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Chris Williams

The Economy of an Ecological Society Will Be at the Service of Humanity

By Mark Karlin - Truthout, August 20, 2017

Is a world possible based on equitable needs, empathy and sustainable economics? Two authors believe so -- and that it would require the end of capitalism: Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, who co-wrote Creating an Ecological Society. In this Truthout interview, Magdoff -- a professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont -- shares his vision of how we could move toward such a world. 

Mark Karlin: In summary, what would an ecological society look like to you?

Fred Magdoff: We know an incredible amount about how to use ecologically sound ways to produce what we need for a good life. Although we will learn even more as time goes on, we already know such things as how to grow high yields of food and how to create healthy soils using ecologically sound practices (without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) and how to produce cleaner energy using renewable sources and how to store energy from intermittent sources such as wind and solar. We know how to build appropriate and flexible-use structures (making for easy repurposing), how to better recycle human wastes uncontaminated with industrial pollutants back to farmland and to raise farm animals humanely, how to harvest ocean fish sustainably and how to use aquifers sustainably.

Under capitalism, people are at the service of the economy, as workers and consumers of goods and services. In contrast, the economy of an ecological society will be at the service of humanity and its needs, which of course includes a biodiverse and clean environment with fully functioning natural flows and cycles. Instead of [being based on] the profit motive, decisions made about production and consumption of material goods will place emphasis on having positive effects on humans and the health of the broader environment.

The details of an ecological society will have to be worked out by the people as they are engaged in the struggle and the transition to a new society. But my vision is one in which people live in harmony with each other and the rest of the natural world. It is one of substantive equality and profound democracy, in which the people together decide what is needed for a good life and then ensure that everyone has access to these needs -- quality housing, food, clothing, health care, public transportation, sanitation facilities, clean water, clean air and so on. And we can't leave out access to varied educational, cultural and recreational possibilities, which, combined with meeting material needs, allow all people to fulfill their human potential, wherever their interests lead them. Workers will control the farms, factories, distribution centers, hospitals, etc. and, together with the surrounding communities, will decide what to produce and how to produce it, utilizing ecologically sound methods of interacting with the rest of the natural world.

It will be critical to operate in ways that maintain an egalitarian and democratic society. Transparency and openness need to be maintained. There are a variety of methods to help make that happen, such as simple processes for recall of unsatisfactory persons in positions of authority and regular rotation of positions within economic units and within social structures, such as community, regional and multi-regional councils. Continuing efforts will take place in schools and society at large to encourage pro-social traits needed in a cooperative society -- cooperation, reciprocity, sharing, empathy, treating all people equally and fairly (no favoritism) -- and to work to minimize the expression of traits emphasized and rewarded by capitalism (especially, greed, selfishness and individualism) and to eliminate the deep scourges of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

Living Well is the Best Revolution

By Seth Sandronsky - Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017

Review of - CREATING AN ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY Toward a Revolutionary Transformation by Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Monthly Review Press, 2017

A book for a future society of buen vivir, or living well, with nature and other people? Yes.

How to achieve sustainability with humanity and the planet? Start with context and vision to transcend the status quo of bio-sphere destruction.

Reform is a part of the revolutionary process, according to the authors. It is not an either-or binary.

The vision thing matters when it comes to the false consciousness of blaming other people for the system’s baked-in flaws. Dividing the working class to weaken it is elites’ go-to tactic.

We see that now. Look no further than President Trump directing whites’ class resentment against Mexicans and Muslims.

Memo to the Democratic Party. Move progressively or empower neo-fascism, a product of neoliberalism.

In Magdoff and Williams’ view, “systemic environmental and social problems are caused by and are intrinsic to capitalism.” To this end, they review the science and history of horticultural societies and climactic changes.

Ideas matter. “If we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another,” write Magdoff and Williams, “the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into utopian fantasy.”

How? In the final of the book’s four parts, the authors see nascent revolutionary stirrings such as Black Lives and the Standing Rock resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline as a revolutionary way forward.

De-personalizing social relations in an era of identity politics run amuck is on our to-do list of how to get to a more ecologically balanced way of living and working. About 40% of the book unpacks the causes and outcomes of our socio-economic order.

Magdoff and Williams contribute to a growing body of eco-socialist books. Two of note are The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010) and Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (2016).

To buttress the case that post-capitalist alternatives are possible, the authors share examples from nature and history to help us to grasp competition and division are peculiar to capitalism. The authors’ command of the science of ecology is not limited to Marx’s concept of capitalism causing a rift in the human metabolism with the earth.

The book’s second part explores the obstacles to creating an eco-society. The authors examine the ideas underpinning the rule of capital over people, e.g., that oppression and exploitation along the color, ethnic and gender lines are hard-wired into human nature.

The authors’ voice is measured. They lay out the facts of the eco-crisis and potential cures, minus cant and jargon.

This is no mean feat, given the current bleakness and darkness of the present moment. If anything, Magdoff and Williams understate ruling elites’ capacity to co-opt and oppress systemic resistance.

They write: “Ultimately, we need to create a movement large and formidable enough to challenge the entire power structure of capitalism, one that is capable of winning the army and large portions of the population that up to that point had been passive, ambivalent, or even antagonistic.” Such a herculean task merits extended attention and discussion, to which Creating an Ecological Society contributes.

Wind Powers "Green" Growth in Kenya, but for Whom?

By Chris Williams - Truthout, April 1, 2015, © Truthout; used by permission.

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.

Barely discernible among the surrounding rock-strewn ground, a meandering dirt track winds its way up a barren, windswept hill. In the arid heat, dotted amid the dry ocher soil, the rocks look baked from the sun. A few stubby trees and scrubby bushes bestrew a landscape with no obvious signs of habitation in this parched land of northern Kenya. But on top of the hill, sitting behind a low wall made of the abundant stones that litter the ground, we find six men. They have been living on the hill for eight years. Every two weeks, food and water is brought up by the consortium that pays them to keep watch on top of the hill, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project (LTWP).

The incessant wind, gusting relentlessly across the plain, is the reason we're all here. Shimmering in the heat, Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, and a United Nations World Heritage Site due to its astonishing collection of hominid fossils dating back 2 million years, glistens in the far distance. The area surrounding the lake is a treasure chest for the study of human evolution, a place where Austrolophithecus anamensis, Homo habilis/rudolfensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens are all found in one location.

The lake itself, threatened by the construction of the $1.8 billion Gibe III mega-dam across the border in Ethiopia, is the breeding ground for Nile crocodile, a habitat for hippopotamuses and snakes, and an important site for several species of migrating birds. It's also home to thousands of nomadic herders and fishers from different tribes in a remote region with only a tenuous connection to the Kenyan state. All of that may well be about to change.

Ljukunye Lepasanti, the liaison officer between LTWP and the surrounding community, tells me he and 28 other workers have been living on top of the hill for the last eight years. "We are here to guard these towers that record wind speed," says Ljukunye, pointing to one of two tall metal towers on another hill, closer to Lake Turkana. Though the project had been stalled for several years due to a lack of foreign investment, eventually there will be a road built here, and 365 large wind turbines capable of generating a total of 310 megawatts to feed into the Kenyan grid for power to Nairobi. After eight years, does he still believe the wind farm will be built? "Yes, I think so, they are coming to survey the road soon." Ljukunye's faith seems justified, as final approval for a financing deal was hammered out at the end of 2014 and documents were signed to begin work in 2015.

Interview - The Politics of Going Green

Chris Williams and Robert Pollin interviewed by Jessica Desvarieux - The Real News Network, July 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.

Biography

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. He is chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University, in the Department of Chemistry and Physical Science. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including TruthOut, Z Magazine, Green Left Weekly, Alternet, CommonDreams, ClimateAndCapitalism, ClimateStoryTellers, The Indypendent, Dissident Voice, International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and ZNet. He reported from Fukushima in 2011 and was a Lannan writer-in-residence in Marfa, Texas over the summer of 2012, where he began work on his second book. He was awarded the Lannan 2013-4 Cultural Freedom Fellowship to continue this work. He has just returned from four months in Vietnam, Morocco and Bolivia, examining the impact of economic development and climate change in relation to energy, food and water issues.

Robert Pollin is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). His research centers on macroeconomics, conditions for low-wage workers in the US and globally, the analysis of financial markets, and the economics of building a clean-energy economy in the US. His latest book is Back to Full Employment. Other books include A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States and Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity.

Are there too many people? - Population, Hunger, and Environmental Degradation

By Chris Williams - International Socialist Review, January 2010

“COULD FOOD shortages bring down civilization?” This was the title of an article in the May 2009 edition of the magazine Scientific American by Lester R. Brown.1 The article begins: “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse. Those crises are brought on by ever worsening environmental degradation.”

Brown is no fringe character; he has won numerous environmental awards and authored over 50 books addressing various aspects of the environmental crisis. Until 2000 he was president of the Worldwatch Institute, which publishes the influential and authoritative State of the World annual reports as well as the annual publication Vital Signs. A major preoccupation of Brown for more than three decades has been the idea that the world is perennially on the brink of running out of food because increases in human population are outstripping food supply. Now he is equally concerned that overpopulation is a major driver of ecological devastation. While Brown has been a resource-depletion doomsayer for decades, he is echoed by many others. Neo-Malthusian arguments are resurfacing with a vengeance as explanations for the recent global food crisis and, even more so, among people genuinely concerned by the ongoing, and indeed accelerating, destabilization of planetary ecosystems.

The return of Malthus
A number of liberal writers and publications have raised the specter of growing population as an unpleasant yet necessary topic of conversation. Johan Hari, a writer for the Independent, posed the question in one of his columns last year, “Are there just too many people in the world?” While noting that Malthusian predictions have consistently been wrong and often used as arguments against the poor, he nevertheless concludes that, “After studying the evidence, I am left in a position I didn’t expect. Yes, the argument about overpopulation is distasteful, often discussed inappropriately, and far from being a panacea-solution—but it can’t be dismissed entirely. It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for nine or 10 billion.”2 An editorial in the Guardian newspaper from March of this year, entitled “The Malthusian question,” even while rejecting the more outrageous population-reduction arguments and overt Malthusianism of organizations such as the Optimum Population Trust, confirms in alarmist terms the relevance of population-based arguments to environmental decay:

Yet human numbers continue to swell, at more than 9,000 an hour, 80 million a year, a rate that threatens a doubling in less than 50 years. Land for cultivation is dwindling. Wind and rain erode fertile soils. Water supplies are increasingly precarious. Once-fertile regions are threatened with sterility. The yield from the oceans has begun to fall. To make matters potentially worse, human numbers threaten the survival of other species of plant and animal. Humans depend not just on what they can extract from the soil, but what they can grow in it, and this yield is driven by an intricate ecological network of organisms. Even at the most conservative estimate, other species are being extinguished at 100 to 1,000 times the background rate observable in the fossil record.”3

The notion that population growth is the foremost cause of environmental degradation and societal destabilization is raised in the Summer 2009 issue of Scientific American’s publication, Earth 3.0—Solutions for Sustainable Progress. The cover article, titled “Population and Sustainability,” by Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, poses the question: Can we avoid limiting the number of people? It begins:

In an era of changing climate and sinking economies, Malthusian limits to growth are back—and squeezing us painfully. Whereas more people once meant more ingenuity, more talent and more innovation, today it just seems to mean less for each [emphasis in original].4

Engelman does not believe that coercive population control methods are necessary, primarily because, as he notes, they haven’t worked. Nevertheless, he urges governments, institutions and people to consider how we can best reduce population growth in order to conserve resources, reduce our ecological footprint, and prevent conflict over worsening environmental conditions.

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