Back to top

Spring 2018: Nature, Modernity and Social Theory: The Challenge of the Anthropocene

DSOC 6940, Fridays 10:10am-1:10pm, March 19-May 9, 2018
Professor Michael Löwy

The planet is said to be entering a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where the pattern of
human social reproduction is seriously threatening the natural environment and provoking
dramatic climate change. Classical social theorists from Karl Marx to Max Weber were not
unaware of the changing nexus between society and nature, but it did not occupy a central place
in their theories. In the 20th century, thinkers coming from the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno
and Walter Benjamin, made the link between modern (capitalist) civilization and the destruction
of nature, but these insights remained limited and fragmentary. It was only after 1960 that a
radical ecological critique emerged as a key concern for social theory. Rachel Carson, Barry
Commoner and Murray Bookchin - the founder of social ecology - were among the pioneers of
this new perspective. But the most important attempts to conceptualize the profound challenge of
the Anthropocene in social-theoretic terms are only now emerging. The resulting ‘ecological turn’
in social theory no longer abstracts the natural from the social but examines their metabolism in
the context of articulated world ecologies that shape flows of matter, energy, commodities and
capital. Unlike the classical tradition that was largely confined within the social and geographical
space of the ‘West’, the ecological turn in social theory encompasses other world regions such as
Latin America where an ecologically informed viewpoint on ‘development’ is being articulated
by thinkers such as Alberto Costa, informed by the cultural cosmologies and social practices of
indigenous cultures (sumac kawsay). This course will explore the ecological turn in social theory
via critical readings of both classical and contemporary social theory, including among others
Karl Marx, Max Weber, William Morris, José Carlos Mariategui, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch,
Maristella Svampa, Alberto Costa, Ian Angus, Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson, and John
Bellamy Foster.