torsdag den 18. september 2008

Ecology and Socialism


According to a recent pamphlet the only reaction socialists have ever had to green issues is to jump on the bandwaggon of popular concern for the environment for our own ends. This article is the first of our two-part reply.

There is a yawning chasm between a politics of ecology and that of all major traditions of socialist theory and practice. This is the case both at the level of values — anthropocentrism versus an Earth-centred ethics — and of policy — especially limits-to-growth versus expansionism.

So writes Sandy Irvine in a recent polemical pamphlet Red Sails in the Sunset - An Ecopolitical critique of the Socialist Inheritance. Published by the Campaign for Political Ecology, a conservative-minded group that has broken away from the Green Party on the grounds that it has become too left-wing by advocating social improvements that the Earth can't afford. Irvine is also editor of a magazine called Real World, a title chosen to convey that all those who think in terms of improving people's standard of living, whether by reform or by revolution, are hopeless Utopians because the Earth can't sustain this; in the real world only sacrifices, cuts and belt-tightening are on the agenda.

Socialism and Socialism

Irvine has his definition of socialism: "what was said and done by the majority of those who have called themselves socialists ". That's a possible definition, but in that case we're not socialists since in Britain the majority of those who have called themselves socialists have been supporters and members either of the Labour Party or of the Communist Party and the various Trotskyist groups. For these people socialism has meant state ownership (nationalisation) and/or state intervention, what we would call state capitalism, and it is essentially against these policies as a way of solving the current ecological crisis that Irvine is arguing. Since we have never advocated or supported nationalisation and state control we would appear not to be involved. However, Irvine specifically lumps us in with the rest of them since "for a taste of British socialist politics" he specifically recommends people to read the Socialist Standard — we can agree with that of course — alongside, among others, Socialist Worker, Militant, New Left Review, Marxism Today (a bit difficult, since it no longer exists) and Living Marxism. He also mentions that he once debated against us.

Naturally, we object to being lumped in with these advocates of state capitalism, but Irvine attempts to deal with this objection in advance by saying that "there always will be, of course, those whose response to any criticism of socialist theory or practice, is the mantra 'but that's not true socialism '. At this point, words become meaningless ".

We do indeed say "but that's not true socialism" since, in our view, socialism does have a definite logical and historical meaning. But this doesn't mean that words become meaningless. The word "socialism" rather becomes meaningless if everyone who calls themself a socialist is accepted as being a socialist. Irvine doesn't quite go that far, but only argues that socialism is whatever a majority of those call themselves socialists have stood for. But he can't have it both ways: he can't include us in his criticism of socialism when we are not part of that majority.

Maybe the definition of socialism we adhere to has become (thanks largely to the 70-year period of rule of Leninist State capitalism in Russia) a minority one, but up until the first world war it was probably the majority view: that socialism is a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, where the state and government over people will give way to democratic self-administration and where the money-market-profit economy, will give way to production solely and directly to satisfy human needs without buying and selling. They certainly had differences about how to get there but this was what Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, William Morris, Bebel, Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and even Lenin and Stalin (before 1917) and Keir Hardie (some of the time) meant by the term.

Irvine is mistaken in another of his references to us. One of his points is that those who call themselves socialists have had three types of reaction to the issue of environmental destruction: (1) disinterest (continuing to shout "the right to work", "no cuts", and "kick out the Tories"); (2) opportunistic exploitation (jumping on the bandwagon started by the Greens) and (3) denunciation of environmentalists (for being Not-In-My-Backyarders and people with a comfortable standard of living who urge poorer people not to increase their consumption, etc.).

To illustrate the second type of reaction he writes in a footnote:

"After the success of the Greens in the 1989 Euroelections, there was a sudden flurry of meetings up and down the country with titles like 'Environmental Crisis —the Socialist Answer'. I took part in one such debate with the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Newcastle at that time."

The facts are otherwise. The debate took place on 1 June 1987, the title was "Green Revolution or Socialist Revolution?", and we had our own candidate standing against, among others, the Green Party in Newcastle in the 1989 Euro-elections. In any event, someone who, like Irvine, was a Trotskyist in the 1960s and 70s (as he himself reveals) and a Green in the 1980s and 90s is not in any position to lecture others about swaying with the wind or following the herd.

Who's a bandwagonner?

Long before environmentalism began to become a big issue in the 1960s, members of the Socialist Party had been aware of the problems of pollution. One reason for this is that we are materialists and recognise that humans are material beings who depend entirely for their survival on what they get from their material environment, particularly food. Without being so simplist as those 19th century German materialists who declared "man ist wass man isst", ("one is what one eats") and who attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of what people ate — of course, it is social factors that are the most important ones involved in human behaviour — many Socialist Party members realised that what you ate was bound to have some effect on your health, and so were concerned about the chemical pollution of food. Many became vegetarians or food reformers of one kind or another. One (Horace Jarvis) wrote a book Food Faking Exposed that was published in 1958.

When the writings on ecology of the American anarcho-communist (and another ex-Trotskyist) Murray Bookchin became easily available in Britain in the late 1960s, we immediately recognised the importance of what he was saying. He then wrote under the name ofLewis Herber (we had already noticed his article "The Problem of Chemicals in Food" that appeared in 1952 in the Contemporary Issues, a magazine produced by some former German Trotskyists who had come to reject Leninism). Two of his articles, "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" and "Towards A Liberatory Technology", both written in 1965 (but not published in Britain until 1966 and 1967 respectively) circulated amongst Socialist Party members with the second being commented on favourably (both are included in Bookchin's book Post-Scarcity Anarchism).

Here was someone who was expressing much of what we thought ourselves about the matter. That not only was pollution and environmental destruction caused by the profit system but also that it was the science of ecology that explained the processes by which pollution and environmental destruction resulted from releasing waste substances into the rest of nature at a rate and in amounts that it could not cope with; that science and technology, far from causing the problem, provided the knowledge and techniques that could be used to solve it given the right social framework; and, last but not least, that this framework was a less centralised society that produced to meet human needs not for profit, which could only be done in a stateless, moneyless communist society. Naturally, Bookchin being an anarchist, we had major disagreements with how he envisaged the establishment of such a society. (He wrote another article, criticising the vanguardists, called "ListenMarxist!", but which should have been called "Listen Leninist!". Our reply, "Listen Anarchist!", appeared in the March 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard.)

In June 1971 we published an article "Ecology: the First Decade" which ended:

Why does pollution occur? A small amount is due to ignorance or miscalculation. A small amount is unavoidable given present technology and population. But the immense majority is due to the economic network. People pollute because it is in their economic interests to do so.

It is sometimes claimed, though, that the problem arises from a wrong attitude to nature. This has some truth, though it will not do as a complete explanation. The attitude to nature, and the economic system, are interlinked. The present growth of ecological awareness is full of hope, for it encourages a mentality which considers total processes rather than isolated fragments.

So, if we jumped on any bandwagon (which we didn't), it would have to have been at the very latest towards the end of the 1960s — well before the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) was formed in 1973 and at a time when Irvine himself was going around shouting "no cuts" and "kick out the Tories" and even "Labour to power on a socialist programme."

Ecology is a science — the study of the inter-relations between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment — and, as we pointed out in the 1971 quote above, one that emphasises treating the subject matter as a whole and recognising the interdependence and
interconnectedness of the various parts as well as the fact of continuous change. This approach is in fact the best approach for all fields of scientific study. It is known to socialists as the dialectical approach and, as ecology happens to emphasise this more than some other sciences, this was an additional reason as to why it appealed to socialists when knowledge about ecology became more widespread in the 1960s.

But ecology is a science and not a political doctrine. This was why the original name of the Green Party — the Ecology Party — was absurd. They might just as validly, and only slightly less ridiculously, have called themselves the Chemistry Party or the Biology Party. It was also rather arrogant, in claiming that the science of ecology gave exclusive backing to their policies, which after all were only reformist policies to be applied within the profit system (more anti-pollution laws and investment, and other legislative and tax changes).


As a science — the study of the inter-relationships between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment, ecology has no particular political or ethical lesson to teach. Its essential role is to explain and predict. It is true that implications for human behaviour can be drawn from its findings. Humans are living organisms and as such are part of particular ecological systems and of the whole biosphere; so human behaviour does have ecological implications. In fact ecology as a science has identified particular forms of human behaviour (without going into their causes, which fall outside its field of study) as the major disturbing force upsetting ecological balances, the result of which is pollution and environmental destruction.

The implication that can be drawn from this is that, if pollution and environmental destruction are to be minimised then human behaviour — human productive activity, to be precise — must change, in such a way that what humans take from nature, the amount and the pace at which we do so, as well as the way we use these substances and dispose of them after use, should be done in such a way as to leave the rest of nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing them.

It's a tall order, but it is also a very general statement that leaves open the question of what specifically should be done. It can't be otherwise since ecology as a science is concerned with analysing the effects of particular forms of human behaviour on ecosystems without going into what causes those forms of behaviour. That is a matter for other fields of scientific research, such as sociology and economics.

Here Socialists have their point of view and people like Irvine theirs. We say that the ecologically-unbalanced behaviour that humans at present engage in is due to the socio-economic system under which we live, namely the profit system, or capitalism. He attributes it to something else: human greed or permissiveness or a wrong attitude to nature or an unreasonable desire to have too many children. We call for a change of social system. He calls for "changes to human values and lifestyles", without a change of social system. (Actually, it's not quite as simple as this, as the predominant values in society tend to reflect the needs of the socio-economic system, so a change of system will involve a change of values too.) But ecology has nothing to say on this particular argument. Which is why Irvine's appeal to it to back his view is as invalid as would be an appeal to it by us to back our view.

Socialism is human-centred

Irvine goes further and, again accuses Socialists of a human-centred approach as opposed to an Earth-centred one which he claims derives from ecology:

Socialist theory has been deeply embedded in a thoroughly cornucopian and human-centred view of life. It has never got to grip with the realities of 'limits-to-growth ', believing instead in the existence of Aladdin's Lamp which, if rubbed by the right people, can release a cornucopia of goods and services. Indeed, in some classic socialist texts, notably RobertTressell 's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it is suggested that under socialism, people would simply take whatever they wanted from gigantic warehouses. Amongst the radical groups that blossomed in the wake of the May '68 events in France, a popular slogan was: 'What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!' The Marxist tradition has been little different promising an open cheque marked 'to each according to his needs'.

We plead guilty to this charge of being human-centred We do have a human-centred approach: we want a socialist society primarily because it will be good for human beings. It will also be good for the biosphere but, then, what is good for the biosphere is also good for humans. Oddly, since it is a human-centred argument, Irvine also makes this last point, arguing that unless humans take into account the good of the biosphere things will be bad for them too ("the Earth must come first for, without the planet's life-sustaining eco¬systems, all human aspirations and goals are doomed").

We have indeed spoken of socialism in terms of abundance, less so today perhaps than in the past. Irvine — influenced no doubt by the falsehood taught by conventional economics that human wants are "infinite" — interprets this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more food, to take more and more holidays, and to acquire more and more material goods.

If humans wants were "infinite" then this would be the result of a society based on free access and geared to meeting human needs, but human wants are socially-determined and limited. Humans can only consume so much food, for instance, and only seek to accumulate more and more material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In a society, such as socialism would be, where people could be sure that what they required to satisfy their needs would always be available in the "warehouses" then we would soon settle down to only taking what we needed and no more.

This is all we meant by talking of socialism as a "society of abundance": that enough food, clothing and other material goods can be produced to allow every man, woman and child in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It was not a reference to some orgy of consumption, but simply to the fact that it is technically possible to produce (more than) enough to satisfy everyone's material needs, thanks, we might add, to industrialisation. Despite Irvine's claim to the contrary, industrial processes of production are not in themselves the cause of pollution and environmental destruction; it is their application under capitalism in the pursuit by seperate, competing firms and states of relatively short-term monetary profit that
is the cause.

Increased consumption

Meeting everybody's likely material needs will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the one-in-five of the population of Britain who need state handouts to bring them up to the poverty line; it will also be the case for about the same number who live without state handouts not far above the poverty line; and it will obviously be the case for the millions and millions of people in the so-called Third World who are suffering from horrendous problems of starvation, disease and housing.

So, yes, Socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world's population. Impossible, says Irvine, this would exceed the Earth's carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse. Not necessarily so, we reply.

Irvine's mistake is to confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total electricity or oil consumption or whatever and then divide it by the total population. But this doesn't give a figure for what people consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is in fact compatible with an increase in personal consumption.

This in effect is what Socialists (real Socialists that is) propose: to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just of arms and armies but of all the overhead costs involved in buying and selling. It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce are engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity (some estimates go higher). In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head.

This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who need it to be increased to a decent level. Diverting resources to do this — and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a decent standard of living will be the primary, initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtaining under capitalism.

When socialism reaches cruising speed, after clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off and something approaching a "steady-state economy" reached. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.

It is true that this assumes that population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption, and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, in the most developed capitalist parts of the world of Europe, North America and now Japan. Population growth is a feature ofthe poorer parts of the world, suggesting a link between it and poverty and the insecurity that goes with it (the more children you have the more chance there is of someone to care for you in your old age). If this is so, the way to end population growth is to eliminate poverty and economic insecurity, which in practice can only be done by socialism.

Irvine vigorously disagrees with this analysis. But he himself has no answer to the problem since he is against increasing personal consumption levels as in his view this would overload the Earth's carrying capacity. But, unless the personal consumption of the people in the poorer parts of the world is increased, then population growth there won't slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation or letting starvation, disease and wars take their course (as Malthus advocated).

Socialists emphatically reject such an anti-human approach. If that's what an "Earth-centred ethics" teaches then we want nothing to do with it. We'll stick to our human-centred approach, which embraces the view that the balanced functioning of the biosphere is something that humans should try to achieve since, as part ofthe biosphere, it is in our interest that it should function properly. There is in fact no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the biosphere.

In adopting an anti-humanist stand (Irvine calls it "post-humanism"; it used to be called misanthropy) people like him are in fact doing damage to the cause of finding a solution to the current ecological crisis. They are undermining any good work they might be doing in drawing people's attention to the need for a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest ofthe biosphere. They put people off and they give ecology a bad name. And they impede the growth of the understanding of what social and economic changes are needed to create the framework in which the mess can be cleaned up and a sustainable balance with the rest of nature created.

ADAM BUICK. Socialist Standard, January and February 1996

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