Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2019

Christian Parenti’s weak tea

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Christian Parenti

As should be abundantly clear at this point, the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire has little to do with ecosocialism. It unfurled its banner in the Summer 2017 Jacobin issue that included Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s recommendation of nuclear energy as well as other ecomodernist nostrums. In the latest Catalyst, there’s an article by pro-nuclear Syracuse University professor Matt Huber that continues along those lines. All three have a special animosity toward any notion of ecological limits, with Huber being irked by André Gorz’s call: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.”

Two days ago, Christian Parenti’s “Saving the Planet Without Self-Loathing” appeared in Jacobin that, like the three authors mentioned above, took a hard line against the idea of ecological limits. He wrote:

This worldview has driven much of conservationism. It is at the heart of the concern with “overpopulation.” It lurks within the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” And it is found in the “jobs vs. environment” debate.

To start with, there are two ways of understanding overpopulation. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, wrote “The Population Bomb”, a book that by the authors’ own admission was an attempt to apply Malthus’s ideas to the contemporary world. On the other hand, the combination of an expanding population expecting to enjoy the life-style of the average citizen in a G8 country will be impossible to realize. The world’s population today is 7.6 billion and is expected to be around 11 billion by the end of the century. If a car, air-conditioning, and meat 3 or 4 times a week are considered non-negotiable, then we are in trouble.

Last August, Leigh Phillips wrote an article for Jacobin titled “In Defense of Air-Conditioning” that had this subtitle “Opposition to air-conditioning is just another form of austerity politics. Nothing’s too good for the working class — especially not freedom from the heat.” He assures us that there would be no downside to making air-conditioning a universal right since Canadians enjoy electricity without environmental consequences: “While it may seem fantastical in much of the US, north of the border, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.” Leaving aside the obvious risks associated with nuclear power, one has to wonder if Phillips has any idea of the damage hydroelectric dams have done to indigenous people in Canada as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article 5 years ago. Perhaps Phillips agrees with Huber that such “marginal” populations do not offer sufficient social weight for an effective “strategy”. Perhaps? No, probably definitely.

Parenti alludes to the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” It sounds to me as if he is trying to pick a fight with “degrowth” advocates like Jason Hickel but is not quite up to the task. It should be mentioned that Parenti believes that there are technical solutions to climate change that might be capable of allowing everybody to keep their air-conditioners running 24/7. As pointed out by Ian Angus, Parenti wrote an article for Dissent that backed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a “fairly simple” way of solving the climate change crisis. Angus debunked this claim:

There is only one commercial plant in the entire world that captures CO2 directly from the air. According to the journal Science, it takes in just 900 tons of CO2 a year, roughly the amount produced by 200 cars. The company that built it says that capturing just one percent of global CO2 emissions would require 250,000 similar plants. “Fairly simple” just doesn’t apply.

Parenti’s main goal in this article is to debunk the notion that “Western environmentalism has long suffered from”, namely an implicit Malthusianism that sees humanity as intruders upon a harmonious and static thing called “nature.” It might have been helpful if Parenti had named some names but it is likely that he is referring to Deep Ecology, a movement with some misanthropic tendencies that are associated with David Foreman, who was a co-founder of Earth First! Foreman left the Sierra Club after it rejected his anti-immigration proposals. Nowadays, Foreman is involved with the Rewilding Institute, a project that might lead to a ban on cattle ranching in most of the West and repopulating it with native grasses and bison. In my view, something like this will be necessary for the survival of humanity whether or not Parenti gets it.

Parenti addresses the Jacobin readers as if they were in junior high school:

The truth is, we are not intruders. In reality, humans have always been an environment-making species. In fact, every species is.

What we call “nature” or “the environment” is ultimately just the sum total of layer upon layer of organism-environment interactions. Thus it is dynamic, not static. Every organism interacts with, and impacts, its environment. At the same time, every organism is always also part of the external environment of all other organisms.

Environment making is what life forms do. Bees need flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen; in the process of their foraging, bees pollinate flowering plants, helping them reproduce and spread. Thus, bees are central to producing a habitat that produces bees.

To survive, beavers need beaver ponds. But they do not find their niche habitat — they make it by compulsive dam building. When beavers build, they also destroy. In areas they flood, previously established plant communities drown — including, on occasion, bee habitat.

This is followed by a little lecture on Engels’s “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” that from Parenti’s presentation sounds to my ears like early ecomodernism:

Just as our ancient ancestors “learned to consume everything edible” thanks to the technology of fire management, Engels noted that fire allowed humans “to live in any climate” and thus “spread over the whole of the habitable world.”… The further afield early humans moved, the more technology they created and used, the more environments they helped shape.

How odd that Parenti would not refer to the section in Engels’s article that most ecosocialists know almost by heart:

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.

Like a physician reassuring a 75-year old person with some deadly illness that they can live to 78 at least, Parenti tells us: “In other words, human labor can have life-encouraging effects, or it can do the exact opposite, depending on how labor and production are organized.” So, everybody knows what this means. Capitalism is life-discouraging and socialism is life-encouraging.

Except that the examples supplied by Parenti of “life-encouraging” human labor don’t have very much to do with socialism. He hails a fish farm in Spain and Chinese rice-growing. While there’s no point in denigrating such efforts, you don’t get the sense of the apocalyptic future that faces us at the end of the 21st century. Like everybody else on the Sunkara Express, Parenti believes in the Green New Deal. While the Jacobin/DSA sees this as tantamount to overthrowing capitalism, those with cooler heads see it as something likely not to come into existence under capitalism.

In a 2015 article written before the GND had become for the Jacobin/DSA what Trotsky’s Transitional Program was for me in my impetuous youth, Parenti wrote an article titled “Shadow Socialism in the Age of Environmental Crisis” that will give you a clear idea on where he stands on the most urgent issue of our day, namely how to get rid of the capitalist system that Malcolm X called “vulturistic”.

Shadow socialism is nothing more than government ownership of, for example, canals and railroads in the 19th century and the New Deal in the 20th:

Then comes the New Deal in which America’s Shadow Socialism becomes explicit. The effort to get out of the crisis of the Great Depression relied on the state to jump-start capitalism, to redistribute wealth downward to common people, to create markets by giving poor people jobs and income so they could buy the products of industry and keep the economy turning over. And the state itself purchased (and still purchases) large amounts of technology, invested heavily, and consumed a vast amount of output.

In the conclusion of his article, Parenti sheepishly apologizes to wild-eyed young radicals who probably made the mistake of reading Howard Zinn rather than Michael Harrington:

Let me end with that and an apology or explanation. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary or radical, but what I’m trying to do is to be very, very realistic. Because I don’t think it is sufficient to be outraged about this and invoke the righteousness of our cause. We have to come up with credible solutions and stories that will really work and strategies that will work at different time frames. So, okay, what I’ve suggested here is not the solution to all problems associated with capitalism. It’s not even the solution to the environmental crisis. It’s just a realistic approach to dealing with climate change so as to buy time, so as to pull back from the brink, so that we can continue struggling. If we don’t take things that seriously and get comfortable with the contradictions implied in that, I think we will not be able to address the climate crisis. But we do have the means to do it economically and technologically, and so it is just a matter of politics.

Is this the end result of Parenti making a career as a professional intellectual rather than as a professional revolutionary as I tried back in 1967? He worked for George Soros’s Open Society for many years and is now ensconced in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in NY. It is becoming clear to me that it exactly such people who are providing the brain-power, such as it is, for Sunkara’s publishing empire. But don’t fret. This kind of pablum leaves a vacuum that will be filled by genuine sans culottes, not the pretend kind that write for Jacobin.

6 Comments »

  1. Parenti becomes more irrelevant with every piece he writes. He knows little about the environment. Now he seems to take pleasure in hiring his spouse and friends to work at John Jay. At least one of his hirees was absolutely incompetent to teach what he was hired to teach. A sad state of affairs. These people are, make no mistake about it, enemies of the left. I heard once that Parenti was estranged from his father, Michael. Well, perhaps he had a rotten childhood. But in terms of intellectual acumen, I will take the senior Parenti, warts and all, over the son any day.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — October 5, 2019 @ 10:43 pm

  2. At one time, there was a chance that Jacobin would be an outlet for writers and academics in the west to publish critical thought. Instead, it seems to attract the most embarrassing thought pieces divorced from reality. I predict it is now just an ideological pole and a social club for a certain milieu of narcissism and careerism that academic journals are generally wont to do.

    Comment by Aaron — October 6, 2019 @ 2:26 pm

  3. I doubt he had a rotten childhood. He had a stay at home dad who wrote books all day long. No, he’s more like the ingrate SWP kid who wrote “When Skateboards Will be Free”.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 6, 2019 @ 2:54 pm

  4. It’s important to distinguish between “humans” causing global warming, and “capitalists” causing it.

    Comment by Robert Green — October 9, 2019 @ 11:14 am

  5. One of the aspects which disappoint me in the article, and also the comments above, are the unprincipled personal attacks instead of engaging the arguments. Is it because you don’t like Parenti’s arguments, or who he is, or that he published them in an outlet, Jacobin, you despise? As comrades we should all engage in principled debates instead of nasty personal attacks.
    Over the last decade Louis has written a few times in reference to the Economics Department at John Jay and mostly he has always gotten the actual facts wrong. Michael D. Yates’s comment doesn’t even engage with ideas but just dismisses Parenti’s basic knowledge of the environment and then makes up vile accusations. For example, Parenti never worked for Soros (he received a grant once to work on a book), Mike Meeropol has never been chair of the John Jay Economics department and he has not been involved with the economics department in hiring or establishing it, and Parenti has never hired or been involved with hiring anyone at John Jay. When there are facts I actually know and you (both) write about mistakenly it makes it harder to believe or trust anything you write at all. The “genuine sans culottes” will not write (nor read) Jacobin, Monthly Review, nor Louis Proyect. 
    Geert Dhondt, Department of Economics, John Jay College.

    Comment by Geert Dhondt — October 11, 2019 @ 7:50 pm

  6. One of the aspects which disappoint me in the article, and also the comments above, are the unprincipled personal attacks instead of engaging the arguments.

    Really? Maybe you can tell us why “shadow socialism” is worth fighting for.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 11, 2019 @ 9:04 pm


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