Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2018

Polluting Paradise

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Like fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Fatih Akin, who was born to Turkish parents in Germany 44 years ago, is equally adept at making narrative and documentary films. Also, like Herzog, he has a deeply humanistic sensibility so sadly lacking in commercial films today. My introduction to his work was the 2005 “Crossing the Bridge”, a fantastic survey of Turkish music ranging from Arabesque to heavy metal available on Youtube and the most recent being “In the Fade”, a narrative film about neo-Nazis in Germany that was voted best foreign-language film of 2017 by NYFCO.

Thanks to the good people at Strand Releasing, a film distribution company dedicated to offbeat films, you can now see his 2012 documentary “Polluting Paradise” that is based on the struggle of the villagers of Çamburnu to remove a garbage landfill just a quarter-mile from the place that one, an elderly woman, described as a paradise.

Çamburnu sits on top of the hills overlooking the Black Sea in Trabzon Province of Turkey’s northeast. Most of the villagers appear to be small-scale tea producers and typical of the Turkish countryside: religiously observant and tradition-bound. For my urbane relatives in Istanbul,  life in Çamburnu  is as remote from theirs as it is from mine. Despite that, as soon as they discovered that a landfill was going to be foisted on them by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bureaucrats, they demonstrated a willingness to struggle that you might have associated with small town residents of Vermont learning that a nuclear power plant was being built in their midst. Seeing mostly elderly women in scarves confronting the engineer supervising the construction project will remind you why Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule rests on shaky grounds.

If you’ve seen “Kedi”, the inspiring story of how Turks look after street cats in Istanbul, you’ll be motivated to watch “Polluting Paradise” (VOD/DVD information is here) as it allows ordinary people to make extraordinary statements about their way of life. Turks, whether illiterate or PhD’s, have a way of expressing themselves eloquently. In “Kedi”, they spoke from their heart about why caring street cats made them feel both human and closer to God. In “Polluting Paradise”, they talk about their love of village life that is under threat from capitalist development everywhere in the world. Throughout China, villages are being sacrificed to the needs of the country’s rapacious productive forces while Çamburnu was a sacrificial lamb to Turkey’s consumerism. When Trabzon’s governor was looking for a place to dump the province’s household trash, Çamburnu appeared an easy mark. However, the film demonstrates how rural folk can fight like tigers when their way of life is threatened.

In the press notes, Akin describes how the idea for “Polluting Paradise” originated:

In 2005 I was looking for a new idea for a film. I was working on The Edge of Heaven, but was still at the beginning. At the time I had just seen Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. I was so inspired by the phenomenon of Dylan that I then read his biography “Chronicles”. And that’s when I found out that Dylan’s grandmother had originally come from Trabzon. My paternal grandparents also originally came from Trabzon, but were forced to leave the place. My grandmother’s parents were against her marriage to my grandfather so the two eloped and settled down 1000 km away further west. I really wanted to see this place and so in 2005 I traveled with my father to Çamburnu. The beauty of this place blew me away. It was a hot and humid summer and everything was so lush and green. You could immediately see that Turkey is an Asian country, the place looked like some- where in Cambodia or Vietnam. I kept walking around saying: “This place is paradise!” But then the villagers said to me: “Not for much longer. They’re building a waste landfill here soon.” They showed me the site, which had once been an abandoned copper mine, and this immediately triggered my sense of justice. No, no landfill is going to be built here; let’s all try and prevent it together! People had protested long before I came there for the first time but this small village had no lobby. I then organized demonstrations and brought TV press to Çamburnu. And because I loved the nature and landscape so much, I integrated it into the ending of The Edge of Heaven. In the same year we began working on the documentary about the waste landfill.



January 7, 2018

The role of Iran’s water crisis in the recent protests

Filed under: Ecology,Iran,water — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

On January 2nd, an NY Times article about the protests in Iran included a couple of paragraphs that caught my eye:

For decades, those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.

In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.

In a nutshell, these are exactly the sort of social/ecological contradictions that helped to pave the way for the Syrian revolution as I pointed out in an article titled “Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden”, where I quoted a high-level government official:

There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.

–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria

In going through 16 years of articles on Lexis-Nexis about the drought in Iran, I came across a Financial Times article dated August 21, 2014 that cited a high-level government official who was just as terror-stricken:

Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.

The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.

It is important to understand that the migration of countryside people to the cities of Syria and Iran was not exclusively made up of people like the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath”. It did not just include farmers but those tied into the agrarian economy as well– such as farm equipment vendors and their workers, shopkeepers, professionals and the like. When the farm is the hub of a wheel, the spokes will certainly be affected when it is removed.

Most dramatically, Iran has suffered the loss of major sources of water in the last few decades that were as much of a cultural landmark as they were economically critical. It would be somewhat analogous to the Rio Grande river drying up in the USA (a not far-fetched comparison in light of this article.)

On September 18, 2001, the NY Times reported that Lake Hamoun, Iran’s largest body of fresh water and one of the largest in the world, had turned into a desert. The drought was to blame but so was the geopolitical conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which controlled a major dam on the Hirmand River that fed Lake Hamoun. Despite a 30-year-old agreement that allowed some water to flow even in dry years, the Taliban cut off the supply. After the Taliban were ousted, the American-supported regime had just as little interest in cooperation with Iran for obvious reasons. As I pointed out in my review of Müşerref Yetim’s “Negotiating International Water Rights: Resource Conflict in Turkey, Syria and Iraq”, this is not uncommon:

Competition for Euphrates and Tigris water has reverberated in domestic politics, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Following the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iraq began to step up suppression of the Kurdish movement in the north. This prompted Syria to undermine Saddam Hussein by reducing the Euphrates flow. In effect, the conflicts between states in the Middle East over strategic goals almost inevitably spills over into the conflicts over water.

Lake Urmia, another key water resource, was also deeply impacted but in this instance, drought was conjoined with government mismanagement to create an environmental disaster as the Guardian reported on September 6, 2011. This time it was not an Afghan dam that was drying up a lake but the 36 dams within Iran built on rivers flowing into Lake Urmia. Since Urmia was a salt lake, the ecological impact would be catastrophic for farms surrounding it. When salt lakes go dry, the salt diffuses into the surrounding terrain and will kill crops such as almond and garlic found near Lake Urmia. It is also necessary to understand that its loss would be a major loss to the Azeri people who lived in the region. This video shows a protest held in September 2011 about the pending loss of the lake.

One other example should give you an idea of the gravity of the situation. Zayanderud is a river whose name means “life-giving waters”. In the FT article referenced above, you discover that it has flowed through Isfahan for more than 1,000 years from its source in the Zagros Mountains to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni south of Isfahan. But the FT now described it as “a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan”. A man quoted in the article has the exact profile of those who were raising hell a few days ago:

“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.

A loss of this river meant that about two million people who depend on agriculture have lost their income, according to Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.

Despite the FT’s obvious neoliberal bias, its analysis of how this came about is quite accurate. Under Ahmadinejad, profits generated through the sale of oil helped to prop up a water distribution system that was unsustainable. As a rentier state, Iran’s economy was based on handouts rather than the production of manufactured goods. Ahmadinejad targeted the farmers as a primary source of support without regard to the broader consequences for the nation. Cheap oil and subsidies made the massive use of pumps feasible just as was the case in Syria. As groundwater became more and more diverted into growing water-hungry crops like melons for the export market, the mostly urban population had to pay the piper. According to the UN, groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000 while the number of wells rose fivefold.

To give you an idea of how irrational such practices can become, the Trend News Agency reported on November 7, 2017 that Iran continues to prioritize the agri-export sector even as increased production yields fewer revenues. Last year exports increased by 15 percent but their value fell by 9 percent.

Watermelon was an exception to the norm. It registered an 18 percent and 33 percent growth in terms of volume and value respectively. This is a water-consuming commodity par excellence and as its name implies is mostly water. Some economists in Iran argue that Iran is actually exporting water in a period of drought.

As the drought and the misuse of water resources began to take its toll on society, Ahmadinejad came up with a novel excuse. In 2012, he made a speech claiming that the drought was “partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country”. Supposedly Europe was using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops. As might be expected, Global Research found this plausible. To bolster its case, the conspiracist website informed its readers:

Hollywood just released a film on Weather Modification gone mad titled, ‘Geostorm’ right after the worst hurricane season in a century. The film is about a network of satellites designed to control the global climate landscape. The plot of the film is that the satellites turns on Planet Earth with the intention to destroy everything in it by causing catastrophic weather conditions including hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Geostorm” earned a 13% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic opining that a Sharknado or two could have livened things up.

Not to be outdone by Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad from the city of Isfahan that lost its legendary life-giving waters blamed the drought on—who else—impious women. In a sermon, he offered this version of why the lakes and rivers were running dry: “They have brought me pictures that shows women by the side of the dry Zayanderud river. These actions will ensure the upper stream of the river will become dry too. Believe me it is true. You may ask yourself why European countries with so much crime and sin have so much rainfall … God punishes the believer, for remaining silent and letting girls take pictures by the river as if they were in European countries.”

Although the Ayatollah might be dismissed as Iran’s version of the idiot living in the White House, he reflects a deep structural problem in the political system that militates against a solution to these deeply entrenched policies that are typical of the short-term mindset of rentier states. With the revenues generated by oil exports, it is likely that the elites will not pay much attention to the overall need for a sustainable economy but to seek out technical solutions, the most recent of which is the use of desalination plants.

Ahmadinejad, the conspiracy theorist, initiated something called the Caspian Project that envisioned a vast network of pipelines that pumped desalinated water to the major cities. This was met with skepticism by the nation’s water and environmental experts who warned that the infrastructure necessary for such a system would cripple fragile agricultural communities and ruin ecosystems, especially near the desalination plants. These massive operations separate the salt from the incoming water and funnel the brine byproduct back into the ocean. In so doing, it has caused irreparable damage to marine life. In effect, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are also heavy financing requirements that are just as onerous as those involved in building nuclear power plants. If Iran is in a race to build a society that has a future, it is probably a big mistake to use technologies so wedded to the past.

There is only one scholarly article that deals with these intractable problems, which fortunately can be read online. Titled “Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation”,  it reviews the main causes of the crisis in terms geared to a mainstream audience. The section on the role of agriculture is worth quoting in its entirety:

The agricultural sector uses up to 92 percent of Iran’s water. Due to having an oil-based economy, Iran has overlooked the economic efficiency of its agricultural sector in its modern history.10 The desire for increased agricultural productivity has encouraged an expansion of cultivated areas and infrastructure across the country. However, this sector is not yet industrialized and is suffering from outdated farming technologies and practices leading to very low efficiency in irrigation and production.

The agricultural sector in Iran is economically inefficient and its contribution to gross domestic product has decreased over time. Irrigated agriculture is the dominant practice, while the economic return on water use in this sector is significantly low, and crop patterns across the country are inappropriate and incompatible with water availability conditions in most areas. Recently, concerns about the embodied water content of produced and exported crops have increased, but business still continues as usual as interest in crop choice by farmers is mostly correlated with crop market prices and their traditional crop choices in the area.

The claimed interest in improving the living conditions of farmers is inconsistent with their relative income, which has decreased over time due to increasing water scarcity and decreasing productivity. Forced migration from rural to urban areas has been observed in some parts of the country where farming is no longer possible. However, agriculture continues to play a major role in the country, providing employment to more than 20 percent of the population. This role will remain significant as long as alternative job opportunities are unavailable in other sectors such as services and industry. The recent turmoil in Syria underscores that a loss of jobs in the agricultural sector can cause mass migration, creating national security threats and serious tensions.

While I would agree with the general analysis presented above, I would not call the protests a “national security threat”. If anything I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain. Iran has long-standing revolutionary traditions that will acquit the country well as the state lurches unsteadily into an approaching storm that will pose very sharp class contradictions.

November 27, 2017

Alex Pyron, the evolutionary biologist indifferent to extinction

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Alex Pyron

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post titled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution” has generated an extraordinary amount of comments, with most of those 3,279 being negative. If you were only going by the title, you’d think that it was written by someone like Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill or perhaps Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior who is bent on opening national monuments to drilling, or even Donald Trump’s feckless sons who are into big-game hunting.

Actually, it was written by R. Alexander Pyron, who is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University. You might wonder if Griggs was some ultraright Texas oilman (isn’t that redundant?) who donated $10 million to the school in order to provide a platform for the anti-environmental views of people like Dr. Pyron. As it happens, Robert F. Griggs was a botanist who led a 1915 National Geographic Society expedition to observe the aftermath of the Katmai volcanic eruption in Alaska. He became so passionate about the beauty and biodiversity of the affected area that his advocacy helped it become a national park of the sort that Ryan Zinke wants to turn over to ExxonMobil on a silver platter.

The first paragraph of Pyron’s article sets the tone by pointing out that during an expedition in Ecuador, he discovered a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad that was considered extinct. But even if it goes extinct, it will be replaced by hundreds of other amphibians. So, why get worked up?

Pyron argues that it is extinction itself that generates new species. He does have a point. When an asteroid plunged into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, it killed perhaps 75% of all animals, with dinosaurs bearing the brunt of the destruction. However, in its wake, it created an environment suited to producing new species such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish, and perhaps lizards also found the new environment amenable to their reproduction according to Wikipedia.

The professor also shrugs his shoulders about climate change. Except for Donald Trump it would seem, elected officials hope to keep the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Why bother, he asks since “the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years.” And furthermore, twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. Comme ci comme ça

Do his arguments remind you of anybody? For me, they suggest a biological counterpart to Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”. Yes, there might be an economic collapse but it always clears the ground for new growth. Yeah, it was too bad that 80 million people died during WWII but without Germany making a huge investment in achieving military superiority, we might not have ended up with rockets of the sort that Werner Von Braun invented. And without them, we might not have had all those satellites providing telecommunications that make globalization possible. And, if we end up seeing nuclear-tipped ICBM’s leveling New York, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, there’s always the possibility that newer and better cities will rise out of the ashes Phoenix-like. And, god forbid, if life on earth is destroyed, we can always count on Jeff Bezos to rescue the fortunate few as he finally realizes his dream, a humongous colony in outer space.

There’s no sense in worrying. It might be best to adopt an almost Hindu-like reincarnation philosophy in the face of impending doom. Just think. In 50 million years, Europe will smash into Africa and create a new supercontinent, destroying all sorts of birds, fish, and anything that gets in the path of this inevitable catastrophic event. But, have no fear, all sorts of new species will arrive, maybe even the dodo and the mastodon will return. By that point, Jeff Bezos will have left behind a brilliant team of scientists to accomplish almost anything even if long before that happens David Duke, the victorious Republican Party candidate in 2020, decides to unleash thermonuclear weapons against New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to destroy Satan in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior.

It is when I got to this paragraph that I wondered if Pyron had written an Onion-like spoof:

Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself; diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.

Has this professor ever read anything about the way that HIV got started? Most scientists believe that it was the human encroachment on the jungle that led to the first transmission of the virus from chimpanzees to human beings in the 1920s. Indeed, the National Geographic, the very magazine that funded the exploration led by the man that Pyron’s endowed chair is named after, published an article in June 2003 that states:

Scientists believe the encroachment by humans on nature also increases the spread of infectious diseases. The SIVcpz strain [that led to HIV] jumping from chimpanzees to humans likely occurred when humans hunted and butchered chimps for “bush meat,” something humans have done for centuries.

Increased human populations have increased the chances of a virus successfully propagating among humans once it has made the jump. The SIVcpz strain was probably transmitted to humans in previous centuries, but never established a substantial enough transmission chain among humans to cause a large outbreak.

There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins.

It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles.

For example, he refers to the “verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains” growing back in the past century with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity. Really? Does he have any idea how the Catskills got its name? This was the name Henry Hudson and his crew coined when they saw mountain lions teeming across the mountains overlooking the river. Kaat is the Dutch word for cat and kill means river. They, like the Monsee Indians that lived in the area, are gone forever. They were hunted to extinction just as the bison were in the Great Plains.

Does this make any difference as long as new toads and snake species crop up to take their place? Clearly, the question is nonsensical and is an unwarranted concession to the professor’s tendency to take into account the sheer quantity of species rather than their quality. If Bluefin tuna disappear, it doesn’t matter that 100 new varieties of sponges and jellyfish take their place or that if eagles and condors go extinct, there will be new varieties of crows, pigeons, and starlings to take their place.

The tuna occupies a place in the marine food chain that is indispensable. Its loss means that the natural balance of marine life is threatened. Once again, it is the National Geographic that provides the context that is so lacking in Pyron’s op-ed piece:

The Atlantic bluefin plays a significant role in the ecosystem by consuming a wide variety of fish—herring, anchovies, sardines, bluefish, mackerel, and others—and keeping their populations in balance. According to the WWF, “ecological extinction of this species would thus have unpredictable cascading effects in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems and entail serious consequences to many other species in the food chain.

It is entirely possible that Alex Pyron has not read much literature about ecology even though he is an evolutionary biologist who normally should be able to make such elementary distinctions. This is a man who started out as a child prodigy, entering college at the age of 12 and earning a Ph.D. by the time he was 22. Maybe he was too busy studying snakes in the field to read Plato, Leo Tolstoy, Immanuel Kant, William Blake or Henry David Thoreau.

His narrow focus on snakes and other amphibians would likely have also robbed him of the time needed to read people like Mike Davis, Donald Worster or Clive Ponting who are generalists in the field of ecology. Pyron wrote an article titled “Extinction, Ecological Opportunity, And The Origins Of Global Snake Diversity” for the January 2012 copy of Evolution that reflects his narrow vision. It begins by noting that “Many taxonomie groups comprise clades with vast disparities in species richness, even among closely related lineages in adjacent areas (Fischer 1960; Rosenzweig 1995). A prime example is Lepidosauria: tuataras are represented by only two extant species, while their sister group Squamata (lizards and snakes) contains nearly 9000 species (Vitt and Caldwell 2009).”

He extrapolates from his research that the rich variety of Squamata should be a mitigating factor against the threat of the extinction of wildlife at the top of the food chain, including polar bears, blue whales, Bluefin tuna, orangutan, gorillas, chimpanzees, wolves, grizzly bears, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, etc.

No thanks.


November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

Filed under: Ecology,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.28.06 PM

James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Yesterday I learned on Facebook that James O’Connor had died. Born in 1930, he was one of the towering figures of academic Marxism who made an indelible impact on Marxist theory in a number of spheres. His 1964 PhD dissertation titled “The Political Economy of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba” was expanded into the 1970 “The Origins of Socialism in Cuba” that is the most rigorous application of historical materialism to Cuban revolution I have ever read. In 1973, his “Fiscal Crisis of the State” was a major contribution to Marxist theory about the contradictory nature of the state, which has to maintain the appearance of being independent of the ruling class while serving its needs.

But his most important contribution was founding Capitalism, Nature and Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (CNS) in 1988, a journal he edited until 2003. After 2003, he became much less of a presence in academic Marxism, a function of age and declining health.

I didn’t know O’Connor well enough to write an obituary but hope that someone much closer to him will supply one before long since he was such a commanding presence. Instead, I want to focus on my own connections to him both personally and as someone with a peripheral involvement in the debates that have raged in the field of ecosocialism in the past 20 years or so.

A few years before coming to work at Columbia University in 1991, I had attended a workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York led by Joel Kovel on ecology that struck me like a bolt of lightning, especially his comparison of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. So when I posted to Internet mailing lists, a medium that seems as dated nowadays as Nehru jackets, a lot of my messages had to do with ecology as well as my customary film reviews.

It turned out that O’Connor was subscribed to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk in 1998, as was I. He appreciated my messages on ecology as well as those touching on popular culture, especially when I referred to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard who was also one of his favorites. This led to a fairly regular exchange of emails with O’Connor who struck me as a decent, down-to-earth academic despite his prestige.

He was like a number of Marxist professors I became friendly with 20 years ago who were impressed with my ability to hold forth on a wide variety of topics but without the scholarly depth that they expected from their graduate students. When one of them invited me to submit an expanded version of something I had written for a mailing list, it could lead to misunderstandings. I simply did not have the patience or the motivation to go through a peer review process. Unlike my wife who is a tenure-track professor, there was no material incentive to jump through hoops in order to get an article published in a Taylor and Francis journal.

In 1998, I posted criticisms of David Harvey’s newly published “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” that O’Connor apparently appreciated since he followed up with an invitation to expand it into a full-length article for CNS. O’Connor was hostile to the basic thrust of Harvey’s book, as was I. Writing in the name of a class-based environmentalism that took aim—rightfully—at the middle-class inside-the-beltway orientation of groups like the Sierra Club, Harvey also came up with some questionable hypotheses. Worst of them was the idea that the Nazis were Green and that American Indians were no more ecological than the colonists who stole their land.

Spending far more time than I usually do on a blog post (back then, of course, blogging had not been invented), I explored the philosophical roots of Harvey’s ecological theories in the philosophy of Leibniz. Since I had spent 2 years studying philosophy at the New School and had read Leibniz, my intention was to remove the platform that Harvey’s book sat upon and bring it tumbling to earth. My attack on Harvey’s use of Leibniz was couched in a defense of materialism as I made abundantly clear in the opening paragraph of my submission:

David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a “deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled,” Harvey assures us that Leibniz’s relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey’s appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx’s rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

About a month later, O’Connor wrote a rejection letter telling me that the article would not be of interest to his journal’s readers.

That led me to blast him publicly and to promise myself that I would never submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal again. Ironically, there was only one such submission that defied my self-imposed embargo and that was also to CNS in 2013 on the political economy of Comanche violence. The editor Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro had promised me in advance that the article would be published and developed a fruitful working relationship with me in the three months it took me to finalize the article. I only wish that there were more people out there in academia like him, at least for some of the grad students and junior professors trying to get past the gates of the Kafkaesque castle of academic journals.

In nursing the wounds created by O’Connor’s rejection letter, I turned to John Bellamy Foster who I had gotten to know through my connections to Monthly Review and especially my online articles in praise of Foster’s ecosocialism. He explained to me that my hard-core materialism probably didn’t go over too well with CNS that was firmly in the Frankfurt School tradition. To a large degree, there was an implicit belief that Marx was a “productivist” who could be blamed in part for the disasters that befell the USSR, including Chernobyl.

Clearly, Foster was on to something because he was shocked to discover O’Connor publishing an entire issue devoted to bashing his “Marx’s Ecology” in 2001. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro faults Foster on grounds that likely prejudiced O’Connor against my submission on David Harvey: “On a non-directional, non-linear evolutionary process of scientific practices he uncritically superimposes the inexorable advance of science, whose pinnacle is the achievement of dialectical materialism embodied in Marx. This approach to the history of science approximates all too painfully the conventional narratives featuring a line of great (white male) thinkers contributing to scientific progress.”

Of course, using the term “dialectical materialism” hardly does Foster justice since that is not in his vocabulary let alone his methodology and even prejudices the reader since it is so closely associated with Stalinism.

I summed up the feud between O’Connor and Foster in an article that took the attack to all the contributors to the symposium on “Marx’s Ecology”, especially Joel Kovel whose emphasis on the need for a “spiritual” approach betrayed his Frankfurt School sympathies. From my article:

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled “A Materialism Worthy of Nature.” Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

“Foster’s errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of ‘spirit.’ We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be ‘spiritual’ is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of ‘idealism’ in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse.”

To the contrary, Foster’s book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists–in his own words. Marx’s Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

As it happens, I broke all ties to Foster in 2006 or so after he hired Yoshie Furuhashi to run MRZine. I was not the only one, of course, Editorial board member Barbara Epstein, who was at U. Cal, Santa Cruz at the same time as O’Connor, quit the board because of Furuhashi’s pro-Ahmadinejad’s propaganda. Notwithstanding my disgust with Foster’s obvious Assadist sympathies, I have never found fault with the analysis found in “Marx’s Ecology”. Since Furuhashi has gone, the new MR website is far less associated with the “axis of resistance” politics of the left even though it obviously considers the Syrian revolt to be a Western conspiracy. Maybe in another 5 years or so, the comrades will have figured out that Assad was about as “anti-imperialist” as General al-Sisi.

For that matter, long after James O’Connor faded from the scene, his analysis of the environmental crisis has a remarkable staying power. CNS might have been overly influenced by the Frankfurt School with its submerged Heideggerian motifs, but O’Connor’s methodology was as true to the Marxist method as Foster’s. It is probably beyond the capability of any single Marxist thinker today to have the final say on ecosocialism since the scope of the project is not just global but galactic.

However, given the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, O’Connor’s basic approach is perhaps more timely than ever as I see in my references to his “second contradiction” of capitalism theory over the years. O’Connor defined the “second contradiction” as follows:

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 theory has become ever more relevant as the capitalist mode of production in its mad rush for profits undermines the environmental basis for its long-term sustainability. Houston is a prime example of the second contradition with its real estate developments destroying the prairies that might have prevented the city from being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Here are two other examples of the “second contradiction” at work:



James O’Connor, ¡Presente!


September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the dialectics of nature

Filed under: climate,Counterpunch,disaster,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Between 1872 and 1882, Frederick Engels worked on a book titled “The Dialectics of Nature” that sought to apply Marxist dialectics to the natural world. Although it was never completed and is filled with dated ideas about science, it is a work that has earned the respect of some of the most important scientists on the left such as Stephen Jay Gould who praised its best known chapter that was issued separately as a pamphlet—The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Long before people such as Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson were laying the groundwork for the eco-socialism of today, Engels anticipated the kind of contradictions that have led to three disastrous hurricanes: Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey. Engels wrote:

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.

If you understand that the prairies surrounding Houston, the wetlands to the south of New Orleans and the brush that grew across the coastline around greater New York were closely related to the forests of the earliest class societies that Engels refers to, you will realize that “each victory” will bring us closer to the ultimate defeat of civilization itself. Just consider the words that follow those above:

When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Furious torrents. Are there any words better matched to the pictures of Houston seen on television every night?

Continue reading

July 14, 2017

Chasing Coral

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Richard Vevers was once a very successful advertising executive in London who made a career change by moving to Australia in order to start the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which creates virtual ocean dives using special 360 degree still cameras to document life on the ocean floor around the world. Not long after he began this project, he began to notice that once-familiar marine life was disappearing at the same time that parts of the Great Barrier Reef were beginning to turn a sickly white. Was there a connection? As a rafter of scientists point out in the Netflix-produced documentary “Chasing Coral” that opened today at the IFC Center in New York, the world’s reefs are virtual nurseries for many fish lower down on the food chain that feed on the vegetation the reefs support. Naturally, the smaller fish get eaten by the larger fish as part of a biosphere that has been around for 10,000 years when the reefs started to materialize out of the tiny polyps that cohered not far from beaches all around the world. The polyps were related to their much larger relatives, the anemones and jellyfish, and were capable of building a limestone shell around itself after the fashion of clams and oysters.

In addition to opening at the IFC, “Chasing Coral” can also be seen on Netflix now. If Netflix has lost the capability of featuring leading edge narrative films, at least they can be given credit for producing important documentaries such as this, “The Ivory Game” (about poaching elephants), “The White Helmets” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th”.

Practically nothing can kill the polyps that exist on the borderline between animal and minerals except a small change in water temperature. So naturally you would expect that climate change is responsible for the death of half the world’s reefs today through “bleaching”, the death knell of millions of polyps that have formed massive colonies going back nearly 10,000 years. Not only will fish be impacted, so will the approximately billion people who depend on them as a source of protein.

“Chasing Coral” features Devers and a cadre of marine biologists setting up time lapse cameras to capture the transformation of reefs over a forty day period. The film is both ravishingly beautiful in its depiction of healthy underwater life and chilling as it illustrates their death. Watching miles of ghostly white reefs is scarier than any science fiction movie you are likely to see this summer.

Jeff Orlowski produced and directed “Chasing Coral”. He was the perfect choice for the job since he had also produced and directed “Chasing Ice” in 2012 that deals with melting glaciers using time-lapse cameras, something that was very much in the news this week as it was reported that a trillion ton ice shelf the size of Delaware had detached itself from Antarctica and began floating away into the ocean. Scientists believe that unless climate change is arrested, all of Antarctica will have floated away as soon as 200 years from now. For the people who rule the USA today and other industrialized countries, that hardly seems worrisome. Their concern is more on their quarterly earnings report.

But as Orlowski’s documentary points out, the life expectancy of coral reefs is thirty years. If a billion people lose a major source of protein, the results will be catastrophic. The urgency of this problem requires people to become informed about the issues, starting with seeing the film either at the IFC or on Netflix.

Five years ago, a book titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” was published. Edited by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, it warned that films like “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” trafficked in “catastrophism”, a tendency that undermined revolutionary politics by creating a sense of fatalism. In review of the book focused on Yuen’s chapter on global warming titled ‘Catastrophism’ book on environmental movement: a prescription for abstention and defeat, Ian Angus of the Climate and Capitalism website took issue with the author’s attempt to stake out a position so far to the left of people like Al Gore that it risked producing a sectarian abstentionism from mass movements in which such politicians took part. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of problem the antiwar movement faced in the 60s when SDS members disavowed mass protests because a liberal Democrat was a featured speaker.

While not exactly reproducing Yuen’s arguments, I found a Jacobin article by Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, succumbing to the same “leftish” moods. Titled New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong, it is an attack on an article titled The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.

Cohen complains that the word capitalism appears only four times in an 8,700 word article but quotes not a single word of the article itself. Unlike him, I think it is a good thing that an article like that appeared in a magazine devoted to sybaritic pleasures such as where to get the best hamburger in NY or how to find discounted Armani jackets.

Apparently Michael Mann has critiqued some of Wallace-Wells’s predictions that he finds overly pessimistic but that does not trouble Cohen as much as the failure of the article to address what he calls “eco-apartheid”. I am not exactly clear on what he means by that but it would seem to be referring to the possibility of the rich being able to build sea walls while the poor in places like Bangladesh drown or starve.

While Wallace-Wells does not offer any sort of political solutions in his article, least of all socialist revolution, it does at least recognize that the poor will suffer most:

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks.

Maybe a little bit of history will be useful. In the late 50s, an anti-nuclear movement began to take shape largely because young people like me were scared about the possibility of a Third World War, which was much more palpable than the ridiculous articles that appear so frequently on the World Socialist Website. A group called SANE emerged that attracted many students who would begin to develop a radical analysis of American society based on the ruling class’s willingness to act on the basis that it was better to be dead than red. For those who became Marxists, it was activism on anti-nuclear and civil rights issues that were the first steps breaking with hegemonic idea during the Cold War.

David Wallace-Wells’s article might be the first one read by a New Yorker that serves as a wake-up call on the environmental crisis. Yes, it is great that a Jacobin article mentions the word capitalism forty times rather than four but in the final analysis size matters.



February 17, 2017


Filed under: Ecology,Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

I have been a fan of Bollywood movies for many years. Since they are geared to ordinary people rather than international film festivals, there is a premium on story-telling and a disdain for the irony that has become so dominant in Hollywood films. This is not to speak of the song and dance routines that punctuate the films, which for me are far more enjoyable than anything in “La La Land.”

If you are a fan of Bollywood films like me or if you’d like to sample one of the more interesting examples, I recommend “Irada” that opened today at the AMC Empire 25 theater in NY. This is a detective story named that pits its hero Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), who is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Lieutenant Columbo, against a powerful chemical company boss named Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar). Like probably most chemical companies in India, his is dumping carcinogenic waste products into the groundwater of Bathinda, a Punjabi city.

When Sharma’s massive industrial complex is blown to bits in an apparent act of sabotage, Mishra is called in to investigate. He is summoned to the office of Chief Minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta), where she tells him to wrap up the case as quickly as possible. She is anxious for him to not look too closely into the company’s dealings for fear that he will discover that she is helping to cover up Sharma’s toxic waste dumping that has turned Bathinda into a virtual cancer epidemic.

The Chief Minister and just about everybody else in a position of power is beholden to him in the same way that Louisiana elected officials are in the pocket of BP and other polluters. If the idea of the BRICS countries is to catch up with the West, you wonder why such a prospect ever became embraced by part of the left. With people like Narendra Modi functioning as India’s Bobby Jindal, the Indo-American governor of Louisiana, perhaps there is a different model worth embracing.

Inspector Mitra hooks up with two allies in his lonely search to find out the truth. He is aided by the widow of an investigative journalist who was murdered by Sharma’s goons and the father of a seemingly healthy and athletic young woman who developed Stage Four lung cancer after swimming daily in a Bathinda river.

Unlike most Hollywood detective movies that rely on brute force, Mitra is much more old-school. In a way, the film is a throwback to the days of Dashiell Hammett with most scenes involving the sympathetic characters trying to figure things out rather than car chases or shootouts.

I imagine that the film hit a responsive chord in India, especially in Punjab. The film, despite its Bollywood aesthetic including two songs, is not escapist. Just consider what a Punjab newspaper reported in 2013:

The Tribune, October 14, 2013
Govt sleeps as toxic waste poisons water in Punjab
Umesh Dewan/TNS

Notwithstanding claims of the Punjab Government and the state Pollution Control Board (PPCB) that emphasis is being laid on ensuring clean and green environment in the state, the practice of discharging domestic waste and untreated industrial effluents into drains, rivulets and water channels continues unabated in Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

The worst affected is the Kala Sanghian Drain, which originates from Bullandpur village in Jalandhar and goes to Chiti Bein, which finally connects with the Sutlej.

In Kapurthala, untreated sewage waste is polluting Kali Bein. Same is the fate of Wadala Drain. It merges with Kali Bein, which finally falls into the Beas. Pollution of drains and rivulets has also started affecting groundwater. This has started affecting he health of people in many parts of Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

Apart from skin diseases, a number of cancer deaths have also been reported in many villages of Jalandhar. Intake of polluted water is said to be the main cause behind rising number of cancer cases in these areas. Though, the PPCB has tightened the noose around the tanneries at the Leather Complex and electroplating units in Jalandhar, the violation of anti-pollution norms continues.

The problem

Out of about 200 electroplating units in Jalandhar, many do not have effluent treatment plants (ETPs). The result: Toxic chrome effluents are discharged into Kala Sanghian Drain.

It is being claimed that electroplating units send effluents to the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) at Ludhiana for treatment, but there are reports that many units continue to discharge untreated effluents into Kala Sanghian Drain. There are about 60 tanneries in Leather Complex.

Kapurthala has a sewage treatment plant (STP) with total capacity of treating 25 million litre discharge per day (MLD). Since the plant is not properly functional, the discharge of untreated domestic waste into Kali Bein goes on. Untreated domestic waste of some areas also finds its way into Wadala Drain. Lakhs of fish were found dead in Kali Bein at Sultanpur Lodhi in April this year.

The promises

Sewage treatment plants (STPs) were to be set up in Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur. Industrial units had to send effluents to the CETP, Ludhiana, or had to install their own ETPs. On February 28, 2008, it was announced that Kala Sanghian Drain would be made pollution-free within one month, but there has not been much improvement five years down the line.

On May 18, 2011, some Rajasthan residents came to Jalandhar to lodge a protest with the administration saying the 45-km Kala Sanghian Drain was polluting the Sutlej and ultimately the Indira canal that carried water to several districts of Rajasthan.

The reality

The Punjab Effluent Treatment Society (PETS) has set up a 5 MLD CETP at Leather Complex for the treatment of toxic waste, while the old CETP (1.5 MLD) is non-functional. The installed capacity of tanneries at leather complex is about 8.8 MLD.

PPCB Senior Environmental Engineer SP Garg said the PETS had initiated the process to re-commission the old CETP at the Leather Complex. “The capacity of the new CETP is being increased from 5 MLD to 6 MLD. We are hopeful that work will be completed by October 31,” said PETS Secretary-cum-Director Ajay Sharma.

Garg said board officials kept conducting surprise checks on tanneries and action was initiated whenever any violation was noticed. Kapurthala MC Executive Officer and President had been prosecuted for not been able to ensure that the STP operated properly and achieved desired standards, he added.

Jalandhar needs to have STPs with a combined capacity of 235 MLD. At present, two STPs (100 MLD and 25 MLD capacity) are functional at Pholriwal. A 50 MLD STP is coming up Opposite the Leather Complex, whereas two STPs of 25 MLD and 10 MLD capacity are being set up along the Hoshiarpur Road and the GT Road in Jalandhar. Phagwara has an STP of 20 MLD capacity, while two other STPs of 8 MLD capacity each are being set up. In Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur, 6 MLD and 30 MLD STPs are coming up. The deadline for the commissioning of all STPs is March 31, 2014.

Health hazard

Consumption of polluted groundwater has left a large number of people suffering from various diseases, including cancer. Gazipur, Allowal, Badshapur, Mehmuwal Mahla, Kohar Kalan, Athola, Mandala Chana, Gidderpindi, Bahmania, Madala, Isewal and Namajepur villages in Jalandhar district are the worst-hit. Bulerkhanpur, Sidhpur, Sunra, Chaka, Ahmedpur and Mallu villages are among the worst-affected in Kapurthala.

Tumour and cancer cases, besides stomach, eye, skin and respiration problems are common among residents of Jalandhar villages that fall in the vicinity of Kala Sanghian Drain.

Jarnail Singh of Badshapur village said: “There had been eight cancer deaths in the village. Residents of other villagers are also suffering from various ailments. The state government has completely failed to check pollution of groundwater.” Inhabitants of many other villages also claimed that the people were suffering due to consumption of polluted water.

Seechewal’s take

According to environmentalist Seechewal, the discharge of Kala Sanghian Drain goes down to Chitti Bein, then to the Sutlej and finally to Harike headworks, from where drinking water is supplied to the Malwa region. Polluted water poses a serious risk not only to the aquatic life, but also to humans.

Till all STPs were in place, the Jalandhar Municipal Corporation should make arrangements to segregate silt from untreated waste at different points, so that less polluted water was discharged into the drains, he said. “An STP has been set up in Kapurthala at a cost of Rs 12 crore, but it is non-functional. The entire domestic waste goes into Kali Bein, which is really unfortunate,” he added.

(To be continued)

The sorry state of rivers

CHANDIGARH: Punjab ranks 23rd among states and UTs in environment performance index benchmarked by the Planning Commission in its 2012 report. The poor ranking is in sharp contrast with the commitment made by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in October, 2010 that all state rivers will be cleaned by November 30, 2011. The Shiromani Akali Dal manifesto for the last Assembly polls promised “clean air, water, sky and land (saf paun, pani dharti and akash)”. It had also spelled out a 5-point programme. Nothing has changed: The Sutlej continues to be a major victim, the Ghaggar is a repository of chemical waste, as toxins are dunked into the subsoil water at various places. The result is stark: most rivers and choes remain polluted. Government sources cite the lack of funds for handling pollution. For instance, they say, the state government identified 45 towns and cities from where untreated effluents flow into either rivers or nearby choes. Safely created dumps would have taken care of solid waste. But the government doesn’t have funds to set up treatment plants. –TNS

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.


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