Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Post Brexit US Food Standards Will Only be for the Poorest Britons

The environmental campaigning organisation Greenpeace has uncovered a secret plan by political think tanks from the UK and US to influence deregulation of Britain’s food standards after we leave the European Union (EU). The plan was published accidentally on the website of the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) which is coordinating the network of transatlantic think tanks, but has since been taken down. Greenpeace have published the document themselves and you can access the plan here.

The idea is that these talks and this plan will form the “blueprint” for the real negotiations between the British and US governments. The groups involved even have close links with Liam Fox, the current Tory International Trade Secretary, and claim future talks would be attended by an official from Fox’s Department. Fox, has previously told the IFT that his department is “a very, very willing partner in your great and wonderful quest.”

According to the documents, the shadow trade talks are set to include 10 leading right-wing think tanks from the UK and US, including the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs and the Legatum Institute, which has recommended scrapping the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ to boost trade. On the US side, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation are listed as participants. The Cato Institute, which was founded by billionaire oil refiners, the Koch brothers, will write the first draft of the “ideal” agreement.

The Koch brothers have made significant financial contributions to libertarian and conservative think tanks and have donated primarily to Republican Party candidates running for office. They actively fund and support organizations that contribute significantly to Republican candidates, and in particular that lobby against efforts to expand government's role in health care and combating global warming. In January 2011, Rolling Stone magazine included the Koch brothers on its list of the top twelve people blocking progress on global warming.

The IFT report says a shift away from the EU’s approach would mean that “US exporters of agricultural produce, beef, for instance, would have a brand new market to sell to”. Imports of US beef are currently restricted by the EU because of the widespread use of growth hormones and anti-biotics that the European Commission deems unsafe. 

This type of regulatory change would also allow for imports of chlorinated chicken, again banned under EU rules. This is because of the precautionary principle, applied by the EU to food standards. Basically, these practices have to be proved safe, before they are allowed to be sold to consumers. The Council of Europe has said that this method can “lead to the formation of chloroorganic compounds, several of which are persistent, bioaccumulable or carcinogenic”. In other words it can cause cancer.

According to the Guardian a spokesperson for the IFT said “mutual recognition of standards, which we do mention quite a bit, would not require the UK to move away from the precautionary principle at all, or to change its standards, regulations or laws in any way. If consumers don’t want to buy products made to different standards to our own, they will see the US flag on the packet and not buy it,” she said.

You can see the outlines of this plan from this statement. There has been quite a lot of negative comment in the British media about chlorinated chicken, so the British government will have to sell it to the public, which will probably be cautious about such produce. But by labelling the product, although how clearly this would have to be would be part of the negotiated deal, it would allow the government to say, if people don’t want to buy this produce then they would have the choice not to.

There is a reason why the US farming industry regulations allow these methods, it is because it increases yields and reduces costs, which to some extent can be passed onto consumers. If there is a choice of reasonably priced alternatives, I think British people will avoid US produce, but that is not a given, since food from the EU will likely be more expensive. Australia and New Zealand would want to export more food to the UK, but the geographical distances make it more expensive, not to mention increasing carbon emissions.

So, what we end up with, under this plan is that US food will be much cheaper than British or other countries produce, unless they adopt the same practices, so there would be a two tier food market. For those who can afford the food under existing EU regulations they won’t need to eat it, but for the poorest households there will be no real choice but to consume this type of potentially unsafe produce.

None of this will solve our border congestion problems, or the Irish border one, but if we really do disregard these problems, the future could look very like the one the IFT is planning. I doubt the likes of Boris Johnson will be partaking in US labelled food produce, because he won’t need to.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Book Review - Creating an Ecological Society: Towards a Revolutionary Transformation

Written by Sean Ledwith and first published at Counterfire

Magdoff and Williams provide a powerful case that ecological disaster can be overcome by a revolutionary transformation of social relations.

In November 2017, UN climate observers reported that the past three years have all been in the top three years in terms of temperature records. They also reported temperatures topping 50C in Asia, record-breaking hurricanes in rapid succession in the Caribbean and Atlantic, devastating monsoon flooding affecting millions, and a relentless drought in East Africa. The World Meteorological Organisation has stated that indicators up to this point suggest that 2017 will actually be the hottest year since records began. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now estimated to be higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. Bearing in mind our species has been on the planet for only about a quarter of that time, this is clearly a crisis of unprecedented magnitude for humanity.

Although the existential threat to life on Earth by climate change becomes increasingly apparent year by year, the capacity of capitalist politicians to respond appropriately remains pitifully inadequate. Trump’s stated goal to take the US out of the 2015 Paris climate deal is only the most egregious example. Supporters of renewable energy estimated earlier this year that UK government funding of wind, solar, biomass power and waste-to-energy projects is set to fall by 95% over the next three years.

The incompatibility of sustainable development with the logic of capital has long been recognised on the left and there have been a number of insightful attempts recently by writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus to systematise a coherent ‘red-green’ perspective on the unfolding crisis. Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, in Creating an Ecological Society, have produced a left-wing analysis that is a worthy addition to this collection. They explicitly make the case that only a revolutionary transformation on socialist principles will generate a political framework to save the planet: 

‘if we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another, the economy and the resources we use and depend on, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into the realm of utopian fantasy’ (p.18).

What makes their account particularly powerful is an awareness that only a Marxist perspective on climate change can comprehend that the environmental crisis is intrinsically linked to other manifestations of a declining and dysfunctional social and political system. The book includes incisive analyses of how racism, sexism, class inequality and other forms of oppression are rooted in the dynamics of capitalism and that, consequently, the struggle to avert ecological collapse cannot be separated from campaigns against these and related injustices.

A holistic and all-encompassing vision of both the global situation, and the type of activism required in response, makes this an informative and uplifting account of ecosocialism that is as good as any other available:

‘Whether the issue is police brutality, the building of new oil or gas pipelines, the erosion of voting rights or workers’ rights, the vilification of Muslims or immigrants, sexism in the workplace or elsewhere, or some other battle for social and economic justice and a healthy environment, we must take it on’ (p.328).

The book is coherently structured into sections that address different aspects of the debate on the politics of the environment.  As the co-authors have both a scientific background and a commitment to left-wing politics, their exploration of the issues provides a wealth of professional expertise and political acumen.

The scale of the crisis

The first section is a searing explication of the enormity of the crisis confronting the planet. Climate-change denial is hopefully a shrinking point of view (with the disastrous exception of the Trump administration) but it is always worth being reminded of the scale of ecological degradation that is underway in the natural world. Magdoff and Williams collate a valuable synthesis of data from numerous fields that collectively make an irrefutable case for the evidence of human impact on the planet. Their grim but thought-provoking starting point is an imaginary scenario set centuries ahead in which the crisis of our times has not been tackled effectively:

‘At some time in the future archaeologists may look at the rubble of a large twenty-first century city or other physical remnant of today’s world and wonder, as Shelley’s traveller surely would, what cataclysm struck that civilisation?’ (p.17).

Based on that premise, they provide some staggering evidence that such a scenario is not far-fetched (chapter 1). Even the Paris deal on which Trump has reneged, the authors calculate, is hopelessly insufficient. The guidelines contained in the agreement on acceptable warming would still result in a global temperature rise of 4C, making a mockery of the deal’s stated purpose to limit it to 2C.

They estimate the amount of energy being pumped into the atmosphere since the start of this century is the equivalent of four atom bombs every second. Last year, the extent of sea ice of the Arctic hit an all-time low. An area the size of Alaska has been lost from the ice pack there in just the last fifty years. The fastest melting point of Antarctica contains enough water to raise global sea levels by four feet. In thirty-five years, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Ninety percent of all sea birds have ingested some type of plastic. 

Giant tortoises existed on the Earth for ten million years and yet one sub-species has now been exterminated by human beings in the space of less than one century. Four thousand people die every day in China due to breathing polluted air; 6.5 million die every year around the world for the same reason. Half of the forests cut down by human beings since the last ice age have been since World War II. Last year, London exceeded its annual limit for nitrogen-dioxide levels within the first week of January.

The role of class and imperialism

Unlike more mainstream accounts of the crisis, however, Magdoff and Williams link these types of problems to the class nature of the system that is presiding over them. They identify that 10% of the global population (the richer countries that is) are responsible for consuming 60% of the Earth’s resources and releasing the same proportion of pollutants into the atmosphere (p.108). Of course, within that 10% is the even smaller percentage who actually control the economies of the major capitalist states. In the US, nearly 40% of all consumption is by the richest 5% (p.50). The authors highlight the jaw-dropping disparity recently highlighted by Oxfam that eight super-rich individuals have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, that is 3.2 billion people (p.41). The same report noted the wealth stashed away by the global elite in offshore tax havens amounts to nearly $7 trillion.

The necessity of integrating the campaigns against climate change and inequality is underlined by research that shows that nearly two-thirds of carbon emissions originate from just ninety companies around the world and, of those ninety, eight are responsible for 20% of the emissions from fossil fuels and cement production over the past couple of centuries (p.120). The authors regard a combined struggle against the elite and the destruction of nature they have wrought as a pre-requisite for safeguarding the future of humanity. They creatively deploy a concept deployed by the nineteenth-century thinker, John Ruskin, that capitalism generates not wealth but ‘illth’:

‘Illth comes in many forms. One is conspicuous consumption by the very rich - the luxury cars, yachts, private jets, huge houses, and other forms of conspicuous living. If this richest 10 per cent reduced their consumption to the average consumption of the rest of humanity, total global resource use would be cut in half (p.108).

As well as underlining the crucial link between capitalism and the environmental crisis, Magdoff and Williams highlight the often hidden role imperialism plays in exacerbating the threat to the biosphere by diverting vast funds into wasteful projects. In the eyes of some, Obama now looks like a model of ozone-friendly politics compared to his toxic successor, but the authors are scathing about the reality behind the rhetoric. They remind us that Obama ploughed $1 trillion into an upgrade of the US’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and the development of the F35 fighter, the most expensive military vehicle in history. The Pentagon is planning to construct over two thousand of these by the end of the 2030s; the helmet for one pilot alone costs $400,000! Magdoff and Williams calculate the cost of one plane would be enough to subsidise over three thousand years of college money! (p.111):

‘The military also wastes incredible quantities of fuel. It is exempt from all international climate agreements and local environmental regulations at its hundreds of bases worldwide, allowing the US military to be the single largest user of fossil fuels and by far the world's biggest polluter’ (p.112).

This recognition of the threads connecting the crisis in the natural world to a crazy economic system with its militarised obsessions makes this analysis superior to anything coming from the orthodox green movement.

Oppression and ecological crisis

As part of their crucial perspective that the environmental crisis is one aspect of the systemic failure of capitalism, Magdoff and Williams also provide valuable analyses of the sexism, racism and poverty afflicting Western societies and explain why these forms of oppression cannot be siloed away from the impact of the rich on the biosphere. Again, their utilisation of official statistics provides powerful ammunition for activists. They note data from the UN that women’s unpaid contribution to the global economy amounts to $11 trillion (p.144) and from the World Health Organisation that one third of women around the world have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, usually from a partner (p.147). The Weinstein scandal this year has obviously put this issue in the spotlight, but this shocking fact suggests no one should really be surprised by the extent of the problem.

They also draw attention to the epidemic of police violence plaguing US society in particular, and see it as another symptom of a rotten system; 67% of the US prison population is black, whereas only 37% of the general population is classified as such (p.134). This is part of a wider increase in the size of the prison population of 500% over the last forty years (p.133)

The link between racism and the environmental crisis is spelled out even more in a discussion on how the living conditions of working-class black Americans puts them at greater health risk than more affluent sections of society:

‘Compared to the rest of the population, people of colour are more likely to be living near toxic waste sites (56 percent of those living nearby are people of colour); twice as likely to live without clean water and modern sanitation facilities; they are thirty-eight times more likely to be exposed to nitrogen dioxide, which causes respiratory problems’ (p.139).

As Marxists, the authors integrate their account of these forms of oppression within the concept of alienation as developed by Marx in the nineteenth century, and explain how part of its deleterious effect of the human personality is to set us subjectively against those who are objectively our comrades in struggle:

‘These social divisions are not accidents. They act to prevent people from uniting, to keep them fighting to stay one rung higher up the ladder by stepping on those below. That is why racism and the systematic oppression of women are endemic to capitalist societies, varying only by degree’ (p.132).

It would be understandable if a reader of this volume was to feel despondent due to the overwhelming evidence presented that twenty-first-century capitalist society is taking us at an accelerating rate towards a precipice. However, the authors are refreshingly optimistic about chances of a revolutionary transformation taking place at some point in the next few decades and argue the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the electoral revival of the left in the West are all portents of impending class struggle on a massive scale:

‘To be successful any revolutionary upheaval will have to dwarf the mobilisations we have seen recently around the world and take place on a qualitively different basis. It will have to be organised to reflect the principles of the future society and take control of the centres of production to bring capitalism to a halt’ (p.301).

They helpfully remind us that ‘capitalism has been prevalent for less than 0.3 percent of the entire period that modern humans have walked the earth’ (p.184), so it is irrational to believe future generations are condemned to endure the madness of a system that prioritises mass destruction above mass education. They forcefully argue that for the majority of our history as a species, altruistic and other-centred behaviour has been the norm in most societies and it is probable these traits will predominate in a postcapitalist system. Even in today’s cutthroat neoliberal culture, the indicators of a re-energised human nature are visible:

‘Prosocial behaviour and traits are often suppressed by the need to express those contrary behaviours required to survive and flourish within the system of capital. However, even when antisocial capitalist social relations are prevalent, there are expressions of the deep human values of empathy, solidarity and cooperation’ (p.193).

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch chair. He is a member of Counterfire and York People's Assembly. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Reviews in History.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Why I Hate the Tories

I am from a Labour party supporting background, raised in local authority housing, schooled and paid for and maintained in higher education by the same municipality, a Labour run council. My dad was a shop steward in the engineering union too, so it’s no surprise then that I have never even considered supporting the Tory party. It always seemed to me that the Tories did not represent my interests, rather they are the party of the wealthy establishment and the ‘bosses.’

I was 17 when Margaret Thatcher became Tory prime minister in 1979, and I remember being furious that I was not allowed to vote in that election, when older people, who I considered ignorant of politics were. Thatcher set about destroying the political post second world war consensus, often referred to as ‘welfare capitalism.’ The welfare state, which had served me and others like me so well, was consigned to dust bin of history and replaced with rampant individualism, privatisation of public assets, the neutering of trade unions, tax cuts for the rich, promoting inequality and a nasty patriotism bordering on jingoism.

Through the following 18 long years, first with Thatcher as leader, then John Major, all of these things came to pass, turning the country into a neo-liberal front runner in the process. Communities that were once characterised by social solidarity, like mining communities, turned into barren wastelands, where good jobs were scarce and money hard to come by. An attitude of ‘bugger everyone else, me, me, me, reigned in place of the old esprit de corps.

I can still remember vividly election night in 1997, when the Tories were spectacularly booted out of office, with big political names losing their seats, culminating in arch Thatcherite Michael Portillo losing a pretty safe majority in his constituency. The night just kept getting better. But Thatcher had managed to change the Labour party into a paler shade of the Tories, and we didn’t have to wait long for the disappointment to manifest itself with the New Labour government. The essentially neo-liberal policies continued, with a few of the rougher edges smoothed off.

The final straw for me was the Iraq war, when I decided that I could no longer vote for the Labour party, and a year or so later, I joined the Green party. It wasn’t an easy decision given my background, but I felt that Labour no longer represented my interests.

The Tories of course made a comeback, and we have suffered a further eight years of their misrule, aided and abetted by first by the Lib Dems and now the bigots of the DUP. A new nastiness has been a feature of the current Tory government, with the disgraceful demonisation of benefit claimants, and a cruel regime of sanctions on the most vulnerable in our society. The numbers of rough sleepers has rocketed and local authority budgets have been slashed leaving them only as procurers of some, mainly statutory, public services.

Wages in the public sector have fallen in real terms by something like £5,000 per year, per person since 2010, when the fetish for austerity was inflicted by the Tories on the nation. A policy that has made matters worse, since the national debt has almost doubled over the last eight years, whilst the Tories talk of ‘sound money’ and ‘economic competence’ but the facts speak for themselves. The country has been screwed, but the wealthy continue to get richer.

And then there is Brexit. There was no clamour for a referendum on leaving the European Union (EU) in the country, only in the Tory party. The Tories latest austerity policies, together with the neo-liberal ethos introduced by Thatcher and continued by New Labour, by and large, led to the feeling that the referendum was seen by many as a golden opportunity to ‘stick it up the establishment,’ and of course this was enough to produce a vote to leave the EU.

The handling of Brexit has been a textbook exercise in rank incompetence, as the in-fighting in the Tory party continues with its obsession with the EU, while the country is going to the dogs. The Tories don’t care about the country though, only their own fixation with Europe.

So there you have it. An uncaring party which screws the poorest to benefit the richest people. Why people with little or nothing to ‘conserve’ ever vote for them is a complete mystery to me, but even if I was rich, there is no way I could vote for these mendacious bastards.                 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

HDV – The Fight Goes On – Stop Social Cleansing in London

Written by Gordon Peters

There does seem to be a tide about to turn on the scandal of housing provision, especially in London, and its unaffordability for so many. The Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) in north London, has been put on hold for now. The StopHDV campaign is playing an important role in this.

Across Haringey a broad coalition of opposition to the Haringey Development Vehicle grew from grass roots in the course of the year from January 2017 to the present, motivated by the discovery that a so-called procurement process begun by the Cabinet two years earlier was intent on transferring whole estates. All the Council owned business premises, and potentially all of the physical assets of the local authority are to be transferred to a private partnership with a preferred bidder. 

This turned out to be Lendlease, the Australian-based multi-national, which has been active in Southwark in vastly reducing social housing in favour of new high rent and for sale properties, unaffordable to local residents. Many of whom have had to move out, some far away. That is the evidence behind the terms of gentrification and social cleansing.

Much of this has been documented by the 35% campaign, and the rights of local residents of the Aylesbury Estate are still being fought out in the High Court. In Lambeth too, the intended demolition of Cressingham Gardens, a very well designed mixed community of householders, was taken to Judicial Review, and their fight has also joined in support of the StopHDV campaign. 

Across London something is definitely stirring in resistance to the wholesale takeover of land and housing, and enforced displacement of poorer households, by corporate developers in league with Council leaderships, mostly Labour. Recognition of this at the 2017 Labour Party conference by leader Jeremy Corbyn, and his call for ballots on estates and the rights of local people to determine what they want, refurbishment or redevelopment, and on what scale, is a vital step.

As a result of the pressure from StopHDV - in which Labour activists, LibDems, Greens, tenants and residents federation, leaseholders association, community groups, Unite the Union community branch and other trades unions in Haringey, home owners and some small businesses, have all been involved. 

The fact that a Judicial Review was initiated from the July 2017 Cabinet decision to set up the HDV, despite the local Labour Party's opposition, and that of the two Labour Haringey MPs, it has been halted and while it remained ultra vires. The Council leadership of Claire Kober found their vehicle was being de-railed. She has resigned amid a realisation that there was no longer the time or support to start it up before the May elections. And most candidate councillors will be against it. But it has yet to be finished off.

The first outcome of the Judicial Review did not find in favour of StopHDV, but we are appealing and there are strong grounds we can win at a higher legal level. We argued that this so-called 50/50 partnership could not rightly be a Limited Liability Partnership but was in fact a company intended for profit primarily, that it had never been properly consulted on, that the equalities impact on vulnerable people was flawed, and that a full Council, not Cabinet, should make decisions of this nature. 

The judge ruled us out on a technicality of being ‘’out of time’’ and agreed with much of the argument where he said a different outcome for HDV going ahead would likely have resulted from proper consultation. And a higher court can rule on this issue of Cabinets transferring assets and making decisions affecting peoples homes and lives without their knowing and full Councils being involved - a law giving power to small executive groups in authorities, called Cabinets, brought in by Blair in the ‘90s.

The combination of real grass roots organisation and pressure and challenging the powers that govern, at our cost, through the legal process has helped create a wider, national awareness that speculative, corporate-led demolition and uncaring demolition of local communities along with compliant and complicit Council leaderships. 

These deals are often tied up at MPiM in Cannes or symposia in London and elsewhere. StopHDV and other local campaigns, show that none of this is inevitable, and that locally agreed plans for community living can stop these top down, profit driven destructions of places, environments and people.

And then beside this we need people’s plans, rent controls and rental charters, ballots, councils being released from caps on borrowing, end to Right-to-Buy, taxing empty property and speculation, and surely a Land Value Tax.

I am appealing the High Court decision but need to raise more funds to pay legal fees. Please contribute to the costs if you can to this very important case. To donate visit Crowdjustice here.

Gordon Peters is a Haringey resident.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

How Will Labour’s Public Service Co-ops Operate in Practice?

Both the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, made speeches last week about how Labour would go about bringing public services back into public ownership. In particular they referred to the energy, rail, water and mail industries, with Corbyn saying that Labour intended to reverse the “neoliberal ideology that drove the privatisation frenzy.” McDonnell said they would put services “irreversibly” in the hands of workers, and that it would be unlike the nationalised industries of the past. Instead, Labour will promote the use of co-operatives.

We have heard this sentiment from Labour before, going back as far Labour’s 10 point plan released in the summer of 2016, but in pretty vague terms, and the latest announcements don’t put much more flesh on the bones. McDonnell said that the Co-operative Party, which is affiliated to the Labour party, would be setting up an implementation group. All of which suggests that these new co-op’s would be large, and worker owned, but it is not clear to me what exact community involvement there would be.

Let us not forgot that former Tory prime minister, David Cameron, championed, at least rhetorically, co-op’s and ‘social enterprises’ as part of his ‘red Tory’ re-positioning of his party. The John Lewis partnership was often held up as a great example of a co-operative venture, and indeed a former CEO of the company recently became the West Midlands Tory mayor. Is this the kind of thing Labour has in mind?

Paul Mason, economic journalist, Labour member and Corbyn supporter has attempted to flesh the thing out a bit, although I’m unsure whether is this just his interpretation, or has been sanctioned by the Labour leadership, as part of the official plan.

Mason traces the thinking back to the Keynesian period (1945-1979), when the left in the Labour party advocated workers co-operatives rather the huge state corporations that were the model for publicly owned industries. The new plan involves rail passengers, water users etc, the workers who provide the service and bond holders, who would receive a share of any profits. All would be stakeholders in these industries. McDonnell has confirmed that this would be the case.

This has the added advantage, if it works out, of getting control of privatised utilities at no extra cost to the tax payer. Mason says that it could be funded by government borrowing in this way, but it seems to me to be perfectly possible to do it by a form of ‘quantitive easing.’ Hundreds of billions of pounds has been basically created by the government to re-capitalise the banks, so that they can lend it back us, with interest. Why not use this money to buy back public utilities?

It is an interesting idea, and for industries like water and rail, which are monopolies, probably the most sensible idea. I would though like to suggest that in energy production the communities that are customers of the co-ops should also be directly involved in the co-op and be locally structured.

Much of the electricity that is generated at the moment is lost in transmission from source to end user. This is because the greater the distance between the two, the more energy is lost. From a conservation point of view, and so cutting carbon emissions, this is an important factor. Local generation of energy is far more efficient, and co-op members could pool locally generated thermal heat, solar and wind power. Corbyn has acknowledged that tackling climate change needs to be part of this equation.

This would eventually take away the customers from the ‘big six’ private generators in the UK, and they would just whither away. It would also likely improve clean production of energy as well as pushing these corporations out of our lives.

It makes sense with national industries like rail, that some kind of national body will have to run it, but the model being suggested has lots of potential for being better than the old nationalised British Rail, and better than having different private operators running it for profit, which incidentally costs the tax payers more in subsidies than when it was publicly owned.

Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London tried to fund investment of the publicly owned tube transport network, but the courts ruled that he didn’t have the power to do it. The government would have no such problem, and they might facilitate local government to make use of bond schemes for local transport and energy provision, too.

As I say, this is interesting thinking, and certainly the privatisation model has not worked out successfully, with the construction company Carillion’s corporate collapse and Stagecoach east coast rail line going bust, just recently, are but the latest examples of this failure.  

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Ecosocialism can rescue us from ecocatastrophe

Written by Bert Oliver and first published at Thought Leader

In Ridley Scott’s film, The Martian, there is a scene near the end that sums up the often ignored value of the earth. Astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is sitting on a bench in a park, shortly after having been rescued from a very lonely existence on the red planet, Mars.

He notices the new, green leaves of a small plant in front of him on the ground, smiles, leans forward and, gently putting his fingers underneath the newborn plant’s leaves, says something like “Hello there!” This simple scene condenses one of the crucial “messages” of The Martian, that, compared to the vast majority of other planets, which are probably as barren as Mars, Earth is a veritable paradise.

And, although this is nowhere thematised in the film, it is time for people to start waking up to the saddening fact that humans, driven by an economic system voracious for “growth”, are busy destroying this paradise. Too many people simply bury their proverbial heads in the sand when they hear or read a statement like the one I have just made – unless they sit up and take notice, and do something about it, nature in all its glory will, in the not-too-distant future, probably be visible only in nature documentaries such as those made by David Attenborough.

If you don’t believe me, you could read this keynote address by one of the most uncompromising thinkers of our time, Joel Kovel. It is called “Ecosocialism as a Human Phenomenon”, and was delivered at the International Ecosocialist Conference in Quito, Ecuador, in June 2013. Things have got much worse since then, but judging by Kovel’s considered assessment of the global situation regarding the condition of natural ecosystems, it was already quite bad then.

Kovel opened the address with the remark, that: “We live in an epoch of radical crisis. From the economic side, we see intractable stagnation and vicious class polarisation. And from another side, which I shall call the ecological, we find that the dominant system of production appears hell-bent on destroying the natural foundations of civilisation as it thrashes about in response to economic difficulties.”

If this seems far-fetched to readers, it is probably because mainstream news sources, which are all controlled by the dominant economic forces of our time, downplay the bad news, with the result that most people are not aware of the true dimensions of the looming crisis. Consequently they are so far removed from acknowledging it that, as Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and psychoanalytical thinker extraordinaire, has shrewdly observed, people evidently find it harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world as we know it.

And yet, the “end of the world as we know it” may not be in the realm of the impossible, or even the improbable. One of the things Kovel invites his audience to reflect on in his address on ecosocialism is the following: “ … consider the activities of the Monsanto Corporation, fully protected by the Obama administration, as it engages in lethal forms of production that will, in just one instance of depredation, finish off honeybees world-wide through its nicotinamide pesticides.

Thus we anticipate a future without pollinators, sacrificed on the altar of accumulation. The disregard for what nature has evolved over four billion years beggars the imagination. Indeed, if corporations are persons, as the US Supreme Court insists, then the Exxons and Monsantos of the world are better described as suicide bombers in the service of accumulation than as rational economic actors.”

How many of us have ever thought about what should be rather obvious, if we remember what we learned in primary school, namely, that bees fulfil an essential function in nature across the globe – pollinating plants. That is, they make sure, in the course of collecting pollen for honey, that trees and other plants reproduce.

What would happen without them? All the plants that depend on them for reproduction would eventually die – and that is a lot of plants, including trees, all of which are responsible, in turn, for producing oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. Hence, without bees, which are being wiped out systematically by Monsanto in its frenzied quest for more profit, most of the planet’s vegetation would be destroyed, and without the latter all oxygen-breathing creatures, including us humans, would be in deep trouble.

Is this so hard to grasp? And if some, if not most of us, are really the rational creatures we are supposed to be, why are we not doing something about it, such as hammering our governments to censure companies like Monsanto – which, incidentally, is probably also responsible for a host of health problems that people are increasingly experiencing across the world, such as auto-immune diseases like gluten and lactose intolerance, which result in coeliac disease.

Why, you may wonder. In addition to producing the pesticides that are destroying the honeybees, this behemoth company, Monsanto, and other companies like it, are responsible for introducing genetically modified plants into agriculture, and some medical researchers I have spoken to are convinced that the foods made from such GM plants affect human physiology and gastronomy in extremely adverse ways. This should not be surprising – as a species, we developed in close proximity to nature (of which we are, after all, a part), and genetically speaking our bodies are primarily capable of digesting and benefitting from foods such as fruits and vegetables that formed part of our ancestors’ diet.

So how do we combat the economic system that not only allows Monsanto and Exxon to operate, but actually encourages them to do so, the egregious damage that they inflict upon nature notwithstanding? Kovel’s answer is that there is only one option, namely to switch to what he calls “ecosocialism”, an economic system that is not intent on accumulation and profit at all costs, but instead promotes production without depletion of natural resources, because unlike capitalism, it does not set humans up as if they are nature’s adversaries, but accepts that humans – social ecologies – and natural ecologies are interrelated and (could be) mutually sustaining. But let me quote Kovel at length here from the keynote address referred to above:

“Ecosocialism makes a very large claim that must be realised in a host of individual and often seemingly disparate instances, or paths. There is, in other words, no privileged agent of ecosocialist transforming. The agents of transformation emerge interstitially, which is a fancy word for anywhere contradictions ripen and manifest themselves as transformative opportunities: a storm, a mine, a pipeline, a toxic dump, even a classroom, or an individual mind undergoing spiritual development.

Each ecosocialist path is a place of production – for paths have to be made – as well as one of the resistance against the form of production whose banner is capitalist accumulation. We can also think of these as zones of emergence, as contradictions mature and open up on different vistas; hence we can call them ‘horizons’ of various kinds … a horizon is by definition some way off; yet it can also be brought closer, through devising ways of struggle. Often these processes can be formulated in terms of the ‘Commons’, by which is meant collectively owned and organized spaces … forming new conditions of Commoning unifies productive zones and can come to connect them.

“All this bears more than a superficial resemblance to the building of ecosystems, which in the ecosocialist mode of production comes to stand in the place that capital reserved for the commodity. Capitalism may be defined as generalised commodity production; just so is ecosocialism definable as generalisable ecosystem production—this being, however, ecosystems of a definite kind conducive to the flourishing of life … ”

And guess what? Because so-called developed countries are quite removed from older, pre-modern modes of production, compared to countries in the global South – in South America and Africa, for instance – these countries are in a position, according to Kovel, to resist the further expansion of capital and cultivate ecosocialist economies instead. This, in his view, is the only option open to us if we want to avoid an ecological disaster of global proportions. In his words: “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe!”

Saturday, 10 February 2018

What Does China's 'Ecological Civilization' Mean for Humanity's Future?

Written by Jeremy Lent and first published at Common Dreams

Imagine a newly elected President of the United States calling in his inaugural speech for an “ecological civilization” that ensures “harmony between human and nature.” Now imagine he goes on to declare that “we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it” and that his administration will “encourage simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life, and oppose extravagance and excessive consumption.” Dream on, you might say. Even in the more progressive Western European nations, it’s hard to find a political leader who would make such a stand.

And yet, the leader of the world’s second largest economy, Xi Jinping of China, made these statements and more in his address to the National Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing last October. He went on to specify in more detail his plans to “step up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework… that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development,” to “promote afforestation,” “strengthen wetland conservation and restoration,” and “take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.” 

Closing his theme with a flourish, he proclaimed that “what we are doing today” is “to build an ecological civilization that will benefit generations to come.” Transcending parochial boundaries, he declared that his Party’s abiding mission was to “make new and greater contributions to mankind… for both the wellbeing of the Chinese people and human progress.”

It’s easy to dismiss it all as mere political rhetoric, but consider how the current President of the United States came to power on the basis of a different form of rhetoric, appealing to the destructive nationalism of “America First.” In both cases, it’s reasonable to assume that the rhetoric doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as Trump’s xenophobic vision spells potential danger for the world, so could it be that Xi’s ecological vision could offer a glimpse to a hopeful future?

A transformative vision

In fact, this is just the type of fresh, regenerative thinking about transforming the current global economic system that many in the environmental movement have been calling for. And this hasn’t been lost on some leading thinkers. David Korten, a world-renowned author and activist, has proposed expanding the vision of Ecological Civilization to a global context, which would involve—among other things—granting legal rights to nature, shifting ownership of productive assets from transnational corporations to nation-states and self-governing communities, and prioritizing life-affirming, rather than wealth-affirming, values.

Within a larger historical context, it’s not too surprising that this vision of “harmony between human and nature” should emerge from China. As I’ve traced in my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, traditional Chinese culture was founded on a worldview that perceived an intrinsic web of connection between humanity and nature, in contrast to the European worldview that saw humans as essentially separate from nature. Early Chinese philosophers believed the overriding purpose of life was to seek harmony in society and the universe, while Europeans pursued a path based on a different set of values—which have since become global in scope—driven by “conquering nature” and viewing nature as a machine to be engineered.

Furthermore, Xi’s rhetoric does seem to be grounded in at least some reality. Two months before Xi’s speech, China announced they were more than doubling their previous solar power target for 2020, after installing more than twice as much solar capacity as any other country in 2016. This new target—five times larger than current capacity in the U.S.—would entail covering an area of land equivalent to Greater London with solar panels. They are similarly exceeding their wind power targets, already boasting more capacity than all of Europe.

As a result, China has recently halted previous plans for building more than 150 coal-fired power plants. In electric cars, China is leading the world, selling more each month than Europe and the U.S. combined, with more aggressive quotas on gas-guzzlers than anywhere else in the world, including California. Additionally, China has the world’s most extensive network of high-speed trains, and has already passed laws to promote a circular economy where waste products from industrial processes are recycled into inputs for other processes.

China's industrial avalanche

Some observers, however, are far from convinced that China is on its way to an ecological civilization. Economist Richard Smith has written a detailed critique of China’s quandary in the Real-World Economics Review, where he argues that China’s political-economic system is based on the need to maximize economic growth, employment, and consumerism to an even greater extent than in the West. These forces, he claims, run diametrically counter to the vision of an ecological civilization.

There are compelling arguments for why this makes sense. Beginning in the 19th century, China suffered more than a century of humiliation and brutal exploitation from Western nations as a result of its relative military and industrial weakness. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1978, Deng Xiaoping transformed China’s economy into a hybrid of consumer capitalism and central planning that catapulted China to its current prominence on the world stage. Astonishingly, China’s GDP is more than fifty times greater than at the time of Mao’s death, the result of a growth rate approaching 10% per year for four decades.

This achievement, perhaps the most dramatic economic and social transformation of all time, is bringing China back to the dominant role in global affairs that it held for most of history. Within a decade, China’s GDP is expected to surpass that of the US, making it the world’s largest economy. It is just in the early stages of a profusion of record-breaking industrial megaprojects of a scale that boggles the mind. It plans to extend its influence further through its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure and trading project encompassing sixty countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, envisaged as a 21st century version of the famed Silk Road.

This industrial avalanche comes, however, at great cost to China’s—and the world’s—environmental wellbeing. China is by far the world’s largest consumer of energy, using over half the world’s coal, a third of the world’s oil, and 60% of the world’s cement. Astonishingly, China poured more cement in three years from 2011 to 2013 than the US used during the entire twentieth century! China is also the world’s largest consumer of lumber, as Smith describes, “levelling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo, and Madagascar.” 

These are just some of the forces that draw Smith to the conclusion that Xi Jinping’s vision of an ecological civilization is untenable. “The hyper industrialization required,” he writes, “to realize this China Dream of great power status compels him… to let the polluters pollute, pump China’s CO2 emissions off the chart, and thereby bring on the ecological collapse not just of China but the whole planet… Xi Jinping can create an ecological civilization or he can build a rich superpower. He can’t do both.”

Intimately placed between heaven and earth

Or can he? That is a crucial question with ramifications for all of humanity. While it is clear that future economic growth at anything close to China’s historic rate is untenable, there is a more nuanced question that poses the possibility of a sustainable way forward for both China and the world. Once China has regained its status as a leading world power, can it achieve yet another transformation and redirect its impressive vitality into growing a life of quality for its people, rather than continued consumerism? Is it possible that Xi Jinping is sowing the seeds of this future metamorphosis with his vision of an ecological civilization?

There is urgent awareness among thought leaders around the world that continued growth in global GDP is leading civilization to the point of collapse. Movements are emerging that call for “degrowth” and other approaches to a steady-state economy that could allow a sustainable future for humanity. But how can we break the death-grip of a global system built on continually feeding the growth frenzy of gigantic transnational corporations voraciously seeking a never-ending increase in profits to satisfy their shareholders? Along with the grassroots citizen movements emerging around the world, is it possible that China could pioneer a new path of sustainability, steering its citizens back to the traditional values that characterized its culture over millennia?

Even if China could achieve this redirection, the continuous human-rights abuses of its authoritarian government raise further questions. An ecological civilization—as envisaged by Korten and many others in the environmental movement—seems inconsistent with a centralized bureaucracy forcing its rules on citizens through coercion and repression. For China to genuinely move in this direction, Xi would need to be prepared to devolve decision-making authority and freedoms back to the Chinese people. It’s a tall order, but not necessarily inconceivable.

For those living in the West, it would take a tremendous dose of cultural humility to accept philosophical leadership from China on the path to a flourishing future for humanity. But, if we are to get to that future, we must recognize the structural underpinnings of Western thought that brought us to this imbalance in the first place. A thousand years ago, Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai expressed a realization of connectedness with the universe in an essay called the Western Inscription, which begins with these words:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.

Is it possible that this deep recognition of human interconnectedness, rooted in traditional Chinese culture, could form the philosophical basis for a future ecological civilization? The answer to this question may ultimately affect the future wellbeing, not just of China, but of the entire human family.

Jeremy Lent is an author and founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute. The Liology Institute is dedicated to fostering a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth. His current book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Future, (Prometheus Books, May 2017), is based on a simple but compelling theme – culture shapes values, and those values shape history.