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Excerpts from 'Environment, Capitalism and Socialism': Sources of modern environmentalism; Currents in ecological thought
While all religions and philosophies have expressed a viewpoint on the humanity-nature relationship, in modern environmentalism this relation, however conceived, forms the central, organising theme. Moreover, environmentalism could only arise when the conditions for transforming that relation had begun to materialise in human history. More specifically, the prerequisite for present-day environmental consciousness was the rise of capitalist industrial civilisation in the early 19th century, making possible for the first time the destruction of nature and resource depletion but also, by the same token, a choice of the terms on which humanity might live in nature. Like socialism, its cousin, ecological consciousness emerges first in those countries where capitalist industrialisation is most advanced.
However, the impact of capitalist industrialisation on nature was so many-sided that the component parts of the modern ecological outlook could only develop in relative isolation from one another. This was also the case because the natural and social sciences, while developing rapidly, were not yet sufficiently advanced for an understanding of their overall interrelatedness to have become clear. In the words of Frederick Engels:
The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and natural objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature which have been made during the last four hundred years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and natural processes in their isolation, detached from the whole vast interconnection of things; and therefore not in their motion, but in their repose; not as essentially changing, but as fixed constants; not in their life, but in their death.127
Thus modern environmentalism draws together a number of tributary streams, each arising from a specific point of conflict or investigation between society and the natural world and each supplying a particular element to the all-round ecological outlook. These streams, which intermingled in many ways, are summarised below.
a. Ecological concerns in natural and social science
Much of the overall field of investigation of modern environmental science is to be found in embryo in the rapidly developing social and natural sciences of the nineteenth century. Thus, while the term ecosystem wasn't coined until 1935, the analysis of ecosystems as a living interactive system conditioned by physical, chemical and biological factors (the "web of life") makes its first appearance in Darwin's The Origin of the Species.
The work of agrarian chemists Boussingault and Liebig on soil chemistry, based on the idea of restoring minerals to the soil, prefigures the concerns of sustainable agriculture (although in the short run its effect was to stimulate the spoliation of Peru's guano deposits in order to fertilise European fields).
Most importantly, the "population debate", begun by Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population, stimulated research in many fields as to the "carrying capacity" of the Earth. Factors affecting this equation were investigated in the developing sciences of:
- Human geography and agronomy: What was the "carrying capacity" of regions with differing soil fertility, energy availability, and climate?
- Physics, "energetics" and mechanical engineering: What "energy stocks" were available in nature? What was their rate of depletion? How could they be utilised more efficiently? What was the meaning of the Law of Entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) for human society?
- Economics: At what rate should scarce resources, especially coal, be depleted? What did this mean for possible growth rates? Would the rate of technological advancement offset that of resource depletion?
- Urban planning and development: What level of urbanisation could a given agriculture sustain? What was the optimal layout of a city, at given levels of food and energy stocks?
In a society riven by class conflicts each and every scientific (or pseudo-scientific) hypothesis on these issues also provided support for conflicting ideologies about the humanity-nature relationship. Thus, as well as foreshadowing the concerns and research procedures of contemporary environmental science, debates in 19th century science also prefigure the controversies of the contemporary environmental movement.
- What is a sustainable level of population? At one extreme Malthus, on the false assumption of a more or less fixed level of agricultural productivity, set strict limits to population growth and human wellbeing. At the other, Franz Oppenheimer, on the basis of productivity achieved in greenhouse farming and without accounting for energy costs and waste, set an upper limit in 1901 of 200 billion for the world's population.
- Resource depletion: In 1885 physicist Rudolf Clausius wrote, facing the prospect of long-run decline in coal supplies: "The most civilised nations should act in concert in order to control the extraction of coal in a manner alike to the control of forest exploitation in well organised states."128 This already posed the question of what rate of resource depletion to allow to cater for the needs of future generations, anticipating the contemporary debate over sustainable development.
- The applicability of the laws of animal life to the human world:
Charles Darwin himself saw his thesis about the "struggle for
existence" as "the doctrine of Malthus applied in manifold force
to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom". Such a doctrine is the forbear
of the "lifeboat ethic" of such latter-day Malthusians as Garret
Hardin and Paul and Anne Erhlich.
Critics of Malthusianism, first and foremost Marx and Engels, stressed that the laws of human life are different from those of animal life. In the words of Engels:
The interaction of … living bodies [includes] conscious and unconscious cooperation as well as conscious and unconscious struggle … The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to organic nature of Hobbes's theory of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois economic theory of competition, as well as the Malthusian theory of population.129
- Entropic versus exotropic tendencies in life systems: Which is the
fundamental tendency of life systems? Entropy? That toward dispersal
and disorganisation (as expressed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics),
or that towards ever-higher forms of life organisation? In the 19th century
this discussion had an inevitabilist character. (Was there an "iron law
of existence"? Or an inevitable "heat death of the universe"?)
Today it revives in the perception that simple uniform ecosystems (monocultures
in agriculture, standardised human communities) are unstable in the long run
and that for artificial systems to be ecologically sustainable they must mimic
the characteristics of mature ecosystems.
An important role in the development of an ecological outlook in economics came in the work of Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. Unlike neo-classical economics which basically views the economy as a perpetual motion machine fueled by money and private individual interests and "endowments" (land, labour and capital), Georgescu-Roegen's ecological economics viewed the economy as an open system which drew on solar energy and resources and produced by converting them into dissipated heat and waste materials. These could, via recycling, be reused to a certain degree but the proper, ecologically benign, functioning of the economy depended on being able to monitor and control the pace and scale of this throughput.
- Property forms and the environment: In the 19th century harmonious human and natural development was seen to depend on private property (Malthus), communal property (Utopian socialists) and social property (Marxists). The same debate continues today with the "tragedy of the commons" only solvable for some (Garrett Hardin) through the assignment of private property rights over resources, while for others (Barry Commoner) private property is the root cause of environmental degradation and the threat to human survival.
b. Resource management
The resource management movement arose in the "frontier" capitalist states (United States, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) where the threat to overall economic development from rampantly predatory private capitalists reached crisis point in the late 19th century (by 1870 commercial hunting of bison had reached three million head a year). The movement focussed first of all on forest management, seeking to establish some sustainable (or at least slower) rate of depletion and built on the Romantic reaction to a savagely exploitative capitalism.
The main figure in the resource conservation movement was Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service, whose book The Fight for Conservation was in part a reply to the criticism that conservationism was "hoarding" resources for future generations. The resource conservation movement, with its ethic of planned, efficient exploitation of natural resources from the point of view of the overall good of the economy, represented the first restriction on private capital's laissez faire "right" to untrammelled exploitation of nature.
c. Conservation and animal rights
The aim of the wilderness movement, represented by such organisations as the Sierra Club in the US and the national parks movement in Australia, was to preserve nature from development through setting aside large areas as a way of conserving species and species diversity. Among the earliest successes of the movement were the 1864 ceding by the US government of Yosemite Park to California (with the stipulation that it be maintained as a public park) and the declaration of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the Royal National Park in New South Wales in 1879.
Further spurred on by the final closure of the American frontier, the preservationist movement was also inspired by various cults of nature, a tradition most immediately represented in the US by Henry Thoreau but with a lineage reaching back to German and English Romantic poets and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The watchword for the preservationist movement in its search for a refuge from the horrors of industrial capitalist society was Thoreau's "in the wilderness is the preservation of the world". In the words of Sierra Club founder John Muir:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.130
The movement that is today called animal liberation first emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the various societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The assumption of a moral obligation by the human species to other living beings can be traced back to the position first enunciated by Jeremy Bentham when he wrote that what was "important about beings was not, `Can they reason ?', nor `Can they talk ?', but, `Can they suffer ?'". By this criterion other species become candidates for treatment by humans as something more than resources.
d. Marx and Engels
In the theoretical sphere the general scientific conception of the evolving humanity-nature relationship was first uncovered in the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. For Marx and Engels humanity is part of nature and nature provides humanity's direct means of life (and hence the fact that humanity's "physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for humanity is a part of nature"). But nature is also the "object and instrument" of humanity's life activity. That is, confronting nature, humanity "begins to distinguish itself from animals as soon as it begins to produce its means of subsistence". Through labour, through the use of tools, humanity impresses its own stamp on nature in a different way from animals and "the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrow sense of the word, the more they make their history themselves, consciously." As history develops changes that take place in nature are now increasingly due to human activity, so that, for Engels, even at a primitive level of development, "there is devilishly little left of `nature' as it was in Germany at the time when the Germanic peoples immigrated into it".
The evolution of primitive societies into class societies and eventually into capitalist society goes hand in hand with an ever increasing impact of humanity upon nature, which under capitalism is determined primarily by production for private profit. Under the private profit system the Earth itself becomes "an object of huckstering" (Engels): the fertility of the soil and the vitality of the labourer are equally sacrificed to capital's "werewolf hunger for surplus value" (Marx).
Marx and Engels did not produce a worked-out, comprehensive presentation of the interrelationship between a young and expanding capitalism and the environment, but the general humanity-nature relationship haunts all their work, and the specific impact on the environment of different civilisations and modes of production is a recurring theme.
In particular Marx, in a remarkable passage in the Grundrisse, sketched out the essentially antagonistic relation between the "logic of capital" and nature.
The creation by capital of absolute surplus value — more objectified labour — is conditional upon an expansion, specifically a constant expansion, of the sphere of circulation. The surplus value created at one point requires the creation of surplus value at another point, for which it may be exchanged … A precondition of production based on capital is therefore the production of a constantly widening sphere of circulation, whether the sphere itself is directly expanded or whether more points within it are created as points of production … The tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome. Initially, to subjugate every moment of production to exchange and to suspend the production of direct use values not entering into exchange, i.e., precisely to posit production based on capital in place of earlier modes of production, which appear too rooted in nature from its standpoint …
On the other side, the production of relative surplus value, i.e. production of surplus value based on the increase and development of the productive forces, requires the production of new consumption; requires that the consuming circle within circulation expands as did the productive circle previously. Firstly quantitative expansion of existing consumption; secondly: creation of new needs by propagating existing ones in a wide circle; thirdly: production of new needs and discovery and creation of new use values … Hence exploration of all of nature in order to discover new, useful qualities in things; universal exchange of the products of all alien climates and lands; new (artificial) preparation of natural objects, by which they are given new use values. Hence the exploration of the Earth in all directions, to discover new things of use as well as new useful qualities of the old; such as new qualities of them as raw materials etc.; the development, hence, of the natural sciences to their highest point; likewise the discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations … is likewise a condition of production founded on capital …
Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side — i.e., surplus labour, value-creating labour — so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilising science itself just as much as all the natural and human qualities, while there appears nothing higher than itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange. Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilising influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all the earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionises it, tearing down all the barriers, which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.
But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. Furthermore: The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension.131
However, the solution to capitalism's exploitation of the Earth and the worker does not lie in a return to the idyll of a "natural" society, to freezing, if that were even possible, the development of the forces of production. It lies instead in the capture by society from private capital of the means of production, making it possible for the first time for humanity to govern its impact on nature. The socialist revolution in alliance with science finally frees humanity to apply the laws of nature to the humanity-nature relation itself. In contemporary language, it is the precondition of truly sustainable development.
e. Early blueprints for sustainable societies
Aside from a few scattered general comments, Marx and Engels did not develop any systematic views on the organisation of the economy immediately following the overthrow of capitalism. However, as the German Social Democracy grew into a mass party the issue as to the forms socialism would take became more pressing. Thus Social-Democratic leader August Bebel in his work Women under Socialism explores the potential for socialist development made possible by the application of scientific knowledge in soil conservation, recycling and a healthy urban-rural balance. In The Agrarian Question Karl Kautsky anticipated that:
By overcoming the antithesis between town and country, or at least between the densely populated cities and the desolated open country, the materials removed from the soil would be able to flow back in full. Supplementary fertiliser would then, at most, have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment. Advances in cultivation would signify an increase in the amount of soluble nutrients in the soil without the need to add artificial fertilisers.132
Writers like Josef Popper and Karl Ballod developed models of societies ruled by sustainability in the flow of energy and materials and moderation in the use of exhaustible resources. Ballod, followed by Otto Neurath, developed ecological planning techniques, calculating, for example, the area of land that could be fertilised if the annual sewer waste of Berlin were recycled.
Rise of the modern environmental movement
However, environmental destruction only became an issue of broad public awareness and concern in the 1960s as a result of the qualitative leap in the degradation and pollution of the planet's air, water and land which came about within the framework of the long boom in the world capitalist economy in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period there was a massive increase in the use of fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, and an accompanying expansion of the automobile industry. In addition, there was a shift to the use of synthetic chemicals, which have penetrated every sector of human activity.
By the late 1960s, public awareness of the damaging impact of these technologies upon the Earth's environment (and of nuclear testing) had created a social climate conducive to the formation of a popular movement around this issue. The movement grew out of the protest movement against the US war on Vietnam. The antiwar movement was informed by the abundance of information detailing the detrimental environmental impact of the war in Indochina, as well as evidence of the extreme toxicity of a range of industrial chemicals to come to prominence after World War II (notably DDT, mercury and phosphates). The 1962 appearance of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was a turning point in the emergence of this mass awareness.
An undeniable achievement of the environment movement both in Australia and internationally has been the mobilisation and at least partial radicalisation of large numbers of people. Owing to its broad and growing support and ability to mobilise large numbers of people, the movement came to pose an incipient challenge to the demands of capital for unrestrained economic growth and profitability. In its earliest phases the environmental movement offered a direct challenge to the compatibility of environmental demands with the dominance of private property.
In Australia and many other countries, the movement has succeeded in pushing through numerous reforms, which have had the effect of partially decelerating the explosive increase in environmental destruction. This can be seen in the almost total halt in the building of new nuclear power stations, in the reductions of the use and production of some synthetic chemicals, and in the development of exhaust emission standards for cars and industrial plants.
Victories for the Australian movement include the successful 1983 blockade of the proposed dam on Tasmania's Franklin River; the curtailing, from the late 1970s, of uranium mining; restrictions on the logging of old-growth forests; and a large expansion in the number and extent of national parks.
Yet at the same time, global damage to the environment is greater than ever before. The reforms won by the movement at most have served to slow down the slide toward environmental destruction. From this perspective, the ongoing degradation of the biosphere points to the need to go beyond piecemeal reforms toward a fundamental transformation of society.
Ruling class responses to environmentalism
The response of the capitalist rulers to the challenge of the ecological movement has not been uniform. It has ranged from complete denial of the existence of the crisis (US President George Bush and ultra-right think tanks like the US Cato Institute) to the adoption of "sustainable development" as a policy goal, with the rhetoric of an Al Gore. In its overall response the capitalist ruling class has sought to discredit the more threatening claims of the environment movement while attempting to meet those of the movement's demands which are compatible with maintaining economic and political stability.
Of course, the fundamental limitation to the ruling class response to the environmental crisis lies in the refusal to accept any challenge to the private ownership and profit system, the root cause of environmental destruction. At best the results achieved by the capitalist class and its environmental reforms are a limited amelioration of the crisis in certain areas — the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions in the advanced capitalist economies, for instance. At its worst, corporate capital's response offers only a "Greenwash" of the problems; a blaming of the victims rather than seeking the fundamental causes of ecosystem breakdown. And, predictably, there's a growing trend in private industry to see whether "clean, green" production can't be made profitable in some areas (and hence boosted as the realistic solution to the crisis).
a. Business and the environmental crisis
Until the early 1980s the basic response of business to the environmental crisis was to continue treating nature along the lines described by Marx and Engels — as a storehouse to be ransacked for "factors of production" and as a sewer. For decades the big corporations polluted with impunity and succeeded in marginalising the small environmental movement. This was the epoch of such disasters as Love Canal, Minamata and the Monsanto Corporation's war of ridicule against Rachel Carson.
However, three decades of rapidly rising pollution and resource depletion brought the inevitable day of reckoning: business stood increasingly exposed as the prime suspects in the eyes of a public that was paying increasing attention to the environmental cause. For a period in the 1970s the general corporate response was to try to ride out the storm of criticism of its environmental record through a strategy that combined pressure to dilute government regulatory standards, systematic deceit (for example, meeting emission requirements only on the days the inspectors were on site), and terrorism against environmental activists (as in the corporate murder of anti-nuclear campaigner Karen Silkwood).
Although this phase came to an end with the 1977 release of dioxin in the Italian town of Seveso and the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, in general business's tactics were not without success. Despite the growth of a vast environmental bureaucracy (especially in the USA) the main indices of pollution continued to climb. Pollution reduction targets continued to be revised upwards; "safe levels" for emissions established by government regulators often coincided with existing business practice. The root cause of this failure was continuing corporate dependence on intrinsically toxic technologies. The use of mercury in chlorine production, of DDT in agriculture and lead in petrol could be banned (despite considerable corporate resistance), but nitrogen fertilisers, plastics and high-compression combustion engines could not be dispensed without making severe inroads into corporate profit. As Henry Ford II said: "Minicars make miniprofits".
However, the continual worsening of the environmental crisis (symbolised by disasters like the Exxon Valdez) and the ongoing broadening of environmental consciousness (particularly as reflected in the rise of Green parties) further increased the pressure on business to adapt. Even as the corporations continue to press government to adopt "realistic" emission targets and guarantee resource security, they have moved to adapt their operations to the new environmental reality. Leading the way in corporate environmental consciousness have been the insurance multinationals, for whom a decade of rising disaster payouts have provided persuasive evidence of the reality of global warming.
At one level this response has been purely decorative — annual reports are now on recycled paper, there are business environment institutes and awards, the corporates now sponsor World Environment Day and the dark satanic mills have been placed behind rows of native trees. Typical is US oil multinational Chevron. When the US Clean Air Act came up for renewal in 1990, Chevron and other oil giants spent millions trying to relax the provisions covering emissions from oil refineries. This didn't stop Chevron chairman George Keller from claiming that "at Chevron we're proud of a corporate environmental policy that says we comply fully with the letter and spirit of all laws affecting our operations".
The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash describes the offensive:
A leader in ozone destruction takes credit for being a leader in ozone protection. A giant oil company professes to take a "precautionary approach" to global warming. A major agrochemical manufacturer trades in a pesticide so hazardous it has been banned in many countries, while implying the company is helping to feed the hungry. A petrochemical firm uses the waste from one polluting process as raw material for another, and boasts that this is an important recycling initiative. A company cuts timber from natural rainforest, and replaces it with plantations of a single exotic species, and calls the project "sustainable forest development" … While they proclaim that "corporate environmentalism" is here, the TNCs are working to help create a new world order where international agreements and practices will give them unregulated, unparalleled power around the globe.133
Sharon Beder describes the corporate lust for greenwash, which saw US firms spend one billion dollars on environmental PR activities in 1995:
Every Earth Day provides another opportunity for firms to get environmental credentials, deserved or otherwise. One US PR consultant observed: "There's a virtual feeding frenzy among corporations about what roles they will play on Earth Day." On the same topic, the Public Affairs Director for the Monsanto Chemical Company has said: "There's a mad scramble for many companies to project an `I am greener than thou' attitude" …
The attempt to provide a "green" and caring persona for a corporation is a public relations strategy aimed at promising reform and heading off demands for more substantial and fundamental changes. A PR expert advised in Public Relations Journal:
"There really are no solid solutions to many environmental problems other than ceasing to partake in the activity that causes the environmental hazard. Therefore, the key to devising successful solution ideas is to show that your client cares about the environmental issue at hand."134
However, big capital knows that, given its record and community suspicion, more is required. So the corporations, often the worst polluters like DuPont (main world producer of polychlorinated biphenyls), are being forced to spend large sums cleaning up their operations (at least in those countries where environmental consciousness is most acute).
Business never stops complaining about the "excessive" cost of environmental protection, which in the US has been rising faster than the growth rate of industrial production. Pollution abatement costs currently stand at $40 billion a year for US manufacturing industry. Disposal costs for some toxic wastes have risen as high as $10,000 per ton 135 and can be ill-afforded in a global economic context marked by huge excess capacity and pressure on profit margins. Cost cutting is the imperative of the day, to be secured by unending attack on wages and environmental and occupational health and safety standards, if necessary through shifts to Third World pollution and cheap labour havens.
Nor has the corporate war against environmental activism eased. In the US agribusiness corporations have been so eager to stifle debate of toxic pesticide residues on food that the industry has been campaigning to pass "food disparagement" laws which make it a crime to criticise agricultural products without "a sound scientific basis". Such legislation is now on the books in eleven US states and under consideration in ten more. Even if such laws are not adopted federally they will depress discussion of the possibility that the products of agribusiness aren't good for human health.136
Even where corporate polluters are caught red-handed, capitalist governments are careful not to endanger private profitability too much. For example, while US energy utility Rockwell International was fined $18.5 million for intentionally polluting Rocky Flats, Colorado, with plutonium wastes, the same company was given "performance bonuses" totalling $22.6 million by the US Department of Energy for the last three years it ran the plant.
Similarly, after the Bhopal tragedy, which affected around 200,000 victims, plant operator Union Carbide deliberately liquidated a substantial portion of its assets in the form of special dividends to shareholders, thus reducing the company's ability to pay out compensation. (Most of the victims of Bhopal have still received no compensation.)
Notwithstanding this protection, business's position remains vulnerable because awareness is spreading that the prerequisites for a solution to the crisis already exist. Already, numerous global, regional and sectoral "blueprints for survival" have been developed; resource efficient and non-polluting technologies feature in the media; and practical courses of the treatment of the major environmental problems have been developed and formally adopted by governments and international agencies.
Taking the long view, the environmental crisis again confirms that when the ruling elites have developed their own plans for confronting an all-pervasive social crisis, the rest of society — the subordinate classes — are also capable of developing their own more radical response — at the expense of the ruling elites themselves.
This state of affairs makes the environment, especially environmental liability, a permanent fact of life for capital. Environmental management is now incorporated into the operations and management structures of major corporations. MBA courses now cover such topics as "best practice environmental management" and how to "change the corporate culture" along environmental lines. The new "pro-active" approach to environmental and community issues advocates that companies:
- Incorporate environmental management into their staff training and "total quality management" schemes;
- Have in place a well-supervised monitoring system, so that a company can react to pollution problems before being forced to react to outside deadlines and directives;
- Accept external auditing of the firm's environmental performance. By 1991 in Australia 75 per cent of chemical and mining companies and 53 per cent of companies in the metal trades were conducting external environmental audits. The point of such arrangements is for companies to have an early warning system as to the possibility of community protest or regulatory intervention;
- Become "pro-active" in their communication with local communities. Business is now putting much more effort into talking with local authorities and community groups in an attempt to diffuse or split opposition to their industries. In the words of environmental business consultant Christopher Davey: "Lack of local criticism of an operation removes one of the major triggers for the wave of public indignation that sweeps through communities from time to time, causing difficulties for industries".
A number of companies have moved even further along the spectrum of greenness. Apart from those which are producing for the burgeoning "green market", firms are to be found which are seeking to make their operation as environmentally benign as possible, in the knowledge that there's money in greenness. Thus the Australian arm of Shell spent $600 million on a refinery upgrade to reduce lead levels in its leaded petrol. In the US the 3M company introduced its Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) plan in 1975. By redesigning products and equipment, changing processes and recycling waste, 3M was able to save $537 million over a 15-year period and greatly reduce its rate of pollution emission.
The response of the more astute sections of multinational capital to the pressure for sustainability is encapsulated in the 1995 formation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which promotes the concept of "eco-efficient leadership", defined by WBCSD director Björn Stigson in these words:
The term has two elements: the first is eco-efficiency, which is about simultaneously improving environmental and financial performance; the second is about leadership, having visions, being proactive, transforming organisations and people. In everyday speech, eco-efficient leadership is how to do more with less, bring more value to your customers and come out looking great.137
With some 70,000 firms in the US now involved in some form of "environmental commerce" and with ethical investment funds also expanding rapidly, some environmentalists see no reason why the entire system of capitalist production can't be made ecologically benign. This prospect is outlined by leading US green entrepreneur Paul Hawken in his book The Ecology of Commerce. For Hawken the key to producing a "prosperous commercial culture that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature at every step" is to levy green taxes and subsidies at levels high enough to make polluting, resource-depleting production totally unprofitable within a given time span.
Hawken's approach is reminiscent of that of 19th century populist Henry George, for whom the cardinal sin of the capitalist system (unearned property income, especially through land speculation) was to be answered through the imposition of a single land tax. In a world of increasing capital mobility, Hawken's proposal is even more utopian than George's. Multinational firms are already decamping from countries with taxes, wages, infrastructure costs and environmental standards that are "too high": Hawken's proposal would simply accelerate the flight of capital to the pollution havens of a Third World that economists like former World Bank chief Lawrence Summers regard as "underpolluted".
The enormity of what Hawken is proposing can be understood better when we look at those very few companies that are practicing what he preaches. For instance, the Dutch information consultancy BSO/Origin began attaching a monetary value to the environmental damage done by operations in its 1990 annual report, subtracting a figure for this environmental "value lost" from conventional value added. Company president Eckhart Wintsen believes that all companies should be required to calculate, in cash terms, the burden that their products place on the ecosystem throughout their life cycle, and be made to pay an "extracted-value tax" on this basis. The revenue would be used for environmental repair. However, Philips, the Dutch electronics multinational with a 40 per cent stake in BSO, "has been unenthusiastic about Wintzen's suggestion that the company voluntarily pay its extracted-value tax into a fund to finance good works".138
As matters stand, "green corporate citizens" make up only a tiny minority of producers and even those companies with the best environmental record have not reduced total output of pollutants. 3M is a case in point. While its 3P program is supposed to have prevented the release of 32,600 tonnes of pollutants between 1975 and 1989, total pollution emissions increased because of big increases in production.139 Or take US telecommunications multinational AT&T, which aimed to phase out use of CFCs by 1994 along with sharp reductions in toxic air emissions, manufacturing waste and paper use. However:
Conspicuously absent … are goals for reducing carbon emissions and toxic wastes. Including these would permit the comprehensive restructuring of industrial processes that holds the key to building an environmentally sustainable global economy.140
However, the massive rise in environmental consciousness and the fact that there is no escape from most forms of pollution, means that even sections of the capitalist class will support some environmental demands, making possible very broad alliances against this or that instance of environmental degradation. This trend is reinforced by the growing division between those sections of capital which can afford to retool with less polluting equipment and those, like the oil multinationals, which have billions sunk in infrastructure with the potential to wreak havoc on the biosphere.
Similar divisions are opening up between those companies that stand to gain from the imposition of tighter regulations (for example, miners of platinum for catalytic converters, private incinerator owners and the "big few" who can afford the conversion costs of non-polluting technology). Green consumerism is also creating new classes of winners and losers. For example, German household-goods company Henkel developed a phosphate-free detergent which so rapidly swept the German market that the government was able to ban detergents containing phosphates: the losers were French detergent companies exporting their phosphate-based product into the German market.141
As the global environmental crisis deepens these intra-capitalist divisions will also deepen. The gap between business greenwash — and even the "sustainable development" plans of corporate think tanks — and its practice in the world of profit-making, will therefore also become more glaring, and more politically destabilising.
b. Environmental `governance'
Confronted with the depth of the environmental problem and the growing environmental movement the response of governments in many advanced capitalist countries was to establish regulatory organisations. The best example of this approach is that of the US, with legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the early 1970s. Australia, along with other countries, has followed the US lead.
The shortcomings of this approach are analysed by Barry Commoner in Making Peace with the Planet:
The United States is a good place to look for answers. Concern with the environment and efforts to improve it are now world-wide, but the United States is the place where the environment movement first took hold, and where the earliest efforts were made. Since the early 1970s the country has been governed by basic laws that were intended to eliminate air and water pollution and to rid the environment of toxic chemicals and of agricultural and urban wastes. National and state environmental agencies have been established; about a trillion dollars of public and private money have been spent … Environmental issues have taken a permanent place in the country's political life.142
Commoner then traces the degree of improvement achieved since the proclamation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The greatest success has been registered where minimal changes to production techniques have been required. Notable success has been achieved in reducing atmospheric concentrations of sulphur dioxide, the key constituent of acid rain. Largely emitted from the stacks of coal burning power stations, sulphur dioxide emissions decreased by around 50 per cent in Britain between 1976 to 1991 as a result of government regulation requiring the installation of "scrubbers" (pollution control devices that trap gasses before emission) to stacks. Atmospheric lead concentrations also decreased significantly as a result of regulation — by 94 per cent between 1975 and 1987.
Where pollution is more intrinsic to the production process, regulation has proved less effective. Regulations to install catalytic converters to the exhaust systems of all new cars has had the effect of decreasing the emissions of carbon monoxide from automobiles, by as much as 24 per cent between 1975 and 1987. However, increased social reliance on road transport (cars, trucks etc) has meant that despite regulation, concentrations of nitrogen oxides (a key contributor to the formation of petrochemical smog) continue to grow. Concentrations of the pollutant grew by as much as 35 per cent between 1986 and 1991 in Britain. Water quality has not been greatly improved by government regulation. "In sum," Commoner points out, "the regulations mandated by the Clean Water Act, and more than $100 billion spent to meet them have failed to improve water quality in most rivers." In fact while levels of phosphates remained relatively constant in US water systems from the 1970s to 1987, levels of other serious pollutants increased sharply. Nitrate levels in water increased most dramatically, owing to increased use of chemical fertilisers in farming.
Despite enormous expenditure on clean-up the US decontamination program runs massively behind schedule, over budget and with questionable quality of result. Superfund, the US funding agency established in 1980 with $1.6 billion to clean up 400 contaminated sites, now faces a bill of $300 billion to clean up 1200 sites, with another 900 expected by the year 2000. The US General Accounting Office has also found that the EPA's standards for declaring decontamination "successful" vary by as much as 360,000:1 from site to site.143
Outright banning of toxic substances has had much more impact. The banning of DDT in the US in 1972 meant that environmental concentrations fell dramatically over a short time. A similar result was achieved with PCBs. However, regulation has failed to halt the environmental dissemination of other seriously threatening chemicals, such as dioxin, concentrations of which have been steadily increasing. (Dioxin is a resultant waste product of the burning of certain plastic wastes at relatively low temperatures. Its increased concentrations in the biosphere have mirrored increasing production of materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for throw-away packaging.)
The lack of success of the regulatory approach forced a series of back-downs by the environmental bureaucracies. Targets for the reduction of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and ozone levels in US cities were set by the US EPA to be met by 1977. In 1977, with no cities coming close to compliance, deadlines were extended to 1982, and then again to December 31, 1987. At this date, the most polluted cities were given a further extension of time — until 2007!
Despite the apparently massive effort to the contrary, Commoner is forced to conclude:
In sum, the Congress has mandated massive environmental improvement; the EPA has devised elaborate, detailed means of achieving this goal; most of the prescribed measures have been carried out, at least in part; and in nearly every case the effort has failed to even approximate the goals.144
The response to the apparent failure of regulation has been a turn to deregulated market-based "risk management" approach to the setting of environmental standards. Pushed particularly by the Reagan administration in the USA, this approach attempted to combine environmental risk assessment with the "cost and feasibility" of reducing risks to arrive at a regulatory standard that is supposed to reduce the risk. The market-based approach to environmental protection was further extended with the introduction of tradable pollution rights. Companies are assigned a limit to which they are permitted to pollute. If they do not use the full "value" of their quota in any one year, it may be sold on the market to a company which has exceeded its own limits. The effect of this policy change "is a profound moral and political judgment: that poor people who lack the resources to evade it should be subjected to a more severe environmental burden than rich people."145 The responsibility for society to protect the living environment of the individual is obfuscated in a supposed drive for economic efficiency.
A sophisticated ruling class response to the challenge of the ecological movement is that encompassed in the so-called "international development" response. Characterised by its proponents as a "new paradigm", this response is centred around international relations between "developed" and "developing" countries. A thorough exposition of this response is given by US Vice-President Al Gore in Earth in the Balance. Gore presents the responsibilities of the "developed" nations as follows:
Many people of good will recognised early on the need to bring some coherence to the efforts of rich and poor nations to build a more just civilisation; what came to be called development is now the chief means by which wealthy nations — often working through multilateral institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks — can help undeveloped nations accelerate their transition to modernity.146
While recognising that the development paradigm often entailed serious environmental harm, Gore sees it as the basis for a global approach:
While it is true that there are no real precedents for this kind of global response now required, history does provide us with at least one powerful model of cooperative effort: the Marshall Plan.147
The crux of such a plan would be:
… massive efforts to design and then transfer to poor nations the new technologies needed for sustained economic progress, a worldwide program to stabilise world population and binding commitments by the industrial nations to accelerate their own transition to an environmentally responsible pattern of life.148
From the advanced capitalist countries the main requirement would be "money for helping the transfer of environmental helpful technologies to the Third World", while the Third World itself would have to guarantee "sustainable population and a new pattern of sustainable economic progress". Gore's strategy would involve a massive reallocation of resources. The proposal entails a virtual reversal of the existing economic relations between rich and poor nations. The action plan envisages the transfer of technologies to the Third World, on other than a market basis. If carried out, Gore's proposal would see a massive slump in profits currently derived from exploitation of the Third World's resources. No individual capitalist firm, group of firms or nation could countenance such action. While it is certainly a basis to a solution to the ecological crisis, Gore does not suggest any feasible way it could be implemented. Thus despite all the rhetoric regarding the joint responsibility of rich and poor nations for the environmental crisis, the "global action" approach collapses into an attempt to rehabilitate the idea that it is the rapid growth of population in the Third World that is the principal threat and chief obstacle to solving the global ecological crisis.
This neo-Malthusian view was particularly reflected in the run up to the third UN International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in September 1994. Imperialist governments argued that population growth was a cause rather than a symptom of ecological/social breakdown, with the consequent obfuscation of the underlying reasons for global environmental rupture. The Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights was very critical of the basic intent of the conference. While it attempted to enlist the support of feminists, with statements linking population control with the empowerment of women, the Network saw the official conference as having a very narrow agenda:
Fundamental to the consensus is the view that rapid population growth is one of the major causes of the environmental crisis, despite the occasional lip service paid to the problem of consumption. Blaming such a large proportion of environmental degradation on the world's poorest people is unsustainable, both scientifically and ethically.
This is not to deny that the poor are involved in deforestation, though on a global level they are clearly not the main culprits. Moreover, it is important to look at the underlying reasons why poor people degrade their environment when they do. In some cases the reason may be scarcity of fuel wood and the lack of alternative energy forms, in others the need to farm marginal land because the best land is controlled by a powerful few. Population pressure can contribute to the pressure, but it is rarely the root cause. Why then does the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) continue to blame population in publication after publication?149
A more rounded response to the environmental crisis was developed by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, particularly in Our Common Future. The report clearly identified the key environmental threat as poverty and the unequal distribution of the world's resources. It strongly advocated the need for sustainable development. However, the scale of the change the report deemed necessary was a challenge to the institution that commissioned it:
The Commission has noted a number of actions that must be taken to reduce risks to survival and to put future development on paths that are sustainable. Yet we are aware that such a reorientation on a continuing basis is simply beyond the reach of present decision making structures and institutional arrangements both national and international.150
Reflecting the largely advisory nature of the UN General Assembly, the report attempts to set goals for change rather than outlining strategies. The document addresses all key areas of environmental concern as identified by the UN, concluding each section with a series of recommendations.
In terms of a strategy for change however, the report has little to offer. Apart from recommendations to increase the power of bureaucratic bodies such as the UN itself, the commission suggests very little to alter the system in the fundamental way it alludes is necessary. For while clearly defining the key problem of the environment as one of social control over the industrial process and international relations, the commission failed to offer any strategy to fundamentally challenge the power of those who make the production decisions, the ruling corporations.
The most lasting result of the commission's deliberations was the initiation of the process that led to the holding of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in 1992. The UNCED conference adopted five documents, including two statements of principles, two conventions and an action agenda (Agenda 21). None of the documents adopted is considered binding on the participating nations, relying rather on moral pressure.
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development lays down the framework for international cooperation on environmental issues agreed at the conference. In substance this document recognises the responsibility of nations for their own environmental impact, as well as espousing general principles on international cooperation, elimination of poverty and war and the need for the empowerment of women. Other declarations lay down general principles on the conservation of forests, international measures necessary to inhibit global warming and to guarantee biological diversity. Agenda 21 lays out the basis of actions necessary to implement the content of the principles adopted.
Despite the gains in environmental consciousness made during the course of the conference, few concrete steps have been taken toward implementation. For example, the documents set a specific target for environmental aid from the "North" to the "South". Environmental aid was to be increased to 0.7 per cent of the combined GNP of these nations. By mid 1993, the amount of aid had declined by $6 billion from 0.33 per cent to 0.29 per cent of combined national income.
The Rio agreement on biological diversity calls on signatory states to recognise endangered species and move to protect their habitats. The agreement has done little to halt the rate of deforestation and species extinction as habitats are destroyed by forestry and agricultural activities. The biological diversity convention also contains certain provisions that would seem to contradict its intent. Under pressure from US negotiators, the draft of the final document opened the way for the patenting of life-forms.
The document allows those who possess the genetic "blueprint" of plant species to patent these and so have absolute control over their genetic use. This provision is tantamount to ceding control of future advances in agricultural productivity to those who currently control gene reserves — the agrotechnology multinationals like Cargill.
Although the majority of crop genetic strains are found in countries of the Third World, the genetic materials are stored and catalogued in institutes controlled by the industrialised nations. The biodiversity convention therefore explicitly gives the North the right to patent the genetic rights to these seeds, effectively giving these nations control over developments in agriculture in perpetuity. The failure of the US Bush administration to sign the treaty at Rio, reflected a reluctance on behalf of some capitalist interests to have to pay for any further genetic materials taken from the South, while the decision to sign on the part of the Clinton administration is explicit recognition that institutionalising property rights over life-forms will benefit the industrialised nations most.
UNCED gave the global environmental effort an agenda (inadequate), institutions and a monitoring process. It gave birth to the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) which, while having no legal or financial clout, serves as a forum for reviewing progress on sustainable development. The CSD is in effect the Rio Summit in microcosm and in regular session: through it governments can be held up to shame, independent scientific assessments can be heard and NGOs can mobilise pressure for faster change. But it lacks any power to enforce compliance with the 215 international agreements presently in operation, nor has it any power to compel important non-participating nations to commit themselves to Agenda 21 and other targets and undertakings.
Currents in ecological thought
This is inevitable, because green political thought in all its varieties grows in the soil of capitalist class society and must — explicitly or implicitly — take a stand on all the issues to which this society gives rise. Attempts to evade such vital issues under the naive and conceited illusion that green politics is "neither right nor left but out in front" inevitably produces absurd results in the realm of real political struggle: greens and environmentalists, like everyone else, must choose where they stand on all social issues.
While the science of ecology arose in the interstices of previously existing disciplines (botany, biology, meteorology, physics, chemistry) and contributed its own specific understanding of the web of previously hidden or misunderstood relationships and while the revival of ecological consciousness took place across the political spectrum, ecology as such carried with it no new political insight or method. Inevitably, however, each and every political trend in ecological thought uncovers in the workings of nature analogues of how, according to its particular viewpoint, human society should function. Ecological sanction can be found for any ideological product.
For Garret Hardin the "the allocation of rights based on territory must be defended if a ruinous breeding race is to be avoided". For the social Darwinist survival of the fittest is a law of social existence. For eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin the "non-hierarchical nature of ecosystems" sets the example for "the achievement of a totally new, non-hierarchical society in which the domination of nature by man, of woman by man, and of society by the state is completely abolished." Norwegian Arne Naess's "deep ecology" points to "deep socialism".
There is nothing new here. Nature has been ransacked for metaphors to justify all political ideologies at least since ancient Greek times. The difference today, given the rise of ecological science, is that these metaphors acquire a pseudo-scientific colouration: "laws" of nature are converted into "laws" of social organisation and development or models of ecologically sustainable communities.
1. Environmental reformism and `eco-capitalism'
The dominant political approach within the environmental movement has been that of lobbying capitalist governments to introduce legislative regulations against environmental degradation — the politics of liberal reformism. While opposing the now discredited position that the market can of itself guarantee a safe and clean environment, this approach argues that the market economy, regulated and adjusted by an appropriate mix of taxes and subsidies, is able to achieve the best result.
Thus legislation that combines the right degree of bureaucratic state action with a "playing field" appropriately tilted by well-judged green taxation is capable of ensuring environmentally sustainable production. Legislation which regulates emissions of pollutants, which licences outflows and allows for often harsh penalties for infringements, is married with the creation of bureaucratic enforcement agencies which are intended to police the legislation.
This liberal reformist approach, which focusses on lobbying capitalist politicians, has formed the standard politics of the best-known environmental organisations. Their small bureaucratic apparatuses preside over often very large paper memberships. These organisations, such as Greenpeace internationally, the Sierra Club in the US and the Australian Conservation Foundation promote themselves as spokespeople for the movement as a whole, even while their quasi-corporate organisational structures entrench unaccountability.
With few exceptions these are "top-down" organisations which do not seek to involve and mobilise their members. Where they do initiate mass protest actions, the aim is to exert public pressure on capitalist politicians to listen to the organisation's lobbyists. Some of these liberal-dominated organisations, most notably Greenpeace, prefer to use spectacular actions by small groups of "environmental commandos" to draw attention to environmental scandals. However, while often attracting publicity and sympathy, such stunts tend to ensure that the majority of members of the organisation remain passive observers and not participants in the movement.
In the realm of capitalist politics these organisations inevitably gravitate to the "lesser evil" of the main capitalist parties, such as the US Democrats or the Labour parties of countries like New Zealand and Australia. Certain environmental leaders have even been inveigled into supporting the conservative wing of capitalist party politics, as happened in the 1996 Australian national poll, where the promise of an environment fund had certain leaders supporting the privatisation of the country's public telecommunications carrier, Telstra.
In the advanced capitalist countries more or less stable coalitions for environmental reform and "sustainable development" have come together between government, business and broad sections of the environment movement. American environmentalist Daniel Faber analyses the US variant:
The Clinton/Gore strategy accommodates general environmental policy aims in exchange for the granting of major concessions to American industry. This strategy includes isolating more business-friendly mainstream environmental organisations from the rest of the movement in corporatist-type negotiating arrangements. The purpose of such "environmental mediation" and "dispute resolution" strategies is to enlist the support of this wing of the ecology movement in a number of highly symbolic policy initiatives which give the Clinton/Gore administration the appearance of being pro-environment. In exchange for such support, business is rewarded with a loosening of other regulations and granted forms of economic compensation (often in the form of "free-market" alternatives) which come at the expense of other environmental organisations and the issues over which they are battling. The "realism" of this approach has even lead traditional environmental organisations into a suspicious and uncooperative stance towards Green parties, regarded by some environmental officials as an unwelcome complicating factor in the game of extracting the best possible deal from the contending "parties of government".151
The established environmental lobby organisations, overwhelmingly white and professional in composition, are also prey to alliances with ruling capitalist elites on such issues as immigration, as well as being indifferent to the needs of workers in polluting and environmentally destructive industries. For instance, when in 1983 US logging giants Louisiana-Pacific and Weyerhaeuser demanded wage cuts of their workers and strikes broke out throughout the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s, environmentalists were nowhere to be seen. In similar fashion:
During the 1960s and 1970s, while the "Big Ten" environmental groups focussed on wilderness preservation and conservation through litigation, political lobbying and technical evaluation, activists of colour were engaged in mass direct action mobilisations for basic civil rights in the areas of employment, housing, education and health care. Thus, two parallel and sometimes conflicting movements emerged, and it has taken nearly two decades for any significant convergence to occur between these two efforts. In fact, conflicts still remain over how the two groups should balance economic development, social justice and environmental protection.152
In the US as well as Australia the wedding of reformist environmental organisations to the parliamentary process has led in instances to their virtual cooption by government. Mark Dowie says of the major US environmental lobbyist organisations:
To a growing number of environmentalists … chummy breakfasts with Al [Gore] symbolise the compromised gradualism that has put the movement on the road to becoming an endangered species.153
The traditional environmental organisations have tended until recently to share the regulatory approach to pollution, debating with government over how to regulate the production facilities that, both sides understand, it is up to private capital to build and operate.
Even now, when it is better understood that pollution is inherent in the very design of many production technologies, the goals of environmentalism are regularly readjusted to fit in with the given balance of political forces. Thus Jay D. Hair, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, has stated that "our arguments [for conservation] must translate into profits, earnings, productivity and incentives for industry".154
The ideological consensus that expresses this viewpoint could be called "eco-capitalism", the view in the words of Michael Rothschild, "this thing we call capitalism isn't an `ism' at all, but a natural phenomenon",155 like a rainforest or a beehive, regulating itself through the dynamic feedback mechanisms typical of ecosystems. The growth of this "eco-capitalist" ideology is pronounced. Many environmentalists, caught between the "end of communism", the failure of two decades of regulatory effort and the intensification of the environmental crisis, see no alternative but to entrust the solution of the crisis to having an environmentally level playing field create enough environmentally aware capitalists committed to installing clean, green technology on a big enough scale.
In contrast to the liberal reformists are those various currents which each in their own way recognise that a radical change in the existing social order is needed. However, most of these, because they fail to grasp the essential link between capitalist production and the environmental crisis, exhibit a more or less marked bent to see the solution in a return to small-scale production by local communities — that is, to put the wheel of history into reverse.
There's a widespread trend of thinking in the green political movement that leads back to 19th century anarchists like Peter Kropotkin (Fields, Factories and Workshops of Tomorrow) or to utopian socialists like Charles Fourier and William Morris. In their attempts to deal with the misery, exploitation and alienation of industrial capitalism, they posed future visions of creative and free self-reliant communities in harmony with nature and other communities. These views emphasis the role and responsibility of the individual, who is fulfilled in relation to the community. Decentralised economies and politics, common ownership of property, distribution according to needs, non-hierarchic direct democracy built on the notion of communes and cooperatives are their main features.
Ecological theorists like E. F. Schumacher, Murray Bookchin and Ted Trainer all arrive at their own particular variant of this panacea, though each starts by selecting a different feature of industrial civilisation as the root cause of the environmental crisis. This is no accident: whatever aspect of industrial society they choose to emphasise, these thinkers all tend to view the growth of the productive powers of society (for which capitalism was necessary) as largely evil. Whether capitalism brought with it inhuman-scale technology (Schumacher), overconsumption (Trainer) or anti-ecological dominant hierarchies (Bookchin), the solution tends to involve a flight back towards to pre-capitalist petty commodity production.
Ted Trainer's main ideas have been expressed in two books — Abandon Affluence and Developed to Death. They contain very detailed presentations of trends in resource depletion and energy supply, population growth, the wastefulness of consumer societies, and the exploitation of the Third World by wealthier nations. Trainer argues strongly against those who believe that these problems can be addressed adequately through existing political and social institutions.
However, as the title indicates, Abandon Affluence argues that all have to accept a lower level of consumption — the root cause of the ecological crisis is "overconsumption" by individual consumers in the industrially developed countries. This argument undervalues the great disparities in income that exist within the developed countries. It also fails to grasp that wasteful consumption is overwhelmingly created by the needs of capital for ever expanding markets: if profits are to be maintained planned obsolescence, the permanent stimulation of new "needs" through advertising, multiple versions of the same product and unnecessary packaging are all unavoidable. Thus Trainer's tendency to blame individual consumption levels for the ecological crisis stems from his equating affluence (a plentiful supply of products meeting rational needs) with the consumerism and wasteful consumption created by capitalism.
His line of argument also suffers from a strong dose of technological determinism. Capitalism stimulates the development of technologies which are as productive as possible from the point of view of the individual firm (and which give labour as little power as possible over the production process). However, once production becomes driven by social need new technology formation and diffusion can become influenced by other needs, such as that of keeping pollution output and energy and materials throughput to an absolute minimum. Indeed, this is the only condition under which technology can generally become "appropriate". Yet, while recognising the need for social planning in order to deal with environmental problems, Trainer argues for the retention of a "free enterprise economy".
For E. F. Schumacher, a seminal influence on green political thought, the core problem is unrestrained industrialisation. Technology should fulfil human and ecological purposes — be "technology with a human face". Schumacher's work is a polemic against the "bigger is better" ethic of expanding capitalism, but he locates the cause not in the material conditions for capitalist production and reproduction, but in six "anti-environmental values" stemming from the 19th century and "which still dominate, as far as I can see, the minds of `educated' people today". These are: evolution; competition, natural selection and the survival of the fittest; the Marxist belief in the material base of history; the Freudian emphasis on the overriding importance of the subconscious mind; the ideas of relativism, "denying all absolutes, dissolving all norms and standards"; and the belief that "valid knowledge can be attained only through the methods of the natural sciences".156
Jumbling together scientific knowledge in the natural sciences (natural selection), scientific method in the social sciences (historical materialism), scientism and positivism in philosophy (only the natural sciences afford true knowledge) and pure capitalist ideology (social Darwinism), Schumacher "explains" capitalism as a product of false, inhuman and non-spiritual ideas. The solution then comes readily enough: to replace these false ideas with valid precepts drawn from the spiritual wisdom of Eastern religion.
This eclectic confusion is standard fare in green political thought. However, given the domination of mid to late 20th century political and economic theory by positivism (in the advanced capitalist world) and vulgar "Marxism" (in the Stalinist-ruled countries), it was inevitable that the revival of ecological thinking could only find expression in a re-emergence of idealist, even directly religious, modes of thought.
Thus in a lot of ecological thought the healthy reaction against positivism and the standard academic compartmentalisation of the sciences flows over into rejection of scientific knowledge and, in some cases, outright mysticism. The revolt against mechanistic materialism and academic specialisation which erects impassible barriers between the sciences takes the form of holism, which dissolves the real distinctions between the laws of the physical world, the laws of the animal world and the laws of social development. Revulsion from the purely instrumental attitude towards the natural world fostered by capitalism leads to the revival of nature philosophy and fantastic schemes to return human society to harmony with nature under precapitalist conditions.
This trend reaches its most theoretically developed form in the work of US eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin argues that the destruction of the environment is the product of domination and hierarchy in human society:
The truth is that man has produced imbalances not only in nature, but more fundamentally, in his relations with his fellow man — in the very structure of society. To state this thought more precisely: The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world.157
As long as sexism, ageism, racism and militarism continue so will the domination of nature and ecological destruction. Bookchin rejects the conventional explanations of the ecological crisis (technology, overconsumption and overpopulation) as superficial and fraught with reactionary implications. In their place, however, he sets an ahistorical theory of hierarchy, with domination playing the role of original sin. Hierarchy is the:
… cultural, traditional and psychological system of obedience and command, not merely the economic and political systems to which the terms class and State most appropriately refer … I refer to the domination of the young by the old, of women by men, of one ethnic group by another, of "masses" by bureaucrats who profess to speak in their "higher social interests", of countryside by town, and in a more subtle psychological sense, of body by mind, of spirit by a shallow instrumental rationality.158
Bookchin sets against "man"-imposed hierarchy the spontaneous and purposive evolution of ecosystems towards increasing complexity and consciousness:
The universe bears witness to an ever-striving, developing — not merely "moving" — substance, whose most dynamic and creative attribute is its ceaseless capacity for self-organisation into increasingly complex forms.159
Bookchin evades the issue of whether the various forms of class society that have arisen throughout history were necessary or not. The Marxist explanation — that they successively corresponded to and for a time promoted growth in society's productive forces — is rejected as "scientistic" and hostile to an ecological approach. Bookchin doubts that capitalism was ever progressive. Moreover, in his eyes Marxism ("blind to authority as such") shares the original sin of the Enlightenment — "the concept of `lawfulness' itself". Instead of a scientific and materialist explanation of social development Bookchin propounds a religious concept of necessity drawn from ancient Greek thought, in which "`necessity' was not merely compulsion but moral compulsion that had meaning and purpose".
Very radical though it may be in Bookchin, this idealism is typical of nearly all ecological philosophising. The problem doesn't lie in the material forces driving social and economic development, and the answer shouldn't be based on dissecting how such development comes about. Rather, the problem is to be solved by the adoption of some appropriately ecological "philosophy" (Greek or Tao or whatever) and then attempting to set up a model community according to precepts involved.
Bookchin's preferred recipe is that of an "ecocommunity" that mimics the self-sustaining character of an ecosystem. This is a:
… permanent, intimate, decentralised community of a dozen or so sisters and brothers, a family or commune as it were, who are drawn together not only by common actions and goals, but by a need to develop new libertarian social relations between themselves, to mutually educate each other, share each others' problems, and develop new, non-sexist, non-hierarchical ties as well as activities.160
How such communities, even if they could be made to last, could successfully challenge the ideological and institutional underpinnings of capitalist class power is not explained by Bookchin.
Indeed, it's typical of all the utopians that, centering their solutions on the local, ecologically harmonious community deploying appropriate technology, they are at best ambiguous on the fundamental issues of economic and political power. At worst, in Ted Trainer, not only would the market remain ("to take advantage of the indisputable merits of a free enterprise economy"), but a huge reduction in labour productivity would be acceptable, even a step forward:
… people would be involved in active physical work for much of their waking day, producing things for themselves and their communities … A tiring twelve-hour day involving ceaseless physical work on a multitude of odd jobs and creative problems in the workshop and the garden might be better described as absorbing play than as work.161
If they could ever be realised, such "conserver" societies would only recreate the social conditions that gave rise to industrial capitalism. Instead of being a progressive solution to the problems created by industrial capitalism, the local "ecotopias" favoured by Bookchin, Trainer, Schumacher and others would simply cause them to reappear.
In the ecological thinking of Trainer, Bookchin and even Schumacher the idealist philosophical impulse is more or less constrained by the desire to produce a hopefully feasible answer to the environmental crisis. However, despite mutual hostility, it is not a huge step from their utopianism to the more mystical outlooks of deep ecology, ecofeminism and Gaia — "ecophilosophical" worldviews capable at best of becoming cults.
In all these outlooks the rejection of the mechanical materialism of the 17th century (the philosophical expression of rising capitalism) takes the form of reversions to nature idolatry, paganism, shamanism and animism. The core ecological insight — of the complex, web-like interrelatedness of all things animate and inanimate — becomes converted, not into a more sophisticated and dialectical scientific outlook, but into outright mysticism.
The most theoretical exponent of this trend is physicist and New Age irrationalist Fritjof Capra. In The Turning Point, beginning with the standard "ecological" polemic against the "Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm", Capra draws on the developments in physics in the 20th century to reject a mechanistic or atomistic worldview and calls for a revival of Eastern mysticism on the grounds that Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen have traditionally held to the principle of the oneness of all things. The wisdom that Capra uncovers in these religions is primitive (that is, pre-scientific) dialectics, the reflection in the human mind of the patterns of change and development in nature. Other exponents of deep ecology seek out the same wisdom in the work of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.
However, the move from the undialectical materialism of the Enlightenment to ancient religions imbued with a dialectical outlook is a gigantic step backwards. Many ecological theorists date the beginning of the tragedy of the environment from this time, when humanity through science supposedly acquired the capacity to "dominate" nature on an unprecedented scale. Not only is this wrong in point of fact, but the growth of labour productivity brought about by the rise of science and technology made possible for the first time a decent life for all human beings and the possibility of humanity determining the terms on which it would live with nature.
Having opened the door to pre-scientific ways of apprehending the world, the mystical stream of ecological thought turns inevitably to those outlooks which most directly express humanity's oneness with nature. This involves a regression to prereligious modes of thought, most notably animistic and shamanistic cults, which make little or no distinction between living and non-living objects. All things were seen as living, even the Earth itself, often conceived as "Mother".
James Lovelock developed the notion in The Gaia Hypothesis that the planet itself may be a living organism, naming it Gaia (after the Greek goddess of the earth) and arguing that life on Earth constantly reproduces the meteorological and hydrological environment that underpins its existence. Apparently inanimate matter like atmospheric water vapour and trace gases are as part of Gaia's life as a lobster's exoskeleton or a cat's fur. This model, which Lovelock bases on the interaction of the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil, provides the basis for many of the environment movement's arguments that respecting the health of the planet entails privileging the planet over that of any species living on it. Lovelock argues that species which have prospered have been those that have helped Gaia's self regulation, while species which pose a threat as humans currently do, are likely to be extinguished. He concludes:
I would want to stress that in no way is Gaia fragile. Gaia has withstood devastations far beyond our powers at least thirty times during the three-and-a-half billion years of her life-span. Nothing that we can do threatens her. But, of course, if we transgress in our pollutions and our forest clearance, Gaia can move to a new stable state, and one that's no longer comfortable for us. So living with Gaia is not so different from a human relationship. It is an affair of the heart as well as the head; and if we are to do it lovingly, it is something that must be renewed on a daily basis if it is to succeed.162
While Lovelock states that "I never envisaged Gaia in any sense as a sentient being, a substitute for God" and doesn't attribute intelligence to Gaia, many of his followers do. Gaianism lends itself to New Age mysticism, including paganism, to deep ecology and the "bioethic" which calls for respect and reverence for nature`s intrinsic rights and worth, privileging these rights over human rights or needs.
The Earth mother aspect of Gaia is central to ecofeminism, which contrasts the "masculine" desire to exploit nature through science with the "feminine" values embodied in many ancient cults. Ecofeminism equates the ongoing domination of nature by men with the ongoing domination of women, arguing that they are systemically related. Some ecofeminists take this to the level of intuition — that because of the shared exploitation and domination by men, women and nature share a common understanding of that exploitation in some mystical relationship. Women become the "voice" of nature, usually based on their capacity to give birth and nurture, as in many mythologies predating the rise of class society.
These three viewpoints theorise their outlook as "ecocentrism". This standpoint, which prioritises non-human nature and at least places it on a par with humanity, is contrasted to that of "anthropomorphism" (human-centredness), supposedly guilty, even in its most environmentally conscious versions, of fostering the domination of nature by humanity. However, ecocentrism, inasmuch as it amounts to a theory, is erected on a number of fallacies. Firstly, there is no such thing as "the standpoint of nature and other biota" independent of human perception. The very definition of nature and ecological balance is a human act, made in relation to humanity's needs.
Secondly (and ironically) all ecocentric schools of thought suffer to some degree or other from anthropomorphism. This is the inevitable concomitant of their abandoning a scientific (not scientistic) viewpoint for some variety of idealism or religion. In ecocentric theory nature, living things and ecosystems acquire human attributes, as the laws of development of the physical, natural and human worlds are conflated and confused.
Thirdly, in attacking the short-term, partial rationality of academic sciences like neo-classical economics, ecocentrism abandons any conception of rationality itself, and hence of the ability of the human species to grasp its long-term relations with the environment and so act to stabilise and nurture these through social and political action.
In the most extreme cases of deep ecology this takes such bizarre forms as Aldo Leonard's injunction to "think like a mountain", Bill Duvall's claim that we are "citizens of the biosphere", Roberick Nash's axiom that only when the question "do rocks have rights" doesn't sound ridiculous will a true ecological consciousness have arrived, and Paula Gunn Allen's intimation that "The Woman I Love is a Planet". Lastly, "ecocentrism" is bereft of means with which to understand the course of human social and intellectual development. Everything has gone wrong since humanity began to feel separate from nature, producing a 10,000-year "anthropocentric detour". According to George Sessions "the West had several decisive historical opportunities to … return to ecocentrism, but the dominant culture has not done so". The history of human civilisation has been a mistake, an "epistemological error".
Even in its less extreme versions ecocentrism's stance against anthropomorphism confuses humanism with human arrogance and megalomania towards nature. James Lovelock writes:
Our humanist solicitude towards the poor living in the impoverished suburbs of the big cities of the Third World, and our almost obscene obsession with death, suffering and pain — as if these were harmful in themselves — all these thoughts deflect our attention from the problem of our harsh and excessive domination of the natural world.163
The overall thrust of ecocentrism is conservative, especially in its most unmoderated form, deep ecology. Human desires are not more special than those of other "biota"; the world ecological system is too complex for humans to understand; the best attitude humanity can adopt is to contemplate, not change, the world.
4. The conservatives and reactionaries
Right from the start the questions and explanations advanced of the relationship between nature and the human species have provided the basis for reactionary as well as progressive political movements. During the 19th and early 20th centuries environmentalism was often considered to be a conservative, even reactionary, issue. Ecoconservatism reflects a romantic and nostalgic attachment to the rural way of life threatened by urbanism and industrialisation. It doesn't envisage any forward movement based on ideas of democracy, cooperation and ecology, but longs for a return to the pre-industrial utopia of rural life and the known security of fixed hierarchical social relations. Such a view typically focuses on the issue of conservation and attempts to preserve what is known as "the natural heritage" — forests, fields and moorlands as well as the architectural and social heritage.
The preservation of nature can even be linked to a return to the feudal past. Edward Goldsmith, Schumacher Society member and co-author of the Blueprint for Survival, has argued that an ecological society would involve the resurrection of traditional order within the family and the community and a return to a strong authoritarian state: the ideal would be the oppressive Indian caste system.164 Similar views were expressed by the right in, for example, Margaret Thatcher's 1988 "green" speech in which she described the British Conservative Party as "the guardians and trustees of the earth".
In the United States conservative environmentalism takes on the tones of robust frontier Republicanism:
A market economy does not maintain an industry simply for the sake of employing workers. When a product becomes obsolete or a resource runs dry, the economy adapts. Companies and industries have been changing or shutting down for 200 years, and workers always find new jobs — the nation is not lacking in jobs; it's a natural, necessary component of capitalism. Chopping down forests for the sake of jobs is nothing more than social welfare — not something our nation prides itself on.165
In Russia today groups like Pamyat take up issues of conservation as well as extreme Russian nationalism, racism and anti-semitism. Conservation and eco-conservatism has been linked to extreme reaction. During the Third Reich an agrarian nature philosophy was preached by Walter Darre, the Minister of Agriculture, under the slogan "Blood and Soil". Combining Nordic racialism with an idealisation of rural life Darre argued for Germans to abandon the city and return to the soil to adopt a peasant existence. Darre advocated organic farming and eugenics as essential features of a strong Germany.
Rapid industrialisation in Nazi Germany also created a strong back-to-the-land movement particularly among students and young people. The German Youth Movement developed out of the "Wandervoegel" — bands of German students who returned to nature through a mystical experience of the forests and mountains in a romantic escape from the alienation of urban life. Ecofascist movements today combine back-to-naturism with aspects of the Mother Earth worship. Earth First!, part of the deep ecology movement, contains many elements that underlie such reactionary positions. Arguing that people are the problem, Earth Firsters call themselves tribalists, practicing the totemism and ritual of tribal society. This is based on a warrior cult of certain American Indian tribes who conceive non-human species as kindred "peoples" and through rituals of inclusion, extend the community of common concern beyond human beings. They see themselves at war with modernity and practice acts of sabotage (ecotage) against any encroachment on wilderness areas.
Human society's very existence is challenged, almost on an original sin basis, by these deep ecologists. Some quite fascist and racist positions have been explicitly advanced by leading proponents like Dave Foreman, who outlines the view that famines are nature's population control and that humanitarian and food aid should be withheld from starving populations, and Christopher Manes, who sees the HIV/AIDS virus itself as desirable as a means of population control and destruction of urban life and whose central slogan is "Back to the Pleistocene!". This fits into the Earth First! apocalyptic belief that industrial society must collapse under its own unsustainable weight. If enough of the species survive then evolution will resume its natural course: if humans survive they will have the opportunity to re-establish tribal ways of living in balance with nature.
The strand of ecofeminism that practices similar pagan rituals (including witchcraft) and espouses Earth goddess beliefs also propounds the view that there is an inherent male-female difference. This in turn reinforces a biological determinist explanation of women's oppression, and sanctifies motherhood and the creativity of birth. The elevation of gender difference also reinforces those reactionary theories, which have traditionally justified an inferior and subordinate role for women, as in fascism's church, children and kitchen philosophy.
5. Their common features
What most of these diverse ecopolitical strands have in common is a strategy based on educating the individual and setting examples, whether by the ecotage of Earth First! or the ecocommunities of green anarchism. In that sense all are romantic reactions to the existing capitalist system and all fail to grasp how its institutions and power structures stand in the way of realising an environmentally benign and socially just society.
Because of this romanticism, all tend to hark backwards for a model of such a society, in a past free of the horrors of today's ecocide. This requires a denial of contemporary social and ecological reality, which is particularly marked in the whole range of ecocentrism — even in those who reject the extremes of deep ecology. Having objected to modernity and the Enlightenment on the grounds that these led to the notion of nature as simply material for exploitation by humanity, the ecocentrics now invert this relation. Nature is privileged over the human species. Nature becomes too complex for humans to understand. Humans may be considered part of nature but their desires are not to be privileged.
The root flaw in the ecocentric argument lies in the confusion of the environmental crisis with humanity's domination of nature. The "domination of nature" is not responsible for environmental problems. Rather, the very presence of these problems proves the inadequacy and partial nature of that "domination" that is inevitable under capitalism. To end the ecological crisis will require more "domination", that is, more conscious, collective and democratic control by humans of their relationship with the natural world, but one based on a profound grasp of the complex interrelatedness of the "web of life".