28 Oct 2007
At first sight, environmentalists or conservationists are nice, slightly crazy guys whose main purpose in life is to prevent the disappearance of blue whales or pandas. The common people have more important things to think about, for instance how to get their daily bread. […] However, there are in Peru a very large number of people who are environmentalists […] they might reply, ‘ecologist your mother’, or words to that effect. […] Are not the town of Ilo and the surrounding villages which are being polluted by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation truly environmentalist? Is not the village of Tambo Grande in Pirura environmentalist when it rises like a closed fist and is ready to die in order to prevent strip-mining in its valley? Also, the people of the Mantaro Valley who saw their little sheep die, because of the smoke and waste from La Oroya smelter. (Hugo Blanco quoted in Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997: 24)
I thought I would paste up a few notes on ecosocialism, I think the turmoil in RESPECT, the modest success of the Green Left and the need to deal seriously with the political economy of climate change are all fuelling interest in ecosocialism.
Many European Green Parties, in my view have moved to the centre ground and need an injection of ecosocialism if they are to be relevent, more positively the Latin American left as shown by the reaction of Cuba to oil shortages, to Chavez's condemnation of the great car economy to Morales speech to the UN, to the participation of Hugo Blanco in the ecosocialist network to the work of the green socialist in Brazil...shows that ecosocialism is making modest waves.
Do have a look at the speech by Ian Angus, who helps coordinated the Ecosocialist International network here.
The Ecology of Destruction by John Bellemy Foster is a great piece of writing on making red green politics work, do take a look here.
And why not join me by joining the Green Party of England and Wales, although I recognise that there are plenty of other paths people take...
My thoughts, my stray thoughts
Ecosocialists are strongly critical of capitalist growth. James O’ Connor argues that capitalist growth tends to degrade the environment it depends upon to sustain growth. Capitalism by polluting drinking water, reducing soil fertility and breeding toxins, weakens the ability of both workers and nature to sustain growth. This second contradiction like the primarily economic contradictions discussed by Marx, has a tendency to drive the system out of existence. O’Connor notes that to overcome environmental contradictions capitalism introduces new technologies that solve old environmental problems at the expense of creating new ones. Thus nuclear power is posited as an alternative to greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels, he also quotes Gary Snyder’s contention that capitalism ‘spreads its economic support system out far enough that it can afford to wreck one eco-system, and keep moving on’ (O’Connor 1998: 181).
Some ecosocialists fear that the globalised economy is running out of fresh ecosystems to kill. Kovel presents a series of terrifying statistics to suggest that planetary ecology is bending if not breaking under the strain of environmental damage fuelled by neo-liberal globalisation. He notes how, between the first Earth Day in 1970 and 2000:
Oil consumption had increased from 46 million barrels a day to 73 million;
Natural gas extraction had increased from 34 trillion cubic feet per year to 95 trillion;
Coal extraction had gone from 2.2 billion metric tonnes to 3.8 billion;
The global motor vehicle population had almost tripled, from 246 million to 730 million;
Air traffic had increased by a factor of six;
The rate at which trees are consumed to make paper had double, to 200 million metric tons per year;
Human carbon emissions had increased from 3.9 million metric tons annually to an estimated 6.4 million – this despite the additional impetus to cut back caused by an awarness of global warming, which was not perceived to be a factor in 1970;
[…] average temperatures increased by 1 Fahrenheit – a disarmingly small number that, being unevenly distributed, translates into chaotic weather events (seven of the ten most destructive storms in recorded history having occurred in the last decade), and an unpredictable and uncontrollable cascade of ecological trauma – including now the melting of the North Pole during the summer of 2000, for the first time in 50 million years, and signs of the disappearance of the ‘snows of Kilmanjaro’ the year following;
species were vanishing at a rate that has not occurred in 65 million years;
fish were being taken at twice the rate as in 1970;
40 per cent of agricultural soils had been degraded;
half of the forests had disappeared;
half of the wetlands had been filled or drained;
one-half of US coastal waters were unfit for fishing or swimming;
despite concerted effort to bring to bay the emissions of ozone-depleting substances, the Antarctic ozone hole was the largest ever in 2000, some three times the size of the continental United States; meanwhile, 2000 tons of the substances that cause it continue to be emitted every day; and
7.3 billion tons of pollutants were released in the United States during 1999. (Kovel 2002: 3-4)
Kovel is convinced that such appalling statistics can be correlated with and explained by rising economic growth. Echoing the criticism of economic growth by Greens noted in chapter four, he observes how between 1970 and 2000 global economic product rose by 250% from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. As we have seen higher growth has increased global inequality. He argues that environmental damage;will gradually rise like a tide. Incrementally, day-by-day, climatic conditions will become worse with the greenhouse effect, toxins will increase in our bodies and new diseases will evolve and spread as ecosystems are disrupted:
If the world were a living organism, then any sensible observer would conclude that this ‘growth’ is a cancer that, if not somehow treated, means the destruction of human society, and even raises the question of the extinction of our species. The details are important and interesting, but less so that the chief conclusion – that irresistible growth, and the evident fact that this growth destabilizes and breaks down the natural ground necessary for human existence, means, in the plainest terms, that we are doomed under the present social order, and that we had better change it as soon as possible (Kovel 2002: 5).
It is a sad irony that Kovel had to write the obituary of his ecosocialist co-worker Walt Sheasby who died of the effects of the West Nile virus which is spread by mosquitos that have travelled north through the state with rising temperatures. Sheasby wrote extensively on ecosocialism, was a founder of the Green Party in California and chronicled Marx’s love of the environment and affinities with Zen. I come to the end of a sentence, scratch my head and think Walt will know, only to remember he won’t be answering my emails any more.
While ecosocialists agree that capitalism is characterised in the third millennium by the activities of transnationals and the finance capital needs of the bank, even without such forces the market would tend to be destructive. Ecosocialists have a tradition of using the term imperialism but imperialism based on the activities of monopolistic corporations is not enough to explain ecological destruction. For Kovel, the conflict between Islamic Jihadists and the Bush administration since the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 is a product of oil imperialism, however things go deeper:
As organized by the capitalist-industrial economy, progress and modernity require the limitless exploitation of energy resources: in a word, oil; and in another word, imperialist control over the oil-soaked parts of the earth, the chief parts of which happen to be inhabited by Islamic peoples. Thus the fundamentalists do not hate us because of our free life-style. They hate us because of the ruin brought upon their societies in order to fuel that life-style.
Nor does the ruin end with the direct effects of imperialism on the peoples of one region. The whole of terrestrial nature is afflicted with the by-products of capitalist expansion. The same process that brings corrupt dictatorships and violence from the skies also gives us global warming, indeed, the entire ecological crisis, that destabilization of the natural ground of society which puts the very idea of a future at risk.
The planes that slammed into the World Trade Center brought down more than great buildings and thousands of lives. They brought us up against the unfaced contradictions of our civilization. (<www.joelkovel.org> Beyond The Deadly Dance)
Kovel argues that the distinction between exchange values and use values outlined by Marx in chapter one of Capital is the essential insight for understanding both globalisation and the ecological and social ills that it unleashes. In an economy based upon the market, we do not directly produce goods because they are useful to us. We produce goods that we exchange for money that we can then use to exchange for other goods. This seems a sensible and convenient arrangement. However, we constantly have to sell if we are to buy. This means that we have to persuade others to buy our goods if are to survive. A contradiction tends to develop between the usefulness of goods and their value from exchange. We thus have to sell goods that previously had no use to maintain our ability to buy goods and services. This tendency has a tendency to get out of hand.
In the third millennium, the contradiction between use and exchange values has accelerated to an astonishing gap. Abstract economic activity with no apparent use value commands billions, while concrete useful activity particularly in the ‘domestic’ sphere of caring for kids, relatives, preparing basic foodstuffs (the subject of subsistence discussed in chapter four) is largely unrewarded. Producing for use is no priority at all. If goods were quite useless one might be reluctant to exchange them and this would lead to economic problems, For the moment, however, society is focussed on exchange. If you buy this book instead of borrowing it from the library this increases exchange value, but it would be better ecologically and socially to provide books, Cds, DVDs, children’s toys, tools, etc via libraries because this would circulate use values more widely. Anything that increases exchange values is encouraged in our society because it allows the market economy to function, this however means that use values are largely ignored or achieved through duplication and waste.
For ecosocialists it is clearly not enough to reform the worst aspects of capitalism or to define capitalism in such a way that mild change is possible. Many of the anti-capitalists examined in these pages see capitalism as the poisoned out growth of what is a basically sane system. The abolition of fractional reserve banking, localisation of economies, an element of state or community planning, for example, can be used to heal the system. Ecosocialists see the need for economic growth as built into the market. This takes us a long way from all of the elite theories of capitalism. Such elite theories are political rather than economic. They suggest that a particular class or even group of conspirators get together to design a globalising system that brings them immense personal wealth and power at the expense of poor and planet. Ecosocialist approaches suggest that the reality is even more worrying. Rather than there being a particular group who could be replaced, the system tends to self-perpetuate and is driven by apparently extra human forces.
The Chairman of the board will always tell you that he spends his every waking hour laboring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price and work in the best possible conditions. But it is an institutional fact, independent of who the chairman of the board is, that he'd better be trying to maximize profit and market share, and if he doesn't do that, he's not going to be chairman of the board any more. If he were ever to succumb to the delusions that he expresses, he'd be out. (Foster 2002: 48)
Kovel argues that capitalism is like a virus spreading through the world, that moves extensively through geographical space and intensively into our very souls. Globalisation is driven by the crises of capitalism. To maintain profit firms must sell more and exploit labour with greater vigor. A falling profit rate can be overcome by a combination of exploiting labour more intensively (getting them to work harder) or extensively (getting them to worker for longer) and selling to new markets. To survive capitalism has therefore to grow for ever. New economic niches must be exploited by constructing new needs. Capitalism, Luxemburg argued, needs an outside to colonise (Luxemburg 1971). Nature must be commodified by enclosing and exploiting new habitats. People must constantly consume more and work harder:
In 1992 alone U.S. business spent perhaps $1 trillion on marketing, simply convincing people to consume more and more goods. This exceeded by about $600 billion the amount spent on education--public and private--at all levels. Under these circumstances we can expect people to grow up with their heads full of information about saleable commodities, and empty of knowledge about human history, morality, culture, science, and the environment. What is most valued in such a society is the latest style, the most expensive clothing, the finest car. Hence, it is not surprising that more than 93 percent of teenage girls questioned in a survey conducted in the late 1980s indicated that their favorite leisure activity was to go shopping. (Foster 2002: 46-47)
Clearly, as the many activists and writers discussed in these pages show, capitalism keeps moving on to new areas. The process of privatisation encouraged by the WTO, IMF and World Bank means that new areas of corporate economic activity are developed to attempt to maintain profits.
Capitalism also has a psychological dimension. The system tends to select those who are most aggressive and inspired at increasing profit. Individuals in firms who decide that there is a kinder, gentler way of doing things or who have priorities other than profit trying to produce what is most ecological or useful, for example, either fail to rise to the top or are replaced:
People who are genuinely forthcoming and disinterestedly helpful do not become managers of large capitalist firms. The tender-hearted are pushed off far down the ladder on which one ascends to such positions of power. For capital shapes as well as selects the kinds of people who create these events. (Kovel 2002: 38)
Every member of a capitalist firm could be replaced by another and the system would still maintain its trajectory. Capitalism colonises us internally and makes us dream of shopping.
Capitalism is a system that has evolved out of human action but seems to have developed its own inhuman power. Capitalists recognising that the end of the world may ultimately be bad for business will try to find ways of creating sustainable growth. Companies will seek corporate solutions to the ecological crisis. However, as far as market players are concerned, declining profits are a threat today and pollution a threat tomorrow, so share values are likely to take precedence over indices of species destruction.
John Bellamy Foster summaries the ecosocialist account of globalisation by comparing it to a giant treadmill:
First, built into this global system, and constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of "social security" for a least a portion of its citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.
[…] Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at liveable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place. (Foster 2002: 44-45)
Adapted from Babylon and Beyond...Derek Wall (Pluto 2005)
Posted by Derek Wall at 11:22 am