Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 10, 2018

The Yellow Vests, capitalism and communism

Filed under: climate,Ecology,farming,France — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

Three years ago Michael Moore made a documentary titled “Where to Invade Next” that posed the question of why can’t Americans enjoy the good life most Western Europeans do. Traveling from country to country, he showed how the welfare state created by successive social democratic governments made for better health care, education, child care, etc. He visited a public school in France where he had lunch with sixth graders who had no interest in trading their healthy and appetizing free lunch for a Big Mac, French fries and a giant Coke.

As I pointed out at the time, this social democratic dream was turning into a nightmare, especially for immigrants. It was only a matter of time that France would become ground zero for a revolt against a system that provided few benefits for those who live in the countryside and suburbia. Indeed, my first reaction to the riots is that the white people in France were finally expressing the anger that made the banlieues erupt in 2005.

If steep taxes are supposedly necessary to support the universal health care that Moore supported in “Sicko”, another paean to enlightened social democratic governance, it was lost on the average citizen not fortunate enough to work as an IT specialist or lawyer in Paris. With the closing of rural hospitals, the country’s universal health insurance is next to useless. Under Macron, subsidies to the suburbs and countryside have been cut sharply. $42 billion at the time of his election, they are now $30 billion. The pain this has caused was sufficient to spur a wholesale resignation of mayors around the country who feel too strapped to do their job.

This was not the first time a protest occurred over gasoline/diesel fuel tax hikes. Almost four years ago to the date, “Red Caps” in Brittany forced Francois Hollande to cancel a tax targeting commercial trucks. Protesters, who saw the tax as harmful to farmers who were already having trouble competing with other EU countries, wore red caps. They were first worn in a seventeenth century revolt centered in Brittany as well. As is the case today, the movement took direct action to remind the “socialist” government that it could not neglect those in the boondocks. So grievous was their situation that a virtual epidemic of suicides had plagued the countryside. A recent survey revealed that a French farmer kills himself every two days.

Echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA bluster, Macron has been pushing a Make Our Planet Great Again campaign that was worth pursuing even if it caused temporary pain for the yellow vest social base. On the campaign’s website, there are ambitious goals sounding somewhat like the Green New Deal bandied about on the American left but without the socialist rhetoric:

Regarding mobility, a tax priority has been set: to achieve tax harmonisation between diesel and gasoline before 2022, and to speed up the rise in the price of carbon without penalizing the poorest households. The Climate Plan has set the objective of ending the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. A large public consultation has also been launched, the “National Conference on Mobility”, to anticipate mobility in 2030 and draw up policies promoting soft and less polluting mobility;

The Climate Plan is striving to put an early end to the import in France of products contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and plans to develop a National strategy against imported deforestation. As far as its own forests are concerned, France has put in place a National Plan for forests and woodlands and a National Biomass Mobilisation Strategy, which advocate forestry that is more proactive and better respects ecosystems, with the aim of maintaining and extending their central role in carbon storage;

France is strengthening its actions to protect the marine and land ecosystems, in France and at an international level, which contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation: increasing its funding for ecosystems protection projects, taking advantage of overseas to launch initiatives for biodiversity helping the climate, and calls for projects to develop nature-based solutions.

You need to understand that it does little good to promote a “soft and less polluting mobility” in 2030 when a tax hike today threatens the ability of hard-up French families to get through the month. In a highly revealing article for the NY Times on December 2nd, Adam Nossiter described the austerity that grips Guéret, a typical yellow vest town. Nossiter describes how typical families live:

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

“Luckily we’ve got some animals at the house” — chickens, ducks — “and we keep them for the end of the month,” she said. “It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children,” she said. “We’re fed up and we’re angry!’ shouted her husband, Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary 1,200-euro contract.

Hill-Knowlton, the notorious PR firm that cooked up the propaganda campaign about Saddam’s troops yanking babies from the incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital to leave them on the cold floor to die, revealed rather candidly that despite the impression that the tax hike was geared exclusively for “Green” causes such as eliminating nuclear energy plants, it was not quite the case: “While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.”

In effect, the remaining 26.6 billion was designed to make up for the loss of revenue from Macron’s wealth tax cut. In October 2017, a bill was passed in order to repeal the one imposed by the Socialists in the 1980s on incomes over $1.5 million. The wealth tax supposedly drove rich people out of the country, including actor Gerald Depardieu who was granted Russian citizenship in 2013. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, Depardieu defended the jailing of Pussy Riot. In keeping with his “hooligan” character supposedly praised by Putin, he was accused of the sexual assault and rape of a young female actress in August, 2018. This should give you some idea of the sort of person whose needs had to be catered to, even if it meant leaving Elodie Marton with 10 Euros at the end of the month.

Maxime Combs, a French economist and climate change activist, wrote an article that was translated into English for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website. It debunks the notion that the tax hike can help to wean people from fossil fuel usage, especially the poor. He urges a different approach to the problem from eco-tax manipulation:

By making the increase in fuel prices the central policy that must drive the inhabitants of the country to change their vehicles and change their boilers, without reducing their mobility needs and their heating needs, Emmanuel Macron and the government are making themselves prisoners of an ideology that prevents action on the structural causes of too great a dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting an end to urban sprawl and bringing economic activities closer to workplaces – rather than moving them away from already urbanized areas – relocating public services and ensuring the sustainability of local shops, developing public transport and options for alternative modes of transport, are priority areas for reducing the need for mobility reliant on carbon.

This gets much closer to the solution that is really needed even if it doesn’t close the circle. It is not just a question of reducing the need for private transportation and commercial trucks. It also points in the direction of overcoming the “metabolic rife” that is associated with separating the organic production of plant fertilizer (both human and animal) from the crops that require it.

Petroleum products do not only threaten a sixth extinction because of the greenhouse gases they generate. In addition, they are key to industrial farming that relies on plastics for a wide variety of its infrastructure including mulch, greenhouse covers and tunnels. Once crops are harvested, plastic is used to package them for sale in Walmarts and other grocery stores spread around the country. This amounts to $32.4 billion in 2016, with 14.2 billion pounds of resin consumed.

Industrial farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, fossil fuels are essential for farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads—all designed to transport food from the farming regions to cities hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Just consider the enormous amount of energy that is expended to ship soybeans, corn and other key agro-export commodities from Brazil to seaports in China or India and their transportation by truck to other destinations once they get there.

As capitalism grows apace everywhere in the world, gaining acceptance for its ability to satisfy every desire that advertising creates for a working class bewitched by commodity fetishism, the threat of extinction deepens. Even if Macron eliminated gas-powered cars in France, you still have two major automobile companies that rely on exports to produce the profits that stock prices are based on. The Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën joint venture produced 734,000 cars in Chinese plants in 2014. Those sales are necessary for the life-blood of French capitalism to flow.

This is the miracle of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to how it replaced the system that preceded it:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

What Marx does not pay much attention to is the modes of production that preceded this miracle. From ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, it was the city that formed the basic unit of production rather than the state. So, for example, a places like Tenochtitlan, London, Tripoli, and Damascus arose because they were suited to its natural terrain both in terms of resources and demography. The towns and cities were the hub of commercial activity that relied on the agricultural belt that surrounded them. Food was transported by carts pulled by oxen or horses rather than Mack trucks.

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented victim of Assad’s barrel bombs Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.) The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Some of these cities became so powerful that they were capable of bring other cities under their sway as part of an empire based on tribute rather than capital. Rome was the most famous of these in the pre-capitalist era and arguably a victim of its own success as its reliance on long-distance exploitation of resources and slavery eroded its ability to reproduce itself.

In the 17th century, Western European nations repeated Rome’s glory but on a capitalist basis. States were created in order to support the armies and navies necessary to embark on a colonization program. Once a colony was established, the old organic unity that kept a place like Damascus viable disappeared. Furthermore, in the post-colonial epoch, the Syrian state, for example, was forced into commodity exchanges in order to subsist in a capitalist world. Perhaps the only way to avoid being sucked in was to use your own feudal military might to stave off the invader as was the case with Japan until Admiral Perry fixed their wagon. Probably, the only non-capitalist survivors in the world today are Cuba and North Korea, even though the pressure on them is enormous. Cuba relies on the tourist trade and North Korea is rapidly transitioning into a market economy in the post-Mao mold.

That leaves the naked tribesmen of North Sentinel islands to keep the faith, one supposes.

Toward the end of “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Engels writes:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.

The task before us is to return to pre-capitalist property relations, but moreover those that precede feudalism with its forced exploitation based on the rule of the aristocrats. Something closer to the city-state of the Aztecs, the Incas or the Mayans is needed but one based on the freedom made possible by machinery rather than captured slaves. In recognizing the value of such a “backward” looking goal, Mariategui remains a socialist whose vision is more prescient than ever:

The subordination of the Indian problem to the problem of land is even more absolute, for special reasons. The indigenous race is a race of farmers. The Inca people were peasants, normally engaged in agriculture and shepherding. Their industries and arts were typically domestic and rural. The principle that life springs from the soil was truer in the Peru of the Incas than in any other country. The most notable public works and collective enterprises of Tawantinsuyo were for military, religious or agricultural purposes. The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes remain the best evidence of the degree of economic organization reached by Inca Peru. Its civilization was agrarian in all its important I aspects. Valcarcel, in his study of the economic life of Tawantinsuyo, writes that “the land, in native tradition, is the common mother; from her womb come not only food but man himself. Land provides all wealth. The cult of Mama Pacha is on a par with the worship of the sun and, like the sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular. Joined in the aboriginal ideology, these two concepts gave birth to agrarianism, which combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.”

November 21, 2018

Vain hopes in a Green New Deal

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with climate change activists in Nancy Pelosi’s office

Largely as a result of the near total collapse of the 100 year Soviet experiment in Russia and its replicas elsewhere, there have been attempts to reorient the left to new forms of social and economic transformation supposedly untainted by failed measures such as a planned economy based on state ownership of the commanding heights of industry. First and foremost among them is the belief that cooperatives can form the basis of a socialism from below. The idea is that local initiatives such as those in Jackson, Mississippi can become so widespread and popular so that they will finally bring about a qualitative change in class relations, finally putting the working class in power.

While not advertised as a transitional step toward socialism, the idea of a Green New Deal has captured the imaginations of many on the left. For example, Jacobin editor Branco Marcetic wrote an article titled Make Them Do It just before the recent midterm election that insisted on the need for Democrats winning, “not just to keep the natural world from being fed through the shredder, but to truly start the process of reversing the march toward catastrophic climate change through bold, decisive action.” To give you an idea of the kind of Democrats whose victory would save the world, he included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (naturally) and Tulsi Gabbard, whose climate legislation has been called “the strongest yet introduced in Congress” by Food and Water Watch. Whatever position Gabbard has staked out on reducing greenhouse gases in the USA is certainly compromised by her avid support for Bashar al-Assad and Narendra Modi, who have turned their respective countries into ethnic cleansing and ecological dead zones.

Ocasio-Cortez has made the Green New Deal front-page news after taking part in a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on November 13th. Most people who just skimmed the headlines on this story might have assumed that this was some kind of protest meant to discredit Pelosi and the establishment Democrats. In reality, it was much more of a bonding exercise of the sort that has been taking place ever since the “progressives” poured into the new House of Representatives making nice with Pelosi and other old-guard players. The Washington Post described the event as “an encounter that touched off a display of mutual admiration between the 78-year-old matriarch and the millennial upstart.” Ocasio-Cortez, described as “less confrontational” than in the past, said: “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”

It was a virtual love-in with Pelosi smooching back on Twitter: “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide, and I strongly support reinstating the select committee to address the crisis.”

It turns out that the origin of the concept was in op-ed columns by Mr. Globalization himself Thomas Friedman. In a January 19, 2007 NYT op-ed, the arch-imperialist wrote:

The right rallying call is for a “Green New Deal.” The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal. If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power — and conservation.

It takes a Green New Deal because to nurture all of these technologies to a point that they really scale would be a huge industrial project. If you have put a windmill in your yard or some solar panels on your roof, bless your heart. But we will only green the world when we change the very nature of the electricity grid — moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables. And that is a huge industrial project — much bigger than anyone has told you. Finally, like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.

Is there any difference between this and what Ocasio-Cortez is calling for? You can read her proposals that supposedly are in the best interests of the Democratic Party at https://ocasio2018.com/green-new-deal. While not mentioning the word socialism once, it makes you wonder if going through such a convulsive change is necessary since “a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Eliminate poverty and make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone? Sure, why not? It certainly breaks with the Neanderthal version of socialism advocated by Monthly Review and most of the people writing for CounterPunch, including me. Our dinosaur brand of socialism was rejected by Jacobin author Neal Meyer in July, 2018:

It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.

Yes, that is what Marx advocated, don’t you know? Throwing despots out on the front lawn.

Perhaps the most persuasive case for making the connections between Ocasio-Cortez, the Official Democratic Party leadership as represented by Nancy Pelosi, and the loathsome Thomas Friedman was her widely quoted statement that appeared on Huffington Post: “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan. We must again invest in the development, manufacturing, deployment, and distribution of energy, but this time green energy.”

Ocasio-Cortez was an economics major at Boston University but she might have spent some spare time reading what Marxists have said about the New Deal, WWII and the Marshall Plan that interestingly enough flow together dialectically as a study in the contradictions of capitalism.

If FDR created jobs through the WPA and other New Deal make-work projects, that was hardly enough to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Twenty years ago, someone with a mindset identical to Jacobin, the DSA, and Ocasio-Cortez on a day when she tries to cover her left flank, submitted an article to Monthly Review that the saintly Harry Magdoff had trouble with, especially with this sentence: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.”

Harry wrote the author explaining what was wrong with this analysis:

The term “Keynesian state” has become a catchword that covers a variety of concepts and is usually misleading. It may have some meaning for the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere. But the United States? Although the concept is often applied to the New Deal, the deficit spending of the New Deal had nothing to do with Keynes (nor did Hitler’s recovery via military expenditures). It’s true Washington economists were delighted with the appearance of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money because it gave them theoretical handles for analysis and policy thinking (e.g.,the offset to savings concept and a framework for gross national product accounts). Nevertheless, despite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification. [emphasis added]

A number of liberal economists have disputed the idea that WWII ended the Depression but it was up to J.R. Vernon (no Marxist, by any stretch of the imagination) to make the same case as Harry in the December 1994 Journal of Economic History where he stressed that more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began. Furthermore, in examining one New Deal supporter’s figures, he came to the conclusion that by the fourth quarter of 1940, only 46 percent of the recovery had been accomplished.

By the way, Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece in the November 10, 2008 that essentially made the same case: “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”

So until we have WWIII, it looks to me that the current economic slump will not be resolved within the context of capitalism, least of all by a Green New Deal that will be constrained by its reliance on the profit motive. After all, it is automobiles exported to India that generates growth, not windmills.

As for the Marshall Plan, this was just the fix that capitalism needed after WWII to lay the groundwork for a new round of accumulation. WWII ginned up capitalist production in the USA, especially in the smokestack industries, and the Marshall Plan revived Europe and Japan as markets for American exports as well as undercutting the massive support for Communism. In his 1947 speech on the plan, George Marshall made clear its purpose was “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” Free institutions obviously meant the freedom to exploit labor.

In helping to revive capitalist production in Europe, the USA created the conditions for its own decline. The market that was created for American exports was joined at the hip by the growth of VW, Mercedes-Benz, and other corporations that would eventually reduce Detroit to a status resembling Berlin in 1945. Capitalism, after all, is a zero-sum game.

Finally, turning to the question of the feasibility of making America Green without abolishing capitalist property relations, I want to draw an analogy with the last great revolutionary struggle in the USA, namely the Civil War.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the leader of a bourgeois revolution which pitted the northern industrialists against another section of the bourgeoisie—the cotton plantation owners of the South who required slave labor to maintain their class domination.

Now, 158 years later, the petrochemical sector constitutes the same kind of reactionary grip on American society that will smash any challenge to its exploitation of fossil fuels and wage labor. What cotton and chattel slavery were to Lincoln’s day, carbon-based commodity production and wage slavery are to our epoch. It is not just Exxon that is determined to keep producing oil. You have the fracking corporations who have helped to make the USA the primary energy producer in the world today. On top of that you have the automobile companies who have zero interest in public transportation based on alternative energy sources. Or the airline industry that will never replace jets with dirigibles. Then there are the industries that either produce plastic or use it, such as at least 80 percent of the manufacturers of the commodities for sale at Walmart and that are now helping to destroy all living creatures in the world’s oceans. Let’s not forget about the companies producing chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are key to industrial farming. Will they be ready to be replaced by sustainable organic agriculture?

American capitalism of the modern era cannot co-exist with environmentally sustainable practices. One or the other will have to triumph. If American capitalism succeeds, civilization will be the loser. As Rosa Luxemburg once put it, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. Sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office will not change that equation unfortunately.

October 30, 2018

Did the PT in Brazil dig its own political ditch?

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

(Posted to Facebook by Rob Wallace. Rob has told me that a longer version is in the works destined for broader circulation. I will post a comment when that is available. For the kind of analysis deployed below, I recommend “Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection“, a book that includes Rob as one of its co-authors.)

Brazil under the Partido dos Trabalhadores took the BRICS route on development. A recent visit showed the country indeed had parlayed a capitalism with Brazilian characteristics, simultaneously attracting foreign direct investment and raising standards of living across large sections of its population.

Whatever one makes of that choice, the PT may have effectively dug its own political ditch. The strategy, caught mid-stride, both empowered a bourgeoisie that held no loyalty to a workers’ party and left many millions behind. Along the way, PT functionaries took their cut. The soft coup by a rump of corrupt reactionaries that opened up the path to open fascist Jair Bolsonaro would have been laughed off if charges of PT corruption hadn’t held any water.

Now the neoliberal deforestation we described in our book Clear-Cutting Disease Control, driving the emergence of new outbreaks in Brazilian wildlife and human populations alike, will be let off its chain under Bolsonaro likely down to the last oxygen-producing tree.

We described some of the dynamics of what were PT-led changes in Brazilian land use. Here, (a) Ranked field size based on 1 km global IIASA-IFPRI cropland percentage map for baseline year 2005 (Geo-Wiki Cropland, Fritz et al. 2015). Huge plantations gouging the Amazon.

(b) Combinations of expansion and contraction for cropland and pasture in minimum comparable areas where both crop production and pasture production intensified, 1996–2006 (Barretto et al. 2013). Cropland and pasture growing in the Amazon even a decade ago.

(c) Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) farmland investments in Brazil (Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos et al. 2015). The pension fund, now called just TIAA, is investing hundreds of millions in US$ into Brazilian fund Radar Propriedades Agrícolas S/A co-created with giant sugar producer Cosan to acquire land for sugarcane and other commodity crops. Cosan manages the fund, retaining first rights to acquire parcels before Radar, through TIAA’s Brazilian subsidiary Mansilla Participacoes Ltda, and places them on the market. By 2012, Radar acquired 392 farms in Brazil of over 150,000 ha of an estimated value over US$1 billion. TIAA invests into Brazilian farmland by a second pathway: TIAA-CREF Global Agriculture LLC, a US$2 billion global farmland fund aimed at Australia, Brazil, and the USA. To circumvent Brazilian law against foreign acquisitions, TCGA invests indirectly through Tellus Brasil Participações Ltd., also managed by Cosan.

(d) Dynamic agriculture frontier in Brazilian Legal Amazon: cattle population by municipality and along road infrastructure (Pacheco and Poccard-Chapuis 2012).

(e) Urban areas as detected from nightlight glow, 1992 and 2010. Note the growing periurban infrastructure through ostensibly rural areas and deep forest (Lapola et al. 2014).

September 17, 2018

Rodents of Unusual Size; Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco

Filed under: Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

At first blush, the two documentaries “Rodents of Unusual Size” and “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” seem to have very little in common. The first is about the introduction of nutrias from Argentina into Louisiana in the 1930s, an invasive species that has wreaked havoc on the wetlands on the southern coast. The second is about a charismatic fashion illustrator who was part of the wild party scenes at places like Max’s Kansas City in New York and Club Sept in Paris in the 1970s. But what they have in common is the fashion industry and social history with fascinating glimpses into Cajun country and the cultural underground that swirled around figures such as Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld and models like Grace Jones. It turns out that the nutria were introduced in order to launch a native fur industry in Depression-wracked America while Antonio Lopez was a product of the subculture of a fashion industry deeply influenced by the 1960s radicalization that unlike Depression-era has left profound markers on race, gender and sexuality. As distant as the labor struggles of the 30s seem today, the 1960s remains relevant 50 years after its passing as symbolized by the endless controversies over “diversity”.

In 1938, E.A. McIlhenny, whose Tabasco sauce is a key ingredient of Bloody Marys, started a nutria farm on Avery Island, Louisiana near his factory. For reasons unknown, he decided to release them into the wild where they began to proliferate. For the next 30 years or so, they had no big environmental impact comparable to the introduction of rabbits into Australia, another invasive species.

This was because they were a plentiful and cheap alternative to mink, chinchilla, ermine and other furs that wealthy women could afford. Trappers poured into the wetlands and bagged dozens per day, which were turned into coats in New York’s garment industry. For the wives of the men working in garment factories making mink coats, it was only nutria or muskrat that their wives could show off in Catskill hotels.

PETA changed all that when activists began to throw red paint on fur coats, not distinguishing between a 2,000 dollar mink coat and a 200 dollar nutria. This led to a collapse of the trapping industry and a mammoth expansion of the nutria population that led to vegetation being consumed to the point that swamps were turned into deserts. Under assault already from oil and gas exploration, the nutrias were destroying the natural obstacles to flooding that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

One of the victims of Hurricane Katrina was a septuagenarian fisherman whose 5 bedroom house near the shoreline was destroyed by flooding. Ironically, his part-time work trapping and shooting nutria has helped him to rebuild.

“Rodents of an Unusual Size” provides insights into the Cajun world that has had a remarkable talent for survival going back into the 19th century. We hear one man liken the local hunters to the beasts they are killing for bounty money. They feel a duty to thin their numbers in the interests of environmentalism even though they have an admiration for an animal that has become part of the local culture, to the point where sports teams use mascots resembling the 20-pound, orange-fanged rodents.

The film is currently playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles and will open at the IFC Center in New York on October 23rd. Consult http://www.rodentsofunusualsize.tv/screenings.html for screenings elsewhere.

Now playing at the IFC in New York, “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” chronicles the life and times of a Puerto Rican artist who worked for Vogue Magazine and other glossy periodicals. I say the word artist advisedly since he was as much of a visionary as Andy Warhol who not only greatly admired Lopez’s work but began as a commercial artist just like him.

For those of you who were born after 1975 or so, the film might come as a surprise since it reveals the porousness between a milieu largely considered decadent and what veterans of the 1960s, like me, were all about.

Lopez was not political in an obvious way but he was the first to begin using African-American models who became part of his entourage, including Grace Jones. He was also the first to push the envelope in terms of how women were represented in his drawings. Instead of being stiff and mannequin-like, they were bold and defiant. Grace Jones represented that aesthetic perfectly.

Lopez was also a gay icon who like his good friends Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent were open about their sexuality. Lopez, who had the faun-like appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, loved being the center of attention and was adored by men and women alike.

He died of AIDS in 1987, although the film only mentions that close to the end. Instead, it is an affirmation of a life lived to the fullest and a testament to the spirit of the time where rebelliousness was reflected in both campus sit-ins and fashion shoots for Vogue.

September 1, 2018

Jacobin, air-conditioning, and productivist nonsense

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

An air-conditioner

Leigh Phillips, an air-conditioner salesman

About 10 years ago, two young radicals showed up on Marxmail and soon found themselves clashing with old fogies on the list. One of them was the 19 year old Bhaskar Sunkara who unsubbed from the list to get away from all the nasty digs against Barack Obama:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

The other was Leigh Phillips, whose exact age I don’t know but he was most likely a Millennial based on the evidence of photos. Phillips began defending GMO on the list, a rather brave stance to take considering the animosity most of the Marxist dinosaurs on the list feel toward chemical/industrial agriculture.

Fast forward, to use a cliché I rather detest, a decade and now we see Phillips writing articles for Jacobin, the latest being one “In Defense of Air Conditioning”. Using Marxist formulations, he makes the kind of case you can read in Spiked Online. In 2006, during a heat wave in London like the kind that we have been suffering through this year, Spiked editor-in-chief Mick Hume wrote an op-ed piece for Rupert Murdoch’s London Times that stated:

Right, get your sun-addled brain around this vicious circle. Environmentalists and the authorities argue that the recent heat waves demonstrate the extent of man-made global warming. If that’s true, then we must need more air-conditioning to cope. But oh no, they tell us, that will cause -you’ve guessed it -man-made global warming.

Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration do indeed account for a lot of energy. But then, they are technological cornerstones of modern civilisation. Much of the world as we know it would be uninhabitable without air-con. The booming growth of the American South in the past half-century, from the metropolis of Los Angeles to the space centre of Houston, has been possible only because air-con is ubiquitous there.

While Phillips does not quite have the sneering arrogance of Hume, he does say about the same thing:

In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?

Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!

You might ask yourself why Spiked, a libertarian cult around sociology professor Frank Furedi, and Jacobin would be making the same kind of arguments. I often wonder whether Bhaskar Sunkara might have a soft spot for the magazine they put out until it went bankrupt, the casualty of being on the losing end of a £375,000 libel case. A couple of TV reporters had sued LM for accusing them of fabricating a story about Bosnians being kept in concentration camp conditions.

The magazine, originally called Living Marxism and shortened to LM in the 1980s, was sold at a bookstore near Columbia. I used to glance at it from time to time, impressed by its state-of-the-art graphics as this photo would indicate. Could Jacobin be its heir, at least visually?

But when I got past the cover, the articles were a real turn-off. Defenses of GMO, fox-hunting, unprotected sex, fast cars, nuclear power plants, assimilation of native peoples, etc. It was enough to make you throw up.

Guess who once contributed an article to Spiked Online, the successor to LM? None other than our air-conditioning advocate Leigh Phillips. Titled “A Leftwing Case Against Environmentalism”, it repeats the standard libertarian horseshit found in Spiked and its American counterpart Reason Magazine but made more palatable by radical phraseology:

Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.

Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.

The air-conditioning article is now the eighth written for Jacobin by Phillips. They are universally in this vein, combining a gee-whiz attitude toward science and technology reminiscent of General Electric commercials on TV in the 1950s with the sort of crude productivist version of Marxism you will find in the Spartacist League and Furedi’s sect from 25 years or so ago before its libertarian turn.

Phillips recognizes that climate change is for real, even as Spiked finally does. To understand how he differs from the revolutionary left, it is crucial to hone in on this statement: “As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.”

Adapting? Mitigating its causes? Maybe the right course of action is building a mass movement that can force the corporations to stop creating greenhouse gases as part of an overall movement to expropriate the expropriators. But don’t expect Phillips to have anything to do with doom-sayers like John Bellamy Foster or Naomi Klein. His affiliations should make it clear that his solutions are within the capitalist system.

Phillips is involved with the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. On their website you can find articles hailing fracking as a model for alternative energy development and nuclear power. The board of directors includes Reihan Salam of the National Review and Rachel Pritzker, from the Chicago billionaire clan that was one of the main backers of both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. So, you can see the six degrees of separation without trying too hard. Jacobin>Phillips>Pritzker>Democratic Party>Jacobin.

Phillips sees air-conditioning as a basic human right that the state should guarantee, something equivalent to health care, housing and education under socialism. Unfortunately, air-conditioning requires a different infrastructure than supplying aspirins or antibiotics. It is based on energy consumption that is creating the greenhouse gases that are heating up the world. Most people would understand that as a contradiction unless you are a latter-day Doctor Pangloss like Leigh Phillips.

He castigates a Washington Post reporter for questioning the wisdom of “Las Vegas, football in Phoenix” and other attempts to build unsustainable cities in the desert. He also defends the use of air-conditioning in shopping malls that Pope Francis included as one of the “harmful habits of consumption.”

After acknowledging the drawbacks to air-conditioning, including its huge appetite for electricity, Phillips believes that it is sustainable when alternative energy sources like nuclear power and hydroelectric dams are used. Of course, you might expect someone like Phillips to be a supporter of nuclear power but what about hydroelectric dams? Aren’t they okay? After all, “Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.”

My guess is that someone like Phillips is just as dismissive of indigenous peoples as his pals at Spiked are. For productivist freaks like Mick Hume and Leigh Phillips, what’s the point of living in “primitive” conditions. Tch-tch. So barbarian when you can move to a city in Ontario and live in an electrically heated apartment rather than in a seal-hunting village near the Arctic Circle.

In 2013, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Inuit in a Melting World” that described the environmental impact on both cities and countryside by these massive dams. I cited the press notes for a documentary about Inuits living on the Belcher Islands in Canada:

Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.

This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.

Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.

Indigenous peoples living near the dams are also in danger of being exposed to mercury, a poison that is accumulated in large bodies of water impounded behind dams as the article “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities” points out.

Finally, hydroelectric dams are a major producer of greenhouse gases, a function of the vegetation at the bottom that accumulates just like mercury before being converted into methane. The Guardian reported that a billion tons of carbon emissions are produced each year. The critical literature on hydroelectric dams is extensive. I recommend Donald Worster’s books, most of all “Rivers of Empire”.

Worster takes aim at the mega-projects associated with the New Deal, a model for the kind of socialism Jacobin contributor Corey Robin identifies with. Most of all, Worster examines the unsustainability of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix whose air-conditioners are powered by the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. Author of a biography of John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer who was the first to look closely at the Southwest, Worster describes the way in which such cities were made possible against all ecological wisdom:

In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.

“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster says. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Powell’s utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn’t be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.

“A number of Western congressmen said, ‘Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There’s too much planning in this. There’s too much regulation. There’s too much community control. This is not the American way.’ It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise.”

John Wesley Powell was a prophet. That’s the kind of people our environmentalist movement of today needs, not people shilling for the nuclear power and hydroelectric dam industries.


May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

Continue reading

May 6, 2018

The birds, the bees, and Holden Caulfield

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In “Catcher in the Rye”, one sign of Holden Caulfield’s looming nervous breakdown is his worries over the ducks in Central Park:

The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

The title of the novel stems from Holden’s misreading of Robert Burns’s “Comin’ Through the Rye”. He sees himself as protector of children playing in a huge rye field near a cliff. If he can’t catch children as they come to the edge, they will die. In my mind, his worries over the ducks and the children amount to the same thing.

Those who don’t care about the ducks and the children are “phonies” in Holden’s world, including a girl named Sally who is much more comfortable with 50s values than him. When she goes out on a date with Holden, he asks her to blow off the city and come live in a cabin with him, like Henry David Thoreau. He said that would be a lot better than becoming typical New Yorkers who “are working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers…”

For people my age, the novel connected deeply in the same way that “On the Road” did. Holden Caulfield, Jack Kerouac and even James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” rejected the “straight” world. Holden even dreams about moving to someplace in the Southwest and getting a job as a gas station attendant. Getting back to nature in the 1950s was equivalent to being connected to the ducks that Holden worried about. Leave everything behind and move to Vermont where such birds can be found, as well as the bees and the bats.

65 years later, Holden might have found out that there was no place to go to since Mother Nature was in danger of being destroyed just like those kids in the rye field. They are being destroyed by the “phonies”, especially those whose class interests the White House defends.

Starting with the seabirds, there are signs that they are headed toward extinction because of overfishing and climate change as the Guardian reported on December 12, 2017. The numbers of kittiwakes have fallen by up to 90 percent because overfishing and changes in the Pacific and north Atlantic caused by climate change have affected the availability of sand eels which black-legged kittiwakes feed on during the breeding season.

The black-legged kittiwake

If it isn’t climate change and overfishing, seabirds have to contend with plastic that kills millions of marine bird species each year. The albatross is particularly vulnerable since they use their beak to skim the surface, picking plastic up along the way. Up to 98 percent of the albatross that have been studied have plastic debris in their gut. Once ingested, it can obstruct the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs.

Dead albatross with plastic in its gut

If civilization needs plastic, it also needs electric lights that are used in urban centers at night to show off skyscrapers to the public. The allure of beams and bulbs can be a death sentence for migratory birds when they reach metropolises like New York. Drawn by the light, they collide into buildings at an alarming rate. Between 100 million and 1 billion birds crash into buildings across North America every year with some deaths caused by reflective windows during the day and others by bright lights at night.

Finally, there is industrial farming that is based on commodity production. In both Europe and the USA, monoculture cash crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat require extensive use of pesticides to kill the insects that birds feed on. In 2013, the Guardian reported on the drastic decline of birds in England, the country where industrial farming was born. “Numbers of the farmland-dwelling grey partridge have halved since 1995, while the turtle dove has declined by 95%. The yellow wagtail, which inhabits farm and wetland, has declined by 45% over the same period.” The deaths are not only a result of insects being reduced but also by birds feeding on crops that have been sprayed by a type of chemical known as neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are also responsible for bees dying off. Derived from nicotine (what else would you expect), they have a tendency to show up in pollen besides the cash crops they are used to protect. You can find the residue in clover and wildflowers nearby the cash crop fields, especially corn.

I suppose people like Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt could give less of a shit whether an albatross lives or dies but the extinction of honey bees is a direct threat to our ability to reproduce as a species. More than two-thirds of key crops require naturally occurring pollinators such as the honeybee. This includes coffee, cacao, and many fruits and vegetables. It will also have an impact on drinking water since a disappearance of trees will inhibit the retention ofmwater. Some scientists worry that homo sapiens can become extinct within a few hundred years if honeybees go extinct.

Why should I worry about extinction? At my age, I am facing my personal extinction before very long. I guess it is some kind of neurotic obsession thinking about how we are going to last another three hundred years let alone the billion years that will usher in an expanding sun that will evaporate all the water on earth and kill every single living thing. That doesn’t take into account an asteroid hitting earth long before that and doing a number on us like it did to the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Like Holden Caulfield, I fret over the kids near the cliff and the ducks. If we could at least manage our resources intelligently, we’d have an outside chance of surviving. But with people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in charge of an irrational system, rationality does not go very far.

February 27, 2018

Polluting Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



January 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27, 2017

Alex Pyron, the evolutionary biologist indifferent to extinction

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Alex Pyron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No thanks.


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