Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 23, 2015

Racing Extinction

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Politics of Extinction

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

Read full article

September 7, 2015

An exchange about John Muir with Donald Worster

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:36 pm

Donald Worster

For my money, Donald Worster is  the finest environmental historian in the USA, probably the world for that matter. This exchange grew out of a comment by Survival International’s executive director under my article criticizing Jedediah Purdy. Purdy had written an article in the New Yorker Magazine charging Muir with favoring the ethnic cleansing of American Indians from Yosemite and Curry agreed with it.

My email to Worster:

Hi, Donald I am a huge fan of your work and own every book you have written except the one on John Muir. A while back I wrote a critique of Jedediah Purdy’s attack on Muir in the New Yorker Magazine: http://louisproyect.org/2015/08/17/the-racism-of-early-environmentalism-or-environmentalists/ Just today I got a comment on the article from Stephen Curry, the Executive Director of Survival International who agrees completely with Purdy. He referred me to a Truthout article he wrote that stated: “Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go.” I wrote him a note:

I am not sure what you mean by “believed”. Donald Worster’s bio of Muir makes no such reference. I have also read Muir extensively and do not recall words to that effect although he did express racist views common to the period. So maybe you can help me out by telling me exactly where in Muir’s writings do you find support for your allegation.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Thanks, Louis

* * * *

Dear Louis, I am flattered that you are such a loyal reader. But do get the Muir biography, which addresses in many pages this old hackneyed charge against him. There is nothing that I could find anywhere in all the extensive Muir papers that expresses the racist views he is charged with, unless we use a very broad brush definition of racism (ie., to mean any criticism of another group of people. By that standard the world is full of racists, including most Indians, blacks, etc.). If racism means a theory that some races of people, whatever “race” means, are genetically inferior to other races, then Muir was not a racist. I write specifically about Muir’s encounter with a group of Indians, not in Yosemite valley exactly, but on a trail in the nearby mountains, a year or so after he had arrived in California He did find those people dirty and frightening. So might Mr Purdy if he had been in Muir’s shoes, all alone with a group of strangers dressed in animal skins, with strong odors, demanding tobacco and alcohol and pulling at his clothes. Try it on the streets of Naples or Calcutta. But if Mr Purdy would simply turn the page in that journal (My First Summer in the Sierra) he would read contrary evidence—Muir feeling ashamed of his initial fearful and negative reaction, Muir asserting the vision of poet Robert Burns that we will all, including the Indians, come to be brothers one day. Those Indians, by the way, did not live in Yos Valley, they came from the Mono Lake area, and the Yos Indians feared and deposed them (were they also racists?). And it was those Mono Paiutes who massacred the Yos Indians and left the valley uninhabited, except for a lone individual or two. No one destroyed inhabited settlements to make way for Yosemite Park. Muir was a friend of a man he called Indian Tom in the valley, a guy who carried his letters out to civilization. Then there is all of Muir’s experience with Indians in Alaska. There Muir criticized the nation’s treatment of native peoples, etc. etc. Purdy has done no homework, while he recycles worn out, prejudcial, and highly selective charges. He repeats old slanders that a true scholar should be ashamed to pass on. I don’t think his intellectual or moral responsibility rises much higher than Fox News.

Don Worster

August 17, 2015

The racism of early environmentalism–or environmentalists?

Filed under: Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Jedediah Purdy

Last week the New Yorker Magazine ran an article by Duke Law Professor and public intellectual Jedediah Purdy titled “Environmentalism’s Racist History” that might have been more appropriately titled “Environmentalists’ Racist History” since the brunt of the article was to show that a group of men held deplorable but typical Victorian ideas about race while at the same time waging important campaigns on behalf of wildlife preservation.

For example, Madison Grant—an ally of Theodore Roosevelt—fought to protect the bison and the Redwood trees while at the same time writing a book titled “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History.” I should add that Purdy includes Grant’s role in creating the Bronx Zoo on the positive side of the ledger—something I would question given the sorry record of captive creatures in such places. Apparently the book helped to influence the Immigration Act of 1924 although it is not exactly clear what this has to do with the bison. When my grandparents came over before this bill was passed, did they take the next train to North Dakota to hunt bison? I rather doubt it.

Purdy also takes aim at John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club who refers to Blacks as lazy “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians. Again, there is not exactly any connection made between Muir’s racist views and the mission of the Sierra Club. Henry David Thoreau also gets smacked for stating “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”

He also points out that many of these early environmentalists backed eugenics as well, not that there was any direct connection between protecting bison and sterilizing women.

Purdy tries to make a connection by rendering Grant and Muir as misanthropically predisposed to humanity, especially its lower classes. They were catering to the aristocracy that saw the forest and especially its larger animals such as elk as a refuge from the teeming masses.

This is an analysis I first ran into from William Cronon that I alluded to in a May 23rd post titled “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda”. Cronon is very big on the reactionary character of Teddy Roosevelt era wildlife preservation programs:

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

Missing from Purdy’s article is any understanding of the context. In point of fact, all of the men he writes about were simply reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. Social Darwinism and eugenics were deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the period.

For example, Lewis Henry Morgan—best known in some ways for Marx and Engels’s positive references to his study of the Iroquois—viewed Indians as an impediment to civilization because of their reliance on hunting, something he regarded as enchaining them to their “primitive state”.

Furthermore, many of the great philosophers of the 19th century viewed Europeans as higher up on the evolutionary scale, including Immanuel Kant who wrote:

The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why at all points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with weapons. The Romans, Greeks, the ancient Nordic peoples, Genghis Khan, the Turks, Tamurlaine, the Europeans after Columbus’s discoveries, they have all amazed the southern lands with their arts and weapons.

What would have been remarkable is if any of these early environmentalists had written passionate defenses of American Indian or African-American rights. Furthermore, Purdy has complaints about the racism of environmentalist groups today, calling attention for example to less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth being from minorities.

Purdy has a new book out titled “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene” that will probably sell lots of copies since he is one of those people who gets interviewed by Charlie Rose and reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review section. From the looks of it, it has the same kind of profundity as the typical TED lecture:

A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.


In any case, I hope that in trying to correct the racial composition of the Sierra Club et al, Purdy finds the time to prevail upon his editors at the New Yorker Magazine to rectify the imbalance there since the percentage of minority contributors is about the same: about two percent.

This is not to speak of Duke University, where he is a big muckety-muck in the Law School. Also on the Duke faculty is one Jerry Hough who can’t understand why Black students just don’t get it: “I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Or that has students who like to hang nooses to make a point to Blacks with those strange names about knowing their place.

July 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 12:49 pm

Manufacturing Denial

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”, the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, is required reading in order to understand the threats to our health and overall survival posed by the well-funded pseudo-scientific think-tanks that have their origins in Cold War anti-Communism. As unlikely as it might seem, the very scientists who ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers pay to cast doubt on climate change are part of a network that got started in the 1950s when scientists, including those who worked for the tobacco industry, were at last coming to the conclusion that smoking causes cancer. The tobacco companies needed “experts” to obfuscate the issues just as they need them today to cast doubt on climate change.

How and why this kind of bogus science was rooted in the anti-Communist crusade of the post-WWII era is laid out in compelling detail in “Merchants of Doubt”, a book that combines investigative reporting by a couple of science historians with a flair for detective work that would impress Agatha Christie.

As a companion piece, I can also recommend the 2014 documentary of the same name that the book inspired. Ably directed by Robert Kenner, it can now be seen on Amazon.com streaming. Both the book and the film will leave you with the conclusion that some of America’s richest and most powerful corporations prostituted a group of scientists into betraying science to boost their patron’s profits. But on further reflection, it is likely that these men would have lied even if they had never received a penny since their ideological predispositions made them the perfect tools to carry out the corporate mandate. And on even further reflection after that, it probably does not make sense to refer to prostitution since it is an honorable profession compared to what these scientists were up to.

Read full article

June 27, 2015

Runoff; Our Daily Poison

Filed under: Ecology,Film,food — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.

The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.

The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.

In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.

Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.

I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.

In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.

Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.

The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.

Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.

Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.

One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.

A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:

In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.

In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.

It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.

Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.

June 22, 2015

Is China going Green? A reply to John Bellamy Foster

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 2.13.33 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 2.37.58 PM

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

By Richard Smith, Truthout | News Analysis

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, January 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

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)

read full article

June 8, 2015

Energy for Society in Balance with Nature

Filed under: Ecology,energy — louisproyect @ 2:04 am

Energy for Society in Balance with Nature.

May 26, 2015

McKenzie Wark, Bogdanov, Zizek and gold-plated bullshit

Filed under: Ecology,Zizek — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Žižek muses on a new Verso title

Today my eyebrows rose to their maximum height when I ran into a Verso blog post on Twitter. Titled “Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red”, I fully expected another helping of the anti-Abbeyist ideology that permeated Christian Parenti’s Truthout interview. Of course, there is an obvious provocation here. Since ecology and “mother nature” are not terms normally thought of in contradiction with each other, you have to ask what Žižek has in mind. As a past master of the outrageous, you can expect him to fuck with your mind—at least if you are the sort of person who takes the Elvis Superstar of Marxism seriously.

Žižek’s commentary targets a new Verso book titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene” by McKenzie Wark. The Verso blurb states that it “creates philosophical tools for the Anthropocene, our new planetary epoch, in which human and natural forces are so entwined that the future of one determines that of the other.” Without knowing anything about the book in advance, I was reminded of Parenti’s dismissal of John Bellamy Foster’s “nature/society” dualism with the reference to “human and natural forces” being entwined. Of course, if you don’t go beyond the anti-Cartesian abstractions (that ultimately put you in Leibniz’s camp, for what that’s worth), you don’t have a clue about what the fuss is over.

It turns out that despite being represented as an anti-Cartesian, Wark has much more in common with Foster than William Cronon. Žižek describes him as concerned with the metabolic rift that Marx identified as the root cause of a soil fertility crisis (ie., animal excrement flowed into the Thames rather than fertilized the crops)—the very same point that Foster has made in numerous articles. However, Žižek dismisses the possibility of a rift but at the same time praises Wark for rejecting the notion that nature was ever in balance:

Notions like “rift” and perturbed “cycle” seem to rely on their opposite: on a vision of a “normal” state of things where the cycle is closed and the balance reestablished, as if the Anthropocene should be overcome by simply re-installing the human species into this balance. Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance, nature in itself is already unbalanced, the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other.

Of course, it is a bit difficult to figure out where Wark stands solely on the basis of Žižek’s précis. Short of reading his book, the best source would be a long article on E-Flux titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (On Alexander Bogdanov and Kim Stanley Robinson)” where he speaks in the name of the Carbon Liberation Front, a group with just one member—McKenzie Wark.

The Carbon Liberation Front has a number of enemies with those advocating markets as a solution in first place. He also warns against “a romantic turn away from the modern, from technology, as if the rift is made whole when a privileged few shop at the farmer’s market for artisanal cheese.” Uh-oh, I’d better fill the fridge with Kraft’s to stay on Wark’s good side.

Expecting an alternative to these dead-end approaches, you might reasonably expect something in the way of strategy, alliance-building, slogans, etc. But Wark is far more ambitious. His advice is to read Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star”, a science-fiction novel that posits the Martians as having advanced scientific knowledge. (Did Posadas read this, I wonder.) He also recommends his “The Philosophy of Living Experience”, a book that helped him formulate answers to the environmental crisis:

Bogdanov takes his distance even from materialist philosophy before Marx, for it still posits an abstract causation: matter determines thought, but in an abstract way. Whether as “matter” or “void,” a basic metaphor is raised to a universal principle by mere contemplation, rather than thought through social labor’s encounters with it. The revival in the twenty-first century of philosophies of speculative objects or vitalist matter is not a particularly progressive moment in Bogdanovite terms.

The labor point of view has to reject ontologies of abstract exchange with nature. Labor finds itself in and against nature. Labor is always firstly in nature, subsumed within a totality greater than itself. Labor is secondly against nature. It comes into being through an effort to bend resisting nature to its purposes. Its intuitive understanding of causality comes not from exchange value but from use value. Labor experiments with nature, finding new uses for it. Its understanding of nature is historical, always evolving, reticent about erecting an abstract causality over the unknown. The labor point of view is a monism, yet one of plural, active processes.

I think the one thing that rings truest in this excerpt is that Bogdanov took his distance from “materialist” philosophy. In trying to rescue Bogdanov from obscurity and turning him into a prophet of ecosocialism, he seems to have missed the main point, namely that Bogdanov had abandoned Marxism when he was developing his main ideas. This was Lenin’s take:

Why has it become impossible to have A. Bogdanov as a contributor to workers’ newspapers and journals that adhere to a stand of consistent Marxism? Because A. Bogdanov is not a Marxist.

Basically Bogdanov was a neo-Kantian, which in the early 1900s meant a follower of Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist with a distinguished career but not someone very useful for explaining society or history since according to Lenin scholar Neil Harding he denied the existence of a material world except as mediated by the conscious mind. You can understand why Lenin’s knickers would get twisted in a knot over this even though the main problem Bogdanov posed was his politics rather than his metaphysics.

In adopting Bogdanov as a prophet, Wark creates a certain difficulty for those of us trying to make an independent assessment since there is not a single English-language version of his work except for “Red Star”, the sci-fi novel that I have heard is unreadable. Some of it can be read on Google Books but the rewards seem vanishingly thin:

“This is an ordinary glass phial,” Menni explained, “but it contains a liquid which is repelled by the bodies of the solar system. Just enough liquid has been poured m to counterbalance the weight of the bottle, so that they are weightless together. We construe all our flying machines on the same principle. They are made of ordinary materials, but they have a reservoir filled with the appropriate quantity of this minus-matter. All that remains is to give this entire weightless system the proper speed. The flying machines intended for use in Earth’s atmosphere have simple electric motors and wings. Such craft are of course unsuited for interplanetary travel, where we employ an entirely different system, with which I shall familiarize you in more detail later.”

There was no longer any room for doubt.

I don’t know if there is much more to say about McKenzie Wark so let me conclude with a few more words on Žižek who if he was in a poker game would be said to see Wark’s hand and raised him several cards of abstractions. Can you make any sense of this?

My only critical point is that Wark’s unsurpassable horizon remains what he calls “shared life,” and every autonomization of any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation: “Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor”. Here, however, we should raise a double question. Firstly, is such an interruption of the flow of shared life, such a focus on an idea, a beloved, or a task, not precisely what Badiou calls the Event? So, far from dismissing such cuts as cases of alienation, should we not celebrate them as the highest expression of the power of negativity? Furthermore, does our access to the nonhuman molecular level of, say, the quantum universe, not presuppose precisely such a cut from our shared daily life? We are dealing here with a properly Hegelian paradox. Hegel praises the “molar” act of abstraction—the reduction of the complexity of a situation to the “essential”, to its key feature—as the infinite power of Understanding. The truly hard thing is not to bear in mind the complexity of a situation, but to brutally simplify it so that we see its essential form, not its details. The difficult thing is to see classes, not micro-groups fighting each other; to see the subject, not the Humean flow of mental states. We are not talking here just of ideal forms or patterns, but of the Real. The void of subjectivity is the Real which is obfuscated by the wealth of “inner life”; class antagonism is the Real which is obfuscated by the multiplicity of social conflicts.

I would call this gold-plated bullshit.

For a better idea of why Žižek would find the notion of any kind of rift as outside the bounds of his own peculiar notions about ecology, I would refer you to his 2010 New Statesman article titled “Joe Public v the volcano” where he offers this fatuous take on global warming:

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

His answer to global warming is a helluva known known:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Although I doubt that this would ever enter the mind of the Elvis Superstar of Marxism, when places like the Maldives or Bangladesh become uninhabitable, the poor people will become casualties of floods, starvation, disease and chaos-induced violence. That should be obvious and not require familiarity with Lacan or Bogdanov for that matter.

May 23, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:35 pm

 Christian Parenti

As I stated in my article on Edward Abbey in last weekend’s CounterPunch, there are tensions between Marxism and ecological thought over the role of capitalist development. In the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to regard the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class. The Communist Manifesto, includes “the subjection of nature’s forces to man” as part of capitalism’s forced march toward civilization. So when both FDR and Stalin viewed massive hydroelectric dams as necessary for social progress, it was logical for Communists to celebrate their creation even though they came at huge costs to the environment.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”
Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody Guthrie, “Grand Coulee Dam”

Not long after I wrote the article, the issues resurfaced in a Christian Parenti interview in Truthout on “The State, Humanity as Part of Nature and the Malleability of Capitalism” in which he offered his thoughts on a number of scholars who are trying to integrate political economy with ecology such as John Bellamy Foster, Jason W. Moore, and William Cronon. I am very familiar with Foster and Moore’s work—less so with Cronon’s. However, what I have read of Cronon makes me question Parenti’s praise of his work.

The key part of the interview is a reply to the question “What are the limitations to using Marx’s work when thinking about ecology?” Parenti claims that Moore’s approach is superior to John Bellamy Foster’s because it avoids a Cartesian duality between nature and society by placing humanity within nature. Although these distinctions might sound abstract, the political consequences are dramatic according to Parenti.

It’s very, very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature. If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave. Sadly, that notion is at the heart of most American environmentalism. Just look at the misanthropic politics of deep ecology.

As someone who confessed to “Abbeyism” in my last article, I felt a bit defensive reading this. Reading it carefully, however, I cannot help but wonder what Parenti meant by stating that “most” environmentalists want “humans to leave”. Maybe I haven’t been reading articles by John Bellamy Foster critically enough but I have never found anything resembling those space colonization schemes put forward by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and company. (Granted, MRZine sometimes reads like it has been written by Martians.)

If Parenti is not quite in favor of ”man’s subjection of nature”, there are hints of coming too close for comfort. He states that when Native Americans burned the landscape, they increased biological diversity. This is the lesson he drew from William Cronon’s “Changes in the Landscape”, a book that reviewed native peoples in early New England history.

Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place. Native Americans didn’t necessarily tread lightly in the region. No, in fact, indigenous people throughout North America had a robust and quite aggressive role in shaping the ecosystem. Some communities would burn the landscape twice a year. This created edge habitat meadows amidst forests, the ideal environment for deer.

Now if this were all that there was to Cronon’s theories, it would be hard to mount any great objection even though it has a bit of a straw man character. As someone who has studied Blackfoot and Comanche history in some depth, I have never heard them described as living in “some sort of pristine, natural space”. They hunted bison and even created quasi-statal institutions that marked out their control of such resources. What distinguishes such precapitalist societies from “civilization”, however, is that they lived in balance with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. This was not a function of their spiritual beliefs but one dictated by the need for survival. If you hunt bison to extinction, you will die just like the beasts. It is only under capitalist “civilization” that we face such threats.

Indeed, as Cronon turns his attention to that very capitalist civilization that his theories begin to spin off the tracks. His 1992 “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” explored “ecological changes” in the Midwest that helped to create America’s most dynamic city as the Amazon blurb puts it. Undoubtedly the work was a major contribution to understanding the transformation of the American west but my reading made me wonder what it had to do with ecology. Was the creation of stockyards and the rail system that delivered steers “ecological”? If there is a place for a book that documents how capitalism transformed nature in a major American city, one can understand the acclaim for “Nature’s Metropolis”. However, nobody could ever mistake what Cronon was writing with Mike Davis’s on Los Angeles that were filled with a moral imperative to resist man’s subjection of nature.

It is only when Cronon decided to write “The Trouble with Wilderness” that the issues became more sharply posed. Like Moore, Cronon is a critic of Cartesian dualism: “This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

Once he gets past such abstractions, Cronon strays uncomfortably into a kind of contrarianism that suggests a detachment from the more practical matters of wildlife preservation:

The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use. The ease with which antienvironmental forces like the wise-use movement have attacked such single species preservation efforts suggests the vulnerability of strategies like these.

This seems dubious at best. Arguments that I am familiar with over the spotted owl or the snail darter are presented in terms of the creature’s integration with the ecosphere. That which threatens the spotted owl or the snail darter threatens others in the food chain, including homo sapiens ultimately.

Cronon directs most of his polemical heavy artillery against Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, a group that was inspired by Edward Abbey’s writings as I explained in my last article, especially Foreman’s view that our troubles began with farming:

In this view the farm becomes the first and most important battlefield in the long war against wild nature, and all else follows in its wake. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.

Given Cronon’s breathless take on the explosive growth of Chicago as a nature-transforming supplier of grain and beef to the rest of the country, there is something to be said about the problems of “civilization” and its handmaiden agriculture. While no doubt responsible for the emergence of urban life and modernity, agriculture has obvious costs as the midwife of class society. Without an agricultural surplus, there is no ruling class. Cronon belittles Foreman’s belief in the democratic norms of hunting-and-gathering societies but there is every reason to believe that Marx and Engels would find more to agree with in Earth First! than Cronon, if you are familiar with their writings on the American Indian, especially Engels’s take on the Iroquois constitution:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization.

Finally, I was rather amused to read Cronon’s dismissive remarks on Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system, something he regards as elitist and reactionary:

The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity. [Owen] Wister’s contemptuous remarks about Wall Street and Newport suggest what he and many others of his generation believed—that the comforts and seductions of civilized life were especially insidious for men, who all too easily became emasculated by the feminizing tendencies of civilization. More often than not, men who felt this way came, like Wister and [Theodore] Roosevelt, from elite class backgrounds.

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

As it turns out, Theodore Roosevelt’s wilderness preservation program found eager backers in a place that was arguably much more important for the legacy of Marxism than anything that William Cronon ever wrote—I speak of the Soviet Union in its early years before Stalin’s forced industrialization took shape as an exercise of the “subjection of nature” gone mad.

The Communist Party issued a decree “On Land” in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal “Forests of the Republic” complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree “On Forests” at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that took place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia disappeared, all in the name of heightened “productiveness.”

What’s surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons” was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of zapovedniki, roughly translatable as “nature preserves.” Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the natural equilibrium that is a crucial factor in the life of nature.

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan’ region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well.

And where did the inspirations for such measures come from? Chris Williams supplies the answer in “Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis”:

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

If it is William Cronon versus the shamans, Abbeyism and V.I. Lenin, I’ll go with the latter group—thank you very much.

May 20, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, Alexander Cockburn

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

William J. Cronon

Christian Parenti, Truthout Interview, May 17, 2015 (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30756-christian-parenti-on-the-state-humanity-as-part-of-nature-and-the-malleability-of-capitalism)

Anthropogenic fire has long played an important role in the universal metabolism of nature. It was our ancestor Homo erectus that tamed fire, used it to cook, and most likely to shape the landscape either intentionally or by mistake. Homo sapiens have used fire on a vast scale. Native Americans and pastoralist societies in southern Africa used fire to create fecund, hunt easier, open forests and grazeable grasslands. A lot of this goes back to William Cronon’s first book Changes in the Land in which he examined the environmental history of New England before and just after White settlement. Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place.

* * * *

Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil”, Nation Magazine, April 8, 1996

Until a new president is found, the daily operations of the Wilderness Society will be overseen by Kim Elliman, a Rockefeller heir, and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Strom Thurmond of the environmental establishment. But don’t expect the Wilderness Society to change into an aggressive environmental advocate anytime soon. The Society recently invited onto its governing board the historian William Cronon, who is the general editor of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series at the University of Washington Press. (Don’t be shocked. In Oxford, Balliol College is welcoming a Flick Chair, endowed by German slave labor and death camp sponsors.) Cronon kgues that the focus on wilderness protection has been a misguided and counterproductive endeavor. After all, Cronon muses, wilderness is really just a state of mind.

 * * * *

William J. Cronon, letter to the Nation, June 7 1996

Alexander Cockbum implies that I am an enemy of wilderness protection and of environmentalism in general. I trust that those who , know my work will recognize how unfair this is. Cockburn’s complaint is twofold. He correctly notes that I edit the Weyerhaeuser Endronmental Books series for the University of Washington Press but fails to point out that the Weyerhaeuser Corporation has no relationship to the series andnothing whatsoever to say about its editorial content. I would not have accepted tlhis editorship had there been any ideological constraints on what I could publish. In this, I am no different from the thousands ofAmerican academics (and journalists) who accept financial support from philanthropies with names like Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon or Guggenheim or who teach at universities with names like Stanford or Duke or Cornell-names whose environmental records are far from spotless. Cockburn asserts that I believe wildemess io be mere& a state of mind. This grossly dislorts my position. Although I strongly support protecting biodiversity and wild land, I believe this is best accomplished by seeing such things as part of a larger system in which “the human” and “the natural” are not set in stark opposition to each other. Cockbum and Susannah Hecht ‘eloquently make a similar point when they criticize First World fantasies about tropical rainforests as “Edens under glass.” Like them, I believe we should pay close attention to the troubling linkages that sometimes exist between environmental advocacy and elite class politics. If these views render me ecologically suspect, then I have a feeling that many.environmentally committed Nation readers may wish to be suspect in precisely the same way.

 * * * *

Alexander Cockburn’s reply

I thank Bill Cronon for his kind words about The Fate of the Forest, and indeed he wrote a marvelous book about Chicago and the West, Nature’s Metropolis. But Uncommon Ground, a collection boiled down from a seminar at U.C., Irvine, was a pretentious mess, full of banalities about nature as a human construct, as if Marx had not said it better and shorter more than a hundred years ago: “The nature that existed before man no longer exists anywhere.” Its politics were bad too. Anent Cronon’s series under the sponsorship of the Weyerhaeuser timber company: As the Chinese proverb puts it, Do not adjust your hat under a plum tree or tie your shoes in a melon field if you wish to avoid suspicion.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,933 other followers