Why "going green" isn't enough
argues that the keys to preventing catastrophic climate change and stopping environmental degradation can't be found under capitalism.
DEPRESSINGLY, THOUGH very importantly, something all who believe in changing the world and transforming society must come to terms with is the fact that monumental changes rarely come about easily and solutions are seldom simple.
Such is the case with a great deal of the methods being used to curb the ecological crisis--from buying organic or driving a hybrid car to even something as engrained as recycling.
Society must ask itself: Can we truly create a sustainable future through market-based, consumerist conclusions--by "going green?" Can we buy our way to a better future? Or will the task, perhaps, involve a more holistic approach--one that looks at the current, growth-based, capitalist system and a reassessment of where to direct efforts?
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Long-term solutions or guilt-driven Band-Aids?
In Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, progressive journalist Heather Rogers embarks on a globe-trotting journey to thoroughly investigate how many of the purported "green capitalist" remedies are working out.
Written as a response to those who would argue that simply "buying green" and recycling can subvert ecological disaster, Rogers' book presents the harsh realities in sections devoted to food, shelter and transportation. She looks at how organic standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have become watered down over the years, the difficulties faced by organic farmers who are not subsidized in the way large agribusiness is, and the detrimental effects organic sugar production in South America is having on the rainforest.
The transportation section on bio-fuels is, in particular, alarming. Aside from the vulgar absurdity of burning food sources (corn for ethanol) that helped spur on the food price crisis of 2007-2008, there is also the negative effects growing these bio-fuels has on the regions that produce it.
Rogers travels to Indonesia to see how the production of another bio-fuel, palm oil, is leading to the destruction of the country's vast rainforests. According to a Greenpeace article Rogers quotes, in the last 50 years, over 74 million hectares of Indonesia's rainforests have been cleared--releasing an enormous amount of carbon emissions that is rivaled only by the U.S. and China.
Blame is commonly placed on the indigenous communities that carry out the logging, but as Rogers finds, many of those that take up the chainsaws are offered sums of money that seem unheard of to the impoverished people--often facing resistance from their home communities.
In fact, it is the indigenous communities of the Global South that are presenting a more serious challenge to corporate environmental degradation than the average American who brings home their groceries in a cloth bag with a smiling cartoon planet Earth on it.
And then there is recycling. Now, this is not to say that the practice of recycling is wrong. What my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, has done with issuing new recycling containers for every household should be the norm across the nation. However, as Chris Williams, Pace University professor and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to the Capitalist Ecological Crisis, correctly points out, "Recycling is pushed not because it's the most effective solution to the mountains of waste--indeed quite the opposite--it justifies waste as okay as long as we put it in the correct receptacle."
That is to say, the recycling incentive places responsibility solely on the individual without asking the question as to where most waste comes from. Williams cites another of Roger's books, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, which shows that for every ton of waste produced by households, there are 70 tons of industrial debris from mining, agriculture, manufacturing and petrochemicals.
In sum, this amounts to just around 2 percent of waste resulting from households. All the while, there are politicians and political candidates talking about eliminating environmental regulations on business.
Furthermore, recycling also plays a pivotal role in distracting individuals from this disparity. It makes it seem alright for this rampant overproduction to continue, so long as it is deposited in the correct carton at the end of the day. As Wiliams notes, "However, we should not ignore how this focus on recycling serves a strong ideological purpose of validating waste. In addition, it does absolutely nothing to reduce the core of the problem--needless production for the sake of profit; indeed, it sanctifies it."
One way corporations and individuals might seek to justify their waste in the eyes of the public is carbon offsetting--an incredibly bizarre practice that has even been advocated by musicians K.T. Tunstall and Coldplay. Essentially, with the click of a mouse, one can alleviate their pollution-guilt by paying a company to plant trees somewhere in a developing country to "offset" the carbon emissions.
Besides being the kind of completely idiotic solution that can only be thought up of by capitalism, oftentimes such projects can do more harm than good--such as when the trees planted have a lifespan of only a few decades, after which they release the carbon dioxide they withheld, not unlike a time bomb.
The prospect of sensible environmental policies being enacted by so-called progressive candidates is also a false solution to get behind--mostly because the mainstream solutions such politicians embrace are either met with stiff opposition by the large fossil fuel interests that have immense lobbying power in Congress, or simply because proposed solutions are ineffective, or even more harmful, in the long run.
The Obama Administration has hyped its "achievements" in the expansion of domestic energy production in oil and natural gas. In a speech given in Cushing, Okla., earlier this year marking his approval of the construction of the Tar Sands pipeline from Canada, the president proclaimed:
Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.
At least Obama isn't hiding his intentions behind vague promises of a "clean-energy future," like in his 2010 State of the Union speech where his plan included the construction of nuclear power plants, the expansion of offshore drilling and investment into bio-fuels and clean coal technology--all policies that would only further exacerbate the ecological crisis and continue to provide a distraction from the implementation of truly clean renewable energy sources.
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What are the solutions?
The transition into a sustainable society is often characterized as a "Green New Deal"--a term that is not too far off in capturing the scope that will be necessary in getting there. This means those employed in the production of fossil fuels should be guaranteed that there will be no shortage of work in constructing and maintaining wind turbines, solar panels, proper energy storage facilities, updating the electrical grid and laying train tracks.
The focus of the environmental movement should be the widespread implementation of truly clean and renewable resources--solar, wind, wave and geothermal technology. At the same time, this movement must align itself with the interests of the working class as a whole.
The difficulties of launching an effective environmental movement within the confines of the current system provide some very steep obstacles. Corpus Christi, for example, is a city that has become enmeshed with fossil fuel interests--from the Koch refineries that dot the horizons to the new Eagle Ford shale drilling, the jobs that these companies provide are the lifeblood of many working-class families in the area. To recklessly target these entities without acknowledging this fact would be to alienate the environmental movement from the very people who would benefit most from building a sustainable society.
It's not impossible. Just recently, Germany announced that it would begin phasing out nuclear facilities and replacing them with renewable sources--mostly wind and solar.
The U.S. once boasted an efficient electric public transportation system of streetcars and trains in many major cities that was dismantled when many of the major players in the auto industry began buying them up under the National City Lines front company. Electric cars, as well, are not some unheard-of futuristic vision. (People should view the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? to see just how badly big business subverts the innovations that are necessary for weaning the public off high-polluting fossil fuels.)
There are powerful interests that profit from resisting such changes. What the public must demand is the implementation and restoration of these industries.
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Reclaiming the commons
Despite his peculiarities, one can appreciate Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek's proclamation that, when it comes to the question of the environment, "We are confronting problems that concern our commons--only some kind of popular mobilization outside the state and outside the market can do the job."
This holistic view of issues is precisely the lens through which such monumental problems as environmental degradation should be seen. Despite the fact that we all rely on the ecosystem, the social relations that are produced by the capitalist system subvert the necessary framework towards viewing it as "the commons," that is, humankind's common connection to the land and nature.
Society cannot simply wait for that magical "invisible hand of the market" to will a sustainable society into existence through the consumption of "green" products. A system that thrives on constant expansion and exploitation cannot produce an environmentally frugal society.
The focus, instead, should be on what society has and what the goal is. The resources are there, the technology is there and the general know-how is there. The next move, then, is to undertake the necessary social transformation to build this sustainable future.
As Williams quotes Karl Marx from the third volume of Capital:
From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of household].
This is not unlike the Native American proverb: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." As well as the notion of "seven generation sustainability" that originated with the Iroquois, stating that we should keep a mind on whether our decisions now will benefit the children seven generations into the future.
The question, then, is not simply one of political ideology--of socialism versus capitalism--but one of logic: Which way truly establishes the correct framework to lead us down the path towards a sustainable future and to the preservation of a habitable planet? A system in which accumulation, unregulated growth and commodification is necessary to thrive? Or a system that seeks to produce that which is needed through democratic planning and recognizes humanity's connection to nature and role as conservers of her finite resources?
It isn't just Marx or indigenous wisdom that point in this direction: the work of renowned environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, or visionary political theorist, Elinor Ostrom, lead to similar conclusions--just without using the word "socialism."
There is no longer any doubt that pollution and waste are degrading the ecosystem and contributing to an upsurge in health problems throughout the world. There is little doubt that climate change is occurring, or that fossil-fuel dependence is leading to a wide array of social and political upheavals.
Changes--deep, systemic changes--must be made. The world's population no longer has the luxury of time to kick solutions down the road while attempting to live off the current system for as long as possible.
There is a principle of international law that defines territorial areas as being the joint responsibility of all of humanity to hold in trust for future generations and protect from exploitation. Known as "the common heritage of humankind," the principle has shaped the laws regarding such processes as outer space exploration.
It seems strange that we should define these celestial bodies that we have only recently begun to explore, and which we are not adapted to without the aid of technology, as our common heritage while neglecting to extend the principle to the natural ecosystem that birthed us and sustained us for the entirety of our existence on this planet.
To resist the necessary paradigm shift is to do so at our own peril.