Still bigger mountains of plastic on the way

March 6, 2018

Oil, gas and petrochemicals companies are responding to public revulsion about plastic waste in their own special way: by investing billions to INCREASE plastics production.

Thanks to their efforts, global output of ethylene and propylene, the two main raw materials for plastics production, is expected to RISE BY ONE-THIRD in the next seven years.

I am all in favour of campaigns to cut down the insanely wasteful use of plastic bottles, bags and

Plastic waste in Mumbai, India. From the India Water Portal web site

packaging. But let’s also make sure we understand the root of the problem: systems of production and consumption that aim only to raise output, and the mighty corporate interests that control them.

The trail from gas, oil and coal production, through petrochemicals plants, to manufacturing and trading companies thatgorge on needless mountains of plastic, has been well researched by campaigning NGOs, lawyers and journalists. Here is People & Nature’s handy guide:

Production: the US shale gas boom

Nearly all plastics are made from coal, oil or gas (see “Quick chemistry catch-up”, below). The recent boom in shale gas production has caused US gas supply to outstrip demand. That in turn has triggered a wave of investment in petrochemicals plants that make ethylene, the key raw material for several types of plastic.

In other words, it is the availability of cheap raw material – not any obvious human need – that is driving plastics production growth.

The US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a report last month that three new ethylene plants (called “cracking” plants) had started up in 2017, and another six are due Read the rest of this entry »


The Earth and us: ways of seeing

February 13, 2018

Review of: Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: the Earth, history and us (London: Verso, 2017)

Think again, and differently, about the relationship between human society and the natural world. That is the challenge offered by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.

They question accepted ideas about “environmental crisis” and “sustainable development”, and urge

A visual representation of geological time. From the Smithsonian Institution.

us to subvert the “unifying grand narrative of the errant human species and its redemption by science alone”.

But this is not an iconoclastic rant. It is a scholarly discussion of the science behind the Anthropocene concept, and its implications for history, for the study of society, and for our ideas about the world in the broadest sense.

A central theme is the reflection of the terrifying accumulation of damage to the natural world by human activity over the past two centuries in the history of ideas. The dominant trends, to divide natural history from human history and to push the natural world out of economics, have been resisted.

The fact of the Anthropocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue, requires a new synthesis of forms of knowledge. They avoid offering any simplistic, pat “solution” to the disastrous rift between human society and the natural world. Instead, they point to new ways of looking at it that, collectively, may help us to change it.

This review summarises the authors’ explanation of the Anthropocene concept; considers their points Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »

Up to half of all food is wasted: agri-industry and supermarkets are culpable

January 14, 2013

Between 30% and 50% of all food produced – 1.2-2 billion tonnes/year – is wasted or lost, a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) says. It argues that the waste is caused mainly by marketing techniques in rich countries, along with poor practice and/or insufficient investment in harvesting, storage and transportation.

Wasted foodThe report, published last week, highlights the vast amounts of farmland, energy, fertilisers and water swallowed up by the production of food that is thrown away or left to rot.

In my view the report points to an important conclusion: it is the way food is produced and sold for profit, in a process controlled by agri-industrial giants and supermarkets – rather than food consumption or human population growth as such – that pushes at the earth’s natural limits.

The IME says that in poor countries, “wastage tends to occur Read the rest of this entry »

They could soon be betting on water supplies

November 11, 2012

Financial markets on which speculators can bet on the cost of clean water supplies are getting closer, STEVE DRURY writes.

Food policy commentator Frederick Kaufman has called on financial market regulators to stop the betting on water supplies before it starts, in an article in the renowned scientific weekly Nature.

“Currently, no-one is trading water futures, but it won’t take much to spark the market into life”, Kaufman warned. After the recent drought in the USA, Read the rest of this entry »

“Economic growth” and socialism don’t go together

September 2, 2012

The idea of “socialist economic growth” should be “junked” in the twenty-first century: socialism is about human happiness, not simply about more stuff. The assumption, widespread in twentieth-century socialism, that the productive forces are the basis for superceding capitalism, needs questioning carefully – and the way that the instruments of labour “enslave, exploit and impoverish” (Marx) working people should be at the centre of socialist thinking. These are points from a talk I gave last week, and the edited notes are here.

The so-called “limits to growth”, and objections to the Malthusian ideas that dominate that discussion, was the subject of the second part of the talk. There I also tried to summarise the main issues about the limits to fossil-fuel-based energy and to agriculture. GL.