Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

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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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January 10, 2020

Earth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

A case can be made that Nikolaus Geyrhalter is the most important living documentary filmmaker. As well, a case can be made that his latest film “Earth” (Erde) that opened today at the Anthology Film Archives in New York is his most important. As the film begins with a panoramic shot of the San Fernando Valley in California, the following words scroll across the screen: “Every day 60 million tons of surface soil are moved by rivers, wind and other forces of nature. Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” With this as a preface, Geyrhalter then takes us on a world tour of major excavation sites with closeups on the machinery and the women and men who operate them. On his last stop that he makes in Fort McMurray, Canada, he will not be able to film machine dreadnoughts because the tar sands extraction bosses prevent filming. However, in a perfect denouement to a film made to arouse public opinion against unbridled capitalist development, he walks the outskirts of the drilling sites with two Dene Indians whose land has been despoiled by fracking.

My first exposure to Geyrhalter’s work was in 2006 when I saw “Our Daily Bread”, an ironically titled film that takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme. A decade later, I reviewed “Homo Sapiens” that like “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration. As a general strategy, Geyrhalter is a strict believer in showing rather than telling. In the case of “Homo Sapiens”, we see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. You surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located.

Perhaps as a result of the environmental crisis, Geyrhalter’s latest abandons the austere cinéma vérité technique of the earlier films and has him interviewing workers participating in the massive assaults on earth in the name of progress. While by no means as intrusive as Michael Moore, he is clearly interested in drawing out whatever pangs of conscience they have about being accessories after the fact in what threatens to become the Sixth Extinction.

The interviewees are a varied lot. A heavy equipment operator in the San Fernando Valley, who is leveling mountains to make way for a new development of tract housing, shopping centers and other symbols of civilization, is not particularly perturbed. If the choice is between flattening a mountain and the preservation of nature, he shrugs his shoulders and tells Geyrhalter that it is necessary since people need a place to live. If you live in California, you are probably aware that suburban sprawl is bringing mountain lions, bears and other wildlife to the brink of extinction. The worker probably understands this with a fatalistic acceptance of this eventuality made easier by good pay.

In Italy, Geyrhalter visits a marble quarry where he meets a worker who has other motivations for working there besides money. He tells the filmmaker that because the work is so dangerous, he gets an adrenaline rush everyday he is there. It has the same effect on him as a drug. On the weekends, when he is away from work, the peace and quiet leave him feeling empty.

At Rio Tinto, an open-pit copper mine in Spain, he encounters workers who, despite making a livelihood in one of the most ecologically destructive forms of mining, reassure Geyrhalter that their advanced machinery is not harmful to the nature around them and remind him that copper is necessary for electricity. We can’t go back to living in caves, after all. They sound like the grinning Koch Industry workers featured in their employer’s TV commercials.

In the first sign that Geyrhalter is ready to confront such lies, he also interviews Luis Iglesias Garcia, an archaeologist whose interest in the mine is scholarly rather than commercial. Since Rio Tinto goes back to the Roman Empire that mined silver and copper from the ground beneath them, he is on the lookout for any relics that are dug up by accident. He does not see much of a future in copper mining or any other of the earth transformation projects the film casts its eye upon:

I don’t think that Earth is giving us anything easily. We extract everything in a way, you mentioned blasting before, that is rather violent. Extracting anything from the soil is a really violent process. It is quite aggressive. Everything related to resources is done with violence. Either we change our business model to a concept that is more in line with nature conservation and the rational consumption of resources, or this system will not exist much longer. Clearly, we can either change or vanish.

Humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.

The archaeologist is far more detached from the murderous assault on the planet than the two Dene Indians we meet in the final episode. They have been told by the authorities not to eat more than one or two fish a month since the river that runs through their reservation has been contaminated by the toxic byproducts of fracking. Jean L’Hommecourt tells him: “For me in my culture being a Dene means people of the land, so we are of the Earth and we need the Earth to survive, to exist as a human being. In our culture we believe that every element of Earth has a spirit.”

In the only visit where mining is not currently taking place, Geyrhalter goes to a salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany that has been converted into a repository for nuclear power plant radioactive waste. When they first began storing drums of the toxic byproducts in the sixties, the engineers thought they were living up to governmental regulations. The salt mine must be resistant to hazardous accidents or human malfeasance for a million years. Less than fifty years had gone by when they learned that ground water seeping into the mine would risk eating away the drums and causing a Chernobyl type disaster. During his visit, he met with the man and woman in charge of relocating the drums who did not seem sure what guarantees there could be for safe storage for the next million years anywhere on earth. Maybe it’s up to Elon Musk to transport the drums in a rocket up to Mars after he has built a brand-new world for humans there.

In an interview with Geyrhalter in the press notes, he considers such a quandary:

Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It’s not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can’t escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don’t have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.

I don’t blame Geyrhalter for his fatalism. Many mornings, I wake up feeling this way myself especially after watching a few minutes of CNN. The reason things “are the way they are” is capitalism, not overpopulation. Capitalism creates commodities that can generate profit, whatever their impact is on the planet. Ironically, population growth is accelerated by capitalist-imposed poverty. Peasant families tend to be large because the children become unpaid labor. In countries that are prosperous, population tends to be stable or even decline. In any case, the answer to our problems is the intelligent use of resources. Geyrhalter may not be the person to listen to when it comes to the broader questions of ecological living but his films are a wake-up call for what awaits us as our unintelligent ruling class plunges us into ruin.

December 27, 2019

Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 27, 2019

In the recently published “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care,” Giorgos Kallis tackles weighty and expansive topics in merely 156 pages. One cannot help but wonder if his brevity (the soul of wit, after all) was in keeping with the book’s theme—how humanity can live an abundant life within material limits.

Kallis is a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), who has made both theoretical and practical contributions to environmentalism. In addition to writing articles in defense of “degrowth,” he worked for the European Parliament’s Science and Technological Options Assessment Unit for the preparation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

“Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong” is a critique of Malthusianism, as put forward in the 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” It also refutes the “neo-Malthusian” writings of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. Since the Club of Rome issued a report titled “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, one has to wonder why a degrowth advocate would be its critic. The answer is that Malthus and neo-Malthusianism are entirely different animals.

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December 13, 2019

If Time Magazine Celebrates Greta Thunberg, Why Should We?

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 13, 2019

In just over 6,500 words, Time Magazine  makes the case for Greta Thunberg being 2019’s Person of the Year. For much of the left, this confirms that she is a corporate tool. Founded in 1923 by Henry Luce, Time was the flagship of the Luce empire. Print newsmagazines have gone into a steep decline with the advent of the Internet. Despite a steep decline in circulation, Time remains the second-largest weekly after People.

Henry Luce was one of the most powerful Republican Party supporters in the 20th century, the Rupert Murdoch of his day. Luce was a member of the China Lobby that sought the overthrow of Mao Zedong. He also urged JFK to invade Cuba. Unless he did, Luce planned to imitate William Randolph Hearst and push for war, even if involved the big lie. These odious policies and others fell within the rubric of the “American Century,” a concept Luce articulated in Life magazine, another part of his empire. Through such magazines, he shared the dominant view of the American ruling class during its “globalization” phase. He had close social ties to men like John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State, and his brother, director of the CIA, who worked overtime to overthrow any government that dared to defy Washington’s will.

So, why should the left celebrate Greta Thunberg being named person of the year given this background?

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November 21, 2019

Dining on the Impossible Burger

Filed under: Ecology,food,Kevin Coogan,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Fake meat about to be enjoyed by real people

This week I picked up a couple of 12 ounce packages of Impossible Burger from Fairway in order to see what fake meat tastes like. I was motivated not just out of curiosity as a food lover but to gauge its potential role in resolving the ecological crisis caused by cattle ranching. There’s a certain irony in buying “Green” products from a grocery chain owned by Blackstone. According to The Intercept, its CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a driving force behind deforestation:

Two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, carnage that has developed into raging fires that have captivated global attention.

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which will then sail to a larger port before the cargo is shipped around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

I left it up to my sister-in-law to use the Impossible Burger in a Turkish dish. Originally, she was going to make kofte (Turkish hamburger) but it turned out to be too fragile, falling apart in her hands when she was making paddies. Instead, she made something that amounted to a flat meatloaf that she never cooked before. To my surprise, it was delicious.

Up until about five years ago, I used to eat Amy’s Veggie Burgers 2 or 3 times a week for lunch. I cut it out for health reasons. How can a veggie burger be unhealthy, you must be asking. Well, it wasn’t the burger but the two slices of bread that surrounded it. Dealing with a prediabetic condition at the time, I resolved to cut down on the amount of carbohydrates I took in and this was a good place to start. As for Amy’s, I didn’t have any problems with the taste but nobody could possibly confuse it with meat.

In a 23-page article in The New Yorker on Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods (he has plans to replicate chicken and fish down the road), we learn that the special ingredient that makes his laboratory beef taste like the real thing is something called heme. Tad Friend, the author of the article, explains why:

Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very different from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modified yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory flavor.

Brown’s main competitor is a company called Beyond Meat that does not use heme, which is based on genetically modified yeast. Both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have attacked the use of heme due to their stance against GMO. Beyond Meat does not use heme but that does not prevent it from running a close second behind Impossible in a taste test:

If you pass by a Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll notice that they are selling a hamburger using Beyond Meat, as does Carl’s Jr. and A&W. When an old friend noticed that it was being sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, he bought a fair amount of shares since he saw this as the wave of the future. My friend took advantage of Beyond’s I.P.O. in May, which was the most successful of the year. The stock skyrocketed up by more than five hundred per cent. All in all, this is a real magnet for venture capitalists who have noticed that sales of plant-based meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year.

This year Verso published a book by Aaron Bastani titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that took an almost Panglossian view of the future based on the idea that technology will virtually make capitalism outmoded. Among his tech-fixes is fake meat. In a NYT op-ed timed to the release of his book, he sung its praises:

The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gases and, remarkably, requires no animals to die.

Actually, the young optimist is being a bit pessimistic. I paid $18 for a pound and a half of Impossible Burger and it was enough to feed 5 people.

He does have a point about the ecological implications of real beef versus what we ate. Farming uses more water than any other human activity, with a third of that devoted to cattle. Tad Friend writes, “One-third of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

By comparison, the Impossible Burger needs eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than the real thing, mostly devoted to growing soybeans, a key ingredient. It also generates eighty-nine per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than carbon. (It is not the product of farting but burping.)

It is also important to consider the role of real meat in your personal health as opposed to the health of the planet. It is associated with heart disease and cancer. According to Friend, a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Even more frightening, “Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050.” That’s not to speak of avian and swine flus that pass easily to humans via the aerosolized feces ubiquitous to slaughterhouses. University of Minnesota researchers found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry, while Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. Nice.

Of course, it is hard to make the case that Impossible Burgers made from soybeans are particularly good for you. If Beyond Meat comes in a close second, it does come in first in healthiness since it is made of peas, mung beans, and brown rice. You’re probably better off eating broccoli and lentils for dinner but you might grow weary of that kind of diet after a while. Been there, done that.

Tad Friend mentions another technology that is animal based but not agricultural in nature. Thirty-three companies are working on a substitute for beef by using animal cells to grow meat in vats. He writes:

The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can figure out how to grow cells on a scaffolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a 3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diffusion), they’ll have solved the defining challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and fish. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and fillets.”

All of this is very intriguing but I am left with the same old question that also applies to the Green New Deal. What good do these “alternative” energy or food sources do when the capitalist system is militating against their adoption. Pat Brown told the New Yorker that he hopes to see cattle-ranching become obsolete by 2050. That would be nice but with everything else falling apart by then, we’d still be facing ruin. It is not just cattle that is impinging on rainforests. It is farming as well, including the production of soybeans that are essential to Impossible Burger.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called for the reintegration of the city and the countryside so as to overcome the “metabolic rift”. Something like that will ultimately be necessary for a sustainable agriculture. To make that happen will require an all-out assault on the capitalist system. Who knows? By the time we reach 2050, the conditions for worldwide socialist revolution will ripen to the point of making such dreams possible.

November 11, 2019

Saving Atlantis

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

Starting tomorrow, “Saving Atlantis” will be available on iTunes. This is the definitive documentary on the loss of coral reefs as a result of global warming. It relies on the testimony of marine biologists and the people whose livelihood depends on their health. Such people, many of who are indigenous, are fisherman or small proprietors in the tourist industry who will be ruined by their disappearance. Others facing ruin include those who live near the seacoast where coral reefs are a natural barrier against flooding during hurricanes, cyclones and other storms that create monstrous waves. Finally, it will be a loss to our cultural heritage since the coral reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders, just as much as the Grand Canyon or the glaciers. With the irrational use of fossil fuels posing the danger to assets belonging to all of humanity, this film helps to raise awareness and should be seen and recommended to friends and comrades.

In the film, scientists explain how coral reefs come into existence. The coral is a tiny, tentacled polyp that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with algae that settle down in its innards. The coral keeps the algae alive while it provides its host with nutrients. When a coral dies, it leaves behind a calcium carbonate skeleton that starts off at the bottom of the ocean floor and soon reaches massive proportions over the millennia. When the water rises to a certain temperature (varying from one coral species to another), the algae is expelled from the host, which itself soon dies. The lifeless coral becomes a ghostly white, a process referred to as bleaching.

The film takes us on a journey to all four corners of the world where coral reefs can still be found. We meet fishermen in Colombia, Polynesian islands and Australia as well as surfing pros in Hawaii. In addition to preventing Hawaii’s coastal villages from being flooded, they also serve to create the giant waves that draws professional and amateur surfers to its islands from all over the world.

One of the main goals of marine biologists right now is to discover why some coral are more resistant to bleaching than others. A worldwide project is underway to identify their cellular makeup, including DNA, so as to bioengineer a strain that might be able to resist the effects of global warming. While this project is commendable, one must understand that it might lead to blind alleys over decades, just as the case with cancer research. In the meantime, all efforts must be made to join Greta Thurnberg and other activists on the front lines of the struggle to eliminate fossil fuels.

I recommend both seeing this film and consulting the official website that has an excellent collections of links to activists and scientists on the front lines. I particularly recommend the page on Coral Facts  that should be read, even if you don’t get around to seeing the film. Among them is this:

Coral reefs hold secrets to human health

Many drugs come from natural products, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what medicines that impact human health can be found in these habitats. According to one recent study, “the prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem.” Coral reef products have been used for the treatment of everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease.

If this isn’t reason enough to preserve them, then we have lost the ability to understand the need for self-preservation. Given a choice between SUV’s and air conditioning on one side and a cure for cancer on the other, most people would choose the latter.

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