All 3 entries tagged Marxist Ecology

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February 22, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 22: Social Ecological Revolution

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 21: Socially Necessary Labour Time (tm) from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Reading this John Bellamy Foster stuff is both highly depressing and highly inspirational. In creative terms, there's a drive that stems from desperation. Not just in the Dostoevskyan sense of, 'Oh shit, deadline', but also in the craving arising from having to read repetitive, depressed ecomarxist theorists, for something imaginative, creative, lucid, original.

At the same time, here's what Foster takes 260 pages to finally come to, about the social ecological overhaul:

the new system... must put the provision of basic human needs--clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal healthcare and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth--ahead of all other needs and wants.

Let's break that down into a concrete list for social revolution. In order for the Great Transition to happen, people will need to:

(In short term transition phase)

1. Seize control of the means of food production.

2. Seize control of the means of energy production.

3. Seize control of the means of food, energy and water distribution.

4. Revolutionise methods of production in these areas along ecologically sustainable lines.

(And in longer term transitions)

5. Seize control of sewage management and redirect city waste into natural fertiliser production.

6. Develop ecologically-balanced systems of education and health.

7. Develop a system of maintenance for all systems, a monitoring loop, which is in itself ecologically neutral, or positive, in balance and process.

Methods/systems for ecological sustainability exist already in all these areas, but are anti-capitalist by nature, so overlooked for their lack of profitability. They would merely need to be championed and implemented by people - in fact, some areas of Britain are already working along these lines, divorcing their internal systems from the capitalist production flow.

One or two algorithms/data sets would need to back up the transition. In particular, a ratio of land needed - according to permacultural methods by regional specificity - per person, for a basic balanced diet. Secondarily, a social accounting that would provide vital services of health, education, sanitation and so on, by unit of society, which doesn't fall into obvious traps of over-abstraction (i.e. an alternative metabolic rift to that of capitalism) or communalist issues of redistribution and misapplication of personal skills. If a given unit - a village, say - requires one doctor, one biodigestor, one x, one y, etc. per z population, all well and good, but what if there's a major shortfall in, say, doctors? Do you demand the village idiot retrain as a surgeon? Or the spare surgeon retrain as a sanitation supervisor? Certain problems in social accounting in communal systems have not been solved for me, from my reading. Utopianism is rife.

Interesting comparative example of rice versus wheat growing in Foster, suggests Europe will need to move to a rice-based diet in order to maximise calories per hectare, along the Fukuoka Method of growing. However, there is a risk of monoculture in this that may not be effective.

This all said, the transition will probably require an unacceptable degree of 'Barbarization'. I've not yet read the Global Scenario Group's document, 'Great Transition', which outlines the main pitfalls of social upheaval. Foster isn't particularly helpful on this document, given his militant ideological stance.

Alternatives, then, would involve democratic transitioning - like transition towning, but taken beyond just food: transition of food and energy resources by area which see villages and region literally cutting off from capitalist providers of electricity, gas and food. The reduction of overheads and the need to only pay for council services could see a form of privatisation into communal management, particularly of waste systems, so that soil nutrients are valuably regenerated, even positively. Food and energy supplies by region could therefore be freely distributed to residents, with growth carefully managed to maintain a positive soil-nutrient return ratio, either through fallowing/rotation or similar.

Water management is something I can't fully encompass in my head yet - suggestions welcome if anyone's reading. Clean water supplies are limited and water tables are essential to biodiversity, so rainwater and river harvesting would have to be very carefully managed. Resevoir systems, grey water recycling, etc. Every house would have to become a resevoir of sorts, in balance with groundwater reserves. I've been to houses in Herefordshire villages which are disconnected from a mains supply, and their personal wells have run dry, forcing a switch to bottled water.

Anyway, early thoughts about unsustainability and untenable revolutions, but the possibility of outcomes. Cities look doomed from any which way I look at them.

February 15, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 21: Socially Necessary Labour Time (tm)

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 20: Statement of a Problem from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

John Bellamy Foster, in a recent book called 'The Ecological Revolution', makes a lovely, (self-)redemptive statement about innovation's relation to capitalism:

To associate the drive to innovation exclusively with capitalism is wrongly to attribute to a specific economic formation the creative drive of human beings and human culture and civilization in general.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes. I think that was the line I was teetering on in my last entry. To say that capitalism is a model that invades all instances of characteristics that signifies its presence, is to suggest capitalism has become a substitute for species which invented it, which holds those characteristics. In other words, it is to argue that humanity = capitalism. Which is dumb. But that's what you get for reading a blog about someone's thoughts being written out loud.

At the same time, some joy in allowing creativity permission to try and bypass inherent flaws in capitalism, to come to a way of human society that is permaculturally defined. Something my co-conspirator/considerer in PhD land recently discussed with me (ta Chris Maughan), was whether there's a way of tackling the Jevons Paradox (or Jevons Effect) in a different way.

Something I noticed in reading Foster/Wikipedia on the Jevons Paradox, is that there's an implication of given wealth available for purchasing energy. If consumption of energy increases as energy costs are reduced by technology to meet 100% of the altered price, then it sounds to me like people are spending the same amount of money on energy as they had already planned for, taking up as much as is available at the new, lower price, and perhaps being less frugal, or not being monitored in how they use those new amounts.

Hard to say, but here's a concrete example. Your factory (house, barn, etc.) needs 1 lump of coal a day to heat. You see from current markets that you'll need to spend £1 per lump of coal, so you budget for £365 for the year ahead. In March someone invents a new spade that shovels coal at a lower labour cost. You can now buy two lumps of coal for your £1. Instead of spending £182.50 (half your annual budget) on coal for the year and blowing the rest on a pub crawl, you spend the budget you had (this is a common issue with forecasting and accounting, especially in not-for-profit or charitable organisations, though private households, especially lower income ones, would have more freedom to regulate and more need for redirecting savings elsewhere): the money's there anyway, so use it on what it's for. You end up with a two year supply of energy. Hooray!

Do you budget for two years or, with the sudden influx of fuel, double your own output, or stay open later, or, given the big pile of coal you've now got, be more wasteful in your fuel consumption?

A portion of society does have a use-it-or-lose-it budget allocation, given at the start of the year. There are incentives, therefore, to make sure you spend all the money in a particular pool (overheads, etc.) within a financial year, else that budget may be reduced in future. This can go wrong, as there are fluctuations in energy uses, prices, needs, according to climatic averages, unexpected spikes in weather, etc. In other words, you would always hope for more in a budget pool than you're going to need, although financially speaking a surplus in a budget implies money not being put to good use. Margins, etc.

This whole system, the idea of the Jevons Paradox/effect, is unrealistically detached from the reality of socially necessary labour time. It takes a particular amount of time and labour to dig up a lump of coal, currently. A technological innovation might reduce the cost of time/labour in some way, but won't resolve how much energy you can get from a lump of coal (assuming 'lump' has a corresponding value on a metrical scale or something). Take this across to essential resources - water and food - and you can see a problem.

It takes a fixed amount of time and water and sunlight to grow a potato. These factors can't change without major scientific advances in GM cropping, or perhaps the sun just getting a little bit bigger for no apparent reason, which isn't going to happen because we want it to, so don't plan for it. So the only reasonable target left for savings in potato production is on labour.* This is of course where exploitation and the metabolic rift emerges.

But what if - talking creatively with Chris, now - we invented a new measure for this bottom line of value? How many 'ecos' does it take to grow a potato? Measure that in terms of human resources and put a tag on it. Protect the most basic needs of a human being: by nutrients, not by something that looks juicy but is full of water; by shelter; by health needs; how many ecos does it take to treat a cold, or a broken leg? A government-regulated system separate to free market systems will ease the transition to a sustainable market economy, from where we can go to a sustainable society.

One point to JB Foster I will make here, having not read enough yet, but hey-ho: no fully-signed-up ecologist would reject a solution to the current metabolic rift/antagonism between capitalism as world economy and world ecology, if capitalism were to come up with it. Capitalism's drive for new markets, for innovation, is a defining characteristic and has the potential to come up with a solution - even a solution that will destroy itself in the process. While Foster very rightly identifies reasons why capitalism is positioned against finding an ecological solution and is highly unlikely to do so, there's no reason to say that it won't do so by accident. Fingers crossed, eh?


* Human labour is also has a fixed cost, humans are a part of nature, and labour is a resource. The number of people available to work, the amount of money needed locally from a task to buy potatoes to survive to the next day... If you reduce labour costs below a certain point, your labour force might well drop dead. This has happened, still happens and is the side to capitalism that no morally aware human can ignore without being evil and sick.

February 08, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 20: Statement of a Problem

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 19: Master Gardening on your doorstep from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Solutions or responses welcome.

Current developments in Marxist ecology point to how the capitalist project, with its issue of the metabolic rift, is arriving at a dead end. Naomi Klein's identification of disaster capitalism, in The Shock Doctrine, is one example of how capitalism is reaching its limit in geographical exploitation of resources and now has to manufacture crises in the supply chain of resources to generate market instability and open up new markets.

New markets is a buzzphrase at the high end of free market capitalist systems. New resources, new ecologies; these are overlooked in favour of the global hunt for the most profitable area of exploitation, which can only grow the rift between the human/nature dynamic. Yet ecology's response, as a perspective, is now one that increasingly not only accepts, but asserts, the fact that humanity = nature, is a subset of. So we are only destroying ourselves as part of the planet we are destroying.

Recently, though (OK, about ten minutes ago) I've begun to have doubts about the methodology of Marxist ecologists. The method of capitalist critique is one that I've seen elsewhere, such as in union battles with employers. Searching through law, through social structures, for a valid critical approach to defend workers' rights, union legal teams often have to fall back on an approach that they hope will create valid change, or, more than likely, deter continued detrimental change. So, for example, in recent UK battles, on a local level, unions are attempting to exploit Health & Safety laws as a way to find leverage in increasingly hostile-to-employees Employment Law. Prior to that, in my limited union experience, the struggle centred on cases of unfair dismissal, harrassment and so on, but these laws, as I understand it, have been tightened to protect employers.

So, a model arises in which unions select a cause, one that is effectively within the scope of a 'new market' in terms of being a battleground that hasn't been fought over before. The problem as I see it lies in how the environmental movement, by developing into social ecology, has merely found a new market to exploit in its anti-capitalist battleground.

In other words, from this perspective, the anti-capitalist movement in the form of the ecological movement, is adopting a capitalist model by which to launch its attack on capitalism. This feels as much a psychological conditioning in myself, however: that I am trained to read through capitalist structures, and training further to identify capitalist structures. Yet I can't help feeling, underlying all this, that the futility of the alternative PR project is futile because it isn't drawing on an alternative to capitalism: ancient religious fundaments, or perhaps something so antiquated - barter systems, foraging, similar social structures that are improbable in light of current population scales - that the new approach will defy capitalist structures utterly.

It's easy to think yourself into a bind when you haven't read enough, or the right books. But all this unloading of chest-weights is helpful while you're on the road to change.

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