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Averting a rendezvous with disaster

‘Cultural environmentalism’ alone will not solve the climate crisis, as, couched in the language of passivity, it avoids the urgent need for planned and targeted action, says ZOLTAN ZIGEDY

OUR global environmental crisis is widely understood to be reaching a crucial moment; the danger signals are flashing almost daily. Yet a certain complacency follows the many catastrophic climate events attributable to a critically injured environment. People talk easily of a climate Armageddon, while maintaining business as usual.

Is this fatalism? Are there onerous sacrifices necessary to save the planet? Are there insurmountable obstacles to finding solutions? Are we beyond the point of no return? These questions need urgent answers.

The truth is that some leftists have been addressing these problems and ringing the alarm for decades. But some of us, though recognising the crisis, have paid only lip-service to its solutions, neglecting to apply the unique perspective that Marxism could bring. Looking at the crisis through the lens of class and exploitation surely offers a deeper understanding than the sensationalism and superficiality of the capitalist media and their punditry.

Mea culpa.

Hopefully, my own absolution began with acquiring a copy of Monthly Review’s July-August issue devoted to perspectives on the environmental crisis from a left, Marxist-friendly perspective. Entitled Planned Degrowth: Ecosocialism and Sustainable Human Development (volume 75, number 3), the volume offers 11 contributions, with an important, essential, introductory essay by John Bellamy Foster. Foster has laboured productively in the vineyards of ecosocialism for some time. The journal number comes highly recommended.

Much of the popular response to the unfolding environmental disaster is reducible to cultural environmentalism. Advocates call for a change in consumption patterns — switching from products whose production, reproduction, or disposal is most harmful to our land, water, or air. Some cultural environmentalists demand a radical overall cut in consumption, insist on the elimination of conspicuous consumption, or even pose a philosophical challenge to the very concept of consumerism so prevalent in capitalist societies. 

But cultural environmentalism alone does not thoroughly address the institutions that encourage or incur needless carbon emissions, senseless waste and the depletion of precious resources — institutions like the military, the security, judicial and penal system, the sales and marketing effort, mass entertainment, etc. Nor does it challenge capitalism itself.

On a global level, conserving only the 20th century resources allocated for war-making, the social wealth lost to the destruction of past wars and necessitated by the remedial costs of death and suffering would put us uncountable years behind our current rendezvous with disaster. Even eliminating today’s bloated military budgets and stopping the current wars would lessen the immediate crisis dramatically. 

Most of the mainstream liberal and social democratic cultural environmentalists ignore these institutions that are deeply embedded in the capitalist infrastructure, instead opting for campaigns to eliminate or recycle the most energy-soaked articles of convenience — cans, bottles, plastic bags, etc or forcing the issue into the thick, impenetrable muck of bourgeois politics, legislative decision-making, and state regulation.

The Green New Deal, the consensus approach of the techno-environmentalists, promises to restructure capitalism by rewarding positive changes in energy generation and use, while sanctioning corporate foot-dragging and avoidance. Implementation rests with the commitment of political puppets of corporate power — the political strata. Again, there is no substantial challenge to capitalism and its institutions with techno-environmentalism.

The contributors to the Monthly Review anthology more or less understand the shortcomings of the liberal/social democratic approach. They grasp that capitalism — with its insatiable thirst for accumulation — cannot meet the challenge of environmental catastrophe. That reality animates all of the selections in Planned Degrowth.

Yet, among the writers, there is little agreement on how to move beyond capitalism (of all the contributors, Ying Chen makes the strongest case for a robust, planned socialist economy genuinely independent of the capitalist mode of production).

Resolving those differences is made all the more difficult by the ambiguities and confusions accompanying the central concepts of planning and degrowth. 

It is commendable that nearly all of the participants understand that market forces alone are inadequate to extract humanity from the catastrophe awaiting us. Moreover, the alternative to markets necessarily is some form of economic planning — some form of conscious human-based decision-making. This alone is a departure from the left’s post-Soviet love-fest with market mechanisms and market socialism — indeed, a welcome departure opening the way to a more robust socialism. But what form should the planning take? Who should make the plan?

Foster wisely sees the cause of environmental disaster in the capitalist’s insatiable need to “accumulate! accumulate!” — borrowing Marx’s succinct summation. Accordingly, the challenge is to organise the economy around social usefulness, and not profit — “focusing on use value rather than exchange value,” to employ Foster’s words.

Certainly, contrasting use value against exchange value, advantaging the former, requires some exiting from the market mechanism and a turn toward a different mechanism for the allocation of resources: conscious human decision-making, ie planning.

This makes a neat, compelling argument for some form of planning.

Unfortunately, most of the contributors have little regard for the rich 20th-century experience in planning afforded by the now-defunct European socialist community. It is fashionable, among Western academic Marxists (or Marxians, as they sometimes like to be called), to heap scorn on the Soviet central planning mechanism in its different iterations despite its relative successes even without the benefit of today’s astounding computational powers. Apart from Paul Cockshott and some of his colleagues, there is little interest in exploring how a similar planning mechanism could be optimised using available technologies.

Foster, to his credit, offers a very modest defence of Soviet planning, especially regarding its impact on the environment. But others acknowledge the need for planning without providing even a sketch of how that would be done. 

Instead, several writers revisit the old New Left fetish of participatory democracy, as though the more fingers in the planning pie, the better, regardless of the results. This reaches the limits of absurdity with the Venezuelan rural commune proposed as the model for a planning mechanism to rescue the world economy from the throes of environmental crisis, a utopian fantasy.

The other Western Marxist obsession is decentralisation. Apparently, the political model beloved by the North American-European left is the Swiss canton, the landsgemeinde, combining the smallest possible political units with the most direct democracy. How such decentralised planning could successfully redirect a modern juggernaut economy to escape the tyranny of markets requires a giant leap of faith (As Nicolas Graham understates, “… it is quite difficult to imagine effective planning … without some co-ordinating authority and external arbiter.”) 

Planned Degrowth’s other key idea, degrowth, is also underdeveloped. Informing this concept is the looming disaster cited by Foster and implicit with all of the authors: 

“The world scientific consensus, as represented by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that the global average temperature needs to be kept below a 1.5-degree Centigrade increase over pre-industrial levels this century — or else, with a disproportionately higher level of risk, “well below” a 2-degree Centigrade increase — if climate destabilization is not to threaten absolute catastrophe… All of this is predicated on reaching net zero (in fact, real zero) carbon emissions by 2050, which gives a fifty-fifty chance that the climate-temperature boundary will not be exceeded.”

Understandably, faced with these limits, most of us recognise that, in some sense or another, we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. That is, growing carbon emissions, growing consumption patterns, more broadly — growing GDP as support for growing consumption or growing population, and any and all other forms of growth that potentially increase carbon emissions cannot be simultaneously sustained without an existential threat to life on the planet.

But is it misleading, simplistic, and maybe even harmful to popularise degrowth in general as the solution to the life-or-death challenge of carbon-emission limits? Are there different kinds of “growth” — minimal emissions, emissions-neutral or even emissions-free — that sidestep the rendezvous with climate disaster? Would not market-free, planned economic growth, itself, forestall that rendezvous? Can we not envision a growing, planned socialist economy that stems or reverses increases in emissions?

In the historically nuanced Marxist perspective, growth of the productive forces of society need not be coupled with an anarchical, unfettered, profit-driven economy, nor has it always been so associated. On the other hand, the preferred capitalist measuring stick of growth — gross domestic product — reflects that association: in the capitalist industrial era, growth (GDP), national wealth, the unregulated exploitation of carbon-based energy, and the exploitation of labour are inextricably bound. 

For Marxists, there is no such necessary link. Free of the wasteful uses of social wealth for class aggrandisement, class suppression and endless accumulation, growth can be redefined as the unbounded improvement in both the quality and prospects of all human life. For example, the development of vaccines for Covid or future attacks of new viruses requires the further development of productive forces and constitutes a growth in social wealth, but with far less impact on the environment when undertaken outside the framework of the profit-driven capitalist system.

Marx and Engels gave us a different perspective on growth in The German Ideology, linking the development of forces of production directly to the improvement of humanity’s survivability and flourishing, while faced with ever-arising challenges from nature and other humans. They remind us that the mode of production is not only what people produce but how they produce. 

That ever-present, evolving challenge may, in some sense, at some time, require “growth,” but growth away from carbon emissions, waste, excess, inefficiency and greed. Thus, we would define a new, humane concept of growth and production.

Foster comes close to recognising this possibility by distinguishing “a quantitative as well a qualitative sense” of productive forces. But he seems to overlook that the qualitative expansion of productive forces might well be qualitative production, production independent of fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and environmental degradation — production of new ideas, new living arrangements, new divisions of labour, etc. This would be a more refined notion of growth, far more useful than the Bureau of Economic Analysis or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development definition of gross domestic product that degrowth addresses. 

Two contributors, Isikara and Narin, are dismissive of the explanatory power of the second law of thermodynamics in the social world. Yet it does capture the fundamental struggle that only humans wage with ultimately limited, but astonishing success against a system’s tendency toward disorder. 

The development of productive forces was — qualitatively or quantitatively — the primary effective human response to this law: the law of entropy. The idea of degrowth, so superficially compelling in its simplicity, fails to account for this universal struggle. The environmental crisis is only the latest chapter in the perpetual struggle against species extinction. Like previous struggles, it will take development (and in the broadest sense, growth) of the productive forces to win, even if only temporarily from the inevitable disorder of closed systems.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a just, viable solution to the environmental crisis is the gross inequalities found in the capitalist countries and found between the advanced capitalist countries and those less advanced. The weakness of the degrowth mantra aside, any immediate solution to the crisis will require limits to carbon emissions, limits that will fall unfairly upon the disadvantaged unless some compensatory distribution — national and global affirmative action — is established. 

In other words, should sacrifices be necessary, they must be fairly imposed. No poor country or poor population should be required or even asked to make commensurate sacrifices with wealthy countries or wealthy elites. More importantly, their development — their “catching up” — should not be delayed as long as they lag behind their wealthier counterparts. Jason Hickel and Dylan Sullivan make a powerful historico-empirical argument that capitalism can never meet this demand in their contribution. 

The only large-scale affirmative action programme ever effectively actuated was the post-World War II collaboration of the socialist countries, co-ordinated by the Council on Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, known in the West as Comecon). 

The CMEA based itself on the Leninist doctrine and the history of intensive investment of Soviet resources in the former Russian empire’s disadvantaged oppressed nations. Cognisant of the uneven development produced and reproduced by class society, the Soviet Union proportionately devoted far more resources to the “backward” constituent republics than to the more advanced Russian Republic.

The CMEA sought to continue this policy with the post-war socialist community. For example, the Soviet Union would offer an extended contract for oil to Cuba at the lowest market price of a previous period, while agreeing to purchase a fixed amount of sugar at the highest market price of that period. In addition, the Soviet Union would grant the poorer member state favourable, extended payment terms. It should be noted that the Soviet beet crop was more than adequate to supply Soviet sugar needs at a lower cost. At the same time, the Soviet Union would provide grants and low-interest, long-term loans for Cuban infrastructure and industrial development.

This, and most internal CMEA agreements, typified affirmative action on a massive scale to correct uneven development.

Given that capitalism has never known or even devised such a levelling, developmentally egalitarian approach in international affairs nor that any country today practises it (apart from socialist Cuba, generously, but with limited resources), the necessity for global affirmative action on the environment would seem to be a powerful argument for socialism among leftist activists. 

True to the history of Western Marxism, European-North American socialists find little worthwhile in the history of the Soviet Union, so the argument seldom sees the light of day.

That is not to say that the contributors to Degrowth Planning are unaware of the inequalities standing in the way of any fair and equitable answer to the environmental crisis. Foster is explicit: “At the same time, the poorer countries with low ecological footprints have to be allowed to develop in a general process that includes contraction in throughput of energy and materials in the rich countries and the convergence of per capita consumption in physical terms in the world as a whole.”

But what is lacking with all the participants’ accounts is agency. Who will tackle these challenges? Who will adopt a programme that incorporates these considerations? Who will build a movement to move a programme forward? 

It would be unfair to fault the 12 academics contributing to this issue for having no ready answer to these questions. Nonetheless, if theory is to matter, we must have practical answers (Isikara and Narin almost broach this issue, but deliver it in unnecessarily opaque academic language) and avoid utopia-spinning. 

Too often intellectuals deliver theory in the passive voice: “What is objectively necessary at this point in human history is therefore a revolutionary transformation… governing production, consumption, and distribution… a shift away from the system of monopoly capital, exploitation, expropriation, waste, and the endless drive to accumulation.”

Yes, but who is to accomplish this and how are they to do it?

It is far easier to say who will not do it! But surely it can be conceded that we need a class-based revolutionary party committed to a robust socialism that will wrest political and economic power from the capitalist class. Should we not be vigorously working toward that end if we want to avoid our date with doom?

Zoltan Zigedy is a US writer who blogs at zzs-blg.blogspot.com.

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