Racism and Ecology

One of the remarkable findings about the ecological crisis is that race and ethnicity are more reliable predictors of environmental pollution than class and income. Thus a relatively more affluent black community is more likely to suffer a toxic waste site than is its poorer white counterpart.1 This is consistent with the startling fact that some sixty percent of the communities of color in the United States contain at least one toxic waste site within their boundaries.2

These findings are associated with, and at least partly explain, well known statistics as to poorer health and lower life expectancies of communities of color. The picture can be filled in with evidence of unsatisfactory diets, second-rate medical care, pervasive exposure to pollutants-for example, of children by lead from old paint, or of everyone by bad air from truck diesel fumes-and overall stress and demoralization. The terrible burden of environmental breakdown is underappreciated as a factor in the lives of people of color, part of the general invisibility that envelops racist phenomena, which here is even more pronounced than that of the economic or juridical manifestations of racism. At the same time, those measures taken at a community level to struggle against environmental hazard, summed up as the work of the grassroots “environmental justice” movement, fail to register very forcefully in the consciousness of the mainstream environmental organizations, thereby preserving the white and middle class composition of the latter. Thus the great struggle against ecological breakdown that haunts our time is deprived of alliances that could make a real difference.

So dismal a picture calls for a deepening of our understanding of racism in relation to ecology. The problem is only complicated by the fact that until now these discourses have come together in malignant ways, rising to a crescendo in Nazi efforts to combine organicity of society with genocidal racism, but by no means limited to that dreadful chapter in evil-doing.3 Both racial and ecological thinking originated as value-laden impulses with natural-scientific trappings within the general domain of biology. As such, they comprised techniques of ordering the world, with varying value positions and varying degrees of awareness as to the boundaries between the human and non-human portions of the world. The notion of race, as a kind of subspeciation, belongs to the eighteenth century, while ecology came upon the scene a century later, in 1866, to be exact, as the intellectual child of the German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, who saw it as a way of unifying the ramifying branches of the life sciences into the study, as Donald Worster puts it, of “all the environmental conditions of existence.”4

Although ecology remains a respectable biological subspecialty complete with formidable mathematical means for calculating the populations of interrelating species, its inner drive to brings things together has extended its domain from the methodological to the ontological sphere. Ecology as a result has come to stand for whatever discourse would emphasize connectedness, or the logical consequence of being fully-connected: wholeness. In the context of a world order hell-bent upon breaking down organicity and wholeness, the ecological perspective readily becomes endowed with ethical and political implications. Given an ecological crisis that calls into question the very survival of our world, to “be ecological” has come to signify a commitment to wholeness and the sustenance of flourishing relationships between different beings-in ethical terms, an “ecocentric” position. This perspective more or less defines “greenness,” as the global political reaction to the ecological crisis. Thus we now talk of “ecocentric values” and “ecological politics,” the former including respect for wholeness and the intrinsic worth of nature, and the latter, all those measures and social movements taken to approach this receding goal.

And yet a definite tension remains attached to these notions, for who is to say whether ecocentric wholeness eventuates in the flourishing affirmation of life or in the disastrous outcome of fascist organicity? The question is grounded in the problem of incorporating humanity into ecological thinking, and its answer requires a rethinking of ecology in a more deeply emancipatory vein,5 which will be extended here by incorporating the critique of racism.

As a species, humans are self-evidently part of nature, in fact, that part whose behavior leads to the alarming implications noted above, as well as to the drive toward ecocentrism. Can we be both the subjects and the objects of ecological discourse? We must, I would argue; else there is no connection between humanity and nature beyond the instrumental, and therefore no ground for any ecological politics. To exclude humans as natural creatures engaged in our own ecological relations is to ignore those relations humans set up and impose on other creatures, relations that include both the degradation of nature and the overcoming of that degradation. If no ecological statements can be made about humanity, then we are outside the ecological web. And if this is the case, why should we care about nature, except as it provides comforts and resources? Why, that is, should we undertake anything with respect to the natural world beyond the actions of the Bush administration?

The question is, how to connect humanity and nature without succumbing to the reductiveness of naturalization? How are we both part of nature-including that part which generates the ecological crisis-while yet preserving our human identity? Can there be a “human nature” that preserves human values?

Humanity, like all natural creatures, inhabits specific ecological locations, or “ecosystems.” As each creature has its own species – specific pattern of ecosystem, so the human ecosystem is distinct from that of all other creatures, and expressive of humanity’s own specific “nature” within the manifold of nature. Marx, often regarded as an anthropocentric thinker seeing humanity as essentially over nature and basically distinct from it, was in fact profoundly concerned about human nature and our organic relation to nature.6 The core human-natural relationship for Marx is expressed in the fact of production, the transformative activity of labor that brings this about, and the subjective, or imaginative, interiority necessary for this.7 In this regard, humans produce their own ecosystems, and at the same time, define and reflect upon them. Such is our “nature,” and the way we produce ecosystemic relations depends upon whether nature is degraded or restored to integrity.

The formal properties that apply here can be summed up as follows: Ecosystems that tend toward wholeness may be defined as integral, in which case they flourish and give rise to new form; while those that fragment or become static and collapse can be defined as disintegrating. The former engage a pattern of differentiation, in which elements of the ecosystem are distinct but connected; while the latter employ one of splitting-in which elements lack common being and move along separate paths-hence dis-integrate. Differentiation is a notion within dialectics: the elements are distinct, even clash, but remain connected and give rise to new configurations of form. Splitting, on the other hand, is identitarian; it drives not toward wholeness but toward totalization, and, within the ceaseless flow of ecological relations, toward eventual breakdown.

Degrees of differentiation and splitting apply to all ecosystems, human as well as non-human. The distinction8 depends upon what is being differentiated or split, that is, upon the fabric of ecosystemic connectivity, which in turn is a function of the “nature” of the creature involved, and its participation in the universal givens of living beings. All beings are connected through physical flows and signals-the molecules and photons, etc., transferred through basic functions like nutrition, sense-input, etc. But each has its own natural signature through which these are organized and structured. In human beings these particulars are subsumed in production and in the dialectics of subjectivity through which production is organized. This may be described in terms of recognition and representation. That is, the specifically human is ingrained in language and through the vicissitudes of consciousness and the self. I have little doubt that something akin to these functions occurs in other species with complex nervous systems, but no doubt at all that what is specifically human organizes itself along radically different lines from other beings, for which reason humanism-by which is meant Marxist humanism-is an entirely natural doctrine for a fully developed humanity.9

The integrity of a human ecosystem is therefore a function of the degree of recognition exercised by its human agents. Such an internal trace, which amounts to recognizing nature in ourselves and ourselves in nature, is what ties together the human ecosystem and sets limits to its expansion, as the aboriginal hunter slays his prey yet honors the common being between them. This is the sign of differentiation, wherein difference and connection are both subsumed. Similarly, splitting in ecosystemic terms is manifest as failure of recognition. We can say that the ecological crisis produces and is produced by a splitting between humanity and the rest of nature, such that we do not recognize ourselves as part of nature, nor nature as part of ourselves-that is, we lose both naturalism and humanism. Capital is the specific agent of this, its “efficient cause,” whose instrument is the generalization of commodity production and the regime of exchange value that dissolves the connectivity of things in the acid of monetization. Compare in this respect the tribal hunter to the factory farm and slaughterhouse, the former internally limited by a spiritual, i.e., differentiated, recognition, the latter split apart by the logic of exchange, and primed to expand until ecological collapse sets the limit. Thus accumulation drives the ecological crisis.10

As humans are part of nature, so may society be viewed from an ecosystemic perspective, mediated by the peculiarly human forms of connection. Since racism is a kind of relationship within society between living beings and their environment, it, too, should be seen in ecological perspective. This relationship is historically produced as domination, but defined biologically and in terms of essences. Therefore the ecological definition of race incorporates the false biologization of race, and the racist ecologies that arose on that basis. These need to be destroyed if a truly human society is to arise.

We have observed that “race” was originally a biological term, emerging in the context of an eighteenth-century furor to classify and subdivide the world, both natural and human. Within this schema, races were subspecies at the point of separation into new species-a logic appropriate for ordering a divided humanity subject to imperialism. The device was highly functional for the newly independent ex-British colonies in America at the moment of state formation. The problem was how to fabricate a working democratic polity given the structurally uneven distribution of slave-based production. The solution to this dilemma-the infamous counting of slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation in Congress-was necessary as a political compromise, but clashed with the legitimating discourse of human rights upon which the new republic had been founded. As laid out in the Declaration of Independence, Americans were to “hold these truths to be self-evident.that all men are created equal.” Given the slave system, then, either the ideal of human right did not apply to the new Republic, or those excluded from the polity were not truly human. In this latter instance-needless to say, the preferred option for the Founding Fathers-the contradiction would be acceptably resolved if some legitimate way could be found of defining the slaves as less than human. Enter the the notion of race under the imprimatur of science.11 Thus, corrupted science enabled African chattels to be excluded from the category of “Men,” and helped preserve the legitimacy of the fledgling state at the cost of inserting racism at a fundamental institutional level. This led in turn to the reinforcing of science as a legitimation of racism. And so science was subsumed into the practice of racism from the beginning, in the sense that racism, proper, always adds an element of essentialist rationalization, and with it a kind of institutional solidity, to the mass of vicious prejudices inherited from premodern society.12 Scientific racism has continued the work of justifying oppression up to the present, despite the crushing refutation of its central claim, that blacks comprise a subspecies of humankind, closer to the animal world and less than fully human.13 And racism itself has remained the great mark of splitting within human ecosystems, a blight the overcoming of which is demanded both by justice and for the healing of our ecological estrangement.

In the terms developed above, racism is a system of splitting into “races” mediated by lack of mutual recognition. Contrary to prevailing liberal ideology, every such split is an instance of domination in which the dominator assumes the position of “fully human,” and the dominated becomes the “less than fully human”: what is animal, lustful, instinct-ridden, and essentially incapable of civilization. Note that this theme arises directly within the logic of race, whether or not we search for its ecological connections – indeed, every instance of racism is some variation upon it. What else could be the meaning of Brown v. Board of Education, with its condemnation of the “separate but unequal” facilities wrought by segregation? Or the meaning of “apartheid” in its manifold forms, from Jim Crow to the horror of South Africa? The entire repertoire of racism, raging on despite the elevation of some blacks to positions of national leadership, entails deeply inbuilt patterns of group formation resulting in the separation of black and white communities. Residential and cultural separation, combined with splits deeply sedimented into the collective psyche, become the actual means by which splits are laid down and reinforced within human ecosystems.

There are some important implications of viewing racism from an ecological standpoint. Because ecology is concerned to see the integration of parts into wholes, this perspective gives insight as to why racism should not be reduced to any of its particular elements, whether these appear economically, or in the “justice” system, or sexually, or psychologically -any of the innumerable forms in which it surfaces as prejudice and injustice. Racism is a mark of an entire civilization, and appears within each particle of the whole, as a virus lodges in each cell of its host. Some years ago I published a work, White Racism, which essentially argued this theme, except that the common medium through which racism perfused the West was called a “psychohistorical matrix.” This reflected my psychoanalytic practice of the time, and suffered, with psychoanalysis, from a lingering subjectivism.14

A key notion of that work was that the “black problem” was really a “white problem”; thus race emerges as a split-off product of the false identity of the West, what the whites-are-not. The notion of race already implies racism, and is organically linked to other structures of Western development, such as capitalist rationalization and abstraction, or Calvinism. Now, by locating the whole within the framework of ecology, we can better see how racism and capitalism alike are embedded within a deep estrangement from, and repression of, nature, both as body and as external environment. Nature unrecognized and split-off is the mark of a society lurching toward ecocatastrophe; such nature is a wilderness that is the externalization of the dark interior of “whiteness”: darkness projected onto the fellow creatures who happened to be those conquered by the expansion of white civilization and who now are animalized within it; a darkness set forth as the antithesis of the Enlightenment. Or as Blake, astounding in his insights into racism, put it into the mouth of his Little Black Boy: “But I am black as if bereav’d of light.”15

A society riven with such deep splits will clutch at spurious totalizations in order not to fall apart. Such a society may attempt to recapture its spirituality as a union with nature, as the Nazis could boast of their kindness to animals and profess an ecological awareness superior to that of the “degenerate” nations of the West. The telltale mark of such false spiritual totalizations-and false ecological syntheses-will regularly be revealed to possess the form of racism. A unity with Spirit or nature that does not at the same time express the differentiated recognition of other humans is a reliable indicator of fascism, and a predictor of devastation to both humanity and nature.

We now arrive at a reasonably satisfactory explanation of why race is a better predictor of local pollution than income. It comes down to an arithmetical combining of the two rejected objects in the machinery of the system: wasted people and the high-entropy wastes that emerge at the other end of the assembly lines. Both are drags upon accumulation; and there is an inner excremental logic that would have one dumped upon the other.16

The political implication is clear: that the future of ecology is dependent upon its anti-racist content. One good place to start would be by forming alliances with struggles for environmental justice, in which polluted communities of color have risen up to reclaim their human power against capital. The larger lesson is that we cannot heal nature without radical social change, for a movement that limits itself to cleaning the environment while neglecting the splitting that disintegrates human as well as natural ecosystems serves the needs neither of nature nor of humanity.


1. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990).

2. Daniel Faber, personal communication.

3. See Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 39f, for a succinct indictment of the racist uses of ecology.

4. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 192. Gilroy points out, citing Howard Kaye, The Social Meaning of Modern Biology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), that Haeckel’s idea of community was an influential precursor of National Socialism (Against Race, p. 362, n. 37).

5. The argument here is drawn from my The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2002).

6. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). The verdict against Marx’s ecological credentials arises chiefly from the behavior of the socialist tradition until now. In my view, which we cannot take further here, whatever ecological devastation was wrought by “actually existing socialism,” was a sharp indicator of how far it had strayed from authentically Marxist principles. See the symposium, “Socialism and Ecology,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Sept., 2002, pp. 49-117, for a discussion of the complexities.

7. See Marx’s famous formulation about the “worst of architects” distinct from the “best of bees,” as evidenced by the specifically human attribute of building in the imagination before altering external reality. Capital Vol I, Chapter 7 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 283f.

8. Thus from the perspective offered here-for theoretical projects are also ecosystemic – the strategy is to differentiate human nature from the rest of nature without splitting us from nature.

9. Where full development means to Marx that humanity transcends alienation in communism: “This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism; and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism…” Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in R. Tucker ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), p 84.

10. See Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, for discussion.

11. This instance is famous and paradigmatic, but should not be considered the sole cause of racism; rather is it emblematic of an enormous mass of contradictions between values, desires, and practices which we cannot explore here.

12. Thus Othello, though once a slave and always stigmatized as black in Shakespeare’s play, yet rose to be Venice’s Commander-in-Chief, an unthinkable outcome until modern racism evolved to the point of including, and without disgrace, a Colin Powell. Similarly, Jews in medieval Europe could convert without prejudice, in contract to Nazi essentialism.

13. Often now the discourse moves into the domain of social science, as well-rewarded scholars produce thickly researched tomes on the hopelessness of black culture-a new kind of victim-blaming grounded in patterns of belief and meaning instead of DNA.

14. Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984[1970]).

15. William Blake, “Songs of Innocence,” The Complete Poems, ed. Alicia Ostriker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 106f. Part of what is astounding here is Blake’s composing “The Little Black Boy” at the same time that Kant, Hume, and other avatars of the Enlightenment were writing amazing racist nonsense about the Africans. While these sages were pronouncing the essentially subhuman character of the blacks, Blake gives his black boy these words: “And thus I say to little English boy./When I from black and he from white cloud free/And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:…” Racism: a cloud of blackness and whiteness: who ever put it better?

16. This is to be combined with the mediating, and entirely consistent, fact that those who own and control the corporations that pollute do not live in the communities that receive the pollution.

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