Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



James O’Connor, ¡Presente!


September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the dialectics of nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

July 14, 2017

Chasing Coral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



February 17, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem

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

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

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

The promises

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

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

The reality

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

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

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

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

Health hazard

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

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

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

Seechewal’s take

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

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

(To be continued)

The sorry state of rivers

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

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

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

Leonardo DiCaprio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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