Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2019

The Serengeti Rules

Filed under: Ecology,extinction,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It would be difficult to imagine a more timely film than “The Serengeti Rules”, which arrived at the Quad Cinema in NY today and opens at the Laemmle in L.A. next Friday. Last Monday the UN released a report that made front page news everywhere. The Guardian led with these paragraphs:

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

“The Serengeti Rules” is a profile of a group of scientists that could be described as the most renowned of those who helped create the momentum behind the UN Report. Now in their seventies by all appearance, they were focused on researching biodiversity and formulating methods that could be used to preserve it. They sought to prevent species extinctions that was a sine qua non for preventing the extinction of the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet today—us. It is a deep irony that homo sapiens can either destroy the planet or save it, all a function of its ability to grasp the need for a socialist victory over the ruling class that threatens every living thing.

The ecosystems being impinged upon today have been with us for millions of years. In each instance, there are animals that the scientists in “The Serengeti Rules” describe as a keystone species. Remove any one of them and life all around them can die. Bob Paine, a U. of Washington ecologist, is widely credited as the discoverer of their role in ecosystems. In a 1966 paper, he presented evidence that when a starfish is removed from a tide-pool, it rapidly becomes a dead zone of the kind that the Great Barrier Reef is turning into. When a starfish disappears, the mussels that are part of the ecosystem soon devour all the kelp and thus make it impossible for other marine life to feed and to reproduce.

Following in his footsteps, other scientists identified keystone species that tend to be predators. In the past, scientists looked at the creatures at the top of the food-chain as being dependent on life beneath it. At the bottom level, there was vegetation. At the middle level, smaller animals such as deer ate the vegetation. The lions, tigers and cougars at the top then ate the deer, and so on. Paine and the other ecologists we hear from in the film conducted experiments revealing that it was the other way around. Remove the predator at the top and everything beneath it dies. Since the predator at the top is most susceptible to human interference, the threat to biodiversity must be reduced by reducing in turn the murderous footprint of farmers, ranchers, miners, and logging companies in places like the Amazon rainforest.

On another topical note, the NY Times reported 4 days ago that one of the most emblematic predators in the world is in danger of extinction:

The Sundarbans, 4,000 square miles of marshy land in Bangladesh and India, hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest and a rich ecosystem supporting several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

But 70 percent of the land is just a few feet above sea level, and grave changes are in store for the region, Australian and Bangladeshi researchers reported in the journal Science of The Total Environment. Changes wrought by a warming planet will be “enough to decimate” the few hundred or so Bengal tigers remaining there.

Toward the end of the film, one of the profiled scientists described the explosive, uncontrolled and largely counter-productive growth of algae and other plants or animals resulting from a keystone species absence as a “cancer”. I have no idea whether he was influenced by Joel Kovel’s writings but when I heard him draw this analogy at the Brecht Forum 30 years ago or so, it was an epiphany. Capitalism produces tumors, in effect. Fracking, pesticides, industrial fishing trawlers, plastics in the ocean, pig waste in the rivers of the Carolinas, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and greenhouse gases. All this stuff that is associated with late capitalism will end up killing us by killing the biodiversity we ultimately rely on.

The Winter 2019 edition of Socialist Forum, the magazine of the DSA, is a special issue on ecology. Among the articles is one titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” by Matt Huber, which dismisses the importance of biodiversity. Since it is the only one that is so obviously alien to Green thought, it might be regarded as an outlier. However, Jacobin saw fit to publish an article in their special issue on ecology by Leigh Phillips that has the same “productivist” abuse of Marxism. Invoking Frederick Engels as his inspiration, Huber writes:

Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

I would urge you to read Vettese’s article, which thankfully is not behind a paywall. It is in the spirit of “The Serengeti Rules” and must-reading in order to understand the crisis we face. Here is the reference to Wilson. Despite the fact that his sociobiology is toxic, Vettese’s use of his research seems incontrovertible:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe.footnote10 Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

Finally, with respect to Frederick Engels, Huber describes him as a likely supporter of his understanding of farming that might have been picked up by watching Monsanto commercials:

Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.

One supposes that Huber has never read Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” but those of us who have will understand the need for a film like “The Serengeti Rules”, the need to see it, and finally the need to become part of a movement to prevent the Sixth Extinction:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Visit https://www.theserengetirules.com/ for resources on biodiversity.


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