Contradictions of Reason under Capitalism: Scientific Dogma, Modernity, and the Domination of Man over Nature

Zack Ford

Despite opposition by environmental groups, the port of Long Beach, California, with the support of the Long Beach City Council, will continue exporting petroleum coke – or “petcoke” – at approximately 1.7 million tons annually. On the same day, the city council voted against conducting the typical environmental impact study. For obvious reasons, members of the Sierra Club, Communities for a better environment, and Earthjustice opposed this decision. Roughly 900 miles north, in Oregon, the Department of State Lands rejected the exportation of petcoke, illustrating the Long Beach Council’s preference for industrial profits over the health of its residents and environment.

The Los Angeles harbor commission extended a “15 year lease for Oxbow Energy Solutions LLC, led by founder and CEO Bill Koch, and a 20-year lease for Metropolitan Stevendore Co. to use a 5.4 acre space with a coal shed on Pier G.” The petroleum coke will be housed in the uncovered shed until it is shipped to Asia and used as fuel for development. Petcoke is considered “dirtier than the dirtiest fuel.”

Caught in the middle of the vicious conflict between economic growth and environmental health, Long Beach residents see the effects that the port has on both. While the port is responsible for more than 6% of the jobs in Long Beach, it is also responsible for the rainbow colored film that glistens on the oceans’ surface surrounding the port for miles. The recent decisions have underscored the fact that the Port of Long Beach is much more concerned with immediate economic gain than sustaining the environment in which economic gain is dependent on. To add another Kafkaesque absurdity, the Long Beach Port prides itself as the “greenest port in America.”

However, according to Clayton Headley, Oxbow’s vice president, “The facilities on Pier G are world class operations that set the bar for environmental excellence in our industries.” With claims such as this, it’s easy for companies like Oxbow to win public opinion in the increasingly shallow minds of mainstream America. Petcoke is merely another fossil fuel that can be used to manufacture the trappings and facades of modernity, which Americans continue to see as the peak of civilization.

On the surface, this appears to be a continuation of the age-old battle between the supporters of industry and the supporters of environmental preservation. However, at the root of this issue is the widely accepted conception of reason which prevents both interests from achieving their goals. Subjective reason – the prevailing mode of reason in our current epoch – considers the rational choice to be what is beneficial to the individual. In other words, subjective reason is concerned with means and ends, insofar as the ends are determined by the subject; that they “serve the subject’s interest in relation to self-preservation.” (Horkheimer. 1947, p. 4) Since self preservation is the end goal of modern humans, to inflict pain on oneself would be considered irrational. Supporters of industry share this subjective conception of reason and consider it rational to support the productive apparatus because it feeds them, even if it also destroys them.

Subjective reason’s antithesis, “objective reason,” was the prevailing mode of thought prior to the age of enlightenment. During this historical epoch, rationality took a more holistic approach, focusing on the end goal. Objective reason is reason derived not only from the subject’s interest in self-preservation, but also as an external force existing in the objective world, i.e., in nature. Plato used objective reason to organize society in a way that was beneficial to all. Plato understood that if all parts of his city-state were happy, the whole would also be happy. According to Max Horkheimer, objective reason is “aimed at evolving a comprehensive system, or hierarchy, of all beings, including man and his aims.” (Horkheimer. 1947, p. 4) Moreover, rationality was determined by the degree to which the subject and his objective world were homogenized into one sustainable entity.

The transition from objective to subjective reason remains the universal conception of reason in contemporary society. Great thinkers such as Immanuel Kant heavily impacted this transition by encouraging society to “Dare to use your own reason!” With the congruent rise of capitalism and advanced modern science, the age of enlightenment sought to abolish the dogmatism that infested society, focusing mainly on religion. With its new exalted status, science debunked religion because it lacked empirical evidence. Science was based on observations of reality, therefore it was considered “rational.” Furthermore, science went to the extent of claiming religion and all forms of a priori metaphysical discourse “irrational” for lacking empirical evidence.

However, this so-called enlightenment inversely created a more dogmatic society by considering anything unscientific to be fallible. With science as the only trusted path to knowledge, society began to abjectly surrender to science, and grew skeptical of anything unscientific. The age of enlightenment essentially replaced one form of dogmatism (religion) with another form (science). Today, we surrender to decisions such as the one in Long Beach on the same principle, insofar as industry and technology is synonymous with Modernity, science, and development, all of which are characterized by the domination of man over nature.

The process of industry is identical to that of science, only on a much larger scale. Science begins with extracting matter from the natural world, examining its properties, and manipulating it for the sole purpose of benefiting humans. The domination of man over nature is a defining characteristic of European modernity-of which modern science is a product-industry functions in the same systematic way on an exponential scale. For example, when science discovered the element in tar sands that could potentially be used for fuel, they extracted it with chemical processes, and converted it into the filthy coal-like substance that we now call petcoke. However, the natural world is limited, and by extracting and manipulating it for the sake of our current state of development, science expresses subjective reason.

One might be compelled to ask, if subjective reason is so bad for longevity, why do we continue to endorse it? The answer is the economic system by which we are governed. Capitalism demands us to use subjective reason on a daily basis. We are forced to work for wages because it is the only way to survive. Therefore, it is the only rational choice. When this rational choice is universalized, it becomes irrational. When the masses work for wages, the natural laws of capitalism allow only the elite class to reap the benefits, and push the workers further into despondency. The worker’s initial rational choice becomes irrational once universalized.

The petcoke situation in Long Beach is a prime example of the rational choice becoming irrational after universalization. As Long Beach citizens are dependent on the wage labor of capitalism, the decision to support economic growth (generated by petcoke exports), is the logical conclusion reached by subjective reason. If this seemingly rational choice was universalized, and every port in the world chose to export mass amounts of poisonous material, there would be no natural world to extract materials from. Therefore, industrialization and wage labor would simultaneously cease, preventing both the industrial profit seekers and the average workers from meeting their goals.

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