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Thomas Malthus

Capitalism Is Killing the Earth: An Anarchist Guide to Ecology

By JohnWarwick, et. al. - Anarchist Federation, 2018

We are in a period of crisis that we in MEDCs cannot yet see. The signs are there if you look hard enough but at the moment the water is still flowing, the crops are still reliable the ski lifts are still running. The first wave of climate refugees are trying to make their way into Europe but they are being dismissed as "economic migrants" or those displaced by war. In all likelihood, MEDCs will not feel the effects of climate change for some time; our relative wealth will push the impacts onto those who haven't the means to adapt or whose local climates were less temperate to begin with. The longer we wait to act, however, the bigger the coming crunch will be.

Collectively, MEDCs are responsible for the overwhelming majority of cumulative carbon emissions and will have to radically change their energy and transport systems if an ecological disaster is to be avoided. Who will bear the brunt of the costs and who will get rich from this process is sadly predictable. The working class in MEDCs and most people in LEDCs will pay for the fossil fuel addiction and growth-at-all-costs model of the capitalist system. We have already begun to see this happen in the black, working-class communities devastated by natural disasters in the USA and flooding killing thousands in Bangladesh.

Capitalism relies on constantly increasing accumulation of profits. This has been achieved historically by appropriations (a polite term for thefts) both internal and external to the nation state. Internally, in Europe from the fifteenth century onwards, this has followed the model of stealing common land from the people to create a proletarian class dependent on wage labour to support itself. Externally, this expansion was tied to a move outside Europe's borders to exploit natural resources and labour in other locations. Thus colonialism and capitalism were, from the beginning, linked to processes of resource extraction and accumulation.

Capitalism is now in crisis; with so few areas beyond its reach, there are no easy sources of growth to appropriate, and the ability of the earth's ecosystems to accommodate further growth is being seriously questioned. How then to continue growth and profit? In MEDCs, we are seeing a fresh attack on workers? rights, with more precarious jobs, lower pay and poorer social care. In LEDCs, the neoliberal development model is pushed with privatisation and financial deregulation extracting the most profit for the capitalists.

We write this pamphlet to discuss the environmental problems that capitalism has created, with a focus on climate change and the false solutions offered up to us. There has been wider understanding of environmental issues since mainstream publications such as Silent Spring, Gaia and An Inconvenient Truth; however, an anti-capitalist critique has been lacking.

Read the report (PDF).

Ecological Marxism vs. environmental neo-Malthusianism: An old debate continues

By Brian M. Napoletano - Climate and Capitalism, April 30, 2018

Despite being consistently discredited, overpopulation ideology resurfaces with the same predictable regularity as capitalist crises. Only Marxism offers a clear alternative.

Brian Napoletano teaches environmental geography at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is a co-author of “Has (even Marxist) political ecology really transcended the metabolic rift?” published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Geoforum.

Despite being consistently discredited, Malthusian ideology continues to resurface — not entirely coincidentally — with the same predictable regularity as crises do in capitalism. This site already contains a number of excellent resources on the debate between Marxists and Malthusians, and many of the points reiterated and elaborated on here have already surfaced elsewhere. The general argument thrust of the argument is that, however much ecosocialism may appear to converge with the more progressive elements of environmental neo-Malthusianism, Marxists have several very good reasons to remain highly critical of this movement and its claims.

Historically, antagonisms between socialism and Malthusianism have existed since Malthus first wrote his essay on population. As he related in the preface to the first (anonymous) edition of this essay, Malthus was inspired to advance his position (which he built largely on the uncredited work of others) as a reaction to Godwin and other Utopian socialists who were gaining popularity at the time. Marx and Engels, in turn, exposed the “false and childish” nature of the arguments of “this baboon”—to use some of the colorful phrases that Marx applied to Malthus and his theories in the Grundrisse.

Understanding the antagonisms between these philosophers requires understanding clearly what exactly the Malthusian position entails. Malthus’ original argument hinged on both empirical and normative claims. The empirical claim was roughly twofold: (1) that poverty and misery is the result of over-population, which (2) itself results from the naturally dictated, exponential growth in the population of the poor. His normative claim then seemed to follow logically, i.e., that that nothing should be done to alleviate human suffering, as it would only encourage the poor to continue breeding, eventually exhausting the means of subsistence for everyone.

Marx and Engels decisively attacked this argument on all three points. On the first, they demonstrated that poverty had more to do with the expropriation of the producers from the means of production than with any nature-induced scarcity. More profoundly, they demonstrated that what constitutes over-population depends as much on the social relations and techniques of production as on natural factors, such that over-population under one mode of production cannot be equated with that of another. On the second point, they demonstrated that reproduction, like the rest of human nature, is not predetermined, and humans regulate their reproduction in accordance with social and natural conditions when other social factors (including the subjugation of women) do not prevent them from doing so (see Marx’s discussion of these points in the Grundrisse).

Finally, Marx and Engels demonstrated that a very different normative conclusion follows from Malthus’ argument than the one he made, arguing that only a communist society could establish the democratic conditions in which humanity can consciously regulate its numbers (see Engels’ 1 February 1881 letter to Karl Kautsky).

The root of the climate crisis is capitalism, not demographics

By Michael Friedman - Monthly Review, August 15, 2017

Growing concerns about climate change and other environmental trends have set off the next round of old Malthusian diagnoses and solutions.

As a case in point, ecological economist William E. Rees recently wrote in the Canadian alternative magazine The Tyee (“Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse” July 17, 2017):

The “competitive displacement” of other species is an inevitable byproduct of continuous growth on a finite planet. The expansion of humans and their artifacts necessarily means the contraction of everything else. (Politicians’ protests notwithstanding, there is a fundamental contradiction between population/economic growth and protecting the “environment.”)

As a first sweep, one might assert that “common sense” would dictate that as a population increases, so does pressure on resources, all else being equal. This is the logic behind the ecological concept of the “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem. It is the basis for the old Club of Rome report, “Limits to Growth.” And it is also associated with some versions of the “planetary boundaries” concept.

All else is not equal.

Beyond the limits of nature: a social-ecological view of growth and degrowth

By Eleanor Finley - Entitle Blog, February 7, 2017

In this second article of the series “Ecology after capitalism“, Finley revisits the concept of growth from the libertarian socialist perspective of social ecology. She draws on Bookchin’s work to interrogate the limits of a degrowth conception of ‘growth’ and argues that we might find more opportunities for social and political transformation in social ecology’s analysis of post-scarcity and growth as ecological development. 

For more than two centuries, a critical narrative has emerged problematizing economic development, consumption, and growth. While its terms and definitions have shifted over time, the underlying logic remains the same: human society is growing too fast, faster than the limits of nature can accommodate.

In order to avoid global catastrophe by destroying the environment on which we depend, human beings must dramatically reduce the quantity of our own energetic and material consumption. Since the 2008 global financial collapse, a revised form of this analysis called degrowth has gained momentum among European environmental activists and Left academics.

In contrast to their predecessors who rejected the ‘industrial society’,  degrowth advocates blame capitalism as the engine of current ecological crisis. Joining a chorus of eco-socialists and radical ecologists, degrowth advocates argue that a planet of finite resources simply cannot sustain a social system based upon an axiom of production and consumption for its own sake.

In Can there be a socialist degrowth? ecological economist Giorgios Kallis argues that a tension is present between socialism and the apparent need for degrowth, arguing that a socialist society may not necessarily be post-growth, and thus ecologically sustainable. Such a conclusion rightly suggests that degrowth calls for the transcendence of traditional socialist concerns of labor, production, and technological advance. Yet, it does not yet account for how a socialist society may pursue growth along qualitatively different lines to produce a comfortable, materially abundant, and technologically sophisticated society.

Capital Blight: Overshooting the Message

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, August 21, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

On or around August 13, 2015, many news sources, including especially mainstream environmental news sources announced with great foreboding that "Earth Overshoot Day" occurred at its earliest point during the calendar year in recorded history. In case one is not familiar with Earth Overshoot Day, there is a wesbite devoted to it, which explains the concept in simple, concise, and stark terms: 

"Global overshoot occurs when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year. Overshoot means we are drawing down the planet’s principal rather than living off its annual interest. This overshoot leads to a depletion of Earth’s life-supporting natural capital and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The concept of Earth Overshoot Day was first conceived by Andrew Simms of the UK think tank New Economics Foundation, which partnered with Global Footprint Network in 2006 to launch the first global Earth Overshoot Day campaign. At that time, Earth Overshoot Day fell in October. WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, has participated in Earth Overshoot Day since 2007."

This narrative sounds ominous, and indeed it is, because it's true, at least in general, and it demonstrates just how precariously close to the brink of destruction humanity (and perhaps life on Earth itself) currently stands. There are no shortage of dire reports being released daily about just how serious global warming's effects are being currently felt, how the Earth is already locked into rising sea levels, how those trends are accelerating and are going to continue to accelerate, and how the planet is perhaps on the brink of the 6th Mass Extinction in its biological history. The time in which humanity has to prevent disaster seems to have already past. At present, our choices seem limited to survival or annihilation. Earth Overshoot is yet one additional grisly reminder of our peril.

Yet, the narrative offered by the Earth Overshoot folks is nevertheless deeply flawed, because it fails to identify the cause and provide the solution to ending "overshoot", and that's capitalism.  You see, dear reader, the reason why the demands of "humanity" are exceeding what Earth’s annual "resource" output is because it is locked into an economic system that is based on the internal logic of "growth for growth's sake," an ideology that Ed Abbey once identified as the "ideology of a cancer cell".  Now at the risk of beating a dead horse, I won't repeat all of the arguments that clearly demonstrate how capitalism is inherently irreconcilable with ecological sustainability, nor am I going to rehash the rebuttals to Malthusian pseudo-scientific dogma which has been thoroughly debunked (other than to encourage you--for the sake of brevity--to follow the links to the rich corpus of work on both subjects we have preserved on ecology.iww.org).

However, I do feel compelled to point out that it does no good to constantly browbeat the 99%, like a broken record (or a skipping .mp3 file for those of you who are too young to remember what "a broken record" means), that "we need to radically change our 'overconsumptive' ways" lest the Earth rise up a smite us (granted that this will happen if we don't, of course, but that's not the point).  The problem is that under capitalism, the ability of the 99% to make any meaningful change is severely limited, if capitalism is allowed to continue.  As Ragina Johnson and Micheal Ware point out in an article written after last year's Earth Overshoot Day, Whose Consumption is Killing the Planet?, for the 99%, the vast majority of our consumption patterns are beyond our capability to alter.

EcoUnionist News #21

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 13, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

IWW Campaigns:

Other News of Interest:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC

The Dangers of Reactionary Ecology

By Out of the Woods - libcom.org, June 30, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Influential metaphors for understanding the environment serve as a bridge between traditional conservatism and outright ecofascism.

We have so far introduced the ideas of thinkers we find useful, such as Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of technology, and James O’Connor’s notion of the second contradiction. Here we want to look at how ecological ideas can be deployed to support deeply reactionary politics. We will do this with a critical introduction to the oft-cited, though less often read, biologist Garrett Hardin.

The tragedy of capital

Hardin’s most famous and influential concept is the tragedy of the commons, a collective action problem posited to lead all common resources to inevitable ruin. He first set the problem out in his 1968 essay of the same name:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. (…)As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" (…)the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.1

There are numerous lines of criticism here.2 First of all, despite being published in Science, Hardin doesn’t present any actual evidence, only a thought experiment. Subsequently, in 1990, Elinor Ostrom published ‘Governing the commons’, a work that won her a Nobel Prize in economics for showing that commons do not necessarily tend to mutual ruin.3 Hardin subsequently conceded his argument only applied to unmanaged commons rather than commons per se, significantly narrowing its scope.4 However, the tragedy of the commons is still a staple of environmental ethics and ecological economics. It is often cited uncritically in introductory climate science texts.

More importantly, Hardin’s argument presupposes the very relations it posits as the cure. Hardin assumes each herdsman seeks to keep as many cattle as possible. These herdsmen are therefore not subsistence producers, producing for their own consumption, but are producing for others. Furthermore, each of them is doing so competitively: these herdsmen are producing commodities for the market.5 These herdsmen are each rational utility-maximising agents, with no social bonds, norms, or relations with one another despite sharing a pastoral commons. Finally, for there to be a market for an ever-larger number of cattle, others elsewhere must lack access to commons from which they could provide themselves with cattle. In other words, Hardin’s commons presupposes a an isolated commons in a sea of enclosure.

So Hardin presupposes competitive production for the market under conditions of generalised commodity exchange and enclosure undertaken by rational utility-maximising agents. In other words, he presupposes the historically specific relations of capitalism, relations which were, in fact, only established following the widespread enclosure and privatisation of commons. Hardin’s tragedy would be better called the tragedy of capital, for it shows only how capitalist relations of competitive production, without limit, for the market tend to undermine the conditions of production.6 Thus Hardin’s argument is historically false, theoretically circular, and empirically dubious. It nonetheless plays an important ideological role in rationalising more privatisation, enclosure, and market competition as the solution to the problems caused by privatisation, enclosure, and market competition.7

Population is not the problem

Despite its influence on environmental economics, Hardin’s primary concern throughout his work was population growth, to counter which he promoted eugenics. His 1968 piece declared that “the freedom to breed is intolerable” and asked “how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?” His answer was coercion:

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment.

He cites Thomas Malthus, the 18th century moralist and Reverend, but little on contemporary demography. Malthus claimed that population would grow exponentially, while food production would only grow linearly. This would make hunger and misery permanent and insoluble features of human society, since population would always tend to outstrip available food.8 Hardin did his PhD in microbiology. Population studies of bacteria are a core part of any microbiologist’s training. Indeed, bacteria will reproduce near-exponentially, doubling in number each generation until their growth is checked by a limiting factor, such as exhaustion of nutrients.

Hardin seems to rely on Malthus’ morality tale and his microbiologist’s common sense, without bothering to check whether human populations actually grow until checked by famine. Fortunately, they do not. Today, the countries where the population is stable or declining are not ones where there is famine, and countries where there are famines often have growing populations. Furthermore, as Amartya Sen has shown, recent famines have not been caused by a lack of food, but a lack of purchasing power to buy food.9 Rather than growing exponentially until checked by famine, like bacteria, human population growth tends to follow a sigmoid (S-shaped) curve.

Human population is stable whenever the birth rate equals the death rate. If the stabilisation of population is caused by famine, it would mean the death rate rises to match the birth rate. In fact, both birth and death rates fall. Before the advent of modern medicine, birth rates and death rates were high, towns were disease-ridden population sinks, and the population was therefore predominantly young and rural. With the advent of modern understandings of disease, a series of changes lead to falling death rates, falling birth rates, urbanisation, and an aging population. This is known as the demographic transition.10

The seemingly exponential growth observed by Malthus was in fact the demographic transition between the high birth/death equilibrium to the low birth/death equilibrium. This transition seems to follow a more or less universal pattern, generating a chain of positive feedbacks once it begins.11 The most developed countries began this transition several centuries ago and are now mostly at the higher, older, urban equilibrium (population decline is even a concern in some places). Many less developed countries are not yet at the higher equilibrium, have younger, more rural populations, and are still experiencing rapid population growth. UN demographers expect the world population to stabilise somewhere in the 9 billion region.

Writing in 1798, Malthus mistook the rapid growth phase of a sigmoid curve for an exponential one. In fact, Malthus' main thrust was not to advance a theory of human ecology, but to make a political attack on the poor laws and the idea of raising workers' wages. Hardin, who reaffirmed his thesis as recently as 1998, is at least as conservative as Malthus, and either less smart or less intellectually honest. Once again, evidence for his central claim is in short supply, and in the 200 years since Malthus, much counter-evidence has accumulated.

Capital Blight: Who’re You Calling “Immigrant”, Pilgrim?

By x344543, May 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent article on thinkprogress.org details a jingoist anti-immigration group’s efforts to wrap itself in a green cloak and (once again) obfuscate the real cause of environmental destruction. The (inaccurately named) organization in question, “Californians for Population Stabilization” (CAPS) attempted to use Earth Day (April 22) to argue that the primary cause of ecological destruction is immigration (read: an influx of poor brown skinned people from south of the US-Mexican border, naturally).

This tired old dog has been asked to hunt so many times, it’s hard to see how anyone could imagine that it can, but sure as I write these words, there it is.

I’ll admit that this is a bit of a trigger for me. I am, by any standards you could imagine, the descendents of varying strains of white, central European and Mediterranean immigrants of several generations back (five or six in most cases), but my ancestors (Jews, Irish, and Hungarians) suffered greatly at the hands of more dominant empires among those regions, so perhaps it has imbued me with a stronger sense of empathy for the downtrodden peoples in what currently constitutes “America”. I don’t take too kindly to insulting racist propaganda—even if it tries to fly a green flag, and CAPS certainly fits that description.

Chapter 5 : No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!

By Steve Ongerth - From the book, Redwood Uprising: Book 1

“One man, Charles Hurwitz, is going to destroy the largest remaining block of redwoods out of sheer arrogance. Only we the people can stop him.”

—Dave Foreman, October 22, 1986.[1]

Well I come from a long, long line of tree-fallin’ men,
And this company town was here before my grandpappy settled in,
We kept enough trees a-standin’ so our kids could toe the line,
But now a big corporation come and bought us out, got us working double time…

—lyrics excerpted from Where are We Gonna Work When the Trees are Gone?, by Darryl Cherney, 1986.

On the surface, very little seemed to have changed in Scotia for its more than 800 residents, but deep down, they all knew that the future was very much uncertain. Some seemed unconcerned, such as 18 year Pacific Lumber veteran Ted Hamilton, who declared, “We’re just going on as always,” or his more recently hired coworker, millworker Keith Miller, who had been at the company less than six years and who stated, “It doesn’t bother me much.”[2] Indeed, many of the workers seemed to welcome their newfound financial prosperity. [3] However, there were at least as many workers whose assessments were quite pessimistic, including millworker Ken Hollifield, a 19 year veteran who opined, “I’m sure this place won’t be here in five to seven years.” Former millworker and then-current owner of the Rendezvous Bar in Rio Dell, George Kelley, echoed these sentiments stating, “For 2½ years they’ve got a good thing going. After that they don’t know what’s happening.” Dave Galitz dismissed the naysayers’ concerns as typical fear of change, but careful estimates of the company’s harvesting rates bore out the pessimistic assessments. In the mills and the woods, however, production had increased substantially, to the point that many were working 50 and 60 hours per week. If there was to be any organized dissent, it would be difficult to keep it together, because the workers had little time to spare.[4] There seemed to be little they could do outside of a union campaign, and the IWA had neither been inspiring nor successful in their attempt.

Deep in the woods however, the changes were readily obvious. In 1985, the old P-L had received approval from the California Department of Forestry (CDF) to selectively log 5,000 acres.[5] With John Campbell at the helm, under the new regime, the company filed a record number of timber harvest plans (THPs) immediately following the sale, and all of them were approved by the CDF. There was more than a hint of a conflict of interest in the fact that the director of the agency, Jerry Pertain, had owned stock in the old Pacific Lumber and had cashed in mightily after the merger. [6] Since the takeover, the new P-L had received approval to log 11,000 acres, 10,000 of which were old growth, and there was every indication that these timber harvests would be accomplished through clearcutting.[7] Pacific Lumber spokesmen who had boasted about the company’s formerly benign forest practices now made the dubious declaration that clearcutting was the best method for ensuring both long term economic and environmental stability.

P-L forester Robert Stephens claimed that the old rate was unsustainable anyway, declaring, “About five years ago, it became apparent that there is going to be an end to old-growth. We simply cannot operate on a 2,000 year rotation.”

Public affairs manager David Galitz repeated what would soon become the new regime’s gospel, that clearcutting had actually been in the works for some time before the hint of a merger, even though in actual fact, this was untrue.

Pacific Lumber’s logging operations which had hitherto been idyllic by comparison now outpaced those of even Louisiana-Pacific and Georgia-Pacific. They tripled their logging crews, bringing in loggers from far away who had never known the old Pacific Lumber and had no particular loyalty to the fight to prevent Hurwitz’s plunder of the old company. [8] Most of the new hires were gyppos, and there were rumblings among the old timers that the quality of logging had decreased precipitously. In John Campbell’s mind, such inefficiencies were likely to be temporary and any small losses that occurred were more than offset by the much larger short term gain. The expense to the viability of the forest, however, was never entered into the ledger.[9] One resident who lived very close to the border of Pacific Lumber’s land relayed their impressions, writing:

“I live at the end of (the) road in Fortuna. Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber logging trucks drive by our house six days a week now. (It has) never been like this in the past. Ordinarily, logging was five days a week in summer…

“From Newberg Road you can look up and see the damage they are doing to the badly eroding hills, now bare of third growth. They are logging third growth from their graveled road now. As the trucks come by, it is amazing to see how small their (logs are), like flagpoles.

“What will be the value of their property when all of the trees are gone? Are they trying to eliminate all other competition—L-P, Simpson, etc.—as their long-range goal?”[10]

Environmentalists expressed alarm and outrage at the sweeping and regressive changes that had been instituted now that Hurwitz had assumed control of Pacific Lumber. John DeWitt, executive director of Save the Redwoods League, the organization that had been instrumental in coaxing the Murphy Dynasty to adopt sustainable logging practices in the first place, expressed these fears stating, “We thought they practiced excellent forestry over the past 125 years and deplore the fact they’ll double the cut. It may result in the ultimate unemployment of those who work at Pacific Lumber.”

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