Socialist Register 2007 – Coming to Terms with Nature

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Socialist Register 2007 Coming to Terms with Nature. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, editors. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006.

reviewed by Sarah Parker

The editors and authors of this year’s Socialist Register have produced an excellent collection whose aim is “contributing to the development of a better eco-socialist understanding of contemporary capitalism, and the kind of politics that could lead to an ecologically sustainable as well as a democratic socialism.” This book is a fantastic resource which I strongly recommend.

The essays are wide-ranging, and deal with most aspects of the capitalism’s creation of the environmental crisis, so it would be impossible in a short review to do justice to the different insights that they provide: I shall in fact look at just a few of the articles, but I hope that readers will want to look at the whole book.

Several of the essays start from historical discussions on the relationship of humanity and capitalism to nature, pointing to the previous insights of Marxism into these relations, which have unfortunately been denied by people hostile to Marxism, and largely forgotten or never known by much of the far left until recently, and conclude with suggestions for transforming the situation.

In “The Environment of fossil Capitalism,” Elmar Altvater argues that the significance of the Neolithic revolution was that it enabled humanity to increase productivity through harnessing solar energy (which comes from outside the earth’s finite system) more intensively, leading to the birth of agriculture.

Because of the limits of technology as applied to solar and other fuel, economic growth was still very slow until the serious development of fossil fuels with the industrial revolution. Now capitalism is totally dependent on fossil fuels, notably oil, and treats fossil fuels as though they are inexhaustible. He suggests that there is “only one realistic alternative to oil imperialism – a shift from dependence on oil to a dependence on renewable energy sources, on the radiation energy released by the sun (and its derivatives such as photo-voltaic, eolic, water, wave and biotic energy etc.), or on volcanic and geothermal energy.” He argues that “A society based on renewable instead of fossil energy sources must develop adequate technologies and above all social forms beyond capitalism.”

In “Nature as accumulation strategy” Neil Smith describes how a new dimension of the capitalist production of nature has considerably transformed the social relationship with the natural world. He argues that “new ecological commodities… owe their existence … to the success of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Legislation …created a certain scarcity of…“allowable natural destruction” [and]…led to the development of entirely new markets in ecological “goods” and (especially) ‘bads.’”

He suggests that Green capitalism “has become nothing less than a major strategy for ecological commodification, marketization and financialization which radically intensifies and deepens the penetration of nature by capital,” citing the products of carbon sequestration programmes as the best known type of ecological commodities.

He observes that this process “is of course an integral element of a much larger project of neo-liberalism,” and that “The neo-liberalization of nature is far from complete, not without its obstacles, and anything but a smooth process.”

He analyses a key concept, the capitalist production of nature: “naturally provided use-values, whether iron ore or labour power or services such as the ability to transport, are plucked for productive consumption and in turn alter the form of nature: the earth is gouged, soil is colonized, workers are transformed by work … and transport technology shortens the temporal distance between spatially separate places,” and that “the universal production of nature was written into the DNA of capitalist ambition from the start; neo-liberalism only its latest incarnation,” while “the production of nature under capitalism generates its own distinct ideologies.”

Returning to the present, he asserts that “the market has now retaken and recolonized environmental practices… This represents a sweeping political co-optation and victory for capital and a defeat for environmental-cum-socialist politics.”

Finally he cites Donna Haraway’s conclusions from her research into genetically transformed organisms in the 1990s that “the body now represented an accumulation strategy for capital,” and comments that “Cindy Katz has broadened this into a suggestion that ‘nature per se may now represent an accumulation strategy for capital.’”

He concludes that today “the increasing appropriation of nature as an accumulation strategy… promises to provide the nervous system of a new phase of capitalist accumulation.”

Finally he outlines a response: “While struggles over GM organisms, technology … are of central importance … it is just as vital to have a longer-term eye on the constitutive social relations,” and asking: “if the production of nature is a historical reality, what would a truly democratic production of nature look like?”

Again starting with history, in “Socialist Metabolism and Environmental Conflicts” Joan Martinez-Alier outlines the long tradition of “Ecological economics, which views the economy as a ‘metabolic system of materials and energy flows.” He reminds us that we should be aware of social forces, mainly “peripheral” peoples, whose lands, resources and lives have been plundered by imperialism, and who contest this plunder and the conventional methods of classical economics for measuring (or more usually ignoring) the unequal exchanges involved. Then he looks at Marx and Engel’s interest in the patterns of “energy and material flows” within the economy, and at subsequent developments of this discussion.

He describes modern attempts of political ecologists and of states to measure these energy flows, describing a system known as Eurostat run by the EU which can show the overall inputs and outputs of material and energy for national economies, providing information which could be used to help demonstrate the distortions that capitalism imposes on poor countries and on the planet as a whole.

In “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce,” Heather Rogers discusses the US waste management industry. She looks at the origins of the concept of “litter”, which turns out to have been the result of a slick PR campaign in the 50s designed to blame individuals for the new problem of huge amounts of waste packaging, and to deflect criticism from the companies and the manufacturing processes from which the new packaging emanated.

Back to the present, in “Unsustainable Capitalism and Renewable Energy,” Barbara Harriss-White and Elinor Harris shed light into many corners of British energy policy, concluding that “a mix of market-driven politics and state capitulation has undermined the framework of systematic regulation and stripped the state of its capacity to make the long-term plans necessary for capital to invest.” And they believe that “Market-driven politics have ensured that renewable energy remains far from starting to form any kind of technological base,” obviously an obstacle in the struggle for transforming society around renewables. Their article poses serious questions for green socialists.

The last three essays look towards solutions. First “Eco-Socialism and Democratic Planning” by Michael Löwy look at how an ecosocialist alternative can be built, while in “Party-building for Eco-socialists,” Otto Frieder Wolf writes on lessons to be drawn from the failure of the German Greens to build a radical alternative to social democracy, or recently, to neo-liberalism, that could have successfully challenged the existing order. He discusses Joel Kovel’s ideas for building an eco-socialist organisation, agreeing with some aspects but concluding that Kovel overlooks some important points in his ideas for building transformative parties.

In “The Limits of Eco-Localism” Greg Albo gives a fresh look at why political organisations are needed to make local campaigns effective as part of the wider battle to save the planet. He asserts that “Political organization and capacity are, in the first instance, about reproducing these struggles across time in particular places in face of forces that are unrelenting in their efforts to undermine, incorporate and isolate oppositional political alliances and to commodify any ecologies and resources withdrawn from the accumulation process.”

In a plea to people who see “the local as an ideal scale” to rethink their approach, he suggests that eco-localism has in fact gone in completely the opposite direction to what is needed: “Under neo-liberalism, eco-localism has evolved into a practical attempt to alter individual market behaviours, and to disconnect and internalize local ecologies and communities from wider struggles and political ambitions.”

John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, has criticized the editors of Socialist Register 2007 for calling on readers to avoid “anxiety-driven catastrophism.” His article indicates that he thinks the editors underestimate the threat of an actual collapse of life as we know it.

It is true that in the preface the editors point out that the existence of huge problems does not mean capitalism cannot survive them. In other words, dire environmental crisis will not automatically bring about the collapse of capitalism, and they suggest that given the inadequacy of the present left and green movements, and the dynamism (albeit unhealthy and destructive) of capitalism, the system itself may well be able to continue reproducing itself for some time, albeit at huge cost to the planet and all life on it.

However the book concentrates mainly on analysing the problems caused by capitalism not on working out solutions, (though these are outlined in some essays), on the premise that in order to understand the challenges ahead, socialists and greens need to understand precisely what deep-seated and complex processes are at work. In fact, I think if you read this book you would be hard put not to draw the conclusion that capitalism is indeed on a collision course with the biosphere, and that an absolutely unprecedented transformation of society on a world scale will be needed if there is to be any hope of saving the situation, so perhaps the gap between John Bellamy Foster and the editors of Socialist Register is not huge.

The book is fascinating and serious, and I would say it is vital reading for eco-socialists. Most of the essays are quite dense, and it would have been better if the contributors and editors had tried to make the language more accessible. Admittedly they are often dealing with complex ideas, but it is important that these ideas reach the widest possible audience. So it needs to be read with care, but if you want to get to grips with current creative Marxist analysis, buy it, or take the time to order it from your local library, which will reduce unnecessary personal consumption and make the book available to more people.