Saturday, May 24, 2008

Guest Post: Sustainable planet – how do we get there?

This piece will be appearing in the next issue of Socialist Resistance, they've kindly given me to publish it here first. Sarah Parker looks at the connection between political and technological solutions to capitalism’s ecological catastrophe.

The environmental crisis poses fundamental challenges to humanity: to reorganise the way we live, to reshape what it means to be human on every level, and to drastically reduce human exploitation of nature. We can and must mitigate climate change and other forms of destruction to the planet before the changes become so disastrous as to threaten the human race, and millions of animal and plant species, with extinction.

Cities and countryside

An increasing percentage of the world’s population lives in cities and hundreds of millions now live in mega-cities such as Sao Paolo which has twenty two million inhabitants or Seoul which has twenty four million. Their growth has been largely haphazard dictated by the demands of capitalist industry and the expansion of agribusiness which has driven millions of people out of the countryside.

Industries and governments organise the processing and consumption of natural resources mainly brought in from the countryside. The result is the production of commodities, and all the waste, sewage, junk, and pollution that accompanies their manufacture and disposal.

While all cities still depend on rural areas for food supplies, much of the countryside - with the spread of railways, cars, mobile phones, the internet, pharmaceuticals chemicals and plastics - is becoming increasingly urbanised. Ways need to be found of sharply reducing the rate of exploitation of the natural world, of reducing the contrast between city and rural life, and of making both places more bearable to live in. (1)

Obstacles to saving the planet

The main obstacle to saving the planet is capitalism. The anarchy of the market means that firms have to compete to make profits, or they go out of business, unless of course they can get bail-outs from the banks. And the banks will continue to lend for activities they hope to make money on - rarely for socially useful products.

One of the major factors behind the current food crisis is the flight of speculative funds out of property market instruments and into food futures. The profits to be made here are driving up food prices which are also affected by the rise in the oil prices, the increase in bio-fuels production, and decreasing crop yields due to the deployment of agribusiness chemicals, GM seeds and herbicides.

The way the markets operate, through the realisation of exchange values, is closely geared to the production of wasteful or damaging commodities instead of goods that are socially useful and not harmful to the natural world.

The British and US governments show scant regard for the planet, pouring money into weaponry and destruction in the Middle East and Afghanistan, massively subsidising US farmers to produce “bio-fuels” rather than food; opening up Alaska and the tar shales in Canada for oil extraction. Evidence that wind and water power could be effective in replacing a high proportion of fossil fuel usage while reducing carbon dioxide emissions is set aside. While Germany pioneers eco-friendly insulated houses heated by solar power the UK goes on building expensive (to the buyer) and poorly insulated houses out of eco-toxic materials.

Overcoming pessimism

The scale and potentially cataclysmic nature of climate change can induce a feeling of impotent pessimism. Many people either think nothing can be done or they just try to recycle more as individuals. We have to inspire and convince them that there are effective answers worth fighting for. Pre-figurative schemes and prototypes such as new or adapted traditional methods of constructing buildings, infrastructure and vehicles, and of growing food, have to be tried.

Technical solutions

We need to link local change to national and global change via campaigns and ecosocialist political parties. In many countries there are already small and medium scale projects and movements to transform life in the city or countryside, but they need to be linked to broader and wider networks or organisations.

Technical solutions exist for reducing consumption and exploitation of the earth’s resources in general and reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in particular. Myriad ways of improving on existing methods exist, from increasing solar, wind and tidal power, to vastly improving the efficiency of gas to electricity conversion in power stations. The experience of Curitiba city in Brazil which integrates land use, road systems and mass transit has proved very successful and versions of it could be used elsewhere.

The problem is that these solutions are mostly either not being implemented, due to state indifference or hostility, or are being tried only on a minute scale and in unpublicised isolation. That is why we need ecosocialist parties and the social movements, not authoritarian parties of the right, to bring about the social change needed on a world scale.

Forging links to fight effectively

At the moment we lack overarching frameworks for generalising experience and knowledge of solutions. Also missing are the mass organisations to fight for them. All the social movements and the environmental movements would be infinitely stronger if they were working alongside, or were spearheaded by, ecosocialist political parties of ordinary people. Linked together they could popularise solutions and fight for their implementation on an international scale.


(1) On the theme of ruralisation of urban life see Babylon and Beyond p 182 by Derek Wall, pub Pluto Press with the Green Economics Institute.

1 comment:

Dave Riley said...

The Change|Social Change statement conference is now available at here. It is another viewpoint pon the same question.