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Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse

Iain Boal interviewed by David Martinez - Counterpunch, September 11, 2007

Iain Boal is an Irish social historian of science and technics, associated with Retort, a group of antinomian writers, artisans and artists based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is one of the authors of Retort’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2nd edn, Verso, 2006). This chapter is based on a conversation prompted by DAVID MARTINEZ, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and journalist, in late 2005. It also draws on material from a forthcoming book by Iain Boal, entitled The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure.

DAVID MARTINEZ: I’d like to talk with you about "scarcity" and "catastrophe". On the talk shows there is even discussion of an impending collapse of society due to dwindling oil supply. The concepts of scarcity and collapse are hardly new, and obviously the invasion of Iraq brought the issue of oil into sharp focus. Can we start with the sacred cow of scarcity?

Iain Boal:  Sure. With respect to oil, we should begin with the observation that the general problem for the petro-barons has always been glut, or to put it another way, how to keep oil scarce. They’ve done a pretty good job, although all monopolies have to be measured against De Beers, who have the corner on diamonds. They are the world’s masters at constructing scarcity, in this case, of crystalline carbon, which is actually rather common in the earth’s crust. So one thing to make clear is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not about absolute scarcity.  For sure, the history of oil is complex, and the fluctuations in the supply of oil have an extraordinarily complicated relation to price, demand, and reserves. But in order to understand scarcity – whether of oil in particular or of commodities under capitalism in general – you have to look at the discourses of scarcity and of poverty. And that means you have to look at the historical moment of the institutionalizing of economics – defined in the textbooks as "the study of choice under scarcity" – as the dominant  way of talking about the world, and the relation of these to capitalist modernity.  And that story is indeed interesting.

In order to understand "scarcity" as a sacred cow, we have to go back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Because, no question, we are living in a Malthusian world. By that I mean that Malthus’ way of framing the issue of human welfare has triumphed.  And I think it’s especially important for the Left to understand this. Particularly those who got drawn into politics through concern about the environment, who count themselves as "green". Scratch an environmentalist and probably you’ll find a Malthusian. What do I mean by that? What is it to be Malthusian? Well, it’s to subscribe to the view that the fundamental problems humanity faces have their roots in the scarcity of the resources that sustain life, because the world is finite and we are exhausting those resources and also perhaps because we are polluting them. Notice how this mirrors the basic assumption of modern economics – choice under scarcity. In his notorious essay published in 1798, Malthus argued, or rather asserted, that population growth, especially of poor bastards, would inevitably outrun food supply, unless the propertyless were restrained from breeding. He advocated that poor people be crowded together in unhealthy housing, as a way of checking the growth of population. Remember, this is the world’s very first economist we’re talking about here.

And don’t forget that Malthus was in his own time consciously devising a counter-revolutionary science of economics and demography: his essay was a response to a famous best-seller by the utopian anarchist William Godwin, husband of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley who later wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the hubris of (male) science. Godwin had written An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice during the euphoric period after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the overthrow of the French monarchy. Godwin’s optimistic, atheist, rationalism was born of the revolutionary events happening across the Channel – "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive", in the indelible line of Wordsworth. But as the counter-revolution set in, Thomas Malthus felt emboldened to compose his Essay on the Principle of Population as an explicit response to Godwin’s vision of an ample life for all. Malthus invented an "iron law of nature" intended, rhetorically, to put a damper on Godwin and the perfectibilians, and in practical political terms to discourage "idling" and illegitimacy and to cut away the existing welfare system which was a safety net for the poor.

Primitivism, anarcho-primitivism and anti-civilisationism: criticism

By Andrew Flood - Originally published on libcom.com, Oct 12 2006

Web Editor's Note: - This article was written for an anarchist audience. The IWW is not explicitly or exclusively anarchist in its orientation (though it does share a good deal of commonalities with anarcho-syndicalism, in particular). Likewise, neither are "primitivists" exclusively anarchist, nor are anarchists for the most part primitivist. In spite of that, this critique adequately addresses a general anti-capitalist, revolutionary working class critique of the primitivism, and/or "anti-civ" tendency so prevalent among radical environmentalists.

Foreword

The central tenet of primitivism, anarcho-primitivism and anti-civilisationism is the abolition of technology. For most people, arguing against this is completely unnecessary, since it is immediately obvious that it is a terrible idea. Even given the most cursory glance it is clear that abolishing technology would have devastating consequences for humankind and the planet. [1]

For starters, the 50% [2] of the UK population who need glasses or contact lenses (which rises to 97% over the age of 65 [3]) would soon be left severely impaired. Tens of millions of people dependent on drug treatments for illnesses would quickly die. Radioactive nuclear waste needs to be monitored and controlled with high-tech equipment for tens of thousands of years. Without it, even if buried deep underground, climate changes and tectonic plate movements will eventually cause it to leak out and wreak ecological devastation on the planet. This aside from the all the other obviously unattractive prospects of this idea — no more books, recorded music, medical equipment, central heating, sewage systems... — means that almost everyone would reject this idea immediately. However, within and around anarchist circles these ideas do have some support, so this article will examine them in more detail.

Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State: An Interview with Ward Churchill

Interview by Tom Keefer and Jerome Klassen - Upping the Anti, March 26, 2005

Ward Churchill is one of the most outspoken activists and scholars in North America and a leading commentator on indigenous issues. Churchill’s many books include Marxism and Native Americans; Fantasies of the Master Race; Struggle for the Land; The COINTELPRO Papers; Genocide, Ecocide, and Colonization; Pacifism as Pathology; and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas.

In his lectures and published works, Churchill explores the themes of genocide in the Americas, racism, historical and legal (re)interpretation of conquest and colonization, environmental destruction of Indian lands, government repression of political movements, literary and cinematic criticism, and indigenist alternatives to the status quo.

Churchill has recently come under attack for views expressed in the article Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. An important part of the future of US academic freedom in the coming years will likely be determined by the outcome of the ongoing attempts to strip Ward Churchill of his academic position at Colorado University in Boulder. Two members of Autonomy & Solidarity sat down with Ward Churchill in Toronto in November of 2003 to do this interview.  It was transcribed by Clarissa Lassaline and edited by Tom Keefer, Dave Mitchell, and Valerie Zink.

Upping The Anti: We want to start off by asking you about your thoughts on the anti-globalization movement which, in terms of anti-capitalist struggles, has been one of the most significant developments in the past decade. This movement has also been criticized in the US context, as being largely made up of white middle class kids running around “summit hopping”. What’s your take?

Ward Churchill: I think the anti-globalization movement, for lack of a better term, is a very positive development in the sense that it re-infuses the opposition with a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and vibrancy. The downside is that it’s a counter analytical movement in that it thinks it’s something new. We used to call it “anti-imperialism,” just straight up. The idea that “globalization” is something new, rather than a continuation of dynamics that are at least 500 years deep, is misleading. That needs to be understood.

The Environmental Crisis

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005

The world is facing a very serious environmental crisis. Key environmental problems include air pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, vast quantities of toxic waste, massive levels of soil erosion, the possible exhaustion of key natural resources such as oil and coal, and the extinction of plants and animals on a scale not seen since the death of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. We think that this crisis is likely to have catastrophic effects in the future. Even today, the negative effects of the crisis are evident in the form of growing deserts, increased rates of cancer, and the loss of plant species which could hold out cures for diseases for diseases such as AIDS etc.

What caused the crisis?

We disagree with those environmentalists who blame the crisis on modern machine production. Many dangerous, environmentally destructive technologies and substances (for example, coal power stations, non-degradable plastics which do not rot in the ground) can be replaced with safer and sustainable industrial technologies (for example, solar technology, starch-based plastics). We think that modern forms of production have many potential advantages over small-scale craft production. Such as greatly increasing the number of essential products like bricks produced, and freeing people from unpleasant toil. We also disagree with the argument that says that workers and peasants cause the crisis by consuming “too many” resources. Most goods consumed in the world are consumed by the middle class and ruling class.

Instead, the real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of capitalism and the State. These structures create massive levels of inequality which are responsible for much ecological devastation. How? The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few is associated with excessive and unjustifiable high levels of consumption by the ruling elite. The poverty caused by the system also creates environmental problems. For example, by forcing the poor to cut down trees for firewood, exhaust the tiny bits of farm land that they own in a desperate attempt to provide food, pollute rivers because they lack proper plumbing facilities etc.

The Environment

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005 [PDF File Available]

1. General Introduction

1. The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result wil be the extinction of human life on the planet.

2. We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognize that nature and the environment have value in their own terms. Although we hold human life above all other life on the planet, we do not think that humans have the right destroy animals, plants and eco-systems that do not threaten its survival.

3. The main environmental problems include:

3.1. Air pollution: destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous rays from the sun; creates a general increase in planetary temperatures (the greenhouse effect) that will severely disrupt weather patterns; turns rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life; causes respiratory and other diseases amongst humans.

3.2. Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products, have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps as well as wasting resources; poisons and injures people.

3.3. Soil erosion: this takes place in both the First and the Third World, and is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilizers, dangerous pesticides etc, as well as inappropriate land use, land overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a rate faster than that at which it is being produced; contributes to rural poverty [1].

3.4. Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago; results in the loss of many species, and undermines the ecosphere on which all life depends.

Ecology and Class: Where there’s Brass, there’s Muck

By the (UK) Anarchist Federation - ca. 1998

Many people are aware of the worldwide problem of environmental pollution and destruction. Rainforests such as Amazonia are being decimated, large areas of land turned into desert. Droughts, floods and earthquakes affect millions; large-scale pollution is causing dangerous climatic change. Ecology (the science of living things and how they interact with each other), is therefore vital, literally a matter of life and death.

In Africa and Asia, deforestation and desertification reinforce the effects of grossly unfair land ownership, producing starvation and malnutrition for millions of people. In Europe and North America, cancers from the environmental degradation caused by mass industrial society affect tens of thousands; the death and injury toll from cars is huge and the resulting air pollution causes a worsening asthma problem. Drinking water is becoming more polluted due to pesticides from farming, pollution from industry and, in Britain, water suppliers may soon be compelled to add the harmful chemical fluoride to water because of its supposed benefits to children’s teeth. Food is generally laden with chemicals (additives, pesticides, pollution, irradiation (to prolong shelf life), and is increasingly genetically modified.

Ecological analysis needs to be part of a wider class analysis. For too many environmentalists however, green issues and politics are “neither left nor right” or “beyond politics”. This is dangerous nonsense. It leads to flirtations (or worse) with paganism, eastern religions and mysticism. It encourages people-hating ideologies. Let’s not forget the nationalism and racism of leading American Earth First! activists in the 1980s or links to neo-fascist ideas (David Icke, for instance, or the Third Stream groups in Britain and elsewhere). On the other side, class analysis cannot ignore ecology, for instance by treating all technology as neutral.

If it does, it will be incapable of creating a future society that is free and equal (anarchist communism); such a society must be in harmony with the rest of nature.

This pamphlet is the result of the Anarchist Federation’s commitment to developing a coherent ecological analysis and practice as a vital part of our politics. It does not claim to be the last word, merely the start of the process. Ecology is an important strand in anarchist communism through people who were both theorists and activists, such as Kropotkin, Mumford, and, in the present day, Murray Bookchin’s description of ecologies of freedom.

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Anarcho-Syndicalism, Technology and Ecology

By Graham Purchase - Kick It Over, #35, Summer 1995 [PDF Available]

In an anarchist society, the absence of centralized state authority will permit a radically new integration of nature, labour and culture. As the social and ecological revolution progresses, national boundaries will become cartographical curiosities, and divisions based upon differences in geography, climate and species distribution will re-emerge. This essay addresses the question of what role unionism will play in these changes.

First, it seems obvious that telecommunications, transportation and postal networks all require organization which extends far beyond the individual ecological region, and activities like road building between communities require cooperation beyond that of individual locales. Thus, a return to a community-based lifestyle need not and cannot imply a return to the isolation of the walled medieval city or peasant village.

Anarcho-syndicalists (that is, anarchist unionists) argue that the best way to address such needs is for the "workers of the world" to cease producing for capitalist elites and their political allies. Instead, they should organize to serve humanity by creating not only communication and transportation networks, but industrial, service, and agricultural networks as well, in order to ensure the continued production and distribution of goods and services.

Yet there are many people in anarchist and radical environmental circles who regard anarcho-syndicalism with distrust, as they mistakenly identify it with industrialism. They argue that global industrialism has been responsible for centralized organization and environmental destruction. They view industrialism as necessarily based upon mass production, and the factory as inevitably involving high energy use and dehumanizing working conditions. In short, critics believe that providing six billion people with toilet paper and building materials (let alone TVs, VCRs and automobiles) necessarily involves large-scale, mass production techniques ill-suited to ecological health - regardless of whether capitalist leeches or "free" workers are running the show. Industrialism, it is argued, is an environmental evil in and of itself; it is only made slightly more destructive by the narrow, short-term interests of capital and state. Such critics argue that technology has likewise outgrown its capitalistic origins, and has taken on a sinister and destructive life of its own.

I am not unsympathetic to this argument. That children and adults alike spend hours on end surrounded by deafening noise and blinding lights in video arcades, in an utterly synthetic technological orgy, is ample evidence of our species' sick fetish for non-organic, superficial pleasures. The regimentation of the work day, and the consignment of leisure and play to half-hour television slots interrupted by nauseating commercials, is nothing short of the industrial robotification of human nature - an alarming process that has led many to argue that humanity should abandon the industrial and technological revolutions altogether. They further argue that we should return to small-scale, minimally industrial technologies that utilize simple devices such as the hand loom. Given the enormously destructive effects of today's industrial system, such a course may ultimately be the only path open to humanity. At this point, however, simply abandoning our cities and our technologies and hoping that our species will somehow return to a small-scale, pre-industrial existence appears both unlikely and reckless.

Class Struggle and the Environmental Crisis: A South African Anarchist Pamphlet

By Zabalaza - ca 1995

The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result will be the extinction of human life on the planet.

We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognise that nature and the environment have value in their own terms. Although we hold human life above all other life on the planet, we do not think that humans have the right to destroy animals, plants and eco-systems that do not threaten our survival.

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Anarchism and Environmental Survival (Graham Pucrhase)

By Graham Pucrhase - See Sharp Press, 1994

As a result of the environmental crisis, the once-unshakable belief that the human species should dominate nature is being challenged on all sides. "Survival" has come to mean something more complex than the simplistic notion of "survival of the fittest" or the right of dominance by a "superior" species. Increasing numbers of people are coming to see that regional and planetary environmental health, and human survival itself, depend upon a respectful approach to nature and to non-human life forms. We now know that healthy soils, animals, forests, grasslands and river systems are biological necessities for human survival. Ecological science further tells us that genetic and species diversity, not homogeneity, ensures the health and stability of ecosystems, and that the health and stability of the Karth itself can be no greater than that of its combined ecological regions. Our contemporary understanding of survival, then, and the means necessary to its realization, is a far cry from the individualistic struggle for existence—"Nature red in tooth and claw"—once depicted in elementary biology texts. Human survival depends not upon competition with other species (and within our own), but rather upon the adoption of cooperative and nurturant ways of life—a sustainable course of co-evolution with all living things.

At the same time, people are increasingly looking for nongovernmental ways to solve pressing social and environmental problems. They realize that it is everyone’s responsibility to create a greener, healthier, and more sustainable future for their families and communities. People are beginning to plant trees in suburban "green belts," to campaign against the pollution of local rivers, and to take the time to appreciate the wildlife in their regions. They notice that the massive and imperialistic military and economic ventures of nation states and multinational corporations are more often than not harmful to the regions in which they are imposed. Corporate capitalism, from Tokyo to Berlin seems determined to cover the delicate ecoregions of our living planet with a universal landscape of asphalt highways, golf courses, shopping malls, and theme parks. People everywhere are realizing that our survival is dependent upon environmental stability, and that the pathological interests of governments and multinational corporations pose the single biggest threat to the health of the Earth.

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A Brief Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchy, Civilization and Technology

This very brief interview was obtained immediately after Noam Chomsky arrived in Columbia, Missouri to deliver a lecture on “The New World Order” on April 1, 1991. Unfortunately, when taping began in the middle of our conversation, Noam announced that he had to leave in 5 minutes, so any plans for a more organized and extensive interview had to be scrapped. Anarchy magazine staffers Lev Chernyi, Toni Otter, Avid Darkly and Noa participated in the discussion. This is what we talked about once the recording began – as Noam answered a question regarding his perception of North American anarchists.

Noam Chomsky: ...I think if you counted up the number of people who would regard themselves as involved or sympathetic you’d get a pretty large number, but this doesn’t necessarily mean much, because the connections are pretty weak.

Lev Chernyi: I was curious if you try to any extent to keep up with the anarchist press in the U.S. or North America?

Noam: Yes, I guess I subscribe to most of it – more out of duty than anything else I guess.

Lev: Do you ever read Fifth Estate, for example?

Noam: Yes.

Lev: Do you have any sympathy for their anti-civilization perspective?

Noam: Not a lot. I mean I’ve always felt much more attuned with the parts of the anarchist movement that were interested in and took for granted the existence of industrial society and wanted to make it free and libertarian. So at least that’s why I’ve always been inclined much more toward the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. I don’t think that there’s anything else that has any real relationship with ongoing life. Something’s got to happen to the 5 billion people in the world. They’re not going to survive in the Stone Age.

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