Radical Political Economy of the Environment
On Saturday, 5 October, the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) held a conference on the “Political Economy >of the Environment” at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. As should be obvious, any application of a “radical political economic analysis to social problems” such as the devastating present environmental crisis should likely be welcomed at this late stage; thus, the URPE’s twin strategy of advancing a “continuing critique of the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression” and “helping to construct a progressive social policy and create socialist alternatives” should prove an attractive one to self-identified militants. It it thus with militant desire that I attended the conference.
Fortunately, I consciously missed the morning plenary, entitled “Confronting Capital in Defense of the Environment,” given that Christian Parenti was slated to speak—while I liked his 2011 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, I had been rather disappointed by his presentation just months prior at the 2013 Left Forum, where he presented a totally reformist—hence inadequate—vision for combating the specter of catastrophic climate change, one which I felt served to foster illusion and delusion with regard to the willingness of the U.S. ruling elite to act swiftly to redress climate breakdown. As far as I understand, Parenti presented very similar notions at the URPE morning plenary, side-by-side with his co-panelist Prof. Robin Hahnel, who in his comments regarding “Left Unity” on “Climate Change Policy” apparently cast carbon-trading mechanisms in a positive light. Less problematically, Sean Sweeney of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute reportedly advanced more legitimate perspectives than the other two plenary speakers in his arguments for a “Progressive Labor Agenda on Work and the Environment.”
As against what could be taken to have been a rough start, the first afternoon workshop I attended, “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries,” was quite excellent. The session began with the intervention of Fabián Balardini, who took a critical view of “Extractivism and the Governing Left in South America.” He opened his presentation by citing Karl Marx’s famous reformulation of G.W.F. Hegel’s observation that history repeats itself over time tragically, noting such repetitions to transcend tragedy for farce: in essence, the “pink-tide” governments advancing “Twenty-First Century Socialism” in Latin America are resorting to the same resource-intensive, environmentally destructive modes of “development” that had been advanced by the twentieth-century neo-liberal governments which they have replaced.
As has been theorized both by Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, this model is one of “accumulation by dispossession”: whereas previous Western-oriented governments in the region promoted extractivism in conformity with the neo-classical theory of “comparative advantage” (essentially, specialization), the new “progressive” governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador continue in this tradition by arguing that its perpetuation is necessary toward the end of decreasing material poverty and gross social inequality. As Balardini showed, however, citing the work of Ecuadorean economist Pablo Davolos, recent declines in poverty rates in these countries may have more to do with remittances from migrant laborers abroad than increased governmental spending resulting from taxes on increased natural-resource exploitation: indeed, Davolos infamously finds that a great deal of the income gained from “progressive” extractivist schemes has—rather than be transferred to the people through social spending—instead been invested in major international banks!
In light of such considerations, Balardini’s comical summarization of the political philosophy of the late Hugo Chávez is particularly adept: “Oil producers of the world, unite!” and “Two, three, many OPECs!” Similarly, Balardini showed the government of Evo Morales to be rather hypocritical, given its posturing on the one hand in the international arena against the undoubtedly terracidal climate-inaction regimes pushed by the U.S., Europe, and China, as juxtaposed with his mandated expansion of hydrocarbon and mineral exploitation in Bolivia, particularly on indigenous lands. Also farcical in Balardini’s estimation is the rule of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who transformed the original indigenous proposal to without question leave the petroleum reserves discovered within the Amazonian Yasuní reserve undisturbed into a money-making scheme. As is well-known, Correa’s proposal was for the international community to provide for an estimated half of the projected market value of the Yasuní oil deposits (estimated at 840 million barrels), as based at least in part in the principle of constraining future carbon emissions, in exchange for his government’s observance of the indigenous and popular desire not to “develop” Yasuní—a region of the Amazon believed to possess in a single hectare more species than exist in all of North America.
Given that international donors only came up with $13 million of the estimated $3.6 billion Correa had demanded, the deal has been cancelled, with the country’s parliament voting ten days ago to authorize oil drilling in Yasuní. First tragedy, then farce… Beyond Chávez, Morales, and Correa, Balardini showed even the new government of José Mujica in Uruguay to favor the orthodox economic policies upheld by his allies, this despite his iconoclastic support for such social measures as gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
As should be obvious, then, this “progressive” economic model provides no real alternative to mainstream capitalism, instead merely mirroring its brutal and thoughtless legacy. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise, as Balardini revealed, that the percentage of primary products in export revenues has in fact increased under the “left-wing” governments, as compared to their neo-liberal predecessors; in this sense, Morales, Correa, and co. are merely following the money—according to data presented by Balardini, the extractive industries have in recent years proven more profitable than pharmaceuticals themselves! Similarly unsurprising, for all its horror, is the increase in the criminalization and repression of environmental protest in these countries, given the 150 ecologists murdered in Ecuador in recent years and the unleashing of police forces on indigenous protestors expressing their opposition to Morales’ plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS nature reserve (September 2011). But apologists of these “socialist” regimes can take pride in the fact that, like Prof. Hahnel, Correa too supports carbon markets!
The next speaker on “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries” was Paul Cooney, a Marxist economist working at the Universidade Federal do Pará in Brazil, who spoke on the “re-primarization” of national economies in Latin America—that is to say, the relative de-industrialization experienced in recent decades by countries such as Brazil and Argentina which has led them to regress into becoming major agro- and mineral-exporters. This historical process, which has followed from the existence of relatively high interest rates and, in the case of Brazil, the overvaluing of currency, has led these two countries to focus heavily on large-scale mining and capital-intensive agricultural production, particularly of soy crops. Indeed, on the global market, Brazil and Argentina have joined the U.S. as the largest soy exporters in the world.
In Brazil, growth in soy production has greatly accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, thus exacerbating this worrying trend which previously had been driven by the demand to massively expand the number of cattle to be reared and slaughtered for export. In Argentina, soy has become something of a monoculture, with Cooney claiming 95% of the crop to be genetically modified. One result of this process—the threat to domestic food security aside—has been the effective alliance with Monsanto and the massive use of its herbicides which have destroyed a great deal of the microbial life in the soils of Argentina. As highly capital- and land-intensive enterprises, soy megaprojects in both countries come to parallel the expansion of mega-mining in Brazil: the world’s single-largest iron ore open-pit mine is located in Carajás in the Brazilian state of Pará, and much of the recent impetus to erect hydroelectric dams in the country—think of the proposed Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon and home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples—in fact corresponds to the energy demands of planned mining projects, noted Cooney.
The final speaker for this session was Sirisha Naidu, who discussed forest-management policy in India. Naidu contrasted the imposition of the “scientific management” forestry model during the British Raj and its perpetuation after formal independence in 1947 with the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model practiced at the grassroots and theorized by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom. As against the profit-based extractivism favored by the postcolonial State, Naidu explained that the coming of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 explicitly opened space for community management of resources, leading eventually in 2006 to the Indian Forest Rights Act which recognizes the rights of so-called “encroachers” to the forests in which they may reside. Naidu welcomed the fact that the increased respect for CBNRM policies have in some cases successfully blocked the expansion of mining projects in Indian states, yet she expressed concern that it may also increase the risk of land being employed for less savory ends; moreover, she noted the problematic tendency to consider communities as monolithic entities, an approach which effectively papers over the very real social inequalities and oppressions experienced in such settings.
During the second afternoon session, there was a workshop on “Grassroots Initiatives against the Theft of Resources by Multinationals” on the continent of Africa. First to speak was Milton Allimadi, editor of Black Star News, who spoke on grassroots resistance in Uganda to the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni, particularly as coalescing around the proposed deal between the Mehta Group and Museveni’s government to clear 30% of the Mabira rainforest to make way for a sugar plantation (2006-2007). Against this proposal, mass-popular demonstrations were organized, coupled with boycotts of Mehta sugar, leading Museveni to order violent repression, a move that only intensified the opposition movement, ultimately leading the government to suspend negotiations for the project—which would have greatly enriched the ruling elite, as Allimadi argued. He also mentioned that millions have been dispossessed of their lands in Uganda in recent years, given the introduction by foreign investors of commercial farming on lands that have been effectively expropriated in cohoots with the Museveni government.
After Allimadi spoke Maurice Carney, from Friends of the Congo, who presented a comprehensive overview of the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire. A country approximately the size of Western Europe, the DRC is the site of vast mineral wealth—one estimate claims the sum of its geological resources to amount to $24 trillion—while its peoples have suffered the world’s most devastating war since WWII in recent decades, leading the UN consistently to locate it at the very bottom of the Human Development Report. Indeed, Carney revealed that it was from Congo that the U.S. military extracted the very uranium it would employ in the atomic bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So in addition to the 10-15 million Congolese killed by the imposition of Belgian rule in the person of Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century, some 6 million have lost their lives in the wars which began with Museveni and Paul Kagame’s invasions to depose Mobutu Sese Seko (1996)—another kleptocrat backed by the U.S., one who in fact replaced anti-colonial Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who in turn was overthrown and murdered by the CIA in 1961 out of fear that the U.S. would “lose the Congo” and all of Africa if Lumumba were “allowed” to continue with his autonomous policies following Congo’s formal independence from Belgium (1960).
It is the U.S. “darlings” Museveni and Kagame, noted Carney, who constitute the “godfathers” of the mass mineral-exploitation of the eastern DRC that has sustained the genocide experienced in the region. Nonetheless, of course, both Western consumers and the world’s militaries remain entirely complicit in these massive crimes: as should be well-known, the coltan mined in eastern DRC constitutes a critical component of most if not all current electronics devices (cell phones and computers) as well as jet-fighter systems, while cobalt similarly serves many functions for the military-industrial complex. In conclusion, Carney noted that the international corporate media focuses far more on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe than on the astronomically larger social devastation in DRC—mostly because Mugabe resists Anglo-American political designs, while the culprits in the DRC are entirely supported by the West. However, Carney expressed hope in the oppositional potential of the presently developing Congolese youth movement.
Lastly in this session, Tseliso Thipanyane of the South African Human Rights Commission spoke on the situation in his home country as well as in Nigeria. At the outset of his comments, Thipanyane observed that the historical trajectory of these two countries shows clearly the extent to which the interests of transnational capitalism have captured indigenous African elites, tying them indelibly into the perpetuation of the system. Optimistically noting that it would take 30 years and $1 billion dollars to remediate the Niger Delta following the extreme devastation wrought on the region by Royal Dutch Shell, Thipanyane noted a similar tendency in South Africa, especially given the shocking Marikana massacre of striking platinum miners in August 2012—a show of force, he claimed, which no one in South Africa would have expected from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which of course overturned formal Apartheid in 1994.
Nonetheless, Thipanyane observed that even at the Davos Forum in 1992, Mandela was threatened by powerful transnational economic interests, leading him to drop his previous advocacy of the nationalization of South Africa’s mines following the coming fall of Apartheid. In an analysis reminiscent of John Pilger’s recent denunciation of Mandela’s effectively capitalist economic policies, Thipanyane observed that since 1994 many ANC insiders have become major shareholders in the country’s large mining operations, leading inexorably to State capture by oligarchical interests. In environmental terms, Thipanyane mentioned the worrying tendency by which the sulfuric acid produced in mega-mining has penetrated the country’s water supply, forcing its government to begin to import water from Lesotho. In more systemic terms, he noted that, while Africa south of the Sahel famously stands to bear the worst impacts of climate change, the governments of the region can pay no more than lip service to the struggle against this horror, given their total integration into global capitalism.
Next and last for the day came the closing plenary on “Capitalism, Environmental Crises, and the Left.” First to address the audience was Prof. Joan Hoffman, who condemned hydrofracking as a proposed alternative to the petroleum-based economy (the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”). She noted the fracking industry to act typically, as in the mantra of “come, harm, take, and go,” and she warned of the serious risks of large methane leaks from fracking sites, as well as the real threat of explosions. Against the “vampire economics” represented by hydrofracking, Hoffman proposed stewardship economics, which would be based on cradle-to-cradle production and powered by renewable resources such as solar and wind. Next spoke Salvatore Engel di-Mauro, editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, who warned of the problems posed to left-wing environmental politics by over-reliance on the findings of “bourgeois scientists.”
Arguing soil pollution and degradation to represent an ecological problem equal to climate change in severity, Salvatore noted that the employment of soil-quality indicators derived from the aforementioned scientists often leads to an increase in use of fertilizers, and he warned that the historical bioaccumulation of heavy metals in urban settings may pose a serious problem for the recent emergence of urban agriculture. Indeed, he observed that one approach favored by bourgeois soil scientists has been to engage in bioremediation schemes which aim to extract heavy metals from the soil so as to allow them to be liberated and reused in production! Salvatore clearly declared that the “neutrality” and “objectivity” which are mainstays of mainstream science must be broken with radically in the struggle for emancipation.
Finally, Paul Cooney spoke once again, this time on globalization and the second contradiction of capitalism, which he took from the work of Marxist economist James O’Connor. While capitalism’s first contradiction is better-known—referring to the class struggle between labor and capital—the second postulated contradiction has to do with the conflicts between relations of production and conditions of production, particularly in ecological terms, such that capitalism effectively “fouls its own nest,” as John Bellamy Foster writes, through the destruction of the life-world it prosecutes via its endless pursuit of profit. Invoking the spirit of (anti)catastrophism theorized by Sasha Lilley and comrades in their 2012 PM Press book on the subject—which was, incidentally, severely criticized by Ian Angus in last month’s issue of Monthly Review—Cooney argued that we still have two fronts with which to confront capital: labor and the environment.
Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.