Ecologia y Capital, or Enrique Leff for beginners

Published online 7 January 2007.

This is a review of the English translation of Enrique Leff’s 1995 short book Ecologia y Capital, titled Green Production, oriented toward a discussion of its political usefulness in the current era.  I finally got around to reading this book over the weekend, after suggesting it to a friend who is in fact doing this kind of work in college; here are my thoughts.

One of the most brilliant concepts to be articulated in Joel Kovel’s (2002) book The Enemy of Nature is that of “ecological production.”  Kovel’s point is that, in the ecologically-conscious future, human production will no longer be the production of commodities, items for sale on a market, but rather the production of ecosystems, envisioning the management of ecological cycles that have as their incidental byproducts the growth of natural objects useful for human beings.  So what is “ecological production”?  We produce things because we want them; how could we want to produce an ecology?  Kovel admits to borrowing the concept from the Mexican ecologist Enrique Leff.  In Green Production (an English translation of Ecologia y Capital) Leff outlines this concept, and here I hope to simplify “ecological production” in a form that is useful for political thinkers concerned about the future.

What’s the problem?

The growth of global civilization has been accompanied by a global ecological crisis.  As John McMurtry pointed out in 2002, ecological systems are everywhere “in catastrophic dieback,” as forest, ocean, topsoil, and fossil fuel resources are consumed in excess of their regenerative capacities.

I think it’s really important that we focus upon ecology, and make its study a priority in thinking through major political issues, even if they don’t at first glance seem related.  The occupation of Iraq, for instance, can be thought of as an ecological issue.  In occupying Iraq, our government represents corporate interests that would like to see the US military as the arbiter of who gets to exploit Iraq’s precious oil reserves.  Our civilization, of course, is addicted to oil, which will at some future date start to run out, greatly increasing its price.  Burning billions of barrels of oil has, moreover, brought to global society a raging greenhouse effect that promises to accelerate in the coming years.

The economy, moreover, has become a matter of society’s dependence upon “jobs,” which must be provided by those with money.  Few people today think about the material basis of their relationship to the land and the good things that it grows, since everything can be bought with money at supermarkets, Home Depot, or the local shopping mall.  Thus I have suggested that, if the money were to run out, we could be in deep trouble, and that genuine security in light of this reality may have to come from “living off of the land.”  But to “live off of the land” like our ancestors once did, we would have to get back in touch with its ecological realities.  The bottom line is that the resources which our economy uses come mostly from a natural world, which is based on fragile, breakable ecosystems, and that ecology is the science by which we can know how that natural world works.

Some writers, such as Derrick Jensen, blame the ecological crisis on “civilization,” while leaving open the meaning of what precisely is wrong with “civilization” that makes it unecological.  Others blame “population,” without fully accounting for the unequal impact of different populations upon the environment.

For Enrique Leff, a Mexican writer on the editorial board of Capitalism Nature Socialism, the environmental crisis is a product of “the process of capital accumulation.” (1)  Leff’s argument about capitalism is based upon how life under capitalism has become more and more “technologically advanced.”  (Those of us who were born before the Internet experience this thought every day.)

As the capitalist system has become more technologically advanced, the requirements of “being in business” have become overall more expensive because businesses in many sectors have had to buy more equipment.  Businesses seeking a profit have therefore had to become bigger (as for instance we see WalMart displace mom-and-pops in localities everywhere), and use more natural resources.  The result, for Leff:

Throughout these processes, extended reproduction of capital intensified the exploitation of natural resources.  Gradual regenerative processes that allow biotic resources to recuperate and to grow cannot keep pace with accelerated capital reproduction cycles.  The resulting depletion of resources generated, in turn, a tendency toward higher prices for raw materials and general commodities.  The costs of producing capital, as well as the labor time necessary for working-class subsistence, can be expected to rise, generating an obstacle to the need to continuously raise the rate of profits and surplus value.  (24)

In short, capitalism is too fast and too dynamic for the natural world which supports it.  Of course, there are consequences to capitalism’s fastness.  To cope with the problem of intensified exploitation, Leff argues, businesses have had to come up with “new ‘environmental’ technologies designed to exploit ‘more rationally’ different ecosystems with sustainable yields of natural resources”.  (25)  This, however, does not in Leff’s eyes stop capitalism from ruining the globe’s ecosystems.  The more advanced capitalist nations rationalize business exploitation by shifting the costs of overexploitation to the less developed nations, where, by virtue of being a Mexican, Leff lives.  (We call this “outsourcing” today.)

What does Leff advocate?

As a remedy for capitalism’s environmental problems, Leff advocates a sort of “ecodevelopment,” which suggests a new productive paradigm:

A new productive paradigm must be constructed – one that articulates the laws of thermodynamics, of ecology, and of social production.  This emergent productive rationality will integrate the conditions for the primary productivity of natural ecosystems, the technological productivity of productive processes, and the social productivity of the labor process, supported by socially controlled, scientific-technological progress. (67)

The harmonious order of “ecodevelopment,” managed democratically and scientifically, will presumably replace the one in which

Until now, the advance of science and technological innovation has been overdetermined by a necessity to increase labor productivity, as a means for surplus extraction (67)

This is what has heretofore prompted ecological crisis, and so Leff suggests a concept of “ecotechnological productivity” as a counterpoint to “economic productivity.”

Is ecological production incompatible with capitalism?

Leff does not argue thusly.  Instead, he opines:

Ecodevelopment practices do not imply a frontal attack against capital.  Nevertheless, the implementation of new ecological technologies and new productive practices imply political conflict, institutional changes, and social struggles for the possession of new technical knowledges and means of production for the appropriation of nature and the production of social wealth.  Thus, instead of definitively stating an incompatibility between capitalism and ecodevelopment, it is important to understand how these productive transformations are incorporated into social struggles over resources.  In the process of implementing this new productive rationality, political conflicts will be generated, as well as social changes that may lead to the appropriation of lands and means of production by the working classes, peasants, and indigenous peoples in rural communities.  But this possibility does not simply depend on the “rational” exploitation of resources.  (127-128)

Leff will not come out and say that “ecodevelopment” is incompatible with capitalist exploitation.  However, in light of the things he has said about capitalist exploitation, it is hard to see how ecodevelopment will have much in common with the current Age of Finance Capital.  It’s not clear, for instance, what sort of profit rate would survive the conversion to ecodevelopment.  A period of social conflict is projected, after which whatever business is there to be transacted will happen in accordance with ecological concerns:

Ecodevelopment as a process requires a systematic assessment of an ecosystem’s behavior as it is modified by the productive activities of any given social formation.  This demands new integrated methods of economic, social, and environmental accounting to evaluate the patrimony of natural and cultural resources and the ecosystems’ sustainable use potential under alternative management strategies.  (63)

So Leff wants to suggest the outlines of a rational government on the other side of a projected social revolution-of-sorts.  Can he make it happen?  Can he get scientists to work on his vision of a world where ecodevelopment is business as usual?  I’d like to see it happen.

How does Leff illustrate ecodevelopment?

In short, Leff does project a way forward, a form of “progress” that offers an alternative to the compromised radicalism of Hugo Chavez and the other “maverick” Keynesians of South America, the ecological tragedy of neoliberal development, or the return-to-the-past desired by the primitivists.  Leff seems to complete the social picture that (to my reading, at least) is only half-filled-in by the advocates of permaculture, whose recommendation to those who want a better world is usually limited to “buy some land.”  His specific examples of how this can be accomplished are illuminating.  To form a comprehensive picture of ecodevelopment, Leff suggests that we research the ethnobotanic practices of prehispanic cultures in Latin America and in China, sustainable agricultural practices in tropical ecosystems, and suggestions of an emerging debate about ecodevelopment in UN documents.

Where will I go from here?

I’m trying to get more Leff.  I think libraries are reluctant to order lots of stuff in Spanish, and so I’m ordering his most recent writings from Amazon.  I will probably start to reinvestigate agroecology, preferably after next week when Pomona College will be in session again.

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