Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 16, 2020

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

THE COMMUNIST PARTY’S EXISTENTIAL POLITICAL CRISIS

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.”

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 28, 2020

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.

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June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

May 8, 2020

The Planet of the Humans

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 1:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 8, 2020

Ever since Mother Jones owner Adam Hochschild fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman’s attack on the Sandinistas in 1986, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him. But when he got down on his knees on the Bill Maher Show in 2008 to beg Ralph Nader not to run for President, a lot of that affection disappeared. For the past dozen years, I had grown weary of his conventional Hollywood liberalism that smacked of Rob Reiner and all the other millionaires who always ended up pleading for a vote for the lesser evil.

You could have knocked me over with a feather after I discovered that Moore had executive produced a film titled “Planet of the Humans” that broke with the liberal establishment. Like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest, all the voices of establishment liberalism, from The Nation to Rolling Stone, swarmed around his head. The editors of the pink-tinted Jacobin must have suffered whiplash when news of the film broke. Only last November, Meagan Day’s adulatory piece titled “Michael Moore Was Right” appeared. Like Trotsky losing favor in the mid-20s, Michael Moore became an unperson after “Planet of the Humans”.

Jacobin unleashed their ecomodernist hitman Leigh Phillips, who penned a piece titled “Planet of the Anti-Humanists” that predictably condemned the film as “Malthusian.” He even raised the possibility that Moore and director Jeff Gibbs were “anti-civilization,” as if they were plotting to recreate the world of Alley Oop and The Flintstones.

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