Among John Ruskin’s ensemble of talents—art historian, accomplished draughtsman, eloquent scourge of capitalist modernity—we also need to retrieve his prescience as a prophet of ecological disaster. In his eerie and foreboding The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1880), Ruskin discerned moral and metaphysical plague in the climate of industrial England. The clouds, he wrote, bore traces of “iniquity”; “bitterness and malice” infected the winds; and “poisonous smoke” made of “dead men’s souls” bellowed from the satanic factories. (His illustrations of the sky are as ominous as his prose.)

If “there is no wealth but life,” as Ruskin had declared in Unto This Last (1862), the ecological implication of “Mammon-service” was that there is no life but wealth. “Blanched Sun,—blighted grass,—blinded man”: the desecration extended everywhere. “Blasphemy,” Ruskin pronounced it, a violation of “the visible Heaven” that ruined “all the good works and purposes of Nature.” The judgment of history would be harsh, Ruskin rued, for “of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom.” Still, the forecast was not utterly despairing; the nefarious smog would dissipate with the arrival of hope, reverence, and love—ancient virtues rooted in a conviction that life was indeed the world’s true wealth.

Because it relies primarily on the soul rather than on instrumental reason, Ruskin’s therapy for a bedeviled planet seems quaint and even retrograde today, when the most popular response to ecological trauma is a battery of technological fixes. It’s bad enough that so many Americans deny the scientific evidence of “climate change”—itself a bland, denatured term reflective of the void at the heart of the administrative ethos. What’s also dispiriting is that even those respectful of empirical reality exhibit little sense of the scope and magnitude of the changes necessary in our lives. Driving eco-friendly cars, installing more efficient light bulbs, sorting the trash more wisely, funding innovations in geo-engineering—these and other rites of “green” consciousness comprise the latest fashion in bourgeois moralism, but even cumulatively they amount to little in the way of fundamental transformation. As with “income inequality” (another decaffeinated term), Americans want change without changing too much; the preservation of the American Way of Life remains paramount, even in the face of mounting evidence that that way of life is part of the problem. Likewise, the most sensitive oracles of planetary tribulation insist that we need not just new modes of production, but a new conception of our place in nature. As Naomi Klein asserted in This Changes Everything (2015), we need nothing less than “a new civilizational paradigm.” Something like Ruskin’s radical metamorphosis. Alas, Klein realizes, “post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a road map for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.”

In their very different books, Jason Moore and Jedediah Purdy attempt to sketch out such a map. Yet despite their critical acumen and their awareness of the ecological and political stakes, neither Moore nor Purdy quite succeed, and their failure stems in part from their indifference to Ruskin’s hallowed trinity of virtues. They both lack the ontological imagination that will be required to avert the worst effects of the storm-cloud of the twenty-first century.

A PROFESSOR OF sociology at SUNY-Binghamton, Moore draws on Marx and Engels to formulate a theory of capitalist nature. Not of capitalism and nature—a binary opposition that emerged, Moore contends, from the accumulative logic of capitalism itself. Rejecting the Cartesian dualism of “nature” and “society,” Moore proposes instead oikeios, a Marxist appropriation of the ancient Greek term for “household.” Stripped of its patriarchal and apolitical connotations, oikeios captures the “creative, historical, and dialectical relation between and also always within, human and extra-human natures,” and thus enables us to see humanity as a part of the natural world. As one form of oikeios, capitalism is a historically specific “way of organizing nature” for escalating productivity and profit. The illusion that society is somehow set apart from nature, and above it, both legitimates capitalism and inhibits alternative forms of oikeios.   

Capitalism relies on what Moore dubs “Cheap Nature,” the bio-geological analogue to the cheap labor it exploits in its factories and offices. In a deft translation of Marxist economics into ecology, Moore shows that just as capital depends on low wages, so it mobilizes the unpaid “work/energy,” not only of reproduction, but also of land and atmosphere in the forms of low-cost food, energy, and materials. Likewise, just as particular human labors become “abstract labor” that can be purchased, rationalized, and standardized, so Cheap Nature is “abstract nature,” a mere storehouse of resources whose marketization requires a uniformity that inevitably reduces biodiversity. (The “monoculture” of capitalist farming is only the most egregious example of this.) Moreover, just as capital requires a rising rate of surplus value (the excess of value produced by workers over their wages), it likewise needs an “ecological surplus” of Cheap Nature. Like surplus value, this surplus tends to fall; nature becomes more expensive, and capital must expand the ambit of ecological appropriation by growing geographically. Compelled by the rage to accumulate, capital is an insatiable ecological predator, always on the lookout not only for new areas of human life to commodify, but also for new, untapped “frontiers” of unpaid work/energy.

Thus capitalism has an inexorable tendency to erode its own ecological foundations; from its inception in the sixteenth century, it has been marked by the inability of nature to yield “a rising stream of unpaid work—performed by human and extra-human natures alike.” In the twenty-first century, Moore argues, capitalism may well face an insurmountable ecological crisis, as the “infinite character of capital’s demands” will inevitably confront “the finite character of the biosphere.” “Today’s frontiers,” he maintains, “are [not] of sufficient mass” to permit a restoration of Cheap Nature. Indeed, nature itself is already in revolt against its impressment into the service of capital. Citing evidence of the earth’s depredation, from soil depletion to the growth of “superweeds,” Moore contends that—like Ruskin’s nature screaming “blasphemy”—“all of life rebels against the value/monoculture of modernity, from farm to factory. No one, no being, wants to do the same thing, all day, every day.... Extra-human natures, too, resist the grim compulsions of economic equivalence.”

Giving voice to nature’s ordeal, Moore calls for “a new ontological politics” to subvert the metaphysical and moral imagination of capitalist nature. Like John Bellamy Foster—whose Marx’s Ecology (2000) has become a kind of ur-text for Marxist ecological thinking—Moore affirms historical materialism as the basis for a solution to our ecological crisis. His Marxist oikeios recognizes the historical and mutually creative relationship between humans and the rest of nature. Socialism would therefore constitute an ecological revolution in which nature itself was the proletariat.

UNLIKE MOORE, PURDY is no revolutionary: after his youthful indictment of irony in For Common Things (1999), he went on to join the establishment as a professor of law at Duke and a fellow of the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank. Surveying American ideas about nature from the Puritans to contemporary neoliberals, Purdy shows that our “environmental imagination” has had four phases, each of which has left deposits in the national consciousness.

In the “providential-settler” imagination of colonial and early republican America, God gave nature to human beings to “develop”—i.e., to turn it into profitable commodities. The mastery of nature was “a mission of republican progress, and also a consummation of divine design,” while unconquered nature or wilderness was “a mark of failure” or apostasy.  The second, “Romantic” environmental sensibility, represented by Philip Freneau, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, created “a vernacular of wonder” for those who recoiled from providentialist rapine. Seeking a spiritual refuge from the marketplace, Romantics espoused a bourgeois natural theology that, with its high-minded, apolitical rhetoric, “proved easy to package as a consumer experience,” Purdy observes. The third, “conservationist” vision was a secular metamorphosis of providentialism that substituted benevolent bureaucrats for clergymen, farmers, and merchants. Associated with Theodore Roosevelt, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, and embodied in our national parks and wildlife preserves, “conservation” conceived nature as a network of systems that required technocratic oversight. Despite its magnanimous scientific veneer, conservationism was no less utilitarian than its Protestant predecessor.

The fourth and most recent environmental imagination draws on the expertise of conservationism but eschews its well-mannered bid for dominion. Introduced by Aldo Leopold—author of Sand County Almanac and a veteran of the Forest Service—this last view has become central to the emergence of contemporary ecological thinking. Still looking at the world as a constellation of systems, it enjoins what Leopold called “an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature.”

Purdy clearly favors the latter view, and enlarges it into a “democratic Anthropocene” as his own version of ontological politics. The Anthropocene, a term borrowed from geology and climatology, is the period in which human activity has been the dominant force in nature. Purdy calls not for a diminution of our intervention in nature, but for greater popular participation in our economic and technological interactions with the planet. (Moore prefers the clumsier neologism “Capitalocene,” because he thinks “Anthropocene” obscures the power relations of class societies that make some more responsible than others for ecological degradation.) While Purdy grants that markets and eco-technology remain indispensable tools, he insists that “political judgment must precede economic pricing.” He notes that cost-benefit analysis is often used to nullify political and ideological conflict through the spurious neutrality of numbers.

Purdy worries that democracies will be inadequate to the task of averting ecological disaster. Democratic failures, he notes, have often been “failures to impose self-restraint.” In order to curb our improvidence, Purdy urges us to adopt a blend of what he calls “uncanniness”—a recognition that we do not, and perhaps cannot, fully know another living being—and a “new animism.” Nature, in his view, is not “natural capital” but rather “a Sister, Brother, or even Comrade”; it is “doing work, work in which human labor collaborates.” This makes Purdy sound like some Franciscan-cum-Marxist. Lest educated readers get spooked by this counsel, he explains that neo-animism is “a moral attitude and mode of experience” fully compatible with modern disenchantment.

AS COMPELLING AS they are, neither Moore nor Purdy envisions satisfying alternatives to the capitalist Anthropocene. Like other attempts to read Marx as a radical ecologist, Moore’s is shadowed by Marx’s indisputable enthusiasm for industrial development, a trait he shared with his capitalist antagonists. In its Marxist versions, at least, socialism has always presumed the expanding material abundance generated by technology. That’s why the best Marxist ecological thought has always been catalyzed by writers outside the main current of Marxism—writers who have usually been at odds with the “progressive” trajectory of Marxist materialism. To his credit, Moore resurrects Lewis Mumford’s concept of technics as opposed to technology (the former encompassing our images and attitudes as well as our tools and machines) and endorses his thesis that industrialization began with the re-imagining of nature as a mechanism. What Moore neglects to mention is that Mumford was a stringent critic of Marx’s Promethean productivism who repudiated the mythology of “progress” that united capitalists and socialists in extractivist fraternity.

The commitment to unlimited economic growth, as common on the left as on the right, is what makes a “democratic” resolution to our ecological turmoil appear so improbable. The hope that the American Way of Life can be green-washed is as pervasive as it is futile; among the wide swath of self-described “moderates,” it’s not uncommon to see “green” moralism coupled with adherence to conventional measures of prosperity. At the same time, neither Moore nor Purdy advances an “ontological politics” that effectively counters capitalism’s predatory relationship to nature. Moore never reconciles the hints of ecological sensitivity in Marx’s work with his affirmation of industrial development—nor could he, since according to “historical materialism” communism has to be gestated in the womb of capitalism. While critical of economic rationality, Purdy downplays the extent to which the market saturates our moral landscape; the “providentialist-settler” sensibility remains a powerful element of the American imagination. And while his recommendation of “animism” as an “attitude” and “experience” may preserve some sense of nature’s intrinsic value apart from human needs, it seems too much like the projection of a frail interior enchantment rather than a conviction of something real about the world.

Romantic in its apprehension of reality, Ruskin’s sacramental imagination was not a mannered effort at a “re-enchantment of the world.” Like Pope Francis in Laudato si’, Ruskin firmly believed in a world in which matter mediates the immaterial—this was not just a trick of fancy, an attitude, or a metaphor. Ruskin’s recognition of the earth as “the visible Heaven” aligns with Francis’s pronouncement that divine love is “the fundamental moving force in all created things.” Love must precede political judgment in any democratic reconstruction of the Anthropocene. Far from being a form of spiritual evasion, a truly sacramental political ontology may well be our only hope for rescuing the planet from an ecological crisis that is also a kind of sacrilege.

Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. This essay draws upon two lectures: an address to the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University–Chicago on October 15, 2020, and the 2022 Ruskin Lecture, sponsored by the Ruskin Art Club and delivered at the University of Southern California on September 8, 2022.

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Published in the September 23, 2016 issue: View Contents
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