Monday, March 28, 2011

Gaia II

Planning Green Growth – a Socialist Contribution to the Debate on Environmental Sustainability,” by Pete Dickenson, Socialist Alternative, 2003.
I asked some of the local Marxist activists if there was a somewhat ‘comprehensive’ analysis of the issues of global warming and peak oil by activists (not theoreticians or academic Marxists.) I was pointed to a pamphlet by an Australian member of Socialist Alternative, Pete Dickenson, dated in 2003. Just the dating and the distance of this pamphlet assures me that local activist organizations might be less than informed on this issue. They are probably in actuality relying on something they read from 1926, not anything relevant to today’s science and situation.

I asked this question because of a long line of somewhat bizarre comments on environmental questions by ostensible Marxists over the years. The latest was something about people who grow food ‘locally’ or source ‘locally’ are nothing but Maoists, and doing that is similar to the ‘back-yard furnaces’ of the Great Leap Forward. Well, if you can’t catch the difference between an onion and a small block of pig iron, I can’t help you. Right now, in the City of Havana, there are enough small gardens (“huertos populares”) to feed much of the urban population. This resulted from a relaxation against small farm ownership and production in that city. Due to the lack of phosphate fertilizer and oil, these gardens are mostly organic. The films "The Power of Community" & "The Greening of Cuba” are a good introduction to this topic. Detroit, courtesy of the experience of aging black sharecroppers, is now the leading urban garden city in the United States – of course because of poverty and an increase in abandoned land. I also recommend the excellent 2008 film on Latino/Black gardening in Los Angeles, “The Garden.” And the comments of Dimitry Orlov on how Russians survived the collapse of the Russian food economy brought on by counter-revolution and privatization – with two words, “kitchen gardens.” (His book “Reinventing Collapse” is reviewed below.)  

People are trying to build a system of urban and nearby food sources (Community Supported Agriculture - CSAs) because they see a potential collapse coming in the United States itself. To think we will always have food delivered from Chile is somewhat naïve. After all, that is what the Haitians were told to do.
I suspect most of the people making these comments have been no closer to a farm than a highway through Wisconsin, and think food comes from the supermarket. Of course, we cannot totally feed ourselves from our backyards or CSAs. But backyard gardens and larger farms are not mutually exclusive, but dialectically inter-related. The two together provide increased food security for the population, link the two areas intimately, and spread rural skills to urban workers, and visa versa. In fact, the growth in small farmers in the Midwest is almost totally through CSAs and organic farms.

So I read this pamphlet, waiting for the great bolt of intellectual lightning to strike. And it didn’t. Let’s quickly look at one of the ageing points this short pamphlet makes – after all, just the title - “Planning Green Growth” sounds likes something out of a 5-Year Plan. I was excited! Comrade Trotsky speaking from the grave!

Ah, no. Dickenson’s pamphlet is earnest, optimistic and lacking in key facts. There is not a word on peak oil. There is not a word on how quickly the environment is already changing, and the effect it is having on the world population. There is no understanding that ‘solar, wind, wave and other alternative energy methods’ cannot produce as much energy as oil, coal and nuclear. There is not a word on population growth. Dickenson argues that socialism is not based on constant growth as a target,( true…) which is why it is superior to capitalism in this respect. But then, in a key passage, he says, “assume that consumption under socialism will be 50% higher than the current level in the advanced industrial countries, which will provide a standard of living currently enjoyed by the middle-classes in the richest capitalist country, the USA.” If I understand this convoluted passage, at that level, my friend, the earth would be used up quite quickly. As it is, it is already being used up, even without this level of consumption. Dickenson does say that this ‘level’ might be above the ‘bio-physical’ limits of the planet, but refuses to make a decision as to whether that is true or not. As a result, Dickenson theoretically does not account for any limits. And hence, the somewhat Pollyanna tone of this pamphlet. Of course, it was written in 2003.

The key thing that socialism should provide is healthy food, clean water, good clothing that does not fall apart, and actually works, shelter that shelters, education for all, health-care for all, a consistent source of sustainable energy, necessary transportation, leisure time, non-alienated work and culture. If these economic and social basics could be provided for the whole world population – EVEN IF they were lower than the present American ‘middle-class’ – this would be an enormous gain for the world proletariat. As a casual conversational target, my guess might be the life-style of the American working class in the late 40s-early 50s could be a real target. This is, of course, before the full development of the internal combustion car economy.

The workers states provided some of these benefits after the social revolutions there, but not all. The workers states always suffered in comparison to the US and Western Europe in consumer goods, and this was one reason for their downfall. However, this was not just a failure of bureaucratic planning, but also a reflection of how much useless production a planned economy might not engage in. However, they too wrecked the environment even so. Vassily Leontiev, a Soviet GOSPLAN economist in the 1920s, was one of the first to attempt to integrate environmental costs into any economic model, yet this was never applied in the USSR. Anyone wanting to look at the exhaustion of the oil fields around Baku will see the horror tale writ large. Or the decimation of the Aral Sea. This problem in Marxism is what I call “crude productionism.” The Marxists who hold this idea equate simple increases in production, any kind of production, done no matter what, with a healthy society and environment. At one time, this kind of thing made more sense. But alone, as we have learned, it is no different than the growth-for-profit model of the capitalist business cycle in its effects on the biosphere. And that biosphere includes us.

And I got it on the U of M campus,
Red Frog, 3/27/2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Word suggested by William Golding ...

“The Vanishing Face of Gaia - A Final Warning” by James Lovelock, 2008

James Lovelock is a scientist famous for inventing the apparatus that tested the atmosphere for ozone depletion, and warned of the consequences of that event. He is an Englishman who lives in the Devon countryside with his wife.

In this book, Lovelock switches between the disconnected ramblings of an aging conservative and a brilliant scientist dwelling on valid themes. Lovelock so frequently contradicts himself or makes factually ignorant statements that I’m not sure which we have here. You must separate the wheat from the chaff.

Gaia is a brilliant concept Lovelock came up with in the 1960s (no surprise here…) which refers to the totally interconnected nature of all things – humans, rocks, the atmosphere, the ocean, animals, plants, fire, human structures, energy sources – and how they are all one organism scientifically. This is not a religious concept but a scientifically observable one. I think his concept makes perfect sense, as it breaks down various isolated scientific disciplines, and instead explains what is happening on the planet ‘holistically.’ In essence, everything on the Earth, and ‘in’ the Earth, is Gaia. This theory allows Lovelock to bridge the gaps between biologists, climatologists, geologists and other scientific disciplines. As this applies to global climate change, it means that the earth as a whole is a 'self-regulating' system, so any disruptions in the dynamic system - such as excess carbon - will affect and be affected by nearly every part of the environment. And that environment will react. Lovelock contends that most Gaia predictions have been born out by testing.

I’m again going to bullet-point his main issues. I do this because many of these books are full of facts and ideas, and certainly not elegantly-crafted pieces making a central point. Lovelock wanders all over, repeating himself, and repetition is not a pretty thing:

1. Lovelock points out that the IPCC panel (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that issues UN reports on climate change is affected by political pressures and limited computer modeling programs to downplay the threat of global warming. Factual, scientific observations, even in 2007, showed their predictions erred far on the conservative side. The process of global warming is happening much faster than the IPCC is predicting.

2. The IPCC recommendation that 450 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere is acceptable is too high. Lovelock understands that the earth system can go from gradual change to sudden, irretrievable change in a very short period. The computer models used by the IPCC leave out many variables, and do not account for various multiplier/feedback effects. At 450 ppm he believes we are already past the point of no return. (Bill McKibben says we have to bring it back to 350 ppm. We are now at 385 or perhaps higher…) Lovelock created a more correct model called "Daisyworld" which more closely resembles what is actually happening on the planet.

3. Lovelock feels we cannot stop the slide towards a hot planet – 9 degrees hotter, given what he sees as the various human ‘weaknesses’ in favor of the status quo. He suggests we prepare to adapt to a hotter planet with higher seas by protecting various islands (England, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan…) and areas on the top and bottom of the earth that will survive the full effects of climate disaster. In a sense, creating protected enclaves. The vision he has is of nuclear-powered, dense cities, surrounded by walls, with green valleys that fade into red deserts. Sort of a sci-fi vision of the planet, come real. Or “Children of Men” - with a few children.

4. There are too many people for the carrying capacity of the planet. Lovelock says, “a massive natural cull of humanity’ could occur to bring ‘Gaia’ back into balance. Mass migrations and conflicts are inevitable due to climate change.

That is the bad news. As to solutions? This is where it gets dicey. Lovelock says:

1. Nuclear power and thermal solar are the only solutions that will provide enough energy to maintain the present standard of living. A solar thermal block 3,600 square miles (60 miles by 60 miles) in the Southwest, given DC transmission lines, would provide enough electricity for the whole United States.

2. The coal industry has provided a haze of ‘soot’ across the globe that has blunted global warming, reflecting sunlight back into space, at the same time as it is injecting more carbon into the atmosphere. So if coal plants are shut down without some replacement for the ‘soot’, that ‘soot’ floating in the air would disappear, and solar heat would grow even more intense.

3. Lovelock rages on and on again against wind power (and even solar cells) as a conspiracy by evil businessmen to just make money, and to lull us into a false complacency. (Presented by the Al Gore wing of the ruling class, I might add, as the solution.) He claims wind towers take up too much room, use too much concrete and would obscure his pristine view of Devon. However, he had a complimentary meeting with the head of Duke Energy in 2008, a large coal producer. And it is no secret that there are massive profits in nuclear power for firms like GE. Some could see Lovelock as a shill for the nuclear and coal industry – but I think he’s just somewhat clueless, to not see there is money to be made no matter which way you turn. One nuclear plant uses far more concrete than many wind farms. And wind farms can be farmed around – the whole area is not off limits to land use, as he imagines. He does support wind farms in the US Midwest – but only there. (The wind only blows steadily in the Midwest, you see.) And in a somewhat ridiculous passage, certainly not in merry old England. (“I must declare a special personal dislike of large wind turbines onshore.”) However, he is right that wind power cannot provide all the energy that nuclear or coal can. And there is the rub.

4. Lovelock is a big supporter of nuclear power. To argue his case, he claims that only 75 people died at Cherynobyl, ignoring the thousands that got cancers. According to observers, an area the size of Switzerland, or 16,000 square miles (41,000 square kilometers) around Cherynobyl, is uninhabitable for the next 300 years. He says that the objections to nuclear are 'trivial' – but he seems never to have read a word about nuclear contamination of groundwater coming out of plants like Hanford Nuclear Reservation (mentioned in St. Clair’s book, “Born Under a Bad Sky,” reviewed below) or the end-of-its-life Vermont Yankee plant. Here is Lovelock on nuclear power: “inexpensive”; “The falsehood that they are uniquely dangerous” and the best; “It is sad…that so many… still oppose nuclear on grounds as insubstantial as a fear of hellfire and Satan.” He even has a paragraph making fun of people worried about a small earthquake in Japan that released a tiny bit of radiation in 2007. What could happen? Recent events in Japan indicate that building a nuclear plant on a fault line, near an ocean, is really not a good idea. The problem with nuclear is not their rampant problems – it is that when you have one – it is a doozey. And we cannot overlook the direct connection between peaceful nuclear power and it’s wartime cousin – they are connected industries. Lovelock seems to think their connection is accidental. Lovelock, with some justice, makes fun of people who think radiation is always evil – as there is radiation everywhere. Some people are looking at ‘micro’ nuclear plants that might power only one town. At any rate, the key thing here is to understand our energy situation, not just from a Pollyanna view or a wood-sprite point of view.

5. Lovelock used to be a socialist in his youth, but now he yearns for a ‘Churchill’ to lead the struggle for little England against global warming. He even has a kind word for Obama and Al Gore (who was one of the 'first' to figure out global warming in 2004, according to Lovellock. Just like Gore invented the internet.) Lovelock does not think the ‘profit system’ is the problem – but never names names as to ‘who’ is holding back the fight against global warming. Not one oil or coal company gets a nod – just evil environmentalists and human nature.

6. There is a bit of truth in what he says, because ‘big’ Green groups actually hinder the fight against global warming by supporting corporate economic, environmental and political policies. They lull people into thinking carbon trading will somehow stop the process. However, Lovelock seems to loathe everyone who is an environmentalist – not just big Green groups or profit-seeking ‘green’ businessmen. The truth is, a technological fix is not possible. Lovelock sometimes believes the technological ‘fix’ is possible; and then sometimes he believes we should just start setting up our protected islands. I think he wants to do both.

7. Lovelock has no concept of peak oil or even peak gas (see fracking). Lovelock: “There are huge reserves of coal, oil and natural gas.”

8. To slow or stop global climate change, he suggests:
A. putting sulphuric acids or other materials in the air to re-create the ‘cloud’ now provided by coal plants – mimicking the effects of the eruption of Mount Pinitubo, which cooled the planet for 3 years.
B. Hang a sun-shade in space ten miles in diameter. Yes, you heard that right.
C. He thinks churning the ocean water with floating pipes can bring more algae to the surface, which will absorb carbon.
D. He wants to create low running clouds across the surface of the earth by spraying seawater in the air, thus cooling the surface of the earth.
E. Sequester carbon underground. One way to do this is making ‘char’ out of carbon, which is almost inert.
F. Create ‘Artificial trees’ out of treated concrete and rock that would remove carbon dioxide from the air.
G. Pay people not to cut down forests, not plant fake forests in empty places, and to let the empty places grow up naturally.
H. Use naturally occurring photo-synthesis to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He is not clear on this.

9. Lovelock supports vegetarianism/veganism because he knows that domesticated animals – and the food they eat – are a significant source of global warming and hunger. He even comments about pets being sources of carbon dioxide and an extravagance.

10. And then:: “We imagine that” …“organic food” is ‘fundamentally different and better in quality than what is manufactured.” (Notice the word ‘manufactured’ used un-ironically.) We 'imagine?' Most studies of the two show that organic is better for human health, for soil health, and is less carbon-intensive. But Lovelock seems not to have studied this topic either.

Lovelock has not a word about how our profit economy encourages the destruction of the environment. Taking from nature is seen as ‘free’ on the capitalist books. (See the review of “The Ecological Revolution,” below.) Unfortunately there is a cost to every withdrawal. At some point, the biospheric-bank will become depleted, and Gaia will be forced to make adjustments – as it is already doing.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog 3/23/2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

“The John Brown of Mississippi”

“The State of Jones – The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy,” by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, 2010

1862. Starving, exhausted Confederate soldiers ordered by pompous, aggressive plantation aristocrats into frontal assaults against fortified union positions at Corinth. 1862. A frightened, wet, cold, dirty deserter from the Confederate army, hiding in Mississippi’s Piney Woods swamp, waiting for a slave woman to bring him a plate of food. 1863. A prominent businessman and Confederate tax assessor shot through his own open window in Jones County, Mississippi. 1864. A 6’4” long-haired Mississippi man with a triple-loaded, double-barreled shotgun, standing on the edge of the woods with his relatives and neighbors, waiting for a group of Confederate cavalry to pass and meet their doom.

Welcome to the class war in the Confederacy. Contrary to the myth of the Confederacy promoted by reactionaries, the majority of southerners opposed the war when it started, but were not allowed to directly vote. Resistance to the vote for secession, the subsequent war initiated by the slave-holders and the draconian policies of the failing Confederacy against their own people far surpassed anything in the North. And until recently it has been a well-hidden secret – especially to southerners. The only glimpse we have seen of it in popular culture is the film “Cold Mountain,” set in North Carolina. After the Confederacy passed the "20 Negroes Rule" (which allowed planters with 20 slaves to avoid the draft) many class-conscious and non-slave owning southern men became deserters.

This book, a well-written and almost novelistic history, takes you inside the Mississippi resistance by poor yeoman farmers in 6 counties in central Mississippi, lead by a Confederate deserter named Newton Knight. It really answers the question of why Jeff Davis’ slave-holding class lost the Civil War. What would happen if you gave a war and people stopped showing up?

Knight hated the rich people in his county who stole from poverty-stricken farm wives, to both line their own pockets and to ostensibly feed the Confederate Army. Knight, like his fellow farmers, had nothing in common with large plantation owners who owned hundreds of slaves, and who continued to produce profitable cotton while the population starved. He refused to own slaves himself, and actually lived with a black slave / freedwoman named Rachel during and after the war, while also being married to a white woman, Serena. Knight, his neighbors and relatives, took control of six counties in south-central Mississippi, and ran the Confederate authorities out through carefully-planned guerilla violence. In the process, they were helped by black slaves and runaways who thronged the swamps that were a favorite hiding-place. His group, the Jones County Scouts, declared their allegiance to the Union Army. They met with union officers when Sherman's generals marched just south of Jones County, and also along the rivers, as some supplies were delivered by union boats. They defeated every Confederate incursion into the area, even by the most well-trained and violent Confederate units, mostly by knowing when to fight, and when not to. Newton claimed his troops were in 16 large engagements, and many smaller ones.

After the war, Newton later applied for a pension from the Union Army, but was denied because thick-headed northern legislators could not believe a southern man would fight for the North.

After a short period that can actually be called ‘reconstruction,' the violent racist businessmen of Mississippi and the demobilized Confederate Army (now known as the Ku Klux Klan), with help from northern racists like president Andrew Johnson, made the lives of black people and southern Unionists a living hell. In this few years of true Reconstruction, the vote and the Union army allowed black people and Unionist southern whites to hold democratic power, and begin to institute education, infrastructure improvements and democratic rights.

During Reconstruction, Knight had been an officer of the Mississippi government, as an officer of the peace and as a tax collector. He built a school for black children, but when black children were not allowed, the school mysteriously burned down. Later one of his nieces came back to Ellisville and started a school for black children, which was discovered by racists, and also burned down. He fathered many mixed children before his second ‘wife’ Rachel died. Serena eventually left him as well.

Because they could not actually win an election, the Klan and the prominent citizens of Mississippi used killings, burnings and terror to change the tide. Even U.S. Grant refused to call out troops in Vicksburg in the 1975 elections. In Vicksburg, neo-Confederate Klansman and “White Liners” killed dozens, ran the Unionist mayor out of town, and controlled the ballot box. So Grant lost the city he had so well-won in 1863. The famous Adelbert Ames, the Unionist governor of Mississippi (and probably the best governor that benighted state has ever had…) was threatened and lost the election, after making the mistake of disbanding the armed black militia. The “Black Codes’ were reintroduced, and black people faced up to 90 years without the right to vote, to own land or a business, or to an education. They had the ‘right’ to be poorly paid sharecroppers, and to be killed at will. It was slavery without the name.

Because of their history, and the failure of Reconstruction, the many members of the Knight family were shunned by local whites, and grew apart from the larger community, eventually inter-marrying. At some point the mixed family members, even the ‘white’ Newton, were declared all “Negroes” by the Mississippi census. They were known as the ‘Knight Negroes” to their deeply racist neighbors. Even some of the men Newton fought with could not stand against this tide, and shunned him too. Newton died in 1922, and in 1948, one of Newton’s nephews was put on trial for the ‘crime of miscegenation,’ as he was partly black. Since the evidence was so old, they could not convict. However, it shows you the vicious lengths the racists went in their crusade.

If there is anything this book teaches, it is that the divisions reflected in the civil war are still at the heart of the present struggle between the working class and the rich. It also teaches Knights lesson – that the only thing these people understand, ultimately, is a well-packed shotgun.

This story will soon be a film by Gary Ross, to be released in 2012.

And I bought it at Malaprop’s Books, in Asheville, North Carolina
Red Frog, 3/9/2011