Friday, April 03, 2009

Ecologically Untenable

In truth, of course, it's not quite the state of the economy that elicits my real apocalypticism. The economic crisis could in fact be a distinctly positive event, in the big picture, since a massive economic downturn seems to be the only thing capable of putting the breaks on accumulation and production. Because the real engine driving capitalism is, as Harvey puts it, "accumulation for accumulation's sake", the endless need for growth, expansion, technological change. This needs to stop. It is destructive, irrational; it's going to kill us. Derrick Jensen says we're all insane; I'm not sure he's wrong.

Is it obvious I'm talking about the environment? Widespread ecological breakdown is immanent, a breakdown which is not being taken sufficiently seriously.

On this theme, here is John Bellamy Foster, in the March 2009 issue of the Monthly Review:
In addressing capitalism as a failed system I have focused first on the deepening economic crisis. But this is not the worst of the world’s problems. The greatest peril is the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse. Here the danger is much greater than in the case of the world economy but the sense of alarm and the call for immediate and massive action is less widespread. As the Swedish Tällberg Foundation stated in its 2008 report, Grasping the Climate Crisis: A Provocation,
The world [at present] faces a breakdown of the global financial system. The consequences are staggering, with ripple effects the world over that deliver the severest blows to the poor. Fear is rising. One would have expected somewhat of the same level of anxiety with regard to the looming breakdown of major parts of the Earth system—rapid deforestation, overfishing, freshwater scarcity and the disappearing Arctic sea ice. Reports of such events and processes are abundant, but the level of concern is still conspicuously low.
The most serious ecological threat is of course global warming, which is inducing widespread, multi-faceted climate change, with disastrous implications for life on earth. But in a wider sense, the global environmental crisis involves manifold problems and cannot be reduced to global warming alone. These multiple hazards have a common source in the world economy, including: the extinction of species, loss of tropical forests (as well as forest ecosystems generally), contamination of and destruction of ocean ecology, loss of coral reefs, overfishing, disappearing supplies of fresh water resources, the despoliation of lakes and rivers, desertification, toxic wastes, pollution, acid rain, the approaching exhaustion of easily available crude oil resources, urban congestion, the detrimental effects of large dams, world hunger, overpopulation, etc. Together these threats constitute the greatest challenge to the survival of humanity since its prehistory.
The whole thing is worth reading. Meanwhile, mainstream ecomomists keep on keeping on, as if an expansion of greenhouse emissions is still acceptable, or ecologically viable. As Foster puts it:
despite the seriousness of this contradiction between the capitalist economy and the planet, establishment economists generally argue against any major attempt to avert climate change, i.e., to bailout nature.
To say nothing of the outright obtuseness of politicians and pundits. If I appear to wish for the immediate end of capitalism, even if I know we're not ready for it and know that it's unlikely in the extreme, and I do, it's because its continuation, even for the short-term, is ecologically untenable. And yet we blithely go about our business. We are insane.


Joe Miller said...

I know that this is somewhat off topic, but this is something that's been bothering me for sometime now.

I recognize the ecologically corrosive (to say the least) effects of capitalism, and that a systematic re-vision of civilization is in order if we are to survive as a species. But, I have a few major caveats with the solution that you seem to endorse, which is the establishment of a worldwide, Marx-inspired commune.

I come at this issue from a Nietzschean perspective, which is to say that my highest duty, my greatest obligation is to "remain loyal to the earth". My weltanschauung is a stridently biocentric and non-dualistic one; I care most about the stability and flourishing of the biosphere and all life, and I judge ideologies and creeds based on how high the preservation of the ecosystem is on their list of priorities, and how fervently they strive to achieve that end.

Marxism, from what I understand, is blatantly anthropocentric and logocentric; the land is only "the body of mankind". Because human beings have a greater capacity to reason than any other species, the Proletariat's future domination of the earth is completely justified. This is a continuation of two false dichotomies established by Descartes and Francis Bacon: the supposed struggle between civilization and external nature on the macroscopic scale, and the microscopic conflict for complete sovereignty of the incorporeal mind over the body. For all his supposed radicalism, Marx doesn't seem to question these underlying assumptions, or show any interest in scrutinizing the privilege our species has bestowed upon itself in freely exploiting the environment. Engels, on the other hand, does explicitly declare Man's superiority on several occasions.

Because of these factors, I feel that any plan for mass societal change based on a Marxist perspective is fundamentally untenable. Please correct me if I'm misguided in my criticisms; I'm aware that a lot of work has been done by Marxist scholars in the past century and a half, and that a few theorists may have corrected these flaws. If my assessment is accurate, though, and if you do still subscribe to a anthropocentric philosophy, then you are part of the problem.

Richard said...

Hi Joe - thanks for comment. I don't have a lot of time to respond to you right here, but the short version is that I share your criticisms of Marxism. I've sort of come at things from different angles on this blog, but I suppose I haven't yet made it as clear as I'd like that I favor a "worldwide, Marx-inspired commune". I value Marx primarily as a theorist of capitalism. I am critical of him (and especially his followers) where they take for granted the domination of nature of which you speak. I'll be addressing these kinds of issues in the future; it'll be nice to hear from you when I do.