Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 6: Saral Sarkar argues for a synthesis of socialism and deep ecology
by Saral Sarkar
Cologne, July 10, 2011
I had thought, two contributions from me, that was enough. But now that you have written an open letter directly addressed to me, I do not want to be impolite by ignoring it. I hope this contribution from me would bring the necessary clarity on my positions. And it might lead to a better understanding of our differences. I do not hope to achieve anything more in the short run.
First, however, let me remove one small misunderstanding. The term shameful (or: Sarkar should be ashamed) did not come from you, but from another participant in the discussion. But let us now forget such unimportant things and come to the more important matters. I cannot take up everything that you have written in the letter. That would be too much. And please excuse me if I am repeating here something I have already said.
(1). If eco-socialists are discussing (a) controversial issue(s) among themselves, then they should criticise something that the other eco-socialist(s) (in this case Sarkar) has said or meant or not said or not meant. But you are bringing into the discussion things that people who are not eco-socialists have said or done. It is totally irrelevant for our discussion what Dave Foreman or the World Bank or the REDD program, or various UN agencies have said or done or not done.
In one of my previous contributions I have criticised deep ecologists for not paying (not having paid) sufficient attention to the problems and sufferings of our own species and our own societies. I have also made clear that I do not share the view of my late friend David Orton that deep ecologists with concern for social justice should shun the term socialist or socialism. I need not repeat these points.
What I want to stress, however, is that it is not good enough to be a socialist, nor is it good enough to be a deep ecologist. We socialists must learn the true ecology lessons and deep ecologists (or deep greens or consequent ecologists) must learn the true socialism lessons. You seem to know my work. If you have read my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?, then you must have noted that in that book I advocated and tried to achieve a synthesis of the two streams of thought (in contrast to just adding together the two words eco and socialist). Such a synthesis is, in my view, not merely a matter of a good gesture but one of compelling necessity. Compelling necessity, because deep ecologists will completely fail to achieve anything in a capitalist system, and socialists will fail to achieve their goal if they try to build a socialist industrial society, because that will continue to destroy nature.
But obviously, in this open letter to me, you also wanted to criticise deep ecology and deep ecologists in general. That is fair enough. But then why do you take Dave Foreman as an example? He was (is still? I don’t know) an extremist. One might justifiably call him anti-human or a right-wing man. He would probably even agree. But he and the Earth First people like him are, as far as I can judge, not a representative sample of deep ecologists (and what do they have to do with eco-socialism and me?). But even Foreman (in the quote in your letter) speaks of the “depredations of modern industry and technology”, not of the forest dwellers. He demands, “Move out the people and cars. Reclaim the roads and the ploughed lands”. Obviously, he is not demanding the expulsion of genuine forest dwellers, but of the occupiers. Whatever he might have meant by the word “people”, you cannot blame deep ecologists in general for his follies.
Or why do you take the World Bank as example, or REDD programs or UN agencies? It is wrong logic, wrong method of discussion. Suppose we (you and I and others) are against Western imperialism. Should we desist from fighting against Western imperialism because also Islamist Jihadists are anti-imperialists? The proposals of the REDD programs must be resisted. But that does not mean that population growth is no problem.
Because you failed to differentiate in this regard, you also overlooked the difference between the words “withdraw” and “expel”. It is one thing to say we humans should withdraw from large tracts of the earth and another to say that sections of humanity should be expelled from their habitat. And the withdrawal also need not happen quasi overnight, which would indeed create massive problems. But a gradual withdrawal is possible, and that is only possible if our numbers go down gradually. Your general anger toward deep ecologists misled you to this very careless thinking. If you had noted the difference in meaning between these two words you would not have used the term ethnic cleansing in criticising me and deep ecologists in general.
(2). You write, “for ecosocialists to support wilderness clearances and population reduction would place us on the wrong side of some of the most important environmental and social justice struggles taking place in the world today.” What kind of an argument is that? That is purely opportunistic. You are simply afraid of being placed on the wrong side. Is any and every environmental or social justice struggles of large masses of people worthy of being supported by us eco-socialists?
Let us take one or two examples: In Germany, trade unionists are struggling for many years, in the name of social justice, for reducing working time to 30 or 35 hours per week, but they demand that they should continue to receive their current high wages. That is a very socialist demand but not an eco-socialist one, because that would raise hourly wages and contribute to further economic growth via higher consumption. Or take the struggles of workers to protect their jobs, whatever they might be producing (cars, weapons or toxic chemicals or …). Of course, it is very bad if some people lose their job. Must eco-socialists then continue to support more and more car and weapons and chemicals production? Or take a widespread environmental movement, struggles against waste dumping grounds, popularly called NIMBY struggles. Are we supposed to support such struggles, because wastes are indeed very often toxic or dirty or ugly?
In all such issues, a consequent eco-socialist must take a stance only on the basis of his/her conviction and long-term perspective. And that may, in the short-term, go against the immediate demands of the struggling people. In the 1980s, I opposed the above-mentioned demand of the trade unionists. To have the courage to swim against the current, is essential for eco-socialists. Otherwise they are only socialists, not ecos. And the truth must be said, even if it is unpleasant to the masses.
(3). One such truth is that the world is overpopulated, that population should, in the long run, be reduced, if we really want to protect the environment as a whole. It is an unpalatable truth, goes against the grain for all old socialists and many humanists. One may assert that by 2050, 9 billion people can be fed, clothed housed. etc. etc. Who knows? But what will then be the state of the environment in 2050? And how much room will then still be left for wild animals and plants? Here comes the crucial difference between deep ecologists and eco-socialists of my sort on the one side and old socialists and humanists on the other. For me, it does matter very much whether there is still room on the earth for wild animal and plant species – not in zoological and botanical gardens, but in their natural habitats. It is a question value.
I am not a First World environmentalist. I am from the Third World. One cannot accuse me of cultural imperialism. And I and my family do not belong to the elite of India (just educated middle middle class). So the criticism of Cronon and Harvey against the First World environmentalists and the elites in general, which may or may not correspond to facts, does not apply to me. Yet, I feel that the 1.2 billion population of India on a land area that is just about one third the land area of Brazil or the USA or China is simply too much. In the last ten years, India added to its population a number equivalent to the whole population of Brazil (180 million). And we are still adding 18 million people every year. One must be blind not to see a problem here.,
Currently, India has to import even wood and even coal. Although we still have much coal and other minerals underground and on the surface, there is hardly any uninhabited space, so that new mines cannot be opened without expelling people from their homes. Same is the case with irrigation and hydroelectricity projects. The cities and also villages (despite large-scale rural exodus) are becoming larger and larger and devouring more and more agricultural land. It is difficult to cross the main streets. (And India is not alone in this regard.) Indeed, I think, to use one of your own expressions, we Indians with our population growth and 9 percent GDP growth are paving our road to hell.
I have not read what you have written on this topic. But I have heard many left activists and read books and articles expressing the view that population is no problem. It has never convinced me. In fact, it is a matter of common sense. Even as a nine or ten year old child (in 1945 or 1946) I was disturbed by the fact that my parents, two persons, produced six children, and in 12 years, we became an 8 persons strong family.
Growth of human population is not only a problem for ecology and the rest of nature, but also for us humans. You may say, there is still much good arable land left in the world – in Africa and in Latin America. That is true. But should the Asians, i.e. the Chinese and the South Asians, and the oil-rich Arab states buy up such land in order to feed their growing population at the expense of the coming generations of the poor of Africa and Latin America? That is already happening. But isn’t it economic imperialism? Can we eco-socialists consider that as an argument for the thesis that population growth is no problem?
At least on this issue, it is you who are placing yourself on the wrong side. Maybe you do not know it. But it is a fact that it is the economic elite of India, the business class, i.e. the exploiters, who are glad that India’s population is still growing. They nowadays openly talk about it as a “demographic dividend”, as India’s “demographic advantage” (an allusion to Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage) over China, whose population is stagnating and aging because of this country’s one-child policy. In contrast, the super-abundance of hungry and unemployed young people in India are seen as an inexhaustible source of cheap labour. Slave-labour is persisting.
You have attached much importance to the following point in the 8-point platform of the deep ecologists: “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.” What is so wrong with this point? Fifty years ago, i.e. in 1961, maybe some 3.5 billion people were living on the earth. Wasn’t human life and cultures flourishing in 1961? Is there any virtue whatsoever in having 7 or 9 billion people living on the earth rather than 3.5 billion? The second part of the point is also correct if we attach importance to the flourishing of non-human life. It too is a value question. Those socialists who do not attach any value to the flourishing of non-human life would not accept this part of the point. They would perhaps protect, even cultivate in farms, non-human life, if that benefits humans. That would be commercial bio-diversity preservation.
You have formulated your objection to this point as follows: Deep ecologists say “that the number of humans on earth must be drastically reduced. How this is to be achieved is usually not specified, but it is difficult to imagine a humane approach that could produce the desired contraction . ..” I haven’t read all the deep ecology literature. If they haven’t specified how population reduction is to be achieved, then it is a bad omission, but it can be made up for. Deep ecologists should do it soon. And it is not at all difficult to imagine a humane approach to this goal. I have already suggested a policy of strong material incentives and disincentives for the purpose. (See my book Eco-socialism or Eco-Capitalism?!) That could be done more easily, if an eco-socialist government were in place. But even otherwise, we ought to campaign for such a policy.
In the 1960s, material incentives were used in India. But they were not very effective, because the incentives were too weak and flawed and, moreover, no disincentives were used. But the main problem was the lack of resolve among the Indian elites. Both the politicians and the government officers in charge were lethargic and corrupt. And as stated above, their short-sighted thinking favoured their current material interest in a steady and abundant supply of cheap exploitable labour.
In any case, the policy suggested by me or some more effective one must be tried, beginning today. Otherwise the march toward a 9-billion strong world population will be accompanied by a series of slow-moving catastrophes. Some of them we have already witnessed and are witnessing today. Those who play down the seriousness of the situation say that world population will level off at 9 billion. But is it immaterial to them how this levelling off will come about? Are they prepared to let this happen through hunger, famine, malnutrition, diseases, epidemics, wars and civil wars?
(4). There could be one painless way of stabilizing world population, if …. It has been called “demographic transition”. The assumption is that, a population stabilizes itself, its birth rate falls, when it has reached a certain level of socio-economic development. The population of West Germany, for example, stopped growing in the early 1970s. Development, therefore, was considered in those days to be the best policy for solving the population problem. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, said at the world conference on the population question held in Bucharest in 1974: “Development is the best contraceptive”.
But is the development path still open? The book Limits to Growth was published in 1972. Ever since, innumerable economists, politicians and publicists have tried to show that the conclusions of the authors of the book were false. The latest of such efforts is based on the assumption that inexhaustible renewable energies and renewable materials plus increasing resource efficiency would enable humanity to overcome the limits to growth mentioned by Meadows et al. and open the path for sustainable development. Green growth is the new slogan. But does anyone still believe that the majority of the people of the Third World countries will ever reach the average standard of living that the people of West Germany enjoyed in the early 1970s? I don’t.
I think some old socialists still believe that (I know a few of them in Germany and India). Ian, maybe you believe that too. But it should be interesting for you to hear that in May of this year, at the invitation of young leftist activists of Attac-Germany, a huge international conference was held in Berlin, the title of which was Beyond Growth. The organizers thought that it was now high time to deliberate on the kind of society that we should/must try to build in the post-growth era. Curiously, however, although they in their majority supported an anti-growth politics
(decroissance), they kept mum on the issue of population growth. It seemed to me that they were saying: economic growth must be stopped, but population growth could continue. Absurd, illogical. In the post-growth era population would not stabilize itself through demographic transition.
Dear Ian, let me stop here. I know I won’t be able to “convert” you immediately. But I still hope that the sheer weight of facts will do that – probably in the next ten years.
With best wishes
This is an ongoing discussion. The following contributions have been posted on Climate and Capitalism to date:
- Ian Angus: Deep ecology versus ecosocialism
- David Orton: Why I am not an ecosocialist
- Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism
- Franklin Dmitryev: Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus’s capitalist ideology
- Ian Angus: A letter to Saral Sarkar on population, wilderness, and ecosocialism
- Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism and the Population Question: An Open Reply to Ian’s Open Letter