Saturday, October 01, 2005

Beware the Doomsters (especially masquerading as environmentalists)

Marxist thinking about the future has always been accompanied by deeply pessimistic forebodings of doom. Apart from the mysticism with which its founder wrapped his analyses, beginning with the commodity, like some old-Roman soothsayers looking for auguries, so John Foster Bellamy, reports ‘signs’ of an impending catastrophe from of predictions based on a collection of vague propositions (all that’s missing is the heavy thunder and lightning on the eve of the Ideas of March).

John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review) finds his auguries using the language of ‘virtual certainty’…’ soon be crossed’…‘portentous implications’ … ‘growing worries’…’ worst case scenario’… ‘led scientists to conclude’ … ‘It is now clear’ … ‘within a few years’ … ‘confronting diminishing and ever more difficult to obtain’ … ‘facing global water shortages’ … ‘a bubble economy based on the unsustainable exploitation’ … ‘species extinction rate is the highest in 65 million years with the prospect of cascading extinctions as the last remnants of intact ecosystems are removed’ … ‘threatened with rapid annihilation’ … ‘ecological collapse of past civilizations’ … which is ‘now increasingly seen as extending to today’s world capitalist system’.

Foster's conclusion: “The most developed capitalist countries have the largest per capita ecological footprints, demonstrating that the entire course of world capitalist development at present represents a dead end.”

This is an interesting inversion of Karl Marx’s prediction about capitalism: his increasing poverty of the labouring poor is now turned into a current Marxist prediction that people living in capitalist societies will thirst to death from their increasing wealth or choke to death from pollution, and similarly for those tens of millions of Chinese and Indian poor now joining market economies through international trade (which Foster considers a bad thing for their future, a position he takes from the vantage point of rich Massachusetts, not a poor peasant's paddy field).

In this regard, Foster, quotes from a book review: "One in four people in the world today do not have access to safe water.” (Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books, September 25, 2003) My question is not on the accuracy of that statement, it may well be true, but it would be interesting to have the data that shows, how many out of four or ten people in the whole world had access to safe drinking water 50, 100, 200 or 2,000 years ago, without water purification, piping and taps in or near the household? (Remember, males regard in pre-market societies, collecting and carrying water unambiguously a woman’s job, and where the water supply in poor countries is supplied by the State, it is pretty toxic for all that.)

Foster moves his appeal to: “many environmentalists now believe that technological revolution alone will be insufficient to solve the problem and that a more far-reaching social revolution aimed at transforming the present mode of production is required.”

A most interesting idea: because ‘many [anonymous] environmentalists’ believe something, it must be true! Could it be that they have an interest in asserting any belief that justifies their pessimistic beliefs? That in itself is no reason to believe anything that ‘many’ of them believe.

The answer lies, Foster believes in the work of the
Global Scenario Group (, a project launched in 1995 by the Stockholm Environmental Institute to examine the transition to global sustainability”. The Global Scenario Group, as its names suggests, “employs alternative scenarios to explore possible paths that society caught in a crisis of ecological sustainability might take." We used to use the same scenario methodology in defence strategy during the Cold War and, in retrospect, we wasted many hours work using fixed projections into the unknowable future - everybody missed the collapse of Communism, as a team I worked with on a three-set scenario, a few months before it happened in 1989. Ever since, I have been a sceptic about scenarios except as a easy way to complete a seminar paper, whose half life tends to be no longer than the first event of the first scenario.

Their culminating report presents three classes of scenarios: "Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions.” Each scenario is associated with a different thinker: not surprisingly given the level of ignorance about Smith, “Market Forces” is associated with Adam Smith and what a picture they use to paint Smith’s markets:

“Market Forces stands for naked capitalism or neoliberalism. It represents, in the words of the Great Transition report, “the firestorm of capitalist expansion.” Market Forces is an unfettered capitalist world order geared to the accumulation of capital and rapid economic growth without regard to social or ecological costs. The principal problem raised by this scenario is its rapacious relation to humanity and the earth.”

And this spectre is associated with Adam Smith! Which ‘Adam Smith’ are they talking about, given that the Adam Smith of 1723-90 never wrote or suggested anything remotely like what Foster includes in this sorry parody of the Adam Smith in “Wealth of Nations”?

With this assessment, Foster is surely drinking something too strong for his case:

“Market Forces leads inexorably to ecological and social disaster and even collapse.”

His alternative? Try this:

“Put simply, my argument is that a global ecological revolution worthy of the name can only occur as part of a larger social—and I would insist, socialist—revolution. Such a revolution, were it to generate the conditions of equality, sustainability, and human freedom worthy of a genuine Great Transition, would necessarily draw its major impetus from the struggles of working populations and communities at the bottom of the global capitalist hierarchy. It would demand, as Marx insisted, that the associated producers rationally regulate the human metabolic relation with nature. It would see wealth and human development in radically different terms than capitalist society. In conceiving such a social and ecological revolution, we can derive inspiration, as Marx did, from the ancient Epicurean concept of “natural wealth.”

One question: what if Foster's ‘socialist revolution’ failed to ‘generate the conditions of equality, sustainability, and human freedom’ he hopes of it?

And this:

“It must put the provision of basic human needs—clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal health care and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth—ahead of all other needs and wants. Such a revolutionary turn in human affairs may seem improbable. But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible—if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained.”

So there we have it: “improbable socialist revolution" might not work (apologies to all those millions, even billions, who die from it) but don’t worry, you were doomed anyway because Foster and the Marxists believe you are (as their predecessors believed capitalism was about to collapse in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Soviet Russia believed their brand of socialism would 'bury' capitalism).

Thus, the latest in chic Marxism, masquerading as environmentalism, with which it profoundly disagrees but, because it remains congenitally hostile to markets to an even greater extent, it is prepared to run with the environmentalists up to a point and then swoop in with is socialist agenda. This reckless pessimism ignores the last century’s experiments with socialist planning which should have been enough to convince them of its failures (at some high cost in human lives destroyed by their Socialist State machines and their planned misery).

That Smith is mixed-up in the minds of the scenario builders in (wealthy) Stockholm is a great pity. They could read what Smith actually wrote about the stationary society in “Wealth of Nations” (Book I.ix.14, page 111; I discuss it in Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, chapter 50). Meanwhile they should attribute their extreme characterisations of capitalism in their scenarios to themselves and leave Adam Smith out of it.

As for Mr Foster, he should also present his Marxian ideas under his own banner and not slip them in under the false flag of environmentalism (which at root he considers insipid, utopian and off-track).

Note: As it happens, I am reviewing a recent book on Marx’s Capital. I shall post the review here when it is ready and, in it I hope I will have addressed Marx's errors in economics from a Smithian perspective in more detail and more purpose than there is space for in a Blog.


Post a Comment

<< Home