Sunday, November 21, 2010

Green Capitalism vs Revolutionary Ecology

Life lately has been very interesting. There has been a disturbing employment and housing scarcity as well as job insecurity. It's not for me to talk on this blog too much about it now, if for no other reason than my quest for a winter income and stable housing is not yet complete, and, how do you tell as story that does not yet have an end? Suffice to say, I have two winter jobs lined up, plowing snow in Durango (it snows rarely in Durango, at least this year), and, more lucratively, being a fancy waiter at a fancy restaurant at the ski resort. A positive cash flow from these has not yet started, as the first day of plowing might be tomorrow morning, and the restaurant job training does not start until Dec 8th. However, there is at least light at the end of the tunnel!

With these massive amounts of free time I've been largely hanging out in coffee places or the public library, catching up on lots of reading that I didn't have as much time for in the busy summer.

Taking a break from my usual regimen of geology and Western History, I have been delving back into politics. I recently went to my first protest in, gosh... too long, and I wrote an article about it that got published. I discovered and made an "ultra left and hilarious" video in which I address an audience of left wing Americans and disparage their general failure to walk the walk they like to talk. As of today it has gotten 531 views, which, even if you allow for multiple views and reloads, is more of an audience than I have probably ever spoken to in a meeting or even at a rally, with perhaps only one or two possible exceptions.

As another experiment I re-created a condensed version of Eugene Debs' famous Canton, Ohio anti war speech he was put in jail for delivering during World War I. It is of couse also in cartoon format, here. It has gotten less views than the Left Wing Americans one, but still has received a modest 126 as of today.

Big thinking recently I have devoted to the issues of sustainability in our planet. This is a really big issue, you might say, The Issue, and if not checked it will trump all others.

The rate at which we are burning through hundreds of millions of years of resource deposition, the impact fossil fuels are having on the environment, global warming, and coastal flooding as the ice caps melt... all these things have greatly troubled me, and they have troubled me for a long time. I have an early memory of being 10 years old and lying on my bed at a summer camp, thinking about the future of the world, and realizing that by the time I graduate high school the world will be so overpopulated so as to doom us all. This prediction may have been a bit hasty, but one thing about it is certainly true: While optimistic leftists and Malthusian conservatives disagree on whether we have currently crossed the line of earths' carrying capacity, or if, in a post capitalistic, more equatable society, we could support an even higher population with super green, super efficient, methods of energy production and food distribution, there is one fact that everyone who reads books and believes in the scientific method seems to be able to agree on: the present population the earth can not be sustained if it manages to catch up (as it is hell bent on doing) to the environmental impact that first world living standards are currently responsible for.

I found this diagram today on Wikipedia while reading about "sustainable development":

It seems to me that most of the efforts people come up with get channelled into either the "bearable", "equitable", or "viable" areas, but almost none could be said to be truely "sustainable". In the United States today, there are a lot of forces at work to shuttle us off into one of these directions, generally missing the truely "sustainable" intersection of social, economic, and environment justice.

Pretty much every social or environmental justice issue out there today is treated as a single issue, a separate competing agenda among many. Women's Rights, Gay Rights, Global Warming, Global Peace, Access to Food, Sustainable Farming, over fishing, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, Workers' Rights, Homeless advocacy, Wilderness Protection...

All these agendas tend to be promoted by unique sets of activists, each with their own "NGO" with its own funding and support that tries to get political attention for itself, largely by trying to "out compete" public and political attention in the "marketplace" of ideas.

In the US, where we don't have a mass social democratic party, where we don't have a mass green party, or even an influential "communist party" (for better or for worse) like most European Countries still have, the tendancy towards single issue NGO activity is much greater. Young, intelligent, energetic people, looking to get involved, to "change the world", to "make a difference", are much more likely to find themselves working (for a pay check) for some single issue NGO, attempting to "raise awareness", "pressure politicians", or directly address one or another consequence of capitalism through sisyphean charity independently of and separate from a broader systemic challenge of the political and economic systems that are in place and that are the root from whence all of these problems spring.

It's time we all devoted a lot of thought to this, to viewing social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice as inter connected.

Any two, in the long run, can count for precious little as long as the third is missing. What really is the point of labor and capital managing to resolve or transcend (though a union movement, benevolent management, or proletarian revolution) their differences if workers and managers are simply finding a way to cut down the forests, to burn fossil fuels, and to pollute the rivers and drain the aquifers in a way that- in the short term, enriches both at an aggreeable rate?

What is the point of being accepted for being openly gay, or winning to the right abortion, if the island nation you live on is going to be flooded by rising sea levels?

How about social and the environment? I've been hearing a lot about this lately, a lot about such attempts to avoid having to interact with the economy all together. The early years of the great depression, before social movements had managed to take off, there was a great deal of increased experimentation with homesteading and running independent, "off the grid" farms on a small scale. In late 1960s and early 1970s, many activists, frustrated with seemingly unchangeable issues like the war in vietnam and the indifference of politicians to social or environmental justice, removed themselves from society and experimented with alternative ways of living, growing their own food, and housing themselves.

Few of these efforts managed to succeed for long before the communes devolved amid personal differences and frustration with the lack of personal space. Many of participants of these experiments were college graduates who increasingly grew frustrated with their own voluntary impovrishment, and after a few months or years many of them began to leave for better paying jobs and educational oppertunities for their children. Sustainable business attempts were generally outcompeted by capitalism and failed, or those who survived became capitalists themselves, in time falling far short of the equitable goals they had set for themselves.

The "homesteads" of the great depression, where they were able to survive at all, were dwarfed to irrelevance as fleeting, individual solutions at a time when millions were having their livelihoods destroyed by the dust bowl, countless acres of farm land had been mismanaged into oblivion, and what homesteading land there was left was unable to absorb and support the county's homeless population. The bombs of pearl harbor, and Germany's war declaration days later, were the death blows to this fantasy. As isolationist America was to painfully join the rest of the world in finding out, peace anywhere is impossible in a world of scarcity everywhere. You can have no small island of peace for yourself if your neighbors lack peaceful and stable lives abroad.

The last combination, that of the environment and the economy, is today more loudly promoted than it has ever been. The debate and discussion it has sparked is most welcome. To the extent the we even hear about any of this, that we are even talking at all or experimenting with things like earthships, "Passivhaus" technology, grey water recycling, wind power, or "organic farming", it is largely due to years of agitation and political pressure waged by environmental movements. Germany isn't one of the most environmentally conscious countries today for no reason. It is so because decades ago Germans got together and started the world's first Green Party, which today remains one of the planet's largest.

Today we hear much less about the need to fight politically for "green" or sustainable development. We're told much more to shop for it. This question is at the heart of today's environmental debates, and anyone seriously interested in true "sustainability", the actual unity of economic, social, and environmental peace, must be brave enough to look beyond the hype and critically ask, is this really possible?

I was reading John McDonald's review of Green Gone Wrong, a book that is high (actually, next) on my list of things to read. In his review John mentioned a few examples of today's masssive greenwashing. One I was most struck with is the irony of the increased demand for "organic sugar" resulting in more rain forest clear cutting- to make way for more "organic" sugar plantations in Paraguay. This looks like the direction that, without social movement intervention from below- most "green" marketing is likely to take us.

Even if all organic farms do not cut down rainforests, there is no garantee that they will not be pressured by competition to adopt, for example, the same labor standards that are prevalant across agriculture. Does it really matter to me, if I work on an organic farm, about the quality of produce if I am an undocumented immigrant with no rights, who is abused and cheated by my employers, and I am afraid to return to my developing country where a drug war exported by first world demand has made it impossible to live and safely raise a family?

Perhaps this touches on the biggest question of all today, that of disparities in environmental impacts between First World and Third World lifestyles. This is worth mentioning because of the tremendous resource consumption we in the First World often ignore or take for granted.

"Of course the children are starving, and a billion live on less than a dollar a day, but what can I do? Why should I care? How could this even be changed?""

The answers to these questions do not depend upon the apathy of people in the first world, whose consumption of most global resources, responsibility for most global waste and pollution, whose disastrous colonial legacy, and whose disproportionate access to knowledge, technology, and education, might in a rational world at least motivate to making an effort to find solutions to the environmental crisis.

No. Whether we lift a finger or not, the Chinese and Nigerian and Indian sweatshop workers are huddled tonight around the one flickering TV in their dormitory, and they are watching Baywatch, and they think that is how we live, and their leaders are going to get them to work as hard as they can so their country can be as much like that as possible, whether we in the first world notice, care, or do nothing about it at all.

This planet is an island, and we all have a stake in keeping it alive. Whether we are Chinese, Nigerian, Paraguayan, German, or American, all of us would like to think there might a future for our children. What is not certain, and where I will call the utility of Capitalism (whether "free" like in the US, or state dominated like in China) into question, is whether or not our leaders will wake up and change the way our societies operate before it is too late.

Asking this question, one must realize that many of our leaders in the commercial sector, the owners and mangers of industry, the investors, the leading stockholders and boards of directors, the unelected few who make the decisions that impact the environment and our own lives the most, all to often, these people have a direct, personal, profitable interest in doing things that are wasteful, short term, environmentally destructive, and socially catastrophic.

The difficulty of "reigning them in", to the extent that this is hypothetically possible, is compounded by the fact that in most of the world's countries (such as the US, China, Russia, India, and Haiti to name a few) there is a seperate political class, living above and apart from the rest of the population. This political class takes upon itself the responsibility of making decisions that affect the entire population while at the same time they do everything they can to insulate their own personal families from the effects of these decisions. They have expensive private schools, private colleges, gated communities, bullet proof glass, body guards, private doctors, large and diversified investment porfolios, better food and finer wines, etc...

I consider serious environmentalists to be those who are interested in finding solutions to our problems that will allow our species to continue. I do not consider among them those who care only about maintaining the illusion of "doing right" for their own country, or for members of their own country who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, while ignoring the impact they have on the rest of the world. Neither do I consider among serious environmentalists those care only about their own, personal survival, in their own lifetime, by adopting personal solutions that they are able to afford or tolerate but which are not solutions everyone can adopt.

I might ask, Mr. Survivalist, if the workers are all dead, and the hospitals and antibiotics factories are all closed, who is going to build your solar panels, or maintain your windmill, or replace your deep cycle batteries, or operate on your son's appendicitis, or resolve the complications of your wife's childbirth?

Among those, whom I consider to be serious environmentalists, I see two main schools of thought. The first, advocated by many, including the entire "buy green" movement, is the idea that through our purchases we can motivate capitalists to invest in environmentally sound business practices. This solution (though to his credit, he calls for, rather than disparages, political action), is called for among others by the influential author Jared Diamond, whose book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I have just read, and heartily recommend.

The other idea, which has much less funding behind its advocacy, is the idea that the short term focused, for profit, personal enrichment of the few at the expense of the many characteristics of capitalism make it incompatible with true sustainability- with a realistic unity of social, economic, and environmental balance. The forces behind this school of thought are much weaker, and you cannot support them with your purchases at whole foods.

Unfortuneately, valuable ideas about ecology and economics are not always heavily marketed by those marketers whose profits derive from waste, exploitation, and maximum efficiency at the expense of the environment. It is this, the radical wing of the environmental movement, that asserts capitalism is incompatible with ecology, and that the sake of the latter must necessitate the overthrow of the former.

To make myself a more educated person, and to be able to more usefully contribute to the debates between these schools of thought, I am going to spend much of my winter familiarizing myself with the literature that acknowledges this divide, and fights for either one alternative or the other. In addition to many of these books that focus on global impacts of the ecological crisis, I want, as a personal motivation, to focus on the challenge and debates of water in The West, something I have a direct professional interest in learning about.

Maybe these are really two issues? But they are so related... You can't talk about capitalism and food without talking about irrigation and salinization, and you can't talk in Colorado about irrigation and salinization without talking about the Grand Valley, the Colorado River, and the Mancos Shale.

Books on my list so far:

Ecology and Capitalism

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Green Gone Wrong: How our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution by Heather Rogers

Ecology Against Capitalism by John Bellamy Foster

The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization by Joshua Karliner

Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis by Chris Williams

Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert

Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster

Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel

Water and the West

Cadillac Desert: The American West And its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River by John Waterman

The No Nonsense Guide to Climate Change by Dinyar Godrej

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs


Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jesnsen

Review of Green Gone Wrong by John McDonald

The Greening of Capitalism by Heather Rogers

If you know of more pro "Green Capitalism" books please share, I'd like to learn more of this side of the argument as well.

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