Really Existing Environmentalism

Max Ajl

In this snide reply, Alex Gourevitch, rather than defend his article against my criticisms of it, chose to repeat his incorrect arguments, a time-honored approach to political disagreement.

However, it is useful, because it both clarifies Gourevitch’s polemical method and allows me to amplify my points.

His primary resort is deliberate misreading. Some anonymous activist somewhere was relieved at a sentimental level that children in the Gaza Strip might study by bicycle-powered electric lamp as opposed to candlelight or the generators which now and then lead to the immolation of a few families in a refugee camp? For Gourevitch, this proof of how environmentalists tend to “rationalize poverty.”

If I note that any serious evaluation of possible precautions against potential hurricane damage in the global South ought to canvass the cheap, immediate, ecologically sound and materially renumerative steps taken by Nicaraguan peasants to change farming technique, I am turning a “survival strategy into a permanent state of existence.”

This is political exchange reduced to the level of verbose play-ground insults.

It is better to keep to the issues at hand.

Gourevitch discussed the scale of hurricane damage in the global North versus the global South to defend his “skepticism . . . of the politics and ideology of environmentalism.” Because Honduras and Nicaragua are “less industrialized,” and suffered thousands dead from Hurricane Mitch, whereas industrialized Florida suffered just 80 dead from Hurricane Andrew, the Central American deaths occurred because the region is “much less industrialized.”

Revealingly, he did not touch on the example of Cuba’s response to Hurricane Michelle in 2001. What that response revealed was that a system of education and popular mobilization linked to conscientious evacuation plans can save lives.

The clear conclusion is that it is not just industrialization which protects or doesn’t protect populations from hurricanes, but the nature of social organization — power.

Gourevitch will call this rationalizing Cuba’s poverty, and urge Cuba and Nicaragua to industrialize. He cannot see that if Nicaragua wants to develop — forget industrialize — it will need a revolution. He accuses me of having a “technological” approach to politics, but his fetish for industry prevents him from understanding that there is no sidestepping politics.

This fetish is revealed elsewhere when he leaves no account of political agency in view.

He claims that he is “skeptical of environmentalism,” since it “produces apathy.” But pressure from environmentalist social movements led to almost every significant piece of environmental legislation in American history. That is why the air is cleaner than it used to be, why there are superfund sites, and why is it illegal to deploy some carcinogenic pesticides — those are the hard-fought victories of the “apathetic” environmental movement.

His assertion is nonsense.

He claims that I and also environmentalists do not want “mass politics,” because I asked if “any mass movement proceeds by trying to mobilize the majority?”  But there is a difference between “the majority” and “mass politics.” The latter can mean only a small percentage of the population. There is a difference between the politics of social change and the politics of the ballot box.

Gourevitch says that my evidence for how “industrialization taketh away” was the breakdown of the levee system.

That is not what I wrote.

My point was not merely about the breakdown of the levee system, but about the ecological problems caused by a specific trajectory of industrialization and modernization. The height of the storm surges resulted from the breakdown of the ecological buffer the wetlands used to provide. He doesn’t care about the wetlands. He wants higher and better levees, and as the storm surges get worse and worse, they can be yet higher and higher. As reassurance for the anxious, I note that we can have wetland restoration, levee systems, and social justice at the same time. What we cannot do is control nature entirely — the industrial mentality.

Yet Gourevitch claims that there are no “limits and irrationalities” to industry.

This is false. Heavy industrialization is a qualitatively different process than other kinds of material production, including light industry or other kinds of technological innovation, including agriculture. It proceeds by taking in non-renewable inputs, namely, most of the planet’s easily accessible fossil fuels and minerals, and expelling waste products at a rate faster the environment can absorb them.

This neither can nor will go on forever. Either we can control — not eliminate — industrialization, or industrialization will eliminate us. This observation is strictly factual, and is why the struggle to protect the environment is not necessarily an anti-capitalist struggle.

Gourevitch also categorically dismissed “small, self-sufficient production communities,” and in response to that I made the claim that such communities “would be an almost unimaginable improvement for the lives of the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants.” I did not actually advocate them, nor does Gourevitch contest that claim. He merely uses it to erect another obnoxious non-contradiction between conditional support for such a social vision and a decentralized power system or a new national transportation system (Some of those dispersed communities would, presumably, do things like build trains).

Gourevitch finds my thinking about politics “technological,” because the only way he can imagine the construction of a new national transportation system or a system of decentralized sustainable energy is through authoritarian technocracy. He should consult the meaning of the term red-green alliance and its historical usage in leftist circles. Ordinarily, the phrase refers to mass social mobilization, not green fascism.

His point about “social engineering” and his later one about “market failures” in reference to a hypothetical alliance that could do some work to putting the country on a more sustainable path shows a lack of understanding of both markets and politics. What is called “the market” is a plan. Markets are politically instituted, and every social order is a plan.

The issue is not plans, but whether the processes through which one arrives at and implements plans are democratic (That’s politics). Most people do not currently decide either where they live or what their options are in terms of how they can live — they are decided by the “democracy” of the market and their options within that system.

Changing that system through concerted and rational political action is only authoritarian to a mind which mistakes lifestyle anarchism for democracy and accountability for dictatorship. He accuses me of ending up in the same place as the ultra-left environmentalists he claims to be lambasting.

It’s exactly the reverse.

He pays lip service to anti-capitalism, but his technophilia obscures why it is that rural regions are poor. Generally, it’s because developmentalist states have under-invested in them and treated them as internal colonies. That’s a social question, not a “technological” question, and frequently the result of a historical failure to confront the landed elite and the fruit of a focus on agro-export rather than endogenous agricultural production oriented towards food sovereignty and light industrialization.

He accuses me of having technological politics, but is so marinated in ideology that he hasn’t noticed that rural poverty is produced by power relations, not by living in the countryside.

He also thinks to support agriculture is to condemn people living in the poor rural global South to permanent poverty. Seventy percent of the world’s food comes from smallholder agriculture, with most of the rest coming from industrial-style plantations which almost literally convert oil into grain and carbon dioxide. While the oil may not be running out, the space in the atmosphere for its waste products is.

How does he intend to resolve this?

Furthermore, if the struggle to defend subsistence farming is reactionary, if pointing out that agro-ecology can produce better lives for people is “rationalizing poverty,” where does that leave the Brazilian landless workers movement, committed to agrarian reform, agro-ecological production methods, and amongst its most advanced cadre, socialism?

An epic case of false consciousness?

Where does this leave the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which calls for socialized energy, but also agrees that “the global North and developed world must shoulder the bulk of the burden and pay for their climate debt,” and argues that northern trade unions must adopt this program? Or their criticism of how “polluters and denialists in the global South hide behind the slogan of the ‘right for the developing world to industrialize’ ”? This, I guess, is “sado-monetaris[m]”?

Actually, these are the politics of the actually-existing environmentalism of the poor, and indeed, it will be a challenge to link them to broad working-class politics in the north, a point I made in my original response. But according to Gourevitch, these global South social movements should go home, or focus on getting us to focus on helping them industrialize.

He suggests that I “desire . . . a mass politics without the masses,” but he is the one who dismisses actually-existing global environmental movements as politically useless, and finds it almost impossible to look at what the masses are actually mobilizing around. At best, he has only sneers for the program of large chunks of the environmental movement, most of which is in the global South, not the industrialized North, and can only disdain activists in the global North who are thinking of creative ways to link struggles internationally.

He also has more than a little contempt for labor, first equating any amount of it with “permanent . . . sacrifice” and then concluding with the sectarian comment that anyone who disagrees with his dreamy — and self-contradictory — call for a world “where machines do the hard work for us, and where we can enjoy the productivity and creativity of people all over the world” is calling for radical austerity and is basically a misanthrope.

Yet he cannot see how much muted hatred he harbors for people who work with technology with their hands — technology, not necessarily heavy industry. It is elitist nonsense to suggest that work involving our hands and our bodies should not be part of a socialist society. Childrearing, historically carried out by women, cannot be mechanized. Nor can taking care of the old or infirm. This labor is invisible in Gourevitch’s account.

In a similar way, ecosystem services cannot be substituted by industrial technofixes, although eventually ecosystems can take on much of the burden of waste processing.

Heavy industrialization has no answer to these questions of how to regulate the human interaction with the surrounding environment. But one thing is for sure, at its core, Gourevitch’s argument reduces to a call for total human control over nature and a destructive demand for the demobilization of all radical environmentalist social forces.

Both requests are criminally stupid. They have no place on the Left.