How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

November 18, 2015

In this interview, SARA HOLIDAY NELSON, a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA, who is studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s, discusses first-world-centred and Malthusian approaches and some responses to them

Gabriel Levy. Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments.[1] And first – addressing ourselves e.g. to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Sara Holiday Nelson. Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the Read the rest of this entry »

Towards a real fusion of socialism and ecology

June 14, 2015

(or, Why the Luddites were right, and Marx was wrong, about technology)

This guest post by NED LUDD of Breaking the Frame is published in the hope of provoking discussion. Responses are welcome! GL.

“Socialism can only be reached by bicycle” – José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende (Chile, 1970-73)

“Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology” – E.F. Schumacher, “Technology with a Human Face” (in Small is Beautiful, 1973)

Have you noticed how practically every critical issue about the future of our society hinges on technology? Whether it’s the global ecological crisis, the cyber womanelimination of jobs through automation, surveillance and social effects of the internet, or the threat of a new eugenics, technology is critical. Yet public debate about these issues is stuck in the myths of progress through technology and the “neutrality” of technology. The left, because of its fundamental allegiance to those myths, has not got much to say and seems to have a major blind spot in its general methodology of critique of capitalist ideology.

On the whole, the left has learned rather little from the green critique of industrialism, and as a result most left theorising on this issue mounts to little more than bolting on a rather shallow environmentalism. Confident that it owns the master narrative on these issues (i.e. the dynamics of class conflict and capitalism), the left generally does not do much better than asserting that, once we control the means of production, everything will be fine. (Of course, there have been many more sophisticated approaches, particularly from Marxist critical Read the rest of this entry »

The Anthropocene? It’s just inhuman

April 1, 2015

Human activity has changed the earth so drastically that we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, says a bunch of scientists. No, it’s “capital, not humanity as such” that’s responsible, writes socialist activist and environmental researcher Andreas Malm in Jacobin magazine.

Malm argues that it’s “the reliance by capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy” that is “driving us toward disaster” – and that this is downplayed by the Anthropocene concept.

Malm hits at three targets. First, he defends social movements that take up climate issues from attack by Mark Lynas, whose book The God Species popularised the Anthropocene idea. Second, he takes on scientists who suggest

The use of ammonia-based fertilisers has caused the biggest upset to the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. Photo from the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

The use of ammonia-based fertilisers has caused the biggest upset to the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. Photo from the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

that human damage to the environment is a function of human productive activity in general. And third, he argues against climate science, politics and discourse that are framed as “species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation” – “ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver”.

In my view, Lynas richly deserves the polemical kicking he gets from Malm. Lynas’s rant against the left-wing journalist Naomi Klein, who argues that averting climate change is inextricably linked with the fight for social justice, is both unfounded and idiotic. Unfounded, because Lynas denounces Klein’s realistic-but-optimistic book This Changes Everything for reflecting a “miserabilist and dystopian worldview”, which it Read the rest of this entry »

The Paris climate talks and the failure of states

February 25, 2015

The officials in charge of the United Nations climate talks say that no deal will be done in Paris in December to avoid dangerous global warming.

After preparatory negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, this month, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), confirmed that the target set previously, of limiting warming to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, would be missed.

Figueres had already said, in December, after a round of talks in Lima, Peru, that “the sum total of efforts [in Paris]

March in Defence of Mother Earth at the climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. Source:

March in Defence of Mother Earth at the climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. Source:

will not be able to put us on the path for two degrees. […] We are not going to get there with the Paris agreement … We will get there over time.” This month she reiterated that the Paris talks would only “set the pathway for an orderly planned transition over time to a low-carbon society”.

The EU climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, claimed that “you can not say it is a failure” if, collectively, the world’s governments abandoned the 2 degrees target, as long as there is “an ongoing process”.

Diplomats at Geneva put together an 86-page document for political leaders to haggle over in December. (It’s downloadable here.) But it’s already clear that:

■ The approach adopted in Kyoto in 1997 – to require countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by particular amounts, within specified timeframes under international law – has been abandoned. Instead, negotiators are reported to be saying, the

Read the rest of this entry »

‘A vector of inequality, degradation and violence’

August 31, 2014

Review of The Ecological Hoofprint: the global burden of industrial livestock by Tony Weis (Zed Books, 2013)

The rapid expansion of world meat consumption is (1) an indication that more people are getting better fed, right?

This “nutritional transition” is (2) great news for human health, right?

And (3), notwithstanding issues of excessive cruelty to animals, industrial

... and not only Walmart. (Photo from the Mercy for Animals web site.)

… and not only Walmart. (Photo from the Mercy for Animals web site.)

meat production is just a high-tech version of what humans have been doing since they started hunting, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, Tony Weis argues.

Weis demolishes justifications for the global process he calls “meatification” with a rigorous analysis of how it exacerbates inequality, and widens the rift between capitalist economies and the natural environment. It’s damaging and unsustainable.

At a time when academics are forced to focus more and more narrowly, he looks at the big picture.

On question (1) – who benefits from growing meat consumption – Weis unpacks the extent of inequalities: people in rich countries consume more Read the rest of this entry »

The ideologue who tried to make environmentalism mean population control  

July 13, 2014

Review of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and our gamble over Earth’s future, by Paul Sabin (Yale University Press, 2013).

It was the Indian food crisis of the mid 1960s that turned the biologist Paul Ehrlich from a field researcher on butterflies into one of the USA’s most vocal environmentalists and population control advocates.

Ehrlich published his best-seller The Population Bomb – which warned that “mankind will

Pete Seeger/ Earth Day 1970

Pete Seeger, the folk singer, at Earth Day 1970. See “About the photo”, below.

breed itself into oblivion” and called for “radical surgery” to excise the “cancer” of population growth – in the summer of 1968.

The American elite was receptive to Ehrlich’s “grim predictions about the future”, Paul Sabin writes in The Bet. That year, violent revolt swept through American cities; the USA was mired in the Vietnam war and faced opposition to it at home; and student and worker protests swept through the rich countries and culminated in the French general strike.

Ehrlich became a media superstar, doing more than 100 public lectures and 200 radio and TV shows in 1970 alone. The Population Bomb was reprinted 22 times in three years. In the Read the rest of this entry »

Climate scientists go for ‘human tipping point’

May 15, 2014

A group of scientists headed by pioneer global warming researcher James Hansen is challenging the consensus view that humanity can avoid serious danger by holding the average temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Warming should be limited to one degree centigrade to avoid “disastrous” consequences, Hansen and his colleagues write in an open-access paper published in December last year.[1]

Hansen et al also venture beyond the physical sciences to discuss the potential impact of global warming on human society and what should be done about it. They appeal to the Read the rest of this entry »