Fight for a red planet

Eddie Ford takes issue with deep ecology, biocentrism, Giain consciousness and eco-theology

The end of the world is nigh. Or so it would seem. In the recent Hollywood blockbuster, The day after tomorrow, we watch open-mouthed as a rapid change in the climate unleashes catastrophe and big-budget special effects upon the world. Keeping to the apocalyptic spirit, a tremulous headline in Socialist Worker asked, ‘What if this film is not fiction?’ (June 5).

Of course, in terms of the cinematic tradition and art form you would be hard-pressed to describe The day after tomorrow as in any way novel or innovative. Obviously, it follows in a long line of ‘disaster’ flicks - remember classics such as Towering inferno and The Poseidon adventure, or the more recent and possibly less classic Armageddon? However, it is quite reasonable to argue that what differentiates this film from its genre predecessors is its underlying pessimism - no Steve McQueen or Bruce Willis here to save the day for humanity. We are all doomed, for we are up against a surely invincible foe: Vengeful Nature itself.

The day after tomorrow’s gloomy message reflects, if not embodies, an increasingly prevalent view in today’s world - that humanity is impotent and unable to solve the manifest problems facing it. Indeed, for some humanity itself is the problem - we are an inherently flawed species, whose mere presence on planet Earth is a sure sign of pending doom.

Communists stand full-square against this tide of historical pessimism and environmentalist catastrophism, which, yes, means we have to swing against the stream - never an easy or inviting task. Marxism is relentlessly anthropocentric (or ‘speciesist’) and hence optimistic - not in some fatuous Panglossian way, or brainless Soviet-type bureaucratic manner, but simply in the sense that we communists adamantly believe that humanity, through the revolutionary agency of the working class, can make a world fit to live in. That means we must challenge the agenda of the reactionary misanthropes and counterpose our red environmentalism to their green environmentalism.

For a lesson in pessimism it is instructive to look at the following passage from the book Our angry Earth, co-authored by the eminent science-fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl: “It is already too late to save our planet from harm. Too much has happened already: farms have turned into deserts, forests have been clear-cut to wasteland, lakes have been poisoned, the air is filled with harmful gases. It is even too late to save ourselves from the effects of other harmful processes, for they have already been set in motion, and will inevitably take their course. The global temperature will rise. The ozone layer will continue to fray. Pollution will sicken or kill more and more living creatures. All those things have already gone so far that they must now inevitably get worse before they can get better. The only choice left to us is to decide how much worse we are willing to let things get” (New York 1991, preface).

Now, no one can accuse Asimov and Pohl of being crusty reactionaries filled with a hatred of science and technology. In fact, somewhat unusually for so-called ‘golden age’ (c1930s-1950s) American science fiction authors, both of them were on the left - Pohl was even a member of the Communist Party of the United States before he was expelled for “Trotskyist deviationism” in 1939, when he made the mistake of openly questioning the wisdom of the Nazi-Soviet pact (and went on to become the co-author with CJ Kornbluth of the classic sci-fi novel, The space merchants, an effective satire on 1950s consumer-boom America). The observations of Asimov and Pohl are filled with a passionate, sincere and quite understandable fury at the way of the world around them. Regrettably though, their cry of lamentation is animated by the sort of bleak inevitabilism that The day after tomorrow plays upon.

Almost a century and a half ago, the still idealistic Thomas Carlyle memorably described economics as “the dismal science”. The term was to stick, especially as it applied to economics premised on a supposedly unavoidable conflict between “insatiable needs” and “scarce natural resources”. In this economics, the limited bounty provided by a supposedly “stingy nature” doomed humanity to economic slumps, misery, civil strife and hunger.

Sound familiar? In the long-held view of the anarchist/left libertarian ecologist, Murray Bookchin, whose substantial works deserve to be seriously studied by Marxists, environmentalism is in constant danger of being ‘hijacked’ by neo-Malthusians and miserabilists. As Bookchin writes, “Today, the term ‘dismal science’ appropriately describes certain trends in the ecology movement - trends that seem to be riding on an overwhelming tide of religious revivalism and mysticism. I refer not to the large number of highly motivated, well-intentioned, and often radical environmentalists who are making earnest efforts to arrest the ecological crisis, but rather to exotic tendencies that espouse deep ecology, biocentrism, Gaian consciousness and eco-theology, to cite the main cults that celebrate a quasi-religious ‘reverence’ for ‘Nature’ with what is often a simultaneous denigration of human beings and their traits” (see http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/Bookchinarchive.html and also Bookchin’s definitive study, Re-enchanting humanity: a defense of the human spirit against anti-humanism, misanthropy, mysticism and primitivism London 1995).

Bookchin’s description reminds me of a Greenpeace leaflet that came my way some 10 years ago. The front of it showed a picture of the Earth taken from outer-space - radiating innocence, splendour and beauty. As the leaflet explained, this is how things were for millions of years. Then - turn to the next page of the leaflet - things get grim. Big time. Yes, humankind arrived like a pestilence and started to bugger things up. As the leaflet ruefully admitted, we will never be able to return to the original state of innocence - the corruption has set in too deep - but maybe, just maybe, we can roll history back just a bit and try to eradicate the baleful legacy of the industrial revolution. Maybe I was naive young thing back then, but I can recall being shocked by the anti-anthropocentrism of the Greenpeace leaflet.

Another significant development - and one monumental in its hypocrisy, of course - is the ‘greening’ of big business. For many capitalists the green vocabulary comes with ease, and you can see why. If the historical specificity of capitalism and exploitative class society can be denied, dissolved into an ahistorical, timeless, classless ‘Humanity’, then the idea of real change - socialism, for example - becomes a quixotic dream, if not the ravings of deranged lunatics who want to upset the natural order of things.

We can see this ideological trick in an almost chemically pure form in the 2001 special edition of Time magazine. Now, this is not an organ noted for its progressive or anti-capitalist opinions, yet here we find it in full-on mode, railing about the hopeless condition we have somehow got ourselves into:

“Throughout the past century humanity did everything in its power to dominate nature. We dammed earth’s rivers, chopped down the forests and depleted the soils. Burning up fossil fuels that had been created over aeons, we pumped billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air, altering atmospheric chemistry and appreciably warming the planet in just a few decades. And, as our population began the year 2000 above the six billion mark, still spreading across the continents, dozens of animal and plant species were going extinct every day, including the first primate to disappear in more than 100 years, the red colobus. At the start of the 21st century there were unmistakable signs that exploitation of the planet was reaching its limit - that nature was beginning to take its revenge” - and so on.

It almost goes without saying that capitalism and class society is not in any way responsible for the mess so graphically portrayed above by the impossibly anguished Time journalist. No, what else would you expect from a “humanity” which has the arrogance to “dominate nature” and continue “spreading across the continents”?

Salvation then it seems, if there is any, lies in the hands of a few enlightened individuals - who just so happen to be immensely wealthy. The loathsome features of the animal-loving, ultra-misanthropic ‘ecologist’, the multi-millionaire Sir Jerry Goldsmith, suddenly come to mind. More recently though, we had the wonderful front-page headline in The Guardian, ‘Oil chief: my fears for the planet’ (June 17). We go on to read that Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, is “really very worried for the planet”.

According to the anxious Oxburgh, we urgently need to capture emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and store them underground - in a technique known as carbon sequestration. Oxburgh further comments that many developing countries - including India and China - are sitting on huge, untapped stocks of coal, probably the most polluting fossil fuel, saying: “If they choose to burn their coal, we in the west are not in a very good position to tell them not to, because it’s exactly what we did in our industrial revolution.” Oxburgh gloomily concludes: “Sequestration is difficult, but if we don’t have sequestration then I see very little hope for the world.”

So, what “little hope” the world has lies in the hands of capitalist-employed scientists, engineers, technicians, technocrats, etc. Presumably ‘true’ salvation lies in the hands of Shell and not with any of its rivals and competitors. The working class in India and China do not get a look in, nor does the possibility of a democratic re-ordering of the world, so that power lies with the direct producers and not the appropriators.

Shell of course is now very much a ‘green’ company - so much so in fact that you could almost call it ‘officially’ green. Virtually no Shell-organised event or presentation is complete these days without a very discernible green logo or symbol. Shell’s makeover has certainly impressed Robin Oakley, a senior figure in Greenpeace, who claims that a gulf is opening up between the more ‘progressive’ (read: green) oil companies such as Shell - which invests in alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power - and Exxon Mobil, the biggest and most influential producer, particularly in the United States. ‘Green’ capitalism has come of age.

Most worryingly, green nostrums and even orthodoxies have seeped into our movement. Yes, the much vaunted ‘greening’ of the left - unfortunately. This dramatically reveals the dislocated and disorientated state of large segments of the left - which has lost confidence in itself, Marxism and the ability of the working class to transform society on a world scale. Inevitably, pessimistic ideas and doctrines start to creep in and displace the scientific socialism ethos and our proletarian ‘unofficial optimism’.

Take the specific issue of global warming, the ostensible subject matter of The day after tomorrow. It is now tantamount to a received opinion on the left, as it is in wider society, that the various theses underpinning the idea of global warming are the gospel truth and that to express any counter-ideas must be a disturbing sign of reactionary or rightwing sentiments - whether incipient or full-blown. So in the world according Socialist Worker, The Socialist, etc, the Kyoto protocol has become a totemic symbol that distinguishes between good and evil. Bush must be a bastard because his administration has not signed up to the ‘pledge’ to reduce carbon emissions. Of course, Bush is a bastard and no doubt his reasons for pooh-poohing the Kyoto protocol were selfish and venal. However, that does not mean that signing up to Kyoto and all its works would not make him a bastard.

Clearly, the whole debate around global warming - or not - is complex and open-ended. The evidence does appear to suggest - quite heavily - that over the last 150 years there has been a rise in temperature: about 0.6°C, to use a commonly quoted figure. However, this need not represent a catastrophe - hence the sometimes heated debate. Effectively the real dispute is over the extent to which human activity - air and road transport, domestic heating, power stations, industry, agriculture, etc - is to blame, and whether or not increases will continue and trigger a dramatic feedback effect - ie, cold, non-saline, water from melting Arctic and Antarctica ice sheets halts warm ocean currents and brings about a new ice age, the scenario depicted in The day after tomorrow.
There is, though, nothing unusual about climate change per se. It has never ceased, is ongoing and must therefore be considered inevitable - in that sense, it must be considered natural. Notions of fixing in place the climate as it now is, or returning it to a pre-industrial ideal - as outlined in my Greenpeace leaflet of old - through some kind of human exodus, are both misplaced and doomed to fail. To boldly say so should not be taken as heresy.

Take the now controversial Bjorn Lomborg, a former member of Greenpeace, ex-director of the Environmental Assessment Institute (the Danish government’s advice agency) and author of the 2001 bestseller, The sceptical environmentalist. For his views Lomborg has been castigated for being “scientifically dishonest”, a wretched renegade and a reactionary swine to boot. As The Guardian insouciantly put it, “His work made him popular with the rightwing establishment” (June 17). Why such opprobrium? It is Lomborg’s contention that the concerns expressed about melting ice caps, deforestation and acid rain are “exaggerated” - arguing that the Earth “overall” was getting cleaner, and that humankind “in general” is getting healthier and richer.

Scandalous? Any Marxist who immediately dismisses such views as “rightwing” is surely not much of a Marxist - more of a hopeless dogmatist. Naturally, Lomborg’s ideas and theories need to be approached critically, but there is surely a kernel of truth to them. In very broad historical terms, there is a lot of truth to his words - there has been progress. But by its very nature, the antagonistic capitalist system threatens to undermine and destroy the gains that have been made over the centuries and decades.

Take air pollution - an example often cited by Lomborg. Of all the different types of pollution affecting human health, air pollution ranks as just about the worse. Of all the major US Environmental Protection Agency statute areas (air, water, pesticides, conservation, drinking water, toxic control, liability) and even by the agency’s own reckoning, 86-96% of all social benefits stem from the regulation of air pollution. We often assume that air pollution is a modern phenomenon, and that it has got worse in recent times. However, it has actually been a major nuisance for most of civilisation and in fact the air of the western world has not been as clean as it is now for a long time.

In ancient Rome, the statesman Seneca complained about “the stink, soot and heavy air” in the city. In 1257, when the Queen of England visited Nottingham, she found the stench of smoke from coal burning so intolerable that she left for fear of her life. By 1285 London’s air was so polluted that King Edward I established the world’s first air pollution commission. Coming nearer to the present day, not for nothing did Shelley write: “Hell must be much like London, a smoky and populous city.” For London, the consequences were dire. Whereas throughout the 18th century London was foggy 20 days a year, this had increased to almost 60 days by the end of the 19th. Now London air is relatively clean. Pollution, then, is no modern capitalist evil.

Lomborg also asserts that the Kyoto protocol is a waste of money - quite literally. Kyoto requires that industrial states reduce greenhouse emissions by 2012 to pre-1990s levels. In a public debate - or ‘row’, as the press prefer to say - with Klaus Toepfer, the UN environment chief, Lomborg boldly stated: “Kyoto would cost at least $150 billion a year, yet merely postpone global warming for six years. The family in Bangladesh who will get flooded will have an extra six years to move.” In other words, implementing the Kyoto protocol on carbon dioxide emissions is likely to cost $161-$346 billion, and yet the average temperature of the Earth will probably be about the same in 2100 with Kyoto as in 2094 without it.

By contrast, argues Lomborg, several million deaths could be prevented each year by securing clean drinking water and sanitation for everyone at a one-off cost of $200 billion. In this vein, the Environmental Assessment Institute organised a conference last month where economists ranked fighting Aids and malnutrition and making foreign trade easier as far more cost-effective ways of improving the world than combating global warming.

“Rightwing”? “Reactionary”? It is more than likely that many of Lomborg’s ideas are inadequate or flawed in some way. But the stubborn fact remains that his ideas need to be rationally engaged with by the left - not become the object of censorship or a witch-hunt. Truth is many-sided and arrives from the open clash of different and contending ideas, not from imposing a mental straight-jacket.

A long time ago, Thomas Münzer, the Anabaptist leader of the German peasant revolution, pinpointed in his pamphlet against Luther the root cause of the advancing social evil in quite tangible terms, diagnosing it as the cult of universal saleability and alienation. He concluded his discourse by saying how intolerable it was “that every creature should be transformed into property - the fishes in the water, the birds of the air, the plants of the earth” (quoted by Marx in his essay The Jewish question - emphasis added).

As István Mészáros points out, “This was a far-sighted identification of what was to unfold with all-engulfing power in the course of the next three centuries … For, once the social trend of universal saleability triumphs, in tune with the inner requirements of capital’s social formation, what appeared to Münzer as the gross violation of the natural order (and, as we know, ultimately endangers the very existence of humankind) now seems self-evidently natural, unalterable, and acceptable to the thinkers who unreservedly identify themselves with the historically created (and in principle likewise removable) constraints of capital’s fully developed social order” (Monthly Review December 2001).

For communists genuine “sustainable development” cannot come about without the removal of the paralysing constraints of the adversarial capitalist system. This immediately, and unavoidably, raises the question of substantive equality and the fight for socialism. For sustainability means being really in control of the vital social, economic and cultural processes, through which human beings not merely survive but can and should also find fulfilment, in accordance with the designs which they set themselves, instead of being at the mercy of unpredictable natural forces and what Mészáros labels “quasi-natural socio-economic determinations”.

Yes, it is extremely bad news for Shell and Mr Oxburgh. To ‘save the planet’ we need a communist world.