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On August 19, 2019, I unfurled my degrowth banner in a CounterPunch article titled “Ecological Limits and the Working Class” and followed it up with a review of leading degrowth theorist Giorgos Kallis’s “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care” just six months later. Having read dozens of articles on degrowth over the past two years, I have concluded that the most persuasive argument on its behalf is Richard Smith’s China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse. Although there are only a few pages that reference the term specifically, the entire 286 pages will leave you convinced that unless China (and the rest of the world) begin to respect ecological limits, civilization will succumb to a new Dark Ages.
The references to growth and degrowth occur in chapter seven, cryptically titled “Grabbing the Emergency Brake,” a reference to the epigraph to chapter six. The words are from Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” With the title of Smith’s book referring to China’s “engine,” one might say that the emergency brake and degrowth are practically synonymous.
For Marx, capitalism was not quite the threat to humanity that it is today. Some on the left even considered Marx to be pro-capitalist based on his breathless description of the system in “The Communist Manifesto.” After all, he wrote, “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.” Taking Marx at his word, the Revolutionary Communist Party in England ended up as the Koch-funded Spiked Online. You even wonder if Leigh Phillips’s endorsement of GMO and nuclear power in Jacobin might hint at a similar evolution.
Even though Marx and Engels considered capitalism to be an advance over feudalism, there were signs that they saw its threat to humanity and even anticipated today’s ecosocialism. In V. 1 of Capital, Marx wrote:
Capitalist production… disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility… Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.
In essence, Richard Smith’s stunning new book is a case study in how China exemplifies Marx’s warnings about the system’s built-in contradictions. The parallels between the England of the period when Marx wrote these words and today’s China could not be more striking. Xi Jinping has carried out what amounts to a primitive accumulation that separated farmers from their means of production just like England’s enclosure acts. Landless peasants in England had no other option except to go to work in the “satanic mills” of the textile industry, while their counterparts in China end up at places like Foxconn that Smith describes:
Foxconn workers spend months and even years working at a single task consisting of high-speed repetitive motions, are exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, and suffer humiliating and physically brutal punishments—until they simply wear out, their health or eyesight fails, and they quit, or even commit suicide.
As was the case in England, capitalist agriculture is robbing the soil in China. Foxconn and other manufacturers have routinely dumped toxic by-products into the water and soil of China. This has posed a threat to people living in nearby cities and China’s ability to produce safe food. Every page of Smith’s “China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse” provides shocking evidence of how pollution has turned practically the entire country into a vast wasteland resembling the “cancer alley” in Louisiana nearby petrochemical plants.
Chapter three is titled “The Damage Done: The Poisoning of China’s Water, Soil, and Food.” Like Engels’s “The Conditions of the Working-Class in England” description of the filthy and unhealthy slums of Manchester, this chapter conveys the same horrors taking place in China. As used as I am to reports of class inequality in China, the chapter left me pacing the floor in anger after reading it.
Much of Smith’s reporting comes from government sources. For example, in 2012, the government reported that 40 percent of China’s rivers are “seriously polluted” and 20 percent were so polluted that their water was “too toxic even to touch.” According to Ma Jun, a leading authority on the country’s rivers, more than a third of China’s fish species had gone extinct by 2007,. The Yangtze River, which is iconic to China as the Mississippi is to the U.S.A., is becoming a graveyard for fish. One of its victims is the Baiji Dolphin, the first large aquatic mammal to go extinct in fifty years. A government report described the ubiquitous and lowly carp as “gasping for survival.”
With real estate magnates transforming much of the farmland into new mega-city sites by hook or by crook, what remains is as polluted as the rivers. In December 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources reported that nearly 7.5 million acres have become too polluted for growing crops—almost the size of the state of Maryland. Other researchers concluded that “as much of 70 percent” of China’s farmland was contaminated to some extent. When farms produce for the market, the Chinese have to take chances on what they eat. Other commonplace consumer goods essential to the household often do not pass the smell test. Smith writes:
Since the infant food formula scandals of 2008, China’s tainted food problems have been widely reported on—contaminated milk, melamine, aluminum, and mercury; aflatoxin-tainted infant formula; contaminated bottled water and toxic toothpaste; cadmium-laced rice, pesticide-laced Chinese herbs, fake eggs, formaldehyde-laced seafood, glow-in-the-dark meat, “gutter oil,” toxic food additives, contaminated wine, and chemical-laced pet food; illegal dyes, bogus vaccines, fake birth control drugs, fake HIV drugs, fake cancer drugs, lead paint-coated toys, and sulfurous drywall panels.
For China’s rich, most of whom are either members of the Communist Party or closely connected to it, there are safe havens. They can enjoy healthy food, just wealthy New Yorkers, who retreat to their yachts or country estates, can bide their time until a vaccine is available. Their food is organic, grown in special gardens protected from toxic waste. For the elite, their table would be the envy of Mark Bittman.
As for the masses, they are beginning to take advantage of healthy food imports. Chinese agri-corporations are penetrating Africa, Asia and even in the United States, where they have become a major player in the pork industry. They are following in the footsteps of the European colonization of Africa in the 19th century. If the British Empire vied with the Germans and the French to gain control of minerals, the Chinese covet both minerals and food today.
When Chinese corporations are willing to pay good money for farmland in other countries, the local bourgeoisie bends over backward to accommodate them. Their partners chop down forests to create farmland needed to produce soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, meat, and cooking oil. Do you want to understand why the orangutan is becoming extinct? They are interfering with the production of edible food for 1.4 billion Chinese.
Despite the reputation that the Communist Manifesto earned incorrectly as a salute to capitalism, it enunciates a measure necessary for future socialist societies: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Despite Xi Jinping’s insistence that he leading China toward a classless society, no country in the world is defying this measure more than China. Since Xi became the country’s new helmsman, he has taken the country on a train ride to ecological ruin. He is determined to drive even more peasants into the city than ever, partly because the rulers need a new pool of cheap labor to exploit. Rising wages in China are making it less tempting to the West.
Just yesterday Ruchir Sharma’s op-ed appeared in the N.Y. Times hailing Vietnam as the next “Asian Miracle.” Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, is tipping off his savvy Wall Street pals that the action has moved to Vietnam. “While its own working age population growth is slowing, most Vietnamese still live in the countryside, so the economy can continue to grow by shifting workers from rural areas to urban factory jobs. Over the last five years, no large country has increased its share of global exports more than Vietnam has.” As David Harvey has observed, primitive accumulation never ends, except maybe when there are no more farmers to be coerced into factories. What will we eat then? Soylent Green?
China builds high-speed trains, bridges longer than Golden Gate, superhighways, and massive cities. In a classic case of overproduction, the trains are half-filled, nobody uses the bridges, the superhighways are empty of cars, and empty high-rises account for half of the residences. Why would China allocate enormous sums to create an urban sphere for which there is no demand?
Smith argues that China is putting down the building blocks for a hegemonic state that can withstand any attack from the West, either economic or military. Considering Trump’s hostility toward China, Xi’s worries are understandable. The ruling party in China must have absorbed the lessons of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse. Building socialism in one country could never overcome the enormous advantage the U.S.A. had. Ever since the Communist Party decided that Maoism was not an adequate tool for defending its material interests, they went on a forced march toward capitalism that was a mixture of Stalinist top-down planning and a ravenous appetite for private enterprise—Chinese style.
Xi speaks of an ecological civilization but cannot build one as long as he speaks for the privileged class that is just as determined to hold on to its mansions, yachts, Lamborghinis, and Rolex watches as the investors that Mr. Sharma addressed. Also, he has to allow corporate polluters in China to have their way for his country to compete in the world market. With 1.4 billion Chinese determined to own cars and other goods associated with American shopping malls, he has to make sure nobody pulls the emergency brake on this train ride to extinction.
Despite China’s reputation as being committed to alternative energy sources, the country is still addicted to coal. Smith explains why this is the case. One, despite leading the world in solar and wind capacity, it is starting from a small base compared to the massive greenhouse-gas infrastructure begun decades ago. Two, no country has solved the problem of electricity-storage for alternative energy sources. When the sun does not shine, the power decreases. Three, despite being a police state, China cannot exercise control over the tens of thousands of factories that choose coal because it is cheaper and more reliable. Besides the foothold coal already has in China, Chinese capitalists are deeply involved in spawning its use elsewhere.
China desperately needs to grab the emergency brake, but there is little hope that it can come from the grandsons and granddaughters of the men who led the peasant revolution that inspired colonial revolts until the country’s turn to capitalism. Instead, it will have to come from below as a growing number of workers, farmers and students decide to make a new revolution much more closely aligned with Marx’s original vision. Socialism was not about industrial capacity but the capacity of the human being who could enjoy a healthy and fulfilling life without worrying about poverty, war or toxic water and soil.
Smith describes what that revolution would fight for in the final chapter. Let me conclude with his somewhat Quixotic hopes for the future. As hopeless as the socialist dream seems right now, it is the only alternative to the barbarism we face:
The great sci-fi master, ecosocialist, and enduring optimist Kim Stanley Robinson concludes his near-future thriller Red Moon with simultaneous uprisings by millions of Chinese workers in Beijing and millions of Americans in Washington DC. That’s certainly what the world needs right now. Improbable? Of course. But if we’re going to prevent global climate collapse we need wholesale system change, especially in China and the US; one way or another, and we can’t wait till 2047. I’m not suggesting that revolution is the only solution for China. Taiwan transitioned from dictatorship to capitalist democracy without a revolution. So did South Korea. “Velvet” revolutions brought down the Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe with almost no bloodshed after 1989. Some have imagined an elite-led transition to capitalist democracy in China rather than a popular revolution. Who knows? We can’t predict such things. But one way or another, the CCP is headed for the dustbin of history. The East German Stalinists never saw it coming either. Yet however it falls, my contention here is that transitioning to capitalist democracy is not enough to save China or the world from climate collapse because no capitalism, green or otherwise, can accept the drastic changes we need to make to save ourselves. The solution for China, and for the rest of the world, is ecosocialist democracy not capitalist democracy.