Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ecology and Socialism

Excellent new book from Chris Williams on the ecological crisis earth faces due to capitalism and what we can do to fight it. I'm reading now- perhaps I'll post a bit on it if anything seems response worthy. So far it is extremely straight-forward and sober in its assessments; but it rejects the destructive corporate reformism (e.g. "we just need to pass cap and trade and everything will be fine") and fatalism (e.g. "we're already fucked, so there's no point in struggling") accepted by some cynics in the environmental movement. Williams, of course, is hardly the only person to hold such a position, but it is nonetheless refreshing and stimulating to read (and remarkably clear). Excerpt here. Book here.


dnw said...

Looks interesting. Of course, I reject the corporate reformist approach, but along the lines of Zizek’s latest book, I believe a sort of Hegelian fatalism is precisely what we need, not a fatalism that says we ought to give up because we’re fucked, but rather that our being fucked is a necessary condition for struggling all the more! Catastrophe is impending; therefore, we must act radically to overturn this inevitability. I’ll lay out his case.

The problem is that ecological reformists often view nature as a category separate from humanity which can be interrogated according to rationalist-scientific processes and whose problems can be ameloriated, solved, or reversed through progressive action. Unfortunately, the picture is more complicated. Consider the phenomenon of the dying bees:

Scientists are struggling to understand why the death toll of the bee population is reaching potentially catastrophic levels. Close to half of our diet comes from bee-polinated plants. This sort of event is the model of an impending global catastrophe, not a huge big bang, but rather a small-scale disruption which sets off a chain reaction. There is no way to restore the ecosystem to a “natural state” by proposing rational systemic changes, because bees (and other organisms) have already adapted to the effects of industrial pollution. There are unknown knows and unknown unknowns, things we don’t even know that we’re unaware of. And eco-catastrophies can lead to positive results. Conversely, consider what would happen if the most extreme Spiritual ecologists/tree-huggers had their way: scientists have asserted that if the processes of industrialization simply ceased, a total ecological catastrophe would ensue, with Nature having already adapted to the effects of pollution.

Why Hegel?

Put this way, Nature is not a stable background from human activity but is of course affected by it, which means that the natural versus human history dichotomy is upended. This means that the relationship between the geological parameters of Nature and the socio-economic sphere of humanity is dialectical; sure, they’re separable, insofar as Nature does harbor a threat to us independent of capitalism, but one must also recognize that the fate of the Whole (earth) is also dependent on the part (the socio-economic form of capitalist production). The key struggle, he asserts, therefore resides on the side of the particular, which means that the universal problem (survival of the human species) can only be solved by addressing the deadlock of the particular antagonism, which is the capitalist mode of production. Thus, it’s a mistake to tackle the ecological crisis through ecology, as such. So the Hegelian idea, as I interpret it, is that nature, the “universality,” enters into dialectical tension with its particular content, such that it does not serve as a stable backdrop to humanity but appears instead as an apocalyptic threat.

t said...

I agree that the ideas about the relationship between the "social" and "nature" that one finds in Hegel are essential here. Marx also has a dialectical view about the relationship between a mode of production, social relations, relation to the environment, etc.

I dont think the Williams book is arguing for a version of "deep ecology". On the contrary, the analysis is Marxist, and is motivated by the idea that the relationship to nature, and the precise meaning of "nature" itself, is a moving target. We don't want to return to some past "golden age", the Marxist argument runs, we want to use the contradictions lodged at the heart of the present system as leverage to create a new kind of society. We already have the technology, know-how, and abundance of resources to bring environmental destruction to a screeching halt. The only reason this doesn't happen is because technology, investment, resources, production, etc. are not under the control of people. Such things are under the control of a small class of people who profit from the continued destruction of the environment. Governments merely replicate this problem by drawing up policy in such a way that it doesn't interfere with "growth" (for whom? to what end?). This is an excellent example of Marx's claim that the State is an abstraction: it is in the superstructure, and hence dependent upon and shaped by the economic infrastructure of society.

So, real environmental justice is only going to come when the commanding heights of the economy (food production, transportation, energy) are taken into democratic control. So long as the owners of coal plants continue to make billions of dollars from destroying the environment, they will continue to do it. They will stop only when they are forced to, because saving the environment means having no more coal plants. It isn't a question of compromise with them; it is a question of the very existence of a class of elites that own and control energy production that is unsustainable.

t said...

One other thing- I should add that there will need to be a change in consciousness as well, not just a change in the way things are produced. But, of course, we know that these two things are connected.

People don't come out of the womb addicted to oil, single-family homes, disposable packaging, etc. They are systematically trained to "need" these things by capitalist institutions (advertising, culture, law, incentives, built environments that require cars, etc.). When we change institutions, people's consciousness will change as well. The consciousness of many people is already way ahead of institutions; they want to do the right thing, but can't find a properly political outlet for their desire to save the environment. Instead they fall back (understandably) on individual lifestyle choices, which are commendable and certainly part of the struggle, but which cannot themselves rock the foundations of the system.

Organic food production is a perfect example. I, of course, support organic food production. But I understand that the problem isn't whether one can look back at my grocery bills and see whether it is "pure" in showing my "allegiance" to the idea of organic food. The problem is whether the majority of food production, the commanding heights of food production we might say, is organic and sustainable. I don't want for there merely to be a 10% niche market of organic: I want all food production to be organic. We have the know-how and technology to do it tomorrow; the only road block is political. As long as food production is for profit, the current destructive (toxic, polluting) practices in place by the food-industrial-complex will continue. Our power to stop this process is not to be found in our capacity as consumers; its to be found in our capacity as political agents involved in mass movements that demand immediate change.