Marxian Essentialism Versus Darwinian Population Thinking: Alternative Foundations for a Post-Exemptionalist Environmental Sociology

Monday, 16 July 2018: 18:15
Oral Presentation
Foster’s masterful reconstruction of Marx’s analysis of metabolic rift created a new core concept for environmental sociology which affords fresh insights into both historical and contemporary environmental problems. However, Foster’s assertion that Marx provides a possible foundation for a post-exemptionalist environmental sociology is less defensible. Marx’s commitment to essentialism precludes a full theoretical account of the relationships between structural diversity, environmental adaptation and human agency. I substantiate this claim and propose a more nuanced assessment of Marx’s legacy by employing recent revisions to the standard account of the Darwinian revolution as a metatheoretical lens to illuminate the strengths and limitations of Marx’s incipient environmental sociology. These comparisons support Catton and Dunlap’s contention that Marxian theory is unecological. However, they also establish the metatheoretical basis for and precise limitations of Foster’s claims to the contrary. Marx partially integrated the environment into social theory by relying, not on property essentialism emphasized in the standard account, but on functional-developmental essentialism. Marx used the latter to emphasize the centrality of environmental relationships and the universal necessity of adaptation in his definitions of human nature and modes of production. However, functional-developmental essentialism’s reliance on context-independent dynamic laws is incompatible with contemporary ecological thinking. These deficiencies preclude Marxian theory from serving as a foundation for environmental sociology. Thus, while we should retain Marx’s substantive concerns, we should abandon further attempts to mine his works and, instead, pursue more innovative lines of theoretical research. To fully incorporate the environment, we must follow Darwin’s lead by rejecting essentialism and nominalism in favor of population thinking. The concept of a socially constructed adaptive landscape represents one such alternative evolutionary model. This framework integrates organizational sociologists’ insights into structure-environment interaction; constructionists’ attention to agency, language, culture, and values; and political ecologists’ concerns with power, inequality, and processes of marginalization.