From Political Ecology to Critical Theory, and back again

Omar Dahbour

What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)

It is increasingly clear that solutions to the multiplying environmental crises of the twenty-first century will involve, along with changes in individual attitudes and behaviors toward non-human life, substantial changes to the societies and governments that have been complicit in causing these crises. Yet, the philosophical roots of environmental thought do not provide many conceptual resources for thinking about political and institutional change. Environmentalism has been largely derived either from laments for a lost nature, rooted in metaphysical claims about the untenability of certain conceptions of meaning or truth, or calls for the conservation of still untouched natural environments, based on pragmatic accommodations with existing societies.

“Critical Theory” regards the relationship between human beings and their natural environment to be political in its true essence.

But, there is one twentieth-century philosophical movement that, from the beginning, regarded the human relation to its natural environment as political. It named this relation the domination of nature, and attempted to develop a “critical theory of society” that was, at the same time, a critique of the domination of (non-human) nature—and of human nature. Contemporary political ecology, so I will contend, could benefit from recalling its implicit origins in the ideas of the early critical theorists, if for no other reason than to more securely ground its ideas in a philosophical foundation unmarred by problematic metaphysics and liberal pragmatism. But the specific way in which the idea of the domination of nature was developed provides us with resources for criticizing some currently problematic ideas within environmentalism. I will mention three of these, below.

First, there is the Anthropocene thesis—the idea that nature has been supplanted by humanity as the dominant agent of change on the planet, in this most recent historical-geological epoch. There are ample reasons to doubt this thesis, and critical theory provides us with a sophisticated conception of nature that shows its continuing relevance for radical environmental change. Second, there is the notion that environmental destruction has resulted from inevitable technological change, or what has been called “instrumentalization.” Critical theory, while pointing to the long-term development of instrumentalist attitudes toward nature, maintains that it is only their interaction with a process of capital accumulation that produces a “perfect storm” of environmental degradation. Third, ending this regime of domination is not a matter either of a total transcendence of capitalism or of some utopian project. It involves the liberation of nature—including our own repressed nature—from the forces of domination by mobilizing already existing human capabilities that have been unused or devalued.  


[Nature is] in the first instance no more than…the objective elements that the experiencing consciousness encounters without his experiencing them as things he has himself mediated.

Theodor Adorno, History and Freedom (1964)

In environmental philosophy, nature has generally been regarded in one of two ways. On the one hand, it is viewed as essentially nonhuman life, something distinct from our experience. Thinkers as different as Martin Heidegger and Aldo Leopold have both regarded it this way. On the other hand, nature, more recently, has come to be regarded as something conceptualized or hypothesized by humans. This is a view held by both “social constructivists” such as Bruno Latour, and by various scientists and historians who advocate the “Anthropocene thesis.” Critical theorists were unique in rejecting both views, and in formulating the third alternative of a dialectical conception of nature. Dialectics here refers to the continual transformations in meanings (of nature) resulting from interactions, in historical time, of humans and non-humans. But these interactions are not humanly determined; they are real (historical) relations between humans and non-humanly mediated, natural, phenomena—what Adorno refers to as the nonidentical (in the sense of nonidentical with human behaviors or ideas).

Nature—as a (human) experience and concept—is historically constituted, but under constraints. The constraints are both products of human history itself, and of nonhuman phenomena—geological, biological, and so on. In constructivist accounts, nature can be construed in various, and to an extent arbitrary, ways. In metaphysical accounts, nature can only be understood as something external to humanity, whatever, usually instrumental, relation is established between them. For critical theory, however, nature is understood in accordance with human beings’ struggle to meet their needs, usually as a result of the transformation of natural phenomena through labor. Marx is the obvious influence on this view. But there is an additional dimension—the psychological. It is a distinctive feature of critical theory’s view of nature that there is an inner nature—that nature is not only an external domain or force, but is also a part of human experience. The fact that human needs are the crucial mediating factor in interactions with external nature, means that internal nature, especially the felt needs of our conscious and unconscious selves, are themselves a natural basis for human efforts to transform external nature. Here, the crucial influence is Freud, who, at least in his early work, emphasized the material foundations of psychic experience, through the expression, or suppression, of material and bodily needs.

The nonidentity of nature means that, while our conceptions of nature may be historically variable, nature itself is not determined by these conceptions. Moreover, we can, to paraphrase Marx, transform nature in various ways, but not just as we choose. Nature is precisely that which is resistant to being subsumed within our notions of how we would like nature to be. The natural world (including our “inner” nature) is, in important respects, independent of our hopes and desires for a world that is easily manipulable. In this sense, any attempt to construct a second nature amenable to human wishes is always a “negotiation” with a recalcitrant, material object world that will never be fully identical with human purposes.

Climate Change and other contemporary environmental stresses have underscored the fact that human domination of nature is essentially a fallacy.

The contemporary concept of the Anthropocene age is something that does not capture this dimension of nature. While it is no doubt the case that humans have drastically affected the planetary environment, usually in destructive ways, it is not the case that nature has been replaced by a humanized world. Pretending that this is so is normatively, as well as descriptively, problematic. Of course, nature as a concept has a normative component—it denotes what we want to exploit or save or modify. But to regard nature as disappearing into or under a “second nature” of human design is a view that at the same time justifies such an outcome. As Eileen Crist writes of this belief, “The Anthropocene discourse delivers a Promethean self-portrait…. So unprecedented a phenomenon, it is argued, calls for christening a new geological epoch—for which the banality of ‘the age of Man’ is proposed as self-evidently apt” (Crist 2016). Critical theorists who affirm the nonidentity of nature reject this hubristic view that regards the earth as material for our self-aggrandizing concept of a dominated world.

Not only the Anthropocene discourse, but also the contemporary rhetoric of climate change demonstrates the limitations of regarding nature as something increasingly subsumed under human planetary designs. Climate change, in what must be a paradigmatic case of unintended consequences, shows that the earth is not susceptible to human modification, without remainder. For who would have designed a world with the unforeseen and almost unimaginable results of an intensive fossil fuel-based civilization? Certainly, the “climate system” has not cooperated with human hopes for a totally controlled planet. There is no better example of how out of control for human beings the earth remains than the extreme weather events, massive climatological shifts, modifications in oceanic circulatory systems, and increasingly violent and sustained droughts and floods, among other results of human actions.  

Of course, the current crisis of the coronavirus pandemic provides a further case of nature as an “independent variable” in the earth system. Viruses, the “most successful inhabitants of the biosphere,” have caused a pandemic resulting in millions of human victims as a result of the invasion of ecosystems and the decimation of living species formerly untouched by human beings (Andiman 2018). Is there any doubt that humans would have prevented such an outcome if they could? Nature continues to exact costs for those (humans) who would seek total control. Critical theory’s concept of nature implicitly criticizes this historical project by arguing for a dialectical perspective on human-natural relations, one that suggests limits to human ambitions. The dialectics of nature, then, is a means of understanding the relations between the human and nonhuman as a product of two things—the normative character of human conceptions of nature, as well as the objective force of nature’s uncontrollable processes.

“Critical Theory” emphasizes the limits to human ambitions on nature.


The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.

Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1947)

Much of what the critical theorists viewed as domination of nature has been regarded by other environmental thinkers as a product of the use or instrumentalization of the natural world. For instance, Heidegger regards the transformation of nature into what he calls a “standing-reserve,” or what is more commonly regarded as “natural resources,” as essentially the result of means-ends thinking—of an instrumentalist conception of natural phenomena as raw material for human purposes. Critical theorists, by contrast, do not regard such means-ends attitudes, which they also criticize, as rooted only in a metaphysics of nature, intrinsically connected to the development of modern science, as Heidegger does. Certainly, as Horkheimer writes, the instrumentalist attitude has been in existence throughout much of European history. But its mobilization for the wholesale destruction of living species and ecosystems in the last hundred years is the “consequence of the historical development of the methods of production”—i.e. the development of industrial capitalism (Horkheimer 1947).

The basic form of domination for the critical theorists is the process of capital accumulation based on the exploitation of labor power. But critical theory’s understanding of domination is broader than this. It also includes aspects of what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of modern life—the subordination, control, and indoctrination of all social classes in a “rationalized” existence ordered by bureaucratic and hierarchical institutions. The critical theorists in particular regarded this rationalization process as rooted in a philosophy of enlightenment by which all aspects of existence were submitted to a ruthless ordering in accordance with “instrumental reason.”

Both the exploitation resulting from the capital accumulation process and the rationalization of modern life contributed, in the view of critical theorists not only to the domination of society, but to that of nature as well. While the exploitation of nature proceeds through the eradication, consumption, or enslavement of non-human species for profit, and through the extraction of natural materials for industrial use, the rationalization of nature occurs through the application of new technologies. Capital accumulation utilizes every living thing and natural phenomenon as raw material; at the same time, bureaucratic domination subsumes everything under a specious enlightenment by which all are subject to an alienating knowledge.

A second aspect of this domination of external nature involves the development of tools for resource extraction and exploitation. Technology has often played a central role in the story of environmental destruction. However, technology is often viewed as an inevitable product either of human thought and experimentation or of its use in service to human survival. Exploitative technologies are sometimes regarded as unfortunate, but unavoidable. By linking technologies that dominate nature to the process of enlightenment, the critical theorists gave it a specific historical lineage, and also politicized the history of technology. Influenced by Weber’s description of the instrumental rationality of modern social institutions and organizations, Adorno and others saw new technologies as instruments of power and domination, not simply of human adaptation.

Above all, as Herbert Marcuse emphasized in his influential writings on technology, particular instruments and techniques embodied particular values, purposes, and goals. Technology was not “neutral”—amenable to multiple uses, for good or ill—but implicated in specific structures of social domination and therefore of the domination of nature. The “technological rationality” that infused industrial capitalism was not an inevitable feature of modern life, but developed as a phase of the process of capital accumulation. While metaphysical interpretations of modern science and technology (eg, by Heidegger) could not conceive of a non-instrumentalist science of nature, progressivist interpretations (eg, that of Jürgen Habermas) linked modern technoscience to a universal desire for the satisfaction of human needs. Neither could envisage appropriate technologies designed to sustain human life within living environments rather than to maximally exploit and manipulate them.

Stepping out of the cycle of false needs created by the consumerist society is essential to creating “alternatives”.

The other aspect of domination that the critical theorists were the first to highlight is the domination of our inner nature—our consciousness, manifested both in psychological traits and in cultural practices. Such domination involved, on the one hand, the suppression of many human needs, and, on the other hand, the creation of new needs to inure people to their own subordination. Those human needs that do not contribute to the production of value and capital—for instance, creativity, social relations, individuality, free time, aesthetic experience—are suppressed by being excluded from the production process on which workers spend the bulk of their time and energy. At the same time, other needs are created that substitute for what workers have lost. Marcuse referred to these as “false needs.” By false needs, two things were meant. First, there were needs that substituted for those existent in pre-capitalist societies, but which were now extraneous to working life under capitalism. Instead of aesthetic experience—especially of nature—there is participation in industrialized culture. Instead of individual self-development, there is “branding”; instead of free time, there is shopping; and so on. Second, there are (false) needs specifically connected to particular new technologies, designed for the purpose of encouraging consumption of otherwise superfluous products. The increasing sophistication of surveillance technologies and practices, when combined with continual engagement in consumption, have exacerbated this tendency to dominate through the inculcation of particular, artificially induced needs.


The ecology movement reveals itself in the last analysis as a political and psychological movement of liberation. It is political because it confronts the concerted power of big capital, whose vital interests the movement threatens.

Herbert Marcuse, “Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society” (1979)

That critical theory politicizes environmental problems by showing their connections to conflicts within human societies means that the domination of nature implicitly allows for the possibility of a liberation of nature that would end domination. Such a practice of liberation has aesthetic, ethical, scientific, and psychological aspects, all of which were prefigured, if not explicitly formulated, by the critical theorists.

If, as Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize in Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is the disenchantment of the world that is key to its domination, then the re-enchantment of nature is similarly the key to ending that domination. Such a re-enchantment must, according to the critical theorists, be at least in part an exercise in recollection—that is, remembrance—of nature as it might have been. As Adorno makes explicit in Aesthetic Theory, this idea of remembrance is necessarily linked to a renovation of the concept of natural beauty. It is this idea, thought to have been superseded by the elaboration of a human-centered art practice, that keeps alive the possibility of “living in peace”: “…the experience of natural beauty…is entirely distinct from the domination of nature….because it recollects a world without domination, one that probably never existed…” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1944, Adorno 1970).

Liberation, then, in the first place, is a revaluation of an aesthetic stance toward nature—a stance made manifest today in the growing interest in environmental art and aesthetics. But it is much more than this. The re-enchantment of nature has an ethical aspect as well, one that involves the recovery of the suppressed aspects of human nature that have been overridden by a focus on productivity as the central feature of a good life. This recovery, in Marcuse’s words, takes the form of a “new sensibility,” one that regards human nature as including non-productivist impulses. This new sensibility involves the “emancipation of the senses” in allowing creative, aesthetic, and erotic impulses, repressed by the productivist mentality of the domination of nature, to reawaken. Marcuse mistook such a sensibility to be a product of the overabundance of material wealth in the richest industrial societies. But such a concept can be re-imagined for times in which survival is again at the forefront of concern. In such a context, ideas for a sustainable, resilient, and sufficient life can be seen as equivalent to such a non-productivist sensibility, one incompatible with the extraction of increasingly scarce resources.

This conception of a new stance toward the exploitation of nature is an ethical one, of course. It posits the notion that the good life, now, is one that can no longer rely on an unthinking and unsparing expansion of material wealth. Rather, it espouses a more sufficient form of life, lived at the scale, and within the resource limits, of discrete ecosystems. This conception of life was intimated, though not theorized, by the critical theorists over fifty years ago: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars” (Adorno 1951). 

Modern technology needs to be liberated from its restrictive embrace of materialistic development to help redefine the idea of “goodness”.

There is a scientific component to the liberation of nature as well. This is what Marcuse intimated could become a “new science” (and technology), “which would arrive at essentially different concepts of nature and establish essentially different facts” (Marcuse 1964). Habermas, as we have seen, objected to this idea as an impossibility, since modern science and technology “can only be traced back to a ‘project’ of the human species as a whole, and not to one that could be historically surpassed” (Habermas 1968). But this view seems now, in light of subsequent scientific developments, to be at best myopic. As a general matter, critical rationality cannot accept as a given a form of thought (“technological rationality,” in Marcuse’s terms) that conforms to intentions for the maximum exploitation of external and internal nature.

Today it is apparent that a new critical rationality—a new science and technology—has arisen in the development of the sciences of ecology, behavior, and the environment, sciences that include evaluation of ends as well as means of research. Such sciences, barely conceivable in the mid-twentieth century, are now a reality as new forms of knowledge. From the development of disciplines of environmental science, animal behavior, and conservation biology, to the use of means of research such as ethology, geographic information science, and “expanded peer review,” the idea of liberating knowledge from instrumentalizing approaches has become a real possibility.

Finally, it must not be forgotten that the liberation of nature has to involve liberation of our inner nature—instinctual needs, creative thinking, “unproductive” behaviors—from the increasingly sophisticated technologies of consciousness. The critical theorists were the first to analyze and criticize such attempts to influence and regulate our thoughts and feelings; the rubric used for this analysis was the “culture industry.” Today, however, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger has pointed out, this rubric is inadequate for criticizing the new industries—advertising, public relations, political consulting, and above all, the new business of data mining—that have expanded “mind control” beyond the older cultural practices of filmmaking and popular music. But the agenda for a liberation of nature must still include the fight against domination of human nature by “surveillance capitalism.”

Given the importance and originality of critical theory’s concept of the domination of nature—both as fundamental philosophical orientation and as a theoretical basis for an environmental movement—why is it not better known and more often cited? For one thing, there was nothing approaching an environmental movement in the heyday of critical theory. The first Earth Day, generally considered the moment of origin for contemporary environmentalism (at least in Europe and the USA), occurred the year after Adorno’s death in 1969. Horkheimer became increasingly skeptical of any possible resistance to the “administered society.” Only Marcuse lived to see the beginnings of an environmental politics worthy of the name. In fact, for much of the period in which the classic texts of critical theory were being written, the simple struggle between democratic regimes and authoritarian ones was the overriding political issue.

For another, critical theory’s abstract characterization of the domination of nature made the idea less than practically useful for environmental resistance. Ideas such as the “remembrance of nature” and the “new science” serve more as motivations for additional thinking and conceptualization than as useable concepts themselves. The lack of an ethical theory meant that the development of new notions of goodness or well-being—for instance, sustainability, plenitude, resilience, or sufficiency—that have proved essential for environmental thinking were not derived from the major concepts of critical theory.

Furthermore, despite the political intent of the concept, the domination of nature offers little theorization of environmental justice or governance. Marcuse, the most politically astute of the critical theorists, focused primarily on theorizing a social movement that might be based on a non-productivist “ new sensibility.” But when such a movement failed to last, there were no concepts available to reformulate a political agenda for the longer term.

In the end, though, these are not problems directly with the concept of the domination of nature, so much as problems with applying the notion to the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century. It is still only within the parameters of the concept that it is possible to develop a general critique of the productivist regime—the thoughtless extinction of life, the extraction of vanishing resources, the control of consciousness for maximum consumption, the development of technological rationality in the service of a new antidemocratic elite. This is, after all, a time-honored task of philosophy: to synthesize disparate sources of knowledge into an overarching account of problems in contemporary life. As Horkheimer put it, the task of critical theory is to eventuate in a “single existential judgment” on the present. In order to be able to name the different phenomena just mentioned, to diagnose their origins, and to point to a different future, no concept other than the domination of nature is adequate. This is why it remains an important foundation for thinking about a sustainable future for humanity and nature.

Omar Dahbour is professor and chair of philosophy at Hunter College and Graduate School, CUNY. He teaches courses on political and environmental philosophy, philosophy of history, and critical theory, and is author, most recently, of Self-Determination without Nationalism: A Theory of Postnational Sovereignty (2013, Temple UP), as well as articles on such topics as ecology and territorial rights, and global versus social justice.

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