Thursday, 15 May 2008

Branch Meeting: Socialism and Ecologism

Stoke SP this evening heard from Sister M, a guest speaker from the Green Party speaking on the relationship between environmentalism and socialism.

Her starting point were some of the criticisms she has encountered in the burgeoning field of green political theory from a 'conventional' left-wing standpoint. These critiques suggests greens are pessimistic about our species' ability to extricate itself from the mess it has created, and suggesting the development of 'green' markets and consumerism strengthens bourgeois class relations. M acknowledged there was some truth to these positions and advanced some of her own.

First, environmentalist movements in the West give the impression of being stocked with affluent white activists. They tend to be motivated by so-called 'post-material' concerns and rural-centric in their political focus. The second problem is the anti-humanism implicit in some branches of the environmental movement. The very name of Earth First! suggests people come second. The exploitation of nature takes primacy over the exploitation of workers and peasants. From this can flow a green colonialism: to make wealthy Westerners feel better, their environmental conscience can be salved by funding nature reserves in the 3rd world. But it is not unknown for people to be forcibly moved off the land to make way for these parks, leading to all kinds of tensions and conflict. Hand in hand with anti-humanism goes a implicit authoritarianism. It may well be true Green parties are not the tightest political entities, but some strands of green politics rest on definitions of the 'interests' of nature articulated independently of the role our species has had shaping and constituting it. Nature here is a reified thing that only experts can know and advise upon.

Fourthly the mainstream of green politics does not attack capitalism enough and is often complicit in green washing the system. It is happy to push environmentally friendly consumption, implying markets are part of the solution, rather than the root of the problem. Fifthly as a product of the 'new social movements' to have emerged in the sixties and seventies, greens as a whole eschew traditional left-right labeling and resist explicit alignments with any class base. One outgrowth of this is a haphazard approach to collective action and greater emphasis on individual agency. M summed this up as 'you can change yourself if you can't change the world'. Finally green politics can lend itself to conservative conclusions. The romanticism and nostalgia of winding the clock back to pre-industrial ages glosses over the inequalities and class relationships bound up with that period.

However, not all is reactionary in the environmentalist garden. M drew attention to the 'ecologist' tendency in green political theory as an example of moves to overcome the problematic positions of the past. She defined this ecologist moment as a "green ideology encompassing views that reorder socio-political life and adjust relations with the non-human world". It talks about limits to rapacious capitalist growth, ascribes value to the planet and avoids deep green pitfalls by emphasising the rights of generations not yet born.

Ecologism connects with socialism on the grounds that capitalism is inherently wasteful and dehumanising. It recognises environmental degradation weighs disproportionately on the poor and that poverty itself places strains on local ecosystems. For example, the turning of workers and peasants to poaching and deforestation to make ends meet in the 3rd world is well documented. It follows from this that environmental crisis and control over the planet's resources are inextricably linked - ecologism needs socialism, and socialism needs ecologism.

In the discussion, J reiterated many of the points about environmental destruction being driven by capital's thirst for profits. Part of the problem, she thought, was how capitalism presented the acquisition of goods as the only way to live. This is an impoverished view of humanity; there's more to life than piling up on the lastest must-haves. E suggested one plus to have come out of the green movement is a challenge to this lifestyle. It has helped articulate an anti-consumerism by redefining what counts as wealth and making more of 'quality of life' issues. She also suggested a link between expanding markets and population growth: capital demands ever widening pools of labour it can suck into the production process, and the poverty the majority of the global working class and peasantry find themselves in paradoxically encourages more children.

Picking up on this, L asked if lifestyle change and green consumerism was at least a step in the right direction? M replied the problem is 'low impact' lifestyles at present are the preserves of the affluent. You need money to buy organically grown fair trade produce. A added another problem with green reforms of capitalism is that not only will the system resist anything it is uncomfortable with, there is a danger it will dispense with them completely once the economic climate turns harsh. For example, if recession threatens the growth of supermarket profits, the pressure will be on to bury their conspicuous philanthropic environmentalism to ensure the main shareholders keep their nice dividends.

For P, suggested another problem of consumer politicking is the danger of making its proponents look preachy and unattractive. He cited a story about a debate that took place between the SP and another left group in the old Lewisham Socialist Alliance. This group wanted to set up LSA pickets in front of local McDonald's outlets to enforce a consumer boycott. Our comrades were opposed because it overlooked the fact that for some workers, McDonalds is the only place cheap and convenient enough for them to eat out. Trying to prevent people from entering would have alienated customers and staff from the LSA and the causes it was trying to promote. Unfortunately, P believed this is the road some green activism has gone down.

But what to do now? It's all very well counterposing our green, socialist alternative to capitalism but what can socialists do now to offer practical ways out of the crisis? E suggested a scheme whereby firms have to pay for the damage their activities cause. On food, A recommended an interlinked series of demands around wages, improved food education and the democratic control of food production to overcome shortages and cut out the profiteers. P also drew attention to the green wash schemes many companies and institutions operate. They may not be as thorough-going as we'd like, but they present an opening for holding them to account and an opportunity to demand more. But ultimately saving the planet depends on organising for it.

15 comments:

Jim Jay said...

Interesting post. I think this is an area we will need to explore on a constant basis over the next decade or so.

Foxessa said...

Many people are far more pessimistic than this. They believe it's already too late, and the tipping point into extinction of all our food supplies, as well as our oxygen, is coming within our lifetimes.

Being of nordic descent, pessimism is in my genes too.

Love, C.

politiques USA said...

I was looking at the red rose of the Socialist Party.
The logo of the french socialist party is almost the same, the rose in the right hand except you can see the whole thumb. Here is the picture @
http://accel22.mettre-put-idata.over-blog.com/1/05/92/04/Bannieres/parti-socialiste-rose-logo.jpg


Check this out: why capitalism will destroy the Earth unless we destroy capitalism:
http://shout.lbo-talk.org/lbo/RadioArchive/2008/08_05_03.mp3

I don't think we are going to run out of oxygen (yet). For sure we are running out of oil and food here in the US, and we'll eventually run out of pure water (25% come from the mountains I believe) within the next decades.
I've been trying to calculate what it would take to switch from oil to ethanol, and it seems like it's not feasable. For England to fuel the whole number of cars, I beleive it would take an area the size of Wales. So for the case of the US, in order to feed 350 million cars, without taking into account the desertic lands, it's just nonesense, and ethanol is not the problem solver. We just shoot ourselves in the toe and we created another crisis, and this one is a global food crisis.

Jim Jay said...

So we structure things in a new way. The number of cars on the road is not set - the amount of resources isn't fixed in stone.

I personally believe we can improve the standard of living and reduce our carbon footprint, although, I am pessimistic as to whether we will.

politiques USA said...

I've read a global study to find out if people were reading to cut their living standards to improve global warming and some major cities are completely reluctant to this; the 1st one is Tokyo, followed by NYC, the ones who said they are okay to do that are Paris and Naples.
In Texas, people are completely opposed to this. In Houston 95% of people driving cars did not change their habits, and we can't really blame them, the transportation system is horrible, and in some areas in the city, you can't even find pavements for the pedestrians. Everything has been urbanized here in function of the cars first.

For the numbers of cars in the US, I don't know if it's a good one, at least it can give you an idea of the herculean force that needs to be accomplished if we want to keep things smooth.
In average people are 24 pounds bigger today than their predecessors in the 70s. It means that the situation is not completely new, it's an indicator that the economy has been bad since the 80s. In the US people with low wages tend to eat more burgers because they are cheap (99 cents) and it saves money. So high food prices won't change the situation, there will be more people eating more burgers and therefore they will consume more gas on the road because they'll get fatter. We could have saved billions of liters in 1 year if people wanted to make "physical" and "mental" efforts, although it would have not changed the situation drastically, it would have not been that bad either.

In the US we have not been prepared for the crisis. While Europe switched its dependency in the 70s, there has not been any innovation here. We still produce electricity with coal, we did not improve the efficiency of public transportation, in the long run, it is going to be harder for us to make a transition. While things can't change for one day to the next, it is going to take us a couple of decades to do the sacrifices we could have done a long time ago.
I do see huge differences in our living standards in only the last couple of months: food prices are too high, gas prices are beyond madness, inflation is rampant, and home foreclosures are a mess (in FL, AZ, CA, NV, CO)

Jim Jay said...

But surely the issue is that being stuck in never ending traffic isn't a good quality of life and is very damaging to the planet.

We can have our cake and eat it - but it requires massive investment in the public transport system and a restructuring of the way we do work and leisure - we can be better off and reduce our carbon emissions it's a false choice to say people have to make a sacrifice on this.

For instance, if you cycle rather than drive to work you will live longer, and be healthier / happier - plus its cheaper!

politiques USA said...

In the US people drive on average around 1 hr 30 minutes to go back and forth to their work. It's the architecture of urbanization that pushed Americans to live farther from their work, looking for cheaper cities (we call them exurbans).
It was fine in the 90s; while gas price was cheap, they looked for bigger SUVs, and now they can't afford to pay anymore. As a result houses are going into foreclosure because some people are spending $750 a month on gas.
I don't know how we could fix this mess. I know that I don't use my car and I prefer riding my bike whenever it is possible :) But it also depend where you live. When I was in Vegas, and temperatures were like +100 degrees, I was stuck for 6 months. I also tried the public transportations and they suck: 3 hours to drive 15 miles in Vegas when buses don't break down in the heat(it happens alot).

I just looked at the oil price for today and it's at $132 a barrel already... Holy molly.

Phil BC said...

I'm in firm agreement with Jim. I remain very impressed with the SSP's policy on free public transport - you can view it here, and it's only impossible from the standpoint of the neoliberal consensus. If we want it, we're going to have to struggle for it.

politiques USA said...

Not in the US. The cities are running out of money to invest or renew their infrastructures.
In the US if you want to get public transportations or hospitals, you have to buy municipal bonds first; and it is the mortgage crisis that has been affecting these bonds, making it harder for a city to adapt itself to this new evolving world. If it happens, it won't happen from one day to the next, it's going to take some time, and in major cities, they'll have to rebuild from scratch the infrastructure. In Houston for example, they've been rebuilding everything the last couple of years, with new highways, more tracks, more bridges, but nothing has been done to improve the public transportations.
It seems like it's not even a priority in this city.
As we say "just wait and see what happens" :)

Phil BC said...

Again, that's because it's unthinkable from within the neoliberal consensus. There is no lack of wealth in the US - it is after all the richest nation on the planet! It has to be fought for, which of course is easier said than done - especially where the US concerned.

Steven Rix said...

Costs to renew the infrastructures in the US: 1 trillion dollars, it's mission impossible.

Steven Rix said...

You make me laugh Phil, in a good way. Gotta go to bed coz it's late here.

Phil BC said...

Always happy to amuse, Steven.

I know the USA's infrastructure is rickety to say the least, but I didn't know it required that level of investment to make things right! What a stunning indictment of capitalism in its key heartland.

Steven Rix said...

They chose not to tax the oil so as a result their efforts to renew/modify/create infrastructures is going to be tremendous. This is why the US is so dependant on oil compared to any other country in the world (besides the role of the dollar).

Anonymous said...

The picture above is the PSOE'S logo. PSOE is the Spanish Socialist Worker Party. Its not green by tradition, although actually its agree with limiting nuclear power and support renewables energies... This old logo and party are modern!