The Washington Socialist – February 8 Weekly Update
We do need nuclear power – the power emanating from the sun
We do suffer from over-population – we have too many billionaires.
By Kurt Stand
These tongue in cheek comments by David Schwartzman were made at the start of a talk he gave to a packed room at Busboys and Poets 14th & V Street location on Sunday, January 27. Thereby he introduced the central theses of The Earth Is Not For Sale, a book he co-authored with his son, Peter Schwartzman: we have the technical means to resolve the climate crisis looming over us and build a world without poverty and pollution but what is blocking us is our political economy – i.e. the capitalist state and the military power that maintains it. Backing up this perspective is scientific expertise and long-time engagement in the struggle for peace and social justice. Peter Schwartzman has taught Environmental Studies at Knox College, served as an alderman in Galesburg, Illinois and co-founded two locally-focused non-profits as well as serving as a board member of many others. David Schwartzman is Professor Emeritus, Howard University and is a biogeochemist and environmental scientist. He is an active member of the DC Statehood Green Party/Green Party of the United States and of Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America and numerous other community organizations in Washington DC.
The book offers a critique of fossil fuel dependent capitalist energy policy which, from its origins in the 18th century through to the present, has developed as a system of production which puts profits above all else, with control over labor and the commodification of natural resources as an inevitable result. The consequence of this is both the destruction of the natural environment endangering the biodiversity of our planet and extremes of inequality that force nearly a billion people to live in hunger and want notwithstanding economic growth and levels of food production that could meet all human needs.
The Earth is Not for Sale, however, also critiques those who put forward a de-mobilizing pessimism rooted in the notion that climate change has reached the point where there is nothing we can do – or, more to the point, that the future will necessarily entail acceptance of food and energy scarcity, that the vast majority of the world will never be able to enjoy more of life than a struggle to survive. In fact, underlying some of the questions following the presentation were lines of thought that ran in the direction of such pessimism. Substantively the same pessimism can also lead to a self-defeating left politics – the belief that nothing can be done so long as the capitalist system remains dominant on our globe is itself demobilizing in the absence of a strategy to bring about a socialist future to replace a world of buying and selling. The authors posit that the goal of a political economy that provides “the highest quality of life to all humans while preserving biodiversity,” is both necessary and possible.
Yet they do not downplay the seriousness of the looming climate catastrophe; the book demonstrates in detail how reliance on coal and oil imperils our present and future, contaminating water, depleting soil, polluting the air. But the authors aver that what we face is not irreversible, discussing the law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) as evidence to back a grounded belief that there is a way out of our impasse:
“Just like the natural biosphere powered by solar energy, the self-organization of the material creation of human activity on the Earth’s surface can continue far into the future with the export of an entropic flux into space, provided the long-term energy source of the Sun is utilized. It should be noted that the Sun, with its nuclear fusion reactor at its core, is at a safe distance from human civilization, 93 million miles away.” (p. 42)
Central to this is their rejection of a technological determinism that sees processes flow in one direction, rather than in relation to other developments that can bring about different outcomes. The Earth is Not for Sale puts forth the argument – which David Schwartzman stressed in his presentation – that it is technically feasible for all on our planet to enjoy a good standard of living. A standard of living, he noted, that many do not enjoy in Washington DC today — where too many experience hunger, live in inadequate housing, where infant mortality is high, underfunded schools are common and limitations of the right to live life to its fullest are everywhere evident. Any measures we take to avert climate catastrophe have to be measures which also overcome such poverty, if such steps are to be meaningful. Organizing to change that reality is also organizing to overcome the power of those billionaires to whom he alluded. And, in full recognition of the need to bring about structural changes to how production is organized, they assert that measures can be taken now to move us in the direction of bringing into being needed changes.
Conceptualizing this means bringing together both food and energy policy. We need more food, better food, grown in a manner that enriches rather than destroys natural nutrients in the soil, and that food, in its diversity and quality needs to be available to all. For that to be, we need more energy, not less. The authors write:
“We contend that energy poverty is widely overlooked as a critical variable in the self-determination and self-actualization of a community and its people. … Without sufficient energy, communities are forced to use only those resources that are immediately available (which becomes more and more difficult to access as finite resources become exhausted or compromised). In contrast to food resources, sufficient energy provides a community with many more opportunities for improving their quality of life, e.g. the printing of books, the lighting and heating of schools/hospitals, the transportation of essential goods, etc. And perhaps most importantly …food can be produced with energy.” (pp 19-20).
And they later add,
“We currently have enough food, we just must begin to share what we have and look at alternative ways to grow it, as current conventional ways are very destructive and unsustainable. [See related article in this issue of the Update] Sharing will require us to treat each other as ‘brothers and sisters’ rather than enemies. Our current industrial agricultural system treats many people on our planet as expendable, exposing them to chemicals in the food they consume or produce, and forcing farmers off their land in the name of efficiency and profits. …” (p 74)
Food and energy policy, in other words, cannot be isolated from each other and the movement to reverse course and create an alternative cannot be isolated from other social movements. Just as a sense of development over time is central to the authors’ understanding of the roots of our environmental crisis and where solutions lie, so too is their confidence in the ability of people to act to change the world, act to avoid the dangers of catastrophic climate change. And in this, contrary to a tendency amongst a section of environmentalists who seek change as coming from above, who seek to speak truth to power without actually confronting power, the authors recognize that change will only come – as it only ever has come – when those most impacted are at the center of movements for transformation and change. As they write:
“The history of capitalism is the history of class struggle, its ebbs and flows. It is certainly not a history of the working class as a passive instrument, a lever in the machine of capital reproduction. To write off class struggle is to revert to the empty idealist prescriptions of what ought to be rather than focusing on materialist theory and practice to make it happen, beginning within the womb of present society. But this theory and practice must also be informed by a spiritual dimension, the anticipations of what can be realized in the future concretized in prefigurations inspired by the principle of hope. The potential of a Green New Deal, starting as soon as possible, gives us a powerful wedge if we choose to use it.” (pp 194-195)
These prefigurations the authors see in the growth of urban farms in Detroit which were stimulated by the thought and work of long-time labor left activists James and Grace Lee Boggs, in the cooperatives formed in Jackson, Mississippi which have developed from activism amongst African-American farmers. So too, there have been at least some positive changes toward use of renewables in Germany and in China, as well as, most significantly, in Cuba. When the collapse of the Soviet Union alongside the continuation of the US boycott meant that the country was cut off from oil supplies, they turned to decentralized local production as an alternative. This allowed the Cubans to take meaningful steps in the direction of food and energy policy aimed toward utilizing rather than destroying natural resources. All these developments are filled with contradictions which stem from the dominance of capitalist relations around the world and the difficulty of changing culture and habits developed over generations. But all these initiatives demonstrate what people are capable of achieving when they collectively act. They serve as stepping stones on the road to systemic changes to bring to birth the possible better new world.
Specifically, the authors put forward the thesis that agroecology – implemented to an important degree in Cuba — is the way forward, as it is a holistic approach to developing a sustainable agriculture system, one that avoids the compartmentalization that contributed to the failings of the system now in place. This is a way of building upon sustainable models of food production people have created for the past 10,000 years, enhanced by contemporary understanding about health and economy. Unlike the destructive “green revolutions” promoted by agribusiness and chemical companies since World War 11, the authors note that this would allow for a sustainable “green revolution” based on ethical standards that doesn’t exploit land or labor.
Perhaps the chief obstacle to achieving that end is militarism. This is not because of the pollution caused by warfare – a “green” military would not improve the life of people on earth nor contribute to a “green” planet. Rather it is because militarism – and in the first place US militarism – serve as the “global-protection service” of the fossil fuel industry and actively seek to prevent countries that seek independent, alternative polices. Schwartzman emphasized in his talk a point highlighted in the book:
“We submit that the U.S.’s imperial agenda actively blocks the global cooperation and equity required for a successful prevention program on climate change. The MIC [military-industrial complex] is a continuing block to achieving global cooperation for a rapid curb on global greenhouse gas emissions and a full transition to wind/solar power. The Pentagon and NATO are part of the instrumental arm of the MIC’s Imperial foreign policy.” (pp 100-101).
This is a reality exacerbated by the Trump Administrations climate denialism and proclivity to military adventurism. And, just as energy and food policy must be linked, just as environmental protection and anti-poverty policies must be linked so too, in the authors’ words,
“The peace and climate/energy justice movements must be integrally linked: a shift to global demilitarization is a necessary condition for both robust cuts in carbon emissions and a transition to renewable energy on an adequate time scale. … What is most relevant to a global wind/solar transition is the vast resources, both material and human, that would be freed up in demilitarizing the global economy.” (p.102)
All this can appear daunting – coops and small farms, experiments in an island nation, beginnings that can be quickly snuffed out by the power of markets, by the power of capital. Yet the way in which the slogan – and the program behind the slogan – put on the national agenda by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has become a political force demonstrated how small beginnings can evolve into mass movements, for the idea has long roots and had already been incorporated, as Schwartzman pointed out in his talk, in the program of the Green Party.
The Earth Is Not For Sale has importance on multiple levels – as an examination of the climate crisis and as a work addressed to activists that delves into technical scientific debates that have consequences in public policy and ideological currents far removed from academic journal. What gives the book its particular importance was brought home to all those who attended the January 27 talk — the connection between technical understanding and political strategy. Climate catastrophe will only be averted through a broad alliance of people including indigenous communities, organized labor, capitalists in the renewable sector, academic researchers and progressive non-profits, social justice activists in the US and abroad. Such an alliance can only make progress if it combines recognition of the need to combine immediate changes to improve the quality of life in the here and now with fundamental long-term solutions that transform society at its roots. In other words, working to achieve a Green New Deal enroute to a solar-communist future.
The work’s conclusion makes explicit the moral imperative behind the authors’ reasoning:
“… every child born on Earth has the right to a full life of creative fulfillment, to an environment free of hatred and pollution, and to a world with what is left of our planet’s biodiversity intact. This will require the termination of the present global regime prioritizing capital reproduction over human needs as well as those of nature.
“Socialist or Marxist political economy is necessary but not sufficient in itself to advance a vision of 21st Century socialism. This vision must fully engage the natural, physical and informational sciences – in particular, climatology, ecology, biogeochemistry, and thermodynamics – as well as take full account of the wisdom derived from the experience of thousands of years of indigenous peoples’ agriculture and culture. This will inform the technologies of renewable energy, green production, and agroecologies, whose infrastructure are to replace the present unsustainable forms.” (p.240)
Quotes are from: The Earth Is Not For Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible by Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman, World Scientific Publishing, 2019.