Winter 2007 - Volume 10 Number 1
|Reviews||Socialist Register 2007: Coming to Terms with Nature
London: Merlin Press; New York: Monthly Review Press; Halifax: Fernwood Press
Critics of the Kyoto Accord include some scientists who insist that global warming is a recurrent natural phenomenon that is not the result of human activity, but part of a natural cycle that has seen temperatures rise and fall over the millennia. Opponents of the environmental agenda that seeks an immediate and rapid reduction in greenhouse gases add concerns about prosperity to the charge that ecologists are trading in junk science. So, ominous predictions of a catastrophic global recession, fuelled by enormous energy costs, resulting the loss of millions of jobs and culminating in economic apocalypse in all its forms regularly inform the analyses and predictions of those who view the environmental issue as false, alarmist andin their more sordid partisan momentsa demonic, socialistic campaign to ruin prosperous economies and simultaneously to ensure the continued poverty of the vast underdeveloped world.
On the other side stand the proponents of the “inconvenient truth.” Their numbers include optimists who earnestly celebrate Earth Day, plant trees and promote the purchase of locally grown vegetables, and pessimists who have already concluded that humanity has passed the point when we might have chosen otherwise, and is now condemned to pay the full cost of our follynot merely lost jobs, but lost cultures and lost species including, perhaps, our own. At their most bleak, these forecasters sometimes imagine that the demise of “homo economicus” might not be a bad thing for the Earth, though the loss of literate animals would presumably mean that there would be no one left to record the eventual restoration of biological diversity in the absence of toxic humanity.
In the long run, the environmentalists are surely right. In the short run, there may be some wiggle room. Although we have poisoned the waters, polluted the air, turned lush valleys into deserts, paved over rich agricultural land, clear cut forests, strip mined metal-bearing mountains and destroyed “inconvenient” wilderness, wildlife and wetlands, it may not be entirely too late to stabilize and ultimately to replenish the Earth. In the alternative, without courage, wisdom and the willingness to forego the pleasures of extreme shopping for imported bottled water, the future is not merely bleak but silent on the subject of humanity, for there may soon (a few centuries, more or less) be nothing to say and no one to say it.
So, while our voices are still audible, questions can be asked. Are we too short-sighted, too pusillanimous and too parsimonious to pay the price of our own survival? Or, are we just so incorrigibly stupid that we will not recognize an entrepreneurial opportunity when we see one? Every major shift in the mode of production from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution hasafter some uneasy periods of adjustment increased prosperity (for some) and employment (for others). This time, when the stakes are the highest, the innovative industrialists among us might, for once, be able to get it right. We might be able to apply our evolutionarily mutant big brains to the project of combining social justice and ecological sanity with the capacity to produce and distribute adequate goods and services and finally to achieve some of the earliest and most optimistic aims of the Enlightenment including the substantial reduction of poverty and disease for large populations willing to live in harmony with other elements of nature. That, at least, is the principle subtext of the collection of essays under review. A tremendous amount of ideological reconstruction will have to be done, however, if we are going to shift our emphasis from the visible fist of the global marketplace to a conception of political economy that would redefine our ends, and marry material advantages to humane and environmentally sound means of achieving them,. In Coming to Terms with Nature, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys make an admirable start on this formidable task.
At the base of their collection of essays lies economics. It is, it seems, not only the “dismal science” that Thomas Carlyle described in his robust 1848 defence of slavery (the title of which would offend even Don Imus); it is also the delusional science that pretends that “the economy” can be doing well (i.e., growing at a cancerous rate) even when the general population is losing jobs and income. Economics as currently practiced is based on foolishness and falsehoods, on instrumentalism and utilitarianism in their crudest form. Its practitioners imagine that we live in a perpetual state of scarcity (How much do we need?). They profess that we make our choices as rational individuals (Welcome to Wall Street; welcome to Wal-mart). They predict that we will choose environmentally friendly products and manufacturing processes when we are darned good and ready, which is when the mythological “invisible hand” guides our absent minds to do so which, in turn, may be far too late.
In thrall to easy quantification (the measurement of money and the virtual money available in the form of easy credit), economics defines wealth not as the optimal production of useful goods and services, but as the totality of frequently frivolous and sometimes suicidal transactions. The Gross Domestic Product is the favoured definition of wealth or its opposite, but it is nothing more than a peculiar calculation of the velocity of monetary exchange, says nothing about the quality of human life or even the quality of our commercially available products. Think pet food; think e-coli.
Useless, valueless and dangerous merchandise are permitted to dominate. From carcinogenic feminine deodorant sprays to the next generation of hand-held communications devices providing the means for virtual conversations among people with nothing much to say, we are up to our necks in trash.
Meanwhile, the inmates of the American Enterprise Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute and other “independent” research facilities tell neoconservative governments that they have nothing to fear from excessive environmental awareness on the part of corporations, which meekly follow the will of the consumer. Acceding to the most bizarre blending of Rousseau’s highly suspicious “general will” and Adam Smith’s idyllic notion of free enterprise being nothing more than the doings of hardy farmers and inspired artisans peddling their wares in a cheerful country market, they protest that premature, proactive and pre-emptive environmental regulations will reduce employment, double or triple petroleum prices and impoverish all Western postindustrial taxpayers (no longer citizens) through punitive fees designed to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Still, there has been enough public concern to convince even the oil patchiest of politicians to make cosmetic, conservationist gestures. On 2 May, 2006, for example, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government delivered a budget that promised to spend $1.8 billion (all figures US) over an indeterminate time and in unspecified ways to alleviate the problem of global warming. Skeptics may be forgiven for thinking this to be an inadequate, shallow and opportunistic move intended only to deflect the criticism of opposition political parties and to gull the ever credulous electorate. Mr. Harper, after all, has obstreperously refused to live up to the Kyoto Accord, to which Canada is a signatory, and insisted while in opposition that Kyoto is nothing more than a “socialist scheme” to destroy the economies of wealthy countries. Besides, the $1.8 billion is less than half that allocated by the previous Liberal government, and thus demonstrates that Mr. Harper’s glass is, as it were, not quite half full. The sum is instructive for other reasons.
According to the February 11, 2007 edition of the New York Times, the US government antes up about $1.8 billion annually in student financial support to keep the University of Phoenix’s accounts well in the black. The University of Phoenix, for the edification of anyone immune to its media advertisements, is a private, for-profit business that plies its trade largely on-line. It currently has over 300,000 students, operates at least one campus in each of thirty-nine American states and has, in California at least, an embarrassing attrition rate of 96%.
I bring forward this information not because I wish to pillory the University of Phoenix. I will leave that to the due diligence of academic critics, its shareholders and the courts. Instead, I mention it to highlight the number of dollars the Bush administration is prepared to spend to help keep the University of Phoenix’s “performance indicators” up to investors’ expectations. I also wish to compare this expenditure to Canada’s budget for climate change. As educators, we may not possess the expertise to assess disbursements on military matters, health care, road building and the like. We should, however, have a good sense of what money devoted to education can buy, and how we might judge the importance of federal programs according to their relative fiscal support. A comparison of the US allocation of funds to prop up a single private sector degree mill and Canada’s scheduling of ecodollars is instructive.
On the one hand, since Canada’s population is only one-tenth that of the United States, Mr. Harper’s commitment to the environment seems more substantial than Mr. Bush’s hand-out to the University of Phoenix. On the other hand, Mr. Bush’s annual outlay is roughly equivalent to the amount Mr. Harper has promised to help ease global warming over perhaps a decade. So, the numbers may be about the same. As for Mr. Harper’s promise, its authenticity is questionable, for it is to help remedy a problem that Mr. Harper previously dismissed as a scurrilous socialist plot. Whatever Mr. Harper’s true feelings about global warming may be at the moment, it is of little practical importance whether Mr. Harper has been converted to environmentalism or is cynically trying to defuse political criticism by making a symbolic gesture at a convenient time in his minority mandate. All that truly matters is whether the cheques will actually be signed, and to whom they will ultimately be delivered. Accordingly, even if no one takes the greening of Mr. Harper seriously, the comparative amounts spent by Mr. Bush on a dubious educational business and Mr. Harper on the future of the planet are telling. Moreover, even if Mr. Harper multiplied his pledge by a factor of ten, it would still not add up to much.
I do not, of course, wish to sound churlish, but I am regretfully unimpressed by the current flutter about climate change. Fads come and go. We do not need to dig very deeply into public opinion poll data to discover a time when the environment was well down on the list of popular priorities. In the event of a major recession, another terrorist attack on American soil or a quick (temporary) fix of gas prices, its popularity may plummet again.
As for genuine ecological concerns, we have heard them all before. Rachel Carson’s pioneering book, Silent Spring, won the hearts and minds of a small portion of the generation of the 1960s; but, apart from a successful campaign against DDT in developed countries, and a nice line in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” environmental issues soon lost their media traction. True, in September, 1969, Ramparts magazine featured a tombstone with the name, “The Oceans,” on its front cover, and some young folk followed up with some derring-do on a ship owned by Greenpeace, but everyone else got jobs, credit cards and mortgages, and cheerfully went to discos.
Ecology re-emerged as a fashionable topic in the early 1990s as well-paid bureaucrats got twitter-pated about Mother Nature, and hopped on big jet planes to the conference in Rio de Janeiro. Green plans abounded. “Sustainable development” entered our vocabulary through Gro Harlem Bruntland’s famous UN report, Our Common Future. There was much discussion about thinking globally and acting locally, and a young German woman named Kelly put the logo, Green Party, on the political map. But, once again, the fashion faded. The tireless workers for this or that project (the ancient trees of Claquot Sound, the peregrine falcon and the spotted owl, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and so on) soldiered on and managed some hard-won community victories; but, nothing systemic was forthcoming from major governments, much less commerce and industry. Few political leaders cared enough to do more than go through the motions of creating a game preserve here or offering temporary reprieve to a few fish there. On the contrary, business-oriented governments generally reduced environmental protection programs, reused the scare tactic of presenting ecological concerns as threats to the economy, and recycled ideological commitments to coal-fired electricity generators and nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, what the late naturalist John Livingston called “the urban-industrial holocaust” laid waste the wilderness in the name of progress, and everyday consumers returned to spiritual somnambulance (though, quietly in the background, Livingston’s shade could be heard muttering: “Whenever you hear the phrase ‘sustainable development,’ you can be sure of one thing, it is development that will be sustained”).
It is true, of course, that a number of cities have “dedicated” lanes for bicycles and vehicles with at least one passenger. Some municipalities encourage citizens to separate their garbage into recyclable and non-recyclable containers, with only the latter apparently going to incinerators or landfills. These initiatives are commendable. So is Al Gore’s Oscar. But, combined, they amount to a mammalian methane release in an extreme weather windstorm. Assuming that the ecological pessimists are even half-right, the greening of Wal-mart, the re-branding of oil giant BP to “Beyond Petroleum,” and a massive proliferation of hybrid automobiles will, by themselves, do no more than delay the inevitable.
This is not to counsel despair. It is merely to insist that we are at risk of indulging in praise for environmental palliatives that provide no effective therapy for our environmental pathologies, and sometimes even fail to palliate. The much-hyped conversion to ethanol, for instance, is a project that is unsettling not only because of its dubious diversion of foodstuffs to internal combustion engines, but also because of the merry jingle of the cash registers accompanying the profits for equally dubious agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland. If this is the best we can do, it is plain that even devotees of the Abrahamic religions will soon have to admit that God made a mighty big mistake when he gave “man [sic] dominion over the earth,” and thus free reign to harm the health of people and the planet. The record of our species, especially in the last few centuries has not been redeeming, so to speak.
What, then, is seriously to be done?
Well, of course, public campaigns to reduce the plastic packaging on products of questionable purpose can help, as the campaign to terminate the use of asbestos insulation, lead-based paint, aerosol cans and PCBs certainly did. And, yes, it would be nice to make creditable investments in public transit and to find a practical alternative to fossil fuels, and so on.
But, and this is a tremendously big “but,” all of these bright ideas, advanced by people of good will and implemented as efficaciously as possible by a few noble politicians and public officials of unerring good judgment and undeniable rectitude still lack a comprehensive analysis, a way to link the wanton disposal of toxins in the air, land and water of the Earth. Incremental, targeted change¾no matter how inspired the global thinking behind the local action¾is apt to be ineffective against the power of global megacorporations and their sustaining ideology.
Good intensions will not necessarily pave the road to hell, but they won’t erect any sizable roadblocks either. To be effective, they must arise from a comprehensive analytical framework; and, to editors Leo Panitch and Colin Leys as well as the nineteen contributors to this year’s edition of The Socialist Register, that framework must be grounded in the socialist tradition.
This, of course, goes against all post-Soviet common sense and strategic thinking. Isn’t Marx obsolete? Isn’t capitalism triumphant? Haven’t we, in the famous phrase of recovering neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, reached the “end of history”?
Not by a long shot; unless, by the “end of history,” we mean the perpetuation of plant and animal extinctions on the order of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction of about sixty-five million years ago. Think T-Rex. Think Teddy Roosevelt.
Before considering the excellent essays in the current edition of The Socialist Register, it would probably be wise to introduce unfamiliar readers to this exemplary series. Begun in 1964 by two of Britain’s foremost scholars, Ralph Miliband and John Saville, The Socialist Register has brought some of the most insightful, astute and judicious thought emanating from the English-speaking left.
For anyone interested in the evolution of the left in Britain, the investigation of the circumstances that gave rise to the publication yields a fascinating glimpse into the struggles that beset English-speaking intellectuals in the decade following the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The relationships among labourites, socialists and the communists who broke with the Soviet Union after the defeat of the Hungarian rebels remain of both ethical and political interest. Naturally, these relationships were played out largely on the battlefield of the printed page, with the internal squabbling on the board of The New Left Review being mainly responsible for the creation of The Socialist Register in the first place. In these internecine quarrels, the underlying issues facing progressive thinkers are available not just to cater to the preoccupations of political antiquarians, but to background even more vital debates today.
Not everyone, of course, has been equally impressed by The Socialist Register’s contribution to useful political discourse. In the September 21, 2006 issue of the New York Review, for example, Tony Judt was still fulminating about Edward Thompson’s critique of Leszek Kolokowski, published in the Register in 1974! In case anyone cares, I was rooting for Thompson; but, I confess that I would have to look deep into my spidery files to recall more than the broad parameters of the dispute. It must, however, be stressed that, even for leftish intellectuals who are keen to rehash the fine points of theory and to engage the politics and poetics of the peace movement, thirty years is a heck of a long time to hold a grudge. Nonetheless, for people of a certain age and orientation, The Socialist Register has provided an immense, insightful and inspiring body of work.
In recent years, the editorial centre of The Socialist Register has shifted from England to Toronto’s York University. Its editors have long made common cause with the venerable leaders of the Monthly Review in New York City. As well, they have helped build some of the practical alliances that are needed if any environmentalism worthy of the name is to move beyond “voluntarism,” “eco-localism,” “natural romanticism,” and the belief that serious (which is to say, world-saving) consequences can be won by appearing non-partisan or by promoting one-issue movements or parties.
In terms of the journal’s content, the editors have moved strongly toward the production of single theme issues, including a prescient volume on “The New Imperial Challenge” in 2004 and the refreshing 2006 edition entitled “Telling the Truth,” an inspired exercise in demystification which takes on topics as diverse as “propaganda-managed democracy” and “postmodernism and the corruption of the academic intelligentsia.”
Throughout its history, The Socialist Register has presented an extraordinary synthesis of the highest scholarship and the most humane and prudent advice about how to frame political discussion. This history, by the way, is candidly recorded in two places, Marion Kozak’s “How It All Began: A Footnote to History” <http://socialistregister.com> and co-founding editor Ralph Miliband’s “Thirty Years of The Socialist Register” (SR, 1994). Whether confronting terrorism with the wisdom of Edward Thompson’s arguments about the madness of a Sorelian commitment to violence or dissecting the dynamics of ethnicity and social class in the structure of late capitalism, The Socialist Register has been unusual among periodicals that reflect the intellectual currents on the left: it has spoken with clarity and lucidity while maintaining its connection to the finest of theoretical work. It not only speaks truth to power, but it does so persuasively and transparently. The current issue achieves no less.
Coming to Terms with Nature features seventeen important essays that bring readers into direct contact with issues and organizations that must be understood if a solid basis is to be built for understanding the origins, character and implications of the political struggle over the environment. Only a very few of these contributions will be summarized here.
First, amid breathless accounts of the impending ruination of capitalism through the exploitation of finite fossil fuels and the consequent loss of cheap energy, Daniel Buck offers some cautionary arguments in his essay, “The Ecological Question: Can Capitalism Prevail?” He reflects on the century-old dread of the disaster threatened by the depletion of coal reserves. That early energy crisis was miraculously avoided by the “discovery” of petroleum. That technological innovation, in turn, helped prop up the idea that clever scientists working in corporate laboratories will doubtless discover a replacement for petroleum, just in the nick of time. It is admitted that technological initiatives might have some serious side-effects (for example, spent nuclear fuel rods that will remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, and that are being, we are assured, safely stored in the meantime); still, despite certain allegedly manageable risks, the benefits of creativity are everywhere advertised as definitive of our current economic structures.
It is likewise obvious that the marvels of science are not drying up like sub-Saharan Africa; despite evident problems, “something,” we are told in a somewhat macabre voice, “will turn up.” Rather than simply gainsay such Dickensian optimism, Buck explores the idea of discovery itself and probes the question of why petroleum’s usefulness came at such a spectacularly serendipitous time. He “puts the question of technology back at the centre of analysis,” and offers a persuasive case for a rehearsal of Marx’s emphasis on capitalist dynamics and their intimate association with “constant revolutionizing of production.” So, to articulations of dystopian postcapitalist visions, Buck urges a more nuanced understanding of the essence of capitalism itself, which is not the same as its epitome (machines making machines), but rather its unrelenting motion, sometimes exploding in orgiastic episodes of creative destruction and the total remaking of social formations of production and distribution. In this context, Buck acknowledges that the Marxian dream of the eventual overthrow of capitalism may have to wait a while. Meantime, we can anticipate a new set of “consumer issues.” In addition to the already extant “commodification of seeds, water, the Internet, engineered mice, and the human genome … we may be seeing the incipient commodification of the very air we breathe, air which may be increasingly noxious for all those who cannot afford to purchase commodified and distributed clean air.”
Although the long anticipated revolution may have to wait, Buck makes clear that there are plenty of serious problems to address before “the final conflict.” These are, of course, not exclusively Western troubles. In response to urban environmental stress, Japanese oxygen bars already dispense refreshing doses of fruit-flavoured gas for a less than $10. The so-called Japanese miracle, however, pales before the rising dragon of Chinese economic growth, and the attendant problems are potentially much worse.
The second contribution to be mentioned is “Hyper-Development and the Environmental Crisis,” by Dale Wen and Minqi Li. Between 1978 and 2004, they report, the Chinese economy grew at an annual rate of 9.4%; and, it shows no sure signs of stalling in the immediate future. Every year about a quarter of a million automobiles are added to the streets of Beijing, making it problematic whether anyone will be able to see the marathon runners as they cough their way to the smog-obscured finish line in the forthcoming Olympics. Chinese (and Indian) growth thus poses a dilemma for humane socialists and anyone else with a thoughtful approach to global development: How, it is asked, can the West deny the blessings of modernity to the Third World in the name of a global environment that those same Western nations have happily degraded over the past few centuries, and especially in the past few decades?
China’s growth comes at an enormous ecological cost that is made worse by the possibility of political instability, not because students in Tiananmen Square once cried out for democracy, but because the price of progress is increasing “social and economic inequality … mounting rural crisis, growing urban unemployment and poverty, pervasive government corruption, [and] deteriorating public services” in what CNN’s Lou Dobbs mirthfully insists on calling “Communist” China.
In a pragmatic approach to what seems like an irresolvable economy/ecology contradiction, Wen and Li make a reasoned case for China’s government to direct its efforts toward “meeting the population’s basic needs rather than the pursuit of profits and capital accumulation.” This might still be possible, but is hardly expected under the current official line of “greed is good.” Instead, the drive for wealth will be encouraged by the new millionaires with Rolexes and Armani suits, and the more common beneficiaries of the regime who will be flocking to Wal-mart outlets where Chinese products promise to be even cheaper than in Newmarket, Ontario or Sandusky, Ohio.
Third, sober reflection is also prompted by Achim Brunnengräber’s analysis of “The Political Economy of the Kyoto Protocol.” The agreement that came into effect in 2005, is commonly understood to be the world’s most substantial step toward restoring climatic stability, mainly through the reduction of human-generated greenhouse gases. There are, however, some problems.
Most obvious is the existence of the AP6, “the Asia-Pacific partnership for clean development and climate.” Composed of the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia, this merry band of Kyoto opponents consume about half the world’s energy and contribute about half the greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Instead of joining with the Kyoto signatories, the AP6 prefer voluntary measures undertaken with the cooperation and leadership of private industry. That Japan should remain outside of Kyoto is ironic; that China should endorse capitalist corporate voluntarism is darkly hilarious.
As well, there is the “hesitant behaviour” of many of the signatories themselves. The Kyoto goal, we must recall, was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Quite the opposite is too frequently happening. Between 1990 and 2003, Brunnengräber reports, Spain’s emissions rose by 41.7%, Canada’s by 24.2%, Finland’s by 21.5% and Japan’s by 12.8%. Kyoto critics normally explain that these numbers show the absurdity of setting unrealistic standards. When not denying that human activities contribute to global warming, Kyoto detractors affirm that growing economies require industrial expansion which, in the absence of efficient and economical alternatives to fossil fuels, means increases in CO2 emissions. Economics, of course, must trump environment.
At this point Brunnengräber presents a cogent discussion of the devilish details that the Kyoto accord contains as methods for polluting nations to finesse their obligations. It is commonplace to assert that ecological interrelationships are complicated. Although there is virtual unanimity among credible scientists concerning the matter of human responsibility for greenhouse gases, and although the resulting global warming is generally agreed to be the cause of polar melting, there is not the same confidence in establishing the connection between industrial activity and desertification. So, while the overall problem is accepted as “real,” the details of exactly what is responsible for what remains somewhat unclear. Teasing out specific causal connections may be almost futile, but may also be of secondary importance: says Brunnengräber, “the ubiquitous greenhouse effect no longer allows a demarcation between the concepts of environment and society.”
The complexity of nature, however, is given a good challenge by the ingenuity of the human mind. In a most succinct and comprehensible description of the fine print in Kyoto, Brunnengräber explains instruments such as the Joint Implementation provision and the Clean Development Mechanism which might be described as the modern equivalent of selling indulgences in the Neoliberal Church of Extreme Globalization. He also explains clearly the odd Kyoto notions of selling hot air and investment in “sinks” (projects such as reforestation that compensate for CO2 emissions by promoting plant growth which takes CO2 from the air. Thus, “the French car manufacturer Peugeot protects the Brazilian rainforest, the chemical firm Henkel protects the forest in Argentina, and New Zealand hopes to achieve 80 per cent of its emissions reduction by forestation. Brunnengräber, of course, has nothing against trees (though he is suspicious of environmentally dubious eucalyptus plantations); however, he accurately describes these and other dodges (many championed by the United States before it bailed out of the process) as relatively inexpensive ways to sustain development and, in the final analysis, expressions of the fact that much that passes for environmental protection can also be read as another element in the enduring struggle between wealthy and poor nations, in which it is the poor who pay the social price for the lifestyle of the rich and infamous.
Finally, if Brunnengräber’s point is taken, and even the bogey of Kyoto is skeptically understood as an agreement among the already powerful to deal tentatively, ineffectively and mainly symbolically with the natural environment, it behooves Panitch and Leys to include some practical alternatives in their collection. This they do with force, and at the risk of setting off productive, if sometimes painful, discussions.
The essays that close the volume include Heather Rogers’ “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce,” which shows the degree to which the wasting of the world at least begins as a local process. In the United States, she advises, almost 80 per cent of all products are used once and thrown away. In the Pacific Ocean, there is six times more plastic waste than zooplankton. This is not due to some inherent quality in humankind, nor even in industrial-age humanity. Mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal are “the heart of social life and economic growth.” This “heart of a heartless world” suffers, of course, from terminal arrhythmia and is in need of radical, invasive therapy. For the moment, however, the symptoms of fibrillation are clear: aggressive recycling programs are callously used by the polymer industry as “green marketing” covering a vast increase in the output of new resins over recycled plastics; the American Plastics Council has “vigorously talked up recycling while simultaneously opposing the passage of some 180 regulatory and legislative proposals in thirty-two states; and, even if there was any relief from the hypocrisy of green campaigns, the fact remains that municipal waste which includes discards from households, local businesses and institutions like schools accounts for less than one in every 70 tons of garbage; the rest is generated by industrial processes in manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration. Merely putting litter in its place,” she concludes, “does nothing to curb rubbish output …”
While recycling may do no material harm, and while emphasis on individual “ecological footprints” may encourage a sense of personal responsibility for corporate problems, it is plain that the pertinent effects of the “every litter bit hurts” mentality include masking the real problems and providing the illusion that something meaningful is being done.
To get beyond that fallacy, some deep theoretical work is required. Costas Panayotakis’s “Working More, Selling More, Consuming More” explores what he calls capitalism’s “third contradiction.” A salient addition to Marx’s intellectual arsenal, Panayotakis goes beyond Marx’s original notion of the internal contradiction between the forces and relations of capitalism (“class conflict”) and (drawing on Karl Polanyi’s analysis in “The Great Transformation”) O’Connor’s “second contradiction between capitalist production and the degradation of the conditions of production that have led to “new social movements” for environmentalism, feminism, the definition of work, the politics of the body, urban infrastructure, the domestic political economy, and the like. He then carries on an informative and compelling interrogation of these ostensibly Marxian premises and concludes, with Marshall Berman, that the periodic crises of capitalism may be measures of its health, and not its impending much less its immediate doom. Echoing Jacoby’s quip that the problem with “late capitalism” is that it’s never late enough, the inference is made that Marx’s apparent belief that recurrent crisis will increasingly cripple and ultimately destroy capitalism stands in contradiction to his own analysis of how bourgeois society actually thrives on crisis and catastrophe, and that “given the bourgeois capacity to make destruction and chaos pay, there is no apparent reason why these crises can’t spiral on endlessly.”
To escape this paradox, Panayotakis advances the argument that the “third contradiction of capitalism stems not from an inability of capitalist social relations to continue advancing technological and productive development but rather from an inability to translate such development into a richer and more satisfying life for all human beings.”
Were this no more than a special pleading on behalf of the meaningless life of Paris Hilton or a retreat into lifestyle politics wherein Birkenstock Bolsheviks could alleviate the contradictions of capitalism with designer myths and hemp bags, there would be little point in mentioning it. Something more, however, is in play. Panayotakis is engaged in a project of some importance. Abandoning the teleological sense of inevitability for a more prescriptive critique of capitalism as it is, he offers an opportunity to “illuminate specific social, economic and political … challenges and possibilities.” By disclosing the fact that economic growth substitutes for economic redistribution and thereby averts the potential for class struggle, the “productive bias” of capitalist ideology is revealed and the possibilities of alternatives emerge. Concern for “richer, more satisfying lives,” he admits, may seem peripheral for people (and nations and continents) that are still “struggling to secure basic material survival”; nonetheless, there is a commonality in the source of their respective troubles, and it is one that globalization is making increasingly clear.
Consumerism, environmental degradation and the manifold measures of social injustice including poverty, patriarchy, tyranny, disease and a climate of perpetual war are linked. The question now is how to respond in a way that does not merely mimic the premises and prejudices of the system that has so fully corrupted the best aims of the Enlightenment. Concluding chapters by Michael Löwy on “Eco-socialism and Democratic Planning,” Frieder Otto Wolf on “Part-building for Eco-socialists,” and Greg Albo on “The Limits of Eco-localism,” combine with a challenging but rewarding contribution by Joan Martinez-Alier entitled “Social Metabolism and Environmental Conflicts,” to complete a book that offers a thorough analysis of what is surely the 21st century’s most serious struggle. Unlike phony wars on terrorism, drugs, obesity and Christmas, the battle over the dominion of the Earth betokens a process whereby our species will have to discover not only whether it is capable of living well but whether it is destined to live at all.
Coming to Terms with Nature is not shrill, alarmist and hyper-hyperbolic. It is methodical, thoughtful and comprehensive. If its language is strong and its elucidation of circumstances is somber, one reason is that strong language is needed and dire circumstances presently prevail.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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