Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 9, 2021

The People vs Agent Orange

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Just by coincidence, the documentary “The People Vs. Agent Orange” that opened on March 6th in virtual theaters could have easily been released to coincide with International Women’s Day that is celebrated on March 8th. The film is a profile of two women who have dedicated their lives to terminating the use of a deadly chemical herbicide that cost the lives of both Americans and Vietnamese. You might rightly assume that the Americans were GI’s serving in Vietnam like Leo Cawley, an economist who hosted “Fearful Symmetry” on WBAI-FM in the late 80s—the best program on a network that has lost its way. Leo died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant, the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange when he was a marine in Vietnam.

But you didn’t have to be in Vietnam to get sick or die from Agent Orange. Unbelievably, after its use was banned in 1971, it eventually was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Western Oregon upon the soil that once held millions of trees. After they were cut down, Agent Orange was used to kill the weeds left behind as an aid to reforestation.

Around that time, a woman named Carol Van Strum moved close to the forest with her four young children in a kind of “back to nature” retreat so common in the 60s and 70s as people my age sought a healthy and more spiritual life. Not long after building a house and a barn for the animals she was raising, the children began to complain about various illnesses that remained a mystery. It was only after driving her car closer to the clear cut forest that she noticed a sickly odor. Suspecting the worst, she took samples from the soil and water, sent it off to a lab, and finally learned that entire area was drenched with Agent Orange, whose main toxin is called dioxin. The EPA, which tends to give back-handed support to corporations like Dow Chemical that manufacture it, categorizes it as a carcinogen. As soon as she discovered the source of her children’s ailments, as well as others living near the forest, she went on a crusade against the corporations and the “experts” who sanctioned the poisonous herbicide.

One of these experts was Mike Newton, a Professor of Forest Ecology at Oregon State University College in Corvallis, OR, who labeled Dioxin as harmless in an article titled “I’ve Had More Exposure To Agent Orange Than Anyone: Here’s What I Know” that can be read on the American Council on Science and Health website. There you will find other pearls of wisdom such as “Prominent Anti-GMO Activist Changed His Mind After Learning The Science” and “(Nuclear) power to the people!”.

The film’s other fearless heroine is Tran To Nga, who is a septuagenarian like Van Strum. She comes from a family that opposed both the French and American colonizers, first as leaders in the Viet Minh and then with the NLF. Nga was in the Vietnamese forests when American planes were showering them with Agent Orange. As a result, her first-born child died in infancy. Her health has been affected as well. Long after the war ended, her body contains traces of Dioxin that some scientists view as much of a threat to human health for generations as plutonium.

She is now suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her in Vietnam – a lawsuit she filed in 2014 against the corporations that produced and sold the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The suit includes U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer.

The film was co-directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. In the press notes, the directors state:

Documents are a leitmotif.  Storms, rain and flowing surface water are a recurring visual theme that evokes the lethal dioxin run-off and dioxin contamination.   Similar images tie together the contamination of Vietnam and America’s Pacific Northwest as helicopters spray the ancient mangrove forests of Vietnam and Oregon’s majestic conifers. The scenes of the deformed and handicapped Vietnamese child victims, difficult as they are to watch and as sensitively as we try to present them, are a stark testimony to the film’s core message. We chose not to shy away from images the world might rather not see. They are indelible evidence of corporate greed and man’s inhumanity to man.

I doubt I will see a documentary this year that is more powerful and more urgent than this one.

February 21, 2021

Sacred Cow; Tribes on the Edge

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

One of the vexing questions facing ecosocialists is how to create a sustainable society that breaks with meat consumption. There are contradictory tendencies at work, with the vegan left taking an abolitionist stance as well as ecomodernist support for meat-like products such as Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Bill Gates has come out in favor of synthetic meats, arguing in MIT’s Technology Review as part of his book tour on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that rich nations should only eat synthetics. (It should be mentioned that is a Beyond Meat investor.)

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a series of posts on beef that were collected together on my Columbia website under the title “Cattle and Capitalism”. It included an excerpt from an Alexander Cockburn “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation Magazine:

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

While I was sympathetic to the idea that eating beef had to come to an end, I must confess that I used to stop at the bistro across the street from my high-rise and had a cheeseburger with fries two or three times a month. I also have to wonder if Cockburn ate meat himself. I bet Jeffrey St. Clair can fill me in.

Yet, at the back of mind I always wondered how you can reconcile an anti-meat agenda with Karl Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rift. At a Socialist Scholars Conference around 20 years ago, John Bellamy Foster gave what was probably his first talk on the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century that Justin Von Liebig devoted himself to diagnosing and solving. Basically, Liebig’s research provided a context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question. Like climate change today, the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870 not only provoked scientific research but wars over control over natural fertilizers like guano.

The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

This being the case, wouldn’t the disappearance of livestock from agriculture simply perpetuate the need for chemical fertilizers and every ill associated with it? Since modern farming relies heavily on mechanization, ox-drawn plows would not suffice. Wouldn’t the integration of cattle, poultry and lambs as livestock into farming resolve the metabolic rift in the most effective manner?

Unless you are committed to the idea that slaughtering animals is evil, that possibility must be considered. Additionally, for homo sapiens, the most effective source of protein comes from animals, not plants. Leaving aside the animal rights question, an argument can be made for exactly that. You can find it made in a powerful new documentary available in the usual VOD venues, including Amazon, titled “Sacred Cow” that was directed by Diana Rodgers and based on a book of the same title she co-wrote with Robb Wolf.

On the film’s website, Rodgers writes, “As we’ve become more globalized, the entire world is now pushing towards the ‘heart healthy’ (and highly processed) Western diet. In the process, we’re destroying entire ecosystems and human health through industrial, ultra-processed food.”

Drawing upon a wide range of academic researchers in favor of the consumption of meat products and the regenerative farmers who produce them, the film effectively makes the case for solving the metabolic rift in the way that Karl Marx proposed but without mentioning his name or the theory once.

There are two important considerations that the film takes up. To start with, it calls for abolition of the current method of raising livestock in factory-like conditions since they are far removed from the crops that need organic fertilizer and because they are so cruel to the animals. Instead, the farmers interviewed throughout the film show exactly how they must be deployed in and around the fields where crops are being grown rather than cooped up in monstrous conditions. In a very short time, the re-introduction of cattle and lambs can return topsoil to the conditions that existed before Alexander Cockburn decried for its inevitable role in desertification.

If your first impulse is to question whether an old-fashioned method of raising livestock can supply a hungry world, the film points out that ruminants such as cows and sheep can feed themselves from the grasses that grow along hillsides that are not suitable for raising crops. In one of the more eye-opening scenes, we meet a Mexican regenerative farmer named Alejandro Carrillo who has begun to reintroduce cattle into a seemingly barren part of the state of Chihuahua. The animals have not only begun to enrich the soil and make it suitable for farming but transform the ecosphere so that birds now flock to it for their own well-being.

Finally, on the ethical questions. These farmers and their supporters in the academy are not opposed to ending an animal’s life in the greater pursuit of keeping humanity and the natural world in balance. The film shows a new slaughterhouse based on the principles of Temple Grandin who compassion for all creatures large and small is suffused with humanitarianism.

Another new film available as VOD, including Amazon, takes up the question of humanity and the natural world’s survival even though the people who are its subject matter could not be more vulnerable to the ecological crisis. Directed by Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, “Tribes on the Edge” is an impassioned plea for the survival of around 7,000 indigenous Brazilians who call Vale do Javari their home. Constituting an area about the size of Portugal and on the border with Peru, the natives are facing extinction as a result of epidemic cases of hepatitis and malaria.

Although the documentary does not connect their plight to the years of Workers Party rule, it implicitly blames both Lula and Dilma Rousseff for allowing the support network for indigenous people to wither and die. It seems obvious that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, has been a victim of neglect under their two administrations. Even worse, Bolsonaro seems intent on doing to it what Donald Trump did to agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting natural resources—namely, throttling them.

The film does not attempt to pinpoint the cause of the epidemics except to say that the border between Peru and Brazil being porous. When indigenous peoples cross the border into Javari, there are no border guards. They bring their illnesses with them, especially hepatitis that is very contagious. This is not to speak of the ranchers, miners, farmers and oil companies that are beginning to encroach on Javari in spite of legal protections afforded by the state.

At the end of the film, we are told that only 4 percent of the world’s population are indigenous, but they nurture 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land. Although written four hundred years ago, John Donne’s poem could not be more timely:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

December 18, 2020

A reply to John Molyneux and Michael Lowy on degrowth

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:44 pm
John Molyneux
Michael Lowy

Generally speaking, my defense of degrowth is mounted against the ecomodernists at Jacobin/Catalyst: Leigh Phillips and Matt Huber, who both stand on Marxist orthodoxy, at least in their view. Although I’ve never answered him specifically, Neo-Keynesian Robert Pollin has staked a position against degrowth in the July-August 2018 NLR. If you’re interested in this debate, I recommend tracking down the NLR and to look for articles by Phillips and Huber on Jacobin and Catalyst.

This is the first time I will be responding to people much closer to me ideologically, John Molyneux, an ex-member of the British SWP, and Michael Lowy, a longtime member of the Mandelista Fourth International. Molyneux’s article is titled “Growth and De-growth: What should ecosocialists say” and can be read on the Global Ecosocialist Network. Lowy’s article is titled “Ecosocialism: A Vital Synthesis” and appears on Ian Angus’s Climate and Capitalism website.

Let me turn to Molyneux first, if for no other reason that the title of his article indicates a willingness to take on his ideological adversaries head-on.

Unfortunately, Molyneux cherry-picks an intellectual exercise from leading degrowth theorist Giorgos Kallis and proceeds to trash what amounts to a straw-man. In an article that appeared in “The Internationalist”, Kallis wrote:

The Left has to liberate itself from the imaginary of growth. Perpetual growth is an absurd idea (consider the absurdity of this: if the Egyptians had started with one cubic metre of stuff and grew it by 4.5% per year, by the end of their 3,000-year civilization, they would have occupied 2.5 billion solar systems.). Even if we could substitute capitalist growth, with a nicer, angelic socialist growth, why would we want to occupy 2.5 billion solar systems with it?

This is what they call a hypothetical and it is foolish to use it to represent degrowth analysis, which is completely steeped in the actual ecological limits we are dealing with. Kallis is an ecological economist by profession and is involved in studies of water development and urbanization, so turning him into a promoter of specious theories based on Egypt’s alternative history does not do him justice.

The remainder of Molyneux’s article is a rehash of the arguments I’ve heard and made about the anarchy of capitalist production for the past 53 years. For example, “If the productive forces constitute society’s general capacity to produce then their development or advance need not necessarily result in more production of things at all but might equally result in producing the same amount in less time. Marx, himself, put a lot of emphasis on this economy of labour time as he saw it has having the potential to free human beings from necessary labour, reduce the working week and enhance human freedom.”

Well, who can argue with that? Unquestionably, socialism will be a more rational system. Commodity production based on profit is the number one cause of environmental despoliation. If the economy is based on the production of use-values, you can finally use science and humanism to create a livable world.

Molyneux proceeds to define some of the norms we can expect under world ecosocialism. This one stuck out for me: “The extensive retrofitting of homes”. I am not sure what this means exactly but it would point to the banning of any house or apartment over 3,000 square feet for a family of four. I’m definitely for that but within such an advanced new way of sheltering, how do we create the furniture that people need for a modicum of comfort? We certainly need chairs, tables, beds, desks, and bookshelves, don’t we? Can we have a socialist Ikea that supplies such basics?

Over the past four decades, China has tried to make sure that its citizenry can live a comfortable middle-class existence. That has meant becoming the world’s largest importer of wood. (The United States is second.) It is also the largest exporter — turning much of the wood it imports into products headed to Home Depots and Ikeas around the world.

The irony is that Ikea brags about its environmentalist values. Its website states: “We’re also working towards 100% renewable energy – producing as much as we consume in our operations – and sourcing all of our wood from more sustainable sources by 2020.” All that is well and good but the inexhaustible demand for cheap furniture will simply lead other corporations to rely on Chinese suppliers. That’s how capitalism works, after all—supply and demand. So efficient at reducing forests to toothpicks.

Now, under world ecosocialism, how could you continue to provide the wood needed for the average household without encroaching on the forests and hence the risk of a new pandemic? For pete’s sake, Marxism is a powerful tool but it cannot produce wood out of thin air. That’s the purview of the sorcerer’s apprentice and you saw how much trouble Mickey Mouse got into.

Degrowth is completely focused on the question of how humanity can not only survive into the 22nd century but how can civilization continue until the planet dies due to astrophysical realities. It poses solutions based on the needs of a modest life-style that while giving up on SUV’s and all the other crap can allow the full development of the human being, who might have to work 10 hours a week while painting landscapes or growing orchids the rest of the time. That means addressing the population question that people like Molyneux recoils from. There is scant attention to that in his article, with this being typical:

In particular we should also challenge the idea, implicit in the arguments of many ‘degrowthers’, especially those that favour population control , that all human activity, indeed all human existence, is inherently damaging to nature.

I don’t know about “many” degrowthers. I do want to know, however, whether Molyneux has engaged at all with the numbers that both Kallis and Jason Hickel have crunched. Let me direct him to something that Hickel wrote to get started. This is the heart and soul of degrowth scholarship, not Kallis’s intellectual exercise about Egypt:

Adopting a higher poverty line makes it more difficult to end poverty while remaining within planetary boundaries. At the US$7.40 line, Belarus is the most promising, with minimal social shortfall (a score of 0.98) excluding qualitative indicators, but its average biophysical score is 1.64. Of the nations that achieve all non-qualitative social thresholds, the most biophysically efficient is Oman, which has an average biophysical score of 2.66. In other words, given the existing best-case relationship between resource use and income, achieving a good life for all with an income threshold of US$7.40 per day would require that poor nations overshoot planetary boundaries by at least 64% to 166%.

Of course, Hickel could have just said that ecosocialism will solve these problems with scarcely a need to figure out the desperately important balance between humanity and nature under conditions of declining water, soil and climate. I hope he continues on his current trajectory.

Turning now to Lowy’s article, it is closely related to Molyneux’s with the idea of socialism replacing capitalism on a world-scale being the solution to our problems. He writes:

The issue of economic growth has divided socialists and environmentalists. Ecosocialism, however, rejects the dualistic frame of growth versus degrowth, development versus anti-development, because both positions share a purely quantitative conception of productive forces. A third position resonates more with the task ahead: the qualitative transformation of development.

A new development paradigm means putting an end to the egregious waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. The arms industry is, of course, a dramatic example, but, more generally, the primary purpose of many of the “goods” produced — with their planned obsolescence — is to generate profit for large corporations. The issue is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on massive waste and the conspicuous and compulsive pursuit of novelties promoted by “fashion.” A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.

So,  “A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.” Let’s start with water.

Okay, how is ecosocialism going to generate groundwater that is the key to sustainable agriculture? Will making the Ogallala Aquifer people’s property somehow overcome the ecological limits on a resource that took thousands of years to accrue? Natural forces produced it and it was used to grow the wheat that is a necessity for urban life. You can take the position that cattle and wheat have to go but any foodstuff is going to have to rely on water. Even under the best of conditions, water can become scarce because it is serving a population that far exceeded the numbers that lived in North America 30,000 years ago. Since 1950, agricultural irrigation has reduced the saturated volume of the aquifer by an estimated 9%. Once depleted, the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall. (Wikipedia) Instead of bad-mouthing Giorgos Kallis’s speculation on Egypt, Molyneux and Lowy could both benefit from his work on water conservation.

I consider Molyneux and Lowy’s attempt to debunk degrowth feeble at best. I have been following debates within the left on ecology for the past 30 years and have been shocked by the way that long-time Marxists just skate over the surface of degrowth scholarship. My advice to them and others is to put the Marxist verities on the back burner, roll up their sleeves, and begin to delve into the details of how the human race can continue with the current set-up. Socialism can do many things but it cannot produce wood and water out of thin air.

November 24, 2020

Matt Huber, nuclear power, and the socialist beachhead

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

This is a companion piece to the one I just wrote about Vivek Chibber calling upon DSA’ers to create beachheads in the working class. It too is based on a podcast interview, this time with Matt Huber, who has published a long article in Chibber’s magazine titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” that dismisses the need for ecological limits. Like Chibber, this Syracuse professor looks askance at the social class he belongs to: “The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals.” So, his advice boils down to another version of Chibber’s—the environmental movement has to create beachheads in the trade union movement.

Since I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to plow through 10,500 words of Hubert’s prose, my advice is to watch the podcast above to get a handle on the sort of politics being purveyed in Bhaskar Sunkara’s publishing empire.

Huber’s environmental ideas flow from a rather dogmatic understanding of Marxism that revolves around the point of production. His beef with today’s environmental movement is that it is focused on consumption rather than production. He wonders why the left can’t understand something so simple. The capitalist class owns the means of production, like factories, mines, transportation, and power plants. If the working-class uses its class power against the owners to force it to stop burning greenhouse gases and polluting the air, water and soil, you are likely to see the kinds of changes that are so necessary. Implicit in this rather simplistic proposal is that DSA’ers would get union jobs in the most critical industries to persuade fellow workers to take direct action.

Specifically, Huber views the heavily unionized (relatively speaking) electricity-supplying sector of power plants as a place where a beachhead should be established. He names the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a target for such an implantation. Now, if you got a job through someone you knew through the IBEW, it just might be in a nuclear power plant, where the union generally holds sway. What possibility would there be for the workers in such a plant, like Homer Simpson, taking militant action to shut it down? Zero.

But that’s no problem for Huber since he agrees with the IBEW that nuclear power is a key part of the Green New Deal. Here’s something from their media center:

In an age of shrinking bipartisanship and climbing global temperatures, the Nuclear Powers America Act might just be the bipartisan legislation the country needs to cleanly and reliably power future generations.

”The challenges we face in terms of the climate and the security and reliability of our energy grid go beyond political persuasions because they will impact us all, and the Nuclear Powers America Act is a strong example of finding a common sense solution that works for Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and everyone else who cares about clean energy production,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

And here’s Huber making the same case in the DSA magazine:

There is evidence advanced reactors and recycling can solve many of the environmental worries of waste and meltdowns. The most credible objection to nuclear is cost, but this should not be the main criteria under a socialist program whose aim is decarbonization and production for social needs (and, like renewables, once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low).

It is remarkable that an energy expert like Matt Huber can recommend nuclear power with so little in his scholarly background to show for it. If you go to his Syracuse University website, you will find 41 peer-reviewed articles. Not a single one delves into nuclear power.

As it happens, nuclear power plants create radioactive waste material that remains toxic for 250,000 years. Since power plants generate 2000 tons of it a year, where to put it is a big problem. It might come as a big surprise that it is foisted on poor people, especially American Indians. However, the bulk of it remains inside the power plant where it is subject to deus ex machina events like earthquakes. The Diablo Canyon power plant is half-way down the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles ringed by a dozen earthquake faults. You know who owns it? None other than the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that has been partly responsible for the disastrous forest fires of the past few years.

Now, one might presume that none of this would be a problem if we overthrow capitalism and start building a communist world. The utmost standards of safety would be adopted with the vanguard of the working class led by Bhaskar Sunkara, Vivek Chibber and Matt Huber overseeing the alternative-energy grid from their offices in Washington. However, given the beachhead mindset of these guys, one doubts that they would urge militant protests to shut down such plants since they would alienate the Homer Simpsons who work there.

One doubts that someone guided by Matt Huber’s pearls of wisdom would cause any kind of ruckus in a power plant given the solicitous concern shown toward workers in his Catalyst article:

Whereas a class politics was always about offering a vision of increased overall welfare, ecological politics became a politics of less. André Gorz developed an explicitly eco-socialist standpoint centered on less: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.” Over the years class and environmental politics were constantly at odds in the “jobs versus environment” debate. It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

I don’t quite know to put this but even if workers have the power to bring capitalist production to a grinding halt, their consciousness has to change before hand. Perhaps comrade Huber has not read Lenin’s “What is to be Done”. It makes the case that revolutionary class consciousness is not something that arises spontaneously. It has to come from outside the workplace by conscious socialists:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.[2] The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Much of Huber’s podcast is a diatribe against the professional management class (PMC) that is outside the working-class, just as Marx and Engels were. The idea that DSA’ers are going to get jobs working in a nuclear power plant and persuade workers to take militant actions against an employer who is paying them $65,000 per year is absurd. Of course, given his partiality toward nuclear energy, that will never be a problem.

It is, on the other hand, our problem that we have such bilge being promoted by the Jacobin/DSA in the name of socialism.

October 16, 2020

China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse.

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm


On August 19, 2019, I unfurled my degrowth banner in a CounterPunch article titled “Ecological Limits and the Working Class” and followed it up with a review of leading degrowth theorist Giorgos Kallis’s “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care” just six months later. Having read dozens of articles on degrowth over the past two years, I have concluded that the most persuasive argument on its behalf is Richard Smith’s China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse. Although there are only a few pages that reference the term specifically, the entire 286 pages will leave you convinced that unless China (and the rest of the world) begin to respect ecological limits, civilization will succumb to a new Dark Ages.

The references to growth and degrowth occur in chapter seven, cryptically titled “Grabbing the Emergency Brake,” a reference to the epigraph to chapter six. The words are from Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” With the title of Smith’s book referring to China’s “engine,” one might say that the emergency brake and degrowth are practically synonymous.

Continue reading

October 15, 2020

From the final chapter of “China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm


Why is a powerful country like China so afraid of a beauty queen?
— Anastasia Lin

Pan Yue was certainly prescient. The Chinese “miracle” has come to an end because the environment can no longer keep pace. The question is, can the Chinese find a way to grab the emergency brake and wrench this locomotive of destruction to a halt? One thing seems certain: The locomotive is not going to be stopped so long as the Communist Party has its grip on the controls. The CCP is locked in a death spiral. It can’t rein in ravenous resource consumption and suicidal pollution because, as a national superpower-aspirant, it needs to maximize growth to “catch up with overtake the USA,” maximize jobs to keep the peace, provide more bread and circuses to distract the masses, and build the glitziest “blingfrastucture” to wow the masses and the world with the “Amazing China” that it has built. The Communist Party doesn’t do subtlety or understatement. Given these drivers, I just don’t see how China’s spiral to ecological collapse can reversed by anything short of social revolution—one way or another.

The Party leadership presents itself as all-powerful, unassailable, monolithic, confident, and self-assured. It’s anything but. The Party is paranoid, terrified of independent thought and the slightest public disagreement, frightened of any personal or institutional autonomy, and shocked by the results of the explosive growth of capitalism that it has unleashed. It is strategically and ideologically bankrupt, demoralized and weakened by Xi’s relentless anti-corruption campaign and fracturing as wealthy cadres flee the country and send their families abroad.

For a government that presents itself as a superior model for the world, a deserving successor to the US and the “declining West”, its outwardly unflappable president is surprisingly thin-skinned, bristling at the slightest criticism, let alone mockery—more like Trump than Deng Xiaoping, Xi is terrified not just of beauty queens but Mongolian historians, Uighur professors, Tibetan linguists, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Google, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Western movies, artists, democracy advocates, workers, trade unionists, environmental activists, human rights attorneys, Liu Xiaobo (even after his death) and his wife Liu Xia, Christian ministers, Hong Kong booksellers and high school students, Marxist university students, Maoist study groups, the NBA, Turkish soccer stars, and so many other real and imagined threats. In his current state of extreme paranoia, no perceived threat is too insignificant. Like the exasperated journalist Liang Xiangyi who rolled her eyes in disgust at another reporter’s unctuous and gushing question to a high official in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the March 2018 National People’s Congress. Captured by China’s national news broadcaster, CCTV, the moment went viral and the government responded by yanking her media accreditation, taking down her Sina Weibo page, and erasing her name from the internet. In recent years Xi’s censors have banned cartoonists, hip-hop, video games, the bawdy humor app Neihan Duanzi, Winnie the Pooh, Peppa the Pig, the letter “N,” celebrity gossip, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live.

Chinese women too are posing a threat, like the so-called “Feminist Five”. The #MeToo movement particularly worries the powers that be. As one commentator said: “The leadership has understood from the beginning that the movement has shades of anti-authoritarianism and they’re afraid the allegations will spread to officials.

In totalitarian self-parody worthy of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, Beijing recently banned exports of black clothing to Hong Kong as the color is favored by protesters. Today, China’s leaders face unprecedented threats—and not least from those black-clad protesters in Hong Kong.

September 27, 2020

Public Trust; The Ground Between Us

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

By sheer coincidence, two documentaries have both begun showing as VOD with identical subject matters, the privatization of publicly owned land—mainly in the west. I first became interested in this topic after reading Christopher Ketcham’s article in the February 2015 Harper’s titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West”. When I saw that Christopher had written a book titled “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West”, I reviewed it for CounterPunch. If Donald Trump ever stands trial for crimes against the public interest, I’d love to see Christopher as prosecuting attorney with the two documentaries serving as evidence.

Executive produced by Robert Redford, “Public Trust” can now be seen for free courtesy of Patagonia. When I sent Christopher a link to the film, he responded, “No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and thanks for sending. BUT…it’s produced by fucking Patagucci, bro, arch-despoilers of the public lands with their promotion of endless wreckreation. Now that’s capitalist penetration!” As much as I agree with Christopher’s take on Patagonia, the film is still worth watching since it allows you to get an overview of the despoliation taking place without investing the kind of time and effort I have made. The other film is “The Ground Between Us” that is available as Virtual Cinema, a way of seeing films by buying tickets through selected theaters forced to close down because of the pandemic. This film, as the title implies, is an attempt to allow both sides of the conflict to present their own arguments. Unfortunately, the men and women taking the side of opening up to commercial exploitation are a retired lumberjack and a small rancher, not exactly the main enemy.

Both films cover two of the key battlefields involving privatization. One is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska that is the homeland of the Gwich’in Indians, who have the same relation to the Porcupine Caribou that the Lakota and Blackfoot had to the Bison. They fear that a pipeline connecting their land to the Prudhoe Bay port 800 miles eastward will destroy the ecosystem that the Caribou have lived in for thousands of years, just like them. In both films, we hear from Bernadette Demientieff, who is Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The other battlefield San Juan County in southeastern Utah, where the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are found. These are holy lands for the Indians whose artwork can be seen on walls throughout the region. Like the Gwich’in Alaska, they have lived there for thousands of years. The Navajos, Hopis, Utes  the Zunis, all have ancestral ties to the region. You get an idea of what they are up against when you hear one Republican official saying, “I’d drill for oil in a cemetery if there was oil”. This is literally what the Indians are up against.

In “The Ground Between Us”, we hear from the Redd family that has been ranching in San Juan County for generations. They resent government interference in their right to make a living but much more amiably than fellow San Juan County rancher Clive Bundy who has been leading quasi-militias in his crusade against public ownership of land in Utah and in Oregon. The Redds, looking like Marlboro men, insist that they are the best stewards of the land since they are so close to it. In his Harper’s article, Christopher debunks this notion. In a series of environmental studies, the Bureau of Land Management described “overstocked cattle, which had filled the riparian areas with dung and urine and gorged on what little grass was available…wreaking ecological havoc.”

Both films refer to Obama’s executive orders protecting Bear’s Ears and ANWR, as well as Trump’s executive order favoring the ranching, mining and oil interests. In the final moments, both urge you to register to vote with the clear implication that a vote for Biden is necessary. Biden is on record as saying that he’ll reverse the changes to Bears Ears and also ban new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters. Is this a good enough reason to vote for Biden? To start with, if the Democrats did not pick a candidate who was a liberal alternative to Trump, the two-party system would fall apart like a house of cards. Despite George Wallace, it is not true that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties, especially on environmental questions.

However, don’t expect any Democrat to hold the line under deepening capitalist crisis as “the economy” takes precedence over environmental justice. Read Steve Horn’s September 29, 2016 article and you will discover:

As eyes turned to the most viewed presidential debate in U.S. history, the Obama administration meanwhile quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million acres for offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and delivered a blow to the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act rule change followed a multi-year lobbying campaign by the oil and gas industry and occurred the morning before the debate unfolded.

The leasing decisions came just weeks earlier, with the most recent one taking place as an online rather than in-person drilling lease auction, the product of industry and U.S. government backlash against efforts such as the Keep It In The Ground campaign which aim to block fossil fuel project development.

September 18, 2020

Review of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Working my way through John Bellamy Foster’s magisterial “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology,” it dawned on me that there was a gap in my knowledge. I knew that Marx and Engels were consumed with ecological problems, even though the word wasn’t in their vocabulary. To a large extent, my awareness came from reading another great Foster book, “Marx’s Ecology.” However, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that in between Marx/ Engels and Rachel Carson it was mostly a blur. The failure of the socialist states to support Green values reinforced that feeling. From Chernobyl to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, there was not much to distinguish capitalist and socialist society.

After finishing “The Return of Nature,” that blur gave way to clarity. Foster’s intellectual history shows a chain of thinkers connecting Marx/Engels to today’s greatest ecological thinkers, from Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner. To use a cliché, they stood on the shoulders of giants.

Continue reading

September 9, 2020

Ecology between Frederick Engels and Rachel Carsons

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

For me, ecology began with Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring” in the 1962 New Yorker, continued with Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” in 1971, and finally reached full bloom with a torrent of books soon afterwards touching on global warming, desertification, species extinction, water and air pollution, etc. I, of course, knew about Engels’s observations in “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” about the pine forests in the Alps but between Engels and Rachel Carson, it was a bit of a blur.

Among the great accomplishments of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature” is filling in the gap between Engels and Rachel Carson. Chapter Eight, titled “Ecology as a System”, deals with ecological writing in England in the late 19th to early 20th century. Among the revelations is his discussion of a 1,400 page book co-authored by Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells and Wells’s son G.P. Wells titled “The Science of Life”. As you will see below, the three men were writing about things that continue to confront us today. It is not surprising that they were men of the left. As Foster points out, H.G. Wells’s novels are filled with dystopian visions of a future that came about because of a refusal to follow Green principles. It’s tragic that we are faced with the same crisis today.

The ecological problem facing humanity then becomes a question of releasing nature’s locked-up powers, avoiding leakages in energy flows, and ensuring that humanity does not heedlessly cross natural limits or break nature’s laws. Evolution is presented as a slow, inherently progressive process. Humanity is able to speed this process, but it is also faced by ecological contradictions of its own creation. The final section of the chapter “Life Under Control,” [in “The Science of Life”] titled “The Ecological Outlook,” explores the problem of anthropogenic ecological crises and the possible means of addressing them. Thus, we are told, in line with Lankester [a friend of Karl Marx committed to ecosocialism], that civilization’s spread has been accompanied by a “trail of plagues.” Colonization has gone hand in hand with the intended and unintended spread of invasive species, crowding out and killing off native habitat and species. Industrial agriculture leads to the systematic disruption of the soil cycle, robbing the soil of its nutrients. “To make good these losses of the soil, he [the human being] has crushed up the nitre [nitrates] of Chile, the guano of Peru, the stores of phosphate rock in various parts of the earth’s crust. But these too are [natural] capital and the end of them is in sight. Linnaeus gave man the title of Homo sapiens, Man the Wise. One is sometimes tempted to agree with Professor [Charles] Richet, who thinks that a more suitable designation would have been Homo stultus, Man the Fool.”

Describing this folly, Wells, Huxley, and Wells wrote:

In the last couple of centuries he [humanity] has accelerated the circulation of matter—from raw materials to food and tools and luxuries and back to raw matter again—to an unprecedented speed. But he has done it by drawing on reserves of capital. He is using up the bottled sunshine of coal thousands of times more quickly than Nature succeeds in storing it; and the same rate of wastage holds for oil and natural gas. By reckless cutting without re-afforestation, he has not only been incurring a timber lack which future generations will have to face, but he has been robbing great stretches of the world of their soil and even of the climate which plant evolution has given them. .. .

By over-killing, man has exterminated magnificent creatures like the bison as wild species. Less than a century ago herds numbered by the hundred thousand covered the Great Plains. Buffalo Bill killed 4,280 bison with his own rifle in a year and a half; and that was far from being a record. The United States Government detailed troops to help in the slaughter, in order to force the Indians, by depriving them of their normal subsistence, to settle down to agricultural life on reservations. Today there remain a few small protected herds.

By over-killing, he has almost wiped out whales in the northern hemisphere, and unless some international agreement is soon arrived at, the improvement of engines of destruction is likely to do the same for the Antarctic seas. If he is not careful, the fur-bearers will go the same road; the big game of the world is doomed to go, and to go speedily, unless we take measures to stop its extinction. By taking crop after crop of wheat and corn out of the land in quick succession, he exhausted the riches of the virgin soils of the American west; and is now doing the same for the grasslands of the world by taking crop after crop of sheep and cattle off of them.

The essential problem in all of this was the human economy, its speed of expansion, its ruthless acquisitiveness, its waste of resources, and its lack of planning. In the final section of the chapter on “Life Under Control,” titled “The Ecological Outlook,” the three authors argued:

The cardinal fact in the problem of the human future is the speed of change. The colonization of new countries, the change from forest to fields, the reclamation of land from sea, the making of lakes, the introduction of new animals and plants—all these in pre-human evolution were the affairs of secular time, where a thousand years are but as yesterday; but now they are achieved in centuries or even decades. One cannot estimate such changes exactly, but we shall not be far out if we say that man is imposing on the life of the world a rate of change ten thousand times as great as any rate of change it ever knew before.

Human beings were able to transform nature radically in the interest of the expansion of the human economy, but they did so under conditions in the dominant economic order, conditions that were unplanned and that showed a lack of concern and foresight for the long-term ecological consequences of such actions. Humanity is “very unlikely by the light of nature to see all the multifarious consequences” of such economic actions, “and too often the consequences will be quite different” from what was anticipated.

From the standpoint of biological economics, of which human economics is but a part, man’s general problem is this: to make the vital circulation of matter and energy as swift, efficient, and wasteless as it can be made; and since we are first and foremost a continuing race, to see that we are not achieving an immediate efficiency at the expense of later generations.” The issue then became one of long-term sustainable development.

Wells, Huxley, and Wells explained that due to agricultural chemists such as “Liebig, Lawes, and Gilbert, the employment of chemical fertilizers has become almost universal. But up till quite recently man has taken little thought for the morrow beyond the single crop. It is true . . . that he has been forced by the demands of his wheat and corn to let his land lie fallow from time to time, or to introduce nitrogen-catching crops, like clover or lupins, into his rotation; but that is only a beginning.” Nitrogen-based fertilizer was now available in unlimited supplies, making the loss of Chilean nitrates no longer a problem. But other limits were quite severe. They wrote: “We are using up our coal and oil.” Fossil fuels would eventually have to be replaced by alternative energies: “Water-power is always with us, and there are tide-power and sun-power and wind power for us to tap. We are using up our oil; but sooner or later we shall replace it satisfactorily by power-alcohol made from plants.”

The most serious problem was phosphorus:

Phosphorus is an essential constituent of all living creatures. It is, however, a rather rare element in nature, constituting only about one seven-hundredth part of the earth’s crust… . From the soil of the United States alone the equivalent of some six million tons of phosphate is disappearing every year; and only about a quarter of this is put back in fertilizers. Meanwhile the store of fertilizers is being depleted, and man … is sluicing phosphorus recklessly into the ocean in sewage. Each year, the equivalent of over a million tons of phosphate rock is thus dumped out to sea, most of it for all practical purposes irrecover-able. The Chinese may be less sanitary in their methods of sewage disposal, but they are certainly more sensible; in China, what has been taken out of the soil is put back into the soil. It is urgently necessary that Western “civilized” man shall alter his methods of sewage disposal. If he does not, there will be a phosphorus shortage, and therefore a food shortage, in a few generations. But even if he does that he will still have to keep his eye on phosphorus; it is the weak link in the vital chain on which civilization is supported.

The conclusion was that “man’s chief need to-day is to look ahead. He must plan his food and energy circulation as carefully as a board of directors plans a business. He must do it as one community, on a world-wide basis, and as a species, on a continuing basis.”

August 28, 2020

Class-reductionism’s blind-spot: environmental racism

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 2:06 pm

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 10.08.17 AM

Image by Wake Forest University with caption “The fight for environmental justice is a fight for your life.”


On August 14th, the N.Y. Times reported on the clash between Adolph Reed Jr. and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus in DSA over an event scheduled back in May by the LES and Philadelphia branches. The caucus advocates stepped up support for BLM protests while Reed views them as tools of corporate America. Naturally, when the event organizers scheduled a Zoom lecture for Reed, the caucus demanded a debate, surely expecting to be ignored. When Reed grew wary over the possibility that the upstarts might crash his talk, he canceled himself.

The Times article summarized the Reed position as shared by a class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue against overstating race as a construct. Even if they accept the existence of racism in the U.S., they reject the need for an anti-racist movement. Instead, the goal is to create class unity around programs like Medicare for All since poor whites would benefit as well. When you “fixate” on race, you risk dividing a potentially powerful coalition and play into conservatives’ hands.

Of course, this vulgar Marxism seems even more outlandish than ever in the face of the massive resistance to the status quo now underway. After the George Floyd murder, anti-racist protests became the largest in American history. Without skipping a beat, the NBA has gone on strike to protest the cops who left Jacob Blake permanently paralyzed. To counterpose Medicare for All to these struggles is foolish, if not outright reactionary.

Continue reading

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.