Reconciling humans with nature : using Marx's dialectical materialism to critically explore philosophy and politics in contemporary environmentalism and to develop a perspective on environmental justice

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Nature exists as an objective reality on which human beings rely physically and spiritually. We are part of nature. But throughout human and environmental history 'nature' has also existed as a human idea and cultural construct. We project our values, fears, and aspirations onto our environment so that in nature we see a reflection of our own historical development and social existence. Our different class, cultural, and gender life experiences generate different attitudes towards our natural environment. For the most part we regard the ideas and attitudes towards nature as natural, and not as ideological constructions. Dominant techno centric and ecocentric discourses within contemporary environmentalism unselfcritically regard nature as a commodity and as a moral authority respectively. These alienated and romanticised views of nature reflect our contemporary estrangement from the natural world that we are part of Marx's dialectical materialism provides the analytical tools to critique the human/nature dualism expressed by technocentrism and ecocentrism and offers a more dynamic, historical, and ecological perspective on the changing relations between humans and' their natural environment. As humans we are also apart from nature. We have a unique capacity to stand aside and consciously shape our relation with nature, albeit within the constraints and possibilities offered by ecological processes. How we define that relationship is for the most part determined by our own human economic, social, and political relations. This thesis argues that our contemporary alienation from, and abuse of, nature emerges out of the development of capitalist economic and social relations and the ethic and practice of the private ownership of natural resources. Ironically, it is the most alienated and impoverished sector of human society that offers the most progressive perspective on reconciling humans with nature. The struggles of urban and rural working class and poor communities for environmental justice integrates social, economic, political, and ecological issues in a way that poses a radical challenge to the alienated dualism of mainstream environmentalism. This thesis explores and highlights the progressive possibilities that the 'environmental justice perspective offers in our struggle for social justice and ecological wisdom.

Bibliography : leaves 152-161.