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The Meaning of Political Ecology

The Meaning of
Political Ecology
Tim Hayward

‘Political ecology’ is an expression which has become quite
familiar in recent years, but does not appear to have acquired a clear and settled meaning. * Evidently it is used to
point up some kind of connection between politics, or the
political, and ecology, yet the project of making the connection is deeply problematic. In this article I argue that
‘political ecology’ is most appropriately used as the name
of a field of real relations which include, but are not
exhausted by, those already comprehended as political
economy.

This argument is advanced, in the first place, as a
corrective to two other prevalent, but unsatisfactory, interpretations of political ecology – one which treats it as a
branch of politics, the other as a branch of ecology. On the
one interpretation, ‘political ecology’ can refer to the taking
of a political view of ecology, that is, viewing ecology as an
issue or set of issues concerning which principles and
policies have to be devised. On the other interpretation, the
project can be seen as one which involves viewing politics
ecologically – this would involve a more thorough-going
claim that ecology not only provides the content of a
political agenda, but, as a foundation of and restriction on
political possibilities, even determines appropriate forms of
politics.

Neither of these general ways of making the connection
is entirely satisfactory. The problem with the first approach
follows from the fact that entering ecological issues into the
political calculus need do little or nothing to alter the
essential values or forms of politics itself. Since politics has
to have in view things other than ecology, and since only
certain aspects of ecology – ‘environmental issues’ – normally enter the purview of politics anyway, viewing ecology politically is compatible with not viewing politics
ecologically and so with a continuation of other political

*Earlier drafts of this paper have been presented at the
Political Thought Conference, New College, Oxford,
January 1991, and at a seminar of the series ‘Socialism
and Ecology’, run by David McLellan and Sean Sayers,
at Canterbury in October 1991: I am very gratefulfor the
helpful comments of participants on both occasions.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

business as usual. This approach does too little to establish
the connection between ecology and politics, which remain
externally and contingently related. Hence opponents of
this approach criticise it for its ‘shallow’ grasp of ecology,
and condemn it as ‘managerial’ environmentalism. Indeed,
the forms of environmentalism which earn these pejorative
designations are arguably founded on a fallacious conception ofthe ‘environment’ itself.l In contrastto ‘environmentalism’, as just described, then, the opposing approach,
which can be referred to as ‘ecologism’ ,2 invokes a much
stronger, ‘internal’, relation between ecology and politics:

on this view, ecology does not simply furnish ‘issues’ for
politics to deal with, it actually yields imperatives – determining not only the values which must guide politics, but
perhaps also the very forms politics must assume. However,
if ‘environmentalism’ attempts too little, ‘ecologism’ may
seek more of ecology than it can yield – for example, in
generalising ecological concepts beyond their appropriate
scope, and being more sanguine than there is good reason to
be about the possibility of drawing clear or unequivocal
normative desiderata from ecological realities. 3 Moreover,
this view threatens to eliminate the distinctiveness of politics as much, and as mistakenly, as the other view eliminates
the distinctiveness of ecology.

So, I believe, if political ecology is to have a distinctive
and coherent meaning, it must be capable of comprehending the relation of ecology and politics without simply
subsuming the one under the other. In order to do so, it must
be able to grasp the real relations between them: therefore
a definition of what political ecology is will emerge as a
theory of those real relations.

The limited objective of the present paper is to indicate,
in a general way, how and where it seems to me that such a
theory is currently developing. In order to thematise the real
relations between politics and ecology, it is particularly
important to be able to focus on their mediations. The locus
of these mediations, and hence the object-field of political
ecology, can perhaps best be described as the ‘human
metabolism with nature’.4 This idea captures fundamental
aspects of our existence as both natural and political beings:

these include the energetic and material exchanges which
occur between human beings and their natural environment

11

both at an individual level (reproduction of the human
orga~ism) and, more importantly in the present context, at
a socIal level (through the activities of extraction of materials, agriculture, construction, manufacture etc.). This
‘metabolism’ is regulated from the side of nature by natural
laws governing the various physical processes involved
(energetic and chemical exchanges etc.), and from the side
of society by institutionalised norms governing the division
of labour and distribution of wealth etc. The ensemble of
regulating factors from the side of nature can be gathered
under the head of ecology; those from the side of society
under that of politics: the conjoined effects of those two sets
of factors and their interrelations constitute the field of
political economy.

Now the idea of human metabolism with nature, in much
this sense, originated with Marx: it served to characterise
the materialist basis for his critique of political economy.5 In
this article I shall suggest that there are good reasons for
seeing the project of political ecology as being premised on
a materialist conception of history much as Marx sought to
de~elop. However, I shall also argue, there are respects in
whIch Marx’s radicalisation of classical political economy
does not go far enough. In particular, both classical political
economy and its Marxian critique effectively consider the
h~man .metabolism with nature almost exclusively in the
dImenSIOn of human intention – labour – while all but
?isregarding unintentional effects, and the input of nature
Itself. Nevertheless, it will not suffice to counter this deficiency with an equally one-sided emphasis on the workings
of ecology behind the backs of humans: for this abstracts
precisely from the political dimension. Hence, as I go on to
argue in section 11, the Marxian critique of political economy
remains a necessary if not a sufficient condition for the
development of political ecology. What is also necessary, as
contemporary attempts at an ecological reconstruction of
Marxism are tending to show, is a radicalising of Marx’s
critique of political economy on the basis of a fuller and
more differentiated elaboration of his own materialist
premises. This will lead to a consideration of how the
development of political ecology must also be informed by
aspects of a feminist critique of Marxism. For the ‘human
metabolism with nature’ involves not only the day-to-day
reproduction of individuals and social relations, which have
been mentioned already, but also procreative reproduction
– something which Marx, as much as the political economists, effectively consigns to the sphere of unmediated
nature, with the consequence that the parturitive labour of
women, in particular, but also nurturative and domestic
labours more generally, are drastically undertheorised and
depoliticised. I therefore argue that it is wholly appropriate
and necessary that the entire metabolism with nature including all aspects of human reproduction, and not just
tho~e a~tivities which happen to be defined, in some ways
arbItranly, as ‘productive’ – should be comprehended as
political ecology. Finally, I offer some points of clarification about the relation of political ecology to a feminist
socialist and Marxist critique.

12

From Political Economy to Political Ecology
If it is sought, through a critique of political economy, to
develop a theory of political ecology which may offer a
more adequate grasp of the human metabolism with nature
the first general question to ask is how the object field of
political ecology relates to that of political economy. In this
section I offer some general observations concerning the
relation of economy to ecology, and then indicate why and
?ow t?ese.relations need to be theorised more specifically
m a hIstoncal context to form a basis of political ecology.

To begin with one might observe, as writers on the
subject generally do, that ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ have a
common etymological root – the Greek oikos, usually
rendered as ‘household’. Thus, in its original meaning
oikonomia was ‘the management of the household’. In the
course of history, as the loci of economic activities and
institutions have expanded far beyond the narrow bounds of
the household, it has become possible to think of oikos in
broader terms. Now that economic activity and its effects
have a global reach, one might say that the whole earth is
in a quite intelligible sense, our ‘household’. This dramati~
expansion of economic activity has reawakened awareness
of a real coincidence between the sphere of economy and
that now designated as ecology. That is, contrary to the
working assumptions of modern economists, economic
activity does not take place in a different world from that of
nature. Th~s an ecological perspective on the economy
would remmd us, for example, that the entire economic
process begins and ends in nature – beginning as resources
and ending as refuse – a fact abstracted from in the develo~ment of m?dern economic theory as it re;tricts its purVIew to the CIrculation of money values.

Now ‘ecology’, etymologically, would be ‘science of
the household’ – which would be a curious choice of name
for a biological subdiscipline which started out as a branch
of plant geography, were it not that in extending its scope to
become an ever-broader discipline studying relationships
between and among organisms and their environment
some clear analogies were perceived between ecologic and
economic phenomena. Thus the name of the science stuck
perhaps, because it preserved the sense of, while improvin~
on, the name hitherto available to its practitioners as a
general designation of their object field – namely,
nature’s economy’.6
So at least in this very general way, parallels between the
spheres of economy and ecology can be perceived from
both sides.

Having identified this common ground of economy and
ecology, then, the very general inference may be drawn that
ecology, as the logos of the oikos, promises to reveal the
?eeper truth and rationality of economy, which grasps only
Its ma~~ade an.d c?ntingent nomos. This, I think, sums up
the gmdmg aspIratIOn of the project of political ecology in
gener~l. The broad thrust ofthis project is to argue – indeed,
prescnbe – that a deeper understanding of our oikos (ecology) should inform our management of it (economy).

However, having identified the common ground of

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

ecology and economy, this does not mean collapsing
economy into ecology. Some writers go so far as to suggest
– and this is one extreme of ecologism – that the area of
activities denoted as ‘economy’ are simply part of the more
extensive totality of phenomena now designated as ‘ecology’ , because, for example, economic practices are grounded
in the material and energetic exchanges constituting the
I atter. 7 But caution is necessary here. We also need to
recognise the manifest differences between economics and
ecology: most centrally, the difference between the kind of
purposivity characterising human social practices on the
one hand, and phenomena of the natural world on the other.

Disregarding or effacing such differences when explaining
human practices can lead to naturalistic reductionism;8 and
attempting to derive principles for policy directly from
ecology is likely to be abstract or arbitrary, ifnot fallacious
– for politics has to do with relations between people, social
relations, which cannot exhaustively be explained ecologically.9
So if ecology and economy share a common ground,
there is also this difference which hinges on the peculiar sort
of purposivity governing the ecology: namely, that which
has its source in human will and intention. Nevertheless,
expressed so generally, this difference is as abstract as the
identity posited by ecologism: for there is no specific
unitary human will and intention which can be described in
general terms with any validity. Hence this point tells
against ‘environmentalist’ positions as characterised above:

specific economies are products of different and often
conflicting intentions; the economic imperatives which we
want to subject to critique are historically specific.

So, rather than seeking to compare or contrast economy
directly with ecology in a general and abstract way, in the
manner of either ecologism or environmentalism, it is, I
think, more useful and theoretically defensible to consider
the identity and difference of economy and ecology as they
have permeated political theory and practice as part of a
historical process. In very broad terms this means considering how relations of dependence and control between people (i.e. politics) develop out of relations of dependence and
control between people and their natural environment. To
do this would not be to approach history with the readymade categories of ‘economic’ or ‘ecological’ – but to see
how these categories themselves have emerged and developed.

By way of illustration of this point, and in order to
highlight the specificity of the modern relation between the
economic and the ecological, a few schematic observations
may be helpful.

In tribal or subsistence communities, for example, there
appears to be an absence of any differentiation between
economic and ecological ideas as we would conceive them:

ecological systems are preserved and their constituents
respected for reasons which do not reflect any distinction
between instrumental and intrinsic values. In such communities there is also usually an absence of a political sphere
separate from productive and reproductive activities. By
contrast, on the latter point, in the more differentiated kind
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

of society exemplified in ancient Greece, for example, there
is a marked contrast between the oikos and the polis,
between the activities, values and purposes associated with
the two spheres: as Macpherson has succinctly put it, the
‘household and the village were for the material requirements of life, the polis was for the good life’ .10 But still, as
regards any distinction between economy and ecology,
there is not much reason to draw one. Moreover, in any
society based largely on agriculture, or, more generally, on
‘eco-regulatory’ rather than ‘transformative’ practices, 11
the characteristic relation to nature is one more of ‘cooperation’ than of ‘domination’. Thus throughout the feudal
period too there was little reason to conceive a radical
distinction between economy and ecology: we can say that
together they constituted an undifferentiated ‘sphere of
necessity’. It is in the modern period that this begins to
change, when the idea of ‘economic freedom’ comes to
appear quite distinct from that of ‘natural necessity’. This is
due to the fact that the sphere of economic activity does
indeed gain some autonomy from the natural world – and in
two major respects. On the one hand, there is the freedom
generated through the growth in human powers of technological manipulation which has been realized through the
achievements in this period of science and industrialism.

On the other hand, there is the development of the market
system which entails the general alienability ofland, labour
and capital. These factors of production had hitherto been
seen not merely as social phenomena, but as aspects of the
natural world. With the generalisation of the market system,
however, this naturalness can be increasingly abstracted
from: the specificity of nature becomes an indifferent generality. The social reality of land, labour and capital is now
merely quantitative: its sensuous reality becomes a matter
of indifference.

This, then, is the antithesis of an ecological perspective
on production.

However, an alternative perspective can be posed not in
simple opposition, but only as a determinate negation. This
is for at least two reasons. Firstly, political economy expresses with relative validity the truth of this society and
economy: it is no good attempting to proceed by denying
this truth, one needs rather to show how it is merely relative
– to show, for instance, how the capitalist mode of production and market relations etc. effect a real abstraction of the
social from the natural. Thus the key to Marx’ s critique of
political economy lay precisely in showing how this abstraction takes place in the process of converting labour into
capital. However, a question which did not loom very large
for either the political economists or for Marx is the role
played by nature in meeting economic objectives, or indeed
the effects on nature of pursuing them. Yet, although this is
clearly a defect when viewed from an ecological perspective it is also arguable – and here is the second reason why
the critique of political economy must be a determinate
negation – that it is only when the distinctiveness of the
economic is comprehended that the distinctiveness of the
ecological becomes potentially visible. What I mean can be
illustrated in the following way. Although the relation
13

between economy and nature was barely thematised in the
modern era, the history of manufacturing was from the
beginning a history of ecological devastation. If the latter
history is only now beginning to be written this is perhaps
because, much as exchange began as incidental to production and only at a certain stage of capitalist development
became the dominant feature of the economy – the system
of commodity exchange – so, at the beginning, local manufacture had local ecological effects which were similarly
‘incidental’ as opposed to ‘systematic’. Now, however, that
the global industrial system has global effects, ecological
devastation is systematic in the same sense that commodity
production is: that is, not as the result of a prior plan, but
according to the inherent logic of a process which tends
towards an infinite exploitation of finite natural resources.

Thus, because now ecological devastation is so generalised, ecology demands admittance into political and economic theory.

So, we could say, the ecological permeating of political
thought will depend on the extent to which it is recognised
that the exploitation and extraction theorised by Marx
applies not only to labour, but also to nature. Political
ecology, then, to be political, cannot lose sight of exploitative human relations; but to be political ecology it will have
to be able to grasp these relations in the broader context of
exploitation of nature. There are two factors, then, in a
critique of political economy: a critique of the subjection to
the market of human labour on the one hand, and of land or nature more generally – on the other. A development of
political ecology is premised on this dual critique.

The Ecological Challenge to Marxism
The position I am seeking to outline, as a theoretical
definition of political ecology, differs from ecologistic and
environmentalist interpretations in that it takes one of its
key premises to be the Marxian critique of political economy.

However, I also believe that the ecological challenge is one
which an unreconstructed Marxism is not wholly able to
meet. In this section, therefore, I consider how, in general
terms, an ecologically reconstructed Marxism might meet
the challenge.

Firstly, though, it is important briefly to clarify what that
challenge is, for it can be both understated and overstated.

It is understated when capitalism is presented as the root of
all ecological evil, with the corollary that the traditional
tools of Marxism, applied to capitalism, would solve ecological crises en passant as it were. The challenge is
overstated, however, when the validity of the Marxist
analysis of capitalism is denied or simply declared irrelevant on the grounds that the cause of ecological crises lies
with the industrial system of production as such. Neither
perspective to the exclusion of the other is adequate. On the
one hand, industrial activity assumes unecological forms
under the profit motive of short-term private interests connections between property interests and unecological
activity are too well established for this to be denied. On the
other hand, there is the equally undeniable evidence of
ecological devastation in socialist states – it does not
14

suffice, I believe, to see this as the pure result of socialist
states having to compete with capitalists. Ultimately the
problem lies with systems of production, ownership and
administration which are based on the commodification of
both labour and nature.

For Marx, what is wrong with the capitalist mode of
production is that it perpetuates an exploitative relation
between capitalist and worker, but he says virtually nothing
about the exploitation of the rest of nature. 12 Indeed, he
retains the belief that human emancipation must be premised on the continuing growth of productive forces. Marx
attributes a positive value to capitalist accumulation insofar
as this means the material concentration of productive
forces, for he sees this as a sine qua non of human emancipation, providing the material basis for the worker’s effective claim for true, communist, freedom. Thus his objective
appears to be a transition from an unequal to an equal
partnership in the domination of nature. It implies the
cornucopian, Promethean, view of the human relation to
nature which ecologists object to.

But if Marx’s critique of political economy is insufficient as a basis for political ecology, it is nevertheless a
necessary element. This is a point which ecologistic positions can fail to appreciate because of their principled
refusal to consider the social in its specificity; environmentalists, for their part, are just as inclined to see ecological
crises as the unmediated effect of industrial production or
over-population. No connection between such phenomena
and the social division of labour is theorised in either case,
so the regulation of the human metabolism with nature from
the social side is inadequately grasped.

The problem, then, is that whilst natural limits to the
growth of productive forces cannot adequately be theorised
without reference to social relations, they do need to be
theorised. This is the central problem picked up as a challenge by those theorists who are now seeking to develop an
ecologically reconstructed Marxism. 13 This project would
involve an ecological elaboration of the basic categories
used by Marx in his theorisation of society in terms of the
human metabolism with nature. At a high level of generality
Marx characterised society in terms of two fundamental
categories:

1. The material and energetic exchanges which take place
between humans and nature in production are wrought
by what Marx calls forces of production.

2. The relations between humans which regulate the human metabolism with nature, for example the division
of labour and property rights, are called relations of
production.

Ecological Marxism, however, raises to prominence a third
factor. If society first appears as arising in opposition to
nature, this opposition is, in some ways, only apparent: for
both the material infrastructure, and the human constituents, of society are in fact themselves part of nature. Thus
nature enters the social world, conditioning and limiting it,
in both these ways. Hence a third category, which is present,
but in a subordinate position in Marx’s theory, needs to be
accorded no less importance: namely,
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

3. Conditions of production – e.g., the natural limits of
both human and non-human nature which regulate the
metabolism from the side of nature.

Now using these three basic categories – the forces,
relations and conditions of production – it may be possible
to offer a constructive perspective on the essential theoretical dispute between Marxism and some of its ecological
critics. In his critique of the capitalist mode of production,
and his projection of a communist alternative, Marx focused on contradictions between forces and relations of
production: in particular, he criticised capitalist relations as
fetters on a fuller development offorces of production. Now
the ecologists argue that, since it is precisely the development of the forces of production which is wreaking ecological havoc, what we need, if anything, are more effective
fetters. Hence, instead of criticising capitalist relations,
they insist on criticising industrial forces of production.

However, Marxists would point out that it is not possible to
transform the forces of production without engaging with

the social relations which maintain them in being. So where
the ecologists would reduce Marx’s two-dimensional dynamic (between forces and relations of production) to the
one dimension of forces of production, ecological Marxists
seek to extend the framework of analysis to incorporate the
third dimension – that of the conditions of production. Thus
O’Connor, for example, suggests it may be possible to
theorise a ‘second contradiction of capitalism’:

An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a
crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the
combined power of capitalist relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying
rather than reproducing their own conditions. 14
This approach can be claimed to offer the advantage – over
environmentalism and ecologism – of an integrated account
of social, economic and ecological crises. 15
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Nevertheless, what needs to be emphasised in the present
context is that in expanding the framework of analysis to
incorporate an account of production conditions, an ecological reconstruction of historical materialism will entail a
more radical critique of political economy – and its presuppositions – than is to be found in Marx. Marx’s critique of
political economy was intended to elucidate the dynamics
of the capitalist mode of production, but this critique will
offer too restricted a view of the problem: for capitalism is
not the sole cause of ecological crisis; and the effects of
ecological crisis cannot be fully grasped in terms of a crisis
for capital. An insufficiently reconstructed Marxism could
persist in the error of believing it can. Orthodox Marxism
has always recognised the existence of ‘natural barriers’,
but has seen them, like the barriers represented by social
relations, as obstacles to be overcome. If an ecological
Marxism merely adds to this a view of how what is specific
to capitalism is the way ‘natural barriers’ assume the form
of crisis, then the implicit hope may be fostered that if the
specific crisis form is removed, what is left will be the
nature-given barriers which productive forces have always
encountered, and will continue to ‘push back’: the aim
would thus remain that of further developing productive
forces. An ecological Marxism would have to incorporate
a different political aim. This point is reinforced by the
observation that there can be increasing ecological destruction for a long time, without this having a reflection in
capitalist crisis. Now, recognising this, O’Connor suggests
it may be precisely the role of new social movements to
accelerate the process – to translate ecological crises into
crises for capital. 16 Nevertheless, there remainsthe question
whether ecological crisis, which appears on O’Connor’s
account in the form of a crisis of reproduction of production
conditions, is not actually something more and other than
this. This question gives form to the ecological intuition that
nature, internal and external, is something more and other
than a condition of production. I think the answer is likely
to be – one which is gaining ground in debate – that
ecological concerns can not be fully accounted in discussion of production conditions, unless these are so broadly
defined as to problematise the Marxian conception of
production itself.

Viewed ecologically – indeed, viewed properly materialistically – ‘production’ is not simply a unified or homogeneous set of activities which can either advance or experience setbacks. It may appear this way from the standpoint
of capital and its theorists who see production merely as the
precondition for the process of valorization. But this abstracts from the specific material and ecological modes of
being of productive ‘conditions’ and also productive forces
which are themselves a part of nature. Marx recognises this
when setting out the materialist premises of his philosophy
and theory of history; however, he tends to neglect the
implications of this insight when dealing with economic
theory: indeed, as Benton argues, Marx takes over from
political economy some basic concepts, like ‘production’

itself, which in fact need to be more radically problematised. 17
It might then be shown that there is no clear fault line of
15

contradictions between ‘forces’ and ‘conditions’ ofproduction – indeed, that the distinction between productive forces
and conditions becomes increasingly arbitrary as the material character of production is analysed.

In revealing this arbitrariness, political ecology might
follow recent feminist critiques of the primacy of production in Marx.

Beyond the Paradigm of Production
‘Production’ is the most fundamental category in Marx’s
theories of society and history. It is by reference to its mode
of production that Marx believes the specific character of
any society may be explained. When he writes that human
history begins when people begin producing their means of
subsistence he is quite clearly making a claim about the
primacy of production in general. Now a problem which has
been pointed to, and with growing insistence in recent
years, is that there is something of a hiatus between the kind
of claim Marx makes for the primacy of production in
general and the conceptualisation of specific forms of
production – such as in commodity production. ls Thus
Nicholson, 19 for example, points out that there is a variety of
meanings of ‘production’ in Marx: sometimes he appears to
mean by ‘production’ any activity which has consequences;
at other times the term is used, more narrowly, to refer to
activities which result in objects; and then again, more
narrowly still, to mean those activities which result in
objects which can be bought and sold – commodities. From
a feminist perspective, in particular, Nicholson argues, this
variety of usages yields a problematic ambiguity: sometimes Marx’ s concept of production focuses exclusively on
those activities concerned with the making of food and
physical objects; at others it focuses on all human activities
necessary to the reproduction of the species, including such
activities as nursing and childrearing. Yet these are such
different kinds of activity that considering them all to
exemplify the one general phenomenon of ‘production’ can
involve an equivocation with serious implications. As
Benhabib and Cornell also argue, the concept of production
based on the model of an active subject transforming,
making and shaping an object given to it, is inadequate for
comprehending activities like, for example, childbearing
and rearing, care of the sick and the elderly.20 But if these
activities do not conform to the subject-object
(transformati ve ) model of production, they are nevertheless
crucially important to the basic material practices (reproduction) of society which Marx intends under production in
16

general. Hence it may be argued that, under capitalist
conditions, production (in general) assumes at least two
distinct forms: the production of commodities and the
reproduction of people. Although the distinctiveness of the
latter is recognised by Marx, and especially by Engels, it is
nevertheless under-theorised. As Mary Q’Brien writes:

Marx talks continuously of the need for men to
‘reproduce’ themselves, and by this he almost always
means reproduction of the self on a daily basis by the
continual and necessary restoking of the organism
with fuel for its biological needs. Man makes himself
materially, and this is of course true. Man, however,
is also ‘made’ reproductively by the parturitive labour of women, but Marx ultimately combines these
two processes. This has the effect of negating biological continuity which is mediated by women’s
reproductive labour, and replacing this with productive continuity in which men, in making themselves,
also make history. 21
There is thus a tendency for Marx to negate the sociality and
historicity of reproductive activities – to view them either as
natural and ahistorical or else as historical effects of changes
in productive relations – and so to accord them a subordinate and marginal role. This cuts off the family, and particularly the women within it (the ‘reproduction workers’),
from both politics and economics.

It is for this kind of reason that the contributors to
Feminism as Critique argue that the confrontation between
Marxism and feminism requires a ‘displacement of the
paradigm of production’ . The line of argument tbey develop
is directly relevant to the project of political ecology. They
point out that Marx’s inadequate differentiation between
kinds of work, or production, impinges directly on his
conception of politics. He shows how politics is grounded
in struggle between classes, but his concept of class relies
on the narrow definition of ‘production’:

The criterion that Marx employs to demarcate class
position, ‘relation to means of production’ ,is understood as relation to the means of producing food and
objects …. A consequence of such a definition of class
is to eliminate from consideration historical conflicts
over other socially necessary activities such as
childbearing and childrearing.22
If such factors are to be restored to an appropriately central
theoretical place, production needs to be seen in relation to
reproduction. The precise nature of this relation may remain
a matter for debate, but the concerns expressed by feminists
about the primacy of production and neglect of reproduction in Marxism and political economy are concerns which
must be at the heart of political ecology.

There are important respects in which broadening the
concept of the economic to include not only productive but
also reproductive activities provides a basis for developing
an ecological perspective on the economic sphere. From an
economic perspective, production appears as a self-contained and self-generating sphere; from an ecological standRadical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

point, what we understand by production may be seen as one
facet of the broader set of natural phenomena, including
human activities, which can be described as reproduction.

Whereas from the standpoint of political economy reproduction, if significant at all, is only a moment of production,
from the standpoint of ecology, by contrast, production
appears as a moment of reproduction, as a mediation of
nature’s own activity. For, however much humans believe
they are working against nature, they are in fact always
working with nature – indeed, nature is workingfor them,
as the labourer works for the capitalist. Thus where political
economy reveals the source of value to be labour, political
ecology reveals the source of labour, and hence ultimately
of value itself, to be nature – though, of course, nature is not
immediately the source of value: value is aform arising from
human practices. What makes ecology political, then, is
how processes of production and reproduction enter social
relations of power and property. The standpoint of political
ecology must focus on the mediations: and in this, I believe,
it may take a cue from the feminist theory mentioned above
because this addresses social relations of power and property – in particular, the domestic and the familial- which
have been excluded from political economy.

This might also lead to an ecological radicalisation of
Marx’s definition of class. If class is defined in terms of
control – or lack of control – not only over industrial
productive forces, but also over reproductive forces, then
there seems even to be a possibility that class might be
defined along new lines 23 – perhaps implying a whole new
political agenda of no lesser scale than that of the (industrial) labour movement.

Materialist Feminism and Ecological Politics
Those last remarks are very much intended as suggestions
and would require considerable elaboration before they
could amount to more than that. Here I should just like to
offer a few points of clarification as to what the suggestion
is – stressing, though, that this cannot hope to be a full
explanation of it, let alone a defence. My limited aim is to
try to meet foreseeable worries about it, and I shall focus on
two. One area of concern is that the relation of production
to reproduction has been a matter of considerable debate
within feminist theory in recent years, and in the light of
those debates it is necessary to clarify how one can use the
idea of ‘reproduction’ to challenge the primacy of production without committing the fallacy of essentialism or
equivocating on the meaning of ‘reproduction’. Secondly,
particularly in view of these concerns, my suggestion about
‘a new political agenda’ needs a little more explanation, or
at least a few clarifying qualifications.

Firstly, then, it should be noted that there is a strand of
ecofeminist theory which advocates the primacy of reproduction. This has grown out of a strand of feminism,
according to Valerie Bryson, which:

‘sees motherhood and the care of the young as positive experiences to be celebrated and as giving rise to
‘womanly values’ to do with nurturing, co-operation
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

and peace. These are contrasted with male attributes
of self-interest, competition and aggression and have
led to the development of “eco feminist” theory.’24
They equate men’s treatment of women with their
treatment of nature and insist that only women’s
values can save the planet from ecological disaster. 25
Bryson notes that this view is vulnerable to a number of
telling criticisms – for instance, that it involves a biological
determinism which contradicts current scientific thinking
and flies in the face of much historical evidence. She sums
it up:

To say that women’s traditional role involves lifeenhancing values for which they should demand a
public hearing is one thing; to say that women’s
biological attributes give them a monopoly of such
values is quite another, for this would seem to confirm traditional roles and divisions, allowing men to
continue to destroy the planet while celebrating alternative virtues at home. 26
Nevertheless, as I have argued, reproduction and nature do
need to be accounted for – and not merely as social constructs. Hence, as Mary MelIor says:

To maintain that there is a biological and ecological
limit to human activity and our capacity for social
reconstructions is not to revert to essentialism but to
begin to theorise the conditions of our material existence. 27
Kate Soper elaborates and qualifies this line of thought:

A materialist account must necessarily be ‘essentialist’ at a certain level. It must recognise a distinction
between ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ concepts of ‘nature’ …

we should recognise that the coherence of the socialist ecological critique of the cultural practices adopted
towards ‘nature’ depends on an essentialist concept
of ‘nature’ .28
This is not the essentialism of ecofeminism however. As
Soper notes, men ‘are just as clearly situated within “nature” and governed by biology as women are, and both men
and women are clearly involved in reproduction’. Therefore, she observes:

To approach reproduction as if it were inherently a
more ‘natural’ and ‘female’ domain obscures the
politically important discriminations which need to
be made with respect to all human practice (both
‘producti ve’ and ‘reproductive’) between those aspects which are biologically/naturally constrained
(and thus far ‘essentially’ given), and those which are
socio-economically conditioned, and whose specific
‘material’ constraints are in principle removable. 29
The view which is emerging here, then, within materialist
feminism, is not that the production/reproduction dichotomy
should be inverted, as essentialist ecofeminists would have
it, but that it should be overcome. At the level of theory, the
aim is not to supplant the ‘primacy of production’ by the
17

‘primacy of reproduction’: rather the idea is, as I have
already sought to sketch, one of theorising the human
metabolism with nature in all its facets. This appears to give
support to the suggestion that a politics which is ecological,
feminist and socialist will find its theoretical ground in the
theory I am describing as ‘political ecology’. Indeed, it is
quite conceivable that in embodying these political values
political ecology could claim to represent a whole new
paradigm in contrast to the liberal and patriarchal and
capitalist values of political economy.

This, then, is to bring us to the question of politics, and
I ought to sound a note of caution about my earlier reference
to ‘redefining class’ . For on the one hand, given that class
struggles in the ‘traditional’ sense continue, it does not
necessarily need redefining; on the other, in view of basic
postmarxist points about the relativisation of class struggle,
one should perhaps be looking to limit rather than revive the
concept. So the suggestion of the possibility of forging
alliances which might gather the sort of collective momentum attributed to Marx by class might still seem exorbitant
– implying a unity and collective power for which there is
extremely scant evidence, if any at all. So I shall simply sum
up why I think the idea is theoretically compelling and
politically ‘challenging’.

On the one hand, it does seem to me there is reason to
think in terms of feminist, ecological and social forces
recognising their common material base as a ground for
political unity and common action. The strength of this
basis – by contrast with many of the utopian constructions
of more purely ecological theorists – is that it does not
depend on changes in consciousness or consumption but is
rooted in what we must now refer to in an expanded sense
of ‘production’. Thus the claim, on the one hand, is a very
simple one: if the truth of what feminists and ecologists alert
us to about the ‘productivity’ of women and nature finds
political expression it cannot but mean radical change.

On the other hand, however, translating this truth into
politics will be anything but simple. Socialism, feminism
and ecologism (in this context the term is appropriate) have
distinct agendas. The core socialist aim is to overcome
exploitation and alienation of labour, to transform the
division of labour – not to overcome the need for labour or
the productive system itself, but simply to organise it on a
non-class basis. The ecological aim, by contrast, is to
transform the productive system as a material force. These
divergent aims are not necessarily reconciled within materialist ecofeminism: in fact, the programmatic aims of
overcoming the re-/production dichotomy and overcoming,
or at least renegotiating, the associated public/private split
involve some conflicting demands. At one level, MelIor can
answer Soper’s worries on this score by pointing out that
materialist ecofeminism can seek both to relieve women of
their domestic duties and demand a revaluation of them
(economically, socially, symbolically) because the objective is a transcendence of the prevailing sexual division of
labour, and the achievement of harmony between the sexes
whereby responsibilities for nurturing and caring are both
shared and valorised. Yet, although this vision may be
18

assimilable to a socialist one, there is room to doubt whether
it is likely to guarantee an ecological outcome even in
aspiration. MelIor’s suggestion is:

By integrating the divided worlds of men and women,
such a society will pull men back to the pace of
biological time in which women live. … It will
equalise the resource of time, so that we can begin to
slow down the pace of human development to sustainable levels. 30
However, one may well ask why, on the contrary, the
equalisation of the resource of time should not mean women
instead ‘getting up to speed’ in the men’s world, thereby
maintaining the quest for economic growth and its attendant
value commitments. To assume, without offering further
reasons, that there is something pulling in the former
direction and that women’s values are ‘closer to nature’ is
to succumb to what has already been criticised as the error
of essentialist ecofeminism. Otherwise, there is no reason to
suppose that a redistribution of roles across gender divisions, in itself, need change anything ecologically.

It therefore seems that ecological concern is irreducible
and has no ‘natural’ allies. If political ecology seems to
support the basic theoretical and ethical assumptions of a
‘green socialist feminism’, the truth of these assumptions is
the sort of truth that will only ‘be proved in practice’.

Conclusion
To adopt the standpoint of political ecology is not to deny
the relative or partial truth grounding political eco.nomy that
productive activity is fundamental to human social being,
but to revalue andreconceptualise productive activity itself;
it is not to deny, either, the force of Marx’s critique of
exploitation of labour in (capitalist) productive processes,
rather it is to extend this critique to the exploitation of nonwaged labour and the ‘labour’ of nature itself. It means, for
example, revaluing reproductive activities; it also means
identifying reproductive aspects of productive activities;
and making distinctions within production. Perhaps production and reproduction would then no longer be seen as
two entirely separate spheres, but rather as one sphere
within which some activities are sustainable and others are
not. This would significantly expand the parameters (of
political economy) to those best described as ‘political
ecology’. However, this metatheoretical perspective should
not be confused with a theory of politics. Regarding the
latter, it is all still to do.

Notes
‘Environmentalism’, understood in this sense, is quite compatible with ‘green capitalism’ and the ‘environment industry’.

Hence not only deep ecologists, but also ecosocialists, can be
critical of it. As Q’Connor puts it, ‘mainstream environmentalists’ are ‘those who are trying to save capitalism from its
ecologically self-destructive tendencies’ (lames Q’Connor, ‘Socialism and ecology’, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 8, 1991,
p. 2). Such a description might apply quite well, for instance, to
David Pearce et al. Blueprint for a Green Economy (Earthscan,

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

London, 1989).

Of course, ‘environmentalism’ can also be used in a more
inclusive sense: see, e.g. T. O’Riordan, Environmentalism (Pion
Ltd, London, 1976).

2

Cf. Andrew Dobson, Green Political Thought (Unwin Hyman,
London, 1990), whose account is organised around the ‘environmentalism’/’ ecologism’ opposition.

3

Cf. Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, trans. and
revised by David Rothenberg (Cambridge University Press,
1989), pp. 40ff, where he explains, amongst other things, that
principles for action cannot be derived from ecology. In view of
how ‘ecologism’ is often used as an affirmative designation,
especially by people influenced by deep ecology, it is interesting
to note that the founder of deep ecology himself defines it as
‘excessive universalisation or generalisation of ecological concepts and theories’ (ibid., p. 40).

This concept is quite often referred to in the literature. Bohme
and Schramm, for instance, see it as an indispensable heuristic
and metatheoretical concept: ‘It continually forces reflection
back to the material basis, to the concrete interaction between
humans and nature … embracing not only productive appropriation of nature, but also the consumptive relation of humans to
nature; of not just intentional engagement with nature, but also
unintended effects’ (G. Bohme and E. Schramm, eds, Foreword
to Soziale Naturwissenschaft: Wege zu einer Erweiterung der
Okologie, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1984, p. 8 [my trans.]).

See Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx (New Left
Books, London, 1971). Juan Martinez-Alier has commented
that although the concept was used non-metaphorically by Marx
and Engels, they thought only in terms of the exchange of matter
(cf. the German StojfWechsel), without recognising the importance of energy exchanges: this was drawn to their attention by
Podolinsky, and Martinez-Alier sees their inadequate response
as a crucial missed opportunity in the dialogue between Marxism and ecology. (Juan Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics:

Energy, Environment and Society, paperback edition with new
Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990, esp. chapter 14).

This sort of interpretation emerges, I think, from Donald Worster,
Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge
University Press, 1985). Other historians of ecology, though,
who focus more specifically on the development of the scientific
discipline over the past hundred or so years, emphasise
discontinuities with respect to the idea of an ‘economy of nature’

– especially the cosmological connotations it has in Linnaeus:

see, e.g., Pascal Acot, Histoire de I’ Ecologie (Presses
Universitaires de France, 1988); R. P. McIntosh, The Background ofEcology: Concept and Theory (Cambridge University
Press, 1985).

4

5

6

7

8

McIntosh (p. 303) has cited various early twentieth century
writers who saw economics as a moment of ecology, and located
them within the chequered history of human ecology; a more
recent example is given by Cramer and Van Den Daele: ‘Howard
Odum, for instance, reduces all natural and social phenomena to
energy and matter and represents them in energy flow diagrams,
feedback mechanisms and loop controls. He claims that this
language is also applicable to moral duties and legal relations in
society’ (J. Cramer and W. Van Den Daele, ‘Is ecology an
“alternative” natural science?’ Synthese 65, 1985, p. 357).

Martinez-Alier, for instance, has noted various manifestations
of naturalistic reductionism, which are suspect not only theoretically but also politically, in the penumbra of ecological ideasamong them, social Darwinism and neo-Malthusianism (e.g.

ideas of ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘lifeboat ethics’) as well as
social Prigonism (i.e. ‘eco-systems’ theory). Thus he emphasises that economics should not become merely human ecology:

‘Ecologists are quite good at explaining the movements of birds
and fish, but today they are unable to explain the geographical
distribution of the human population. The territorial-political
units where environmental policy is made and applied have no
ecological logic, and they are adept at shifting social costs out of

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

their borders. Thus, arguments based on carrying capacities and
the sustainability of development are blatantly ideological in
their selective application’ (p. xxiv).

9

10

11

12

13

14
15

16

17

18

19
20
21

22

To say this is not necessarily to deny that, ultimately, even social
relations, human purposivity and so on might have an ecological
explanation; it is to point out that this level of explanation would
yield little or no unequivocal guidance for politics: see Tim
Hayward, ‘Ecology and human emancipation’, Radical Philosophy 62, 1992, pp. 3-13.

C. B. Macpherson, The Rise and Fall of Economic Justice and
Other Essays, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 105; an even
more marked distinction would have been that between the aims
of chrematistics (as opposed to oekonomia) and politics.

This distinction is from Ted Benton, ‘Marxism and natural
limits: An ecological critique and reconstruction’, New Left
Review 178, 1989, pp. 51-86.

‘Exploitation of nature’ is left as a theoretically unexamined
term in this paper: one obvious task of political ecology would
be to critically examine it – along with other related ideas, such
as ‘natural capital’, which are widely used in the literature of
environmental economics and sustainability.

A forum for this project is the journal Capitalism, Nature,
Socialism (hereafter CNS) edited by James O’Connor: it is seen
as involving not only an ecological interrogation of the work of
Marx and Engels, but also a re-evaluation of radical thinkers
(e.g. anarchists and utopian socialists) previously marginalised
by orthodox Marxism.

James O’Connor, ‘Capitalism, nature, socialism: A theoretical
introduction’, CNS 1,1988, p. 25.

On the one hand, according to O’Connor, it can theorise how
traditional economic crises of overproduction now yield ecological and social crises: global capitalism attempts to rescue
itself from its deepening crisis by cutting costs (hence allowing
a deterioration of environmental quality), or raising the rate of
exploitation of labour (hence furthering new and deeper inequalities in distribution of wealth and income worldwide). On
the other hand, there is a feedback mechanism between ecological crisis and economic crisis: the barriers to capitalist accumulation which [Marx] called ‘conditions of production’ in general,
and ‘external conditions’ (i.e. ‘nature’), in particular, take the
form of economic crisis – a self-induced crisis from the cost side.

‘Perhaps we can surmise that feminism, environmental movements, etc. are ‘pushing’ capital and state into more social forms
of the reproduction of production conditions. As labor exploitation … engendered a labor movement which during particular
times and places turned itself into a “social barrier” to capital,
nature exploitation … engenders an environmental movement …

which may also constitute a “social barrier” to capital.’

(O’Connor, p. 31).

Since conditions of production can be both limiting and enabling, the political aims of ecological movements may be seen,
O’Connor argues, in terms of struggles either for the protection
or the restructuring of production conditions.

Benton, ‘Marxism and natural limits ‘; see also Martin 0’ Connor,
‘Codependency and indeterminacy: a critique of the theory of
production’, CNS 3,1989, pp. 33-57.

The problem of the status of ‘production’ in Marx has been
highlighted from a number of perspectives: e.g. Jean Baudrillard,
The Mirror of Production, Telos Press, St Louis, 1975; Seyla
Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell (eds) Feminism as Critique,
Polity, Cambridge, 1987; Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics.

Linda Nicholson, ‘Feminism and Marx’, in Feminism as Critique.

S. Benhabib and D. Cornell, ‘Beyond the politics of gender’ in
Feminism as Critique.

Quoted in Nicholson, p. 24.

Nicholson, p. 24.

19

23

Though these would be lines which are already perceived as
demarcating relations of exploitation and oppression (e.g. of
women and subsistence workers). The idea I am tentatively
pointing towards here is that class position might be defined in
terms of relation, or access, to means of life – not only to the
means of (paradigmatically industrial) ‘production’.

Of course adding to the concept of ‘reproduction’ will require
considerable theoretical clarification. Even basic definitions
need work: some of the unhelpful connotations that can attach to
the term are illustrated in C. Delphy and D. Leonard, Familiar
Exploitation, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992, e.g. p. 58; a number
of other senses are distinguished in a preliminary way in Marilyn
Waring, Counting for Nothing, AlIen and Unwin, Wellington,
New Zealand, 1988, pp. 22-24.

24

Valerie Bryson, Feminist Political Theory, Macmillan, London,
1992, pp. 208-09.

25

Among the writers Bryson is referring to here are Susan Griffin
(Woman and Nature, 1984) and Andree Collard (Rape of the
Wild, 1988). It must be emphasised, though, that not all
ecofeminist theory can be characterised in this way, as neoromantic or biologistic. Others, particularly materialist
ecofeminists, ‘are engaged in a subtle deconstruction of the
patriarchal “Mother Nature” ideology while yet trying to retheorise our human embeddedness in what is called “nature”.

(Ariel Salleh, ‘Eco-socialisrnleco-feminism discussion’ , CNS 6,
1991, pp. 129-134).

26

Bryson, Feminist Political Theory, p. 211.

27

Mary MelIor, ‘Eco-feminism and eco-socialism: dilemmas of
essentialism and materialism’, CNS 10,1992, p. 46.

28

Kate Soper, ‘Discussion: eco-feminism and eco-socialism’,
CNS 11,1992, p. 113.

29

Ibid., p. 112.

30

MelIor, ‘Eco-feminism and eco-socialism’, p. 59.

ut
ut

a

~

.e

a.

a
u

20

“Rothenberg comes towards us like a skilled intellectual surfer, riding
just ahead of the wave,
constantly adjusting his
stance, both a player and
a pawn of the forces he
navigates. Using pungent historical examples,
Hand)s End argues that
technology properly
used, can extend nature
rather than destroy it. A
good corrective to The
End of Nature.”
-Roger Shattuck, author
of The Innocent Eye
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