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Fire and Forest Ecology in the American West

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and the environment, as well as that between the legal disciplines that regulate both domains, is meaningless and outdated.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.

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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…

A “Green New Deal”?: The Eco-syndicalist Alternative

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, April 15, 2019

Capitalist dynamics are at the very heart of the current crisis that humanity faces over global warming.

When we talk of “global warming,” we’re talking about the rapid — and on-going — rise in the average world-wide surface and ocean temperature. Thus far a rise of 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, two-thirds of this temperature increase has occurred since 1975. A one-degree rise in temperature might seem like no big deal. As the NASA scientists point out, however, “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much.”

We know that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is at the heart of the problem. For many centuries the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranged between 200 and 300 parts per million. By the 1950s the growth of industrial capitalism since the 1800s had pushed this to the top of this range — 310 parts per million. Since then the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen very rapidly — to more than 410 parts per million by 2018. This is the result of the vast rise in the burning of fossil fuels in the era since World War 2 — coal, petroleum, natural gas.

The problem is rooted in the very structure of capitalism itself. Cost-shifting is an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production. An electric power company burns coal to generate electricity because the price per kilowatt hour from coal-fired electricity has long been cheaper than alternatives. But the emissions from burning coal travel downwind and cause damage to the respiratory systems of thousands of people — including preventable deaths to people with respiratory ailments. This is in addition to the powerful contribution to global warming from the carbon dioxide emissions. But the power firm doesn’t have to pay money for these human costs. If the firm had to pay fees that would be equivalent to the human cost in death, respiratory damage and contribution to global warming and its effects, burning coal would not be profitable for the power company.

Firms also externalize costs onto workers, such as the health effects of stress or chemical exposures. The “free market” pundit or hack economist might deny that companies externalize costs onto workers. They might say that wages and benefits paid to workers for each hour of work measure the cost of labor. But the human cost of work can be increased without an increase in the compensation paid to workers. If a company speeds up the pace of work, if people are working harder, if they are more tightly controlled by supervisors, paced by machines or software, this increases the cost in human terms.

Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing, in agriculture and other industries pose a threat to both the workers and to people who live in nearby areas. Usually working class people live in neighborhoods near polluting industries, and often these are communities of color. This is another form of capitalist cost-shifting.

State regulation of pesticides or air pollution often ends up acting as a “cover” for the profit-making firms. Despite the existence of pollutants generated by leaky oil refineries and pollutants emitted by other industries in industrial areas in California — such as the “cancer alley” of oil refineries in the Contra Costa County area  or the similar refinery zone in Wilmington — the government agencies set up to deal with air pollution in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County protected polluters for years by focusing almost exclusively on pollution generated  by vehicle exhaust. In this way the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District have been an example of “regulatory capture” by corporate capital.

Power firms that generate vast amounts of carbon dioxide emissions — and firms that make profits from building fossil-fuel burning cars and trucks or from the sale of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel — have not had to pay any fees or penalties for the growing build up of the carbon dioxide layer in the atmosphere. The global warming crisis thus has its explanation in cost shifting and the search for short-term profits and ever growing markets — features that are at the heart of the capitalist system.

If global capitalism continues with “business as usual”, the warming will have major impacts — killer heat waves, more ocean heat pumping energy into hurricanes and cyclones, rising ocean levels from melting of ice in the polar regions and melting of glaciers, destruction of corals in the oceans, and a greater danger to the survival of many species of living things.

Gearing Towards a Green Future of Work

By Jean Lambert - Green European Journal, June 21, 2018

Green politics is about building a socially, environmentally, and economically just and sustainable future for everybody on the planet. This vision might be obvious, but the journey to get there is less so. At its core, green political thinking sees humanity as not just existing economically, and getting our economies on the right track is therefore a central challenge. As part of that, we need to understand work and its possible futures.

Economics is, of course, vitally important, and Greens must ensure our economic analysis is robust, evidence-based, and looking to the future. But economics must be seen in context, and human beings exist socially and ecologically as well as economically. Work has the capacity to provide economic security for us as individuals and our families and yet can equally be dysfunctional and exploitative, especially for those in precarious employment or on low pay.  Greens should work to support its positive economic function at personal and societal level, but also for it to add maximum social usefulness while respecting environmental limits.

Economic, social and environmental dimensions are all relevant for a full understanding of work, its value, and its future. Much work is primarily important in terms of social usefulness rather than economically – for example, care work. Unpaid work is a special case needing greater attention. Unpaid work takes place on a huge scale, especially by women, but is not economic in the narrow sense of being undertaken for a wage. Yet it is of immense value to the well-being of society. Without unpaid work our current societies and economies would probably cease to function. A better understanding and valuing of unpaid work is long overdue.

The environmental dimension of work is no less important, although often less visible or easily lost sight of. The environmental impacts of economic and industrial activities are becoming more widely understood. This has led to increased acceptance of the transformative potential of the green agenda for the economy and work. Those seeking to delay, dilute, or frustrate the green agenda’s potential to transform the economy should be reminded that there are no jobs on a dead planet. Faced with the broad trends of reduction in working time, persistent inequalities, automation, Greens also need to go further and put forward a vision centred around green industry, just transition, democracy at work, and education.

Reordering The Anthropocene

By Matt Hern and Am Johal - Red Pepper, May 21, 2018

Capitalism is nothing if not a sophisticated ordering operation of a given population: a secular religion with a theological belief in markets and their myriad disciplinary methods. Capital’s ability to constantly create and re-create itself wipes away the trauma and memory of disaster. Tradition under capitalism is constantly being reinvented to suit new languages of accumulation and dispossession, and accumulation by dispossession. In our view, conversations around oil, global warming, and crisis are potentially very dangerous when they are defined by capital and the state because, ultimately, they reveal a particular faith: a faith in a capitalist paradigm of beautiful destruction. From the perspective of capital, global warming is seen as an opportunity that should be faithfully exploited.

Walter Benjamin often described capitalism as religion. In a 1921 essay, he wrote that “Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.” It’s difficult not to think of such an apocalyptic vision of capitalism as simultaneously one of religion and destruction, and how this idea reveals the antagonistic relationship between capital and the other-than-human world. We’re intrigued by the idea of change as a kind of tradition. Wrapped in the history of modernity, beyond the desire for newness, is the reflex of progress that holds so much of history in contempt. Any history that doesn’t fit with capitalist narratives is cast as an obstruction, a blockage to the flow of the new, to be discarded and forgotten.

Presenting capitalism and development as the only possible form of progressive social ordering is a move toward closure in thinking about change. Today, what is being presented, at least in the narrow frame of the Global North, is that there is no modernity other than a capitalist one. Theorizing an ecological future requires a rupture between capitalism and modernity. The challenge is to construct new ideas of change while reimagining what we talk about when we talk about tradition, especially when we (and we mean that in the general “we,” but more pressingly in the particular—i.e., the two of us) carry so many contradictory, confusing, and often revanchist traditions with us.

How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth

By Kamran Nayeri - Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, May 14, 2017

“The only solution to the ‘Sixth Extinction’ is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater.  This expansion is favored by unplanned consequences of ongoing human population growth and movement and evolution of the economy now driven by the digital revolution. But it also requires a fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relation to the living environment.” (Wilson, 2016, p.167)

Introduction

The anthropogenic Sixth Extinction is an existential threat to much of life on Earth, including the human species.  In this essay, I critically examine the renowned entomologist, naturalist, and conservationist E. O. Wilson’s proposal in his recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016), to stop and reverse it.  In section I, I will outline what is meant by biodiversity and why it matters, and provide the basic facts about the Sixth Extinction and its salient causes.  In section II, I will outline Wilson’s proposal identifying tensions in his arguments for its efficacy.  In particular, I will show the tension between Wilson’s love for the natural world and his knowledge of biology and ecology on one hand and his inadequate understanding of human history, in particular, the capitalist civilization, which results in wishful thinking.  The Half-Earth proposal is necessary but not sufficient for stopping and reversing the Sixth Extinction. Finally, I conclude with a brief outline of what I consider to be necessary in order to make Wilson’s proposal effective.

Rebel Cities, Urban Resistance and Capitalism: a Conversation with David Harvey

By Vincent Emanuele - CounterPunch, February 1, 2017

Emanuele: You begin your book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, by describing your experience in Paris during the 1970s: “Tall building-giants, highways, soulless public housing and monopolized commodification on the streets threatening to engulf the old-Paris… Paris from the 1960s on was plainly in the midst of an existential crisis.” In 1967, Henry Lefebvre wrote his seminal essay “On the Right to the City.” Can you talk about this period and the impetus for writing Rebel Cities? 

Harvey: Worldwide, the 1960s is often looked at, historically, as a period of urban crisis. In the United States, for example, the 1960s was a time when many central cities went up in flames. There were riots and near revolutions in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and of course after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 — over 120 American cities were inflicted with minor and massive social unrest and rebellious action. I mention this in the United States, because what was in-effect happening was that the city was being modernized. It was being modernized around the automobile; it was being modernized around the suburbs. Now, the Old City, or what had been the political, economic and cultural center of city throughout the 1940s and 50s, was now being left behind. Remember, these trends were taking place throughout the advanced capitalist world. So it wasn’t just in the United States. There were serious problems in Britain and France where an older way of life was being dismantled — a way a life that I don’t think anyone should be nostalgic about, but this old way of life was being pushed away and replaced by a new way of life based on commercialization, property, property speculation, building highways, the automobile, suburbanization, and with all these changes we saw increased inequality and social unrest.

Depending on where you were at the time, these were strictly class-inequalities, or they were class-inequalities focused on specific minority groups. For example, obviously in the United States it was the African American community based in the inner cities who had very little in terms of employment opportunities or resources. So, the 1960s was referred to as an urban crisis. If you go back and look at all the commissions from the 1960s that were inquiring what to do about the urban crisis, there were government programs being implemented from Britain to France, and also in the Untied States. Similarly, they were all trying to address this ‘urban crisis.’

I found this a fascinating topic to study and a traumatic experience to live through. You know, these countries that were becoming more and more affluent were leaving people behind who were being secluded in urbanized-ghettos and treated as non-existent human beings. The crisis of the 1960s was a crucial one, and one I think Lefebvre understood quite well. He believed that people in urban areas should have a voice to decide what those areas should look like, and what kind of urbanization process should take place. At the same time, those who resisted wished to roll back the wave of property speculation that was beginning to engulf urban areas throughout the industrialized capitalist countries.

What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

By "Anarchist Writers" - November 11, 2008

The term "Tragedy of the Commons" is a phrase which is used to describe why, according to some, commonly owned resources will be destructively overused. The term was first coined by Garret Hardin in December 1968. ["The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243-1248] It quickly became popular with those arguing against any form of collective ownership or socialism and would be the basis for many arguments for privatisation.

Unsurprisingly, given its popularity with defenders of capitalism and neo-classical economists, Hardin's argument was a pure thought experiment with absolutely no empirical evidence to support it. He suggested a scenario in which commonly owned pasture was open to all local herdsmen to feed their cattle on. Hardin complemented this assumption with the standard ones of neo-classical economics, arguing that each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons to maximise their income. This would result in overgrazing and environmental destruction as the cost of each feeding additional animals is shouldered by all who use the commons while the benefits accrue to the individual herdsman. However, what is individually rational becomes collectively irrational when each herdsman, acting in isolation, does the same thing. The net result of the individual's actions is the ending of the livelihood of every herdsman as the land becomes overused.

His article was used to justify both nationalisation and privatisation of communal resources (the former often a precursor for the latter). As state ownership fell out of favour, the lesson of this experiment in logic was as uniform as it was simple: only privatisation of common resources could ensure their efficient use and stop them being overused and destroyed. Coming as it did before the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, Hardin's essay was much referenced by those seeking to privatise nationalised industries and eliminate communal institutions in tribal societies in the Third World. That these resulted in wealth being concentrated in a few hands should come as no surprise.

Needless to say, there are numerous problems with Hardin's analysis. Most fundamentally, it was a pure thought experiment and, as such, was not informed by historical or current practice. In other words, it did not reflect the reality of the commons as a social institution. The so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" was no such thing. It is actually an imposition of the "tragedy of the free-for-all" to communally owned resources (in this case, land). In reality, commons were never "free for all" resources and while the latter may see overuse and destruction the former managed to survive thousands of years. So, unfortunately for the supporters of private property who so regularly invoke the "Tragedy of the Commons", they simply show their ignorance of what true commons are. As socialist Allan Engler points out:

"Supporters of capitalism cite what they call the tragedy of the commons to explain the wanton plundering of forests, fish and waterways, but common property is not the problem. When property was held in common by tribes, clans and villages, people took no more than their share and respected the rights of others. They cared for common property and when necessary acted together to protect it against those who would damage it. Under capitalism, there is no common property. (Public property is a form of private property, property owned by the government as a corporate person.) Capitalism recognises only private property and free-for-all property. Nobody is responsible for free-for-all property until someone claims it as his own. He then has a right to do as he pleases with it, a right that is uniquely capitalist. Unlike common or personal property, capitalist property is not valued for itself or for its utility. It is valued for the revenue it produces for its owner. If the capitalist owner can maximise his revenue by liquidating it, he has the right to do that." [Apostles of Greed, pp. 58-59]

Therefore, as Colin Ward argues, "[l]ocal, popular, control is the surest way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons." [Reflected in Water, p. 20] Given that a social anarchist society is a communal, decentralised one, it will have little to fear from irrational overuse or abuse of communally owned and used resources.

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