Tuesday, 27 September 2016

After Corbyn’s Re-election as Labour Leader – Where now for the Green Party?

Congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn for his overwhelming victory in the Labour Party leadership election, for the second time in a year. Corbyn won convincingly, in all sections of the party, members, supporters and affiliates (mainly union members). You can see the scale of his success at The Swawkbox here.

You will notice that according The Swawkbox piece, more than 300,000 members and supporters were banned from voting in the contest, for one reason or another, so this result is truly staggering. If all members and supporters had been allowed to vote, rather 62% of the vote, Corbyn would have probably have won 80% to 90% of the vote.

But where does this all leave the Green Party? In recent years, the party membership and votes rose steadily, then quickly with the surge just before the general election last year. This progress was built on breaking out of our ecological niche, and pushing our left social policies to the forefront. It has to be said, that since Corbyn became Labour leader, membership of the Green Party has fallen back, with many ex Greens joining Labour.

Labour has even started to poach Green Policies, on fracking, rail nationalisation, environment to some extent, and are even considering the Citizen’s Income policy. Whilst this is good from the point of view of possibly getting these policies introduced, it also leaves the Greens out on a limb in terms of holding an exclusive constituency. Maybe this doesn’t matter, as long the policies survive, but they may get watered down, to encourage ‘unity’ in the Labour Party.

So, what are the options for the Greens? We could fall back on the old ecological style, and forget about the social policies? Climate change is not going away anytime soon, so there is an argument to be made here. Labour’s environmental policies are better than they were, but still unambitious and not really enough to address the issue. The likely problem with this move is it would be too narrow, and if people can get half way there policies from Labour, and more chance of them being implemented, they may well take this option. I think the social agenda must stay.

A second option would be to move to the political right, although this is a pretty crowded area already, with the Tories, UKIP and the Lib Dems all covering to some degree this terrain. Most Greens are of the political left, although not all, so I can’t see this being popular with most members. There are ‘lifestyle greens’ but this is a fairly small demographic, so has limited support amongst the general public. You wouldn’t expect me, writing on a Green Left blog to advocate this anyway.

Whilst, I might find it appealing for the Greens to move further to the left, further than Labour, I expect this would not be particularly successful electorally, and would probably cause discontent within the party, which is eco-social democratic in the main.

We could remain largely on the same territory that we have been on in recent years, as I don’t think the civil war in the Labour Party is over, and the Greens are at least united on policy issues by and large, and divided parties never win elections, and Labour is divided.

There are policy differences too, Jonathan Bartley, newly elected co-leader of the Green Party, sets out some of the main ones writing at Left Foot Forward: nuclear weapons, nuclear power, airport expansion and a fair voting system. Bartley also touches on the fundamental difference between Greens and Labour - economic growth and the centralisation of power. These are clear differences, and the Greens have better policies in all these areas. Bartley also calls for a progressive alliance between the Greens, Labour, Lib Dems and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. It doesn’t look like Labour is interested in this though in general, although some members are open to the idea.

One such Labour member is Jon Lansman, a leading figure in the Momentum group in the Labour Party. He is quoted from a fringe meeting at Labour conference at politics.co.uk as saying:

That Green party candidates should be allowed to be stand on a joint ticket with Labour, in the same way that some Labour MPs are also part of the Co-operative party. "Why shouldn't the Green party have the same relationship with the Labour Party that the Co-op party has with the Labour Party?"

This is a new idea, and is worthy of further consideration. The policy differences mentioned above though do make this unlikely, although not impossible. There will be resistance in Labour’s ranks, I think, and possibly the Green Party as well. If Labour became serious about this proposal, then we will need to look seriously at it.

It would be better though, I think, if Labour committed to a fair, proportional voting system, then we can have our differences, but work together, maybe in coalition, and this has the added advantage of locking the Tories out power for good on their own.

Let the dialogue begin between Labour and Greens, and we will see where we get.   

Sunday, 25 September 2016

How Nuclear Power Causes Global Warming

Nuclear power protest in Derby, United Kingdom. (Photo: Indymedia)

Written by Harvey Wasserman and first published by Common Dreams

Supporters of nuclear power like to argue that nukes are the key to combatting climate change. Here’s why they are dead wrong.

Every nuclear generating station spews about two-thirds of the energy it burns inside its reactor core into the environment. Only one-third is converted into electricity. Another tenth of that is lost in transmission. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Nuclear fission is the most water intensive method of the principal thermoelectric generation options in terms of the amount of water withdrawn from sources. In 2008, nuclear power plants withdrew eight times as much freshwater as natural gas plants per unit of energy produced, and up to 11 percent more than the average coal plant.

Every day, large reactors like the two at Diablo Canyon, California, individually dump about 1.25 billion gallons of water into the ocean at temperatures up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the natural environment.

Diablo’s “once-through cooling system” takes water out of the ocean and dumps it back superheated, irradiated and laden with toxic chemicals. Many U.S. reactors use cooling towers which emit huge quantities of steam and water vapor that also directly warm the atmosphere.

These emissions are often chemically treated to prevent algae and other growth that could clog the towers. Those chemicals can then be carried downwind, along with radiation from the reactors. In addition, hundreds of thousands of birds die annually by flying into the reactor domes and towers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states:

The temperature increase in the bodies of water can have serious adverse effects on aquatic life. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, thus discharge from once-through cooling systems can create a “temperature squeeze” that elevates the metabolic rate for fish. Additionally, suction pipes that are used to intake water can draw plankton, eggs and larvae into the plant’s machinery, while larger organisms can be trapped against the protective screens of the pipes. Blocked intake screens have led to temporary shut downs and NRC fines at a number of plants.

And that’s not all.

All nuclear reactors emit Carbon 14, a radioactive isotope, invalidating the industry’s claim that reactors are “carbon free.” And the fuel that reactors burn is carbon-intensive. The mining, milling, and enrichment processes needed to produce the pellets that fill the fuel rods inside the reactor cores all involve major energy expenditures, nearly all of it based on coal, oil, or gas.   

And of course there’s the problem of nuclear waste. After more than a half-century of well-funded attempts, we’ve seen no solution for the management of atomic power’s intensely radioactive waste. There’s the “low-level” waste involving enormous quantities of troublesome irradiated liquids and solid trash that must be dealt with outside the standard civilian waste stream. And that handling involves fossil fuels burned in the process of transportation, management, and disposal as well

As for the high-level waste, this remains one of humankind’s most persistent and dangerous problems. Atomic apologists have claimed that the intensely radioactive spent fuel rods can somehow be usable for additional power generation. But after a half-century of efforts, with billions of dollars spent, all attempts to do that have utterly failed. There are zero successful reactors capable of producing more reactor fuel than they use, or able to derive more energy from the tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel rods they create.  

Some reactors, like Fukushima, use “mixed-oxide” fuels that have proven to be extremely dirty and expensive. It’s possible some of this “MOX” fuel containing plutonium, actually fissioned at Fukushima Unit Three, raising terrifying questions about the dangers of its use. The mushroom cloud that appears on video as Fukushima Unit Three exploded stands as an epic warning against further use of these impossible-to-manage fuels.  

The MOX facility under construction near Aiken, South Carolina, is now projected to require another ten years to build with another ten possible after that to phase into production. U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said on September 13, 2016, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the mismanaged project was "impossible" to carry out and that it could cost $30 billion to $50 billion. Even the current pro-nuclear Congress won’t fully fund the project and the Department of Energy DOE continues to recommend abandoning it.

There are no credible estimates of the global warming damage done by the intensely hot explosions at the four Fukushima reactors, or at Chernobyl, or at any other past and future reactor meltdowns or blowups.

Atomic apologists argue that the disposal of high-level reactor wastes should be a relatively simple problem, lacking only the political will to proceed. The industry touts New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP, which has long been the poster child for military attempts to deal with high-level trash from the nuclear weapons program. Accepting its first shipment of waste in 1999, WIPP was touted as the ultimate high-tech, spare-no-expense model that proved radioactive waste disposal “can be done.”

But a series of disastrous events in February,  2014, led WIPP to stop accepting wastes—the sole function for which it was designed. Most significant was the explosion of a single barrel of highly radioactive waste materials (it was mistakenly packed with organic rather than clay-based kitty litter). About a dozen WIPP workers were exposed to potentially harmful radiation. The entire facility remains closed. In a phone interview, facility management told me it may again accept some wastes before the end of this year. But at least part of the cavernous underground labyrinth may never be reopened. The Los Angeles Times estimated the cost of this single accident at $2 billion.

Overall, the idea that atomic power is “clean” or “carbon free” or “emission free” is a very expensive misconception, especially when compared to renewable energy, efficiency, and conservation. Among conservation, efficiency, solar and wind power technologies, there are no global warming analogs to the heat, carbon, and radioactive waste impacts of nuclear power. No green technology kills anywhere near the number of marine organisms that die through reactor cooling systems.

Rooftop solar panels do not lose ten percent of the power they generate to transmission, as happens with virtually all centralized power generators. S. David Freeman, former head of numerous large utilities and author of All Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future, says: “Renewables are cheaper and safer. That argument is winning. Let’s stick to it.”

No terrorist will ever threaten one of our cities by blowing up a solar panel. But the nuclear industry that falsely claims its dying technology doesn’t cause global warming does threaten the future of our planet.

Harvey Wasserman's latest book, America at the Brink of Rebirth: The Organic Spiral of US History, will be published in 2016.  His Solartopia Green Power & Wellness Show is at www.progressiveradionetwork.com, and he edits www.nukefree.org.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Theses on Saving the Planet – “The Promise of Ecosocialism”

Written by Richard Smith and first published at Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières  

I don’t need to tell you we face an existential threat. Scientists tell us we face a “climate emergency.” Last year was the hottest year ever recorded, beating 2014, which beat 2012. We break new records every year. The fourteen hottest years ever recorded have been recorded since 2000. January and February temperatures were torrid. Global temperatures hit new all-time highs in February; the northern hemisphere breached the 2 degrees-Celsius-above-normal mark for the first time in recorded history. Svalbard, Norway, averaged 10 degrees Celsius above normal. Parts of the Arctic were more than 16 degrees Celsius warmer—basically no winter. There were record-setting low measures of maximum Arctic sea ice this “winter.” In the United States, the winter was record-warm from coast to coast, breaking all-time temperature records for February. The same in Asia. In the tropics, record warmth is massively bleaching the Great Barrier Reef.

Keep in mind that it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October for temperatures to climb 1.0 degree Celsius, and we’ve come an extra 0.4 degrees further in just the last five months. What’s driving this? More and more, people are coming to understand that the problem is not the climate. It’s our economic system.

In her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein tersely sums up our plight: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.” Climate scientists tell us that “our only hope of keeping warming below … 2 degrees Celsius is for wealthy countries to cut their emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood of 8–10 percent a year.” “The ‘free’ market simply cannot accomplish this task,” Klein writes, “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered growth.”

So far, unfettered growth is winning. Instead of suppressing fossil fuel production, oil companies are pumping oil and gas from the ends of the earth. President Obama opened the Atlantic seaboard to drilling after he opened the Arctic and after he promoted his “All of the Above,” also known as “Drill Baby Drill,” plan to pump and drill and frack the country and beyond and bragged that he’s laid more pipelines than any president in history.

Instead of minimizing fossil fuel consumption, consumers seem bent on maximizing consumption. The glut of oil production has only encouraged people to drive more and buy gas-hog SUVs and huge trucks that get worse gas mileage than the Cadillac land yachts of the 1950s. We’re burning up more fuel flying everywhere and installing air conditioners to beat the heat.

Instead of imposing binding limits on emissions, governments have kicked the can down the road for 22 consecutive years. At Paris in December, they didn’t even try. Instead they promoted hallucinatory fantasies of huge “negative emissions” to be had by some high-tech “carbon capture and storage”—again, always “someday” in the future, never today; no such technology presently exists in any practicable form nor is ever likely to. The U.S. government has abandoned subsidizing carbon capture. Carbon capture is not a technology. Carbon capture is a propaganda tool to let consumers rationalize obscene, unsustainable overconsumption: Not to worry, we’ll fix it tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes. Year after year, decade after decade, climate summits collapse in disarray because no country will sacrifice jobs and growth today to save their children tomorrow.

And not just fossil fuels, we’re devouring everything—minerals, lumber, fresh water, fish stolen from the mouths of sharks and whales; we’re saving nothing for the future, reserving nothing for other species, which instead we’re just driving to the wall.

Instead of inventing ways to minimize resource consumption, our smartest companies like Apple and Google work only to invent “needs” we don’t really need: drones, robots, iPhones 5-6-7, 3D printers, hoverboards, the “Internet of Things,” self-driving cars, biometric T-shirts, electric planes—the endless quest for “the next big thing,” but really just new ways to devour more resources and convert them into “product.” Instead of making products to be as durable and long-lasting as possible to conserve resources, our top companies pay their brilliant engineers, designers, and marketers to devise ways to make them wear out faster, to become obsolete, disposable, replaced in ever-faster cycles.

Our capitalist economy is geared completely wrong. All the incentives are wrong. As an American retail analyst famously wrote way back in 1955:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.” [1]

And so it is. For three hundred years, the engine of capitalist economic development revolutionized technology, and science improved our lives in countless ways. But now this out-of-control engine is consuming us to death, driving us off the cliff and into the abyss.
What to do? Mainstream economists have had two approaches. Economists such as Herman Daly,

Tim Jackson, and Serge Latouche have advocated “degrowth.” The idea is that capitalism can be slowed down, made to run at a “steady state” or even to “degrow.” I have argued elsewhere that these theorists just don’t understand capitalism. Capitalist “degrowth” just means recession, if not depression. Imagine Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, telling his investors, “Sorry, but to save the planet, we cannot grow profits next year, and in fact, we have to cut production (and thus profits) by 8–10 percent next year and every year thereafter, for the next three-and-a-half decades, by which time we will be basically out of business.” How long would it take your retirement fund to dump that stock?

The other approach is “green capitalism.” The idea here is that growth can go on forever but be rendered benign for the environment. Economists who advocate green capitalism call for carbon taxes, solar power, LED lightbulbs. We are no doubt better off for some of these policies and technologies. But green capitalism can’t save us. Here and there the planet’s needs and the corporations’ needs do coincide—but they do not align systematically. To save the planet, corporations would have to subordinate growth and profits to saving the humans—but they can’t do this.

They’re not responsible to us. They’re responsible to shareholders. Shareholders can’t subordinate growth to saving the planet and still compete in the world market—especially against China. What difference does it make if Germany gets 30 percent of electricity from renewables when what it produces with that electricity, its biggest export industry, is global warmers: gasoline-powered cars and gratuitously filthy diesels to boot? What difference if Apple powers all its servers in California with solar power when what it produces in China (and with coal power) is just completely disposable iPhones and iPads? Americans alone junk 100 million cell phones a year—mostly perfectly workable but “so last year.” The environmental cost of producing millions and billions of cellphones, computers, Gameboys, and all the other “devices” is just staggeringly unsustainable. IPhones are expensive. The cost of that new iPhone 6 is your children.

What about cap-and-trade policies? No capitalist economy, no government, will accept cap-and-trade. Why? Because it would impose a “cap.” A cap is a finite limit on greenhouse gas emissions like CO2. But every government understands that a cap on emissions means a cap on growth. That’s why no industrialized country has been willing to accept a cap. As George Bush senior put it back in 1992,

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” And if the Americans won’t cut emissions, why should the Chinese?

What about carbon taxes? Lots of governments pass carbon taxes, but they’re all too feeble to make any real difference. Scientists tell us that to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius and prevent runaway global warming, the industrialized countries would have to suppress emissions by 6–10 percent per year, truly draconian levels, for the next 35 years to get emissions down to where they need to be by 2050. But cutting emissions by anything like that amount would mean industrial shutdowns across the board. So governments pass carbon taxes to placate environmentalists, but they pass taxes that are too feeble to force any real change. That’s why oil company executives at Shell, ExxonMobil, and so on all support carbon taxes. Carbon taxes are just an indulgence, just another cost of doing business, which they can also just pass along to their customers. Most importantly, it’s not a cap, so it won’t stop growth. These market approaches aren’t designed to cut fossil fuel consumption. They’re designed to delay or to avoid cutting fossil fuel consumption, to keep the engines of growth revving, to keep prioritizing growth and jobs over the environment.

It’s not difficult to stop global warming. It’s completely obvious and simple. If we want to cut fossil fuel consumption we just have to enforce cuts in consumption, just ration oil and gas, like governments did during World War II, like when the U.S. government banned DDT, or when it banned ozone-depleting refrigerant chlorofluorocarbons.

The problem is that, given capitalism, cutting fossil fuel consumption would immediately bankrupt the largest companies in the world and plunge us into economic collapse, mass unemployment, and depression.

Our whole economy is based on fossil fuel: mining, manufacturing, heating, transportation, petrochemicals, construction, industrial farming, tourism, you name it. Electricity and heat account for 25 percent of CO2 emissions; industry, 21 percent; transportation, 14 percent; agriculture, forestry, and deforestation, 24 percent. [2] If we have to cut emissions by 90 percent, renewable energy is a start but only part of the picture. We need a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to minimizing resource consumption, not maximizing it, an economy geared to sustainability and equity, not profit.

My argument can be summed up in three points:

1. Rational, sustainable economic planning is the only way to save the humans. “We’re one people on one planet.” Either we start acting like it or we’re doomed.

2. Rational, sustainable planning will only work if it’s done democratically, if all those who are affected have an equal say in decisions that affect them. That, after all, is the essence of democracy.

3. True democracy is impossible without generalized equality.

Why Planning?

The problems we face, the problems of “planet management,” can’t be solved by individual choice in the marketplace. They require conscious, rational planning, international cooperation, and collective democratic control over the economy—not market anarchy. Climate scientists have been telling us for decades that we need a binding, global plan to suppress fossil fuel emissions. Ocean scientists tell us we need a global five-year plan to save the oceans. [3] We need rational, comprehensive, legally binding plans and agreements to save the world’s remaining forests; to protect and restore rivers, lakes, and fisheries; to save millions of imperiled species around the globe; and to conserve natural resources of all kinds for future generations.

I don’t think people really grasp how big a change we need to make. Cutting emissions by 8–10 percent per year would require selective but substantial deindustrialization in the global North. We would have to contract and converge our levels of production and consumption around a globally sustainable and hopefully happy average that can provide a dignified living standard for all the world’s peoples. In the global North, the industrialized nations would have to radically suppress fossil fuel consumption across the economy. We would have to phase out use of coal, drastically curtail oil consumption, ration it, and drastically retrench auto production, trucking, shipping, airlines, petrochemicals, construction, and other sectors.

We would have to abolish the consumerist designed-in obsolescence, repetitive-production disposables industries (plastic junk, H&M disposable clothes, IKEA chipboard furniture, throwaway products of every sort) and replace those with durable, rebuildable, recyclable, and shareable products instead of disposable products. We would have to reorganize production of the goods and services we do need to minimize resource consumption, instead of maximizing consumption by producing goods to be “burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded as fast as possible.” We would have to discontinue harmful and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, and logging and replace these with organic farming, husbandry, forest conservation, and so on.

We would have to redirect investments into renewable energy, public transportation, public water systems, public health, public schools, and social services—so that we can get more of what we need collectively instead of privately. And if we have to shut down harmful, wasteful industries, then we have to provide equivalent jobs for all those displaced workers, not only because this is a moral imperative but because without guaranteed employment elsewhere, those workers can’t support the huge structural changes we need to save the humans. So we would need substantial deindustrialization in the global North.

In the global South, however, we need to ramp up sustainable development. We in the North have a responsibility to help the South build basic infrastructure, electrification, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on. We would help their citizens achieve a comfortable material standard of living without repeating all the disastrous wastes of capitalist consumerism in the North.

Planning Can’t Work?

Of course, capitalist economists never tire of telling us that economic planning “can’t work.” It’s “too complicated” and “the first step on the road to serfdom, to Stalinism. Look at the Soviet Union.” I don’t buy that. Planning for whom by whom? Stalinist planning worked poorly because in the Stalinist states planning was of, by, and for the party bureaucracy. This proves nothing about the potentials of planning per se or democratic planning. Today, China plans most of the second largest economy in the world. They plan it badly, squandering money on massive overproduction of steel, coal, and cement; massive overproduction of housing, roads, rails, dams; and so on. So China is just another bad example.

Capitalist economists tell us that governments can’t pick winners. Hardly a week goes by that the Wall Street Journal fails to remind us that the 2011 bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra Corporation, bankrolled by the Obama administration, is proof that governments can’t pick winners. But since when do capitalists have a crystal ball? CEOs and corporate boards make bad bets on “loser” technologies and products all the time. Look at Fisker Automotive, or Better Place, the Israeli electric vehicle charging stations. Companies fail all the time. Silicon Valley is littered with failures. Corporate CEOs lose money all the time. Remember Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Enron, WorldCom, Pan American Airways. Who knows if Facebook or Zipcar or Tesla Motors will ever make money? Capitalists just bet on the future. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
Government-backed Solyndra lost $535 million. But when Jamie Dimon lost two $2 billion for JP Morgan Chase, I didn’t hear the Wall Street Journal howling that capitalists “can’t pick winners.”

When Enron collapsed, I didn’t hear any blanket condemnation of the “inevitable incompetence of the private sector.” When Shell abandoned its fool’s-errand Arctic-drilling adventure last year, losing $8 billion of its shareholders’ money, the Wall Street Journal blamed excessive government regulations, not the company.

So the free market is no better at “picking winners” than governments. Actually, private industry is not nearly as good as even capitalist governments. Because when governments plan investments in national rail systems or power plants or ports, and so on, they do so from the standpoint of the needs of the whole society, and for the long-term, not just the needs of corporate shareholders and quarterly returns. Governments not only regularly pick winners, but the U.S. government, through its own agencies and targeted support of innovation funding at universities, has been the leading engine of technological innovation in the United States since World War II (as recent studies have confirmed: Matthew Keller, State of Innovation: The U.S. Government’s Role in Technology Development (2011) and Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (2013)).

Government-funded and -directed applied research produced nuclear energy, radar, rockets, the jet engine, the transistor, the microchip, the internet, satellite broadcasting, satellite GPS, critical breakthroughs in biotechnology, and many more. Government-developed and -produced ballistic missiles terrorized the Soviets and government-designed and -operated bombers bombed the Reds in Korea and Vietnam to contain Communism and to secure dominance of the Free World for corporate America to exploit. The most important innovations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were government startups. What’s more, most of these were then handed over to capitalist corporations to profit from, even to the same capitalists who badmouth government.

But you don’t hear the Wall Street Journal applauding the government successes. All you hear is “Solyndra shows government can’t pick winners.”

Capitalist Planning Works Just Fine

Moreover, within their own enterprises, capitalists are fanatically rational planners. Today, the revenues of the world’s largest corporations are bigger than many national economies. Of the world’s one hundred largest economic entities, 37 are corporations, the rest countries. Large multinational companies operate in dozens of countries with hundreds of thousands of employees. Walmart has 2.2 million employees—almost equal to half the population of Denmark. Boeing Aircraft sources its 787 components from 50 companies in more than a dozen countries, among them Japan, Italy, Korea, Germany, China, the U.K., Sweden, and France.

Take the Boeing Corporation as an example of capitalist planning. Boeing’s ultra-high-tech and far-flung operations are all “centrally planned,” coordinated, and managed from the corporate head office in Chicago. Airplane production is systematically planned, coordinated, tightly sequenced, and choreographed. Every minute and dollar is counted. Waste and inefficiency are fanatically rooted out. Production is rigorously precise, disciplined, and efficient. Besides production, Boeing manages crew training, maintenance, repair, and upgrading of thousands of aircraft around the world. Then there are offices for product development, sales, personnel, and government regulation management, and more.

If companies with revenues greater than the GDPs of most countries can rationally and efficiently plan their economies, why can’t nations? Why can’t we rationally plan the world industrial economy for the needs of the world’s peoples? Of course, planning a national economy and coordinating global economies is more difficult than planning production, sale, and maintenance of airplanes. But I don’t see any technological barrier to this. Besides, we don’t have a choice. It’s plan or die. If we don’t rationally plan our major industrial economies for the needs of people and planet, if, instead, we continue to let market anarchy and profit-maximization guide our global economic life, the result will be collective human suicide.

Public Regulation of Utilities

The United States may be the world’s leading champion of the free market, but it nonetheless possesses a large and indispensable sector of the economy that is not governed by the free market but instead is regulated democratically by public oversight—and that is the public utilities: electricity, heating fuel, water and sewerage, local telephone service. These are the most efficient and cheapest utility systems in the world. Greg Palast and co-authors wrote a book about it. They write:

“Unique in the world (with the exception of Canada), every aspect of U.S. regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly, to ask questions of government and utilities, to read all financial and operating records in detail. In public forums, with all information open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extraordinary exercise in democracy—and it works.”

Another little known fact is that, despite the recent experiments with markets in electricity—the authors published this book in 2003, just three years after the Enron privatization debacle—the U.S. holds to the strictest, most elaborate and detailed system of regulation anywhere: Private utilities’ profits are capped and investments directed or vetoed by public agencies. Privately owned utilities are directed to reduce prices for the poor, fund environmentally friendly investments, protect community employment, and open themselves to physical and financial inspection. Americans, while strongly attached to private property and ownership, demand stern and exacting government control over vital utility services.

So, regulation of large-scale utilities is a real-world example of something like a “proto-socialism.” I see no obvious reason something like this model of democracy and transparency could not be scaled up to encompass the entire industrial economy. And of course in Western Europe you have lots of state-owned industries and utilities, they mostly work fine, better than private services, and you live in democracies, not state-serfdom.

Saving Small Producers

In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.

I contend that the only way to plan the economy for the common good is if we do it ourselves, democratically. I believe that rational planning must be democratic. Solar or coal? Frack the planet or work our way off fossil fuels? Drench the world’s farms in toxic pesticides or return to organic agriculture? Public transportation or private cars as the mainstay? We can put the big questions up for a vote. Shouldn’t everyone have a say in decisions that affect us all? Isn’t that the essential idea of democracy?

We don’t have to be experts to make such decisions. Corporate boards aren’t composed of experts. They’re composed of major investors and prominent, often politically connected, VIPs. Yet corporate boards decide and vote on what they want to do and then hire experts to figure out how to get it done. Why can’t society do the same, but in the interest of the common good instead of Wall Street investors?

Well, you may ask, “How do we know people would vote for the common good?” We don’t. After all, people vote against their own interests in elections all the time. Look at the U.S. primaries. Yet on closer inspection it’s not so surprising, given the limited choices they’re offered in capitalist democracy. What we see is that in the abstract, people would vote their conscience on environmental issues: so 69 percent of Americans favor binding limits on CO2 emissions and 93 percent want GMO labeling. This shows, I believe, that people have pretty good instincts about the environment.

But when the issue is framed as a choice between environment versus jobs, people often vote for the economy and against the environment. If we want democracy to work, we would have to have exclusively public funding of elections and referendums, free and open debate on issues, and zero tolerance for Fox News and similar propaganda machines—and we need an economy in which workers in industries that need to be cashiered to save the planet are guaranteed other comparable jobs.

When, in the midst of the Great Depression, that great “People’s Lawyer” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” he was more right than he knew. We have to recognize that genuine democracy requires a society that approximates socio-economic equality. Today we have by far the greatest concentration of wealth in history. Not just the 1 percent. Worldwide, Oxfam found that just 80 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom half, 3.6 billion, of the world’s population. So it’s hardly surprising that today we have the weakest and most corrupt democracies since the Gilded Age.

I contend that if we want a real democracy, we will have to abolish the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. That means we will have to abolish not just capitalist private property in the means of production, but also extremes of income, exorbitant salaries, accumulated wealth, great property, and inheritance. The only way to prevent the corruption of democracy is to make it impossible to materially gain, by creating a society with neither rich nor poor. If it’s illegal to be rich, then there’s little or no incentive to be corrupt.

Does that mean we would all have to dress in blue Mao suits and dine in communal mess halls? Hardly. Lots of studies, like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argue convincingly that people are happier, life is better, there’s less crime and violence, and fewer mental health problems in societies that are more equal, where income differences are small and concentrated wealth is limited, societies like Denmark.

Gandhi was right in saying “the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” We don’t have five planets to provide the resources for the whole world to live a consumerist lifestyle. But we have more than enough wealth to provide every human being on the planet with safe water and sanitation, quality food, housing, public transportation, great schools, and health care—all the authentic necessities. These should all be guaranteed as a matter of right. Indeed, most of these were already declared as such in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948:

"Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.
Article 23: The right to work, to free choice of employment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favorable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to just and favorable remuneration, to join trade unions.

Article 24: The right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25: (1) The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection."

The Promise of Ecosocialism

Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary and harmful commodities would free us to shorten the workday, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less. We can all build a beautiful world to pass on to our children while leaving space and resources for the wonderful life forms with which we share this amazing blue planet. That’s the potential of ecosocialism.

We’re living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history; indeed, this is the most critical moment in human history. Capitalism has had a good 300-year run. But economic systems come and go, as do governments. There is no gainsaying the magnitude of the changes we are going to have to make to save ourselves. There is no doubt that closing the book on capitalism and moving on to a higher stage of civilization—ecosocialism—by replacing the culture of “possessive individualism” with a culture of sharing, community, and love, is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. This is the revolution to come. We may very well fail. But what other choice do we have but to try.

All around the world, on every continent, we see vibrant and growing struggles against capital; against layoffs and unemployment; against privatization, ecological destruction, dams, and dumps; against overdevelopment. They have fought and won, beating back water privatization in Bolivia and health care privatization in El Salvador; won against the siting of chemical plants and garbage incinerators in China, against drug company piracy in South Africa and India, against factory schooling. They have won community control over schooling and social services, successfully defended indigenous rights (against Keystone XL and pipelines in Canada), restored teaching of indigenous languages in Hawai’i, successfully defended workers’ cooperatives, won land for the tiller (as by the Via Campesina movement), and more. Diverse as they are, these struggles all share a common demand for bottom-up democracy. They may not yet be organized in a common party, a global organization, but they’re headed in that direction. Unifying those struggles for an alternative, a new world, is our best hope.

This paper was originally presented at the conference Red/Green Alternatives: Breaking with Growth and Neoliberalism, which was held in Copenhagen on March 12, 2016, and sponsored by the Red Green Alliance and transform! network.

New Politics. Summer 2016 Vol:XVI-1 Whole #: 61:

Richard Smith is an economic historian and has written extensively on capitalism and the environment for academic and Left journals. His book Green Capitalism: the God That Failed (WEA Books) was published in 2015 and his China’s Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso) will be published in 2017.


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Why Greens must be Red and Reds must be Green

I should really have added something like ‘and also black’ to the headline, in recognition of our eco-anarchist comrades, but I don’t like headlines that are too long. I mean no disrespect to anarchists.

Eco-socialists see the problems of ecological justice and social justice, as profoundly linked in our economic system, capitalism, and no amount of tinkering with capitalism will ultimately resolve the ecological and social problems caused by this unfair and destructive system.

More conventional socialists and greens tend to see these problems as largely unconnected, with greens believing that somehow capitalism can be reformed and made more eco-friendly. Socialists, all too often see ecological politics as an add on issue, at best, which will somehow cease to be a problem when we move to a socialist system.

This thinking is wrong on both sides of the argument. Socialist governments that we have seen around the world, have often had an even more dismal environmental record than capitalist countries. A healthy environment is essential to humanity’s well being, and the effects of climate change, for example, impact much more on poorer people. The rich countries can build defences against the effects of volatile changes in the climate, the poor ones cannot. Things like incinerators and toxic dumps, tend to be located in poor neighbourhoods.   

For greens, especially in more recent times, social justice issues have been accepted as part of the changed society they want to see, but attempt to treat the symptoms caused by our economic system, rather than the root cause itself. Some greens, for example, still see population issues as the main issue affecting ecological destruction, but fail to see that the poverty that is inherent in capitalism, forces poor people to have larger families, to generate income, particularly when the parents become too old to work.

Green commentators like George Monbiot, though certainly of the political left, is not an eco-socialist. Writing last week in his regular column in the Guardian, under the title Nuclear power – yes please. Hinkley Point – no thanks, Monbiot repeats his new found view of being in favour of nuclear power generation. He has said in the past that his Damascene conversion to pro-nuclear is because he fears it is the only way that capitalist governments will take action on cutting carbon emissions from fossil fuels. He is probably right about this, but he misses the point that if the system is causing the problems, why should we pander to it?

This week’s Monbiot column, Our roads are choked. We’re on the verge of carmageddon, is more of the same. He makes sensible suggestions on organising our transport system, public transport, cycling etc, but also electric cars. How will these cars be powered? Yes, nuclear power, no doubt.

In his book ‘The Age of Consent’ written in 2003 he writes:

“Our task is not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution.”  

This sounds great, but the book goes onto suggest a neo-Keynesian approach. It is not a revolution Monbiot wants, he is happy enough with the current capitalist system that he wants it to continue, but be tweaked around a bit. In short, he is a liberal, so this is all to be expected. He either thinks that anything more radical is doomed to failure or he is deluding himself liberal economics can help to solve the very ecological crisis it has set going.

In the red corner, there is another George, Galloway, leader of the left wing RESPECT party. He has notoriously dismissed environmental concerns in the past, saying the future he would like to see is of ‘factories with smoking stacks’.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, though nowhere near as bad as Galloway on environmental matters, also falls somewhat short of eco-socialist thinking. I looked at his environmental policies on this blog, last week, which whilst being a step in the right direction, it is far too unambitious. He appears to back nuclear power too, ‘to keep the lights on’ as the liberal expression always states. But the real reason has nothing to with domestic lighting, and everything to do with keeping the capitalist production system going, to conjure the alchemy that is endless ‘growth'. 

The point of eco-socialism, is not to try and make the capitalist system run better, but to smash the system altogether and start afresh with a new system. Indeed, ecology is the system's Achilles heel, since infinite economic growth is irrational, and therefore a threat to the logic of capitalism. Once this concept is grasped, the inevitable conclusion is, that capitalism is unsustainable. It needs to be replaced by eco-socialism.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Labour Right’s Next Plan – Get the Unions to ditch Corbyn

That stalwart of the Labour Right, John McTernan, writing, where else but in the Telegraph, lays out the strategy for what he calls Labour ‘ moderates,’ after Jeremy Corbyn’s expected win in the Labour leadership contest again. The result is due to be announced on Saturday. McTernan has got form of course, and has been constantly attacking Corbyn’s leadership from the point it became clear he was going to win, first time around. Amongst the many Labour Party roles that McTernan has had, he was Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007, under Tony Blair’s leadership.

The result this year, looks likely to give Corbyn an even larger share of the vote than the nearly 60% he achieved at last year’s leadership election, so some new plan is needed to rid Labour of Corbyn as leader, according to McTernan. The Labour Right will continue to try and recruit like-minded members, via outfits like Saving Labour, but McTernan’s piece all but gives up hope of removing Corbyn via a full membership ballot. But he claims that the Labour Right will not give up trying to oust Corbyn, and hints at another leadership challenge next year.

McTernan calls for support for Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson’s NEC proposal, which aims to change the electoral system used for electing Labour leaders, back to the old electoral college system. This would probably mean members getting one third of the vote, the same as 200 odd Labour MPs, with the final third of the vote going to the unions. Supporters will be barred all together from the electoral process.

The electoral college system was used to elect Labour leaders from 1983 onwards, prior to this only MPs had a vote. The new system was introduced largely because the unions wanted it, and to a lesser extent the Labour Left. At first the unions got 40% of the vote, with members and MPs getting 30% each, but this was later amended to the three equal thirds formula.

It was Ed Miliband, when he was leader, who changed the leadership election rules to one member, one vote, after he won in 2010. Ironically, this was a concession to the Labour Right, because Miliband won by getting more union votes than Labour member’s votes. Now the Labour Right wants the old system back, because the unions are seen as a way of bypassing the Labour members and supporters, who largely back Corbyn.

The unions, by and large, have backed Corbyn so far. Unions like USDAW, the shop worker’s union, have always been on the right and do not support Corbyn. The GMB union’s backing of Owen Smith, Corbyn’s opponent in this year’s leadership contest, is linked to the issue of the future of the Trident nuclear weapons system, which Corbyn is against and the GMB is for.

And here the Labour Right has found a chink of light in all of the gloom. If they can use Trident, to force a wedge between the unions and Corbyn, this will afford them an opportunity for toppling him. The unions have been traditionally been in favour of nuclear weapons, as this provides for some well paid jobs, often in areas of the country where there is little else.

Under an electoral college system, the Labour Right would be in with a very good chance of deposing Corbyn, but even under the current system, union affiliates votes could even up the contest a bit, with the backing of union leaders. It was the unions who fought off the Labour Left in the 1980s, but the situation now is not the same as then. The unions like to have influence, and under Corbyn’s leadership, they may get some. Under new Labour, unions were largely viewed as an embarrassment, and the unions don’t want to go back to that situation.

The suggested continuation of the in-fighting in the Labour Party will dismay the general public, and quite rightly. The country is at a crossroads after the Brexit vote, and Labour should be providing a united opposition to the Tory government. Instead, we can probably look forward to another year of smears and plots against Corbyn and his supporters, from the Labour Right. In the meantime, the Tories will get on with implementing their reactionary agenda.

Obviously, I’m not a Labour member, but I want to see a proper effective opposition to the government. If some in Labour don’t like the result of the leadership contest, and are not prepared to work as part of an anti-Tory opposition, then they should leave the Labour Party. Frankly, good riddance to them. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

An Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy

Written by  and first published at Monthly Review

Two weeks ago I returned from my fiftieth class reunion at Oberlin College in Ohio. The brief discussions I had there with environmental faculty and students left me feeling a bit dazed. So many good and intelligent people, so concerned, and doing what they think and hope will help heal the environment—this college has one of the best environmental education programs in the country.

However, I was left disappointed and profoundly discouraged by the lack of discussion—or even interest in having a real continuing discussion and debate—regarding the root causes of our environmental disasters. Not just climate change, but also pollution of the air, water, soil, and living organisms, the loss of biodiversity both aboveground and in the soil, the extinction of species, and the overuse and misuse of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.

It is as though there is a flat tire with perhaps a thousand holes and people are working on the best way to patch this hole or that one. No one there seems to consider that the problem might be the tire itself—that the design and materials utilized are not appropriate to the way it is being used. And, if that is the case, then no amount of patching can solve the flat tire problem. It is of the utmost importance to be able to distinguish between symptoms (that most people call “problems” or “crises”) and underlying causes.

I ran into this confusion between symptoms and underlying causes time and time again in agricultural science and farming practices. Soils may be prone to erosion, store little water, grow crops that are susceptible to diseases and insect attack, become compacted, or have low fertility. Farmers (and extension specialists), usually think of and deal with these as individual problems—using pesticide applications, lots of commercial fertilizers, irrigating more frequently, using heavier equipment, and so on. In fact, I spent a significant portion of my career as a soil scientist helping to deal with the negative side effects of one of these responses—excess fertilizer use, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

(As an aside, as I was preparing this talk, an unbelievable thirty-five tons of nitrogen in the nitrate form, worth approximately $35,000, flowed down the Raccoon River past Des Moines, Iowa, on the way to the Mississippi and the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. This flushing of nitrate out of the soil by prolonged spring rains, partially the result of nitrate left over after last year’s drought [2012], was mainly a consequence of an ecologically damaging, but profitable, emphasis on growing corn and soybeans without an ecologically sound crop rotation.)

However, what I learned over time was that in reality these are symptoms of an unhealthy soil and a simplified approach to soil and crop management. The same is true of never-ending unemployment, inequality and poverty, the systemic necessity of perpetual growth, and pollution of air, water, soil, and organisms. As harmful as each of these is, they are all only symptoms—of an economic system that is essentially unmanaged. Of course large corporations and politicians that represent them try to manage national and international laws, regulations, and markets in such ways that it becomes easier for them to make more money. But with individual corporations and other private capital making decisions which consider only their own interests, the system as a whole alternates between periods of growth (that nowadays are pretty lackluster) and periods of recession. Addressing individual symptoms alone is not sufficient for the tasks we need to undertake—either to create healthy soils or to create an ecologically based and humane society.

One of the neglected issues regarding thinking and acting about the environment—perhaps the most critical of all—is, to borrow a phrase from the first President Bush, the vision thing. The environmental movement is lacking any kind of meaningful vision as to what a truly ecologically sound and socially just society would look like and how it might operate. I am not talking about a blueprint with all sorts of details, but rather an agreement on essential characteristics of such a system. Without a vision—including some conception of the essential parts of such a system, the chances of actually getting to such a society are essentially zero. Or, as James Baldwin put it in a commonly cited but still very appropriate passage, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is my contention that we are not facing the root cause of our problems, and until we do, there is no hope of solving the social and ecological problems confronting the world.

Before going into some suggested characteristics of such a system—one that is ecologically sound and socially just—it seems as if most environmentalists think that the answer is to change capitalism. However, none of the suggested tinkering—with banks, international institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank, environmental regulations, worker cooperatives, trying to use markets to reduce pollution, etc.—gets to the heart of the matter. This, of course, does not mean that we should abandon all attempts to buy more time and help educate others through involvement in here-and-now activism.

However, the primary problem is the inner moving force of capitalism—its Achilles heel regarding the environment—the unending accumulation of capital, which means perpetual “creative destruction.” Produce and sell more stuff next year and more than that in the following yearfor all of eternity.1 In such an economy there can be no concept of “enough.” There cannot be an endpoint to the production and consumption of ever-greater amounts of stuff. No-growth capitalism is an oxymoron.

There are severe repercussions for many people when economic expansion falters—because it is only through growth that capitalism creates jobs for new workers and for those displaced by automation (nowadays by robots and software programs). In the period from 1949 to 2012, unemployment increased in twenty-one years, about one-third of the time. During those twenty-one years the average annual real GDP growth rate was only 0.8 percent. Although the business cycle does not neatly correspond to calendar years, it is apparent that significant real GDP growth, around 2 percent or greater, is needed to hold down the unemployment rate. The U.S. GDP is currently growing at about a 2 percent rate, with relatively sluggish job growth. As of May 2013, there are still 2.3 million fewer people working than before the start of the Great Recession five-and-a-half years ago. And there are approximately 5.6 million fewer people working in full-time jobs.

What is the implication for the environment of this growth imperative of capitalism and the need to have growth in order to create jobs? Almost all environmentalists understand that we need to have an economy that does not grow and is still able to function. But if the economy continues growing at its current anemic rate, the GDP will double in 35 years (see Chart 1). If it were to grow at a more healthy rate, the GDP would double in less than twenty-five years. Although a doubling of the GDP will certainly mean more stuff produced, more resources used and more pollution, it does not mean that they will necessarily double.

Chart 1. Years to Doubling of GDP at Different GDP Growth Rates

Chart 1. Years to Doubling of GDP at Different GDP Growth Rates

Source: Calculated by author.

Just to give a small and somewhat humorous example of the problem, here is a passage from a 2013 New York Times Magazine section (in an issue devoted to inventions):

Booty Pop, padded underwear that makes a person’s backside look bigger and shapelier, an idea so simple its incredible that it took until 2008 for someone to perfect it. Two friendswere struck by the popularity of bun-lift surgery and thought there had to be a safer, cheaper way for women to achieve the same effect. So [one of them] glued the padding from her bra into a pair of underpants, found a manufacturer in Asia to produce a version of it that met her specifications; and then introduced it to the world on a cable-television show. They have since sold almost two million Booty Pops.2

A society that allows (not to mention encourages) such a waste of capital, and both human and natural resources, will never be ecologically sound and will never be socially just. It is not an issue, as some have said, of simply changing from a “growth philosophy,” “growth model,” “growth paradigm,” “domination ethic,” or the focus on GDP growth by economists and the media.

Capitalism’s growth imperative has nothing to do with philosophies, models, paradigms, ethics, or which numbers pundits and economists focus on. Neither can it be “reinvented,” as some think, to be ecologically sound and socially just. Rather, it is an economic system that has basic internal forces—especially the profit motive and competition among firms—that operate in such a way as to promote exponential growth while simultaneously causing massive negative social and ecological effects. And when growth in this system fails, what Herman Daly refers to as “a failed growth economy,” the cruelest forms of austerity prevail—giving rise to more and more unequal conditions and more ruthless forms of exploitation of both human beings and the earth.

Occasionally even a major capitalist sees the weaknesses of the system. After mentioning what he thinks are the strong points of capitalism (some of which I would take issue with), Jeremy Grantham, the environmental philanthropist and legendary fund manager, goes on the explain the following: “However, it [capitalism] is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, today, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival.”3

There are some who think that capitalism should be saved because they are under the mistaken notion that capitalism equals democracy. There are, of course, plenty of examples of dictatorships that were capitalist (in many countries of the South, as well as Spain, Greece, Germany, and Italy). For those under the illusion the United States is a democracy because you can vote every four years for a president (or for members of the House of Representatives every two years and the Senate every six)—choosing between candidates of two parties that are both owned lock, stock, and barrel by corporate interest—I urge you to read a short article by Joseph Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%,” as well as many other sources on the U.S. plutocracy.4

The nationally coordinated shutting down of one of the most promising modern exercises of democratic rights in the United States—the Occupy movement—by simultaneous police raids on the Occupy sites, indicates how little tolerance there is for mass expressions of dissenting views. And now with the scandal accompanying Edward Snowden’s release of National Security Agency documents we can see the extent of U.S. government spying on citizens as well as many abroad—in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”5

I have not heard another argument regarding just what it is about the capitalist system that is so good that it should be preserved. It is true that as part of its growth imperative there is constant innovation to find new products to sell or new processes of production. But there is no reason why there can’t be innovation in a non-capitalist system—if not the churning, continual, “creative destruction” type.

Why won’t there be people in an ecologically sound and socially just society who think of better—more environmentally sound ways—of doing something or those engaged in scientific research not for profit but for the love of science, the profound need of some to understand at a deeper level, or just for the benefit of humanity (for example, in the health sciences)? Even today, many people are engaged in innovation for reasons other than the potential monetary payoff.

An ecologically sound and socially just economy can be defined as one that encourages all people to develop their full human potential in such ways that the environment—with all its complexity, essential cycles, and relationships—remains intact, functioning, and healthy. In other words, an economy designed to be at the service of humanity, which includes the environment on which we and other species depend. This is an economy that can stop growing and can function well during a steady state, while meeting the needs of people and the rest of the natural world.

The ideas and suggested characteristics, principles, and procedures below are not a grab bag of possibilities from which one can choose. Rather, the various parts need each other in order for the economy and social system to function in an ecologically sound and socially just way. Each fits into one or more of the five attributes or pillars of strong natural systems: self-regulation; self-sufficiency; diversity and interdependence; efficiency (of cycling of energy and nutrients by closely linked metabolic relations); and resilience through self-renewal.

Social, Economic, and Ecological Principles

  1. Economic decisions—what to invest in, and what, how, and where to build/produce—are made democratically and for the purpose of fulfilling the basic needs of people. One of the basic needs, of course, is a healthy local, regional, and global environment. Such a society will be oriented to encourage everyone to strive to reach their full human potential. All people can live a culturally and socially rich life, though with a modest amount of stuff—below what is considered necessary for a “middle-class western standard of living.” Note the contrast—production to fulfill human needs versus capitalist production for the purpose of sale in a market in order to generate a profit.
  2. Workplaces (including farms) will be controlled and managed by the workers and communities in which they are based. There will be no economic exploitation by one person of another and community members will have input into production in their own backyards.
  3. Once socially determined basic human needs (material and non-material) are met—and after defining how much is enough—the economy stops growing with only neutral or positive side effects for society.
  4. All people who can work will have a role in the economy. It is important for individuals to feel a part of the community and society and work provides one of those links. If everything is provided for a decent and full existence there is a responsibility for all who are able to participate in providing goods and services.
  5. Leadership positions (in the economy, community, region, etc.) rotate among the people and there is a system for easy recall of elected officials/leaders.
  6. Substantive equality among people. This is essential because all will be living at a modest standard in terms of goods and services. In that situation people living at a much higher standard becomes socially unacceptable and unsustainable. People will have richer lives with less stuff because they will have time, assistance, and encouragement to develop and follow their passions—in sports, science, music, dance, writing, painting, handicrafts, or growing flowers—and to more fully engage with family, friends, and community. In a no-growth economy sharing and equality become means to eliminate the remnants of poverty and make sure it does not reappear.
  7. Interactions between and among communities, regions, and nations will be based on principles of reciprocity, solidarity, and mutual assistance.
  8. An economy that has a social purpose must involve considerable active management. Planning for short- and longer-term needs begins at the community level (as with the over 30,000 Community Councils of Venezuela) and is intertwined and coordinated with other communities in a regional plan.Once there is social purpose for an economy—as opposed to individuals making decisions that are aimed almost exclusively at obtaining the largest profits possible—there is no way to rationally operate without planning. For example, the production needs for both the First and Second World Wars were accomplished only through planning—and the use of rationing for the public. These plans were essential. After all, given the competition among the military services and with civilian needs as well, how else could you ensure that a particular part, say, a set of ball bearings, got to the right factory at the right time in order to produce an airplane needed for the war effort? It is not possible for markets to do this. In the absence of a planning system for production and distribution, how can we ensure that all people have adequate housing, clean water, sanitation, health services, clothing, and enough food?There may be markets in a post-capitalist society (as there have been since long before the existence of capitalism); in an economy of substantive equality, where basic needs are met, markets may provide some information to planners. When items are scarce, for whatever reason, rationing will ensure that everyone has a fair share—as was done in the United States during the Second World War.(Mostly unacknowledged by economists and pundits, “the market” in capitalist economies is actually a powerful rationing system—rationing according to individual/family resources. Commodities are theoretically available for anyone to purchase—for example, a good new car—but these are out of the reach of people with modest means. And sometimes even basic needs such as food are also beyond the reach of the poor, even in wealthy countries. Close to 50 million people in the United States are considered “food insecure.” This is clearly the result of food rationing occurring in a country that produces bountiful amounts of food.)

    Procedures: Ecologically Sound Metabolic Interactions with Nature/Resources

  9. Each community and region should strive, within reason, to be as self sufficient as possible with respect to basic needs such as water, energy, food, and housing. This is not a call for absolute self-sufficiency but rather for an attempt to build resilient communities and lessen the need for long-distance transport. Clearly not everything is going to be produced in every community, or even every city. But trying to be as self-sufficient as reasonably possible can still be a goal. Redundancy is an important part of both self-sufficiency and resilience. People with similar skills are needed in a community (there cannot just be one electrician) and redundancy in production facilities means that if something happens to one (say a fire), that others can pick up the slack.
  10. Energy used comes from current (or very recently past) renewable energy sources and used near where it is produced.
  11. Methods and aims of industrial production and building construction are such that goods have a long life and are easily repaired, repurposed, and/or recycled.
  12. Non-renewable resources will be conserved and used sparingly and in such ways that they can be recycled efficiently as efforts continue to replace them with renewable ones. Let me give just two examples: one is very well known, and one very new. The first is that legumes can be grown in rotation to supply nitrogen to grain crops (instead of using nitrogen fertilizer produced by using natural gas). The second is a relatively new process in which fungal hyphae replaces Styrofoam as packing or insulating material.6
  13. Agricultural production will be carried out based on soil and above-ground habitat management that produces healthy plants better able to defend themselves from diseases and insects and to enhance habitat for beneficial organisms. Integrated animal-crop farms will be encouraged—providing a mosaic of habitats—including relatively undisturbed ones. Farm animals will be treated humanely and allowed to do what they would normally want to do and eat what they would normally eat—instead of being confined under cruel conditions and fed corn and soybeans laced with hormones and antibiotics. Farms will rely on legumes for nitrogen for non-legume crops, as well as efficient nutrient cycling for most nutrient needs. Integrated animal-crop farms make this easier to accomplish.7
  14. Nutrients from human waste (and farm animal waste, as mentioned above), including bodily waste and unused or spoiled food waste, will be cycled back to farmland as efficiently and safely as possible.
  15. Renewable resources will be used in ways that preserve the resource base and do not create problems for other species/resources. Local communities will cooperatively manage natural resources such as nearby forests and fisheries to perpetuate them for future generations.
  16. Labor efficiency will not be an important goal (as it is in an economy in which using less labor is a way to enhance profits). For example, ecologically sound and productive agriculture—which will become essential when oil and phosphorus fertilizer run out or become unaffordable to use for agricultural purposes—will take more people working smaller farms with more human and animal labor. These farmers should be able to produce high yields per hectare and per input of energy, but will have lower yields per hour of labor.
  17. People will be encouraged to live near where they work and use multifaceted and efficient public transportation when needed. Bicycling will be encouraged and private automobiles will play a very small role, if any, in transportation.
  18. The precautionary principle will be used to evaluate and make decisions on new procedures, production systems, and materials as well as to evaluate any chemicals used by society—to prove safety for humans and the rest of the environment before introduction.

    Living in an Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Society

  19. Communities and regions will develop open and democratic processes to make decisions for infrastructure needs as well other investments. Ways need to be developed for communities and regions to work together in solving problems and sharing resources.
  20. Education and interactions among people within communities and between communities will strive to encourage those human characteristics and ethics that best fit an ecological and just society.
  21. People will have sufficient time to develop their various interests. People will work for significantly less than the “eight hour” working day, because so much of what is done now is not socially useful for society at large and would be considered waste in a more rational system. These include luxury cars or yachts, most of the financial system, the intelligence­-military-industrial complex (the U.S. military is one of the great destroyers of the environment), the prison-industrial complex, the constant efforts to change fashions and products to induce buying, the sales effort in all its ramifications, and so on. Socially useless, even harmful, products and programs constitute a very large portion of the U.S. economy and utilize as large a share of workers—perhaps as great as half of the labor force and at least as much of the raw materials used.We are all capable of exhibiting a large range of characteristics, from the most brutal to the most altruistic. There is no such thing as an abstract “human nature” divorced from the society in which people are living. It is the society at large, the way the economy works, and one’s family that encourages or even requires (to be successful) some of these characteristics/behaviors while discouraging others. In capitalism, some of the basest characteristics—such as competitiveness, individualism, greed—are encouraged and rewarded. This leads to putting the individual’s (and a corporation’s) best interests ahead of those of society.
  22. In order for a socially just and ecological society to function, educational efforts need to be taken to encourage compassion (instead of naked individualism), cooperation (instead of competitiveness), reciprocity and sharing (instead of greed and consumerism), an awe of nature in all its complexity and beauty (instead of thinking of nature mainly for its potential usefulness in producing commodities), and egalitarianism (instead of striving to get ahead of others). This means actively working to create a new ethic towards the land, the environment in general, toward our fellow human beings, our communities, and the other species with which we share this planet. The significantly greater time that people will have for purposes other than work will allow for more community activities, interactions with others outside the family and work, and to appreciate the natural world in all its complexity.

Closing Thoughts

I have outlined some of the main characteristics that I think are essential for an ecologically and socially humane and just economy and society. These are incompatible—in almost every way—with a capitalist economy. Doing away step by step with capitalism in a necessary long revolution will not automatically bring positive social or ecological change. That change will happen only if a large portion of the population believe in, and fight for, an environmentally sound and socially just society.

And it will take a huge shift in almost all of human activities, ways of thinking and behaving, including how we relate to each other and interact with the environment. New ethics will be needed for this new society to function. This is not an easy task, but what is the alternative? A system that, as it functions normally, destroys the very foundations of life through exploitation, waste, and greed is by definition an antiquated system. This is not an argument in favor of doing nothing in the here-and-now. We should be helping to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and encourage universities and other organizations to divest of holdings in fossil-fuel companies and fight for the environmental rights of poor communities. We can use these struggles in order to help educate others that, to solve the overall ecological crisis in all its ramifications, another system is necessary.

Is this an unattainable “utopia”? I think that, if it ever comes into being, an economy and society that is ecologically sound and socially just will have to embody most of the characteristics I have described above. There is no doubt that it will not happen in the near future. But I contend that it is no more utopian than to think that the financial and other strong business powers and their governmental representatives will allow you to make major changes to the financial system or the way international trade operates. What are the chances of, as some ecological economists have suggested, forcing banks to have very high (some have said 100 percent) reserves so they cannot create significant amount of debt or making major modifications in the workings of the World Bank and rules of the World Trade Organization so that they encourage equality and environmental justice? I think that those ideas are perhaps even more utopian than the possible creation of a new society. As the economist Joan Robinson once explained, “Any government which had both the power and the will to remedy the major defects of the capitalist system would have the will and the power to abolish it altogether.”8

It has been said, accurately in my opinion, that most people in this society can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I fear that barbarism may be the fate that awaits our grandchildren and their children unless we can change that way of thinking and start to envision, and begin to work towards, an economy and society under truly democratic social control with the very purpose being to satisfy basic human needs, which as I have stressed many times, includes a healthy and thriving environment.


  1. On the growth imperative of capitalism see Chapter Three in Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster,What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
  2. Hugo Lindgren, “If you were trying to name the greatest invention in human history it would be,”New York Times Magazine, June 7, 2013, http://nytimes.com.
  3. Leo Hickman, “Jeremy Grantham On How to Feed the World and Why He Invests in Oil,”GuardianEnvironment Blog, April 16, 2013, http://guardian.co.uk.
  4. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,”Vanity Fair, May 2011, http://vanityfair.com.
  5. “Fourth Amendment,” http://law.cornell.edu.
  6. Laura Shin, “Using Fungi to Replace Styrofoam,”New York Times “Green” blog, April 13, 2009, http://green.blogs.nytimes.com.
  7. For information about ecological soil and crop management practices, see Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es,Building Soils for Better Crops, 3rd edition (Waldorf, MD: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, 2010). This book and others from the SARE program are free at http://sare.org/learning-center/books.
  8. Joan Robinson, “Review of R.F. Harrod,The Trade Cycle,”Economic Journal46, no. 184 (December 1936): 691–93.