The people's democratic struggle and the struggle for the environment. An interview with Fred Magdoff

by Farooque Chowdhury

MRzine, November 25, 2011

Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University.  He is a co-author, with John Bellamy Foster, of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (Monthly Review Press, 2011)

As climate crisis threatens millions of people around the world, the latest round of climate talks, COP 17, will begin in Durban on November 28.  I interviewed Fred Magdoff about what strategies and tactics people can employ to tackle climate crisis at COP 17 and beyond.

FC: COP 17 is going to begin within days in Durban.  What issues should the most affected and vulnerable countries raise in the conference?

FM: The most affected and vulnerable countries are clearly concerned about the lack of urgency felt by the wealthy countries.  The crux of the issue is to get a commitment from the United States, Europe, and Japan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  There is some indication that China is beginning to move in that direction, although its rapid pace of growth may outweigh efforts to reduce emissions.  Although effects are already felt in the U.S. and Europe, the most difficult results of climate change have been felt in the poorer countries and among vulnerable people.  The sea level rise along with warming is necessitating the transfer of Alaskan villages away from the coast.  Seawater intrusion in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region is causing salinity to develop in some of the rice soils, reducing their productivity.  The melting of the Andean glaciers has already resulted in water shortages during the dry season.

FC: A debt crisis is unfolding in Europe.  The Great Financial Crisis has never ended.  What will be their probable impact on the COP 17?

FM: The theme that is commonly expressed by those wishing to do nothing is that a movement to restrict greenhouse gas emission would cost jobs.  Fewer coal miners, less electricity generated (if coal-powered plants were closed down), and so on.  So they say that this is not the time to do something that would cost jobs.  Of course, it is just an excuse.  If a transition was planned and done well many jobs could be created.  Also, what kind of society and economy do we have if we need to continue polluting so people can work?  This is not only an irrational economic/social/political system but also a dangerous one.

FC: Given the conflicting interests of major polluters, essentially a conflict of interest among related capitals pursuing their own strategies of accumulation, what should be the negotiating strategy of the most vulnerable countries in COP 17?

FM: Far be it from me to give advice to the most vulnerable countries.  They seem to be very well aware of the political problems.  They have previously tried a number of innovative strategies and I am sure that they will continue to do so.

FC: Has there been any change in the climate crisis negotiation since the COP 16 in Cancun?

FM: The position of the wealthy countries has if anything solidified and hardened.  There is a Guardian (UK) article of November 20, 2011 that is titled “Rich Nations ‘Give Up’ on New Climate Treaty until 2020” and has as its subtitle: “Ahead of critical talks and despite pledge for new treaty by 2012, biggest economies privately admit likelihood of long delay.”  This, of course, has been greeted by the most vulnerable with dismay and anger.

FC: You delivered a keynote address at the Mother Earth conference in Bolivia.  That conference issued a declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.  A ministry has been established in Bolivia to look after these rights.  Have the deliberations and call of that conference and the steps taken by Bolivia made any impact on today’s discourse on climate crisis?

FM: I think that Bolivia played a very important role following the failure of Copenhagen meetings in December 2009.  Just bringing so many people together in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010 was quite a feat.  The discussion was very good as was the final declaration of the conference.  One of the small things that happened was the exposure, to a large group, of how the United States was using a money offer in order to get Bolivia and Ecuador to sign on to the Copenhagen statement drafted mainly by the wealthy countries.  A cabinet minister from Ecuador said that she was authorized to tell the assembled people that Ecuador refused the money but was prepared to offer the United States the same amount of money if it would agree to sign the Kyoto protocols.  Needless to say, there was plenty of laughter after that statement.

FC: Is there any unarticulated conflict between dominant economic interests and people’s interests in the position that emerging economies have taken in climate crisis negotiation?

FM: YES!  The main conflict is one of the interests of capitalism as a system and of its most powerful representatives, since at the heart of the issue is the normal way capitalism functions: it has to continue growing or else it is in crisis and it has no other goal than the accumulation of more and more capital.  It would take a very enlightened leader of a capitalist country to even attempt to take on the vested interests that are perfectly happy with the way things are.

FC: Then, how do we resolve this contradiction?  What program should there be in the emerging economies from people’s perspective?

FM: This is certainly a very difficult question to answer.  Perhaps an equivalent of “direct action” activism by the most vulnerable is needed.  Maybe disrupting the workings of the UN or other world organizations might get some positive results.

FC: A section of capital is nowadays actively trying to make a climate deal as climate crisis threatens its domain.  At the same time, to a section of capital, climate crisis presents a potential market.  How can we ensure people’s interests in this market that is making climate crisis a commodity?

FM: I think that we should oppose all “market-oriented” so-called “solutions.”  They are not actually solutions, but rather just a new way to make money.  They give the appearance of accomplishing something, although they are rife with fraud and do not solve the problem even if well carried out.

FC: What role can people’s organizations play in their respective countries/societies so they can impact climate crisis negotiation?  Should they be only confined to raising demands, organizing demonstrations, etc. or, along with these, also try to widen public space through mobilizing people for positive, locally practicable approaches?

FM: It is up to the creativity and energy of the people to develop new approaches to the negotiations.  It is not clear to me how to negotiate when one group is not really interested.  This is something like what is happening in the U.S. Congress where the Republican Party has absolutely no interest in negotiations, whatever the consequences.

FC: Can participatory climate assessment at a local level be a tool, a better one than merely forming human chains, etc. for a short period, to make people aware and to actively mobilize them on the climate crisis issue?

FM: Using a participatory assessment to make people aware of their climate and the implications of changes that are occurring can certainly be useful.  It is also important to start discussions and even planning at the local level for sea level rise, droughts, floods, hot weather, etc. — whatever is most relevant to the local or regional situation.  There are low-tech ways of lessening some of the detrimental effects.

FC: Will not climate crisis negatively impact people’s democratic struggle?

FM: I think that the people’ democratic struggle and the struggle for the environment should be intimately tied together.  The climate crisis, as well as the other environmental crises that are occurring, should make it clearer to people that these are crises of the system itself.  And the only meaningful way to deal with social as well as environmental problems is to organize a new society based on equality, democracy, and care for the environment.

While making things more difficult for people, climate changes provide another argument against the capitalist system and provides more urgency to seek systemic changes.  If the environmental issues are brought front and center within the people’s struggles it might even result in more support for change.

FC: Is not there a need to include climate demands in the program for democratic struggle, targeting the local and global climate-criminal capitals that are snatching away atmospheric space from people?

FM: Absolutely.  This must become a central part of the struggle.  And I would broaden the issue to other types of environmental degradation — chemical pollution of air, water, and food; overfishing by factory-size boats causing depletion of fish stocks; soil erosion and degradation; depletion of fresh water supplies; etc.

FC: Can organizing “climate crime tribunals” at local and global levels be a way for the climate poor to mobilize themselves for protest?

FM: Yes.  I think that this is one of the ways that more attention can be focused on the issues and on the intransigence of the wealthy countries.

FC: Thank you for the interview.

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Farooque Chowdhury, associated with Bangla Monthly Review, is editor of Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured, and Selected Essays by Paul Sweezy (in Bangla), co-editor of People’s Report on Bangladesh Environment(2001 and 2002-2003), and author of The Age of Crisis, and co-author with Fred Magdoff of a Bangla book on food crisis.  

Posted in Marxist Ecology, Movement Building

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