3 Jun 2008

Permanent Revolution

i have been debating with Permanent Revolution...

Derek Wall on ecosocialism (PR8)

Helen Ward’s article “A Question of Power” [Permanent Revolution 7] provides an excellent socialist introduction to the threat of climate change. In particular it throws up the central issues of power and political economy. Environmental problems have huge technological implications. However, without being anti-technology, we need to take a critical approach.

Social questions dealing with power are almost always reduced to technical matters within the capitalist society we live in. Yes, we can produce more energy more cleanly; I remember reading that “Scotland could be the Saudi Arabia of renewables” which is a phrase I like.

Helen notes George Monbiot’s discussion of generating huge amounts of energy from deserts using solar, so I guess Saudi Arabia could be the Saudi Arabia of renewables too. However, a wasteful capitalist economy which can only function if we produce and consume at dizzying rates will always challenge the basic biochemical cycles of the planet.

Technological solutions should not become sticking plasters for a system of organised cancer. Equally, technology occurs in a social context. Our context is capitalism, so the solutions most favoured by the status quo are introduced and other alternatives are ignored. An oppressive society introduces oppressive forms of technology like nuclear power. The class struggle extends to the application of science.

Marxists, Greens, all of us need to debate the nature of technology. We also need to debate and refine our ideas about economics. The Green Party supports contraction and convergence and, taken together with Green Party policies on a range of issues from big cuts in regressive taxes like VAT, to investment in public transport, insulation . . . C and C is progress.

Depressingly the whole approach, as Helen recognises, to climate change globally is based on the market. Carbon trading will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Those with the cash can flaunt their waste and probably will. Over-consumption and waste as perverse ways of showing social status are a reality. Richard Branson is keen to introduce space tourism with biofuels, while poorer economies who want to industrialise, in contrast, will be penalised.

For carbon reduction to work at all we need to change structures and enable people to be green. A tiny example: where I live there is virtually no bus service, the local post office has been shut (a victim of neo-liberal free market deregulation!) and I don’t drive but I risk death if I cycle to and from my nearest town because there is no cycle path. Being too incompetent to pass a driving test, this makes life on occasions inconvenient! This is a trivial and personal example but the point is that the market will not solve climate change.

I am also sceptical about central planning. Planning is necessary and provides an alternative to the market. However we need to debate what this means if it is to a) work and b) work democratically. A central plan for the planet does not look practical and to me does not look like socialism. For me the Marxist solution is the commons. Commons were assaulted to create the market, but the Marxist project is to surely restore them.

Commons is based on usufrucht . . . an ugly word, but it means access to resources as long as those resources are put back in as good a condition as you found them. Commons has an inbuilt environmental aspiration and maintains free access to resources. Local commons have proved very successful in maintaining the environment, but where they still exist are under constant threat.

Workers’ conversion plans are also an approach which is essential. They need to be introduced to create real prosperity without ecological damage. Incidentally one area of struggle is, as we all know, within the trade unions. In the 1970s the Australia building workers’ union introduced green bans and prevented the construction of environmentally damaging buildings. In the 1980s the National Union of Seamen blocked nuclear waste dumping (http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/97/oceandump/radioactive/reports/history.html).

So when I hear the word planning, I wonder if this is a little abstract. I am suspicious of “the central plan”, but commons and workers’ action are vital. Maybe we have to plan at some kind of global level but more local economies that work seem to me to be the key. Workers’ and community control will lead to a world which is less likely to be polluted.

It is probably fair to say that Helen’s last few points were the ones I found closest to my view of political economy beyond the market and top down centralist plans:

“Once people get together there will be endless ingenuity in reducing energy bills and ideas for transforming the way we live and work – and it will doubtless involve taking on the local council, transport chiefs, the bosses and other anti-social members of the community.”

The Latin American ecosocialist Hugo Blanco put it like this:

“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)

From the need to fight against imperialist war to the need to prevent rainforests from being gobbled up for biofuel and soya, to ethical debates about the status of future generations and other species, discussion could be extended almost for ever.

However to sum up, we need to get involved in grassroots struggles now. John McDonnell’s support for the climate camp is one example, trade union climate action is another.

We all need to debate ecology in greater depth, in a scientific sense, so our solutions are actually solutions, not like biofuel which adds to the problem. From Marx we should take the essential principle of an economy based on use-values, not ever increasing blind accumulation of exchange-values. We need an economy that is democratic, ecological and for me that means socialism. Marx noted:

“From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

(K Marx quoted in Kovel 2002: 238)

Derek Wall is male principal speaker for the Green Party

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