Saturday, 8 July 2017

A Resistance Movement for the Planet - John Bellamy Foster Interview



Climate change is out of control. It is already too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. But the financial structure of capitalism is tied to fossil fuels. Market-based solutions are ineffectual. John Bellamy Foster, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and the editor of Monthly Review, speaks about the kind of program necessary to stop this catastrophe. From Left Voice

LV: There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates how anthropogenic climate change is out of control and will lead to global environmental catastrophe—without a major overhaul of energy production. In the February 2017 issue of the Monthly Review, you point out that although we have been presented with precise and indisputable estimations, science and social science institutions have failed to failed to come up with effective solutions. Why do you think this is the case?

JBF: We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation.

There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.

LV: If conversion to renewable energy could halt or reverse the march of environmental crisis, why aren’t we moving in that direction at the right pace?

JBF: The short answer is “profits.” The long answer goes something like this: There are two major barriers: (1) vested interests that are tied into the fossil-fuel financial complex, and (2) the higher rate of profitability in the economy to be obtained from the fossil-fuel economy. It is not just a question of energy return on energy investment. The fossil-fuel infrastructure already exists, giving fossil fuels a decisive advantage in terms of profitability and capital accumulation over alternative energy. Any alternative energy system requires that a whole new energy infrastructure be built up practically from scratch before it can really compete. There are also far greater subsidies for fossil fuels. And fossil fuels represent, in capitalist accounting, a kind of “free gift” of nature to capital, more so than even solar power. The financial structure, including the largest banks and Wall Street are very tightly connected to the fossil fuel economy. The below ground fossil fuel reserves represent trillions of dollars in assets that already have a real effect in today’s economy in the sense that they appear on the financial books of corporations—even if burning all of these reserves, which would break the climate budget 5 or 6 times over, would send us to climate hell. But these trillions of dollars in assets associated with fossil fuel reserves would simply vanish if fossil fuel burning were to cease. There is no equivalent with respect to solar or wind in terms of assets. My colleague, Richard York, one of the world’s leading environmental sociologists, has demonstrated empirically in an article Nature Climate Change that right now alternative energy is still treated as a supplement rather than a substitute for fossil fuels within the energy industry as presently constituted. The rapid growth of alternative energy should not therefore be seen as a radical break with the domination of fossil fuels. That still needs to occur.

LV: You have argued that the expansion of financial capital, patterns of economic stagnation, along with the decline of U.S. hegemony are underlying causes of greater impact on the environment. Can you elaborate on this?

JBF: From the standpoint of the so-called “masters of the universe”—today six men (a few months ago it was eight) have as much wealth as half the world’s population—who increasingly run the world economy, the chief problem at present is not climate change but the stagnation of the world economy. This stagnation is deepest in the advanced capitalist economies. The U.S. economy grew at a 1.6 percent rate last year and has experienced more than a decade of below 3 percent growth for the first time in recorded history. The growth rate of Europe over the last decade was about 1.7 percent. Compare that to the 1.3 percent growth rate in the United States in the depression decade from 1929-1939. Monopoly-finance capital, as we have been arguing in Monthly Review for decades, has a strong tendency toward overaccumulation and stagnation. What mainly lifted the economy in the 1980s and ’90s was financialization (the growth of finance relative to production and financial bubbles). With financialization no longer able to stimulate the economy to the same extent in the period since the Great Financial Crisis stagnation has set in indefinitely. This was in fact the thesis of two books that I wrote with others—The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff) in 2009 and The Endless Crisis (with Robert W. McChesney) in 2012.

Everything today is geared to getting the economy going again. It is true that stagnation in some ways helps the ecology, since economic growth places more pressure on the environment, increases carbon dioxide emissions, etc. But as York empirically demonstrated in another article in Nature Climate Change the system does not reduce climate emissions at the same rate when the economy goes down as it raises them when the economy goes up. Moreover, the focus of all the advanced capitalist economies on economic growth above all else has left the whole question of the planet to one side where it is marginalized. Hence, there is a new drive to remove environmental regulations in order to propel the economy forward. We are on a runaway train headed over the climate cliff as we stoke the engine with more coal to increase its speed.

LV: The Paris Climate Agreement was hailed as Obama’s environmental legacy. How effective is it as a tool to prevent and reverse the advance of environmental catastrophe?

JBF: It is perfectly ineffectual. It requires voluntary agreements. At best, it represents simply the good intentions of world governments. The voluntary plans by individual countries would take us almost all the way to the 4° C which is thought to mark the end of civilization, in the assessment of many scientists. The U.S. proposal was based on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was too little too late and relied on market mechanisms which would not do the job. It is now being dismantled by Trump’s climate-denial administration. With Washington abandoning the Paris Agreement either de facto or de jure, there is the danger it will all crumble. The one element most appealing in the Paris Agreement from a climate movement standpoint was the formal recognition of staying below a 1.5° C increase in global temperature as a goal. But almost everything else in the agreement belied that.

And we have already seen a 1.2° C increase with more in the offing. Of course, now that Trump is setting aside Obama’s Clean Power Plan we are learning what a difference there is between measures that are simply insufficient but do not cut off the possibility of still ramping up our actions to contain climate change, and policies that will actually take us backward and threaten to eliminate altogether what James Hansen has called “the last chance for humanity.”

LV: How much can we affect climate change through choices in our consumption and daily life (i.e., composting, recycling, saving water)?

JBF: Unfortunately, we can’t have very much effect in that way—apart from a massive national movement to conserve, which would require the mobilization of the entire population and would have to be part of an attempt to alter production as well. That is, a normal consumption-based strategy that is simply rooted in individual action is incapable of solving the problem or moving fast enough. To get an idea of the dimensions of the problem, if one were to eliminate all municipal waste coming out of all households in the United States that would only cut the total material waste (refuse) in the society by about 3 percent. The rest is in the hands of corporations.

This is not to say we should not be doing all the things you mention. Unless we change ourselves as individuals and our culture—the way we relate to the earth—we can’t expect to make the overall changes in society that our necessary. So removing waste and taking responsibility for the damage we inflict on nature in our everyday lives is essential. When you use of a plastic fork made on the other side of the world and then eat your take-away salad and throw it along with the packaging in the garbage (after maybe a minute’s use), so that an identical plastic fork has to be produced with petrochemicals and shipped across the world for your next takeaway meal, you are definitely feeding into a destructive and wasteful system—one that grows by means of destruction and waste. But it has been long understood that “consumer sovereignty” is a myth. To make fundamental changes in the commodity economy it is necessary to have power over production.

One thing we could do if we were truly serious is to go after the more than $1 trillion a year that is spent in the United States alone on marketing, i.e., targeting, motivation research, product development, packaging, sales promotion, advertising, direct marketing, etc., persuading the population to buy things that they don’t truly want or need. But to address marketing would also require a political response. Marx once said that workers (and this would perhaps go for consumers even more) are in their purely economic action in a capitalist society always the weaker side, and therefore they need to organize politically.

LV: David Harvey, Naomi Klein, yourself and many others share the idea that it’s either capitalism or the planet. Explain more.

JBF: Yes, there is increasing recognition on the left generally of the fact that humanity is now dirtying its own nest on a planetary level. Socialists have all too often failed to take ecological issues seriously enough. However, this is not a fault of socialists alone, as the fault applies even more to the liberal tradition taken as a whole. But whatever we choose to say about socialism in the twentieth century, it has to be emphasized that no one can be truly socialist and indeed Marxist in the twenty-first century and fail to acknowledge the full severity of the planetary ecological crisis. We are either at the forefront of the struggle to protect the earth as a place of human habitation (and as a home for innumerable species) or we are on the side of the system’s creative exterminism of the Earth system as we know it.

You are right though in singling out Naomi Klein in this respect since she has done more than anyone else in recent years outside of the scientific community to sound the alarm. She is, in my opinion, the leading intellectual-activist in the radical climate movement in the United States and Canada. As opposed to a figure like Bill McKibben, she doesn’t avoid the issue of where the dog is buried. The subtitle of her book The Changes Everything is explicit: it is question of Capitalism vs. the Climate. She is aligned with ecosocialism, which is the most important new development in socialist and ecological thought, and in the environmental movement. A good example is Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System, which appeared last year.

As for my own contributions on this question, I have written a number of works on the subject, such as The Vulnerable Planet, Ecology Against Capitalism, and (with Brett Clark and Richard York) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet. The issue is clear. Capitalism is a system geared to unlimited capital accumulation and hence exponential economic growth. It therefore constantly increases in scale. With a 3 percent rate of growth, the economy would expand by sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000 times in three centuries. While the planet’s capacity with respect to what we call the tap (the resource end) and the sink (the waste end) would essentially remain the same. The reality of ecological limits and the pressure that the economy places on them cannot therefore be denied. Of course, the problem is much more serious than the above suggests.

More important is the fact capitalism imposes its laws of motion on the environment, irrespective of the biogeochemical cycles of the planet and the earth’s metabolism, so that it creates rifts or ruptures in the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth system, disrupting ecosystem relations in ways that transcend the mere scale-effects of economic growth. It is this problem of the metabolic rift that is our deepest challenge. Sustainability is more and more compromised at ever higher levels—a continually accelerating threat to civilization and life itself.

Marx’s theory of metabolic rift, or the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” was the first analysis to lay out a truly comprehensive social-science view of systemic ecological crisis, encompassing both society and nature and their dialectical interrelations, and connecting this to production. Indeed, so powerful were these insights that they are crucial to how we see the Earth system crisis today. This is evident in an article in the March 2017 issue of Scientific Reports which explicitly draws on Marx’s concept, citing Marx’s Capital.

When we talk today about the Anthropocene from a scientific perspective we are explicitly recognizing that the Great Acceleration in the human impact on the planet since 1945 has created an anthropogenic rift in the Earth system, forever dividing off the present ecologically from previous stages in history (both geological and human). This rift in the human relation to the plane is already catastrophic and could soon reach the point of no return (if we increase global average temperatures by 2° C), leading to bigger catastrophes and threatening humanity itself.

LV: If you had to guess, do you think humanity will be able to stop this polluting madness before it’s too late? Or do you find it easier to foresee a dystopian future with scarce water, toxic fumes and roasting temperatures?

JBF: We are already facing growing catastrophes due to climate change. It is too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. That ship has in many ways already sailed. The earth is going to be much less hospitable to human beings in the future. What we are trying to avoid at this point is something else: as James Hansen says, and as I quote in my article on “Trump and Climate Catastrophe”: “a dynamic situation that is out of [human] control” propelling us to a global temperature increase of 4° C or even higher, which would threaten the very existence of human civilization, and countless human beings. Even worse it would point to the possible extinction of our species. In this sense, dystopian views don’t quite get at the severity of the threat, which is greater than even the most dystopian novel could project—after all a dystopian novel has to have at least one human remaining at least temporarily. We have to imagine a and a great die down on earth (scientists are now saying we could lose half of all living species this century alone in the Sixth Extinction) and a world, if we project far enough into the future that is possibly stripped of human beings—perhaps even what Hansen calls the “Venus Syndrome.” But long before that we will see hundreds of millions, even billions, of people affected in disastrous ways. This is what science is telling us. All we have to do to destroy the planet as a place of human habitation is to continue as we are at present with capitalist business as usual.

It is still possible to avoid this—or the most catastrophic effects, like sea level rising not feet but yards, the death of the Amazon, the death of most ocean life, etc. But it would require revolutionary ecological change in the system of production, i.e. in the metabolism between human beings and the earth. We need to reduce carbon emissions, Hansen tells us, by about 5 percent a year across the entire planet, beginning in just a few years, which means that the rich countries have to reduce theirs by something like double digits. And on top of that we have to find a way to remove gargantuan amounts of carbon, maybe as much as 150 gigatons, from the atmosphere—the problem of negative emissions—if we still want to stabilize the climate at a 1.5° in global average temperature. (Just to avoid going over the 2° guardrail would require 3 percent annual reductions in carbon emissions annual.) It can all be done with the means we have available, including alternative energies, social-structural change, and conservation, but it would require a vast movement of humanity and we would have to oppose the logic of not only the fossil fuel economy, but of capitalism itself. As Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Institute for Climate Change in the UK tells us, we would have to go against “the political-economic hegemony.”

In such situations optimism or pessimism are not the point. What we need is courage and determination in facing up to seemingly insurmountable odds. What we have to do is not so difficult on the face of it, if we just look at the direct ecological measures that we need to take. What makes it seem like an insurmountable problem is the monstrosity of global capitalist society.

LV: Today, with climate change deniers in the White House and at the head of the EPA, do you think it’s enough to explain that need to fight capitalism to prevent climate change? What are the prospects for scaling up the struggle for the planet?

JBF: With Trump neofascism has entered the White House—its aim is a different way of managing the capitalist economy. It is both a break with neoliberalism and at the same time its successor on the right—a sign of the deep crisis of our times. Not only does the administration stand for climate denialism and has declared environmentalist enemies of the people, it is also threatening to undermine liberal democracy, and is attacking the racially oppressed, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, and workers. The resistance movement to this thus needs to be a defense of humanity itself in all of its aspects. If we can combine in what Harvey calls a co-revolutionary movement geared to the needs of social reproduction and sustainable human development, with the fight to save the earth as a place of human habitation, then we can get somewhere. But this has to be a giant movement, it has to unite with workers all over the world, it has to oppose imperialism and war.

All of these things are connected. The climate movement is central in the sense of triage, but we can only get somewhere if we fight on all fronts, or make it one big front. The model is perhaps the environmental justice movement worldwide, and what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia” standing for the barricades of our time. I argue that it depends on the emergence of an environmental proletariat (most visible today in the global South) where it is recognized that our material struggles over the environment in which we live and breathe and work are really the same. We have to recognize who the enemy is. The eight largest fossil fuel corporations in the world emit more carbon dioxide than does the United States, which accounts for 15 percent of the world total. We need to focus on capital and corporations.

LV: The fight against the Dakota pipeline received widespread support from all over the country, and even from indigenous peoples outside the US. Although the conflict is still open and the Trump administration is preparing to go on the offensive again, a great battle was won in December. What lessons can we learn from the struggle to defend Standing Rock?

JBF: The struggle at Standing Rock has left an indelible imprint on today’s environmental struggle. It was a great victory, even though with Trump’s election the conditions were set for the overriding of what had been won. Indigenous peoples once again demonstrated, as they have over and over in recent years, their leadership in the struggle to protect the environment. The water protectors stood fast while they were hosed in subfreezing weather, subjected to non-lethal bullets and tear gas, and dogs set on them. The whole world gasped. It was difficult not to recall the struggles of the civil rights era in the Jim Crow South. The battle was primarily to protect the water which was threatened by drilling the pipeline under the Missouri River. But everyone understood—and not just environmentalists that joined them, but especially the Indigenous peoples themselves—that this was a battle for the whole earth.

For me, though, the high point was near the end when thousands of U.S. veterans arrived en masse, approaching Standing Rock in long winding lines of vehicles strung out over miles, to provide a “human shield” for the water protectors. They declared that they were standing with the Indigenous peoples—and even taking it upon themselves to apologize on bended knees for the history of U.S. treatment of Native Americans. It is no accident that the government gave in a couple of days after that. The conflict that would have ensued would have drawn untold numbers of people to the environmental resistance and, in that sense, would have been a full-scale disaster for the powers that be. So they chose to pull back at that point. But what really made this so important was that it represented an act of solidarity cutting across the lines that have historically divided us. It is the emergence of human solidarity in the hour of need in this way that tells us that we can win.

Interviewed by Juan Cruz Ferre of Left Voice

Friday, 7 July 2017

Tory Minister Blames All Local Authorities for Grenfell Towers Blaze



The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, in his keynote speech to the Local Government Association Conference on Tuesday this week, appeared to blame local government as a whole for the Grenfell Tower fire in London. The speech caused outrage amongst the local government delegates at the conference.

Javid used much of his speech at the conference in Birmingham to reflect “on what has gone wrong in local government and what we need to do together to fix it”.

He said that tackling inequalities in housing across the country would be one way to rebuild trust, criticising councils that have yet to publish a Local Plan.

He continued: ‘Others produced a plan when the policy was first introduced, but haven’t touched it since and are left with a dusty document that’s hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant to the real needs of their communities.

‘And then there are those councils that have an up-to-date plan, but have failed to be honest about the level of housing they need in their area.’

Council leaders have reacted angrily to Mr Javid's speech, with senior figures describing it as a 'declaration of war', as reported in the Municipal Journal (subscription).

Leader of the Local Government Association's (LGA) Labour group, Cllr Nick Forbes, said: 'It was a deeply divisive and muddled speech - a shameful attempt to place the failings of one authority at the feet of the whole sector.'

He described the speech as “patronising and blame shifting” and said he had rarely “been so incensed” by a secretary of state’s speech. Others described it as “lecturing” and criticised Mr Javid for only taking three questions from delegates, according to Local Government Chronicle (subscription).

An unnamed conference delegate is quoted as saying ‘never felt so patronised as a councillor by a minister for local government (not even Eric Pickles). Well done Sajid Javed.'

Terms like “went down like a bucket of cold sick” (as LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes put it), “buck-passing” and “patronising bastard” were also repeatedly used. Conservative councillors are no less enraged than their Labour counterparts, according to LGC.

Closing the conference, the Conservative chairman of the LGA, Lord Porter, revealed he gave Mr Javid an earful about his speech in a 'difficult' phone call.

He said: 'There was a lot of anger following Sajid's speech. I think his comments were ill-judged in part of his speech.’

There was no hint of questioning as to why the Department for Communities & Local Government had delayed a review of building regulations in relation to high-rise building fire safety, heeding the lessons of the 2009 Lakanal Tower blaze in Southwark, as reported on this blog.

And there was no openness about confusion about building regulations which means flammable cladding has been used in at least 181 high-rise buildings in 51 council areas. Either many, many councils have failed on fire safety, or central government has given out the wrong or misconstrued messages.

The Tory government is desperately looking for someone to blame for the Grenfell Tower disaster and the woeful response from Tory run Kensington and Chelsea Borough council. But the failings that led to the rapid spread of the fire rest with the Tory government who have been promising for four years to amend building regulation about flammable cladding, but never got around to it.

Cuts to local services funding such as council planning offices and the fire service also played a part in contributing to unsafe cladding being allowed to be installed at the tower block.

The government’s running down of social housing generally is from an ideological standpoint, they think building new council houses just creates Labour voters. But the chickens are coming home to roost for this government, you can’t have decent, affordable and safe public housing by leaving things to the market. Forty years of this approach has led to the housing crisis that we see today, and no amount of pointing fingers at others will remove the blame for the situation which led to the loss of so many lives at Grenfell Tower.    

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Should the Green Party be affiliated to the Labour Party?




A version of this article has also been published at Left Foot Forward.

I have noticed comments on the Green Left Facebook page, that some Labour Party members are suggesting that the Green Party should affiliate to the Labour Party. The first time that I heard of this idea was when Jon Lansman, Labour member and one of the founders of the Momentum group in the party suggested it last year.

The model that is being talked about is that of the Co-operative Party, which goes back to the roots of the movement in Rochdale, Lancashire, where the first Co-op was formed in 1844, and they became a political party in 1917. As their website says:

‘Since 1927, the Party has had an electoral agreement with the Labour Party. This enables us to stand joint candidates in elections, recognising our shared values and maximising our impact.’

The Co-operative Party has many co-operative retail businesses as members and promotes this form of economic ownership, within the Labour Party and outside. Co-operative Party branches affiliate to their local Constituency Labour Party (CLP). This enables them to send delegates to Labour meetings and provides a process for selecting joint Labour & Co-operative Party candidates at elections. They do contribute to the election expenses of Co-operative (and Labour) Party candidates. 

Members of the Co-operative Party can be just that, or members of the Labour Party as well, but the Co-operative Party does have an independent structure, separate from the Labour Party. As an independent political party, it maintains its own membership, staff, national executive committee (NEC) and policy platform, all of which are independent of Labour’s.

Could this type of arrangement be beneficial to the Green Party? The Co-operative website does state a direct comparison when it says:

‘One approach is that of the Green Party, which has stood in elections for over 40 years. In that time, the Party has secured the election of just one MP, control of a single local authority and no policies turned into law.’

The Co-operative Party, a hundred years old, does have many more elected representatives at all levels of government, including 38 MPs, than the Green Party. Would the Greens benefit from this situation, in pushing our agenda forward? It is worth thinking about seriously, but I can foresee many obstacles.

I think there would be resistance from people in both Labour and the Greens, with Labour perhaps fearing a kind of entryism which always seems to obsess it. Greens may worry about the loss of the party’s independent status and fear that (joint) Labour and Green members from the Labour tradition, would take over the party and compromise its principles.

Although, certainly under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, there are many similar policies advocated by Labour and Greens, but there are also some quite large differences. Labour operates under a fiercely centralised structure whereas the Greens have a de-centralised structure, with no tight control from above. Greens are also free to voice their opinions, which may differ from the party line, and elected representative are ‘unwhipped,’ which is alien to the Labour Party’s tradition. There's Brexit, too.

There is a huge policy difference area over nuclear power and nuclear weapons, where Corbyn is more in tune with the Greens than the majority of his own party. And then there is the question of economic growth, championed by Labour but seen as the root cause of our ecological problems by Greens.

If these hurdles can be overcome by some kind of agreement, which I think is possible, the rewards could be significant for both parties. For the Greens the chance to gain many more MPs and local councillors, and to achieve the kind of political influence that has largely alluded us so far. Time is short of course, with the climate crisis in full swing, action needs to be taken sooner rather than later, and this idea might just do that. Can we wait another forty years to gain a second MP?

For ecosocialists like me in the Green Party, might affiliation to Labour help spread our philosophy to a wider audience?

For Labour, already eyeing up more green voters for the future, this set up would broaden the party’s electoral appeal, especially with younger voters, but others too who are put off by Labour’s centralising nature.

The time has come for both parties to at least explore this idea, to see how it might work in practice. Given the potential benefits that this type of agreement could bring, it would be a shame if the opportunity now opening up goes begging.  

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

If You Want to Be Realistic, Be Radical



Written By Robert Jensen and first published at Resilience

Students will sometimes ask me — often hesitantly, out of fear of offending — if it’s true what they’ve heard, that I’m a liberal.

“Don’t you ever call me a liberal again,” I tell them, feigning outrage. “I’m a leftist and a radical feminist.” Once they realize I’m not angry, I explain the important differences between left and liberal.

A distinction between left and liberal may seem esoteric or self-indulgent given the steady ascendancy of right-wing ideas in U.S. politics. Is now the time for this conversation? Liberals ask leftists to put aside differences toward the goal of resisting the reactionary right, and I’m all for pragmatic politics (coalitions are necessary and potentially creative) to mount challenges to dangerous policies. (Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan pose serious threats on ecological, social and economic fronts.)

But strategies should be based on a clear understanding of shared values. And with a carnival-barker president leading a party so committed to a failed ideology that it’s willing to risk ecocide, radical left ideas have never been more compelling. In the face of conservative and liberal failures to deal with our most basic problems, leftists offer reality-based solutions.

Let’s start with a general distinction: Liberals typically support existing systems and hope to make them more humane. Leftists focus on the unjust nature of the systems themselves. Two of these key systems are capitalism (an economic system that, to a leftist, celebrates inequality and degrades ecosystems) and imperialism (a global system in which First World countries have long captured a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth through violence and coercion).

Liberals don’t oppose capitalism or U.S. imperialism, arguing instead for kinder-and-gentler versions. Leftists see the systems as incompatible with basic moral principles of social justice and ecological sustainability.

Things get more complicated with white supremacy (historical and contemporary practices rooted in white or European claims of a right to rule) and patriarchy (men’s claim to a natural role over women in systems of institutionalized male dominance). Leftists disagree among themselves about how these systems interact with capitalism and imperialism. Some on the left focus on class inequality and decry “identity politics,” which they define as reducing all political questions to race, gender or sexual identity. Others reject putting economic inequality alone at the center of politics and argue for an equal focus on white supremacy or patriarchy.

Complicating things more are leftists who disagree with radical feminist opposition to the sexual-exploitation industries of prostitution, pornography and stripping, arguing that women’s participation means the industries can’t be challenged and shifting the focus away from why men choose to use women.


What is a leftist?


If this all this is getting a bit bewildering, welcome to left politics. Rather than generalizing about what “real” leftists should believe, I’ll summarize my views:

Capitalism is an unjust wealth-concentrating system that is ecologically unsustainable. Either we transcend the pathology of capitalism or dystopian science fiction will become everyday life in the not-so-distant future. There is no credible defense of the obscene inequality or disregard for the larger living world that’s inherent in capitalism.

The assertion by the U.S. that it’s the world’s exemplar and natural leader is a dangerous delusion that must yield to meaningful diplomacy and trade policies based on moral principles. not raw power. There is no hope for global cooperation when the U.S. maintains hundreds of military bases and facilities in other countries, designed not for defense but to assert U.S. dominance.

Liberals and conservatives disagree about how government policy should constrain the sociopathic nature of capitalism, but both embrace capitalist ideology. Liberals and conservatives disagree about how the U.S. should run the world, but neither challenge the country’s right to dominate.
What do leftists propose as an alternative to a global capitalist economy undergirded by military might? I’m not a revolutionary utopian, preferring innovative ways to work toward left values. Two examples:

The worker cooperative movement helps people establish worker-owned and worker-managed businesses within capitalism, creating spaces for real democracy in the economy. An example in my hometown of Austin is ATX Coop Taxi, owned and managed by the drivers. The most well-known cooperative enterprise is Mondragón, a Spanish federation of cooperatives with thousands of worker-owners. These businesses offer a model for a transition out of capitalism.

National health insurance, sometimes known as single-payer or Medicare-for-all, would lower health care costs while rejecting the cruel capitalist assertion that people without money are expendable. Most developed countries have adopted this, but U.S. politicians routinely reject it, even though polls show a majority or a plurality of U.S. voters like the idea. This kind of commitment to collective flourishing challenges obsessions with amoral individualism so common among U.S. capitalists.


Untangling white supremacy


The history of white supremacy cannot be untangled from the history of capitalism and imperialism, in Europe or the U.S. Ideologies of racial superiority have been used to justify imperialism abroad (the infamous “white man’s burden” to civilize the natives), while at home, racism is a key component of the wealthy’s divide-and-conquer strategy to suppress worker organizing across racial lines (offer white workers a sense of racial superiority so that they focus their anger at nonwhite people rather than the bosses).

A critique of patriarchy, the oldest of these domination/subordination systems, is at the heart of any credible left politics, though it is the social system most routinely ignored by leftists. The patriarchal claim that such hierarchy is inevitable is one of the most dangerous myths in human history, long used to justify men’s control of women’s reproductive power and sexuality.

Defending women’s reproductive rights, including abortion, is a core principle, and just as central is challenging men’s claim to a right to buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. We must confront men who buy women for sex as we act in feminist solidarity with prostituted women (what liberals call “sex workers”), supporting programs that help women and vulnerable men exit the sexual-exploitation industries.

Men’s claims to own or control women’s sexuality are also at the heart of the oppression of lesbians (who dare to opt out of male dominance in intimate relationships) and gay men (who are targeted for their perceived threat to patriarchy’s rigid sexual norms). Lesbian/gay liberation is inseparable from women’s liberation.

Liberals and conservatives are all over the political map on racism and sexism, but consistently fail to face the depth of the depravity of white supremacy and patriarchy, or the degree to which those systems continue to define everyday life. Leftists strive to face these realities.


Realistic solutions


What kind of leftist am I? I don’t call myself a Marxist, communist, socialist or anarchist, though all of those traditions offer insights along with lessons from their failures. I don’t belong to what are called “left sectarian” organizations, which typically remain committed to 19th- or 20th-century doctrines and political figures (such as Marxist-Leninist or Maoist groups). I call myself an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist leftist rooted in a critique of white supremacy and a radical feminist critique of patriarchy. Not the pithiest label, but accurate.

My left politics also focus on the human species’ intensifying assault on the larger living world — multiple, cascading ecological crises that we can’t afford to ignore. Modern humans’ arrogance puts us all at risk. The naïve assumptions of the high-energy and high-technology industrial world — especially the idea that we can solve all problems with more energy-intensive technology — must be abandoned as we struggle to understand how many people can live sustainably on the planet.

There’s not a widely used term for going beyond liberal environmentalism’s half measures, but some people call it “ecospherism,” the understanding that humans must find our place in the ecosphere rather than try to dominate. Ecospherists reject the idea that humans really “own” the Earth and fight to end the accompanying abuse and exploitation of land, water, air and other creatures.

Liberals and conservatives typically ignore ecological realities, but so does much of the left. The overwhelming nature of the challenge scares many into silence, but problems ignored are not problems solved. For example, research on renewable energy is important, but no combination of so-called clean energy sources (and let’s remember that wind turbines and solar panels are industrial products, which can’t be manufactured cleanly) can power the affluence of the First World. The solution is dramatically lower levels of consumption in the developed world.

Many people in the U.S. disagree with this kind of left/radical feminist analysis. Many people have told me that these views make me unfit to teach at a state university. I welcome serious challenges, but left political positions are too often dismissed as crazy because that’s the one thing both liberals and conservatives agree on.

The U.S. is a dramatically right-wing society when compared with other industrialized countries, illustrated by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. He offered no foundational critique of U.S. systems, opting instead for a traditional social democratic platform to make our institutions more humane. Yet in America, such policy proposals were seen by many as revolutionary and Sanders was often dismissed as a wild-eyed radical.

In a recent call to action, Sanders supported a single-payer plan for health care and stated “our current economic model is a dismal failure,” but he did not dare use the term capitalism or even hint at a deeper structural critique. His discussion of the ecological crises stopped with a weak call for renewable energy, and there was no mention of racism, sexism or U.S. foreign policy. I realize politicians shape rhetoric to win votes, but let’s not pretend this is a left agenda.
(For the record, I’m not a Democrat, but I’m also not purist in electoral politics; I voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election.)

Sanders’ success suggests more people might support a candidate with an even deeper critique of illegitimate structures of authority. If in the short term the best we can hope for is reform of existing systems, we can pursue those reforms with an eye on more radical long-term goals.

It’s hard to imagine a decent human future — perhaps any human future at all — if these radical ideas are not part of the mix. “Radical” is often used as a political insult, suggesting people who focus on violence and destruction. But the word simply means “going to the root,” and at the root of our contemporary crises of justice and sustainability are capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the human willingness to destroy the world in pursuit of affluence.

Leftists are told that we have to be realistic, and I agree. But how realistic is it to expect solutions to human injustices and ecological crises to emerge from the systems that have created the problems?

If you want to be realistic, get radical.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The tragedy of liberal environmentalism

Illustration by Ian Whadcock

Written by Jessica Dempsey and first published at Canadian Dimension

I’ve spent much of my adult life reading about increasing rates of biodiversity loss. Academic journals, environmental organizations and even the popular press re-affirm that we live on a planet becoming more the same at every turn. As James MacKinnon poetically describes in his Once and Future World, we are living in a 10-per-cent world, one with only a fraction of the natural variety and liveliness it once had. I’ve also spent most of my adult life researching and participating in international biodiversity law and policy.

This is our situation: growth in legal, policy and cultural attention to biodiversity loss sits alongside growth in the rates of biodiversity loss. The woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus), whose habitat runs from the eastern border of B.C. to the western border of Alberta, is an exemplar of this situation: It receives the highest legal protections as a designated endangered species, but is still likely to face extinction in my lifetime.

For many conservationists, the turn to economics and markets over the past two decades feels like a last hope. Walking through the streets of Trondheim, Norway, at the end of a major conference on biodiversity in 2010, a Canadian bureaucratic-scientist wearily told me that biodiversity must be made relevant to the Ministry of Finance in order to survive. Such relevance is created by calculating and valuing the ecosystem services provided by nature (ecosystem services are defined as the benefits that humans receive from the work of ecosystems: water purification provided by wetlands or most famously, the carbon sequestration services of living, photosynthesizing ecosystems).

The approach desired by the scientist-bureaucrat can be summarized as follows: “In order to make live, one must make economic.” In other words, for diverse nonhumans to persist, biodiversity conservation must become an economically rational, sometimes even profitable, policy trajectory. For several decades now, environmental economists and policymakers have discussed the need for a market in “avoided deforestation” — now going by the acronym “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+). This, the idea goes, would reduce global carbon emissions by paying developing countries to stop cutting down their forests, with the funding generated via the regulated international carbon market. Countries like Canada would be able to offset the tar sands, say, by investing in forest conservation in Madagascar. Such a mechanism, it hopes, would make forests worth more alive than dead.

But making nature economic doesn’t always mean making markets or new commodities. It can involve establishing differences between one or another course of action, like in cost-benefit analysis. A government might ask: are more services produced by a standing, diverse forest or an oil palm planation?

“To make live, one must make economic,” is not an entirely new idea. It is a variation on the compromise of sustainable development forged in 1992 in Rio, when heads of state decided that global environmental problems and vast inequities could be solved by a steady application of economic growth and technological innovation. More recently, this approach goes by the term “green economy.” Like sustainable development, the green economy is considered the pragmatic approach. It is an approach that leaves, for the most part, the foundations of our society intact: capitalist, nation-state centred and economic growth-oriented — but this time: green growth. Hence: pragmatic, meaning a sensible, realistic approach to saving the planet.


Two images of enterprising nature



The desire of the green economy turn is well reflected in the above image from a 2005 edition of the Economist focusing on payments for ecosystem services. The image shows a sharp-looking, somewhat jolly, white, middle-aged accountant behind a desk, doling out money to an orderly line of half-human, half-plant/animal creatures. These creatures appear as happy-ish and perhaps bored labourers, although eager to receive their pay. The image reveals the promise of what I call “enterprising nature”: orderly, efficient social and ecological relations mediated through a monetary transaction. These creatures are enterprising — they are not receiving handouts, but rather their due payment for work completed.

Such a dream cannot be separated from colonialism. Indeed, in the same Economist article about nature’s services, a second image (left) shows a suited, happy man taking an axe from an alarmed peasant. In his other hand, the businessman is holding a big bag of money; coercion and cash payments appear intimately linked. This image portrays a stark imbalance of power and a continuity of asymmetrical power relations. Perhaps we might view the man with the axe as a renovated form of white, Western savior, a là Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” Renovated, because the altered conduct — the wresting of the ax — is achieved through monetized economic transactions that are ostensibly “fair” and the amount of cash in the bag is determined through supposedly neutral ecological-economic calculations.

The image reflects a well-worn trope in international environmentalism — poor people like this peasant cause biodiversity loss through his demand for firewood or income, problems to be solved in this case by paying the peasant to live otherwise. Global environmental policies and politics so often direct our attention away from historical and systemic causes, preferring to focus our attention on the problems of the poor person with the axe.

Taken together, these two images appear to tell a strong story of an enterprising nature: the cover image reflects the promise of orderly, efficient relations, directed by ecologies and economics; this second image calls at tention to the processes of uneven development that run along geographical — but also classed, racialized, and gendered — hierarchies.

If the two-image story were accurate and complete, enterprising nature would be a tidy set of processes that swiftly allocate resources in order to protect diverse ecosystems according to the values of northern elites.

And such a swift ascent would make sense. Enterprising nature seems, theoretically and practically, an approach to biodiversity conservation that is entirely compatible with contemporary capitalist, global political-economic relations. And the proliferation of discourse and initiatives, involving such high-powered financial actors like JP Morgan and Hollywood actors, appears to suggest that enterprising nature is on its way to being mainstreamed in global capitalism.

More utopian than pragmatic


However, what a close study of enterprising nature shows is not a triumphant ascent but rather a set of almost Sisyphean challenges: technical, scientific, economic and political. Governments do not agree to make new markets in avoided deforestation or in biodiversity conservation. Scientists and economists conduct fractious scientific debates on how to tether uncertain ecological data to economic value. In terms of capital flows, the global forest carbon market transacts a teeny-tiny amount: around $250 million per annum, about the size a single modest WalMart store transacts per year (and compare these tiny drops of cash for conservation to the $60-billion market in palm oil, a leading cause of deforestation). And while there is a growing mountain of scientific evidence demonstrating the economic value of nature, governments continue to make development decisions that erode the web of life. Think of the recent Trudeau government decision on Kinder Morgan, one that put ecosystems at further risk from spills and climate change. In sum, enterprising nature may be better conceived as more utopian than pragmatic. At the very least, the man behind the desk should be sweating, with a rumpled shirt and dark bags under his eyes; the animals negotiating hard for a raise in pay.

Despite such challenges, liberal environmentalists still insist that enterprising nature is the only way, the pragmatic way. Nature must be turned into an economic asset. Nature must be made enterprising.

There is much to be concerned about with this approach, in particular the way that ecological crisis is pictured as an opportunity for profit, driving new and old forms of “green” land/ocean grabbing. Critics, and I include myself as one of them, rightfully worry that “selling nature to save it” will re-embed status quo social relations and further subsume biological processes to capital. (Although projects must be studied in situ — some Indigenous communities are actively participating in the forest carbon-market and in other payments ecosystem service schemes because they help secure land rights).

And enterprising nature is at once a totalizing discourse that reflects hegemonic, capitalist notions of value. But despite being so easily adopted in the lingo of some of the world’s financial and governmental elites, it remains on the margins of political-economic life, on the outside of many flows of goods, commodities and state policies.


Looking into the abyss


Looking straight into the abyss: we are living on a planet that is less lively, less bio-culturally diverse by the year, an Earth, as Donna Haraway writes, “full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.” And even the most palatable, status quo–affirming, neoliberal strategies to scale biodiversity conservation up — strategies emerging from places of significant cultural, political and economic power — are in a state of arrested development.

The dominant and marginal position of enterprising nature is reflective of what I call the tragedy of liberal environmentalism, a spin-off Garett Hardin’s famed Tragedy of the Commons, a much-repeated mantra in environmental circles. Liberal environmentalism is an approach to ecological decline that keeps the foundations of liberal capitalism intact, aiming to improve, even perfect those foundations. Internalize the externalities! Measure so we can manage! Liberal environmentalism is an approach premised on a smooth space of politics, one where all the different players can find common ground through dialogue, or even better, the neutral words of numbers and even money (like the images suggest). It aims, as much as possible, to avoid dirty, asymmetrical, bloody politics. It seeks an orderly, technical solution. Despite its marginality, the enterprising nature story is a powerful salve, a kind of chicken soup for the environmentalist soul. It is a story that manages, moderates and mediates the problem of the fraying web of life with its message of ever-increasing rational decision at the hands of the right ecological-economic facts.

The tragedy of liberal environmentalism is that it occupies the political discourse as the most pragmatic, the most possible way to a better future, but implementing this watered down, technical environmental politics is not at all smooth, or easy. It is rather Sisyphean. This is the tragic political circumstance of our times: What is framed as easy, as the most compatible with the status quo, is actually so very, very hard.


Below the waterline



In a strange twist, the arrested development of enterprising nature provides fodder for those advocating a political-economic and historical understanding of ecological decline. Even on its own terms, its marginality illuminates how capitalist social relations rely upon externalized, devalued and appropriated natures. Ecofeminist Maria Mies visualizes the economy as an iceberg. The visible tip represents the formal economy — where capitalist value emerges from exploited waged labourers and the circulation of monetized goods and assets. Underneath the waterline lurks the rest of the iceberg, and its size dwarfs the tip. Here, Mies points to a much larger world of exploitations on which commodity production and profit-making depend: women, colonies and at the very base, nature. The bodies, places and materials of the submerged, invisible iceberg supply unwaged labour and unpriced inputs and energies that are productive; capitalism depends on this deeply undervalued work, work that is so often precarious and death-dealing (in the nonhuman realm, think extinction or loss of refugia).

Read through Mies’ iceberg, biodiversity loss is not a side effect or externality that can be easily fixed with economic valuations. Rather, the kind of invisibility enterprising nature aims to correct is literally baked into economic systems. In this way, the strategy of enterprising nature is at once reflective of neoliberal capitalism’s drive to remake the world into competitive, marketized units as well as being a far-reaching and radical proposition, one that is butting up against the structures of capitalism.

Jessica Dempsey is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver), Department of Geography. Her new book, Enterprising Nature: Economics, Markets, and Finance in Global Biodiversity, is available from Wiley-Blackwell Press.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Not One Day More Protest - London - Photos and Videos


I attended the rally of the Not One Day More protest in central London today, and here are some photos and videos of some of the speeches made. The organisers, The People's Assembly said a hundred thousand people came to demonstrate.














The magic money tree










Captain Ska


Liar, Liar, the hit song of the recent general election campaign


Frances O'Grady, TUC General Secretary


Len McCluskey, Union UNITE General Secretary


John McDonnell, Labour MP and Shadow Chancellor


Sian Berry, Green Party London Assembly Member and Camden Borough Councillor

 

The man of the moment, Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party. 1/2.




An inspiring day in London, the times are a changing. Tories Out!

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Tories are trying Wriggle Out of Responsibility for Grenfell Tower Disaster - Don't Let Them



Speaking on 19 June 2017,five days after the Grenfell Tower blaze, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said; "My understanding is that the cladding in question, the flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the United States, is also banned here..."

At prime minister’s questions in Parliament on Wednesday, Theresa May said her “understanding” was that the cladding that has failed the test “was non-compliant with the building regulations”.

She said as well as identifying who was responsible for the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, the public inquiry would also need to look at “why it is that over decades, under different governments and under different councils, material has been put up on tower blocks that is non-compliant with the building regulations”.

Both of these statements from the most senior members of the Tory government are at best misleading, at worse completely untrue. I’m not saying they are lies, because that would require some evidence that Hammond and May knew what they were talking about, which I’m unsure of at this stage.

The statements are factually wrong though, according to experts in the field.

Barry Turner, director of technical policy at the Local Authority Building Control, told the Local Government Chronicle (subscription) that the document the prime minister referred to, Approved document B, was guidance, not a legally required regulation.

In addition he said Mrs May’s comments left out a crucial part of the guidance that allows use of a flammable cladding if it passes a “composite” test that includes other components surrounding the cladding, such as insulation.

Mr Turner said: “Within [the government’s] own guidance they’re very conveniently forgetting the paragraph that appears before the one they are quoting which allows an alternative method of testing a complete cladding system.”

Mr Turner said it was not surprising that cladding on all 137 tower blocks tested so far had failed as the Building Research Establishment (BRE) was carrying out a different test to the one specified in the guidance.

The tests being carried out for the government by the BRE are only testing cladding and do not take account of any other fire safety measures, such as flame retardant insulation.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has also said that it is “possible for buildings to be safe with that cladding in certain circumstances”.

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight on Wednesday he said: “All of this cladding has been fitted according to the rules that were in place at the time, according to the rules that were presided over by government.”

Lord Porter, Tory chairman of the Local Government Association, said fire safety tests on cladding from high-rise buildings were flawed.

He criticised the tests for focusing on the core of the panel - rather than the panel as a whole.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "isn't the right thing to test", adding: "The government needs to listen to a wider set of opinions and not just the experts they have got."

So, the test they are doing on the Grenfell Tower cladding alone, doesn’t prove that the cladding was fitted against building regulations, it depends on the insulation used and other materials used that make up the whole construction.

But these regulations should have been tightened up, by the government, after an earlier fire at a residential tower block.

In 2009 a fire took hold in flats at Lakanal House in London which saw six people die. Following an inquest into the fire the coroner made a number of recommendations to the government and to other organisations like the London Fire Brigade and Southwark Council for how similar fires could be avoided in the future.

The recommendations made to the government in 2013 included:

‘Reviewing Document B (fire safety) of the Building Regulations to ensure that it is easily understandable and give guidance to those who are responsible for maintaining tower blocks, as well as building them.’

“Four years on and no review has been completed despite assurances from former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May’s chief of staff,” reported the Telegraph.

The BBC reports that leaked letters from the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group to the government show that it repeatedly warned four different housing ministers that action needed to be taken on fire safety regulations.


“Surely however when you already have credible evidence in 2012 to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the Approved Document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

The government says the work is still ongoing.  

Today, the BBC and the Times reported having seen documents showing that the original cladding specified for the Tower had been a zinc cladding with a fire-retardant core, but in 2014 this was changed to ACM cladding with a PE core to save £293,000 and to allow a change of colour. However, the BBC point out that ‘both types of cladding have the same official fire rating’ (it is not clear what is meant by the word ‘official’).

The motives of the local authority, Kensington and Chelsea, in changing to using this type of cladding are reprehensible then, saving money and making it a nicer colour when viewed from outside, but appears to be within the law as it stands.

But in the end, why did the government not amend the regulations when they had been warned that this needed to happen? Uncaring and incompetent, which just about sums up this Tory administration.

Come to the ‘Not One More Day’ protest in central London tomorrow against the Tory government. Tories Out!

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Will We Actually Leave the EU in the End?



I wrote a blog post last week, covering the Day of Rage demonstration in Parliament Square, which included some photos that I took as I headed home along Whitehall of the Pro-Remain No 10 Vigil opposite Downing Street. It was only a coincidence that these activists were there, as they gather on Wednesday’s and Friday’s to protest against leaving the European Union (EU).

After I’d posted the piece on the Day of Rage protest, one of the No 10 Vigil activists contacted me on Facebook, pointing out that the last few photos were of their vigil, and would I like to talk to them with a view to writing a separate blog post? So, I went along to talk to the group last Friday, which was of course the one year anniversary of the referendum to exit the EU.

Here’s a few pictures of the early evening:












The group was founded in February this year and now has almost 1,200 members on its Facebook page. They also run vigils in Camden and Brixton on Mondays. They aim to be a physical presence to increase awareness of the issues around Brexit, and engage with voters. Apparently some leave voters can be a bit aggressive, but they put up with this.

The few activists that I spoke to were buoyed up by the recent general election result, and they said that as a non-party political group, they thought a hung Parliament was the best result to get. It shows that the country is divided over Brexit. They also thought that many remain voters had voted tactically for Labour to put a brake on the Brexit process, even though Labour is committed to leaving the EU.

I asked if they favoured a second referendum, but they weren’t especially in favour, saying that the process will just drag out now, and, in the end, Brexit will not happen. I think the game has changed a bit since the general election, and I could see Brexit being made into a more long term process. There are different versions of Brexit for sure as well, but to just ignore the referendum result? Constitutionally, this maybe legitimate, but surely the people should be given the choice again?

I voted remain but I think it would only be fair to let the people reverse, or not, last year’s decision, rather than kick it into the long grass until it gets forgotten?