Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2019

How real is the eco-fascist threat?

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Fascism — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Eco-fascist literature?

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 9, 2019

In a manifesto that was posted to 8Chan just before he carried out his murderous attack on Walmart shoppers in El Paso, Patrick Crusius expressed “Green” values that are widespread on the left:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country. The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades old classic “The Lorax”.

Dr. Seuss wrote “The Lorax” in 1971 as a protest against corporate despoliation of the environment. The contrast between a racist mass murderer and a gentle children’s book could not be starker. It is no wonder that there have been multiple attempts to come to terms with his eco-fascism.

This is not the first amalgam of Green and Brown values from a neo-Nazi terrorist. On March 15, 2019, an Australian named Brenton Tarrant killed 50 Muslims in a New Zealand mosque justifying his attack on the “replacement” theory that motivated Patrick Crusius. Crusius paid tribute to Tarrant in the first paragraph of his manifesto.

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July 26, 2019

Ecological limits and the working class

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

In the interest of the working class?

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 26, 2019

In the latest issue of Catalyst Magazine that is published by Bhaskar Sunkara, there is an article titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” by Syracuse University professor Matt Huber, which argues for the need to abandon the “middle class” orientation of the ecologists whose worldview was shaped by the 1960s radicalization. (I guess that includes me.)

These people with their affinity for the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan are neglecting the mainstream proletariat that sounds like Donald Trump voters:

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.

To woo such people into a revolutionary movement, the emphasis should be on winning urban and suburban workers to the Green New Deal that is a lynchpin of Sunkara’s developing journalistic empire rather than “the struggles of poor rural populations (peasants, indigenous peoples, etc.) over land, resources, and environmental degradation within a Marxist political-economic framework.” Since most people are wage workers who have been dispossessed of land through “primitive accumulation” over the past four centuries at least, why waste time with the “marginal” population in Brazil, for example? For every Yanomami, there are likely 100,000 wage workers. That’s the argument, anyhow.

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July 12, 2019

Long Gone Wild; Sea of Shadows

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 12, 2019

Two new documentaries share by pure coincidence the threat to sea mammals posed by venal Chinese consumerism.

“Long Gone Wild”, which is available across all VOD platforms on July 16th, picks up where “Blackfish” left off. Made in 2013, “Blackfish” exposed the cruel exploitation of orcas at SeaWorld, where they were confined to unnatural, prison-like conditions and forced to perform circus-type tricks until the 12,500-pound Tilikum began to take vengeance on two of his trainers and a hapless trespasser. “Long Gone Wild” demonstrates that while SeaWorld made significant concessions to activists and scientists, it has continued to explore ways in which the killer whale can be commodified. Ironically, the nomenclature “killer whale” seems inappropriate since it is profit-seeking that is the real killer, especially as China has become the new SeaWorld colossus with Russia supplying most of the kidnapped creatures for big money.

“Sea of Shadows”, which opens at The Landmark at 57 West and Quad Cinema in New York today, concerns the vaquita, the smallest porpoise in existence. It is poised on the edge of extinction largely as collateral damage created once again by China. It turns out that the swimming bladder of the totoaba, a member of the drum family, is prized by Chinese for its medicinal properties and that can command $40,000 on the black market just like rhinoceros horns and other animal organs taken from animals at the top of the food chain. The fisherman of San Felipe, a seacoast village in Baja California, have begun using gillnets to snare the totoaba but the vaquitas are caught as well. Except for a small minority of fishermen in the village who disavow such wasteful practices, the rest are willing to break the law as part of cartel run by local gangsters and their Chinese middle-men.

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July 5, 2019

Bisbee ’17

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 5, 2019

For those who missed the chance to see “Bisbee ‘17” last year because you lived in places where it was not being shown or because, like me, you simply let it slip by, there is very good news. This documentary about an IWW-led strike of copper miners in the company town of Bisbee, Arizona was recently added to Amazon, iTunes, and other VOD services. It is a story very relevant to the period we are living in today. When workers went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions in July 1917, a posse organized by the bosses at Phelps-Dodge and the local authorities rounded up the strikers and deported them to Hermanas, New Mexico in railroad cattle cars, just like Jews being sent to Auschwitz. Once the 1,300 miners arrived in New Mexico, they were housed in tents originally intended for use by Mexican refugees, who took refuge in the USA in order to avoid the Mexican army’s scorched earth tactics against Pancho Villa. As should be obvious, not much has changed since 1917.

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June 25, 2019

James Steele’s fine biomess

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

In Max Blumenthal’s new book, there’s a brief reference to a Colonel James Steele who was a righthand man to David Petraeus in Baghdad in organizing death squads during the occupation that led to the extreme Sunni/Shia polarization and the foothold it gave the Islamists who eventually formed ISIS. While Blumenthal’s book is worthless on Syria, it does have some interesting reflections on the American national-security state, including the revelation that Steele perfected his death squad tactics in El Salvador in the 1980s when I was active with CISPES, a group that was raising money and political support for the guerrilla movement.

A search on Steele in Wikipedia provided some other rather unexpected results. It turns out that after his military career came to an end, he became the CEO of Buchanan Renewables, an biofuels company. It appears that most of the money to start this corporation came from the John McCall MacBain Foundation that gives the appearance of a junior version of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On the McCall MacBain Foundation website, you can see a page devoted to Climate Change & Environment that states “We believe that climate change is the single most pressing problem facing our planet and that we must all do our part to address it.” It also states that John McCall MacBain was the Founding Chair of the European Climate Foundation and the Foundation has been a major donor since 2009. To give you an idea of what the European Climate Foundation is about, it includes Pascal Lamy and Stephen Brenninkmeijer on the board of directors. Lamy used to be the Director-General of the World Trade Organization and Brenninkmeijer, the board chairman, runs Willow Investments, an outfit devoted to progressive social development.

John McCall MacBain, a Canadian, has the typical philanthropist’s profile. He made billions in the print classified ad business until Craigslist et al took over. One of his biggest payouts was $200 million to McGill University. In 2006, the Globe and Mail reported on his plans to donate $1 billion for sub-Saharan Africa projects. Like the Gates, his heart bleeds for the poor Africans.

One supposes that because of his generosity and social conscience, McCall MacBain was an ideal choice to head the Trudeau Foundation board of trustees. Like the Clintons, these people know how to game the philanthropic industry. In 2016, he was the key figure in the single largest bribery scandal in Canadian history. He made a $928,000 gift to Justin Trudeau that represents the largest bribery scandal in Canadian history, claim inside sources and lined up other donors who have affiliations with organizations currently lobbying the Canadian government.

Buchanan Renewables symbolized everything that is corrupt and self-serving about corporate environmentalism. The company went to Liberia with the intention of converting rubber trees into biomass chips that would power the nation and, better yet, fuel their own profits.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) provided $217 million in loans to get the project going but within two years, it shut down after firing 600 workers. It never built the power plant but shipped its biomass chips to Europe for a tidy profit.

According to the AP, it repaid the U.S. government loans, paid its non-African employees handsomely, but “left behind fields of depleted rubber farms and a trail of allegations of sexual abuse and workplace hazards.”

James Steele was the perfect choice to run this operation. He was a onetime partner of OPIC’s CEO, Robert Mosbacher Jr. Mosbacher’s father was secretary of commerce under Bush ‘41. Just as was the case in El Salvador and Iraq, the natives got the shitty end of the stick.

Since wood was a precious commodity for cooking, some women said they became pregnant after trading sex for sticks with Buchanan employees. “If we didn’t have sex with the employees they wouldn’t give you sticks,” said Sarah Monopoloh, chairwoman of a local charcoal sellers union.

Tree planter Aderlyn Barnard was knocked unconscious, breaking a leg and wrist and dislocating an arm, when the company’s clearing machine felled her with a tree and left her disabled.

Leaving aside the treatment of such people, there is the additional question of biomass as an alternative energy source. Wikipedia defines biomass as any “plant or animal material used for energy production, heat production, or in various industrial processes as raw material for a range of products.”

For a good explanation of what biomass represents, I refer you to “Mapping the Biomass Racket” an article by Josh Schlossberg, the editor of Biomass Journal, that appeared in CounterPunch on February 12, 2013. He writes:

Over 200 electricity-generating, wood-burning biomass power incinerators currently operate in the US, with another 200 proposed, according to Forisk Consulting. Though more and more of these facilities are being built across the nation—due, in large part, to generous federal and state “renewable” energy subsidies and incentives—the ecological footprint of existing industrial-scale biomass energy facilities has yet to be adequately assessed.

“Even as forest protection is increasingly recognized as one of the best defenses against climate change—while also critical to protecting water, soils and biodiversity—governments are putting into place policies and subsidies to cut and burn forests the world over for ‘biomass’ electricity and heat,” said Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch, an international organization based in the US and UK. “They falsely refer to this as ‘clean, green and renewable,’ but it is a total disaster in the making.”

A total disaster in the making? Just the sort of words to describe James Steele’s role in El Salvador and Iraq. In El Salvador, you have economic misery that fuels the rise of gangs and desperate immigration to the USA. In Iraq, you have Shi’ite authoritarianism and Sunni resentment that helps to fuel wars across the entire Middle East. With people like James Steele having his fingers in pies across the planet, it is high time that someone took a good sharp knife and cut them off.

May 31, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

COUNTERPUNCH MAY 31, 2019

Your first reaction to a book titled A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things that consists of 312 pages is to wonder if it is the first in a series of volumes since a single volume hardly seems capable of packing in everything from Ancient Egypt to the 2007 financial crisis. Yet, oddly enough, it does an excellent job by using a singular perspective, namely how “cheapness” has become the sine qua non for class society’s dubious advances over millennia.

Co-authors Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore are exponents of what they call world-ecology. While I am not familiar with Patel’s work, I have been reading Moore ever since he was a graduate student and posting to the World Systems Network, a defunct mailing list that was home to scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank. World systems theory always made a lot of sense to me since it was premised on the idea that Europe was responsible for what Frank called the development of underdevelopment in Asia, Africa and Latin America. What Moore contributed to this theory was the ecological dimension. Colonialism involved massive changes to nature that were universally destructive even though they helped to make cheap commodities available to the colonizers.

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May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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May 13, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

An excerpt from the introduction:

In this book, we show how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. Every word in that sentence is difficult. Cheap is the opposite of a bargain—cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life. “Things” become things through armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally, humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century billiard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life making is messy, contentious, and mutually sustaining. This book intro-duces a way to think about the complex relationships between humans and the web of life that helps make sense of the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.

As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geological record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The chickens we eat today are very different from those consumed a century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post—World War II efforts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than sixty billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of Cheap Nature. Already the most popular meat in the United States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh for human consumption by 2020. That will require a great deal of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor, paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work. In the US poultry industry, 86 percent of workers who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury, and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for workers is a 15 percent decline in income for the ten years after injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production but central to their continued participation in the workforce. Think of this as Cheap Care. The food produced by this industry ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy of Cheap Food. Chickens themselves are relatively minor contributors to climate change—they’ve only one stomach each and don’t burp out methane like cows do—but they’re bred in large lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint!’ You can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap Energy. There is some risk in the commercial sale of these processed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the soy feed for chickens is grown—mainly in China, Brazil, and the United States—to small business loans, that risk is mitigated through public expense for private profit. This is one aspect of Cheap Money. Finally, persistent and frequent acts of chauvinism against categories of animal and human life—such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color, and immigrants—have made each of these six cheap things possible. Fixing this ecology in place requires a final element—the rule of Cheap Lives. Yet at every step of this process, humans resist—from the Indigenous Peoples whose flocks provide the source of genetic material for breeding through poultry and care workers demanding recognition and relief to those fighting against climate change and Wall Street. The social struggles over nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives that attend the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.

All this is forgotten in the act of dipping the chicken-and-soy product into a plastic pot of barbeque sauce. Yet the fossilized trace of a trillion birds will outlast—and mark the passage of—the humans who made them. That’s why we present the story of humans, nature, and the system that changed the planet as a short history of the modern world: as an antidote to forgetting. This short book isn’t, however, a history of the whole world. It’s the .history of processes that can explain why the world looks the way it does today. The story of these seven cheap things illustrates how capitalism expanded to yield maps like the one below, showing how small a portion of the earth has lain outside the scope of European colonial power. We’ll explain precisely what we mean by cheap below. First we need to make the case that it’s not just some natural human behavior but rather a specific interaction between humans and the biological and physical world that has brought us to this point.

May 12, 2019

Why a factory farm and a car factory should not be confused

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Do we want this under socialism?

Recently I commented briefly in two different blog posts about an article in the DSA magazine written by Matt Huber and titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” that was very close to the sort of thing that Leigh Phillips has written. In a nutshell, Phillips and Huber are “productivists” who tend to see the good in GMO, nuclear power, chemicals for agriculture, DDT, etc.

In a May 1st piece titled “Ecosocialist Debates”, I summed up Huber’s approach:

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!”

Then, two days ago, I referred to him again along the same lines in a review of a film titled “The Serengeti Rules” hailing it as a strong statement in favor of biodiversity and the preservation of “keystone species”. Since his article came out against re-wilding, I saw it as inimical to the UN report that warned: “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

For some reason, Huber replied to my posts on a FB group called Marxism, Science, the Anthropocene where I posted a brief response to him in my customarily frank and sarcastic manner. This the group administrator found “uncomradely”. Guilty as charged. I will be referring to Huber’s post, which can be found at the bottom of this article. Since I don’t find FB useful for debates, prefer to use the same no-holds barred style I have been using for the past 28 years on the Internet, and seek to involve readers who are not on FB in this debate, I will be responding here instead.

To start off, I had the impression that Huber was new to Marxism and an undergraduate. I was probably right on the first impression but far off on the second. Huber is an Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University who got his Ph.D. in 2009. This would likely make him about 45 years old or so. His specialties are “Political economy, historical geography, energy and capitalism, climate politics, resource governance and social theory”. Quite the universal scholar. The articles on his university website are divided into “Public Writing” and “Peer Reviewed Journal Articles and Book Chapters”. Among the first, there is one for the Verso blog titled Building a “Green New Deal”: Lessons From the Original New Deal that hints at his unfamiliarity with key issues in environmentalism. Gazing worshipfully at FDR as most DSA’ers do, he writes:

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?

I wonder if this geography professor has been exposed to books written by the environmental historian Donald Worster whose “Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West” is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”

Let me now turn to Huber’s response. To start with, it appears that everything revolves around the ability of industrial farms to replace human labor with machinery:

I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system.

He does pay lip-service to the idea that industrial agriculture has “awful ecological effects” but it is not clear what accounts for them. I suppose that if I go through some of his JSTOR articles that touch on nitrogen fertilizer, I could get a better idea of whether or not he understands industrial farming deficits but perhaps it is sufficient to take him at his word that with chemicals doing the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil, we are able to enjoy “abundance”. In fact, the words “abundant” or “abundance” appears no less than seventeen times in his article. In itself, this does not provide much of a handle to determine whether this is good or bad. For example, the USA produces abundant amounts of corn and soybeans but this is mostly used in junk food.

But more to the point, there is a fundamental inability in his article to distinguish between factories that produce cars and factory farms. In the industrial revolution, you had the replacement of human labor by machinery that made the mass production of clothing possible. But are there environmental consequences in producing a cotton shirt other than the greenhouse gases produced by coal-driven electricity to power the looms?

Economies of scale, division of labor and technology combined together to create consumer goods that became “abundant”. However, factory farms come at an environmental cost that dwarfs Ford’s factories beyond all measure. Let’s enumerate a few of them:

(1) Factory farms are based on monoculture. By growing wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, exclusively, you are robbing the soil of the nutrients that come naturally when a farm has a mixture of crops. This is why chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have become a plague in the Midwest. As Ben Watts observed in an article titled “The Dangers of Monoculture Farming”:

Chemicals leave traces on plants intended for consumption and are also regularly overused. Excessive use means that a large quantity of synthetic material is left in the soil after harvest. As the material is not organic it can cause great harm to the soil. Rather than being processed into organic matter by microorganisms, it will weave its way through soil polluting groundwater supplies. Pollution of groundwater will negatively alter neighboring ecosystems and even those at a great distance from the chemicals. Chemical substances will kill and deplete all manner of plants, and diversity of surrounding ecosystems.

(2) Factory farms producing chicken, pork and beef for the market are classic example of “economies of scale” but at what cost? You can certainly blame capitalism for how pig factory farms in South Carolina use lakes and rivers as a cesspool but if this came to an end under socialism, would we still want to eat meat that was far inferior to that produced on a traditional farm? The other question is probably not one that matters too much to “productivists” like Huber but as socialists do we abide the cruelty to hens, pigs and cattle that is by necessity associated with factory farms? That’s not going to be in any revolutionary program I would support.

(3) Factory farms are impossible to integrate with cities. As I pointed out in a brief reply to Huber on FB, the Communist Manifesto includes this in its goals: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Marx called for this in order to overcome the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” in V. 3 of Capital. The 1981 edition is quite clear in helping us make the connection to the Communist Manifesto: “Large landed property … produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” This is a reference to the rift between natural fertilizer and agriculture.

As for Huber’s paragraph baiting me about wanting to see 7 billion people perish as if I were Pol Pot’s grandson, I will simply quote my friend Kamran Nayeri’s response to Huber on FB:

Fred Murphy suggested in a note above for me to comment on Matt Huber’s criticism of Troy Vettese’s “half-earth proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis.” First, both of Huber’s points are misguided. Had he read Wilson’s Half-Earth he would have known that Wilson devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 10: The Best Place in the Biosphere) of his book to name the regions of the planet that he proposed should be set aside for wildlife. What is notable about these regions of the planet is that they are very sparsely, if at all, populated by humans.

Wilson explicitly emphasizes that in these small pockets of humanity, almost all indigenous people are part of the ecosystem and should remain there. What he is calling for is to declare these regions as wildlife preserves not open to “development.” Huber can immediately see that of both his criticisms are not warranted. There is no need to displace anybody and declaring these regions out of reach for development would not change the current status quo for the rest of the planet. Huber also criticizes Vettese’s call for “austerity” and his seemingly proposed “compulsory” veganism. I raised these concerns with Vettese in email communications while congratulating him for his original essay. He admitted that the use of the term “austerity” was a mistake–he meant scaling down of present day conspicuous consumption. He also advocates veganism as necessary for maintaining biodiversity.

He does not mean vegaism must become a law punishable by the state! Now, having disposed of Hubert’s concerns, let me say a few words about the framing of his critique of Vettese and his essay. In my reading of the essay, which I suggest deserves a detailed response, I find it at fault in some fundamental ways. First, the reading of Marx and Engels is questionable. Reducing their methodology (historical materialism) to “socialism given what exists” is not convincing, given the richness of Marx’s own employment of the method say in his writing on the French revolution or in his Capital and associated texts.

To be sure, there are strands of M&E thought that support a reading like Hubert’s. But there is far more in them than what Hubert makes of their method and their vision of socialism. For example, on the question of “population” Marx did not hold that “the more the better” or that there can never be “too many people” from an ecological point of view. In fact, in Grundrisse, he argues population is conditioned by the mode of production. Thus, our 7+ billion world population is not just a “given” that should shape the ecosocialist future. I have argued a number of times that human population can and should be reduced dramatically in the process of transition to ecosocialism through democratic family planning led by empowered women. Or take the present day food system based on industrial farming.

It is entirely the result of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy in which cheap food is essential for cheap labor force, hence higher profits. Another example, the idea of “free time” in Marx does not preclude creative work including growing our own food. To call it drudgery shows how work in Hubert’s view is equated with alienated labor. The problem in Marx is not working but doing alienated labor. I can go on. But to me Hubert’s essay represents an anthropocentric, productivist argument, with affinity to ecomodernism. In contrast we need an ecocentric socialism. Here is my own proposal to contrast with that of Hubert.

https://knayeri.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-civilization-crisis-and-how-to.html

Let me conclude with some observations on where this “productivism” comes from. To some extent, I have seen it among sects with a far too orthodox understanding of Trotsky’s writings, which is typified by his “If America Should Go Communist” that sounds like it might have inspired Huber:

Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. “Technocracy” can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism.

National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system. The results will be stupendous.

Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers’ purchasing power.

To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as isolated links or to join the public chain.

Although I remain strongly influenced by Trotsky, when it comes to “the dialectics of nature”, I find Bukharin’s approach far more convincing:

“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”

–Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

“No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world.”

–Nikolai Bukharin, “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”, 1925


Huber’s FB Post

Louis N. Proyect has posted two blog posts here that criticize my piece (linked here again) – and I wanted to try to clarify a couple things (I hope this is an OK venue to do so).

First, he twice draws from this quote from my piece “Today, virtually every ‘input’ into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the ‘work’ of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.” In his first post, he says this quote shows I don’t understand the “metabolic rift.” In the second he claims it reads like a Monsanto commercial. He seems to think I’m fully endorsing industrial agriculture. But, I am not saying industrial agriculture is 100% good or ecologically unproblematic (I understand its awful ecological effects). I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system. Who is going to do that work? Under what conditions?

Second, in his latest, Louis claims my article, “dismisses the importance of biodiversity.” Nowhere in my article do I do this. Like any ecologically aware person (this week only confirming what we already knew), I think the biodiversity crisis is severe. What I do is criticize Troy Vettese’s “half earth” proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis. Can we be clear on what this proposal means? One first could legitimately ask how 7 plus billion could survive if literally half of the earth must be “set aside” for nonhumans. (if you think that’s fine, I would ask which of the 7 billion you think should be allowed to perish?) Moreover, since most biodiversity exists in the tropical zones, this would require a massive (and likely neocolonial) “wilderness” preservation regime in the Global South. Given the already documented violence toward peasants and indigenous peoples across the globe to enforce existing parks and wilderness territories, this would entail massive displacement and dispossession of rural peoples in already impoverished countries.

Any ecosocialist program should not be based on “setting aside” nature to save it, but has to deal with the root of the problem: how we produce the material basis of our existence (this is what historical materialism is about right?!?). And, how we use land in the production process. We are not going to save biodiversity by “setting it aside.” We need to actually develop productive systems that don’t destroy it in the first place.

 

May 10, 2019

The Serengeti Rules

Filed under: Ecology,extinction,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It would be difficult to imagine a more timely film than “The Serengeti Rules”, which arrived at the Quad Cinema in NY today and opens at the Laemmle in L.A. next Friday. Last Monday the UN released a report that made front page news everywhere. The Guardian led with these paragraphs:

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

“The Serengeti Rules” is a profile of a group of scientists that could be described as the most renowned of those who helped create the momentum behind the UN Report. Now in their seventies by all appearance, they were focused on researching biodiversity and formulating methods that could be used to preserve it. They sought to prevent species extinctions that was a sine qua non for preventing the extinction of the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet today—us. It is a deep irony that homo sapiens can either destroy the planet or save it, all a function of its ability to grasp the need for a socialist victory over the ruling class that threatens every living thing.

The ecosystems being impinged upon today have been with us for millions of years. In each instance, there are animals that the scientists in “The Serengeti Rules” describe as a keystone species. Remove any one of them and life all around them can die. Bob Paine, a U. of Washington ecologist, is widely credited as the discoverer of their role in ecosystems. In a 1966 paper, he presented evidence that when a starfish is removed from a tide-pool, it rapidly becomes a dead zone of the kind that the Great Barrier Reef is turning into. When a starfish disappears, the mussels that are part of the ecosystem soon devour all the kelp and thus make it impossible for other marine life to feed and to reproduce.

Following in his footsteps, other scientists identified keystone species that tend to be predators. In the past, scientists looked at the creatures at the top of the food-chain as being dependent on life beneath it. At the bottom level, there was vegetation. At the middle level, smaller animals such as deer ate the vegetation. The lions, tigers and cougars at the top then ate the deer, and so on. Paine and the other ecologists we hear from in the film conducted experiments revealing that it was the other way around. Remove the predator at the top and everything beneath it dies. Since the predator at the top is most susceptible to human interference, the threat to biodiversity must be reduced by reducing in turn the murderous footprint of farmers, ranchers, miners, and logging companies in places like the Amazon rainforest.

On another topical note, the NY Times reported 4 days ago that one of the most emblematic predators in the world is in danger of extinction:

The Sundarbans, 4,000 square miles of marshy land in Bangladesh and India, hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest and a rich ecosystem supporting several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

But 70 percent of the land is just a few feet above sea level, and grave changes are in store for the region, Australian and Bangladeshi researchers reported in the journal Science of The Total Environment. Changes wrought by a warming planet will be “enough to decimate” the few hundred or so Bengal tigers remaining there.

Toward the end of the film, one of the profiled scientists described the explosive, uncontrolled and largely counter-productive growth of algae and other plants or animals resulting from a keystone species absence as a “cancer”. I have no idea whether he was influenced by Joel Kovel’s writings but when I heard him draw this analogy at the Brecht Forum 30 years ago or so, it was an epiphany. Capitalism produces tumors, in effect. Fracking, pesticides, industrial fishing trawlers, plastics in the ocean, pig waste in the rivers of the Carolinas, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and greenhouse gases. All this stuff that is associated with late capitalism will end up killing us by killing the biodiversity we ultimately rely on.

The Winter 2019 edition of Socialist Forum, the magazine of the DSA, is a special issue on ecology. Among the articles is one titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” by Matt Huber, which dismisses the importance of biodiversity. Since it is the only one that is so obviously alien to Green thought, it might be regarded as an outlier. However, Jacobin saw fit to publish an article in their special issue on ecology by Leigh Phillips that has the same “productivist” abuse of Marxism. Invoking Frederick Engels as his inspiration, Huber writes:

Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

I would urge you to read Vettese’s article, which thankfully is not behind a paywall. It is in the spirit of “The Serengeti Rules” and must-reading in order to understand the crisis we face. Here is the reference to Wilson. Despite the fact that his sociobiology is toxic, Vettese’s use of his research seems incontrovertible:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe.footnote10 Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

Finally, with respect to Frederick Engels, Huber describes him as a likely supporter of his understanding of farming that might have been picked up by watching Monsanto commercials:

Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.

One supposes that Huber has never read Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” but those of us who have will understand the need for a film like “The Serengeti Rules”, the need to see it, and finally the need to become part of a movement to prevent the Sixth Extinction:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Visit https://www.theserengetirules.com/ for resources on biodiversity.

 

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