The Socialist Register 2007
Coming toTerms with Nature
Coming to Terms with Nature : Socialist Register 2007
In their characteristically dense and succinct preface to the 2007 edition of the Socialist Register, the editors make two important observations. The first is that socialist theorists have, until recently, not recognized environmental problems as being urgent, potentially irreversible, and “integral” to the socialist project. The second observation is that “mainstream environmentalists” continue to look to a kind of “market ecology” for solutions, ” as if markets and technocracy can solve ecological problems without reference to politics and democracy.” (xiv) These observations speak to a failure of communication between critical political theorists and the practitioners of ecological science that continues to hobble both political leadership and active citizenship. While the reasons for this failure are complex (and not the primary concern of this collection), socialists can contribute to ecological praxis by improving their own understanding of the relationships between contemporary capitalism and ecological crises. An important aspect of this undertaking is to more clearly conceptualize “the kind of politics that could lead to an ecologically sustainable as well as a democratic socialism.” (ix)
Overall, the collection very admirably achieves its objectives. The chapters by Neil Smith, Elmar Altvater, Daniel Buck, and Philip McMichael, in particular, go a long way toward fulfilling the collection’s aim of providing a “better ecosocialist understanding of contemporary capitalism.” (ix) Smith describes the ways in which nature is increasingly being commodified, socially produced and financialized. Drawing on Marx, and on the work of the French School of Regulation, he argues that a real subsumption of nature to capital is taking place (like the earlier real subsumption of labour to capital in the intensive regime of accumulation). Nature is now not only being appropriated by capitalism, but also produced by capitalism, in the form of new technologies - in particular, biotechnologies. The eco-Marxist theorist, James O’Connor, drew attention to the same phenomena, albeit using difference terms, in work published in 1988 and 1998. O’Connor view capital’s drive to “remake nature” as a response to the “liquidity crisis” generated by its own consumption of resources, and as requiring, also, the remaking of science and technology in its own image. Thus, monoculture forest of GMOs could be understood as capitalist attempts to speed up nature’s rates of regeneration or to transform nature into new commodity forms. The more intensive exploitation of nature, O’Connor argued, resembles the transformations of labour processes aimed at increasing relative surplus value. Interestingly, Smith seems to take up where O’Connor left off, affirming with the benefit of greater hindsight the trends that were becoming apparent in the mid-1980s. From this vantage point, Smith emphasizes the ways in which the social creation and financialization of nature (e.g, GMOs and carbon credits, respectively) constitutes new accumulation strategies.
Elmar Altvater, focusing on “fossil capitalism,” argues that the historical “congruence of capitalism, fossil energy, rationalism and industrialism” was both unique and “perfect” for the requirements of capitalist accumulation, and that fossil energy “fits into capitalism’s societal relation to nature.” (41-2) Fossil fuels did bring about a radical acceleration and spatial expansion of industrial capitalism. However, Altvater argues, the profound crisis of capitalism today is that a continued reliance upon fossil-fuelled growth risks ecological destruction, and at the same time, no economy based on renewable energy sources will be able to “power the machine of capitalist accumulation and growth.” (45) In particular, a solar revolution will require “a radical transformation of patterns of production and consumption, life and work, gender relations, and the spatial and temporal organization of social life.” (54) In Altvater’s view, these new direction will necessarily be non-capitalist.
Altvater is not alone, of course, in associating “soft energy” alternatives such as solar energy with transition to decentralized (more democratic control over energy production, less globalized (and more self-reliant) economic circuits, and less consumption-driven societies. While it is tempting to cling to the hope offered by this prediction of capitalism’s inevitable demise (beginning in about four decades, with the end of oil), there remain compelling grounds for skepticism and uncertainty about the dependence of capitalist social relations upon a specific energy regime. Indeed, many environmental thinkers have promoted ecological modernization precisely on the grounds that it is compatible with capitalism. Nuclear power,-which is not discussed in any detail by any of the authors - while not a renewable source of energy (because of limited reserves of uranium), could extend the life of capitalism for a very long time, with some risks mitigated by small-scale reactors. Nuclear, indeed, is enjoying a “renaissance” of credibility, thanks to the promotional efforts of the nuclear industry and supportive governments - also some environmentalists, such as James Lovelock and Patrick Moore - who have identified nuclear power as a solution to global warming.
Daniel Buck predicts that capitalism will survive the “ecological challenge (although the future mode of regulation could be more inegalitarian and inhumane), because it is not oil, but technology, that is central to the capitalist mode of production. Buck’s argument regarding the potential of capitalist to produce radical technological breakthroughs resembles that of the “promethean” of 1980s, who insisted that “human ingenuity” would find solutions to any ecological limits to economic growth. Much of what is at issue here is our understanding of necessity of incessant economics growth (in terms of energy and material throughputs) for the continuation of capitalism as mode of production. Also at issue is how we assess the potential of ecological modernization to reduce throughputs and wastes to an ecologically sustainable level within a capitalist mode of production. Costas Panayotakis argues that technological fixes alone cannot resolve the “third” contradiction of capitalism, which is it inability to proves “a richer and more satisfying life for all humans beings.” (260) The arguments in this chapter have been advanced before - notably, by Herbert Marcuse - and the author seems pessimistic about possibility of resistance to capitalist consumer culture. He proposes restrictions on advertising, but it is not evident where the agency for such a reform is likely to come.
The chapters that focus on particular countries or regions illustrate the difficulties of generalization with regard to “the kind of politics that could lead to an ecologically sustainable, as well as a democratic socialism.” (ix) On the one hand, strategies of collective action need to be rooted in specific local contexts. On the other hand, to advance collective action in the form of international solidarity, we need to identify the linkages among local contexts. Case studies include renewable energy policy in the UK, political responses to Hurricane Katrina in the US, hyper-development in China, the crisis of food production in sub-Saharan Africa, obstacles to the provision of clean, safe water and sanitation to two billion people, the political economy of the Kyoto Protocol, “green capitalism” as a substitute for the reduction of consumption in the USA, and the story of the German Green Party’s de-radicalization. In addition to the five chapters described above, chapters by Joan Martinez-Alier, Michael Lowy, and Greg Albo focus on eco-socialist concepts and strategy.
Harris-White and Harris’ critique of the UK Labour government’s “aspirational” climate change policy is highly instructive for Canadians, whose governments (liberal and Conservative) have followed the same strategy. This analysis recognizes the complexity of regulatory pressures and interests in the energy policy field, the difficulties of identifying actors’ societal interests (given the murkiness of NGO-corporate relations), and the difficulties of documenting the influence of business in secretive policy making processes. Yet the analysis of policy outcomes yields an uncomplicated explanation for governmental non-action with regard to investment in renewable energy: “a weakened state at the mercy of industrial interests.”(84) The authors do not have very hopeful things to say about the social actors that might transform state-society relations in the UK.
The chapter by Wen and Li provides an overview of multiple aspects of China’s environmental crisis. However, it does not identify the actors who might bring about a transition to a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable model of development - and with whom eco-socialist elsewhere might develop solidaristic strategies. Bernstein and Woodhouse provide a complex analysis of the different effects of the intensified commoditization of agriculture on sub-Saharan Africa’s “classes of labour” ending their chapter with a list of questions about the possible sources or forms of collective action for a more egalitarian and environmentally sustainable agricultural model. The juxtaposition of the two chapters draws attention to a striking commonality the relationship of consumption in the Global North to ecological crises in the Global South. In the case of China, both labour and nature are hyper-exploited to produce cheap consumer and industrial goods for export. In sub-Saharan Africa, fisheries and forests are being decimated, and the agricultural land reallocated to cash crops for export (including the water-intensive production of flowers for export to Europe), while for the majority of the population, “life is highly unpredictable.” (159)
Philip McMichael’s chapter maps out the global political economy of transformations in agriculture and food provision since the colonial era, touching particularly on meat production, factory farming, and genetically modified crops. This chapter offers a fuller discussion of alternative models and social agency for change than some of the book’s other chapters. I have used it in a third year course and found that it made a big impression on students. Eric Swyngedouw’s chapter on the commoditization of water attempts to make a similar kind of analysis, arguing that water scarcity (like famines) is largely socially constructed. While this is certainly a large part of the story, this chapter pays little attention to effects on global fresh water supply of global warming and intensive industrial uses (including agricultural). The theoretical argument would have been strengthened by more grounding in empirical research and less use of language such as “socio-hydrological cycle” or “socio-spatial flows” which are rather impenetrable to most readers. The most interesting part of the chapter is the section that discusses - like Colin Leys’ remarkable Market-Driven Politics - how public goods like water are commodified, and what obstacles commodification encounters. It would be illuminating to extend this general discussion to a comparative analysis of attempts to commodify water in different contexts, in particular, to identify successful strategies of resistance.
Heather Roger’s “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce: is a great read. It very effectively tackles the old problem of individual responsibility verses solution to environmental crisis. This chapter will be highly effective in North American classroom, where, typically, students have bought into the very ideology that Rogers describes, that is, that individual consumers are responsible for environmental problems and that consumer power can make capitalism green (if only we can overcome our “selfish human nature”). This chapter shines a spotlight on corporate green washing and the “shallowness” of the green consumerism/capitalism approach to ecological sustainability.
Jamie Peck’s essay “Neoliberal Hurricane: Who framed New Orleans?” also focuses on the powerful pro-capitalist ideological campaign to frame what is at stake in various environmental crises. He offers a careful, if perhaps overly detailed reconstruction of how neo-conservative think-tanks sought (more or less successfully) to persuade some of the American media, as well as the Bush Administration, neither to break with a neo-liberal role for the state, nor to attribute the hurricane to climate change. The result, Peck argues, is that the disaster was “transformed into a malformed reconstruction program that blames, and morally regulated, the most vulnerable victims, while setting in train “[w]holescale gentrification on a scale unseen in the United States.” (122) While the focus on the influence of neo-con think-tanks is highly instructive, the essay leaves the impression that no other discourses about the meaning of Hurricane Katrina have been heard in the United Sates, in particular with regard to broader public opinion. A fuller answer to the question posed in the chapter’s title would give some attention to a wider range of media, think-tanks, NGOs, and other actors.
The last three chapters are of particular interest from the point of view of eco-socialist strategy. Lowy outlines an eco-socialist vision with a central role for participatory, democratic planning. This is an important counterpart to the preceding eco-Marxist analyses of the capitalist roots of the environmental and social crises confronting the world. As is perhaps unavoidable, given the size of the task and the limits of space, Lowy’s discussion of the relationship between short-term reforms and radical transformation is somewhat truncated and in need of clarification. On one hand, Green parties are criticized for remaining within the boundaries of social liberalism; on the other hand, he lists reforms that have been supported by Green Parties as examples of “urgent eco-social demands [that] can lead to a process of radicalization, if such demands are not adapted so as to fit in with the requirements of ‘competitiveness’”. (306) We are left wondering what forms, specifically, these demands should take so as not to be adapted (adaptable?) to the needs of capitalist accumulation.
Frieder Otto Wold picks up on the question of the roles that have been played by Green, or eco-left parties, focusing on the prototypical German Green. Although Wolf identifies a number of causes of the Greens’ slide toward the acceptance of neo-liberal economics, the key explanation appears to be the comparative weakness of the Green left within the part. Wolf understands very clearly what is at stake, politically, in debates about the Green parties. If the Greens were the counter-hegemonic “movement parties” of the future - the new hope to defeat capitalist - and they are seen to be failing, what should we conclude? Not one to succumb to despair, Wolf offers some ideas about the kind of political party that might successfully resist integration. However, he argues that attempts to form such radical parties will be premature until the social movement giving rise to them have gone through a period of “education and self-education,” as modeled by ATTAC or by the World Social Forum. (331) Finally, Greg Albo argues, in the concluding chapter, that eco-socialism must address the realities of a global capitalist economy, and should connect to territorial scales of anti-capitalist, democratic struggle that transcend the local. There is some unevenness among the chapters in the extent of their treatment of “the kind of politics” and social agency which may advance the project of the eco-left. The essays do, however, go a long way toward providing an eco-Marxist framework for interpreting the causes of a broad range of ecological crises. Through the integration of ecological concepts, discourse analysis, and Marxist political economy, this collection help us understand the obstacles to, and potential for, radical ecological change. Laurie Adkin University of Alberta