Collapse and sustainability: arguments we should all hear

April 15, 2012

Anthropologists and archaeologists are slugging it out with each other about how to interpret the decline of ancient societies, such as the Polynesians of Easter Island, the Classic Maya or the Roman Empire. The rest of us could benefit from trying to follow their arguments.

One issue in debate is whether the problems these societies faced on the way down, and how they dealt with them, might tell us something about our own prospects.

That has immediate resonance. Most of us, except the most extreme optimists, have at some time or other imagined the prospect of some more deep-going social breakdown following from the crises (wars, economic failures, ruptures in our relations with nature) shaking the society we live in. We socialists invest our optimism in the idea that such breakdown can be averted by society being turned upside down, being remade free of hierarchy and alienation.

The controversy about past societies was taken out of the universities to a wider audience by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, one of the USA’s most prestigious academic institutions, with his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, published in 2005.

The storm of interest in this highly readable best-seller stang into action a group of archaelogists and historians who question Diamond’s approach. Read the rest of this entry »

Cities: working out a socialist critique

April 1, 2012

Twenty-first century socialism needs a critique of cities. Why don’t we ask ourselves whether these monsters in which most of us live – at the same time awful and wonderful – will survive in a communist future?

Kibera slum outside Nairobi (population estimated between 170,000 and 1 million)

We might question the assumptions in much twentieth-century socialist thinking that cities are a necessary part of human development … and revive and rethink nineteenth-century communist ideas that envisaged communism breaking down the division between city and countryside.

This article sets out some ideas on this, and aims to put in context a prescient article on this subject written by Amadeo Bordiga, the Italian left communist, in 1952 – which People & Nature publishes here in a new English translation for the first time.

The rise of the city is one of capitalism’s most obvious achievements. In 1800, the urban population was 3% of the world’s total population (27 million people); in 1900, it was 14% (225 million); and in 2000 it was 47% (2.9 billion).  In this decade, the majority of humans – in 2010, 50.5% (3.5 billion) people – are living in urban areas for the first time, according to a recent UN report.[1]

Read the rest of this entry »