Tuesday, November 10, 2015

the environment, capitalism, modernity and marx

Capitalism does harm the environment in some ways because it is a system that pursues profit before anything else. For instance, coal and other carbon based fuels will continue to be used by capitalism in general and developing countries (China, India, etc.) in particular as long as they remain cheaper than non carbon based alternatives.

It is difficult to work out the real state of the environment. This requires more scientific investigation by unbiased experts. They do exist but their voices tend to be drowned out by alarmists and deniers on global warming and other issues. It has become very difficult to sort out the reality since environmental issues have become heavily politicised. There is a litany of issues which require scientific investigation: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. Nevertheless, there is no real option but to continue to make the effort.

As well as sometimes harming the environment, capitalism also improves the environment. eg. It is a huge environmental advance for humans to live in big cities with all that they offer compared with previous regimes such as hunter gatherer society. The built environment, planned and developed by humans, is a beautiful part of our modern environment. It seems reasonable to assume that even the latte drinking, dog walking Adam Bandt supporters in Fitzroy agree with this, in their actions at least, since they haven't moved to remote areas off the grid, yet.

Some authors make the distinction between modernity (good) and capitalism (bad or not so good): An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Modernity is all the great things developed by scientific – technological humans that enhance our lives. Civilisation, electricity, transport, cities, the internet etc.

The distinction between modernity and capitalism is a good one. But can they be decoupled so easily? We do live in a capitalist system and so more often than not the capitalist dog wags the modernity tail. This severely limits the ability of us moderns to do all sort of things, including improving and appreciating the environment. We would make a lot more progress if we replaced capitalism with a system not based on profit (Socialism → Communism)

But given that there is currently no mass movement in support of a socialist revolution it is far, far better to embrace capitalist creative destruction, warts and all, than the Deep Green alternative of throttling back on development in general to a zero growth state. This futile idealism would condemn the developing world to ongoing poverty and the developed world to intellectual poverty. The whole idea that we should cautiously huddle on the earth (light footprint) is a denial of what humans are, a social, tool making species who has progressively made scientific and technological breakthroughs which enable us to understand and control the natural world more and more. Certainly, we should not overestimate our knowledge. There are many things about nature that we don't understand. But the Deep Green philosophical stance that we should worship nature is looking backwards. Nature is powerful and magnificent. We should embrace that and strive to emulate it, not humbly worship it. See Tale of a Doomed Galaxy:
The civilization I’m imagining was smart enough not to stick around. They decided to simply leave the galaxy.

After all, they could tell the disaster was coming, at least a million years in advance. Some may have decided to stay and rough it out, or die a noble death. But most left.

And then what?

It takes a long time to reach another galaxy. Right now, travelling at 1% the speed of light, it would take 250 million years to reach Andromeda from here.

But they wouldn’t have to go to another galaxy. They could just back off, wait for the fireworks to die down, and move back in.

So don’t feel bad for them. I imagine they’re doing fine.
Forms of Green ideology and policies exist that totally distort the better ways to look at these questions. As a corrective it needs to be pointed out that the earth and humans are incredibly robust, not fragile. Humans are part of nature. We are social, tool making, future planning (teleological) animals. That is how we differ from other animals and in fact it makes us superior to other animals. There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

It would be a huge error to follow some sections of Green ideology down an anti development or zero growth pathway. Technological risk taking, what we have always done, is an essential way for the human race to proceed: the proactionary principle:
The Proactionary Principle emerged out of a critical discussion of the widely used “precautionary principle” during Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I in 2004. The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.

Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.

The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity—good as well as bad—while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.

While precaution itself implies using foresight to anticipate and prepare for possible threats, the principle that has formed around it threatens human well-being. The precautionary principle has become enshrined in many international environmental treaties and regulations, making it urgent to offer an alternative principle and set of criteria. The need for the Proactionary Principle will become clear if we understand the flaws of the precautionary principle.
In Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Thomas Malthus claimed that exponential population growth was produced by God so that human beings would be forced to learn such virtues as abstinence and restraint. According to him, it would always be the case that population growth would outstrip the resources available to satisfy the needs of society, and thus it was not possible to improve society by increasing production, since the population would always increase to catch up with and eventually outstrip it. (Reference: Marx and Morality by Vanessa Wills, pp. 139-51 and 227)

Marx's criticisms of Malthus were (1) that Malthus blamed the poor for their poverty and recommended them to abstain from procreation, rather than blaming the real culprit, capitalism (2) Malthus believed that the productive forces would reach a ceiling beyond which they would not further increase.

The modern Green Malthusians also preach catastrophe arising from population increasing beyond what the Earth can support (see the litany above). Those who have challenged this Green orthodoxy such as Julian Simon (who won a bet against Paul Ehrlich) or Bjorn Lomborg (in The Skeptical Environmentalist) are often written off as right wingers because they support capitalist development. But we need to remember that Marx also supported capitalist development insofar as it liberated the productive forces which provided the potential for the needs of everyone to be met. His criticism of capitalism was that in the course of its development it shut down the productive forces due to periodic economic crisis arising from its internal dynamics. The argument to develop productivity to the maximum is a Marxist argument, not a right wing argument. The other part of Marx, which is not identified with right wing, is that distribution ought to occur by work under socialism or by need under communism.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

All along the watchtower by Michael Hyde

This week I read Mike Hyde's "All Along the Watchtower: Memoir of a sixties revolutionary". I know Michael and bought his book at the launch a few years ago but delayed reading it. I suppose I thought I'd lived it, at least in part, and so didn't have to read it.

Those times were marked by dramatic events: the Ronald Ryan hanging, widespread rejection of religion, the Vietnam war, conscription by a ridiculous process of birthday marbles being drawn from a box, China's Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tsetung, feminism, drugs, sex and rock n roll.

In part of the book Michael comes across as an angry, justice seeking, sex obsessed political activist, almost a cardboard cut out. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I'm looking for a deeper insight into the human condition. The dark side. So what I liked even more was that he interleaves this with a graphic description of the fear (panic attacks) of what might happen to him, his conflicting friendships including one with a friend who went to fight in Vietnam, the tension between his activism and his family (his father was a preacher but ended up supporting Michael) as well as the dysfunctional communist party that some of us joined. I was impressed that he included the dark, difficult and conflicted personal side as well as the excitement and optimism of the hard fought struggle which eventually changed public opinion from apathy to fierce opposition to this disgusting, unjust war. This is a warts and all account which captures the spirit of the times of a section of the radical youth.

The political stance in the book is about supporting the "enemy", ie. raising money for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the case for why that was the right thing to do. We used to chant at demos, "One side right, one side wrong. Victory to the Viet Cong". A lot of things flowed from that, too numerous to mention but he covers them all in the book.

I can personally identify with this book. Thank you, Michael. For many years I wanted the 60s to repeat themselves. One day they will but in a different form.

The title is from a Dylan song but apparently the Jimi Hendrix version is more popular.

Critical review by Ken Mansell