Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2020

Earth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

A case can be made that Nikolaus Geyrhalter is the most important living documentary filmmaker. As well, a case can be made that his latest film “Earth” (Erde) that opened today at the Anthology Film Archives in New York is his most important. As the film begins with a panoramic shot of the San Fernando Valley in California, the following words scroll across the screen: “Every day 60 million tons of surface soil are moved by rivers, wind and other forces of nature. Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” With this as a preface, Geyrhalter then takes us on a world tour of major excavation sites with closeups on the machinery and the women and men who operate them. On his last stop that he makes in Fort McMurray, Canada, he will not be able to film machine dreadnoughts because the tar sands extraction bosses prevent filming. However, in a perfect denouement to a film made to arouse public opinion against unbridled capitalist development, he walks the outskirts of the drilling sites with two Dene Indians whose land has been despoiled by fracking.

My first exposure to Geyrhalter’s work was in 2006 when I saw “Our Daily Bread”, an ironically titled film that takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme. A decade later, I reviewed “Homo Sapiens” that like “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration. As a general strategy, Geyrhalter is a strict believer in showing rather than telling. In the case of “Homo Sapiens”, we see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. You surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located.

Perhaps as a result of the environmental crisis, Geyrhalter’s latest abandons the austere cinéma vérité technique of the earlier films and has him interviewing workers participating in the massive assaults on earth in the name of progress. While by no means as intrusive as Michael Moore, he is clearly interested in drawing out whatever pangs of conscience they have about being accessories after the fact in what threatens to become the Sixth Extinction.

The interviewees are a varied lot. A heavy equipment operator in the San Fernando Valley, who is leveling mountains to make way for a new development of tract housing, shopping centers and other symbols of civilization, is not particularly perturbed. If the choice is between flattening a mountain and the preservation of nature, he shrugs his shoulders and tells Geyrhalter that it is necessary since people need a place to live. If you live in California, you are probably aware that suburban sprawl is bringing mountain lions, bears and other wildlife to the brink of extinction. The worker probably understands this with a fatalistic acceptance of this eventuality made easier by good pay.

In Italy, Geyrhalter visits a marble quarry where he meets a worker who has other motivations for working there besides money. He tells the filmmaker that because the work is so dangerous, he gets an adrenaline rush everyday he is there. It has the same effect on him as a drug. On the weekends, when he is away from work, the peace and quiet leave him feeling empty.

At Rio Tinto, an open-pit copper mine in Spain, he encounters workers who, despite making a livelihood in one of the most ecologically destructive forms of mining, reassure Geyrhalter that their advanced machinery is not harmful to the nature around them and remind him that copper is necessary for electricity. We can’t go back to living in caves, after all. They sound like the grinning Koch Industry workers featured in their employer’s TV commercials.

In the first sign that Geyrhalter is ready to confront such lies, he also interviews Luis Iglesias Garcia, an archaeologist whose interest in the mine is scholarly rather than commercial. Since Rio Tinto goes back to the Roman Empire that mined silver and copper from the ground beneath them, he is on the lookout for any relics that are dug up by accident. He does not see much of a future in copper mining or any other of the earth transformation projects the film casts its eye upon:

I don’t think that Earth is giving us anything easily. We extract everything in a way, you mentioned blasting before, that is rather violent. Extracting anything from the soil is a really violent process. It is quite aggressive. Everything related to resources is done with violence. Either we change our business model to a concept that is more in line with nature conservation and the rational consumption of resources, or this system will not exist much longer. Clearly, we can either change or vanish.

Humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.

The archaeologist is far more detached from the murderous assault on the planet than the two Dene Indians we meet in the final episode. They have been told by the authorities not to eat more than one or two fish a month since the river that runs through their reservation has been contaminated by the toxic byproducts of fracking. Jean L’Hommecourt tells him: “For me in my culture being a Dene means people of the land, so we are of the Earth and we need the Earth to survive, to exist as a human being. In our culture we believe that every element of Earth has a spirit.”

In the only visit where mining is not currently taking place, Geyrhalter goes to a salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany that has been converted into a repository for nuclear power plant radioactive waste. When they first began storing drums of the toxic byproducts in the sixties, the engineers thought they were living up to governmental regulations. The salt mine must be resistant to hazardous accidents or human malfeasance for a million years. Less than fifty years had gone by when they learned that ground water seeping into the mine would risk eating away the drums and causing a Chernobyl type disaster. During his visit, he met with the man and woman in charge of relocating the drums who did not seem sure what guarantees there could be for safe storage for the next million years anywhere on earth. Maybe it’s up to Elon Musk to transport the drums in a rocket up to Mars after he has built a brand-new world for humans there.

In an interview with Geyrhalter in the press notes, he considers such a quandary:

Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It’s not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can’t escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don’t have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.

I don’t blame Geyrhalter for his fatalism. Many mornings, I wake up feeling this way myself especially after watching a few minutes of CNN. The reason things “are the way they are” is capitalism, not overpopulation. Capitalism creates commodities that can generate profit, whatever their impact is on the planet. Ironically, population growth is accelerated by capitalist-imposed poverty. Peasant families tend to be large because the children become unpaid labor. In countries that are prosperous, population tends to be stable or even decline. In any case, the answer to our problems is the intelligent use of resources. Geyrhalter may not be the person to listen to when it comes to the broader questions of ecological living but his films are a wake-up call for what awaits us as our unintelligent ruling class plunges us into ruin.

December 27, 2019

Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 27, 2019

In the recently published “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care,” Giorgos Kallis tackles weighty and expansive topics in merely 156 pages. One cannot help but wonder if his brevity (the soul of wit, after all) was in keeping with the book’s theme—how humanity can live an abundant life within material limits.

Kallis is a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), who has made both theoretical and practical contributions to environmentalism. In addition to writing articles in defense of “degrowth,” he worked for the European Parliament’s Science and Technological Options Assessment Unit for the preparation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

“Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong” is a critique of Malthusianism, as put forward in the 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” It also refutes the “neo-Malthusian” writings of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. Since the Club of Rome issued a report titled “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, one has to wonder why a degrowth advocate would be its critic. The answer is that Malthus and neo-Malthusianism are entirely different animals.

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December 13, 2019

If Time Magazine Celebrates Greta Thunberg, Why Should We?

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 13, 2019

In just over 6,500 words, Time Magazine  makes the case for Greta Thunberg being 2019’s Person of the Year. For much of the left, this confirms that she is a corporate tool. Founded in 1923 by Henry Luce, Time was the flagship of the Luce empire. Print newsmagazines have gone into a steep decline with the advent of the Internet. Despite a steep decline in circulation, Time remains the second-largest weekly after People.

Henry Luce was one of the most powerful Republican Party supporters in the 20th century, the Rupert Murdoch of his day. Luce was a member of the China Lobby that sought the overthrow of Mao Zedong. He also urged JFK to invade Cuba. Unless he did, Luce planned to imitate William Randolph Hearst and push for war, even if involved the big lie. These odious policies and others fell within the rubric of the “American Century,” a concept Luce articulated in Life magazine, another part of his empire. Through such magazines, he shared the dominant view of the American ruling class during its “globalization” phase. He had close social ties to men like John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State, and his brother, director of the CIA, who worked overtime to overthrow any government that dared to defy Washington’s will.

So, why should the left celebrate Greta Thunberg being named person of the year given this background?

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November 21, 2019

Dining on the Impossible Burger

Filed under: Ecology,food,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Fake meat about to be enjoyed by real people

This week I picked up a couple of 12 ounce packages of Impossible Burger from Fairway in order to see what fake meat tastes like. I was motivated not just out of curiosity as a food lover but to gauge its potential role in resolving the ecological crisis caused by cattle ranching. There’s a certain irony in buying “Green” products from a grocery chain owned by Blackstone. According to The Intercept, its CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a driving force behind deforestation:

Two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, carnage that has developed into raging fires that have captivated global attention.

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which will then sail to a larger port before the cargo is shipped around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

I left it up to my sister-in-law to use the Impossible Burger in a Turkish dish. Originally, she was going to make kofte (Turkish hamburger) but it turned out to be too fragile, falling apart in her hands when she was making paddies. Instead, she made something that amounted to a flat meatloaf that she never cooked before. To my surprise, it was delicious.

Up until about five years ago, I used to eat Amy’s Veggie Burgers 2 or 3 times a week for lunch. I cut it out for health reasons. How can a veggie burger be unhealthy, you must be asking. Well, it wasn’t the burger but the two slices of bread that surrounded it. Dealing with a prediabetic condition at the time, I resolved to cut down on the amount of carbohydrates I took in and this was a good place to start. As for Amy’s, I didn’t have any problems with the taste but nobody could possibly confuse it with meat.

In a 23-page article in The New Yorker on Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods (he has plans to replicate chicken and fish down the road), we learn that the special ingredient that makes his laboratory beef taste like the real thing is something called heme. Tad Friend, the author of the article, explains why:

Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very different from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modified yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory flavor.

Brown’s main competitor is a company called Beyond Meat that does not use heme, which is based on genetically modified yeast. Both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have attacked the use of heme due to their stance against GMO. Beyond Meat does not use heme but that does not prevent it from running a close second behind Impossible in a taste test:

If you pass by a Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll notice that they are selling a hamburger using Beyond Meat, as does Carl’s Jr. and A&W. When an old friend noticed that it was being sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, he bought a fair amount of shares since he saw this as the wave of the future. My friend took advantage of Beyond’s I.P.O. in May, which was the most successful of the year. The stock skyrocketed up by more than five hundred per cent. All in all, this is a real magnet for venture capitalists who have noticed that sales of plant-based meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year.

This year Verso published a book by Aaron Bastani titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that took an almost Panglossian view of the future based on the idea that technology will virtually make capitalism outmoded. Among his tech-fixes is fake meat. In a NYT op-ed timed to the release of his book, he sung its praises:

The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gases and, remarkably, requires no animals to die.

Actually, the young optimist is being a bit pessimistic. I paid $18 for a pound and a half of Impossible Burger and it was enough to feed 5 people.

He does have a point about the ecological implications of real beef versus what we ate. Farming uses more water than any other human activity, with a third of that devoted to cattle. Tad Friend writes, “One-third of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

By comparison, the Impossible Burger needs eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than the real thing, mostly devoted to growing soybeans, a key ingredient. It also generates eighty-nine per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than carbon. (It is not the product of farting but burping.)

It is also important to consider the role of real meat in your personal health as opposed to the health of the planet. It is associated with heart disease and cancer. According to Friend, a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Even more frightening, “Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050.” That’s not to speak of avian and swine flus that pass easily to humans via the aerosolized feces ubiquitous to slaughterhouses. University of Minnesota researchers found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry, while Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. Nice.

Of course, it is hard to make the case that Impossible Burgers made from soybeans are particularly good for you. If Beyond Meat comes in a close second, it does come in first in healthiness since it is made of peas, mung beans, and brown rice. You’re probably better off eating broccoli and lentils for dinner but you might grow weary of that kind of diet after a while. Been there, done that.

Tad Friend mentions another technology that is animal based but not agricultural in nature. Thirty-three companies are working on a substitute for beef by using animal cells to grow meat in vats. He writes:

The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can figure out how to grow cells on a scaffolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a 3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diffusion), they’ll have solved the defining challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and fish. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and fillets.”

All of this is very intriguing but I am left with the same old question that also applies to the Green New Deal. What good do these “alternative” energy or food sources do when the capitalist system is militating against their adoption. Pat Brown told the New Yorker that he hopes to see cattle-ranching become obsolete by 2050. That would be nice but with everything else falling apart by then, we’d still be facing ruin. It is not just cattle that is impinging on rainforests. It is farming as well, including the production of soybeans that are essential to Impossible Burger.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called for the reintegration of the city and the countryside so as to overcome the “metabolic rift”. Something like that will ultimately be necessary for a sustainable agriculture. To make that happen will require an all-out assault on the capitalist system. Who knows? By the time we reach 2050, the conditions for worldwide socialist revolution will ripen to the point of making such dreams possible.

November 11, 2019

Saving Atlantis

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

Starting tomorrow, “Saving Atlantis” will be available on iTunes. This is the definitive documentary on the loss of coral reefs as a result of global warming. It relies on the testimony of marine biologists and the people whose livelihood depends on their health. Such people, many of who are indigenous, are fisherman or small proprietors in the tourist industry who will be ruined by their disappearance. Others facing ruin include those who live near the seacoast where coral reefs are a natural barrier against flooding during hurricanes, cyclones and other storms that create monstrous waves. Finally, it will be a loss to our cultural heritage since the coral reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders, just as much as the Grand Canyon or the glaciers. With the irrational use of fossil fuels posing the danger to assets belonging to all of humanity, this film helps to raise awareness and should be seen and recommended to friends and comrades.

In the film, scientists explain how coral reefs come into existence. The coral is a tiny, tentacled polyp that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with algae that settle down in its innards. The coral keeps the algae alive while it provides its host with nutrients. When a coral dies, it leaves behind a calcium carbonate skeleton that starts off at the bottom of the ocean floor and soon reaches massive proportions over the millennia. When the water rises to a certain temperature (varying from one coral species to another), the algae is expelled from the host, which itself soon dies. The lifeless coral becomes a ghostly white, a process referred to as bleaching.

The film takes us on a journey to all four corners of the world where coral reefs can still be found. We meet fishermen in Colombia, Polynesian islands and Australia as well as surfing pros in Hawaii. In addition to preventing Hawaii’s coastal villages from being flooded, they also serve to create the giant waves that draws professional and amateur surfers to its islands from all over the world.

One of the main goals of marine biologists right now is to discover why some coral are more resistant to bleaching than others. A worldwide project is underway to identify their cellular makeup, including DNA, so as to bioengineer a strain that might be able to resist the effects of global warming. While this project is commendable, one must understand that it might lead to blind alleys over decades, just as the case with cancer research. In the meantime, all efforts must be made to join Greta Thurnberg and other activists on the front lines of the struggle to eliminate fossil fuels.

I recommend both seeing this film and consulting the official website that has an excellent collections of links to activists and scientists on the front lines. I particularly recommend the page on Coral Facts  that should be read, even if you don’t get around to seeing the film. Among them is this:

Coral reefs hold secrets to human health

Many drugs come from natural products, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what medicines that impact human health can be found in these habitats. According to one recent study, “the prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem.” Coral reef products have been used for the treatment of everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease.

If this isn’t reason enough to preserve them, then we have lost the ability to understand the need for self-preservation. Given a choice between SUV’s and air conditioning on one side and a cure for cancer on the other, most people would choose the latter.

November 5, 2019

When Lambs Become Lions; The Elephant Queen

Filed under: Africa,Ecology,Film,poaching — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Long before the African elephant became the poster child of wildlife preservation and ecology activists, I became aware of their precarious condition when I saw John Huston’s “Roots of Heaven” in 1958. Based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conducted nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa, it was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

In my 2014 review of the film, the first time I had seen it since 1958, I wrote:

“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.

This week I saw two new documentaries filmed in Kenya that rekindled my interest in the preservation of the African elephant. One, titled “When Lambs Become Lions”, opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on November 22nd and at the Village East in NYC on December 6th. It is the story of poachers like the kind that were the villains in Huston’s film on one side and the game wardens on the other who have orders to shoot to kill any poacher. What gives the documentary particular interest, beyond the question of the elephant’s survival, is that the two main subjects of the film—a poacher and a cop—are cousins and very close. The other is titled “The Elephant Queen”, a family-oriented portrait of a herd led by Athena, a 50-year old animal ruling over a matriarchy that faces death from a drought rather than from poachers. It premieres on Apple’s new streaming service meant to compete against Netflix and Amazon Prime for $4.99 a month.

The films complement each other. They help to show both the importance of the elephant to the Kenyan ecosphere and the utter waste of a precious living natural resource as a result of the vain consumption of ivory for chintzy carvings sold to the Chinese nouveau riche,

We first meet the poacher in “When Lambs Become Lions”, who is only identified as “X”. He comes from a family that has been poaching for decades, including his father who was killed in the act by park rangers when X was only a child. Not having the stomach to see an elephant killed, he has an underling named Lucas carry out the act using a bow and arrow laced by poison drawn from a frog. It seems likely that these poachers are drawing upon tribal traditions that go back for centuries just like some American Indians who kill whales. However, when such practices become monetized in a society dominated by severe poverty, they are much more capable of leading to extinction.

X’s cousin Asan is a prime example of such precariousness. He and his fellow park rangers haven’t been paid for two months. When a government representative meets with them, they want to know when they will be paid. He shrugs his shoulders and tells them that he has no idea. He adds that if this does not meet their needs, they can find another job.

In a conversation between X and Asan, we learn that the park ranger had also been a poacher earlier in life. We soon begin to understand that both occupations, breaking the law and enforcing it, come with risks. The poacher risks being shot down by a ranger while the ranger has to risk penury because the Kenyan government will not live up to its fiscal responsibilities. Towards the end of the film, we see the new president Uhuru Kenyatta making a speech about the need to save the elephants, topped off by the burning of $150 million worth of tusks. One wonders why he can’t act decisively to keep the police force paid on time, especially since they are probably not making very much money to begin with.

During the film, Anas’s wife gives birth. One wonders how close she came to being denied basic health services because Kenyatta’s Ministry of Health officials stole nearly $50 million of funds allocated to the national free maternity program. In a society dominated by illegality, can anybody be surprised that those on the bottom imitate those at the top?

In an interview with director Jon Kasbe, who spent three years embedded in both X and Asan’s social milieu to gain their trust, he is asked if why the film did not result in a call to action, as is typically the case with documentaries about elephants or rhinoceroses facing extinction because of tusk poaching. He answered:

We hope that the film challenges the existing conversation around poaching. We can’t focus on the preservation of animal life without considering the economic realities and perspectives of the people who have shared land with these animals for a long time. While it is not an overt message in the film, we feel the story can point attention to the lack of proper pay, resources, and training given to wildlife rangers. These rangers are expected to live in the bush 26 days out of the month and oftentimes don’t have basic necessities like boots, clean water, food, or blankets. I spoke to many hunters who said it would be much harder to bribe rangers who had better work conditions. In fact, many poachers claim they would consider switching sides for good, if it meant stable pay and proper resources.

“The Elephant Queen” is a throwback to the heavily anthropomorphized Walt Disney documentaries that I grew up watching and loving as a kid. Athena, the matriarch, is always being described by narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor as “worried” or “sad” about some threat to her family’s well-being. There are also touches that smack of video and audio editing meant to entertain a child or early teen. When a dung beetle narrowly misses being stepped on by an elephant, we hear it squeak in alarm. I am no dung beetle expert but I doubt that any sound like that every came out of a dung-beetle’s mouth. The video editing is less egregious. It is obvious meant to draw out the full drama of an African elephant’s odyssey in search of water and food, even if it sometimes has a “staged” quality.

All that being said, it is a great documentary that like “When Lambs Become Lions” is a labor of love. Co-Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years in close proximity to Athena’s family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that was prime territory for poachers until the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation partners beefed up security.

Essentially, the film might be subtitled “The ecology of a waterhole” since 90 percent of the film shows the web of life that an elephant and a water source can nurture. The waterholes are home to elephants, bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish, and terrapins—all of which are captured in minute detail by Mark Deeble’s camera. The elephant defecates and the dung-beetle rushes up to siphon off a ball of the stuff that he can then stash away for future meals. It is absolutely captivating.

Whether or not you decide to become an Apple TV+ subscriber is up to you. I would only urge you to take out a trial membership just so that you and your children—if you have any—can see a powerful film about a creature that was placed on earth not to furnish tusks to the poaching industry but to keep the humble dung-beetle and all other creatures both large and small alive and healthy.

 

October 5, 2019

Christian Parenti’s weak tea

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

Christian Parenti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 20, 2019

This Land

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 20, 2019

Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” is a politically explosive and beautifully written chronicle of the ongoing struggle to preserve publicly owned land in the West. This is home to iconic endangered species such as the grizzly bear, the wolf, and the wild horse. Much of the left is rightfully fixated on the horrifying prospects of Bolsonaro giving the green light to ranchers, miners, oil companies and farmers to ravage the Amazon rainforest. Now it is time that we took a stand against the same kind of devastation taking place on American soil. If it was up to Donald Trump and the “liberal” Democrats like Obama who paved the way for him, all of the land that had been protected under successive presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon (yes, that’s right) will face the same fate.

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to set aside such land for public ownership, “socializing” it in effect. Under the aegis of the Forest Service, millions of acres were to be protected from profit-seeking enterprises with exceptions made for raising cattle but under strict limits. Despite his wanton appetite for shooting large animals (shared by Ernest Hemingway), Roosevelt was so alarmed by the loss of wilderness that he would write these prescient words: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

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August 9, 2019

How real is the eco-fascist threat?

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Fascism — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Eco-fascist literature?

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 9, 2019

In a manifesto that was posted to 8Chan just before he carried out his murderous attack on Walmart shoppers in El Paso, Patrick Crusius expressed “Green” values that are widespread on the left:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country. The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades old classic “The Lorax”.

Dr. Seuss wrote “The Lorax” in 1971 as a protest against corporate despoliation of the environment. The contrast between a racist mass murderer and a gentle children’s book could not be starker. It is no wonder that there have been multiple attempts to come to terms with his eco-fascism.

This is not the first amalgam of Green and Brown values from a neo-Nazi terrorist. On March 15, 2019, an Australian named Brenton Tarrant killed 50 Muslims in a New Zealand mosque justifying his attack on the “replacement” theory that motivated Patrick Crusius. Crusius paid tribute to Tarrant in the first paragraph of his manifesto.

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July 26, 2019

Ecological limits and the working class

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

In the interest of the working class?

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 26, 2019

In the latest issue of Catalyst Magazine that is published by Bhaskar Sunkara, there is an article titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” by Syracuse University professor Matt Huber, which argues for the need to abandon the “middle class” orientation of the ecologists whose worldview was shaped by the 1960s radicalization. (I guess that includes me.)

These people with their affinity for the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan are neglecting the mainstream proletariat that sounds like Donald Trump voters:

It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

To woo such people into a revolutionary movement, the emphasis should be on winning urban and suburban workers to the Green New Deal that is a lynchpin of Sunkara’s developing journalistic empire rather than “the struggles of poor rural populations (peasants, indigenous peoples, etc.) over land, resources, and environmental degradation within a Marxist political-economic framework.” Since most people are wage workers who have been dispossessed of land through “primitive accumulation” over the past four centuries at least, why waste time with the “marginal” population in Brazil, for example? For every Yanomami, there are likely 100,000 wage workers. That’s the argument, anyhow.

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