Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.


There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

October 18, 2016

A letter to a Bard College Center for Environmental Policy professor

Filed under: bard college,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

Dear Gidon Eshel,

Let me start off by introducing myself. I graduated Bard College in 1965 and blog as the Unrepentant Marxist. In that capacity, I have written 91 articles on ecology since 1991 (just a coincidence) mostly triggered by a talk that Joel Kovel gave at the Brecht Forum in NYC a few years earlier where he likened capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. Does the name Kovel ring a bell? He used to teach environmental studies at Bard College until Leon Botstein fired him in 2009 for his anti-Zionist writings.

When I am not writing about politics, I review films—mostly documentaries such as Leo DeCaprio’s “Before the Flood” that I saw at a press screening last night. Among the Green activists and thinkers he spoke to in the course of his travels around the world was you. In making the case for eating less beef, you raised very important questions about the impact cattle have on climate change both through the clearing of forests for grazing, the discharge of methane and the unconscionable waste of water that raising such animals requires.

When I saw you identified as a Bard professor, a lot of memories I have had about the institution rose to the surface like the ‘madeleine moment’ in Proust. To start off, I could not help but remember the first encounter I had with Botstein a few years before I got on the Internet and that was conducted by snail mail. When I discovered that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees, I reminded Botstein that he had been stumping for aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the New Republic, in contradiction if you will to the values Bard College stood for. I asked Botstein how he could defend the values of a liberal arts education when Peretz called for the funding of counter-revolutionaries who burned schoolhouses to the ground in Nicaragua.

You may or may not be aware that the Sandinista revolution to a large extent was fueled by the displacement of small farmers from their land, which was to be used instead for cattle ranching as Robert G. Williams pointed out in “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This occurred in places like Matiguas, a “municipo” of Matagalpas where some 30 percent of the land had been covered by forests, but by 1976 deforestation had leveled 95 percent of the land. Where 8 percent of the land had been used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later. All that dispossession so that fast food restaurants could be supplied.

Speaking of Peretz and the Bard College board of trustees, I see that he remains a life trustee. I suppose being a life trustee goes hand in hand with Botstein being a president-for-life. I have no idea what Peretz brings to the table except deep pockets since it is evident that as New Republic publisher/editor, he had the same kind of understanding of ecological issues as the Koch brothers who were lambasted in DeCaprio’s film. He allowed contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook to write articles that were a slap in the face not only to Leo DeCaprio but professors like you who were hired out of the funds that Peretz coughed up. In many ways Easterbrook’s global warming skepticism was far more harmful than Rush Limbaugh’s since he carried the imprimatur of a liberal magazine–liberal at least by reputation. For example, there was a cover story in the May 1998 New Republic by Easterbrook that included this priceless observation:

So far, greenhouse gas emissions have not caused temperatures to increase as much as scientists and their computer models predicted. Over the course of the twentieth century, the mean global temperature has risen only about one degree Fahrenheit–not a number worth losing any sleep over.

As it happens, Peretz is fairly typical of the people Botstein has added to the board who combine liberal and even Green pretensions with a record that contradicts the values of your department. Like Peretz, Stewart Resnick is a life trustee and also like Peretz has the kind of deep pockets that have allowed Botstein to expand Bard College to the point that it is no longer recognizable to me as a graduate of the little red whorehouse on the Hudson as Walter Winchell once put it. The Resnicks put up the funding for a new science laboratories building but that funding was only made possible by Stewart Resnick’s plundering of the poor and the vulnerable. Of course, that goes with the territory as recent research on how slavery benefited Ivy League schools.

I would refer you to a Mother Jones article written in August about the Resnicks that should be required reading for you and everybody else in your department. It is titled “Meet The California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined” and begins:

Rafaela Tijerina first met la señora at a school in the town of Lost Hills, deep in the farm country of California’s Central Valley. They were both there for a school board meeting, and the superintendent had failed to show up. Tijerina, a 74-year-old former cotton picker and veteran school board member, apologized for the superintendent—he must have had another important meeting—and for the fact that her own voice was faint; she had cancer. “Oh no, you talk great,” the woman replied with a warm smile, before she began handing out copies of her book, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business. “To my friend with the sweet voice,” she wrote inside Tijerina’s copy.

It was only later that Tijerina realized the woman owned the almond groves where Tijerina’s husband worked as a pruner. Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation’s largest flower delivery service; Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water; Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand; Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties; and Wonderful Pistachios, with its “Get Crackin'” ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world’s biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America’s second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.

The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what’s used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.

Finally, there is George Soros who while not being a board member (his ex-wife of course is) symbolizes more than anybody on the planet the dichotomy between professed values and action. I am sure you are aware that his millions were critical in transforming Bard College into what it is today, a major institution with satellites across the world carrying the Bard brand name.

As it happens, Soros is demonized by the rightwing press for his funding of the Tides Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund but as is the case with the Resnicks, a lot of the money comes through investments totally at odds with the stated values of such groups.

For example, the Guardian reported on August 19, 2015 that Soros is pumping money into coal companies:

Billionaire climate philanthropist George Soros invested more than $2m (£1.3m) in struggling coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal in recent months, despite having once called the fuel “lethal” to the climate.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange commission show that between April and June this year Soros Fund Management (SFM) bought more than 1m shares in Peabody ($2.25m), the world’s largest private coal company, and 500,000 shares in Arch ($188,000).

The firm, which Soros chairs, bought the large stakes for bargain prices. Peabody and Arch are giants of the US coal sector but have suffered massive declines in recent years, losing more than 98% of their value. SFM made a similar move in 2014 by investing $234.4m in coal and gas company Consol. Those shares were sold off after a few months as gas prices continued to fall.

Soros is not only into coal. He is also apparently into fracking as the Huffington Post reported on November 3, 2014:

One of the world’s legendary investors is upping his bet on Argentina’s shale oil and gas industry in a show of confidence for shale production in South America’s largest unconventional prize — and a big boost for both supermajors and smaller players making big waves in the heart of new discovery areas.

George Soros has doubled his stake in YPF SA, the state-owned oil company in Argentina, which sits atop some of the world’s largest shale oil and gas resources, and is about to get even larger following a new discovery over the last couple of weeks of a second key shale play.

Argentina holds an estimated 27 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 802 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas, much of it located in the Vaca Muerta, an enormous shale formation in the Neuquen basin — the second-largest shale gas deposit and the fourth-largest shale oil deposit in the world.

As you may or may not be aware, DeCaprio weaves in some interesting information into his documentary about the very fine film he made last year called “The Revenant”. He thought it was important to make a film that showed the despoliation of nature carried out by those who colonized North America. You can see him and the director studying a 19th century photograph of a small mountain of pelts with a grinning hunter in front of it, about which he commented that these men took no moral responsibility for the world that they would leave their descendants.

It turns out that “The Revenant” ran into some major problems in filming on location in northern Canada since there had been no snow to speak of in an unseasonably warm winter. (Today in NYC the temperature will be going up to 85.) So they had to pick up the cameras and the rest of the gear and fly 9000 miles to Argentina where deep snow could be found. Who knows? Maybe by the time YPF SA gets finished, that snow will be history as well.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

October 10, 2016

Jason Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Earlier this year I was startled to discover that a debate had broken out between supporters of John Bellamy Foster on one side and Jason Moore on the other over how to properly theorize ecology from a Marxist standpoint. Since Moore’s scholarship was influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein, I wondered what the problem could be. Weren’t they all on the same wave-length with Monthly Review having provided a platform for the dependency theory/World Systems schools that included Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and others?

As it happens, ecology is a topic that lends itself to debate since except for Marx’s relatively brief discussion of soil fertility and Engels’s observations on the despoliation of the Alps, there was very little analysis until the Green movement took off in the early 1960s. Rachel Carson’s article on DDT helped to create an awareness that pollution was not just an annoyance but a threat to human existence. This led to Marxist scholars trying to anchor the new movement theoretically even if they spoke in a hundred different voices. Unlike analyzing imperialism, there was no theoretical continuity to build upon. Basically ecosocialism had to be created from scratch.

For me it meant dumping some of the baggage I picked up in the Trotskyist movement. After all, Trotsky embraced nuclear power in “If America Should Go Communist” and Joe Hansen, who was Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, lauded the Green Revolution (the term for chemical-based farming rather than ecology) in a 1960 pamphlet titled “Too Many Babies?: The Myth of the Population Explosion”.

When I began reading and writing about Marxism and ecology nearly 25 years ago, I soon became aware that it was a highly contested field with almost as much acrimony as you could find in the Leninist left over how to build a revolutionary party. Although almost everybody except Frank Furedi could agree that fracking and industrial farming were threats to the environment, there were disagreements over how to theorize the nature/society nexus.

Initially there was a strong tendency to view Marx and Engels as inadequate guides to understanding the environmental crisis. In a November-December 1989 New Left Review article, Ted Benson was generally sympathetic to M&E but considered them to be susceptible to the “productivism” that reigned supreme in the 19th century when capitalism was transforming the world. Benson viewed this as overly optimistic, finding fault with Marx’s statement in V. 3 of Capital that the “Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital” since it didn’t consider the problematic of natural limits.

In the early 90s I had occasional email contacts with James O’Connor who had launched a journal titled “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” (CNS) in 1988 that provided a platform for people like Benson. O’Connor was one of the first scholars working in the field who attempted to ground his ecosocialism on Marxist theory or at least his own interpretation of the theory. He posited something he called “the second contradiction of capitalism” that described a capitalism that undermined the conditions needed to reproduce itself:

An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the combined power of capitalist production relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying rather than reproducing their own conditions (“conditions” defined in terms of both their social and material dimensions).

Although I eventually moved away from O’Connor’s theory and toward those developed by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett that I considered better grounded in Marxism, I remain indebted to his insights that I credited in articles on Hurricane Sandy and Flint, Michigan.

In 1998 I wrote a brief critique of David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference” on the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) that took note of what I considered his wrongheaded take on American Indians that echoed Shepherd Krech’s mistitled “The Ecological Indian”, a book that had the usual junk about bison being driven off of cliffs, etc. I suspected that O’Connor, who was a PEN-L subscriber at the time, had ideological differences with Harvey since he asked me expand on my brief post and submit it to CNS. After working a couple of months on it, I was shocked to discover that O’Connor felt his readers would not find it useful.

At the time, I was fairly close to John Bellamy Foster and asked him why my article could have been rejected. After reading it, he told me that it was far too “materialist” for the prevailing editorial outlook at CNS.

Before long I would discover that O’Connor also resented Foster likely because of a somewhat critical review of his “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism” in the February 1999 Monthly Review by Paul Burkett that described his “second contradiction” theory as “hampered by the artificial lines he draws between capital’s exploitation of labor and capital’s destructive use of natural and social conditions.”

O’Connor got the chance to retaliate against Foster, who he likely blamed for publishing Burkett’s article, in the June 2001 issue of CNS that contained critiques of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology”. I loyally defended Foster against the attacks as did Jason Moore in the very next issue of CNS where he wrote: “The idea that nature has its own laws of motion that can be bent but not controlled by human society runs like a red thread through Marx’s Ecology. In so doing, Foster makes a signal contribution to the renewal of an activist materialist outlook that is at once historical and geographical, social and ecological.”

It turned out that David Harvey had his own problems with Foster who he had labeled as a “neo-Malthusian” in the book I had reviewed for CNS. I guess in the world of celebrity Marxism, being a “neo” is a favored insult considering Robert Brenner’s labeling of Paul Sweezy as a “neo-Smithian” in NLR. So you can get the idea by now. In this small world having theoretical differences over how to theorize ecosocialism can lead to some really bad blood.

Despite being upset with how MRZine became an outpost of pro-Assad propaganda, I have had no issues with Foster’s writings on ecology as well as those of Paul Burkett who was on the same wave-length. The two had made important contributions to highlighting the “green” component of Marx’s writings especially the passages that dealt with the “metabolic rift”, a term that referred to the growing gulf between city and countryside with human waste polluting the Thames rather than fertilizing wheat fields. For Marx, the soil fertility crisis of the 19th century was as big a threat to society as global warming is today.

So when I first learned that there were rival camps supporting either Foster or Jason Moore, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I have just finished Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”, I am in a much better position to comment on the differences between two of the most respected ecosocialist scholars.

To start with, despite having met Jason Moore in person for only the first time this year, I have exchanged email with him over the years mostly to show my appreciation for his contribution to the Brenner thesis debate in articles such as “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy” that showed the influence of Sidney Mintz who had argued that sugar plantations in Jamaica were far more advanced than any factory in Europe in the 17th century despite being based on slave labor.

When I discovered that Moore’s 2007 dissertation was titled “Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism”, I was eager to read it especially since it included an epigraph by one of my favorite musicians: “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

I had long believed that the origins of capitalism had more to do with the European colonization of the Americas than tenant farming in Britain, especially since Marx was quite explicit about that in chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

My attention was primarily focused on the genocidal wars against native peoples but secondarily on how it was connected to environmental despoliation as I pointed out in an article on the Blackfoot Indian that Foster published in “Organization and Environment”, a journal that he lost in a hostile takeover. When the high plains were purged of the bison in order to serve the profit motives of cattle ranchers, the end result was the same kind of metabolic rift that Marx diagnosed:

Modern capitalist society has no use for the advice of Engels or for the Blackfoot philosophy. It regards nature as simply something to be dominated. It builds cities in the desert and drills for oil in the rainforest. The dire consequences of these actions are now staring us in the face. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles are ecological nightmares as water from the surrounding states is diverted from its proper use in agriculture. The cities might have pleasant looking shrubbery in air-conditioned shopping malls, but meanwhile the surrounding countryside is rapidly being turned into a desert.

What Moore did in his dissertation was connect the dots between the rise of capitalism in Europe and the transformation of nature in the New World into a source of natural resources critical for the growth of industry in the Old World. Without sugar and cotton plantations, silver mines and the like, Europe would have remained a backwater. It was not just Columbus’s arrival that made this possible; Western Europe also marched eastward and carried out similar predations in China, India and Eastern Europe. In essence, it was all part of an evolving World System that viewed nature useful only as a substratum for commodity production.

Moore described the process thusly:

We can now state the matter simply. The principal spatial expression of endless capital accumulation is the endless conquest of the earth. Limitless economic expansion premised on the rising productivity of labor is limitless geographical expansion premised on the low-cost exploitation of human and extra-human nature. Because the system has been ruthlessly competitive, there is an inescapable temporal counterpart to this geographical tendency – not only the endless conquest of the earth but the conquest and incorporation of the earth in the most rapid way possible.

Essentially, “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” is an attempt to extract a theoretical framework for ecosocialism based on the research contained in his dissertation. It is part a restatement of some of the essential historical findings in the dissertation with an attempt to ground them philosophically by breaking with a Cartesian dualism that has ostensibly hampered Marxist theorization of the nature/society nexus. Indeed, the aim of the book is to remove the slash between nature and society and view them as dialectically related.

Cartesian dualism is a peculiar creature. These abstractions of Nature/Society separate symbolically what is unified practically in the history of capitalism: the life activity of the human species in the web of life. On the one hand, the binary is clearly falsifying and confused. It presumes an ontological separation that animates historical narratives in which relations between human (“social” relations) are theoretically independent of relations between humans and the rest of nature. The binary, moreover, confuses particular natures that are objects of capitalist development with nature as the matrix within which capitalism develops. Nature/Society forms a binary of violent abstractions in Sayer’s sense of the term—removing constitutive relations from the historical phenomena under investigation. One can no more extract “nature” from the constitution of capitalism than one could remove law, class struggle, the modern state, science, or culture.

I will return to how this rejection of Cartesian dualism led to the current ideological conflicts between Foster’s supporters and Moore after giving you a sense of the erudition that distinguishes Moore’s book from any I have read in the literature of ecology. The grasp of historical, geographical, scientific and cultural strands and how they interact with each other can be breathtaking.

For example, in chapter eight, titled “Abstract Nature and the Limits to Capital”, Moore explains how critical the metric system was to the rise of capitalism. Adopted by the French republic in 1799, it served as the modern mechanism of exchange. It arose to facilitate trade across borders, a key ingredient for undermining feudal economies that relied on distinct measuring systems.

Maps were also a sine qua non for world capitalism in its early stages. The skilled mapmakers of the Dutch East India company were necessary for helping its colonizers identify which piece of territory were ripe for conquest.

Accurate measurement was not only necessary for the conquest of land. It was also how human beings could be commodified as well, particularly in the slave trade. Traders had defined the “standard” slave: male, thirty to thirty-five years old and between five and six feet tall. Referred to as a pieza de India (piece of the Indies), the slave so designated could be used in economic planning for the colonist.

Is it possible that such a necessary integration of world systems and ecology could be accomplished without being committed to the “web of life” perspective defended by Moore? I for one cannot be positive that this is the case but can only say that if it enabled him to write such a powerful account of how we have ended up in such an intractable and ongoing environmental crisis today, this practically justifies it.

Turning now to Moore’s criticisms of Foster, they are contained in chapter three titled “Towards a Singular Metabolism: From Dualism to Dialectics in the Capitalist World Ecology” and are relatively brief—no more than a couple of pages—and begins with a tribute to Foster’s writings on the metabolic rift that integrated capital, class and metabolism as an organic whole.

The criticism, as far as I can tell, rests in these few words:

Foster’s insight was to posit capitalism as an open-flow metabolism, one that requires more and more Cheap Nature just to stay in place: not just nature as input (e.g., cheap fertilizer) but also nature as waste frontier (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions). Many of the most powerful implications of metabolic rift thinking, however, remain fettered by the very dualisms that Foster initially challenged. Not least is an unduly narrow view of accumulation as an “economic” process (it is surely much more than this) and an undue emphasis on the rarely specified “destruction” of nature.” Historical natures are subject to broadly entropic processes—the degradation of nature—but these are also reversible within certain limits. Much of this reversibility turns on capitalism’s frontiers of appropriation.

However, a more extensive critique of the theory of the metabolic rift can actually be found in an article titled “Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world ecology” that appeared in the January 2011 Journal of Peasant Studies. There Moore writes:

Surely part of the answer is directly given in Foster’s reading of Marx himself. In this interpretation, Marx’s critique of capitalism emphasized how ‘bourgeois society’s . . . domination of humanity’ rested on its ‘domination of the earth’, especially in the form of large-scale landed property. The endless accumulation of capital is, in other words, the endless commodification of nature. But rather than corral accumulation crisis in one pen, and biospheric crisis in another, might we instead begin from the relations that connect the two? I am therefore concerned that the particular distillation of the metabolic rift into ‘general properties’ loses sight of the whole as a ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’.

In other words, back in 2011 and now in his latest book, Moore’s criticism is not that Foster’s reading of Marx on the metabolic rift is wrong but that it does not go far enough. The first inkling I got that Foster was stung by Moore’s criticism was in an article titled “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that was mostly a polemic against the kind of Frankfurt-inspired analysis that could be found in James O’Connor’s CNS. But I had trouble figuring out why Moore would be included as he was toward the end of the article when Foster and co-author Brett Clark referred to “some thinkers” who invert the Frankfurt School’s domination of nature thesis and turn it into an “uncritical production of nature notion” that effectively “de-naturalizes social theory to an extreme, imposing ecological blinders.” When I went to the end notes, I discovered that Moore was one of those thinkers:

Moore presents a social “monist and relational” view, rooted in a metaphorical concept of “singular metabolism,” and defined in terms of “bundled” society-nature relations, in which he equates capitalism and “world ecology,” rejecting Marx’s own theory of metabolic rift.

With all due respect to John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, there is no evidence that Moore rejected Marx’s theory of metabolic rift or Foster’s scholarship that rested on it. He accepts it totally but only faults Foster for not going far enough in its application.

Subsequently Foster and Clark wrote an article titled “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology” that sounded as if Moore might have been included in the woeful Sasha Lilley collection titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth”, a book that warned against warnings that capitalism was destroying the planet:

In a turn away from ecological science, Moore warns against the “fetishization of natural limits.” Directly contradicting some of the world’s leading climate scientists, members of the Anthropocene Working Group, he asserts: “The reality is not one of humanity [i.e., society] ‘overwhelming the great forces of nature.’” Rather he suggests that capitalism has an apparently infinite capacity for “overcoming seemingly insuperable ‘natural limits’”—hence there is no real rift in planetary boundaries associated with the Anthropocene, and, implicitly, no cause for concern. At worst, the system’s appropriation of nature ends up increasing natural resource costs, creating a bottom-line problem for capital, as “cheap nature” grows more elusive. Capitalism itself is seen as a world-ecology that is “unfold[ing] in the web of life,” innovating to overcome economic scarcity whenever and wherever it arises. (emphasis added)

This attempt to paint Moore as a neoliberal Green could only have been written by ignoring his chapter ten titled “The Long Green Revolution: The Life and Times of Cheap Food in the Long Twentieth Century” that has the same basic message as Foster’s “The Vulnerable Planet”, namely that we are facing catastrophe unless capitalism is abolished.

This chapter hearkens back to the soil fertility crisis of the nineteenth century that was never really resolved by the Green Revolution hailed by Joe Hansen. It describes a stark failure to sustain a working class that benefited from Cheap Food historically all to the advantage of a ruling class in need of Cheap Labor. The chapter also alludes to the mounting crisis of climate change that while threatening the utter destruction of cities on the seacoasts also impacts food production since drought undermines the possibility of feeding the working population. The final page of the chapter can hardly be mistaken as endorsing the idea that capitalism has an “infinite capacity” for overcoming natural limits:

Capitalist agriculture today is headed towards an epochal transition: from contributing to capital accumulation by reducing the costs of labor-power undermining even the middle-run conditions necessary for renewed accumulation. This is signaled by the rise of negative-value. At the point of production the superweed effect shows our future in the present: more energy- and chemical-intensive strategies to discipline agro-ecologies as these evolve into forms of work/energy hostile to the law of Cheap Nature. At the scale of the biosphere the energy-intensive character of capitalist agriculture now feeds a spiral global warming that increasingly limits capitalism as a whole.

Global warming poses a fundamental threat not only to humanity, but, more immediately and directly, to capitalism itself. This inverts the usual line of radical critique, which overstates the resilience of capitalism in the face of these changes—an overstatement that derives from a view of capitalism as a social system that acts upon nature, rather than a world-ecology that develops through the web of life. The condition for maintaining negative-value in its latent state was the possibility for moving entropy out of commodity production. Today, such latent negative-value can no longer be moved out, as biospheric changes penetrate global re/production relations with unusual power and salience. Global warming will, in the coming two decades, so thoroughly mobilize until-now latent negative-value—fed by capitalist agriculture and in turn undermining the Cheap Food model—that it is difficult to see how capitalist agriculture can survive(emphasis added)

As I understand it, Moore has been trying unsuccessfully to have a public debate with Foster. I would hope that one can be organized before long since it would be of keen interest to activists and scholars alike. While some of the issues might appear abstruse, they ultimately affect us on the most basic level, namely the possibility of human life to continue. Facing what many scientists call a Sixth Extinction, the stakes of such an exchange are very high.

I would like to conclude this post with some of my own reflections on the issues raised by Moore’s book.

To start with, I am not convinced that Cartesian dualism is exactly the obstacle to understanding and resolving the environmental crisis. To begin with, the Cartesian dualism is much more about the individual and nature rather than society and nature, and in particular the individual mind as the famous dictum “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) would indicate.

In fact, the philosophers of modernity who are in many ways nothing more than discussants on Descartes’s “Meditations on First Philosophy” had little interest in society as such. They were preoccupied with epistemological questions revolving around whether the mind can truly perceive the real world. As reported by Boswell, Samuel Johnson had this to say about George Berkeley, a radical idealist:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

The Cartesian tradition is basically a restatement of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, one that prioritizes the mind philosophically. As such, idealism influenced the way in which social scientists, including historians, explained the world past, present and future. It is the philosophy that serves as a handmaiden to capitalism since it predicates progressive social change as the outcome of good ideas rather than revolutionary action by the masses. You can see this most clearly in electoral politics where candidates promising reform have managed to hoodwink working people for the past three centuries at least.

Marx and Engels broke with idealism as part of the generation of post-Hegelians who had finally come to terms with the priority of the real world over ideas. As a materialism, Marxism constitutes the end point of Cartesian idealism as Engels explained in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”:

The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange — in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period. Hegel has freed history from metaphysics — he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man’s “knowing” by his “being”, instead of, as heretofore, his “being” by his “knowing”.

If Marx and Engels were correct in defending a dialectical and materialist approach to understanding and then changing the world, might it be said that they continued to operate on the basis of a kind of dualism? In the passage above, Engels refers to the superstructure that develops out of the “real basis” in society, the class relations between worker and boss being of supreme importance. Isn’t base/superstructure a fundamentally dualist conception? Needless to say, there have been many Marxists who were troubled by this formula that slid easily into economic determinism and that was capable of being turned into a state religion by Stalin. That being said, Marx’s writings are replete with references to a kind of duality between society (referred to usually as man) and nature. For example, in chapter 48 of V. 3 of Capital, which deals extensively with the problems of soil fertility, Marx writes:

Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.

Now I would be the first person to defend the right of anybody to question something that Marx or Engels wrote. They were products of their age and could hardly be untouched by the dynamism of capitalism that was at its height when they were trying to build a revolutionary movement. Keep in mind that Marx was an unabashed admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who was the quintessential bourgeois revolutionary even to a dyed-in-the-wool Political Marxist like Vivek Chibber. If Marx ever took note of Marx’s waffling on abolition, it never came to my attention.

Despite my reservations about Cartesian dualism being a key obstacle to developing an ecosocialism adequate to the task of saving the planet, I am sympathetic to the idea of a Marxist research project that is monist in spirit. Specifically, I would identify a program for resolving the environmental crisis that synthesizes scientific research and political strategy as urgently needed. Currently, there are disparate efforts usually based on one’s professional training either as biologists, climate scientists, historians, sociologists, etc. that amount to the story of the blind men and the elephant. Is it a tusk (climate change) or is it a trunk (soil fertility) or is it a tail (assaults on the poor such as in Flint) or is it an ear (biodiversity)?

The lack of a synthesis on the science side seems particularly glaring. You have an entire panoply of environmental threats growing out of the commercial exploitation of the Amazon rainforest that requires an analysis that spans water and soil chemistry, public health, and climate science. And all of this is connected to the plight of native peoples who are like the canaries in the coal mines, the first to face extinction by the capitalist system’s inexorable drive for profits.

To identify, confront and finally abolish the system that threatens humanity and nature, it will require a movement of scientists, scholars and workers that functions as a subset of a larger world movement that in the final analysis is the only one capable of moving toward a future based on the common good rather than private profit. As daunting as that sounds, it will eventually become possible because it is the capitalist system itself that will drive people into common struggle.


September 23, 2016

Ruins of Lifta; Seed

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Within the first minute of “Ruins of Lifta”, I immediately recognized the co-director and principal subject of the documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that opened today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was Menachem Daum, a religious Jew from Brooklyn who was likewise the co-director and principal subject of “Hiding and Seeking”, a film I reviewed in 2004 that chronicled Daum’s visit to Poland with his teen-aged sons in an effort to combat the stereotype common among Jewry, including his sons who were studying in a yeshiva, that the Poles were almost genetically disposed to anti-Semitism like the Germans were according to Daniel Goldhagen. From my review:

“Hiding and Seeking” opens with director Menachem Daum playing a tape for his two sons, who are both Orthodox Jews like him. It is a recording of a Brooklyn rabbi instructing his followers that the “only good goyim is a dead goyim”. (A goyim is a non-Jew.)

 Daum asks them for their reaction and is disappointed but not surprised to discover that they sympathize with the rabbi, while viewing their own relationship to the outside non-believing world more in terms of a desire for isolation rather than one based on animosity. Daum not only tells them that this clashes with his own vision of Judaism, but proceeds to spend the rest of this powerful documentary demonstrating that there is goodness in all human beings and that Jews must engage with rest of humanity with compassion.

 He leads them on a spiritual trek to the Polish countryside where his wife’s father and two uncles were hidden in a barn from the Nazis for over two years by Christian farmers. He wants to prove to them that ethical behavior can still be found in the face of general depravity. As long as that spark exists, there is hope for humanity. His sons, who are religious scholars living in Israel, treat the trip as a complete waste of time and speak directly to the camera about how foolish their father is.

This new film was made in the same vein but with a somewhat different dynamic. It is relatively easy for a father to wise up his kids about the Poles, especially when he introduces them to those that saved the lives of Jews during WWII but the goal in “Ruins of Lifta” is unrealizable—namely to break down the enmity between Jews and Palestinians. The reason for this is obvious. As long as Palestinians remain the dispossessed victims of the Nakba, there cannot be true reconciliation.

The Lifta referred to eponymously is a small Palestinian town that has not been lived in since 1948 when all of the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. Now merely a collection of stone houses missing walls and roofs, it is located on the outskirts of Jerusalem where developers plan to tear them down and erect luxury high-rises. It was Daum’s intention to show solidarity with the Palestinians who hoped to preserve the ruins as a kind of recognition of what they lost. Much of the film consists of Daum touring the ruins with a former dweller named Yacoub Odeh who is a leader of the Coalition to Save Lifta. Daum keeps trying to persuade Odeh that the Jews had no other option except to create a state of their own but he responds quite logically that it was the Nazis who exterminated the Jews, not the Palestinians. It reminded me of Trotskyist leader George Novack’s observation that Jews were like people jumping out of a burning house but falling toward the sidewalk injured Palestinians walking innocently on the sidewalk beneath them.

Daum’s family was representative of the experience described by Novack. He lost many relatives in the holocaust and had a great-uncle from Poland who joined the Stern Gang. Toward the end of the film, he introduces his great-aunt survivor to Odeh and the same arguments ensue with her harping on Jewish entitlement to Israel because of the Bible and Hitler, an article of faith for Zionists. When Daum, his great-aunt and Odeh stroll through Lifta, it finally begins to dawn on her that real people were driven out of real homes and there is a spark of humanity.

To Daum’s credit, he speaks to Israeli historian Hillel Cohen toward the end of the film about his mission. Cohen explains to him that Palestinian hatred is to be expected. You cannot reconcile with the people you have victimized in the Nakba and continue to dominate. Cohen is a historian to be reckoned with on Israeli history in light of his “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that was published last year. The book hones in on the street battles between Jews and Palestinians in 1929, seeing it as a harbinger of future disasters. In a Los Angeles Review of Books review, Arie Dubnov writes:

Departing from the “official” Zionist narrative that portrays all killings committed by Jews as acts of self-defense, he treats Simha Hinkis, the Jewish policeman from Jaffa, harshly: a murderer of innocents, using killing as an instrument of vengeance.

The film was co-directed by Oren Rudavsky, who also co-directed “Hiding and Seeking”. The two also were responsible for “A Life Apart”, a documentary about the Hasidic Jews that was co-narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (a couple of Jews if you hadn’t noticed) and short-listed for an Academy Award in 1997. I haven’t seen it but on the basis of the films reviewed above, I assume that it is very good.

Today I was stunned to learn that Libertarian Party presidential candidate told a National Press Club luncheon that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” That encapsulated for me the utter indifference that capitalist ideologues and the plutocrats they serve to humanity’s future. If it isn’t relevant to the next quarterly earnings report, they can’t be bothered.

As I watched the superb documentary “Seed” that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York, I could not help but think of the threat to our lives and that of future generations posed by the capitalist class, with the libertarians such as Johnson and the Koch brothers representing its shock troops.

Despite the familiarity I have with the environmental crisis, I was startled to learn at the beginning of the film that in the last century 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared. For example, there used to be 544 varieties of cabbage; now there are 28. The numbers for cauliflower are 158 and 9. Such a loss of diversity is alarming as it is for the animal kingdom. With panda bears and condors facing extinction, life will go on although in an impoverished manner. But with the loss of native species and their replacement by GMO monoculture crops, we threaten our own existence since such crops are tied inextricably to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are destructive to the environment, not to speak of our own health. While eating genetically modified corn might not kill you, the weed-killing glyphosate that Monsanto sells certainly can.

Furthermore, the corn that is produced on factory farms in the USA today wreaked havoc on small farmers who could not compete with a commodity dumped into the Mexican market below the local market rate. It was especially devastating to the people of Oaxaca, a state where corn first began to be grown 8000 years ago and that enabled class societies such as the Aztecs to develop. What the conquistadores began to destroy in the 16th century came to a devastating climax in 1994 when NAFTA allowed the USA to sell its corn in Mexico. The ruin of Mexican farmers was not only accompanied by a loss of biodiversity but conceivably the explosion of the drug industry as poor people were forced to break the law in order to survive.

“Seed” is a moving portrait of men and women, including many from indigenous society in the Americas, who are committed to the preservation of seeds that in some ways makes them the counterpart of Noah. Instead of leading animals two by two into the ark, they go around the world tracking down food sources and collecting their seeds to be preserved for posterity. Some of them have the raffish charm of 60s hippies although their work is deadly serious.

The film interviews experts in the field such as Vandana Shiva who sees herself continuing in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Among the most interesting are scientists who work with the Center for Food Safety, a group I was unfamiliar with. They are deeply involved with the struggle against Monsanto in Hawaii that is a threat to native crops as well as the health of the people who live on the islands and have become ill from the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides by Monsanto with no consideration for the well-being of the islanders. When an elected official moved to curtail their use, Monsanto filed suit against his county. Every time I hear about Monsanto in one of these films, I fantasize about their top officers standing on trial some day after the fashion of Nuremburg.

In addition to the essential information contained in the film, it is visually stunning. As one of the protagonists points out, the seeds for various kind of beans are as beautiful as jewels.

The film was co-directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz who worked together on “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?”, a film I reviewed in 2011:

In 2007 the media was all abuzz (excuse the pun) over disappearing honey bees, something that was posited as a kind of mystery. After seeing the powerful documentary “Queen of the Sun: What the Bees are Telling Us?”, the only mystery will be why the mainstream media could not have uncovered the source of the looming disaster without delay. Its failure to do so reminds us of the need for alternative sources of information, starting with the experts and activists who are featured in this film directed by Taggart Siegel. Featured prominently in “Queen of the Sun”, beekeeper Gunter Hauk states that the crisis of the disappearing bee is “More important than global warming. We could call it Colony Collapse of the human being too.”

As opposed to corporate shills like Gary Johnson, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is there any candidate who cares about these looming threats?

Protect Mother Earth:

Lead on a global treaty to halt climate change. End destructive energy extraction: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, and uranium mines. Protect our public lands, water supplies, biological diversity, parks, and pollinators. Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe. Protect the rights of future generations.

That’s Jill Stein for you!

January 26, 2016

The Zika pandemic and the FMLN

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

News is spreading rapidly about the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus that causes birth defects when a pregnant woman is bitten by an infected insect—specifically microcephaly that afflicted one of the characters in Todd Browning’s “Freaks”.

Like many of the diseases that are becoming epidemics in the global South, it is a product of poverty, climate change and the destruction of natural habitat. The most infamous examples are heretofore have been AIDS and the Ebola virus but now Zika looms as the latest pandemic threat.

Zika is related to dengue, yellow fever, and the West Nile Virus that are all transmitted from infected mosquitos. Ironically and tragically, one of West Nile’s victims was Walter Contreras Sheasby, a Green Party activist and Marxmail subscriber who died in 2006. Scientific American wrote about the connection between the climate change that the Greens campaign against and the increased danger of West Nile in 2009:

The higher temperatures, humidity and rainfall associated with climate change have intensified outbreaks of West Nile virus infections across the United States in recent years, according to a study published this week.

One of the largest surveys of West Nile virus cases to date links warming weather patterns and increasing rainfall–both projected to accelerate with global warming–to outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease across 17 states from 2001 to 2005.

Peter Hotez, a physician based in Houston, is now concerned that the same factors that have made Zika a pandemic in Brazil and El Salvador now threaten his own city:

Hotez attributes the rise of Zika and other related viruses to climate change, human migration and poverty. As temperatures have risen, mosquitoes can thrive in new areas, bringing such viruses to previously unaffected populations. As people have become more mobile, both through immigration and worldwide travel, viruses can hitchhike to new regions.

Poverty, he says, provides the perfect conditions for mosquitoes to thrive and infect new victims. Hotez points to economically depressed areas of Houston.

“You see dilapidated housing, houses with no window screens, no air conditioning,” he said, “garbage and refuse that allow mosquitoes to breed, discarded tires on the side of the road.”

The Aedes mosquitoes that carry Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya, like to breed in standing water closer to humans. While local health departments spray for mosquitoes during the spring and summer, it’s primarily targeted at the Culex mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. Those mosquitoes tend to fly longer distances and are active at night.

Aedes mosquitoes are daytime biters and aren’t likely to be affected by the spraying efforts.

Today’s NY Times reported on the drastic measures now being proposed by the government of El Salvador. It is urging women to forgo having children for the next two years until the disease comes under control. Like elsewhere, and probably even more so, El Salvador is the perfect breeding ground because it is so poor. A third of the population lives under the poverty line.

The vice minister of health does not think that avoiding pregnancies is such a bad idea. The Times reported him stating: “The country is the most densely populated country on the entire continent. It wouldn’t be all that bad if we had a reduction in births.”

The Times also mentions the crime epidemic in El Salvador, with poverty and the Zika pandemic virtually constituting a plague on the level visited on the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus. “One community leader said that a government clinic in his neighborhood shut down three months ago after repeated threats from the gangs, the kind of conditions that experts say make it harder to treat and combat the virus.”

As it so happens, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the current president of El Salvador, is a member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that I helped organize support for in the early 1980s as a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). If you would have told me that in 2016 the FMLN would be in power in order to have people like this vice minister of health making such outrageous statements, I would have resigned. I guess I am fated to end up supporting revolutionary movements that end up adopting neoliberal policies. For the sectarian left, the answer is easy. Just build your own toy Bolshevik party and issue denunciations from within your pristine redoubt.

If the NY Times runs articles on Zika or gang warfare in El Salvador, the reader would have no idea that Washington is imposing its trade policies on this small and weak nation that have been intended to pressure the FMLN to function just like the puppet government it supported in the early 1980s. When the left squawks about SYRIZA carrying out PASOK type policies, it really needs to look at the overall picture. From Vietnam to El Salvador, imperialism has a way of taming insurgent governments as NACLA reported in March 2015:

El Salvador’s long civil war between savagely repressive U.S.-funded military forces and a leftist guerrilla army ended in 1992. But while the peace accords ended the “war of bullets,” said labor leader Wilfredo Berríos, “the political, social, and economic war began again,” and “under the rules of the right, the rules of capitalism, and the rules of the United States.” In this context, the triumph of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front)—the former guerrillas—in the last two presidential elections is quite remarkable. The victories of Mauricio Funes in 2009 and Salvador Sánchez Cerén in 2014 have threatened to disrupt the Salvadoran government’s historic pattern of compliance with U.S. interests. Yet as Berríos’s comments imply, forces opposed to progressive change retain great power to shape “the rules” of the game—even under FMLN governance.

The Obama administration has sought to ensure the adoption of corporate-friendly policies in El Salvador by conditioning Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development aid upon a slew of neoliberal reforms that include privatization, the relaxation of business regulations, and the enforcement of trade provisions that privilege U.S. corporations. Since 2011, the U.S. “Partnership for Growth” has provided the overarching framework for advancing these policies. According to the State Department, the program aims to “promote a business-friendly institutional environment” and “catalyze private investment.”

The “Partnership” exemplifies a more general U.S. strategy in Latin America. Since 1998 the region has elected roughly a dozen left-of-center presidents who explicitly reject U.S. intervention and neoliberal economics. In response, the United States has tried to institutionalize neoliberal policies that can constrain future governments regardless of political affiliation. In effect, Washington has sought to mitigate the danger of elections by insulating economic policy from democratic input. As the FMLN’s experience in El Salvador suggests, these left-of-center governments are heavily constrained by forces opposed to progressive change. However, both government choices and popular struggle also help to shape policies on the ground.

“El Salvador is arguably our closest friend in the Western Hemisphere,” wrote U.S. ambassador Charles Glazer in 2007. At that point, the ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party had controlled the Salvadoran government for almost two decades. ARENA was closely linked to the right-wing death squads that had murdered tens of thousands of peasants, students, workers, and religious people in the 1970s and 1980s. After the war, the party continued to enjoy strong U.S. support because of its enthusiasm for neoliberalism, its support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and its militarized approach to both crime and dissent.

Although Mauricio Funes’ 2009 election threatened a change, the new president tried hard to preserve an amicable relationship with Washington, and the White House reciprocated. The U.S. Embassy’s current Economic Counselor, John Barrett, said that “Funes came in with a lot of good will,” which was “one reason why” the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) “stepped up with a lot of new funding.” The Obama administration soon sought to solidify the relationship through the Partnership for Growth, formally inaugurated in November 2011. As part of the Partnership, in September 2014 the Obama administration renewed a $461 million MCC development grant to deliver $277 million in additional funding for education, infrastructure, and other projects. The country’s poverty and unemployment levels—reflected in the high level of migration northward—made the government, and most Salvadorans, eager to get this money.

However, the United States also mandated a long list of policy changes relating to security, governance, and economic policy. Among the most unpopular, a Public-Private Partnership (P3) law allows for private investment in state-controlled segments of the economy like infrastructure and services. A substantial share of the $277 million in the second MCC aid package will be devoted to these projects. The law reduces legislative control over investments and transfers key oversight duties to PROESA, the Export and Investment Promotion Agency, which is nominally within the executive branch but includes leaders from the Salvadoran business world. Many popular organizations denounce such arrangements’ impact on public accountability, highlighting how representatives of business and the right are trying to create an autonomous entity to run the water sector as a sly path to privatization (though FMLN legislators have so far succeeded in excluding water from the list of services subject to P3 investments).

In mid-2014 the U.S. Embassy announced another notorious condition, demanding that the government cease a program that supports peasant agriculture by buying and distributing corn and bean seeds from small farmers and cooperatives. A U.S. Embassy press release argued that the procurement process was not “open,” as required under the 2004 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and therefore violated El Salvador’s “obligations” to “the international community”—namely the ARENA-linked importer of Monsanto seeds that had previously controlled most of the market. Massive domestic and international outcry forced the U.S. government to back down, but the demand itself reflects a main objective of U.S. policy, as elaborated by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman: “to open global markets for U.S. goods and services” and “enforce America’s rights in the global trading system.”

Read full article: https://nacla.org/news/2015/03/16/war-other-means-el-salvador

January 16, 2016

Flint, Michigan and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

Filed under: Ecology,economics,water — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

In recent days Flint, Michigan has been in the news because the city’s water has not only become undrinkable but also hazardous for use in bathing or dishwashing. To save money, the cash-strapped city discontinued using nearby Detroit’s water supply in April 2014 that fed from Lake Huron and switched to the Flint River. Flint, like most of Michigan’s rust belt including Detroit, has lost tax revenue because the auto industry and most manufacturing began to go belly up in the 1970s.

Not long after the city began drawing water from the Flint River, residents began to complain about the foul smell and taste of the water. Scientists conducted a test and discovered that there were levels of lead that were dangerous to one’s health. The lead was not found in the Flint River itself but leached from the lead in pipelines that had corroded under the impact of the river’s excessively chloridated water, about 8 times as much as that found in Detroit’s and likely the result of road salts flowing into the river as well as the chlorine used for purification. To complicate matters, by interacting with the pipelines the chlorine had dissipated as part of a chemical reaction and lost its ability to suppress bacteria. Flint has had a spike in Legionnaire’s Disease, with ten fatalities since the switch. Undoubtedly there is a connection to this epidemic and water contamination.

Thus, the water had a double whammy of lead and toxic organisms.

As of last month, more than 43 people had elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream. Lead poisoning is a serious business. Not only is it painful, it can also lead to permanent brain damage—and ultimately to death. In the 1970s there were frequent reports about young children getting lead poisoning by eating paint chips in slum housing to slake their hunger.

City residents have been living under a Greek-style austerity regime ever since December 2011 presided over by “emergency managers” appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder. In 2014, the switch to Flint River was mandated by Darnell Early, an African-American and long-time Democrat. After leaving Flint in such dire straits, Early went on to his next job running Detroit’s school system. The city’s teachers have staged a series of “sickouts” to protest cutbacks in health coverage.

As another sign of Democratic Party dereliction of duty, the local EPA chief Susan Hedman learned about the contamination threat in February 2015 but failed to put it on the front burner until November. A Huffington Post article dated January 12th provides telling detail on the EPA’s role in the disaster. It appears that after an EPA whistle-blower named Miguel Del Toral released a report on the hazardous state of Flint’s water to a city resident, Hedman sought damage control rather than an emergency response. A phalanx of local officialdom assured the world that everything was okay:

City and state officials downplayed Del Toral’s report, and the EPA said it was only a draft that wasn’t supposed to be released. Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told a local reporter in July that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” In August, department officials met with Flint residents — including Walters — and told them that Del Toral had been “handled” and that his report wouldn’t be finalized.

Although I’ve never been to Flint, I probably know more about the city than most people having read Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic” and having interviewed him about doing political work in the city alongside his wife Genora in the 1940s and 50s.

Sol’s book was a chronicle of the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 in which Genora played a key role as organizer of the women’s auxiliary that fought the cops in a famous pitched battle outside the GM plant gates. As she recounted in an oral history session with Susan Rosenthal in 1995, Flint was as poverty-stricken in 1937 as it is today:

Conditions in Flint before the strike were very, very depressing for working people. We had a large influx of workers come into the city from the deep South. They came north to find jobs, because there was no work back home. They came with their furniture strapped on old jalopies and they’d move into the cheapest housing that they could find. Usually these were just little one- or two-room structures with no inside plumbing and no inside heating arrangements. They just had kerosene heaters to heat their wash water, their bath water, and their homes. You could smell kerosene all over their clothing. They were very poor.

Another important source of knowledge about Flint comes from Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, his first film and by far his best. It begins by recounting his father’s job on the assembly line making a good union wage that was made possible by the 1937 strike that the film includes footage from. Whether or not Moore also credited FDR’s New Deal as well, I cannot remember at this point but there is little doubt that as Moore became more of an establishment figure that is certainly how he saw the “good years” of the 1950s—a product of workers struggles and FDR’s taking on the fat cats. What is missing in Moore’s analysis and that of the Democratic Party left that remains nostalgic for the New Deal is an understanding of how capitalism works.

Flint collapsed not because GM boss Roger Smith was a bad guy or because Ronald Reagan became president but because the auto industry became unprofitable. Capital flows where profits can be made. To think that Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or any other of these rust belt cities can return to the “good old days” is utopian capitalism, to coin a phrase.

This is not to say that we should not single out Republicans for being evil bastards. This Rick Snyder, who gained his wealth as a venture capitalist, is about as bad as they come. He supports open shop legislation, which would have the effect of undermining what’s left of the organized labor movement in Michigan. He is also hostile to abortion rights and blocked same-sex couples from sharing health benefits as do married couples enjoy (a right that “radicals” opposed to gay marriage fail to appreciate.) His last “accomplishment” was banning Syrian refugees from Michigan.

Although he never wrote about Flint specifically, I could not help but think of James O’Connor as I read about the water crisis over the past few days. Now 85, O’Connor has dropped out of sight over the past fifteen years at least, attributable to advancing years and a host of health problems as I understand it. That is too bad because he certainly would have a lot to say about what is going on the USA today, just as much as David Harvey, Naomi Klein, or any other critic of the capitalist system if not more so.

I got to know O’Connor a bit in the late 90s when he was a subscriber to PEN-L. We exchanged friendly emails from time to time that led to him inviting me to write an article about David Harvey for the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” at the time. Probably a mistake for him to extend the invitation and me for accepting it since I find writing on the Internet much less problematic.

In any case, despite my angry response to him nixing the article, I remain influenced by his writings and urge younger comrades not familiar with his work to look into them since they remain as relevant as ever, especially his theory of the “second contradiction of capitalism” that can be read in “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Socialism” online.

O’Connor describes what is happening around the country with alacrity:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system cannot exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be a contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities as is obviously borne out by the closing of Wal-Mart stores all around the world this week.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: human labor power which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, environment which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and urban infrastructure, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power that was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism were a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroys the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

What Engels observed in the “Great Towns of England” was an acute crisis based on the Second Contradiction of capitalism. Places like Manchester were becoming uninhabitable due to the necessity of capital to maximize profits without being ready to make the commitment to defend the conditions of the reproduction of capital itself: clean water, fresh air, public health, education, etc.

England, Germany, the United States and Japan of course made great headway in the twentieth century in resolving these types of contradictions at the expense of the colonized world. While the air and water of Manchester may have became *relatively cleaner*, the air and water of Calcutta worsened as the satanic mills of England migrated overseas.

And just as conditions in Flint in 1937, based on the First Contradiction of Capitalism, created the sit-down strike, so will the Second Contradiction lead to protests today. When the stakes were a living wage in 1937; the stakes of living—period—are even greater today:

January 6, 2016

Cattle and capitalism

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

This was probably written over 15 years ago. It might be useful in understanding the turmoil in Oregon.

Cattle and Capitalism


“In order to obtain the optimum weight gain in the minimum time, feedlot managers administer a panoply of pharmaceuticals to the cattle, including growth-stimulating hormones and feed additives. Anabolic steroids, in the form of small time-release pellets, are implanted in the animals’ ears. The hormones slowly seep into the bloodstream, increasing hormone levels by two to five times. Cattle are given estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone. The hormones stimulate the cells to synthesize additional protein, adding muscle and fat tissue more rapidly. Anabolic steroids improve weight gain by 5 to 20 percent, feed efficiency by 5 to 12 percent, and lean meat growth by 15 to 25 percent. Over 95 percent of all feedlot-raised cattle in the United States are currently being administered growth-promoting hormones.

In the past, managers used to add massive doses of antibiotics to the cattle feed to promote growth and fight diseases that run rampant through the animals’ cramped, contaminated pens and feedlots. In 1988, over 15 million pounds of antibiotics were used as feed additives for livestock in the United States. While the cattle industry claims that it has discontinued the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle feed, antibiotics are still being given to dairy cows, which make up nearly 15 percent of all beef consumed in the United States. Antibiotic residues often show up in the meat people consume, making the human population increasingly vulnerable to more virulent strains of disease-carrying bacteria.

Castrated, drugged, and docile, cattle spend long hours at the feed troughs consuming corn, sorghum, other grains, and an array of exotic feeds. The feed is saturated with insecticides. Today 80 percent of all the herbicides used in the United States are sprayed on corn and soybeans, which are used primarily as feed for cattle and other livestock. When consumed by the animals, the pesticides accumulate in their bodies. The pesticides are then passed along to the consumer in the finished cuts of beef. Beef ranks second only to tomatoes as the food posing the greatest cancer risk due to pesticide contamination, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Beef is the most dangerous food in herbicide contamination and ranks third in insecticide contamination. The NRC estimates that beef pesticide contamination represents about 11 percent of the total cancer risk from pesticides of all foods on the market today.

Some feedlots have begun research trials adding cardboard, newspaper, and sawdust to the feeding programs to reduce costs. Other factory farms scrape up the manure from chicken houses and pigpens, adding it directly to cattle feed. Cement dust may become a particularly attractive feed supplement in the future, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, because it produces a 30 percent faster weight gain than cattle on only regular feed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials say that it’s not uncommon for some feedlot operators to mix industrial sewage and oils into the feed to reduce costs and fatten animals more quickly.

At Kansas State University, scientists have experimented with plastic feed, small pellets containing 80 to 90 percent ethylene and 10 to 20 percent propylene, as an artificial form of cheap roughage to feed cattle. Researchers point to the extra savings of using the new plastic feed at slaughter time when upward of ’20 pounds of the stuff from each cow’s rumen can be recovered, melt[ed] down and recycle[d] into new pellets.’ The new pellets are much cheaper than hay and can provide roughage requirements at a significant savings.”


“The very word ‘cattle’ comes from the same etymological root as the word ‘capital.’ In many European languages, the word ‘cattle’ was synonomous with the words ‘chattel’ and ‘capital.’ Cattle meant property. Wilfred Funk, in his book Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, points out that a chattel mortgage was long considered a cattle mortgage and up until the sixteenth century the English people spoke of ‘goods and ‘Cattals’ rather than ‘goods and chattels.’ The Spanish word for cattle, ganado, meant property or ganaderia. Even the Latin word for money, pecunia, comes from the word pecus, meaning cattle.

Cattle was one of the first forms of movable wealth, an asset that could be used as a standard medium of exchange between people and cultures. Both the grain-prodcuing empires of the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean maritime powers traded in cattle. In ancient Greece, families often gave their female children cattle- derived names to emphasize their ‘worth’ and to attract male suitors. Polyboia means ‘worth many cows,’ Euboia meeans ‘rich in cows,’ and Phereboia means ‘bringing in many cows.'”

(Jeremy Rifkin, “Beyond Beef”)


Descendants of Aryan nomads invaded the Indian subcontinent around 1750 B.C. They were beef eaters. After 600 B.C., the Aryan overlords and their Brahman priests could not supply enough beef for their own appetites and the masses. The cause of the “beef crisis” was a combination of population growth and depleting natural resources, including grazing land.

The peasants grew angry at the Brahman caste and the Vedic chieftans who ruled India. This proved fertile ground for the growth of Buddhism, a new religious sect that was opposed to the taking of any animal life. A religion that attacked the killing of beef was welcomed by a population forced to watch the extravagent dining habits of the ruling-class. A struggle between Buddhism and Hinduism lasted nine centuries until Hinduism prevailed, but adopting many of the practices, including the slaughter of cattle.

When I was in high-school, I remember teachers making racist comments about how stupid the Indians were since “so many of them went to bed hungry at night, but they allowed all that beef to just walk around and go to waste.”

Rifkin makes the case for a more nuanced understanding of the role of the cow in the Indian peasant economy. At present there are 200 million cows in India, freely roaming about. These cows provide most of India’s dairy requirements. The ox provides traction for 60 million small farmers whose land feeds 80% of the population. Of the 700 million tons of cattle dung that is produced each year, about half is used as fertilizer and the other half for cooking fuel. Marvin Harris, author of “The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig”, estimates that dung produces the thermal equivalent of 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal, or 68 million tons of wood. In Africa and Latin American, huge swaths of tropical rainforests have been cut down to provide cooking fuel. Depletion of the rain forest in Africa has created the conditions in which the Ebola virus and AIDS can migrate from animal to human populations.

Cow dung is mixed with water in order to produce household flooring. Each day small children follow the family cow around collecting excrement for a variety of household uses. Cattle hides are used in the leather industry, which is the largest in the world. Even the carcasses of ancient cows are solw do slaughterhouses and used as a source of meat for non-Hindus.

Cattle do not compete with human population for arable lands. In one study, it was found that less than 20 percent of the cattle diet in West Bengal is composed of foodstuffs edible by humans. The cattle subsist on a diet of household garbage, chaff, stalks and leaves. The are also fed oil cakes made of cottonseed, soybean, and coconut residues that are inedible by people.

I supply this information not in order to point to some kind of alternative life-style for non-Hindu populations, but simply to illustrate another way that cattle can interact with a political economy. My information, of course, comes from Rifkin and not any sources that I have explored myself. Any errors that Ruhal or Rakesh can point out would be greatly appreciated. Or, if they have a different analysis of the role of the cow in India, I would invite them to comment. (Not as if they need an invitation from anybody!)


Columbus’s interest in India has a lot to do with the fact that it was a major source of spices. Beef eaters in Europe relied on spices such as pepper, ginger root and cloves to mask the flavor of rotting meat. When he “discovered” America, he found no spices but plenty of grazing land. He introduced cattle to the Americas on January 2, 1494 when a number were unloaded in Haiti. Today 400 million head of cattle inhabit the Americas.

The Spanish continued introducing longhorn cattle throughout the next two centuries, where they thrived. In the 17th century, the population of Caracas, Venezuela ate 50 percent more beef than the citizens of Paris, even though they were outnumbered by 10 to 1. By the 1870s there were over 13 million head of cattle in the pampas of Argentina alone. Many ruling class families in Latin America today are descendants of the early cattle importers. They grew rich satisfying the wants of beef-hungry Europeans and their wealth became more and more concentrated. By 1924, less than 3 percent of the ranchers in the central valley of Chile controlled 80 percent of the grazing land.

As early as the 17th century, the British had become the most ravenous beef eaters in Europe, especially the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. The drive for more pastureland to satisfy their habit caused them to pillage Scotland and Ireland. Soon to follow were the North American plains, the Argentinian pampas, the Australian outback and the grasslands of New Zealand.

The British gentry has a particular taste for highly fatted beef and they became obsessed with obese animals. It was common to see oil paintings in a lord’s estate of his most corpulent animals. Prize- winning animals –in other words, the fattest– became a symbol of ruling class power and prestige, much as Rolls-Royces are today.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the British home market demand for fatty beef exceeded the supply. Scotland and Ireland had become overgrazed. In the early 1870s, reports began filtering back to English financial houses about the immense grazing land available in the western United States.

Of course, there was only one problem. The grazing land was occupied by buffalo and the Indians who depended on them for their survival. The solution to this problem will be discussed in my next post.


David Wright Hamilton, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that an “alien ecologist observing…earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere..” The modern livestock industry and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe, from Australia to the western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass meat producers and their herds of ungulates.

Take California. In the late eighteenth century when the cattle herds arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, the region presented itself as a Mediterranean landscape, but of a sort that had been extinguished in Europe for many centuries. There were meadows with perennial bunchgrass, beardless wild rye, oat grass, perennial forbs: 22 million acres of such prairie and 500,00 acres of marsh grass. Beyond this, there were 8 million acres of live oak woodlands and parklike forests. Beyond and above this, chaparral.

By the 1860s, in the wake of the gold rush, some 3 million cattle were grazing California’s open ranges; the degradation was rapid, particularly as ranchers had been overstocking to cash in on the cattle boom. Floods and drought between 1862 and 1865 consummated the ecological crisis. In the spring of 1863, 97,000 cattle were grazing in parched Santa Barbara County. Two years later, only 12,100 remained. By the mid-1860s, in Terry Jordan’s words, “many ranges stood virtually denuded of palatable vegetation.” In less than a century, California’s pastoral utopia had been destroyed; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin, or north, to colder and drier terrain.

These days travelers heading north through California’s Central valley can gaze at mile upon mile of environmental wreckage: arid land except where irrigated by water brought in from the north, absurdly dedicated to producing cotton. Some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, a fierce stench and clouds of dust herald the Harris Beef feedlot. On the east side of the interstate several thousand steers are penned, occasionally doused by water sprays. After a few minutes of this Dantesque spectacle the barren landscape resumes, with one of California’s state prisons, at Coalinga–unlike the beef feedlot, secluded from view–lying just over the horizon to the west.

California is now America’s largest dairy state, and livestock agriculture uses almost one-third of all irrigation water. It takes 360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (irrigation for grain, trough water for stock), which is why, further east in the feedlot states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, along with the Texas panhandle, the Ogallala aquifer has been so severely depleted. (California’s Central Valley itself faces increasing problems of salty water from excessive use of groundwater.)


Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

Governments–prodded by the World Bank–have plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production, which favors large, rich producers and penalizes small subsistence farmers. In Mexico the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is now Mexico’s second-largest crop by area. At the same time, the area of land producing the staples–corn, rice, wheat and beans–for poor folk there have fallen relentlessly. Mexico is now a new corn importer, from rich countries such as Canada and the United States, wiping out millions of subsistence farmers, who have to migrate to the cities or to El Norte. Mexico feeds 30 percent of its grain to livestock–pork and chicken for urban eaters–while 22 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.

Multiply this baneful pattern across the world. Meanwhile, the classic pastoralists, who have historically provided most of the meat in Africa with grazing systems closely adapted to varying environments, are being marginalized. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale.

(From the “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation magazine)


As stupid, irrational and self-destructive a system capitalism is, it reached new depths when it fostered the development of cattle- ranching in Central America in the early 1970s.

The growth of McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food outlets had created an insatiable demand for beef. These types of restaurants had no need for the choice, fat-stuffed grain-fed beef that were found in super markets. They could get by on the sort of tougher, lower- grade beef that was typical of cattle that subsisted on grass alone, since the meat would be ground up anyhow. The free-range “criollo” cattle of Central America made a perfect fit for this expanding market.

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

(Information for this post comes from Robert G. Williams “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”, Chapel Hill Press, 1986. This book, along with George Black’s “Triumph of the People” helped me understand the Sandinista revolution more than any others. In my final post on the beef question I want to suggest some socialist solutions to this problem that threatens not only the natural order, but humanity which is an integral part of this order.)


Dogmatic Marxism tends to sneer at green politics as reformist. After all, if Vice President Al Gore can write a book called “Fate of the Earth” that incorporate a number of environmental themes, how anticapitalist can the green movement be?

In discussing the particular problem of cattle-ranching, it is not to hard for most list members to see that it is extremely destructive to precious resources such as soil, water and vegetation. Capitalist exploitation of these resources in order to provide cheap beef to the population of the advanced capitalist nations threatens to upset ecosystems that preserve all life, including human life. While in the process of upsetting ecosystems that took thousands of years to develop, capitalism also destroys the lives of campesinos who are expelled from precious land. That land which can produce corn and beans for the downtrodden of the South is instead used to satisfy the craving for beef in the North.

James O’Connor, the founder and editor of the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, has traveled farther in developing a Marxist critique to these problems than any other contemporary thinker. His has articulated a theory of the “second contradiction of capitalism” that explains why environmental degradation is an integral element of capitalism today and not subject to reformist solutions.

In an essay “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible” that appears in a collection “Is Capitalism Sustainable” edited by Martin O’Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, *environment* which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and *urban infrastructure*, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

O’Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

It is the combination of these two contradictions that will mark 21st century capitalism. Marxists have to be sensitive to both and devise ways to mobilize workers and peasants in a revolutionary struggle to abolish these contradictions once and for all.

December 4, 2015

The Messenger; Emptying the Skies

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

Despite New York City’s image as the metropolis par excellence, at its heart is Central Park—the crucial hub of bird migration. I first became passionate about birds on New Years Day 1997 when starting off on my jog I saw a red-tailed hawk in the upper limbs of a tree. In all my years living in the Catskill Mountains, I never saw such a creature. Ever since then I have been particularly tuned in to the sights and sounds of Central Park’s birds. I have seen snowy egrets taking off from the Central Park reservoir looking like they had leapt off a Japanese watercolor.

But nothing can compare to the warblers that gravitate to the park on their path northward returning from as far away as South America in early spring. About the size of a mouse and in bright shades of red and yellow, they have the most remarkable singing voice.

One of the things you learn in the disturbing new documentary “The Messenger” that opened today at the Cinema Village is that nearly half of all songbirds have disappeared since the 1960s. Like the honeybees, the bird is essential to the survival of homo sapiens. Although they have great esthetic value, the songbirds have an even more important role in food production. Gorging on insects during the beginning of a migration cycle in order to store the necessary fat that can help them fly thousands of miles obviously benefits farmers.

But if you are shortsighted and do not understand how the ecosphere is constructed, you can make tragic mistakes as the film points out. As part of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward”, people were mobilized to attack the Four Pests: rats, flies, mosquitos and tree sparrows. Since sparrows were feeding on peasant grain, the answer was to surround the trees in which they nested and bang drums, set off firecracker and generally frighten the birds to such a degree that they remained in the air flying around until they died of exhaustion.

The campaign was a big success since the tree sparrow nearly became extinct. However, the birds also fed on the insects that also attacked grains and much more voraciously than the sparrow. Wikipedia notes:

With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine, in which at least 20 million people died of starvation.

The unintended consequences of unwise environmental practices were uppermost in the minds of Marx and Engels. In “The Dialectics of Nature”, Engels wrote as if he was anticipating the disaster in China:

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.

Director Su Rynard was motivated to make the film after realizing that “the birds I used to see and hear were no longer around.” Reading Bridget Stutchbury’s book “Silence of the Songbirds” convinced her that a film had to be made. In Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring”, it was DDT that was the cause of the silence. In Su Rynard’s film, we learn of a host of other threats to an essential part of biological recreation (the words “birds and bees” is an implicit acknowledgment of their role.)

Global warming is an obvious problem since birds are accustomed to begin their migration when the seasons change but if November begins to feel more like August, the instinctual wiring is short-circuited. Building lights are another big problem. Birds have evolved over millions of years (remember they started off as dinosaurs) to use starlight as a guide to flights north and south. But artificial light makes that more difficult. Furthermore, birds have a tendency to fly into the windows of skyscrapers that keep their lights on through the night to show off their plutocratic testicles so to speak. The film shows the ghastly remains of birds on the sidewalks beneath some of Manhattan’s most prestigious office buildings.

Our beloved housecats kill of billions of birds each year. As one scientist points out, they are about as alien and destructive to the wild bird population as any invasive species. They might bring a chuckle when they carry a dead bird into the house but it is best to think of them in terms of the snakefish wreaking havoc in American rivers and lakes.

One of the other more repulsive threats is poaching. It seems that migrating songbirds have been a staple of high cuisine in Europe for many years, especially the Ortolan bunting which French master chefs have been preparing for centuries to the bourgeoisie. When the bird is snared during its migratory takeoff, it is laden with fat. The recipe involves drowning the bird in Armagnac, chopping off its head and then serving it to whichever cretin can afford $300 for the experience.

It is this disgusting culinary ritual that came to the attention of Douglas and Roger Kass whose “Emptying the Skies” becomes available as a DVD or VOD on December 8th.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.15.10 PM

The documentary includes interviews with Jonathan Franzen who has written about poaching in the New Yorker magazine. Although I am no fan of his novels, his article, which provided the title for the film, is essential reading for understanding the crisis:


In places like Cyprus, Malta, and Italy, violent clashes between poachers and activists have grown increasingly common.

The southeastern corner of the Republic of Cyprus has been heavily developed for foreign tourism in recent years. Large medium-rise hotels, specializing in vacation packages for Germans and Russians, overlook beaches occupied by sunbeds and umbrellas in orderly ranks, and the Mediterranean is nothing if not extremely blue. You can spend a very pleasant week here, driving the modern roads and drinking the good local beer, without suspecting that the area harbors the most intensive songbird-killing operations in the European Union.

On the last day of April, I went to the prospering tourist town of Protaras to meet four members of a German bird-protection organization, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), that runs seasonal volunteer “camps” in Mediterranean countries. Because the peak season for songbird trapping in Cyprus is autumn, when southbound migrants are loaded up with fat from a northern summer’s feasting, I was worried that we might not see any action, but the first orchard we walked into, by the side of a busy road, was full of lime sticks: straight switches, about thirty inches long, that are coated with the gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees. The CABS team, which was led by a skinny, full-bearded young Italian named Andrea Rutigliano, fanned into the orchard, taking down the sticks, rubbing them in dirt to neutralize the glue, and breaking them in half. All the sticks had feathers on them. In a lemon tree, we found a male collared flycatcher hanging upside down like a piece of animal fruit, its tail and its legs and its black-and-white wings stuck in glue. While it twitched and futilely turned its head, Rutigliano videoed it from multiple angles, and an older Italian volunteer, Dino Mensi, took still photographs. “The photos are important,” said Alex Heyd, a sober-faced German who is the organization’s general secretary, “because you win the war in the newspapers, not in the field.”

Suffice it to say that the Kass Brothers have made a film that not only shows what the CABS activists were doing but in highly dramatic terms. The first documentary is one that is analysis driven and the second is character driven. They work together to give you a full picture of what might be one of the greatest environmental challenges humanity has had to face. If the extinction of dinosaurs amounts to one of the world’s greatest geological events, the extinction of their feathered descendants might coincide with our own, amounting to the extinction of higher life on earth.

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: https://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

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