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Toward a Socialist Land Ethic: The Foundation of an Ecosocialist Future

There will be no future on a dead planet, socialist or otherwise. If the left is to seize power and bring our planet into the rational egalitarian age we envision, we will need to simultaneously tackle a host of environmental crises. Failure to do so will mean that our project is doomed from the onset. Even the most firmly grounded socialist society will not survive an ecological collapse, throwing the planet and its people back into the barbarism we are working so hard to overcome. Or worse.

At this point many readers, whom I assume are at least moderately progressive and aware of the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change, will be vigorously nodding their heads. Yes, of course, we need to decarbonize. Of course, we need to have an environmentally sustainable society. My fear is that decades of being exposed to capitalist conceptions of Earth and her gifts, and an almost myopic focus on global warming, have left many to underestimate the scale and number of the problems that face us.

I have written elsewhere about a handful of the non-climate-change ecological crises facing modern society. I’ve also touched on the fact that we find ourselves in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction. Colonial capitalist society is the progenitor of the extinction crisis and is certainly fundamentally incapable of addressing it. We have moved from Rosa’s prediction of “socialism or barbarism” to a new prediction: “socialism or apocalypse” for the living world. But it is not a foregone conclusion that socialism will halt the extinction event, is necessary but by no means sufficient. We must have an understanding of its proximate causes and how to address them.


Dividing up the Earth

While the effects of colonial capitalist civilization on Earth’s biodiversity are cumulative and likely impossible to totally unravel, far-and-away the biggest cause of the contemporary extinction crisis is habitat fragmentation and destruction. Each species has specific needs for types and extent of habitat and these needs simply can’t be ignored if that species is to persist. Perhaps most importantly, the largest mammals, such as grizzly bears and bison, require huge tracts of land to fulfill their needs for feeding, mating, daily travel and annual migration. It is a sad fact that without enough good habitat set aside for these species they simply will not survive. There is no substitute, there is no alternative course of action, we must learn to share Earth with her other species or we will lose them.


The extent of habitat fragmentation in the United States (1620–1990)

The current areas set aside as preserves, such as the National Parks of the so-called United States, are insufficient in isolation. Current levels of faunal abundance in those areas are deceptive. The animals in these parks are the walking dead. Studies have shown that the parks have been hemorrhaging species since their establishment. They are simply too small and disconnected to maintain the minimum viable populations of many of these species, while the populations may seem stable in a snapshot view, they are on the slow descent to extirpation.


Cores, Corridors & Carnivores

Conservation biologists know what it will take, generally, to prevent or at least mitigate the results of the extinction crisis. If we want to continue to be able to experience nature, to derive spiritual, aesthetic and yes, even economic, benefits from the beings with which we share Earth, and especially if we want to extend our circle of compassion to encompass those beings and realize they have every inherent right to survive and thrive, we must set aside a continent-wide series of nature preserves. Conservation Biologists talk about the “3 C’s” of such a preserve system: cores, corridors, and carnivores.


Cores are the anchors of a continental conservation system. Like parts of our current National Parks, they are off-limits to extractive activities and destructive recreation. These will be areas where we can allow natural processes to self-organize the biotic system.

Cores, ideally, should be large enough to encompass all of the life history needs of the farthest roaming species, such as wolves or grizzly bears. Size is also important when it comes to natural processes like fire, which many tree and grass species rely on for reproduction. At the landscape scale, ecosystems are healthiest and most productive when they have a patchwork of different timescales since the last disturbance. This allows for habitat for various species which are adapted to the particular plant assemblages occurring at each “successional stage” post-fire. If the protected area is too small, we risk a single fire burning down the entire thing, and species who need old-growth conditions will not be able to survive.

It is imperative that cores be roadless. Studies have shown that more than .6 km of road in 1 square km of habitat is enough to effectively fragment the habitat, leading to the slow extirpation of many species there. Roads are vectors for destructive invasive species and can lead to increased poaching and other destructive activities in the conservation core. For this reason, roadlessness has been an important feature in the federal designation of wilderness. However, we must not be purists in this sense — if an area can be restored to a roadless condition we should do so — rather than give up on it because it had a road at one point.

Core areas and corridors, which I will discuss momentarily, must be surrounded by buffer zones, which can serve as marginal habitat for the species in the cores, but within which certain necessary extractive activities and agriculture can be carried out in a sustainable, ecological manner. There are many people doing work on sustainable forestry and agriculture practices which would allow us to utilize natural resources while protecting crucial habitat. Socialists should fight for these areas to have community control, so that people have a say in how they are managed, through land trusts and other cooperative mechanisms.


One of the unique contributions of conservation biology to the study of protected areas is the necessity of corridors, smaller protected areas which can serve as core habitat for some small animals and plants, but which function primarily as safe pathways between cores, for larger animals. Corridors are necessary for a functioning reserve system. It is the lack of connection between core areas which can account for much of the decline in large carnivores in North America. Animals need to be able to disperse, to mate within groups other than those they grew up with, in order to stave off inbreeding and eventual extirpation through genetic interchange. Animals will try to do this whether the protected corridors exist or not, but without protection, they are liable to get shot, run over or to wander onto ranches or into neighborhoods. The same is true of annual migrations of some animals. Without safe corridors to pass through on their migrations, we will likely be unable to restore the iconic bison in any practical sense, and these animals would be key to maintaining any semblance of the once-magnificent Great Plains that spanned parts of our country.

Another important function of corridors is that they will allow for the northward movement of plants and animals in response to global climate change. Species requiring cooler climates will necessarily have to move or else face extinction. There is simply no chance of their being able to do so over the matrix of strip malls, highways, agricultural fields and clear cuts currently making up a large part of this country’s land base. Without protected habitat and safe passage, many species will simply go extinct.


There has been a general recognition of top carnivores’ necessary mediating role in natural communities since the 1990s or so. Keystone species such as carnivores are essential links in the food web of communities and, as the name “keystone” implies, the delicate webs collapse in their absence. The most famous example is that of the Yellowstone wolves. There are many great resources on this topic out there (I recommend George Monbiot’s Ted Talk) so I will describe it only briefly.

Source: Earthjustice

When wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone Park in 1926, the populations of elk and deer skyrocketed. Not only were they no longer being kept in check by predation, but they no longer had to fear for their lives out in the open and so they took to lazily browsing the best forage along riverbanks. Soon, the willows and poplars which once lined the rivers of Yellowstone were eaten bare. Without the necessary shade, many species disappeared from the rivers. Beavers disappeared when they no longer had sufficient woody material to construct their dams. Without beaver dams, a whole host of species adapted to beaver-made wetlands disappeared. Small mammals and birds began to suffer from predation from middling size “mesocarnivores” like the coyote, populations of whom had been previously kept in check by the wolves. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced and within a few years, the herbivores had returned to their natural behavior, feeding in riparian areas only sparingly for fear of predation. The riparian trees have largely recovered and with their return the return of beavers, fish, birds etc. We have learned that for many ecosystems, top carnivores are a necessary component.

Unfortunately, years of propaganda and myths around carnivores have led to what I have heard referred to as the “red-riding-hood syndrome”. This is the belief that, against all scientific reason, large carnivores like wolves are stalking the forest, licking their lips, just waiting for their chance to devour a helpless human.

The facts are quite the reverse.

Large carnivores rarely attack humans. The number of documented wolf attacks on humans in the so-called United States is infinitesimal and the same can be said for cougars and bears. When carnivore attacks on humans do occur, they tend to be because the animal is starving (a result of habitat fragmentation, they cannot secure enough safe prey), or rabid, or sometimes because humans disturb the animal’s young. The fact of the matter is that humans are big and dangerous as far as animals go, predators would much rather avoid us and go for easier prey whenever they have the chance.

Red-riding-hood syndrome is real though, and there are legitimate (though overblown) fears of depredation of livestock. For this reason, buffer zones are critical to reducing human-wildlife interactions, alongside propaganda campaigns on the behalf of predators and wilderness. Unnecessary hunting and killing of carnivores must be stopped. Killing adult carnivores disrupts critical social structures, often leads to the death of their young, and, more and more evidence is suggesting, leads to greater depredation of livestock.

Top carnivores are wondrous examples of the strength and beauty of nature. Wolves, cougars and grizzly bears are icons of North America and sacred relatives to many of the Indigenous people of this continent. They are also crucial aspects of a functioning ecology. We should be protecting the few that remain and attempting to help them recover in any way possible.


Eco-socialism vs. eco-chauvinism

Protecting wild areas will help offset the worst damages of climate change, as trees will store carbon and wetlands will buffer human settlements. Protecting water sources in these areas, as in New York’s Adirondack Park, will greatly improve water quality for pennies compared to what we spend cleaning it. Leaving intact habitable ecosystems and functioning assemblages of plants and animals will ensure that ecosystem services we rely on for our civilization, such as pollination and nutrient cycling, continue in perpetuity.

However, these are not the only reasons we should make sure we protect as much of Earth’s biodiversity as we can.

Capitalism cannot save nature because it sees nature only as another collection of commodities, the long-term persistence of which comes second to immediate profit concerns. Continuing this commodification of the land and our fellow species is continuing the colonial capitalist conquest that began over 500 years ago. Undoing our mistakes means undoing the commodification of Earth.

We must learn to live in an ecological society as opposed to a colonial one. An ecological society simply means that we must practice what Indigenous activist Daniel Wildcat calls “indigenuity”, learning to live as one part of the life system. Adapting how we live to where we live. Living with and within ecosystems instead of copying and pasting the same industrial, colonial, capitalist system on top of any landscape, regardless of who lives there or what networks and processes sustain that particular environment. We must develop what the father of wildlife conservation, Aldo Leopold, called a “land ethic”. That is, we must widen our definition of community, and our circle of compassion, to include the non-human biotic and abiotic natural world. Thus, we avoid merely protecting what is obviously useful to us because it is useful to us, but rather protect all of Earth’s networks and processes because of their innate value and right to survive and thrive.

This is the secret to living with a land for 10,000 or more years, as the original people of this continent did. Juxtapose this with the current system, which has brought this land to the brink of apocalypse in the short span of a couple hundred years.

It is tempting to say that this system has brought about the current sad state of affairs by putting human needs over the needs of Earth. Socialists must reject out-of-hand any such argument. We know that capitalism is not a system designed for meeting the needs of human beings. Capitalism is a system that serves capital, and nothing else. It is for capital and not humanity that this system has put Earth on the sacrificial altar. This is an important distinction because there is another argument, one that comes from the right, for trying to save the Earth. This argument poses the contradiction as between humanity and Earth, and as a result its solutions are anti-human: racist calls for population control, the denying of resources to certain segments of the population and other such measures that we must resist at the same time we fight for Earth and its species out of compassion and a sense of justice.

Among the many wondrous species of the Earth, a fact seemingly forgotten by the eco-chauvinists, is Homo sapiens, human beings. When we talk about expanding our circle of compassion, which for socialists already encompasses all of the wretched of humanity, to include Earth herself, we do not exclude human beings from that circle. We cannot conscience an “ecological” world which provides for all but denies human beings what they need to thrive. We undertake our ecological work to provide the highest possible standard of living for all species, and for humanity, that means being able to be creatively productive, in freedom from physical need. This is what is meant by a socialist land ethic.

It is possible to meet all the self-actualization needs of humanity and still set enough aside to meet those needs for other species as well. Capitalism cannot do it because it must continuously create new needs for people, in order to extract capital from them. We can protect the Earth while maintaining our electricity, medicine, learning and recreational opportunities, but we may not be able to do so if everyone must own a car or while we produce useless commodities purchased on a whim or as a gag gift and quickly discarded to the landfill.

Calls to abandon civilization entirely are ahistoric and doomed to failure. While humans may have been able to live lightly upon Earth 20,000 years ago as hunter-gatherer members of their ecosystems, we cannot simply ignore the historical stage of human production and organization we find ourselves in. Not only would doing so be ahistorical and anti-Marxist but it would be doomed to failure. Any attempt to force asceticism on the current, historically determined human population could, at best, only last a short time until someone got it in their head to promise all the comforts of the old system to any that would help in overthrowing the new. Anyone who attempts to impose such a system has not yet thrown off the yolk of capitalist morality, “the most moral of all the sciences” which, as Marx says, is “the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave.”

It should not be seen as a violation of our ecological ethic to accommodate truly human needs into our ecological society. As I stated before, human beings are members of ecological communities, even if we act as devastating ones under colonial capitalism. Just as our ecological society would fail if we failed to take in to account the specific needs of wolves for space, or ponderosa pines for fire, it will fail if we do not take in to account the specific needs of humans for creative production and self-actualization.

In fact, if we want to protect the ability of humans to be able to freely associate and creatively produce, shifting to an ecological society is the only option. We need life on Earth to survive in perpetuity if we want to survive in perpetuity. The loss of any single species in the infinitely complex web of life could lead to devastating ripple effects our best scientists cannot predict. The best scientists in the 1920s could not have predicted the effects removing wolves from Yellowstone would have on every aspect of the ecosystem there, the best scientists of the 1960s could not have predicted that an insecticide would have a devastating effect on bird populations (as was revealed in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). What our scientists can tell us is that Earth’s systems are not machines from which pieces can be removed or replaced, they are not commodities which can be substituted for an exchange value, they are an organic whole of which we and our civilization are but one part and with which our destiny is ultimately entwined. An ecosocialist society has the capacity to realize this and to create a majestic future for all life on Earth.

Man lives on nature — means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous intercourse if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

-Karl Marx


This article was originally posted on Medium.

Written by Nathaniel Owen

Nathaniel Owen

Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @thugznkisses. He also writes on Medium.

Nathaniel is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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Toward a Socialist Land Ethic: The Foundation of an Ecosocialist Future