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Capitalism, Ecology, and the Green New Deal

By Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus - Voices for New Democracy, December 9, 2021

The world’s climate is changing, and it’s surprising — and disappointing — how little our responses have changed since we first recognized the problem decades ago. Since the 1970s, the world has been well aware of climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and many have recognized how our political economy lies at the heart of the problem. Marxist thinkers in particular, like Paul Mattick, were quick to describe the irreconcilable contradiction between our extractive and growth-oriented economic systems and the carrying capacity of our natural ecosystems. But despite these prescient warnings, the world today is still clinging to the same economic systems and largely failing to resolve these tensions. In the face of the accelerating crisis, it’s worth reflecting on the clear trajectory that thinkers like Mattick identified, and what it means for our options in the present moment. 

In 1976, Mattick published his analysis of the problem in “Capitalism and Ecology,” just four years after scientist John Sawyer published the study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect in 1972. Sawyer’s study summarized the scientific consensus at the time around the Earth’s pressing climate concerns: the anthropogenic attribution of the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, their widespread distribution and their exponential rise throughout the modern era. By the mid-70s, even the Club of Rome recognized the impending ecological crisis in The Limits to Growth. In short, everyone was beginning to recognize the issue: too many of us are using too many resources, too quickly, in too many places. 

As Mattick writes, Marx recognized that “the exhaustion of the earth’s wealth and relative overpopulation were the direct result of production for profit” (a point that has been explored in great detail by a new generation of eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster). And science bears this out. Our world has only become more productive, populated, and globalized since the Industrial Revolution, and this has correlated closely with rising levels of energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions every year. As our economic activity increases, we cannot avoid using more raw materials to keep the system moving and maintain profit margins.

Ultimately, it is capitalist social relations that drive this ecological crisis. “Social phenomena are ecological phenomena,” Mattick writes. To keep profit rates high (the motor driving the entire system), companies simply have no choice but to keep expanding and growing, and that always requires the use of raw materials — and as global capitalism expands (and demand grows as populations increase and more workers are brought out of the subsistence economy into the wage labor system), that rate of raw material consumption can only increase.

Protecting Some Old Growth Isn’t Enough. BC Needs a Forest Revolution

By Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Arnold Bercov, Torrance Coste and Ben Parfitt - The Tyee, November 12, 2021

Governments have mismanaged the sector for decades. Now communities and First Nations should lead.

No one should be surprised that the British Columbia government’s plan to consider deferring logging in 26,000 square kilometres of old-growth forest angered many and pleased few.

First Nations’ leaders were highly critical of the incredibly short 30-day period the government imposed on them to respond to the deferral proposals, the paltry funding provided by the province to offset consultation costs, and the economic implications for their members.

The Council of Forest Industries, representing the province’s biggest logging, lumber and pulp and paper operations, warned of an impending economic apocalypse in which 18,000 workers would lose their jobs, while skirting around the tens of thousands of industry jobs already lost.

And environmental leaders noted that many tracts of old growth remained unprotected and would likely be logged even more intensely as the government took the next couple of years to decide whether or not the proposed deferral areas would actually receive formal protection.

All of this was predictable, and all of it largely ignored the elephant in the room.

What the deferral decision underscored is the abominable point to which this government and governments before it have brought us.

Successive provincial governments actively encouraged the logging industry, which is dominated by a few very powerful companies, to cut down more and more forest without any coherent plan for how healthy, resilient ecosystems — which are the bedrock of healthy communities — were to be maintained.

Perpetuating logging rates that anyone with an iota of common sense knew could not go on was guaranteed to have brutal consequences, including old-growth forests so fragmented from logging that they are no longer capable of supporting caribou and vibrant songbird populations; community watersheds where once-clean drinking water has turned to mud; drastically reduced or eradicated salmon stocks; and 41,000 direct jobs lost in the forest industry in just 20 years.

Counting the Job Cost of Halting Old-Growth Logging

By Andrew MacLeod - The Tyee, November 10, 2021

The province says 4,500, industry says 18,000. Critics say government has left too many unanswered questions.

The BC Council of Forest Industries and the United Steelworkers union say protecting old-growth forests could cost four times as many jobs as the government is predicting.

But whatever the actual number, any decline in employment will be part of a long-term trend that has seen fewer people working in the sector even as the volume of trees logged each year remained steady.

Last week Katrine Conroy, the minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, announced the B.C. government plans to defer logging 2.6 million hectares of the most at-risk old-growth forests in the province for two years while it discusses possible permanent protection with the Indigenous nations whose territories the forests are on.

Conroy said the ministry estimates up to 4,500 jobs could be affected and promised a suite of programs aimed at helping workers and their families transition to other work.

The Council of Forest Industries, however, believed the government’s estimate is far too low.

“Our initial analysis indicates that these deferrals would result in the closure of between 14 and 20 sawmills in B.C., along with two pulp mills and an undetermined number of value-added manufacturing facilities,” Susan Yurkovich, president and CEO of the council, said in a statement released Nov. 2.

That translates to about 18,000 “good, family-supporting jobs lost” and about a $400-million reduction in government revenue each year, she said.

A day later the United Steelworkers, the union representing about 12,000 of B.C.’s forestry workers, put out a statement backing COFI’s figures over the government’s.

“If even half of the 2.6 million hectares identified by the government are removed, jobs will be lost as multiple sawmills, value-added operations and pulp mills close permanently,” it quoted USW Wood Council Chair Jeff Bromley.

“In the past three years, eight operations with USW workers across B.C. closed and 1,000 good-paying, family-supporting jobs were lost,” he continued. “The impact from this process will almost certainly multiply across the province.”

For comparison, there were nearly 2.7 million people employed in all sectors in B.C. in October. B.C. added 10,400 jobs in October according to the Labour Force Survey numbers StatsCan released last week.

Fire and Forest Ecology in the American West

For an ecosocialist transition that breaks from capitalism: Arguments and proposals

By Claude Calame - Global Ecosocialist Network, April 13, 2021

The 149 proposals issued by the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate last June, with the goal of achieving at least a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 compared to 1990, manifestly belong to a thoroughly reformist approach. Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron, only days after environmentalist candidates made gains in municipal elections, rejected three of those proposals:

  • the reduction of the motorway speed limit to 110 km/h (what else could one expect from the Finance Minister under Hollande who wanted to create competition between buses and trains?);
  • a 4% tax on dividends (the rejection of this proposal is consistent with the President’s abolition of the wealth tax among his first acts after being elected, in line with the demands of Medef);
  • the inclusion of ecology in the preamble to the Constitution (this proposal is clearly contrary to the principles of the President’s neoliberal worldview, which sees ‘nature’ itself only as something to be turned into a commodity to be submitted to the market and exploited for profit).

Billionaire or Community Solutions to Climate Chaos?

Is Labor Green? A Cross-National Panel Analysis of Unionization and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

By Camila Huerta Alvarez, Julius McGee, and Richard York - Nature and Culture, March 1, 2019

In this article, we assess whether unionization of national workforces influences growth in national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita. Political-economic theories in environmental sociology propose that labor unions have the potential to affect environmental conditions. Yet, few studies have quantitatively assessed the influence of unionization on environmental outcomes using cross-national data. We estimate multilevel regression models using data on OECD member nations from 1970 to 2014. Results from our analysis indicate that unionization, measured as the percentage of workers who are union members, is negatively associated with CO2 emissions per capita, even when controlling for labor conditions. This finding suggests that unionization may promote environmental protection at the national level

Read the text (PDF).

Labour and Environmental Sustainability

By Juan Escribano Gutiérrez, in collaboration with Paolo Tomassetti - Adapt, December 2020

There is consensus that the separation between labour and the environment, as well as that between the legal disciplines that regulate both domains, is meaningless and outdated. Since business activities affect the health and the environment of workers and human beings, synergies between the two spheres have to be created. Yet there is still a long way to go in order to bring together labour and environmental regulation.

In all the selected countries (France, the Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain) the legal systems regulating salaried work, on the one hand, and the environment, on the other hand, remain disconnected, although no formal obstacles exist to their integration. With regard to the scope for collective bargaining to become a means to integrate both spheres, no legal restrictions apply in any of the framework considered, although explicit references to workers and employers (or their representatives) to bargain over environmental aspects are far less evident.

It is up to the social partners to promote environmental sustainability as a goal for collective bargaining or to continue with the traditional inertia that divides labour and environmental regulation. Despite research shows how the social partners, especially trade unions, are more and more willing to negotiate environmental aspects, the narrative on the trade-off between labour and the environment is still evident, especially in the Hungarian context. Collective agreements could take a leading role in driving the just transition towards a low-carbon economy, but in practice they do not regard this mission as a priority. Environmental clauses in collective agreements are still exceptional and lack momentum.

One explanation is that the legal mechanisms in place to limit the impact of business activity on the environment (i.e. environmental law) legitimize firms to consider environmental aspects as their own prerogative. For this reason, in some legal systems, employers tend to discuss environmental commitments outside collective bargaining, including them into corporate social responsibility (CSR) mechanisms. By doing so, the company avoids enforceability, limiting the effectiveness of the tools to regulate environmental issues.

Read the text (Link).

Agroecology to Combat the Climate Crisis

Ecosocialism and/or Degrowth?

By Michael Löwy - Climate and Capitalism, October 8, 2020

Ecosocialism and the de-growth movement are among the most important currents of the ecological left. Ecosocialists agree that a significant measure of de-growth in production and consumption is necessary in order to avoid ecological collapse. But they have a critical assessment of the de-growth theories because:

  • a) the concept of « de-growth » is unsufficient to define an alternative programm;
  • b) it does not make clear if de-growth can be achieved in the framework of capitalism or not;
  • c) it does not distinguish between activities that need to be reducd and those that need to be developed.

It is important to take into account that the de-growth current, which is particularly influent in France, is not homogeneous: inspired by critics of the consumer society - Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard - and of the « technical system » - Jacques Ellul – it contains different political sensibilities. There are at least two pôles which are quite distant, if not opposed: on one side, critics of Western culture tempted by cultural relativism (Serge Latouche), on the other universalist left ecologists (Vincent Cheynet, Paul Ariés).

Serge Latouche, who is well known worldwide, is one of the most controversial French de-growth theoreticians. For sure, some of his arguments are legitimate: demystification of the « sustainable development », critique of the religion of growth and « progress », call for a cultural revolution. But his wholesale rejection of Western humanism, of the Enlightenment and of representative democracy, as well as his cultural relativism (no universal values) and his immoderate celebration of the Stone Age are very much open to criticism. But there is worse. His critique of the ecosocialist development proposals for countries of the Global South - more clean water, schools and hospitals – as « ethnocentric », « Westernizing » and « destructive of local ways of life », is quite unbearable. Last but not least, his argument that there is no need to talk about capitalism, since this critique « has already been done, and well done, by Marx » is not serious: it is as if one would say that there is no need to denounce the productivist destruction of the planet because this has already been done, « and well done », by André Gorz (or Rachel Carson). Fortunately, in his more recent writings, Latouche clearly refers to capitalism as the responsible for the ecological crisis, and describes himself as an ecosocialist…

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