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

1 comment:

hann said...

Solar power is now more able than ever to fill this need. Whereas at one time gloomy days meant scant return from a solar power system, the efficiency of newly available systems combined with the rise of low-tech but high yield approaches means that solar power is able to meet a significant proportion of energy requirements for all but the most power-hungry homes and organisations.