Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 26, 2016

The Zika pandemic and the FMLN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2016

Flint, Michigan and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 6, 2016

Cattle and capitalism

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


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

Cattle and Capitalism

JEREMY RIFKIN ON THE BEEF ASSEMBLY-LINE

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

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

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

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

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

JEREMY RIFKIN ON CATTLE = CAPITAL

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

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

(Jeremy Rifkin, “Beyond Beef”)

CATTLE IN INDIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CATTLE IN THE NEW WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RAVAGES OF UNGULATES

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

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

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

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

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

ALEXANDER COCKBURN ON BEEF

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

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

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

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

CATTLE AND THE CENTRAL AMERICAN REVOLUTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CATTLE AND THE SECOND CONTRADICTION OF CAPITALISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2015

The Messenger; Emptying the Skies

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries.

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.15.10 PM

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

 

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

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

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

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

October 23, 2015

Racing Extinction

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Politics of Extinction

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

Read full article

September 7, 2015

An exchange about John Muir with Donald Worster

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:36 pm

Donald Worster

For my money, Donald Worster is  the finest environmental historian in the USA, probably the world for that matter. This exchange grew out of a comment by Survival International’s executive director under my article criticizing Jedediah Purdy. Purdy had written an article in the New Yorker Magazine charging Muir with favoring the ethnic cleansing of American Indians from Yosemite and Curry agreed with it.

My email to Worster:

Hi, Donald I am a huge fan of your work and own every book you have written except the one on John Muir. A while back I wrote a critique of Jedediah Purdy’s attack on Muir in the New Yorker Magazine: https://louisproyect.org/2015/08/17/the-racism-of-early-environmentalism-or-environmentalists/ Just today I got a comment on the article from Stephen Curry, the Executive Director of Survival International who agrees completely with Purdy. He referred me to a Truthout article he wrote that stated: “Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go.” I wrote him a note:

I am not sure what you mean by “believed”. Donald Worster’s bio of Muir makes no such reference. I have also read Muir extensively and do not recall words to that effect although he did express racist views common to the period. So maybe you can help me out by telling me exactly where in Muir’s writings do you find support for your allegation.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Thanks, Louis

* * * *

Dear Louis, I am flattered that you are such a loyal reader. But do get the Muir biography, which addresses in many pages this old hackneyed charge against him. There is nothing that I could find anywhere in all the extensive Muir papers that expresses the racist views he is charged with, unless we use a very broad brush definition of racism (ie., to mean any criticism of another group of people. By that standard the world is full of racists, including most Indians, blacks, etc.). If racism means a theory that some races of people, whatever “race” means, are genetically inferior to other races, then Muir was not a racist. I write specifically about Muir’s encounter with a group of Indians, not in Yosemite valley exactly, but on a trail in the nearby mountains, a year or so after he had arrived in California He did find those people dirty and frightening. So might Mr Purdy if he had been in Muir’s shoes, all alone with a group of strangers dressed in animal skins, with strong odors, demanding tobacco and alcohol and pulling at his clothes. Try it on the streets of Naples or Calcutta. But if Mr Purdy would simply turn the page in that journal (My First Summer in the Sierra) he would read contrary evidence—Muir feeling ashamed of his initial fearful and negative reaction, Muir asserting the vision of poet Robert Burns that we will all, including the Indians, come to be brothers one day. Those Indians, by the way, did not live in Yos Valley, they came from the Mono Lake area, and the Yos Indians feared and deposed them (were they also racists?). And it was those Mono Paiutes who massacred the Yos Indians and left the valley uninhabited, except for a lone individual or two. No one destroyed inhabited settlements to make way for Yosemite Park. Muir was a friend of a man he called Indian Tom in the valley, a guy who carried his letters out to civilization. Then there is all of Muir’s experience with Indians in Alaska. There Muir criticized the nation’s treatment of native peoples, etc. etc. Purdy has done no homework, while he recycles worn out, prejudcial, and highly selective charges. He repeats old slanders that a true scholar should be ashamed to pass on. I don’t think his intellectual or moral responsibility rises much higher than Fox News.

Don Worster

August 17, 2015

The racism of early environmentalism–or environmentalists?

Filed under: Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Jedediah Purdy

Last week the New Yorker Magazine ran an article by Duke Law Professor and public intellectual Jedediah Purdy titled “Environmentalism’s Racist History” that might have been more appropriately titled “Environmentalists’ Racist History” since the brunt of the article was to show that a group of men held deplorable but typical Victorian ideas about race while at the same time waging important campaigns on behalf of wildlife preservation.

For example, Madison Grant—an ally of Theodore Roosevelt—fought to protect the bison and the Redwood trees while at the same time writing a book titled “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History.” I should add that Purdy includes Grant’s role in creating the Bronx Zoo on the positive side of the ledger—something I would question given the sorry record of captive creatures in such places. Apparently the book helped to influence the Immigration Act of 1924 although it is not exactly clear what this has to do with the bison. When my grandparents came over before this bill was passed, did they take the next train to North Dakota to hunt bison? I rather doubt it.

Purdy also takes aim at John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club who refers to Blacks as lazy “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians. Again, there is not exactly any connection made between Muir’s racist views and the mission of the Sierra Club. Henry David Thoreau also gets smacked for stating “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”

He also points out that many of these early environmentalists backed eugenics as well, not that there was any direct connection between protecting bison and sterilizing women.

Purdy tries to make a connection by rendering Grant and Muir as misanthropically predisposed to humanity, especially its lower classes. They were catering to the aristocracy that saw the forest and especially its larger animals such as elk as a refuge from the teeming masses.

This is an analysis I first ran into from William Cronon that I alluded to in a May 23rd post titled “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda”. Cronon is very big on the reactionary character of Teddy Roosevelt era wildlife preservation programs:

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

Missing from Purdy’s article is any understanding of the context. In point of fact, all of the men he writes about were simply reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. Social Darwinism and eugenics were deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the period.

For example, Lewis Henry Morgan—best known in some ways for Marx and Engels’s positive references to his study of the Iroquois—viewed Indians as an impediment to civilization because of their reliance on hunting, something he regarded as enchaining them to their “primitive state”.

Furthermore, many of the great philosophers of the 19th century viewed Europeans as higher up on the evolutionary scale, including Immanuel Kant who wrote:

The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why at all points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with weapons. The Romans, Greeks, the ancient Nordic peoples, Genghis Khan, the Turks, Tamurlaine, the Europeans after Columbus’s discoveries, they have all amazed the southern lands with their arts and weapons.

What would have been remarkable is if any of these early environmentalists had written passionate defenses of American Indian or African-American rights. Furthermore, Purdy has complaints about the racism of environmentalist groups today, calling attention for example to less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth being from minorities.

Purdy has a new book out titled “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene” that will probably sell lots of copies since he is one of those people who gets interviewed by Charlie Rose and reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review section. From the looks of it, it has the same kind of profundity as the typical TED lecture:

A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.

Whatever.

In any case, I hope that in trying to correct the racial composition of the Sierra Club et al, Purdy finds the time to prevail upon his editors at the New Yorker Magazine to rectify the imbalance there since the percentage of minority contributors is about the same: about two percent.

This is not to speak of Duke University, where he is a big muckety-muck in the Law School. Also on the Duke faculty is one Jerry Hough who can’t understand why Black students just don’t get it: “I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Or that has students who like to hang nooses to make a point to Blacks with those strange names about knowing their place.

July 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 12:49 pm

Manufacturing Denial

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”, the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, is required reading in order to understand the threats to our health and overall survival posed by the well-funded pseudo-scientific think-tanks that have their origins in Cold War anti-Communism. As unlikely as it might seem, the very scientists who ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers pay to cast doubt on climate change are part of a network that got started in the 1950s when scientists, including those who worked for the tobacco industry, were at last coming to the conclusion that smoking causes cancer. The tobacco companies needed “experts” to obfuscate the issues just as they need them today to cast doubt on climate change.

How and why this kind of bogus science was rooted in the anti-Communist crusade of the post-WWII era is laid out in compelling detail in “Merchants of Doubt”, a book that combines investigative reporting by a couple of science historians with a flair for detective work that would impress Agatha Christie.

As a companion piece, I can also recommend the 2014 documentary of the same name that the book inspired. Ably directed by Robert Kenner, it can now be seen on Amazon.com streaming. Both the book and the film will leave you with the conclusion that some of America’s richest and most powerful corporations prostituted a group of scientists into betraying science to boost their patron’s profits. But on further reflection, it is likely that these men would have lied even if they had never received a penny since their ideological predispositions made them the perfect tools to carry out the corporate mandate. And on even further reflection after that, it probably does not make sense to refer to prostitution since it is an honorable profession compared to what these scientists were up to.

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June 27, 2015

Runoff; Our Daily Poison

Filed under: Ecology,Film,food — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.

The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.

The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.

In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.

Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.

I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.

In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.

Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.

The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.

Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.

Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.

One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.

A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:

In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.

In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.

It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.

Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.

June 22, 2015

Is China going Green? A reply to John Bellamy Foster

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On June 15th an article by John Bellamy Foster titled “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China” appeared on MRZine. It was the fourth in a series of exchanges that date back to a February 2012 Monthly Review article by Zhihe Wang titled “Ecological Marxism in China”.

Wang, who is the director of the Center for Constructive Postmodern Studies and professor of philosophy at Harbin Institute of Technology in China, discusses the penetration of Marxist ecological theories in China including those that should be familiar to those of you who keep abreast of such matters: 1. James O’Connor’s theory of the “Second Contradiction” 2. Joel Kovel’s Frankfurt Marxist analysis 3. Foster/Paul Burkett, which Wang implies is the only one that is strictly Marxist.

For the most part, Wang is enthusiastic about the arrival of a Green-Red synthesis and gives equal credit to academicians like Foster and Chinese officials such as Yi Junqing, who Wang describes as:

the Minister of Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation (a top government institution on Marxism Studies in China), believes that “Marxism will lose its vitality” if it does not address the ecological crisis in the twenty-first century.

Wow. That’s pretty good news, ain’t it? A top government official is not only a Marxist but someone who emphatically believes that ecosocialism should become official government policy. I must have dozed off somewhere along the line not to have noticed this.

Wang admits that many Chinese Marxists are enamored of development for the sake of development, something that Kovel once likened to metastasizing tumors, but is confident that the Red-Greens will have the day because “China itself is officially a socialist country which regards Marxism as its theoretical base and guideline”.

We hear again from Zhihe Wang and three other Chinese Marxists (Meijun Fan, Hui Dong, Dezhong Sun and Lichun Li) in February 2013 when they write an MR article titled “What Does Ecological Marxism Mean For China? Questions and Challenges for John Bellamy Foster” that pays tribute to Foster.

It is interesting to note that the same complaint that Christian Parenti had about dualism in Foster’s theorizing is echoed in China:

Starting from a practical Marxist stance, Pu Xiangji argues that Foster has not eliminated dualism because he still understands “metabolism,” “production,” and “practice” in terms of the old materialism. Accordingly he is still stuck in the dichotomy of humans and nature, subject and object, which already had been subverted by Marx in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by proposing the concept of practice and practical materialism. 

Wang and his co-authors defend Foster against such charges but urge him to consider a synthesis of his own views and their own, which they define as a “postmodernism” that posits the environmental devastation in China and the USSR as a function of “modernism”. Frankly, this makes them sound much more amenable to Joel Kovel’s Frankfurt approach but I simply lack the time and the motivation to delve into anybody’s postmodernism at this point. Maybe it is a sign of the heavy weight of dogmatism in China that some scholars are ready to dust off theories that fell into disfavor in Europe and the USA long ago for the obvious reasons. In a country where vulgar Marxism is pretty much the official dogma, no wonder postmodernism has a second life.

In replying to their article immediately below it, Foster reprises his views on the metabolic rift and other mainstays of his writings while including this pithy rejoinder on the “postmodernism” question:

This raises extremely complex historical and theoretical questions. In my own view, modernity, insofar as it is separate from the distinctive development of bourgeois civilization, is too abstract a concept to carry the full burden of ecological critique. Minus historical specificity it becomes prone to Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”14

He ends on a Kovelian note:

China today must confront not simply capitalism as such, but the peculiar ecological and social rifts of a modern Chinese system, which, whatever its defining socioeconomic characteristics, is clearly threatened, both from within and without, by the cancerous spread of capitalist methods and mores.

This brings us to the last in the series of articles that appeared on MRZine just a week ago in an article titled “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China”. Written once again by Foster, it has nary a word about cancerous tumors but is practically breathless in its enthusiasm for new directions in China:

What is clear about the present Chinese emphasis on ecological civilization is that it has emerged out of a broad socialist perspective, influenced by both Marxian analysis and China’s own distinct history, culture, and vernacular.  In China, as opposed to the West, the land remains social or collective property and cannot be sold.  I believe it is wrong therefore to see China’s initiative in the construction of ecological civilization to be a direct outgrowth of Western-style ecological modernism, as some have supposed.  At the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in 2007 it was officially proposed that China should build an “ecological civilization,” creating more sustainable relations between production, consumption, distribution, and economic growth.  At the18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, “ecological civilization construction” was written into the CPC Constitution.  These principles were built into the latest five-year plan (2011-2015).  Although many have questioned the seriousness of the CPC’s commitment to the construction of an ecological civilization, it is evident that this: (1) arose out of real needs in China, where there has been enormous ecological devastation; (2) was a response to the growth of massive environmental protests throughout China; and (3) has been followed up by massive government efforts in area of planning, production, and technological development.

Foster goes on to document many of the progressive changes taking place such as 1) targeted reductions in economic growth justified in terms of more environmentally balanced growth; (2) the massive promotion of solar and wind technology; (3) a growing share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption; (4) creation of a red line to protect a minimum of 120 million hectares of farmland; (5) reduction of major air pollutants by 8-10 percent in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015); (6) removal of six million high-pollution vehicles from the roads in 2014; (7) a 700 percent increase in the output of electric passenger cars (non-plug ins) in 2014; (8) initiation of a government campaign for frugal lifestyles and against extravagance (conspicuous consumption) by officials; (9) growing official criticism of GDP worship; and (10) a pledge to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 level, coupled with a pledge to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, if not sooner; and (11) the imposition of a new resource tax on coal.

Fundamental to these changes has been China’s use of “planning” and its commitment to a “socialist perspective”. I don’t want to sound too harsh but this is the most ridiculous bullshit I have read outside of Roland Boer’s blog. In this day and age for a leading Marxist to give left cover to the gang running China is scandalous. The only explanation for this perhaps is that Foster, like Woody Allen or Saul Bellow, has become such a lauded celebrity in his own field that he cannot recognize that he has committed a gross ideological gaffe. Who would have the nerve to tell him that he was full of beans? If he ever descended from Mount Olympus and spoke at a Left Forum, some impudent member of the audience might have told him that he was being ridiculous if he ever gave a talk along these lines. That would be for his own good but I don’t expect to see him waste his time among the proles.

Not a single word in his article about the real reason why reforms are happening now: the Chinese workers and farmers have been raising hell for decades about the filthy air and water that their rulers impose on them. LexisNexis only returns 1000 articles at a time but this snippet off the top should give you an idea why the ruling class in China finally budged.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 2.13.33 PM

You’ll note above that Wikileaks revealed “US hopes” for environmental activism in China. Given MRZine’s sorry state, that will surely encourage a series of tweets by Yoshie Furuhashi calling for more coal-burning plants.

Just how far China’s rulers have budged is an open question. Foster stated that a goal exists to reduce air pollution by 8-10 percent by 2015. Considering the state of China’s air, this might leave it just ahead of New Delhi on an average day. With one year left in this plan, things look decidedly Brown rather than Green according to a Greenpeace report. Things have improved in Beijing, where officialdom lives, but everywhere else is filthy:

While Beijing still ranks in the top five worst polluted provinces in China, the capital’s PM2.5 concentration improved more than 13% compared to the first quarter of 2014, and industry-heavy Hebei province, just outside of Beijing, also improved 31%.

However the overall situation in China is still dire. Data show that 90% of the cities that Greenpeace East Asia ranked are exceeding China’s own limit on yearly average level for particulates (PM2.5) in the air. The provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan, all located in either central or western China where strict pollution controls have not been enacted, were among the 10 worst polluted provinces in the first quarter of 2015.

Now this does not even address the policies adopted for those not fortunate enough to be part of the dominant nationality. The China Environment Forum reports that desertification, air and water pollution continue apace in Xinjiang province, a virtual colony of the dominant Han nationality. Will the Uighurs benefit from environmental reforms? I would not bet on it.

Nor would these reforms benefit those who live outside of China, particularly in Africa where China has arrived with some fanfare. If you read Businessweek, it is not too hard to figure out how things are picking up in Hebei:

China’s Airpocalypse, the lung-choking pollution that regularly blankets the country’s north, including Beijing and the port city of Tianjin, has an obvious source: emissions from the belching smokestacks of neighboring regions, in particular Hebei province. Now authorities say they have come up with a way to address the industrial pollution that accounts for as much as three-quarters of dangerous particulates in the air: Move polluting factories overseas.

Hebei authorities have announced plans to relocate some of the province’s steel, cement, and glass production to Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and other parts of Asia. Capacity for 20 million tons of steel and 30 million tons of cement will be moved overseas by 2023, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Nov. 19.

Hebei Iron & Steel, China’s largest producer, has already started the move. In September the company, which is based in Tangshan, 92 miles east of Beijing, said it will build a plant capable of making 5 million tons annually in South Africa. Hebei Iron plans to start operating there in 2017 and is likely to shut mills in Hebei. “The West outsourced its pollution to China, mainly light manufacturing,” says Tom Miller, senior Asia analyst at researcher Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “Now China has got to the point in development where it wants to start exporting pollution, too, by building steel and other factories in poorer countries.”

Exporting pollution? That might ring a bell if you recall what Larry Summers urged in 1991. For all I know, the Chinese government might have been inspired by this:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 2.37.58 PM

For an alternative to Foster’s nonsense, I urge you to look at Richard Smith’s article in today’s Truthout that appeared just by coincidence and that does not target Foster. Smith has been covering Chinese development and its consequences to the environment for decades now and I find him much more reliable than Foster who someone should wake up from his Stalinist slumber.

China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse

Sunday, 21 June 2015 00:00

By Richard Smith, Truthout | News Analysis

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, January 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word.

In March 2008, Li and other farmers in Gaolong, a village in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, told a Washington Post reporter that workers from the nearby Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company had been dumping this industrial waste in fields around their village every day for nine months. The liquid, silicon tetrachloride, was the byproduct of polysilicon production and it is a highly toxic substance. When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride turns into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people dizzy and cause breathing difficulties.

Ren Bingyan, a professor of material sciences at Hebei Industrial University, contacted by the Post, told the paper that “the land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in its place … It is … poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it.”

When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. And at night, villagers said “the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath.”

“It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who worried about the health of his 1-year-old.

China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost.

Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. Indeed, it was a major supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, then the world’s leading producer of solar panels, and Suntech’s founder, Shi Zhengrong, topped the Hunrun list of the richest people in China in 2008. (1)

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