Print

Print


https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/07/12/toward-an-eco-socialist-revolution/

July 12, 2019 Toward an Eco-Socialist Revolution
<https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/07/12/toward-an-eco-socialist-revolution/>
by Rob Urie <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/3abre/>
<https://www.counterpunch.org/#facebook>
<https://www.counterpunch.org/#facebook>

The most important political project of the modern era is an appropriately
conceived and implemented eco-socialist Green New Deal. If done right, such
a program would facilitate a transition away from the environmental and
social pathologies of industrial capitalism to a world where people exist
in symbiosis with the bounty of nature. If done wrong, it would be the last
gasp of a relationship with the world that has brought a collective ‘us’ to
environmental ruin.

The social problem is one of transformation, of taking apart the ways of
doing things that aren’t working— and they are myriad, to create new
relationships that work in concert with ‘the world,’ most particularly for
its inhabitants. Given the trajectory of environmental decline, Western
political economy will either be used to ring-fence rich from poor to leave
the poor to their own devices, problems will be deemed unsolvable and
decline will take its course, or capitalism will be overthrown and replaced
with something workable.

The logical and humane path forward is to undertake a profound
transformation of global political economy beginning with reconsidering the
human condition— what meaningful existence entails, with a grounding in
social justice. Given that background political and economic relations
aren’t conducive to collective action, the path forward— should such be
possible, will come through creating the conditions in both spheres for
democratic participation.

Graph: The sources of environmental decline are easy to identify through
CO2 concentrations. First came industrialization. Then following WWII came
the distribution of the American capitalist model around the world.
Competition to control industrial inputs, e.g. oil and gas, led to most of
the military conflicts of the modern era. The solution to current
environmental woes is to stop creating them. Doing so would mean the end of
capitalism. Source: ourworldindata.org.

Urgency comes through the relationship of existing ways of doing things to
the rising costs of correcting environmental imbalances. The greater these
become, the more cumbersome, and therefore the less politically likely,
solutions will be. It is long-term environmental relationships that have
been altered, meaning there are no quick fixes. The only guarantee is that
whatever the costs in the present, they will be exponentially greater in
the future.

Analysis and arithmetic argue against capitalist solutions to capitalist
problems. Green production is neither green, nor can it replace existing
dirty technologies fast enough to sufficiently reduce environmental harms.
The issue gets to the heart of the capitalist conundrum. In a narrow sense,
making products that are more environmentally efficient will lower their
carbon footprint. In a broader sense, making clean products is
intrinsically dirty.

The popular imagining of ‘the problem’ emerges from the logic of capitalism
where intended outcomes are considered unrelated to unintended outcomes
even though they 1) both emerge from the same production process and 2) are
indissociable in the sense that one can’t be produced without the other. In
like fashion, green technologies solve specific problems while creating
others. When the total costs of green technologies are considered, what
becomes apparent is that the broader logic is flawed.

The arithmetic problem is laid out by the IPCC, sort of. The realm of the IPCC
report
<https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/>
is climate change, meaning that species loss (mass extinction) is
considered in a separate silo. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees
centigrade requires radically reducing carbon emissions as well as actively
de-carbonizing the atmosphere. The popular conception of a Green New Deal
is to 1) increase carbon emissions to build low emission technologies while
2) gradually phasing out existing technologies.

A typical way of calculating the impact of green production is to reduce
estimated emissions from existing technologies as more efficient green
technologies replace them. But the old and new technologies both exist in
broadly integrated webs of economic production. By analogy, an electric car
may (or may not) produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a gasoline
powered car, but this tells us little about the environmental impact of
manufacturing cars more generally.

What of the infrastructure— factories, roads, transmission lines,
industrial inputs, etc. that must be built and maintained to produce them?
And what of the inputs that must be mined, transported, processed,
transported (again), processed (again) and transported (again) to
production facilities? This research paper
<http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/pn_19_2.pdf> by economist Jan Kregel
provides a description of the distribution of capitalist production. The
environmental impact of ‘green’ products is the totality of what went into
their production, not end-use calculations.

Regarding the manufacture of solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles,
not only should the environmental costs be calculated as carbon emissions,
but also in terms of the arable land, breathable air and drinkable water
consumed. And what of the natural systems destroyed? These have bearing
when habitat loss is considered. Habitat loss is also both a product of
industrial agriculture and it impacts the future viability of all
agriculture. These in turn are aspects of natural systems, interrelated
webs of life that people disrupt at our own peril. This is a central
finding of research into mass extinction.

A Green New Deal conceived as tampering around the edges of industrial
capitalism— employing the un- and under-employed to manufacture solar
panels and batteries for electric vehicles, would add to carbon emissions
and other environmental harms at a point in history when the collective
‘we’ can’t afford it. However, when considered more broadly as a social and
environmental program operating under a strict carbon budget, it is the
best chance for making the transition to a sustainable and just future.

The carbon budget should both be taken to heart and broadened to include a
concept of sustainability beyond just the climate. Within the carbon budget
laid out by the IPCC, there is no way to implement the conception of a GND
(Green New Deal) as existing political economy with green manufacturing
added to it. In fact, there is no conception of a GND other than as funding
a radical transition away from almost everything that defines current
economic production. And the alternative isn’t business as usual—
environmental decline will force the issues.

Given the central role of agriculture in both climate change and species
loss, land reform is needed to decentralize, rescale and localize
agricultural production. This has historically been among the most
contentious issues between capitalist and socialist visions of political
economy. Powerful corporations currently own or control vast swaths of
agricultural land. A GND could compensate large tract owners for their land
and the proceeds be taxed to assure that democratic political control is
maintained.

Second, agribusiness should be removed from anything related to agriculture
in favor of regenerative farming methods. Animal agriculture should be
nationalized, with humane conditions mandated and the price of animal
products made to reflect their true production costs, including
environmental costs. Local and regional agricultural cooperatives should be
created as autonomous and democratic collectives, with legal mandates to
grow and distribute nutritious food to everyone in the region while
minimizing the environmental footprint.

Local and regional agricultural collectives could serve as models for green
production of non-agricultural goods. Using comprehensive environmental
accounting methods that have been around since the 1970s, all environmental
costs related to producing and distributing goods should be mandated to 1)
minimize environmental production costs while 2) prioritizing the
production of necessities (housing, clothing). Inclusive employment would
be used to produce and distribute necessities according to need.

Prototypes for this system already exist across the U.S. Amish communities
use organic and regenerative farming methods, minimally participate in
consumer culture, avoid energy intensive technologies, support specialized
production within their communities and grow what makes sense for their
respective regions and growing seasons. They also partake of modern
medicine and dentistry, participate in the cash economy and trade goods and
services locally and regionally.

There is no agrarian romance at work here. In the poor rural areas where I
meet the Amish, they are conspicuously healthier than the non-Amish, have
established community support systems and seemingly functioning lives,
relationships and economies. This, despite having little to none of the
consumer accoutrement considered essential in the wider culture. Life is
hard everywhere, but the essential nature claimed for capitalist culture—
of consumption, acquisition and individual self-realization, seems
improbable given this focus on community. Left largely unconsidered
regarding ending capitalism is that there really might be better ways of
doing things.

Despite the deep instantiation of agrarianism in the American imagination,
most Americans don’t / won’t see reversion to primitive agrarian
collectives as viable. And such a vision is utopian without taking apart
the large, complex and deeply integrated relations of Western political
economy. And even if these were addressed, the rest of the world shows
little indication of abandoning capitalism.

If the world could be sectioned off and environmental decline with it,
these would be good counter arguments. However, that China has been
reinvented with a heaping helping of green technology has done little to
slow global environmental decline. Russia is a petrostate with a long
history of human-inflicted agricultural calamities. Like the rest of us,
the Russians will need a functioning climate and the species-abundance that
makes agriculture possible.

The proposals deemed realistic— green tinkering around the edges, won’t
solve the environmental problems the world faces. And the reason that
potential solutions are so complicated is that social complexity has been
built into modern political economy. Addressing the parts means addressing
the whole— witness the systemic carbon footprint that green production is
indissociable from. The problem isn’t aspects of capitalist modernity, it
is the whole of it.

The attractiveness of pre-modern political economy is that there is several
thousand years of accumulated knowledge to support it. Homes built before
the existence of mechanical systems were situated to capture sun and shade
and could be opened to allow air flow in summer and closed to restrict it
in winter. They were built using materials and methods that allowed single
rooms or areas of houses to be heated with degrading the broader integrity
of the buildings.

Traditional agricultural methods likewise descended as accumulated
knowledge to ‘passively’ control insect damage, use the entire growing
season to maximize fresh food production and produce crops that last
through the winter. Monoculture production is an industrial package that
includes genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers, herbicides
and pesticides. Agribusiness and regenerative agriculture are fundamentally
incompatible.

Industrial agriculture has historically replaced traditional farming
methods by externalizing costs. In economic terms, industrial food costs
less to grow than through traditional farming. However, regenerative
agriculture has low environmental costs while industrial agriculture has
high environmental costs. Through this mismatch between economic and
environmental costs, what is efficient by capitalist logic is suicidal by
environmental logic. The environmental reckoning that is upon us tells the
true story.

The idea of commensurability is crucial here. A forest felled to build a
shopping center represents the loss of a functioning ecosystem. A price or
tax charged for doing so, e.g. a carbon tax, doesn’t replace the forest in
environmental terms. Money is to a forest as a horse is to a rocking chair.
Outside of capitalist theology, the concept is nonsensical. And neither God
nor the forest set the price or received the payment. Even in capitalist
terms the market price is contextual— it depends on factors like scarcity
to which the forest bears no relation.

As it regards land redistribution, the Amish way of spreading their
communities isn’t scalable because of land costs. They go where arable land
is cheap. Any large-scale redistribution of land as part of a Green New
Deal could only work if land costs are near zero. Borrowing money to buy
agricultural land immediately imparts the logic and relations of
capitalism. The lender would own the land until the debt is repaid, giving
it say over how the land is used. The same would be true for agrarian
collectives globally.

In the most basic sense, capitalism must be gotten out of the way for a GND
to produce environmentally sustainable political economy. Gresham’s Law
<https://www.britannica.com/topic/Greshams-law> implies that solar panel
producers can undercut their competition by externalizing their costs
(polluting). This leaves the firms that can most effectively pollute as the
survivors of market competition. Regenerative agriculture can’t compete
with industrial agriculture because the competition is rigged.

The proposition laid out here isn’t that the whole of Western political
economy be shifted to primitive agrarian production. It is to suggest that
there exists accumulated knowledge about how to get by in the world that
preceded capitalist modernity. The ‘end of history,’ the broad and deep
replacement of the knowledge, methods, relationships and logic that
preceded modern capitalism, leaves few places to turn as it is proved
unworkable.

The first battle to be fought toward environmental and social justice is
political. The politicians who used a Green New Deal as a talking point, as
well as the few who actually thought about it, can’t win the political
battle without a broad political movement backing them. However, such a
movement would be foolish to muster the political strength and then hand it
over to stewards of the existing order.

The 2020 presidential election seems the time and place to raise the
political stakes. Given the improbability of resolving environmental
problems within capitalism, and that Bernie Sanders is the only national
political figure to take a stand, however qualified, against capitalism,
his candidacy can serve as a rallying point. Unless radical action is taken
quickly, events will unfold that pose a risk to large numbers of people.
Once Mr. Sanders has been pushed out of the way by establishment Democrats,
and he will be, events can take on a life of their own. Crisis by default
or with a purpose, the choice is yours.

Join the debate on Facebook
<https://www.facebook.com/CounterPunch-official-172470146144666/>
More articles by:Rob Urie <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/3abre/>

*Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book *Zen Economics
<http://store.counterpunch.org/product/zen-economics-digital-book/>* is
published by CounterPunch Books.*