marx shares the above assumption it is
because it is true: through the productive transformation of raw
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
materials, unusable resources become usable; hence the degree of
scarcity in any society depends not simply on the quantity of
natural resources in existence, but also on the means of productive
appropriation of them. This is the reason why Marx criticised
Malthus’s conception of scarcity.50
Since Lee dismisses this criticism as ‘ideology triumphing
over science and common sense’ (p. 156), it is perhaps appropriate to reiterate what Marx says:
He [Malthus] stupidly relates a specific quantity of people
to a specific quantity of necessaries. Ricardo immediately
and correctly confronted hiin with the fact that the quantity
of grain available is completely irrelevant to the worker if
he has no employment; that it is therefore the means of
employment and not of subsistence which put him into the
category of surplus popUlation …. it relates to the conditions o/production and his relation to them (1973, p. 607).
In this passage, Marx also draws attention to how scarcity is
relative in a second sense: relative not only to a society’s total
productive capacity, but also to one’s position within that society
(i.e., the relativity of social relations). On a global scale this kind
of relativity appears, for example, in the fact that the average
American eats forty times more food than is necessary for survival
while many millions of Asians and Africans have nothing to eat. 51
So, whilst it is true that Marx did not dwell on (and in light of
twentieth-century knowledge underestimated) the problem that
population might one day reach absolute barriers, he at least
provided a conceptual framework for grasping it in its proper
context. As regards the implications for social and moral philosophy, I think the words of Shue speak plainly enough:
To attempt to settle the argument by merely declaring
certain countries to be overpopulated is in effect to declare
some oftheir people to be ‘excess’ …. To see the strength
of the implicit and unargued assumption, one need only
ask: why is it they who have no right to be there (consuming scarce food, energy, etc.) and not I who have no right
to be here (consuming scarce food, energy, etc., at much
higher rates)? (Shue, 1980, pp. 109-10).
This last question leads us into a consideration of still a third sense
in which relative scarcity is produced by capitalism: however
much one has, one feels a need to have more – a subjective sense
of scarcity with no apparent basis in real material needs. As
Sahlins (1974) says, ‘Inadequacy of economic means is the first
principle ofthe world’s wealthiest peoples’ (p. 3). This is relevant
as regards Fourier’s utopian socialism, for the kinds of psychological repression referred to by Fourier are intimately connected
to the question of scarcity. An obsession with scarcity is the very
motor of capitalism, operating both in production and consumption; without a fear of scarcity the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ would
never have got beyond North European pulpits. The source of this
existential fear, however, need not, in the first instance, be sought
in metaphysics, but, historically, for example, in the real situation
of those who, driven off the land, had the choice either to present
themselves for work at the time and place dictated by the factory
owner, or starve. This fear is maintained in wealthy nations today
by more varied and complex means – but the continuity is clear,
for example, in career structures in which one ‘careers’ along or
falls out on to a social scrapheap.
The threat of absolute scarcity was not first discovered by
ecologists; it has always been used by dominant classes against
those who must produce more than is necessary in order to have
In order to overcome this fear, as Fourier rightly intuited, it is
necessary to transform humans’ relation to their work so that the
work and its products are orientated to the fulfilment of genuine
needs: in other words, the overcoming of this’ artificial scarcity’
entails a transformation of the social division of labour. This
would be to overcome the ‘alienation’ of labour in the various
senses which Marx early on described; and if he did not spend his
life painting pictures of what unalienated labour would be like, it
was because (like Fourier) he had already seen that it would be the
negation of the condition of labour under capitalism. Then (going
beyond Fourier) he directed his efforts to understanding how this
could come about as a determinate negation – a negation in reality
and not merely in thought.
So~when Lee says it is not obvious why the ‘true socialists’
were dismissed out of hand by Marx and Engels, what she fails to
see is that they were precisely not ‘dismissed out of hand’ – they
were immanently criticised. It is in missing this that she is able to
suggest that Marx moved from true socialism to ’embrace’ the
logic of capital, failing to see that Marx’s analysis of capital was
precisely an investigation of the reasons why ‘true socialism’ can
only be utopian under existing conditions.
Lee is surely right in thinking that ecosocialism must follow
Fourier in pursuing a more ‘frugal’ conception of socialism; she
is probably also right in saying that economic growth is not
necessary to fulfil genuine human needs. Nevertheless, it is
necessary to capitalists – so what is to be done about that? Since
she takes Marx to task for not having’ appreciated enough of the
implications of two senses of capital that have to be distinguished’
(p. 270), nor that ‘Capital as a process of accumulation should not
and need not be endless’ (p. 192), she turns instead to advocate the
‘steady-state economy’ of Daly ,52 for this involves the ‘rjection of
capital’, the ‘rejection of GNP’, and so on. However, she leaves
the reader to wonder what it means to ‘reject’ them – though it
would be better at this point to heed what Ryle (1988) says:
To sum up: the critique of conventional economic ideas is
salutary, but remains insufficient unless it is understood
and clearly stated that the ideas are not only false (they
don’t constitute the only or the optimum basis on which
economic life might be organized), but true (they reflect,
because they institutionalize, the exigencies of capitalism). It follows that if we reject the ideas, we must be
prepared to confront the institutions which embody and
enforce them … (pp. 45-46).
Granting that utopian thinkers can provide a corrective to the
productivism of orthodox Marxism, still, utopia only has a practical sense in conjunction with a determinate critique of reality. If
ecosocialists aim not simply at an anarchic opting out of reality,
but also at changing it, then they face the simple question whether
or not to inform their practices with potentially explanatory
theory. There are reasons for believing that in this respect Marxism still has something to offer.
Now that ‘ecological’ and ‘green’ rank alongside concepts like
‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as unquestionable goods, the real
resistance to ecological thinking comes not from denying it as a
value, but from instrumentalizing and redefining its content which is all the more reason for a rigorous self-clarification on
the part of those who want to be considered ‘true’ greens.
The landmark is Carson’s Silent Spring. Of course, the history
of environmentalism goes back much further. See e.g., Faber
and O’Connor (1989), and their references; it is also treated in
histories of ecology (e.g., Worster, 1985; Acot, 1988; Bramley,
1989), though these are to be read with varying degrees of
caution. McIntosh (1985), though dry, inspires confidence (see
esp. chs. 1,8 and bibliography).
Enzenberger’s article (1974) must now rate as an historical
document of this situation and the Left’s early response to it.
Ruedig (1983) and Becker (1984), paint a similar picture of earl y
German green philosophers like Amery, Maren-Grisebach, and
Certain notions and patterns of thought corresponding to a felt
need for radical change have been developed into apparently
non-negotiable aspects of green culture. In the more popular
(e.g., Porritt, 1984), and ‘deeper’ ecological literature (cf Sylvan, 1985), we encounter long lists of what ecologists are ‘for’
and’ against’. Moreover, these intuitions are often extrapolated
directly into metaphysical designs (some ofthe most interesting
works to my mind are marred in this way – e.g., Bahro, Capra).
For more critical examination of some central green ideas, see
e.g., Plum wood (1986); the papers of Boehme and Schramm
(1985); Cramer and van den Daele (1985); Levins and Lewontin
(1980); then there is Eder (1988), who has attempted a full-scale
‘critique of ecological reason’ .
This objection is significant is the present CQntext not because
some scientists insist that ecology should be left to ecologists,
which is fair enough, but because scientists already play a
leading role in green movements. The risk is an ‘ unecological’
division oflabour between scientific experts and the grass-roots,
so that if the former have a predominantly technical conception
of environmental problems, and the latter a tendency to
utopianism and ‘anti-intellectualism’ (Wiesenthal, 1989), an
intellectual vacuum is left where the political dimension should
be (Faber and O’Connor, 1988).
The idea of ecology as Leitwissenschaft is associated with Amery
(1978); as an integrative discipline with the Odums, taking a
particularly reductive form in H. Odum (1971). As for ‘ecosystems theory’, this may lend itself more readily to ‘technical fix’
advocates thay their radical critics – by reducing ecological and
social problems to systems disturbances (Becker, 1984), even
taking the place of the ‘invisible hand’ in ‘capitalist theology’
(Leigh, 1971; Barcelona, 1990).
In contrast to some social ecologists, I do not think it is conceding too much to ‘ the dualist world view’ to recognise a
distinction between the spheres of theoretical and practical
reason and to pursue interdisciplinary cooperation (as a concrete
dialectic), rather than legislating for a unified science which has
yet to emerge (Cramer and van den Daele, 1985).
Some might object to the’ anthropocentrism’ of this expression.
But as Silvestrini (1990) observes, nature will always take care
of itself, and the’ disease called man’ may be a minor disturbance
on a geological time-scale. It therefore seems worth focussing
on how nature accommodates itself to being co-opted for human
ends only up to a certain point – beyond which ‘ecology strikes
Although’ anthropocentrism’ falls on the ‘bad’ side of most lists
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
of ecological values, I am not clear exactly what objection there
is which goes beyond that specifiable in terms of ‘enlightened
self-interest’. Certainly, in the literature on animal rights,
anthropocentric values seem to be indispensable (e.g. Regan
1988); in the literature of environmental ethics a more radical
critique of anthropocentrism is only achieved by purging anything recognisable as ethics (see Attfield, 1983; Bartolommei,
1989). As for ‘biocentrism’, ‘ecocentrism’ and other such
alternatives, I do not think it is being too literal-minded to ask
where their ‘centres’ are supposed to be. In an unpublished
paper, ‘What is wrong with anthropocentrism?’, I suggest that
intelligible answers depend on observing some basic distinctions between ontology, epistemology and ethics.
A central argument of Shue (1980); see also his comments on
Rawls on pp. 127-9.
Although ‘ecofascism’ does not have a univocal meaning, and
is also sometimes used as a generalised term of abuse, it is not
merely rhetorical: if there is not a purposive anticipation of
ecological crises, there can only be an ad hoc and authoritarian
reactive response. Lee describes possible scenarios at pp.28990; see also Silvestrini (1990) pp.22-5.
Cf. Ryle (1988) p.2l.
As is notoriously the case, for example, the success of an
environmental pressure group in one zone or country can simply
drive an industry to export its pollution to some poorer, less welldefended zone or country. As regards depletion and exploitation
of resources (both human and natural), it is even more a case of
fundamental inequalities (see, e.g, George, 1976) 1988).
E.g., Bookchin (1980), 1982a); also the works of Bahro, Gorz,
and their critics (Wolter, 1980; Frankel, 1987).
The question of priorities is a familiar one for feminists too, but
in this paper I am concerned only with ecology and socialism,
and do not attempt to theorise the connection of either with
feminism. ‘Ecofeminist perspectives can be divided generally
into liberal, radical and socialist (or social) ecofeminism; and
each of these sub-groups gains insights from different interpretations of feminism, as well as ecological/biological and social
theories’. (Thrupp, 1989, pp. 170-1). See also the overview of
ecofeminism in Plum wood (1986); on women and nature, see
Merchant (1980); on women and development, Shiva (1988).
Beyond the Eurocentric horizon, it is even more evident that
ecological and economic exploitation are so interrelated that we
cannot envisage eliminating the one without the other. See the
journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism for regular contributions
from India, Brazil, The Philippines, Central America and elsewhere.
Ifthe early tradition of claiming to be ‘neitherright nor left’ still
persists among many greens in Europe, in practice it has always
been severely qualified by the nature of political realities;
moreover, the rhetoric tends to self-destruct as soon as anyone
green faction seeks to defend its purity by accusing another of
being either too far to the left or to the right.
Marxists once made a virtue of necessity in refusing to speculate
about the character of a communist future, but with the demise
of hopes in proletarian revolution arises an imperative to construct concrete alternatives even within – and against – the old.
Ely (1986), makes such points, and suggests that criticisms by
Marxists (or Habermasians) of the greens’ revival of utopianism
or Romantic anti-capitalism ‘fail to understand the politics of
concrete utopia’, (p.36). (The idea of ‘concrete utopia’ derives
from Ernst Bloch, and has become a part of green vocabulary,
especially in Germany.) The only point I would make in reply
is that utopia is concrete not only if it has the’ concrete’ form of
life-world experiments (prefigurative practices), but also when
that practice is informed and complemented by immanent critique of actual social relations. (I think Bloch believed this too,
which is why he wrote a book identifying the emancipatory
promise within natural right, and argues for its complementarity
with social utopia, (Bloch 1961).)
A particularly sharp exchange took place in Telos some years
ago (Whitebook, 1981; Bookchin, 1982b; also Whitebook,
1985). Symptomatically Habermas was the main bone of
contention; and Ely (1985) has noted that he is not very popular
with die Grunen either (‘the big American hamburger’ they call
him). I suspect that the theorising of ecological politics is
eventually going to require a more nuanced response (e.g.
Ryle (1988) p.60 puts his finger on this problem in the practical
A common assumption is that humans have’ species interests’ in
the ‘global commons’. But then a problem (which in some ways
resembles that of ‘imputed class consciousness’) would be to
account for the mis-/non-recognition of these interests in the real
world – not only in the broader society, but among the ecologists
themselves (Demirovic, 1989).
More explicitly, she says equality is her distributive value, and
freedom of action her substantive value. Expressed in these
terms I cannot see how it would differ from the view of, say, Hart
(1955); but her whole argument is directed against a Hartian
view of rights.
Either because it was a matter for a ‘technical fix’, or because it
had to take second place to a socialist transformation of society.
I think the former view is now confined to the social-democratic
would-be crisis managers; whereas proponents of the latter now
increasingly speak of an ecosocialist transformation.
See also Macpherson (1975); Shue (1980).
There are of course those who would argue that the satisfaction
of needs is not necessarily a question of extending rights: most
notably, orthodox revolutionary Marxism (cf., e.g., Pashukanis
( 1978), following Trotsky and Lenin (see Lukes (1982);
a remarkably similar critique of Recht is to be found in contemporary ‘post-Marxism’ (e.g., in Italy, Cassano, 1988;
Barcellona, 1990). Reasons for contesting the orthodox rejection of right within Marxism are to be found in, e.g., Bloch
(1961), Tay-Soon (1978), Keat (1982), Meszaros (1986) ch.5,
and Hayward (1989) chA.
Hohfeld (1919), esp. pp.23-50. Lee objects to those theories of
moral rights (e.g. Hart, 1955) which see the capacity to ‘control’
or ‘waive’ a right as essential to identifying its bearer, because
this, notoriously, rules out a priori the possibility of speaking of
rights of children, the mentally handicapped, future generations,
etc. I agree that there is no compelling reason to accept this
interpretation; but I disagree that criticising it has any relevance
to the Hohfeldian distinction between claim-rights and properties, as Lee seems to think when criticising ‘the’ contractual
model of rights. Inasmuch as Hohfeld talks about’ control’ at all,
it pertains to legal powers (op.cit., pp.50-7) which he, unlike
Hart or Bentham, radically distinguishes from rights or liberties.
Although Lee criticises ‘the Hohfeldian view’ at some length,
she offers no references to Hohfeld. A different interpretation is
proposed in my unpublished ‘Hohfeld on liberties: an unrecognized challenge to liberal interpretations of human rights’ .
The nature of the duty is an action or forbearance paradigmatic ally , the individual payment of debts or the general
non-interference with others’ property (see Hohfeld, 1919, esp.
Notable among those who seek a stronger connection between
ecology and ethics is Rolston (1986). See also the German
revival of teleological natural law in Jonas (1966, 1984), and
others reviewed in Ely (1989b).
The argument structure of an ecological critique of conventional
economics, based on thermodynamics, is well-established. A
classic Lee relies on is Georgescu-Roegen (1971); for a history
of the literature see Martinez-Alier (1987).
On the premise of abundance in liberal political theory, see
Ophuls (1977). As regards Lee’s counterposing of ‘relative’ and
‘absolute’ scarcity, I have some critical comments to make in
section III below.
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
pp.65-74). Hence this kind of right is effectively limited to the
maintenance of the existing distribution of property (Bloch
(1961) aptly dubs it ‘the right of the creditor’).
My argument here, even though made with a very different
objective in mind, seems to have been anticipated by Lee under
the category of ‘unhelpful retort from the negative libertarians’
~p.333). She replies that with formal freedoms ‘there are no such
corresponding legal duties, which proves, that they are not
genuine legal rights and freedoms’ . That they are not legal rights
(claim-rights) did not need proving; that they are not legal
liberties (privileges) is only proved if one already supposes that
liberties are correlative to duties, in which case the proof follows
tautologically from the definition. However, I find her definition – ‘the very concept to legal freedom includes such material
requirements [as the ability to pay to dine at the Ritz]’ unhelpful, because it risks obscuring the ideological effects of
‘equality before the law’ which can operate precisely because
material requirements do not achieve formal legal expression.
(This is the valid point made by orthodox Marxist critics of law).
Hohfeld (1919)pp. 41-3
Hart (1973) p.l80.
Lee suggests at one point that rights’ are really disguised needs’
(p.375) – this is not so much to commit the naturalistic fallacy as
a category mistake. To be fair, I think what she means is what
she says elsewhere: that needs ought to be recognised as a basis
for rights. I can accept this moral proposition, and also her
distance for the kind of view expressed with most brutal forthrightness by Cranston (1967); but we need to be clear on the
issues. When liberals argue that rights cannot be directly derived
from needs they are correct: even Cranston manages to state a
truth when he says that the achievement of social and economic
rights depend of processes of socialization and democratization;
where he is wrong in thinking this does not apply to civil and
political rights and liberties (so phenomena like the abolition of
slavery or the achievement of universal suffrage become miracles
of nature). But Lee’s attack on this view is entirely misplaced.
It is not true, she says, ‘that civil and political rights alone are
creations of the law. Economic rights, equally, are the creations
of the law’ (p.334). Her opponents do not deny this; they deny
that the material preconditions are always such as to permit such
laws – which implies the challenge well expressed by Bloch
(‘there are no innate rights, all rights are achieved through
E.g., Passmore (1974); Jonas (1984). For a critique of and
alternative to Jonas, see Apel (1988), esp, pp.l79-216.
Gilligan (1982) has suggested that an orientation to responsibility follows a different moral trajectory to that of rights. This is
an illuminating discussion, but I think it would be a mistake to
go so far as to imply that the two orientations are incommensurable: on their complementarity see, e.g., Benhabib (1986b).
In brief, this is the situation when individual herdsmen graze
their cattle on common land. If one herdsman adds one cow to
his herd, this has no noticeable effect. The ‘tragedy’ occurs if a
greater number does so; a threshold point is reached at which the
common is overgrazed to the detriment of all the herdsmen. See
For a critique of these terms of reference, see Offe and Weisenthal
I am not here concerned to analyse how Lee moves with such
facility between Utilitarianism and Kantianism, for I am more
concerned about her uncritical acceptance of the individualist
presuppositions common to both.
For example, it may have more to do with quibbling over the
conclusiveness of data, or massaging it, or redefining levels of
harm (in all of which he may be aided and abetted by his friends
in government). If pressed hard enough by domestic environmental legislation, though, as a last resort he may shift his
operation to somewhere like Bhopal. I cannot share the assumption that an entrepreneur’ intends’ to make profits but does
not ‘intend’ to externalise his costs.
I.e., the situation where arable land which previously met the
food needs of a local community is given over to some other crop
for export. For fuller discussion and further references, see
George (1976), and Shue (1980).
It is not necessary to deny that agents are ‘rational egoists’; it is
necessary, rather, to recognise how they may be in very different
situations of choice. Those who trek ten miles to cut some
firewood are unlikely to be much impressed by being told that
their self-interest needs enlightening. (Cf. also Bishop, 1990.)
See, e.g., Deigh (1988). Two other points worth noting are: first,
a distinction between responsibility and duty ( e.g. any parent
has a responsibility for their child’s upbringing, but it depends
on the culture whether they have specific duties to send her to
school for ten years, etc.); second, that typically the sanction for
failing in one’s responsibilities is removal from office, and not
punishment of the agent – indeed, an office-holder can assume
responsibility for some fault (e.g., of a junior) for which s/he has
no moral culpability.
It might be noticed that, historically, the Enclosure Acts, which
Lee refers to in another context, proved to be a greater ‘tragedy’
than overgrazing; and global ‘overgrazing’ (in both literal and
figurative senses)today cannot be grasped in abstraction from
the question of land ownership.
In this connection it might be noted that ‘the tragedy of povertystricken masses pushed into marginal lands by international
capital and forced to degrade the environment out of sheer
survival needs has little or no counterpart in the socialist world’
(O’Connor, 1989d, p.104). This is not to deny the devastation
wrought also by the latter, but to insist on concrete and differentiated analyses of causes.
On strict liability see, e.g., Sistare (1989). The introduction of
‘green taxes’ , if not alone sufficient, is nevertheless an important
arm of the struggle to save the environment (Weizsacker, 1989);
and can be increasingly strengthened where there is the political
will (see the legal theorists reviewed in Demirovic, 1989);
Silvestrini (1990) suggests various ways of sqifting the boundary
of the market to increase social control of the means of production.
O’Connor (1989a) p.5 gives a sample list ofthe questions which
to ask is already to have answered. Lee in fact goes much further
than most. Fore example, when Marx and Engels observe that
descriptions of’ Arcadian nature’ (see Worster, 1985) have little
bearing on social theory, this is evidence of their ‘mechanistic
worldview’; when they point out that nature is also ‘red in tooth
and claw’, this earns them the suspicion of Social Darwinism.
But the clinching proof that Marx is irredeemably’ unecological’
is his belief that the relation between economy and ideology is
one of simple linear cause and effect – ‘in spite of lapsing into
dialectical talk’. (p.54)
For serious treatment of the question of Romantic anti-capitalism
and the concept of nature in Marx, see, e.g., Schmidt (1971) and
the essays of Ely (1988, 1989a) on Bloch and Luk.ks.
Among the most influential are those of Bahro in Germany and
Bookchin in America. What is common is an affirmative
valuation of the themes of the young Marx – with especial
emphasis on the aim of transforming work from drudgery into a
humanly expressive activity – and a rejection of much of his later
work insofar as this is premised on continuing the trajectory of
industrialism and the ‘rational domination of nature’. The
Frankfurt School had identified similar problems; but whereas
they focused on the nature of the rationality of the domination,
the Greens tend to eschew an investigation of its dialectics;
whereas the former strived for a critical Marxism, the latter tend
to reintroduce a theoretically uninformed dichotomy between an
early and a late Marx.
To the extent that this refers to production at all, ‘artistic’ seems
to mean ‘artisanal’. However, it is perhaps misleading to talk
of it as a ‘mode of production’ in the context of a discussion of
Marx, for Lee is really describing a ‘mode’ of action (she
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
discusses production as ‘exosomatic action’ – e.g., pp. 114ft),
not an ensemble of social practices and relationship.
Lee pivots much of her argument on a contrast between ‘Marx ‘s
wholehearted scorn for Fourier’ and his ‘enthusiasm for what
Saint-Simon stood for’ (p.258) – which is difficult to square with
Engels’ judgement in the Preface to The Peasant War in Germany (see Marx and Engels (1968) p.246).
This is the utopian element in Marx – and is arguably reproduced
by greens: see the criticisms of Kolakowski (1974), which are
worth heeding in any discussion of radical democracy.
Contrast Bahro (1977) on this. If Lee goes too far in attributing
the defects of ‘real socialism’ to Marx’s theory, it would be a
more serious mistake to disregard them entirely: see O’Connor
(1989d) for the beginnings of a more differentiated analysis.
Lee is quite determined in her attempt to rehabilitate Malthus,
and in criticising Marx (and Ricardo) for inadequately appreciating his insights. What Lee fails to appreciated, equating
finitude of natural resources with ‘absolute scarcity’, is that
since scarcity is a relation of means to ends (cf. Sahlins, 1974),
there is a sense in which scarcity is intrinsically relative – a sense
captured by Ricardo in opposition to Malthus. Thus Ricardo and
Marx proposed examining actual means and actual ends rather
than arithmetical tables.
See e.g., Marx (1973) p.606.
Lee is not insensitive to these problems (see, e.g., p.158), but her
discussion of them is generally vitiated by her premises. In this
case (p.l57) she says: ‘By all accounts India is overpopulated
…. ‘ In fact many other accounts are available which would
suggest that such a proposition cannot be properly discussed
until the question of income distribution is addressed (e.g., those
cited in Shue, 1980, pp.200ft). Lee seems to be unduly influenced by the Ehrlichs in her a priori scepticism on this point. In
any case, it will be time to argue that each country should limit
its population to its own carrying capacity only when there no
longer persists a net transfer of resources from poor to rich
countries (see George, 1988).
In Daly’s definition, quoted by Lee, it is emphasised that ‘the
SSE (steady-state economy) is a physical concept’. As such, it
may provide a useful reference point for ecosocialist thinking,
but only as long as it is also remembered that the economy
consists of social relations too. This last point is also insufficiently
appreciated by Lee’s predecessors: cf. Goldman and O’Connor
(1988) on Ophuls, Schumacher and others; and Altvater (1989)
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