On June 15th an article by John Bellamy Foster titled “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China” appeared on MRZine. It was the fourth in a series of exchanges that date back to a February 2012 Monthly Review article by Zhihe Wang titled “Ecological Marxism in China”.
Wang, who is the director of the Center for Constructive Postmodern Studies and professor of philosophy at Harbin Institute of Technology in China, discusses the penetration of Marxist ecological theories in China including those that should be familiar to those of you who keep abreast of such matters: 1. James O’Connor’s theory of the “Second Contradiction” 2. Joel Kovel’s Frankfurt Marxist analysis 3. Foster/Paul Burkett, which Wang implies is the only one that is strictly Marxist.
For the most part, Wang is enthusiastic about the arrival of a Green-Red synthesis and gives equal credit to academicians like Foster and Chinese officials such as Yi Junqing, who Wang describes as:
the Minister of Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation (a top government institution on Marxism Studies in China), believes that “Marxism will lose its vitality” if it does not address the ecological crisis in the twenty-first century.
Wow. That’s pretty good news, ain’t it? A top government official is not only a Marxist but someone who emphatically believes that ecosocialism should become official government policy. I must have dozed off somewhere along the line not to have noticed this.
Wang admits that many Chinese Marxists are enamored of development for the sake of development, something that Kovel once likened to metastasizing tumors, but is confident that the Red-Greens will have the day because “China itself is officially a socialist country which regards Marxism as its theoretical base and guideline”.
We hear again from Zhihe Wang and three other Chinese Marxists (Meijun Fan, Hui Dong, Dezhong Sun and Lichun Li) in February 2013 when they write an MR article titled “What Does Ecological Marxism Mean For China? Questions and Challenges for John Bellamy Foster” that pays tribute to Foster.
It is interesting to note that the same complaint that Christian Parenti had about dualism in Foster’s theorizing is echoed in China:
Starting from a practical Marxist stance, Pu Xiangji argues that Foster has not eliminated dualism because he still understands “metabolism,” “production,” and “practice” in terms of the old materialism. Accordingly he is still stuck in the dichotomy of humans and nature, subject and object, which already had been subverted by Marx in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by proposing the concept of practice and practical materialism.
Wang and his co-authors defend Foster against such charges but urge him to consider a synthesis of his own views and their own, which they define as a “postmodernism” that posits the environmental devastation in China and the USSR as a function of “modernism”. Frankly, this makes them sound much more amenable to Joel Kovel’s Frankfurt approach but I simply lack the time and the motivation to delve into anybody’s postmodernism at this point. Maybe it is a sign of the heavy weight of dogmatism in China that some scholars are ready to dust off theories that fell into disfavor in Europe and the USA long ago for the obvious reasons. In a country where vulgar Marxism is pretty much the official dogma, no wonder postmodernism has a second life.
In replying to their article immediately below it, Foster reprises his views on the metabolic rift and other mainstays of his writings while including this pithy rejoinder on the “postmodernism” question:
This raises extremely complex historical and theoretical questions. In my own view, modernity, insofar as it is separate from the distinctive development of bourgeois civilization, is too abstract a concept to carry the full burden of ecological critique. Minus historical specificity it becomes prone to Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”14
He ends on a Kovelian note:
China today must confront not simply capitalism as such, but the peculiar ecological and social rifts of a modern Chinese system, which, whatever its defining socioeconomic characteristics, is clearly threatened, both from within and without, by the cancerous spread of capitalist methods and mores.
This brings us to the last in the series of articles that appeared on MRZine just a week ago in an article titled “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China”. Written once again by Foster, it has nary a word about cancerous tumors but is practically breathless in its enthusiasm for new directions in China:
What is clear about the present Chinese emphasis on ecological civilization is that it has emerged out of a broad socialist perspective, influenced by both Marxian analysis and China’s own distinct history, culture, and vernacular. In China, as opposed to the West, the land remains social or collective property and cannot be sold. I believe it is wrong therefore to see China’s initiative in the construction of ecological civilization to be a direct outgrowth of Western-style ecological modernism, as some have supposed. At the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in 2007 it was officially proposed that China should build an “ecological civilization,” creating more sustainable relations between production, consumption, distribution, and economic growth. At the18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, “ecological civilization construction” was written into the CPC Constitution. These principles were built into the latest five-year plan (2011-2015). Although many have questioned the seriousness of the CPC’s commitment to the construction of an ecological civilization, it is evident that this: (1) arose out of real needs in China, where there has been enormous ecological devastation; (2) was a response to the growth of massive environmental protests throughout China; and (3) has been followed up by massive government efforts in area of planning, production, and technological development.
Foster goes on to document many of the progressive changes taking place such as 1) targeted reductions in economic growth justified in terms of more environmentally balanced growth; (2) the massive promotion of solar and wind technology; (3) a growing share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption; (4) creation of a red line to protect a minimum of 120 million hectares of farmland; (5) reduction of major air pollutants by 8-10 percent in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015); (6) removal of six million high-pollution vehicles from the roads in 2014; (7) a 700 percent increase in the output of electric passenger cars (non-plug ins) in 2014; (8) initiation of a government campaign for frugal lifestyles and against extravagance (conspicuous consumption) by officials; (9) growing official criticism of GDP worship; and (10) a pledge to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 level, coupled with a pledge to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, if not sooner; and (11) the imposition of a new resource tax on coal.
Fundamental to these changes has been China’s use of “planning” and its commitment to a “socialist perspective”. I don’t want to sound too harsh but this is the most ridiculous bullshit I have read outside of Roland Boer’s blog. In this day and age for a leading Marxist to give left cover to the gang running China is scandalous. The only explanation for this perhaps is that Foster, like Woody Allen or Saul Bellow, has become such a lauded celebrity in his own field that he cannot recognize that he has committed a gross ideological gaffe. Who would have the nerve to tell him that he was full of beans? If he ever descended from Mount Olympus and spoke at a Left Forum, some impudent member of the audience might have told him that he was being ridiculous if he ever gave a talk along these lines. That would be for his own good but I don’t expect to see him waste his time among the proles.
Not a single word in his article about the real reason why reforms are happening now: the Chinese workers and farmers have been raising hell for decades about the filthy air and water that their rulers impose on them. LexisNexis only returns 1000 articles at a time but this snippet off the top should give you an idea why the ruling class in China finally budged.
You’ll note above that Wikileaks revealed “US hopes” for environmental activism in China. Given MRZine’s sorry state, that will surely encourage a series of tweets by Yoshie Furuhashi calling for more coal-burning plants.
Just how far China’s rulers have budged is an open question. Foster stated that a goal exists to reduce air pollution by 8-10 percent by 2015. Considering the state of China’s air, this might leave it just ahead of New Delhi on an average day. With one year left in this plan, things look decidedly Brown rather than Green according to a Greenpeace report. Things have improved in Beijing, where officialdom lives, but everywhere else is filthy:
While Beijing still ranks in the top five worst polluted provinces in China, the capital’s PM2.5 concentration improved more than 13% compared to the first quarter of 2014, and industry-heavy Hebei province, just outside of Beijing, also improved 31%.
However the overall situation in China is still dire. Data show that 90% of the cities that Greenpeace East Asia ranked are exceeding China’s own limit on yearly average level for particulates (PM2.5) in the air. The provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan, all located in either central or western China where strict pollution controls have not been enacted, were among the 10 worst polluted provinces in the first quarter of 2015.
Now this does not even address the policies adopted for those not fortunate enough to be part of the dominant nationality. The China Environment Forum reports that desertification, air and water pollution continue apace in Xinjiang province, a virtual colony of the dominant Han nationality. Will the Uighurs benefit from environmental reforms? I would not bet on it.
Nor would these reforms benefit those who live outside of China, particularly in Africa where China has arrived with some fanfare. If you read Businessweek, it is not too hard to figure out how things are picking up in Hebei:
China’s Airpocalypse, the lung-choking pollution that regularly blankets the country’s north, including Beijing and the port city of Tianjin, has an obvious source: emissions from the belching smokestacks of neighboring regions, in particular Hebei province. Now authorities say they have come up with a way to address the industrial pollution that accounts for as much as three-quarters of dangerous particulates in the air: Move polluting factories overseas.
Hebei authorities have announced plans to relocate some of the province’s steel, cement, and glass production to Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and other parts of Asia. Capacity for 20 million tons of steel and 30 million tons of cement will be moved overseas by 2023, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Nov. 19.
Hebei Iron & Steel, China’s largest producer, has already started the move. In September the company, which is based in Tangshan, 92 miles east of Beijing, said it will build a plant capable of making 5 million tons annually in South Africa. Hebei Iron plans to start operating there in 2017 and is likely to shut mills in Hebei. “The West outsourced its pollution to China, mainly light manufacturing,” says Tom Miller, senior Asia analyst at researcher Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “Now China has got to the point in development where it wants to start exporting pollution, too, by building steel and other factories in poorer countries.”
Exporting pollution? That might ring a bell if you recall what Larry Summers urged in 1991. For all I know, the Chinese government might have been inspired by this:
For an alternative to Foster’s nonsense, I urge you to look at Richard Smith’s article in today’s Truthout that appeared just by coincidence and that does not target Foster. Smith has been covering Chinese development and its consequences to the environment for decades now and I find him much more reliable than Foster who someone should wake up from his Stalinist slumber.
China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse
Sunday, 21 June 2015 00:00
The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word.
In March 2008, Li and other farmers in Gaolong, a village in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, told a Washington Post reporter that workers from the nearby Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company had been dumping this industrial waste in fields around their village every day for nine months. The liquid, silicon tetrachloride, was the byproduct of polysilicon production and it is a highly toxic substance. When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride turns into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people dizzy and cause breathing difficulties.
Ren Bingyan, a professor of material sciences at Hebei Industrial University, contacted by the Post, told the paper that “the land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in its place … It is … poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it.”
When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. And at night, villagers said “the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath.”
“It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who worried about the health of his 1-year-old.
China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost.
Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. Indeed, it was a major supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, then the world’s leading producer of solar panels, and Suntech’s founder, Shi Zhengrong, topped the Hunrun list of the richest people in China in 2008. (1)