Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Three Tribes of Political Ecology


 

Written by Pierre Charbonnier and first published at Green European Journal

The decade that ended in 2020 was the decade of global climate inaction. Without a doubt, our inability to transform our economic systems into models compatible with planetary boundaries will define the beginning of the 21st century.

This failure can be explained by the chasm that has opened between existing political structures, geared to competitiveness and productivity in the name of jobs, and the environmental and climate imperatives determined by Earth system science. Overlooking the negative externalities of the cheap energy that allows global supply chains to function is nowadays impossible.

More radically, the economic effort that seeks to answer our demands for social justice and material wellbeing threatens these same objectives. Our era is marked by the disconnect between what we have inherited and what we see, somewhat stunned, on the horizon.

Today, we find ourselves prisoners of technical and ideological systems passed down from a largely destroyed world characterised by a stable climate and the cornucopian ideal. The world we are going to live in, which we already are living in, has different physical characteristics to that of previous generations, yet much of the thinking informing politics still stems from that lost world.

In particular, the current system of property rights and the quest for productivity gains are relics of an already distant past. Contemporary subjectivities, encapsulated in the domestic sphere and driven by technologies of individual mobility, appear strangely distant from the imperatives and possibilities of the present. The world born of this modern project has also made large parts of that very project obsolete.

Part of the problem is that we overestimate how much we depend on these ways of thinking and acting. History teaches that growth-based societies are not built without conflict, that they are the product of a fragile accommodation between science, technology, and politics and that these always contain elements of a counter-movement. The inertia of large technical systems and ideals of progress should not be confused with inevitability: our relationship with the future and the tools at hand can be re-examined.

One of the difficulties, both politically and intellectually, is determining exactly what we have inherited, what we should keep, and what we should discard or reject. The answer depends on your starting point. For that reason, political ecology is closely associated with thinking about time, because the climate crisis completely turns our political time horizon on its head.

Placing our predicament

At least three timescales are relevant to thinking about the political task at hand. Over the long term, the greening of societies can be understood as a subversion of the structures that shape our collective relationship with nature. According to that time frame, the goal is to return to the roots of the modern project and renegotiate our relationship with the living and our place in the world.

Over the medium term, the timescale defined by industrial capitalism and its critiques, political ecology can be seen as a renewed call for social justice based on the disciplining of capital. And, finally, over the short term, the timescale of the post-war Great Acceleration, or even Asia’s economic catch-up, a more technocratic view essentially sees it as a question of ending global superpowers’ escalating use of fossil fuels by financing a decarbonised productive sector.

Depending on the scale used, different political imaginaries, different levers for change, and different movements emerge. The success of the great green transformation depends on an alliance between these three projects and their ability not to hold each other in contempt.

The intermediate phase probably holds centre stage today. The main ideological thrust for building political ecology now comes from the traditional left, with its roots in the labour movement and its need for a new rallying call after the failure of left-populism. Various versions of the Green New Deal form the common foundation for a coordinated welfare state response to the environmental imperative.

Behind the Green New Deal lies the idea that the power of capital can only be limited by the intervention of a government attentive to demands for equality, and that these demands are inseparable from curbing the fossil fuel economy. Just as the ills of industrial development were met with labour law and social protection, today’s socialist programme must address environmental ills.

As recently outlined in the manifesto A Planet to Win [read our interview with the co-authors], the marriage of environmentalism and socialism relies on reactivating the traditional language of class struggle. Its central tenet is that growing economic insecurity goes hand in hand with growing environmental insecurity and that conflicts around social inequality will eventually become environmental conflicts too.

In a period when working­-class electorates have been won over by the conservative neo­liberalism of Trump and the Brexiteers, who successfully hacked the narrative of protection and community (now associated with identity), the challenge is to win back the political imaginary of that social class.

It is clear how this strategy is born of the industrial legacy of the 19th century: deeply constrained by its past faith in growth and technological development, social justice now depends on a system reset and, through a job guarantee, the end of the employment blackmail by economic elites.

Green socialism now appears to be the most credible platform in the US and is starting to gain traction in Europe. It has two main limitations. First, it is largely based on a form of statism. Once passed on to the state via the ballot box, demands for environmental justice are addressed by regulation and redirecting investment. Besides the fact that resistance within the state apparatus to such transformations should not be underestimated, nor should the flight of private capital, this political imaginary is one of total mobilisation, as usually used in wartime.

In other words, it implies a declaration of war against an enemy who we are not sure is domestic (fossil fuel capital) or foreign (petrostates, like Saudi Arabia) – a declaration of war that entails a foreign policy. The second drawback to green socialism is that, just as the post-war welfare state, it would rest on the privileged position of the Global North over the South, which lacks the means to finance such an energy transition but will be hit hardest by the climate crisis.

Statism and the (relative) lack of global thinking are two aspects of green socialism that arouse criticism and distrust from the second ecological project. This stems from thinking that purports to be more radical when it comes to the relationship between nature and society and intends to tear down the structures that reduced the environment to a productive partner.

The timescale here is not that of industrial society’s crises but scientific modernity, or the disenchantment of the world. It dates back to at least the 16th century, a period of scientific revolutions in astronomy and physics that established the centrality of human reason in the cosmos, and a period of great discoveries that became the basis for Western domination over the rest of the world.

This critique is shared by many, including strands of thought that are geographically and culturally peripheral, such as those of Amazonian, Arctic, and Native American communities whose social relationships with the living world cannot simply be reduced to appropriation and exploitation. But it also comes from movements born of modernity who want to break with dominant paradigms. Regional fightbacks against a state sovereignty generally subservient to the goal of growth echo this fundamental questioning of modern history.

In France, the ZAD (zone à défendre – zone to defend) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a longstanding but now dismantled protest camp against the building of a redundant airport, has come to symbolise a connection with the land based on the radical autonomy of its users and guardians. These movements are turning against sovereignty, property, and extraction, all different components of the modernist matrix.

The strength of these movements, their radicalism, is also their weakness. They reclaim islands of autonomy one after the other and bet on a slow cultural and legal paradigm shift. They are expensive in terms of personal investment and generally inaccessible to those who, out of necessity, must seek work in today’s overly competitive labour market and cannot risk leaving the structures of the welfare state behind.

Placing this fight on a metaphysical plane means placing it within the long time frame that brackets the structures of human and ecological co-existence. Each type of critique has its own speed and rhythm, and this particular critique appears extremely slow in light of the deadline set by climate science.

Finally, a third sphere of mobilisation is based on a seemingly less radical, but much faster, environmental praxis. It is possible to view the climate deadlock not as the consequence of a deep and long process going back to the founding of modern cosmology, nor even as the consequence of industrialisation in general, but as the result of the Great Acceleration.

That is to say, as a later phenomenon bringing together the energy abundance of oil, the construction of a technosphere based on individual mobility and mass consumption, and welfare-state institutions founded on GDP growth and its measurement.

The physical characteristics – the pipelines, airports, and real estate – of this acceleration mean that it is controlled by a technological and economic elite concentrated in a small number of companies, especially in the energy and agri-food industries, and in a handful of seats of power and knowledge, most notably the supranational regulatory bodies that shape the free market, as well as, of course, the main sovereign geopolitical players.

While the iron’s hot

What the climate movement has revealed is that these decision-making structures are extremely powerful, yet much more vulnerable than we think. Effective divestment campaigns targeting the most destructive sectors, particularly if taken up by central banks, could paralyse the structures of fossil capitalism, and with them the inefficient and unequal supply chains that govern our existence.

The empowerment of civil servants and civil engineers freed from budgetary pseudo-constraints to drive the environmental transition of cities, transport systems, and housing infrastructure would go in the same direction. Shaping a new art of government uncorrupted by the demands of growth and supported by expertise appears as a most reasonable goal. All this sounds less romantic than idealistic calls for civilisational shifts and unconditional generosity towards a revitalised natural world.

The test of power will be the obligatory next step, one that will probably be less exciting than the foundation of a renewed cultural paradigm, but surely quicker to implement.

This new green elite does not recruit the same type of people as the other two movements described above. Yet it is clear that there is animosity, real or imagined, between the post-colonial autonomist utopians, the eco-Jacobins of the Green New Deal, and these champions of the technocratic revolution.

From a theoretical perspective, we might insist that each problem be addressed on an appropriate timescale, be it that of the cosmological structures of modernity, the ills of industrialisation, or the Great Acceleration. But just as these three underlying historiographical assumptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, neither are the three critical counter-movements and the forces driving them necessarily destined for rivalry. They must learn to win each other over and establish common ground on which to build.

In reality, their objective interests are aligned – what we call in France the “convergence of struggles” – despite different political identities, tactics, and practices of power. This alignment is without doubt partially momentary, but as Machiavelli said, politics is the art of seizing the right moment to act.

Pierre Charbonnier is a philosopher and a researcher fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and Ecole des hautes études en science sociales in France. He is the author of La fin d’un grand partage (2105, CNRS) and Abondance et liberté (2019, la Découverte).

Friday, 9 July 2021

From the Depths of the Pandemic towards an Ecosocialist Utopia


Written by Martin Aidnik and first published at ROAR

In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need bold and imaginative thinking — it is time to embrace the utopianism that is implicit to the Marxist tradition.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging our carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

— Arundhati Roy

Socialism is one of the great visions of a society in the modern era. Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the early days of industrialization, socialism is about achieving freedom and equality in real, practical terms. Socialism envisions a society based on cooperation, which meets the needs of all of its members. It recognizes that everyday practices, especially work, need to be democratically organized and freed from necessity in order for people to find fulfilment in social existence. Emancipation — the liberation of social life from structural constraints — is the task that sustains socialist aspirations.

How does the wisdom of socialism, both in its Marxian and ecological forms, apply to our own time — the time of COVID-19 and climate emergency?

COVID-19, a deadly virus wreaking havoc across borders and continents, has put the capitalist world under a magnifying glass. It has amplified structural deficiencies and inequalities and showed us how systematic efforts to maximize wealth have undermined the health of society as a whole. Under the reign of neoliberalism, this has led to neglect of the resilience of health care systems as well as a steady shrinking of the entire public sector. With its seismic impact, COVID-19 underscores the need for socialist transformation.

At the same time, there is the planetary and existential issue of climate emergency. A recent United Nations report states that “despite a brief dip in the global carbon dioxide emission as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the planet is still heading for a global temperature in excess of 3 degrees Celsius this century.” It has thus become clear that only a radical transformation can save humanity and the planet from the ruin. Changes within the capitalist system will not suffice. Instead, a transition to socialism is necessary as it is socialism which can establish the conditions in which both human and non-human life can not only survive, but also thrive.

A convergence between Marxian socialism and ecosocialism can help us envision a remedy to the deep troubles of our time. In this essay, I take utopia as that convergence. As articulated by the maverick philosopher, Ernst Bloch, the Marxist tradition is implicitly utopian. In this “warm stream” of the Marxist tradition, utopia provides orientation and explores the realm of the possible. It is first and foremost a catalyst for social change. It propels agency in the form of forward-looking thought, critique and engagement with the status quo. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is called for is bold and imaginative thinking. In order to live up to this task, ecosocialism should embrace utopianism.

The Scientific Socialism of Marx and Engels

The Marxian critique of capitalism remains unsurpassed and is more relevant 150 years after its invention than it should be. In Capital, Marx argues that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and undertakes an extensive investigation of these contradictions. By turning labor into a commodity, capitalism erodes the difference between things and human beings. Capitalism creates unprecedented wealth but degrades the proletariat. Along with his collaborator Engels, Marx also sought to contribute to the formation of a working-class consciousness. Their theory is decidedly partisan to bringing about social change.

In contrast, earlier utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon were idealists. They believed that society can be changed by appealing to all classes on the basis of reason and justice. They did not appeal directly to the working class, in part because they feared inciting unrest. But for Marx and Engels, political struggle was the only viable way.

In order to avoid the charge of being seen as daydreamers who were merely building “castles in the air,” Marx and Engels were keen to label their socialism “scientific.” According to Engels, one of the key theoretical innovations that turned Marx’s socialism from utopian to scientific is his materialist conception of history or “historical materialism.” Historical materialism postulates that different realms of society are interconnected and determined by the economic structure. The possibilities of social transformation depend on the material conditions of each epoch.

Yet Marxian socialism also has its own a utopian character. This consists chiefly in the transcendence of alienation through a classless socialist society. In such a state of freedom, human beings can develop and flourish as fully-actualized individuals. A socialist society would be both free and equal, built on a bedrock of meaningful labor. In sum, Marx’s utopia, encapsulates human freedom as a precondition for creativity and cooperation in a society where economic antagonisms have ceased to exist.

The “Warm Stream” of Marxist Thought

In the 20th century, German utopian philosopher, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), re-theorized Marxism to add a spiritual, forward-looking dimension in the form of utopia. Bloch contended that Marxism ought to go beyond the mere analysis of capitalism — dubbed “cold stream” — and speak of a better world: the “warm stream.” Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1986), frames utopia as an integral part of autonomous and creative human being-in-the-world. To be human means to construct utopias against the status quo.

As the book’s title suggests, the subjective disposition of hope is essential for Blochian utopia. Hope transcends the drudgery of our everyday lives. Liberating us from resignation to the status quo, hope requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming. Human beings exist in history but can also make their own history. Fusing hope and critique, utopia functions as a catalyst for human aspirations in the name of a liberated humanity.

Instead of giving rise to utopias, hope may of course take the form of “building castles in the sky.” But even in these self-deceptive acts, for Bloch it is the longing for a better world that shines through. In a highly idiosyncratic style making ample use of biblical language and drawing on in-depth knowledge of the German Idealist philosophy, he writes: “in all these utopias, these voyages to Cytherea, there came to expression the expectant tendency that permeates all human history.”

For Bloch the work of Marx constitutes a milestone in the utopian aspirations of humanity. Marxist socialism provides a theory with which utopia can be turned into a reality — achieved practically and collectively for the first time. Furthermore, a Marxist utopia is grounded in economic and political theory. Societal struggles coalesce around the project of post-capitalism. In other words, Bloch develops the program of Marxism in the form of human freedom and a classless, socialist society. As Bloch himself writes:

This road is and remains that of socialism, it is the practice of concrete utopia. Everything that is non-illusory, real-possible about the hope image leads to Marx, works — as always, in different ways, rationed according to the situation — as part of socialist changing of the world. The architecture of hope thus really becomes one on to man, who had previously only seen as a dream and as high, all too high pre-appearance, and one on to the new earth.

Bloch only disagrees with Marx and Engels concerning the nature of utopianism. In his estimation, they were correct to criticize abstract utopianism as mere wishful thinking, but they also made a mistake in equating all utopianism with abstract utopianism.

Bloch is adamant that concrete utopianism is part and parcel of emancipatory consciousness, which complements Marx’s theory of economic contradictions. A concrete utopia is the “what for?” of the inherent vision of social struggles. Bloch’s philosophy continues to be relevant as it illuminates the potential of a world yet to be realized.

Ecosocialism

Ecosocialism developed mostly starting from the 1970s as an attempt to reconcile human society with nature, thereby healing the wounds inflicted by capitalism. Influential exponents of ecosocialism include Raymond Williams, Rudolf Bahro and Andre Gorz. According to ecosocialism, nature has inherent value and human society coexists with the natural world, rather than outside it.

Much like earlier utopias, ecosocialism contains a spiritual dimension. The non-material interaction of humans with nature is seen as an integral part of human being-in-the-world. Ecosocialism does not posit that humans are a “surplus” on this planet or guilty of hubris, greed, aggression or other savageries. There is no unchangeable genetic inheritance or inherent corruption like original sin.

While it would be an exaggeration to state that ecosocialism is unequivocally utopian, some of its most influential representatives have taken a positive stance towards utopia. For example, ecosocialist thinker Michael Löwy is in agreement with the understanding of utopia as a catalyst for social change:

Utopia is indispensable to social change, provided that it is based on contradictions found in reality and on real social movements. This is true of ecosocialism, which proposes a strategic alliance between “reds” and “greens” — not in the narrow sense used by politicians applied to social democratic and green parties, but in the broader sense between the labor movement and the ecological movement — and the movement of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of the South.

For such a red-green an alliance, forging a new equilibrium between the Global North and South is a significant challenge. The injustice suffered by the Global South is a direct result of neocolonial resource extraction and exploitative relations of production. Due to the impact of climate change on the Global South and the disintegration of the working class in the North, the solidarity between workers across the North and South is increasingly important.

What is necessary is a reparative agenda that places the responsibility on historic emitters in the Global North, who have to contribute their fair share to planetary sustainability. This includes measures such as striving for zero carbon by 2030, scaling up climate financing, opening borders, rethinking land access and providing clean technology to countries that need it. Only then is global change possible.

Socialism in the Depth of the Pandemic

COVID-19 has caused great damage to human social life across the globe, giving concrete and tangible meaning to Ernst Bloch´s otherwise speculative notion of “darkness of the lived moment” (Dunkel des Gelebten Augenblicks) in the form of anguish and isolation. With social distancing and quarantine, what is palpably missing is a “we,” even the limited human contact of everyday sociability under capitalism.

Consequently, “the social question” — concerning the organization of social life — has emerged anew. If returning to pre-COVID-19 normalcy is the sole aim, then much of the world likely faces a decade of malaise due to austerity-driven recovery, the specter of nationalism, and — for those without wealth and privilege — diminished life opportunities. Instead of temporary crisis measures, what is needed is post-capitalist ecosocialism. But what would that look like?

Firstly, hostility towards socialism as a radical alternative needs to be sufficiently addressed and overcome. Challenging as that task is, in recent years, younger generations in countries like Spain, France, England and the USA have been warming to the idea of socialism. For many disillusioned with capitalism, Podemos in Spain, the socialism of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’s passionate plea for democratic socialism in the US have undoubtedly touched a nerve. Thanks to these valiant efforts, “capitalist realism” is no longer insurmountable.

Secondly, 21st-century socialism needs to hold fast to another idea that characterized 19th-century socialists: work should not be done at the cost of one’s health or well-being. COVID-19 may not discriminate, but we do. Hence, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on the less privileged. Frontline workers of the care economy such as medical workers, food workers and social service workers whose contributions were celebrated through last year’s state of emergency, were at the same time some of the most endangered people in society.

And although capitalism is increasingly digitalized, it continues to deny workers dignity and self-realization. The flexibility demanded of workers by the so-called “gig” economy has transferred risks and insecurity onto those workers and their families. The lack of control over one’s employment also leads to alienation.

This alienation is arguably best captured in Amazon, one of the biggest winners in the pandemic who employ workers in low-paid and precarious positions across the globe. Amazon utilizes “digital Taylorism,” which entails the small-scale and standardized division of labor, digital surveillance of labor, and direct control of employees in their work. Digital Taylorism gives rise to atomization and excessive performative pressure, widespread dissatisfaction and, where possible, dissent. Utopia needs to be about a different kind of work.

Thirdly, the socialism of the 21st century has to be ecological. Because society and environment are dialectical, social emancipation necessarily entails a non-exploitative relation to the planet. The following are a set of key ecosocialist demands:

  • Rejection of the debt system and neoliberal “structural adjustment.” Imposed on Global South countries by the International Monetary Fund     and the World Bank, this system has dramatic social and ecological consequences including massive unemployment, dismantling of social protections, and destruction of natural resources. Rejecting this system thus entails massive global increase in welfare activities to secure food, water, health, education and suitable physical and social infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
  • Global deployment of renewable energy technologies, public transportation systems, carbon neutral production systems and alternative products as fast as possible by redirecting global surpluses and by openly sharing knowledge and technology. This may reduce the speed and severity of onset of future climate change.
  • Curbing global production of mining-based materials and energy like iron and steel, cement, thermal coal, oil and aluminum, both for reasons of climate change and to prevent further destruction of land. Reviving life in the oceans by curbing the use of oceans and seas for material dumping (be it solid or liquid or radioactive) by any entity whether state or private, including armed forces.
  • Public regulation and democratic planning in investment and technological change as well as the application of social, political and ecological criteria to the price and production of goods. No public financing of technology for private profit.

Taken together, these demands constitute a real and concrete utopia — a radical but possible transformation. The impact of such a transformation would be — analogously to 19th century utopian socialist aspirations — a re-integration of the economy into the ecological and the social world. The seeming contradiction between the ideal and the attainable is the generative tension inherent to concrete utopias. Such a utopia is only limited only by the natural world itself.

Eager to grasp the historical moment, socialists have been attentive to the crises of capitalism, socialism’s perennial nemesis. With a looming ecological and social crisis, the moment, at least in theory, is propitious for socialism. But what are the current prospects of humanistic and democratic socialism?

Susan Watkins´s words about dissent and social struggles across the globe at the dawn of the new decade in New Left Review are instructive here:

Alongside France, the US has become a world leader in social tumult. In early March [2020], it was widely believed that lockdown would put an end to protest. Instead, the ferment has intensified. […] The question in prospect is not so much the disappearance of populism, but rather what new political forms these often inchoate protests may take in the 2020s.

Inchoate as the protests may often be, their demand for popular social and economic justice is a common thread. This thread is at odds with the capitalist status quo and its regime of heavy-handed policing and labor commodification. If not stopped in their tracks or reconciled with capital, these demands — and the struggles which accompany them — will give human social life a new and more just, ecological and socialist direction.

Ecosocialism is thus increasingly a necessary way forward amidst and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an attainable utopia which represents a hospitable world beyond the world of capitalism we have known so far.

Martin Aidnik is an Estonian sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Nottingham University, UK. His scholarly interests include social theory and European studies.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Is AltE Truly the Best Solution to Climate Catastrophe?

Water Protectors Occupy Work Sites and Lock Down to Line 3 Enbridge Pipeline. Thanks to Unicorn Riot.

Written by By Don Fitz

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!... Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination …”  Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Ch 25 

The world is threatened with environmental disaster and capitalists hope to make a killing off of it.  Fossil fuel (FF) companies claim they are “environmentally friendly.”  Other corporations promote nuclear energy, hydro-power (dams), and solar and wind power as the best energy alternatives. 

Yet environmentalists have known for decades that reduction of useless and harmful energy is the “greenest” form of energy available.  Over 50 years ago, the first Earth Day recognized this with the slogan “Reduce; Reuse; Recycle.”  Today, corporate “environmentalism” chants “Recycle; Occasionally Reuse; and, Never Utter ‘Reduce.’”  Even mentioning the word “reduce” can be met with howls of derision that “Reduction means ‘austerity,’” as if any type of collective self-control would plunge the world into depths of suffering. 

This can lead to a belief that supporting “alternative energy” (AltE) allows everyone on Earth to pursue a lifestyle of endless consumerism.  It avoids the real problem, which is capitalism’s uncontrollable drive for economic growth. 

Overproduction for What Purpose? 

Acceptance of consumerism hides the twin issues that AltE creates its own disastrous outcomes and that lowering the amount of harmful production would actually improve the quality of life.  Simply decreasing the amount of toxic poisons required for overproduction would cut down on cancers, brain damage, birth defects and immune system disorders. 

No one would suffer from the massive toxins that would be eliminated by halting the manufacture of military armaments or disallowing the design of electrical devices to fall apart.  Very few would be inconvenienced by discontinuing lines of luxury items which only the 1% can afford to purchase.

Food illustrates of how lowering production has nothing to do with worsening our lives.  Relying on food produced by local communities instead of food controlled by international corporations would mean eliminating the processing of food until it loses most nutritional value.  It would mean knowing many of the farmers who grow our food instead of transporting it over 2000 miles before it reaches those who eat it.  It would cut out advertising hyper-sugarfied food to kids.

When I first began studying environmentalism over 30 years ago, I remember hearing that if a box of corn flakes costs $1, then 1¢ went to the farmer and $.99 went to the corporations responsible for processing the corn, packaging it, transporting the package and advertising it.  Reduction does not mean “doing without” – it means getting rid of the crap. 

Closely linked to food is health.  My book on Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution points out that the island nation’s life expectancy is longer and infant mortality lower than that in the US while it spends less than 10% per person of what the US does.  Reducing energy devoted to health care does not mean less or worse care.  It means getting rid of the gargantuan unnecessary and expensive components which engulf health care in capitalist society.

Electric vehicles (EVs) embody collective environmental amnesia.  Once upon a time, not too many decades ago, people wrote of walkable/bikeable communities and some even put their dreams to the test.  Well … crush that dream.  Since AltE has become a fad, the idea of redesigning urban space is being dumped so that every person can have at least one EV.  Memory of environmental conservation has fallen into oblivion. 

Not Getting Better All the Time 

Despite the hype about AltE, capitalist use of energy is expanding, not contracting.  We are constantly told to buy the latest electronic gadget – and the time period between successive versions of gadgets gets shorter and shorter.   AltE exacerbates the crisis of capitalist energy by distracting society from practicing conservation.

The Bitcoin Ponzi scheme reveals the expansion of energy in the service of uselessness.  Jessica McKenzie describes a coal-burning power plant in Dresden, NY.  The plant was shut down because the local community had no use for its energy.  But Bitcoin needed energy to compute its complex algorithms.  So, like Dracula, the coal plant rose from the dead, transformed into a gas burning plant. 

What, exactly, are Democratic Party politicians like Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and even Bernie Sanders doing to put the breaks on this expansion of FFs in programs like the Green New Deal (GND)?  Actually, nothing.  As Noam Chomsky points out in his forward to Stan Cox’ The Green New Deal and Beyond, “… the GND does not challenge the fossil-fuel industry.”  Congressional proposals leave out the most critical part of reducing FFs – limiting the total quantity that can be produced.  Instead, they rely on the fantasy that increasing AltE will somehow cause a decrease in FF use.  This is a myth that we know all too well: corporate politicians toss around empty phrases like “net zero” as they further proposals to add AltE to the energy mix in. 

Are Problems with AltE “Minimal?” 

Despite stated goals to “end” FF production by such-and-such a date, the high heat they generate is essential for producing (1) silicon wafers for solar panels, (2) concrete and steel used in construction of windmills and dams, and (3) plastic coverings for industrial windmill blades.  Every type of AltE requires FFs.  Supporters of AltE often say that it is so much smaller as to pale by comparison to direct use of FFs.

Claiming that the amount of FFs used by AltE is trivial ignores both the quantities actually being used now and, most importantly, the uncontrollable urge of capitalism toward infinite growth.  Hydro-power (dams) is currently the greatest source of AltE and is in line to expand most rapidly.  Ben Gordesky describes research showing that “Canadian large-scale hydro projects have an ongoing carbon footprint that is approximately 40% that of electricity generated by burning natural gas.  These emissions do not include the carbon footprint of dam construction.”  This is not a trivial amount of FFs used by dams, especially since hydropower “is expected to grow by at least 45% by 2040.

Estimates are that “Solar and wind have a carbon footprint of 4% to 8% of natural gas.”  For the sake of simpler arithmetic, let’s say that hydro, wind and solar average 12.5% of the carbon footprint of FFs (even though is it probably much higher).  Then, let’s say that healthy capitalism grows at least 3% annually (even though the phrase “healthy capitalism” is highly dubious), which means a doubling in size every 25 years.  If AltE requires 12.5% of the equivalent FFs now, then,

·       in 25 years it will require what is twice that, or 25% of current FF use; 

·       at 50 years, it again doubles (to four times its current size), requiring 50% of current FF use; and, 

·       at 75 years, the economy doubles (to eight times its current size), reaching 100% of current use. 

To put it bluntly, reliance on AltE in no way eliminates FF usage – in only 75 years economic growth would return us to current FF levels.

But would we have to wait 75 years to see current levels of FF restored?  For some parts of the economy, the answer is definitely “No.”  As Stan Cox documents, “… the huge increase in mines, smelters, factories and transportation required for this transition [to EVs] would continue heightened CO2 levels long before any emission savings would be realized.” 

It might be possible theoretically to concentrate energy to reach the extremely high temperatures necessary for production of wind turbines and silicon wafers for solar arrays.  Relying on Cox’ calculations, expanding infrastructure to reach 100% AltE by 2030 “… would require a 33-fold increase in industrial expansion, far more than has ever been achieved anywhere and would result in complete ecological devastation.  One little fact regarding this quantity of build-up is that 100% RE would require more land space than used for all food production and living areas in the 48 contiguous states.” 

Time for Despair? 

Is it time to throw up our hands in despair that the only route to preserve humanity is a return to hunter/gatherer existence?  Not really.  Focusing on local, community-based energy can create sufficient production for human needs. 

Many underestimate the ability of low tech devices.  When in high school during the 1960s, my science project was a solar oven that could cook via medium heat.  When I returned from college a few years later, my mom intimated that my dad, an engineer, thought that a solar reflector device could not possibly generate much heat.  So, one morning he used it as a greenhouse for his vegetable seedlings.  When he returned later that day, the plants were fried.

Solar power does not require high-tech based on massive arrays.  Few techniques are more powerful at reducing energy than a passive house design or use of passive solar for existing homes.  It is even possible to run a website via low tech solar without destroying farmland for gargantuan solar arrays.

The story of wind power is somewhat different.  Kris De Decker edits Low-Tech Magazine which spans a variety of ways to heat, cool and provide energy.  An outstanding article covers the sharp contrast between ancient wind mills vs. modern industrial wind turbines:  

“For more than two thousand years, windmills were built from recyclable or reusable materials: wood, stone, brick, canvas, metal…  It’s only since the arrival of plastic composite blades in the 1980s that wind power has become the source of a toxic waste product that ends up in landfills.  New wood production technology and design makes it possible to build larger wind turbines almost entirely out of wood again… This would make the manufacturing of wind turbines largely independent of fossil fuels and mined materials.” 

A Global Struggle 

The obsession of capitalism with expanding production is a social disease that infects every aspect of exploring, mining, transporting, using and disposing of energy infrastructure.  For decades, this has been painfully obvious for FFs and nuclear power.  Except for those who refuse to see, the opposition rippling through AltE is increasingly clear.

The two key words common to all of these efforts is “Stop it!”  A better life for all begins with rejecting the limitless growth of capitalism by developing technologies that minimize mining, processing, over-producing goods with short durations, and transporting products over long distances.  Instead, we must develop locally-based products that have the least harmful effects.

One of the main problems with tunnel visioning on AltE is that how that approach accepts and perpetuates the ideology of greed, which insists that everyone in the US (and, of course, the world) must adopt the consumerist life-style of the upper middle class.  Core to challenging capitalism would be making demands that capitalism cannot possibly fulfill but which rational people have no problem with.  The demand to preserve our existence by reducing the overgrown production of capitalism is such a demand.  When people say that we must not make a demand such as this, it is time to ask if they are putting the survival of capitalism ahead of the survival of humanity.

Everyone in the world believes in preserving what they hold sacred.  For most of us, these include sacred places and beings, the inorganic world, creatures that sleep in water or on land, and human life.  For others, what they hold most sacred is corporate profits. 

Don Fitz (fitzdon@aol.com) is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought where a version of this article was first published.  He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor.  His book on Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution has been available since June 2020.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Video Recording – Ecosocialists Challenge the G7 Meeting


This is a recording of the Zoom meeting of the Ecosocialist Alliance on 9 June 2021, to discuss the then forthcoming G7 meeting in Cornwall, England. Most of the attendees are from the UK, but with some from north America. As events transpired, they proved that we were right to be sceptical that anything significant would come out of the G7.

This is part of a campaign in the run to COP26 in Glasgow, in November later this year, which began with the release of a statement by the Alliance, which you can read here.

There will be more actions taken before and during COP26, and ecosocialists worldwide are encouraged to support these actions, in any way that you can. The Ecosocialist Allaince is for all ecosocialists, but we in the UK will take the lead in presenting our solutions to the ecological crisis to governments at COP26.

Time is running out – let’s make them listen to reason, and to take some meaningful action to mitigate the emergency.

The video is unedited, so is a little raw.

Contact for more information:  eco-socialist-action@protonmail.com


Friday, 25 June 2021

Degrowth Remains a Slogan

 


Written by Sara Abraham and first published at Jamhoor

Though illuminating key debates, Jason Hickel’s recent case for degrowth falls short of its global objective – with not enough to offer regions like South Asia. 

The constant refrain on growth, more growth, and expansion is found globally in public and policy economic discourse and is a truism of capitalist common sense. South Asian countries are no exceptions to the obsession with growth, for one assumption is that the bottom rises with growth.

Growth benefits all, even if unequally, is the expectation. And even if there isn’t this assumption, since many at the bottom appear so obviously locked in spiralling poverty and early death, an expanding middle class sitting on the rump of growth is still considered huge progress. It equals the spread of modernity and democracy to larger numbers of people. Further, growth is “natural”, keeps up with expanding populations and allows all to enjoy more, enriches our lives with newer products, technologies and lifestyles, and allows for extra income and wealth (to be then redistributed). 

This is the hegemonic view of growth in the world and it makes ideas around “degrowth” deeply contrarian. Degrowth or any related idea, like controlling carbon emissions or stopping mining, is quickly castigated by many in South Asia as a Western import to keep developing countries poor. 

Yet the immense power of the narrative of growth begs the need for critical theory that advances new paradigms within which equitable economic development can be conceived. If degrowth is a paradigm which can offer a reduction in poverty and inequality while saving the planet, then it deserves our keen attention.

Further, the degrowth paradigm claims to envision an economy that is richer, more expansive and pro-nature than capitalism, for it puts life, not exploitation, at the centre of the economic system. For this reason, the paradigm has been cautiously praised by progressives. Michael Lowy, for instance, has argued that eco-socialism and the degrowth movement are the two most powerful currents of the ecological Left.

Jason Hickel’s new book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, therefore comes at an opportune moment. It is his ambitious attempt to make the case for why degrowth will save the world. However, I found the book theoretically muddled on multiple levels and unfortunately blind to much of the world. 

Part One of the book is a competent general statement on the scale of ecological downslide, the rapacious nature of capitalism and the core contradiction between the drive to growth and rising GDP, on the one hand, and the immediate need for ecological conservation and cutbacks in resource-use and waste, on the other. Its accessible prose makes it an excellent primer for the new reader.

Hickel links the drive to profit with the need for growth. He discusses the high scale of growth that global capitalism requires every year, and how the OECD in 1960 was mandated to follow policies that generated the highest rates of growth. He shows how neoliberal policies chasing growth basically entrapped all governments, be it in the global South or North, in “growth without development.” 

Despite quibbles with states being proxies for companies in Hickel’s characterization of the nature of geopolitical competition, and growth being an awkward proxy for profit, his statements are largely true. He then goes on to show how capitalist driven “growth” is no longer ecologically sustainable, for it has drained the earth, heated the oceans, and polluted the air. This, too, is certainly true.        

Having laid out the basic problem in empirical terms, Part Two of the book traverses, though far too briefly, across a range of contemporary radical ideas on reorganizing the economy away from capitalist imperatives and growth-ism. It suggests that the ideas of the commons, cooperation, and reduced luxury consumption are core pillars of a degrowth economy.

Public goods of sanitation and rent control are examples of urban commons and Hickel shows that such public goods, rather than “growth”, are what have led to longer lifespans and richer lives. People across the world in areas of good public health and educational infrastructure have much better lives than many deprived sectors in the core capitalist West, especially the United States. 

In a trenchant criticism of wasteful consumption, Hickel claims that a drastic cut in the disposable income of the rich (through taxation) can only have significant ecological benefits. This argument also undermines any claim about the beneficial, redistributive power of wealth. 

These distillations of older research findings challenge assumptions that aggregate growth and wealth lead to general prosperity or have any beneficial value. Yet in this discussion, Hickel does not explain the financial basis for public goods in the West or elsewhere, be it taxation (of profits generated by growth?) or the redirection of surplus (from growth?) into public programs. His larger point is that high levels of human development have occurred with low GDP per capita. Countries should not be chasing GDP. They should be reorganizing internally, redistributing wealth and building their public sectors. 

So is degrowth then a process towards equitable austerity, which requires us to cut back on consumption and live simply? Yes to the latter, but no to the fear of austerity. Rather, Hickel asserts that with the “commons” comes “abundance”. For him, degrowth is liberating precisely because it is linked to abundance, not austerity.

In fact, a core argument of his book is that it is capitalist forms of growth that have led to the imposition of austerity in major parts of the world. Degrowth (after providing for a certain minimum standard of living which need not be low) allows for flourishing through an abundance of social relationships, leisure, and culture, and a renewed relationship with nature. The go-slow wisdom of today would be an aspect of degrowth.

Undertheorized Concepts

But here one comes up against a wall. Firstly, abundance is at no point in the book explained properly, or grounded in any social or economic theory. Is it linked to material abundance primarily, or is it linked to (a non-material freedom), and if so how? Is it, as Linsey McGoey defines it, “the surfeit of goods, energy, desires, actors, interests and information that characterize modern life” – in which case, is it not partly the antithesis of degrowth? Hickel needs to elaborate with particularity how he understands “abundance” if he wants to convince readers that degrowth, and not overproduction, will lead to it.  

Clarity and penetration of vision is also so important as all readers are not located similarly. That academia has lately been entranced by the idea of abundance while there have been a surfeit of sheer death, dead time, dead rivers, violence, and so forth, doesn’t help. I wanted to know what “abundance” could mean for our present times in terms of a program to mitigate pain.

Here, one strand of economic theory seems to offer a program in relation to abundance which Hickel might have in mind. For example, as Yanis Varoufakis has advocated, of the billions of dollars handed over to banks in 2020-21, a small fraction could have been used to vaccinate the world’s population, or to clean the world’s rivers, or any number of things.

Hickel himself chooses to mention in passing that governments found the power to make debts disappear with the pandemic, thereby pointing to the speculative basis for much of financial “wealth” as well as the un-exerted power lying latently with governments. But when and where did this disappearing act happen? He offers no explanation. Was it an act of abundance, or was it a reversible reform? Hickel merely gestures. And does the occasional redistribution of wealth undermine capitalism or restore it? This question needs no recourse to the terms growth or degrowth and is not addressed in the book at all. 

Degrowth as a core concept in Hickel’s book is also heavily undertheorized. It seems little more than an unspecified consequence of decommodification, deprivatization, decapitalization, the cancellation of debt and interest, redistribution of wealth into public projects, and so forth. These concepts are older, practical and have offered programs of action and resistance which have challenged capitalism, if not blocked it. “Degrowth” does not do the work in explaining why these programs are important, and neither does “decolonization”, which Hickel comes to later in the text.

Provincializing Degrowth?

Even as Hickel marveled at governments’ unused power to make debts disappear, I asked myself, what would enable ordinary people to find their power to make imposed (even if elected) governments disappear? Posing this question to myself made me realize that this book doesn’t go there. It mostly plods on UK radical policy ground. Hickel is interested in governments implementing radical economic reforms of the types he mentions, but what balance of forces, what struggles, would be needed for governments to pursue these policies in the first place? Hickel doesn’t tell us. 

He mentions the “exciting” news that fewer work hours in the global North have great ecological benefits. But Hickel does not consider at all how this idea of “less work” can be translated for the global South – that is, again, to the most of the world, where unemployment is so dire a problem.  

Despite my growing misgiving that the UK and parts of the West is really his wicket, Hickel is sure he wants the whole world to be his lab for the paradigm of degrowth. He praises certain countries for their equitable development and creation of public goods – namely, Sri Lanka, Kerala, Costa Rica, and Cuba.

This only raised again for me strong misgivings on his style of argument and limited width of canvas. Academics and lawyers are trained to marshal evidence on the side of their frequently pre-conceived arguments, and it is for the opposing side to debunk the claims. However, these are heuristics, and fail to capture the texture of social life, political contradictions or the deep penetration of capitalism into all of it. Hickel does not guide us through the mess of what is really going on in each of these countries.

The choice of naming Sri Lanka, in particular, got my attention, as surely it is better understood as an authoritarian-militarized political economy that was produced in the aftermath of a decades-long, vicious civil war. Could all this really disappear into the remote computer screen surveying its development indicators? What about the non-existent sewerage systems and entrenched patriarchy of Kerala? Could a capitalist outpost like Costa Rica be put in the same sentence as Cuba? Maybe, but the work is not done to flesh out when, why and how much revolution and struggle went into winning a better standard of living. Without that, we are left with very false equivalences. 

I also wonder why Hickel has not explicitly drawn on feminist scholarship on the uncounted value and wealth produced by women’s unwaged labour. This body of theory and politics, associated with people like Selma James and Silvia Federici, is tied closely to a critique of conventional measures of GDP and growth. Feminists sought to calculate the value of women’s work and their contribution to the GDP, which long ago began melting its ties to capitalist needs.

Ecological critique is just the latest on the block to attack capitalism and its props and measures. Why does Hickel find it superior to any earlier thrust of critique? He eventually does mention “caring” for a full paragraph, but only as an economic arena that will gain attention once degrowth is on the cards, rather than an active site of struggle for a politics of degrowth. 

But I really want to come to my own pet peeves: that, despite what the book’s title proclaims, there is no application of degrowth thinking to the large, agricultural labour-intensive economies of parts of South Asia, where a dangerous dismantling of the public distribution system and a centralization of regional and local agricultural markets is ongoing, without recourse to ideas of growth but with every interest in profit. And there is equally no reflection in the book on countries which have already witnessed large scale devastation of public infrastructure and indebtedness such as in parts of Africa. Is it sufficient to say that these trends need to be reversed? 

As this is most of the world, it is safe to say that Hickel really does not prove his case that degrowth will save the world. 

A Romance with Indigeneity?

Part 3 of the book leaves the urban and rural worlds altogether and moves to describe Indigenous conceptions of living within nature as natural beings, and in relationships of exchange. He views these forms of living as shaped by valorizations of use value over exchange value, and understandably praises these processes. An old but still important implication from his discussion is how organized religions are pillars upholding dualistic forms of thought, separating man from nature and how this must be surpassed.

Hickel wishes to surpass modernist ways of being, and he says the struggle is over our very way of being. For this transition, we need new sources of hope, new wellsprings of possibility. We need to regain real ecological intelligence, which is invested in integration rather than expansion.

Hickel shares what gives him this hope: it is the thrilling experience of seeing like a shaman who mediates between the human and the natural world. It is through animism, which does not distinguish between humans and other living beings, that one can find connection and even radical empathy. Hickel here attempts to catapult his readers into a deeper spiritual appreciation of the world around them; that only a cultural revolution at this deep level will create the ground for radical struggles against capitalism. 

Yet, on reflection, Hickel basically concedes argument to faith and fantasy. Hickel presents decontextualized snippets of Indigenous and ecological thought at face value. For instance, I found Hickel’s celebration of the fact that the Ganga river was granted legal rights quite unconvincing. How can this recognition mean absolutely anything in the current political-economic and ecological condition of India?

This old, gracious and sacred river, given legal rights which can never match the ancient spiritual role it has had in people’s lives, currently has thousands of corpses floating in it as people can no longer find the tree branches needed to build funeral pyres. Should the river assert its rights and demand that the earth absorb the bodies? What about the earth’s rights? Can a river have greater rights than the people of the land, who have next to none? The only genre for this whole discussion is satire, or, at best, science fiction, as it compresses multiple time periods into one space.

Further, why does the long history of third-world based movements against dams, overfishing, pollution, dirty mining, water privatization, the peasants’ movements and so forth find no place in this text which is concerned with asserting the commons in the face of capital? Why is that only Indigenous “ways of being” matter, but not their material struggles?  

I find Hickel’s thoughts, tweets and blogs fresh and provocative, and a good counterpoint to mainstream thinking. He is actively rethinking economic myths and can gesture to new directions. The degrowth current on the ecological Left is important, even if thus far only a placeholder for the conceptual journey that must be made. It will force greater thinking by socialists and other radicals. However, degrowth is still a slogan it seems, and not a program for development. 

Sara Abraham is a lawyer and researcher based in Chennai, India.