Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Ecosocialism can rescue us from ecocatastrophe

In Ridley Scott’s recent film, The Martian, there is a scene near the end that sums up the often ignored value of the earth. Astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is sitting on a bench in a park, shortly after having been rescued from a very lonely existence on the red planet, Mars. He notices the new, green leaves of a small plant in front of him on the ground, smiles, leans forward and, gently putting his fingers underneath the newborn plant’s leaves, says something like “Hello there!” This simple scene condenses one of the crucial “messages” of The Martian, that, compared to the vast majority of other planets, which are probably as barren as Mars, Earth is a veritable paradise.

And, although this is nowhere thematised in the film, it is time for people to start waking up to the saddening fact that humans, driven by an economic system voracious for “growth”, are busy destroying this paradise. Too many people simply bury their proverbial heads in the sand when they hear or read a statement like the one I have just made – unless they sit up and take notice, and do something about it, nature in all its glory will, in the not-too-distant future, probably be visible only in nature documentaries such as those made by David Attenborough.

If you don’t believe me, you could read this keynote address by one of the most uncompromising thinkers of our time, Joel Kovel. It is called “Ecosocialism as a Human Phenomenon”, and was delivered at the International Ecosocialist Conference in Quito, Ecuador, in June 2013. Things have got much worse since then, but judging by Kovel’s considered assessment of the global situation regarding the condition of natural ecosystems, it was already quite bad then.

Kovel opened the address with the remark, that: “We live in an epoch of radical crisis. From the economic side, we see intractable stagnation and vicious class polarisation. And from another side, which I shall call the ecological, we find that the dominant system of production appears hell-bent on destroying the natural foundations of civilisation as it thrashes about in response to economic difficulties.”

If this seems far-fetched to readers, it is probably because mainstream news sources, which are all controlled by the dominant economic forces of our time, downplay the bad news, with the result that most people are not aware of the true dimensions of the looming crisis. Consequently they are so far removed from acknowledging it that, as Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and psychoanalytical thinker extraordinaire, has shrewdly observed, people evidently find it harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world as we know it.

And yet, the “end of the world as we know it” may not be in the realm of the impossible, or even the improbable. One of the things Kovel invites his audience to reflect on in his address on ecosocialism is the following: “ … consider the activities of the Monsanto Corporation, fully protected by the Obama administration, as it engages in lethal forms of production that will, in just one instance of depredation, finish off honeybees world-wide through its nicotinamide pesticides. Thus we anticipate a future without pollinators, sacrificed on the altar of accumulation. The disregard for what nature has evolved over four billion years beggars the imagination. Indeed, if corporations are persons, as the US Supreme Court insists, then the Exxons and Monsantos of the world are better described as suicide bombers in the service of accumulation than as rational economic actors.”

How many of us have ever thought about what should be rather obvious, if we remember what we learned in primary school, namely, that bees fulfil an essential function in nature across the globe – pollinating plants. That is, they make sure, in the course of collecting pollen for honey, that trees and other plants reproduce. What would happen without them? All the plants that depend on them for reproduction would eventually die – and that is a lot of plants, including trees, all of which are responsible, in turn, for producing oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. Hence, without bees, which are being wiped out systematically by Monsanto in its frenzied quest for more profit, most of the planet’s vegetation would be destroyed, and without the latter all oxygen-breathing creatures, including us humans, would be in deep trouble.

Is this so hard to grasp? And if some, if not most of us, are really the rational creatures we are supposed to be, why are we not doing something about it, such as hammering our governments to censure companies like Monsanto – which, incidentally, is probably also responsible for a host of health problems that people are increasingly experiencing across the world, such as auto-immune diseases like gluten and lactose intolerance, which result in coeliac disease. Why, you may wonder. In addition to producing the pesticides that are destroying the honeybees, this behemoth company, Monsanto, and other companies like it, are responsible for introducing genetically modified plants into agriculture, and some medical researchers I have spoken to are convinced that the foods made from such GM plants affect human physiology and gastronomy in extremely adverse ways. This should not be surprising – as a species, we developed in close proximity to nature (of which we are, after all, a part), and genetically speaking our bodies are primarily capable of digesting and benefitting from foods such as fruits and vegetables that formed part of our ancestors’ diet.

So how do we combat the economic system that not only allows Monsanto and Exxon to operate, but actually encourages them to do so, the egregious damage that they inflict upon nature notwithstanding? Kovel’s answer is that there is only one option, namely to switch to what he calls “ecosocialism”, an economic system that is not intent on accumulation and profit at all costs, but instead promotes production without depletion of natural resources, because unlike capitalism, it does not set humans up as if they are nature’s adversaries, but accepts that humans – social ecologies – and natural ecologies are interrelated and (could be) mutually sustaining. But let me quote Kovel at length here from the keynote address referred to above:

“Ecosocialism makes a very large claim that must be realised in a host of individual and often seemingly disparate instances, or paths. There is, in other words, no privileged agent of ecosocialist transforming. The agents of transformation emerge interstitially, which is a fancy word for anywhere contradictions ripen and manifest themselves as transformative opportunities: a storm, a mine, a pipeline, a toxic dump, even a classroom, or an individual mind undergoing spiritual development. Each ecosocialist path is a place of production – for paths have to be made – as well as one of the resistance against the form of production whose banner is capitalist accumulation. We can also think of these as zones of emergence, as contradictions mature and open up on different vistas; hence we can call them ‘horizons’ of various kinds … a horizon is by definition some way off; yet it can also be brought closer, through devising ways of struggle. Often these processes can be formulated in terms of the ‘Commons’, by which is meant collectively owned and organized spaces … forming new conditions of Commoning unifies productive zones and can come to connect them.

“All this bears more than a superficial resemblance to the building of ecosystems, which in the ecosocialist mode of production comes to stand in the place that capital reserved for the commodity. Capitalism may be defined as generalised commodity production; just so is ecosocialism definable as generalisable ecosystem production—this being, however, ecosystems of a definite kind conducive to the flourishing of life … ”

And guess what? Because so-called developed countries are quite removed from older, pre-modern modes of production, compared to countries in the global South – in South America and Africa, for instance – these countries are in a position, according to Kovel, to resist the further expansion of capital and cultivate ecosocialist economies instead. This, in his view, is the only option open to us if we want to avoid an ecological disaster of global proportions. In his words: “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe!”

I hope African leaders will take note of this, and rescue this beautiful continent from the eco-destructive depredations of neoliberal capitalism, which is really just a form of neocolonialism. If such leaders bear the interests of their people at heart, they would reject such neocolonialism in favour of ecosocialism; that is, if they can resist the lure of big payoffs and shiny German sedans. But can they?

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    • Rory Short

      “Capitalism may be defined as generalised commodity production; just so
      is ecosocialism definable as generalisable ecosystem production—this
      being, however, ecosystems of a definite kind conducive to the
      flourishing of life … ”

      Bert the above says all that needs to be said.

      We humans are part of life and a part cannot own the whole. Our delusion is to think and behave as if we do which is inexorably destroying life and thus ourselves. It took nature 3.8 billion years to produce us through ever increasing complexity founded on cooperation at every level. This led to us becoming conscious which means that we can choose to cooperate with nature, the only viable option in fact, or forge on oblivious of nature, the disastrous option, which unfortunately is what we have chosen up until now.

    • Georg

      Ecp-social market economy

      Paradigm shift for a sustainable civilisation

      If we want to survive as the human race on this planet, we still need to make the switch from the current profit-driven “robber economy” based on the exploitation of fossil energies and limited raw materials to a “civilisation of sustainability” fed by solar energy sources within the course of this century, which in the long term creates a balance between the demands of humans and the potential of nature.

      The deciding factor for this is offered by the eco- and socio-political model from the eco-social market economy. Its essential feature is a permanent balance between an efficient economy, social solidarity and ecological sustainability – embedded in the respective culture and way of life, in fact.

      An efficient economy requires the best possible conditions in education, training and further education, research and development. Entrepreneurial spirit and innovation must be encouraged by a performance-oriented tax system as well as the elimination of unnecessary bureaucratic barriers.

      Social solidarity requires a forward-looking and sustainable financing of the pension, welfare and health system. Furthermore, the acceleration of the precautionary principle, a healthy lifestyle as well as a sensible balance between state institutions, private initiatives and the support of families with education and childcare are all vital.

      Ecological sustainability is ultimately at the heart of an eco-social market economy.

      Five factors are decisive in the model of the eco-social market economy for the implementation of sustainability and thus the protection of our habitat for subsequent generations:

      1. Ecological true-cost pricing! Prices must reflect the value of their nature.

      2. Strict Polluter Pays Principle – worldwide! Those who harm the environment and waste resources must pay for it. This makes it possible for us to create viable economies for the future.

      3. Taxes, duties and subsidies must reward those in favour of the environment and must not – as is the case now – artificially extend the age of fossil fuels.

      4. Clear product declarations und precise information! The consumer must know what he is buying.

      5. Creating awareness and providing information – starting at nursery and school right through to worldwide campaigns.

      Eco-social market economy on every level!

      An eco-social market economy is not only a way to challenge policy; it concerns every single one of us and our individual responsibility! Consequently, we can derive various levels of implementation.

      1. Personal lifestyle:

      Consumer behaviour, living, energy, mobility!

      This is measured by our carbon footprint.

      2. Eco-social market economy in companies:

      European corporate culture; reliable quality; motivation to take own responsibility and encourage innovation; positive working atmosphere; energy- and resource-friendly production; circulation principle.

      Europe’s competitiveness is not based on low energy and CO2 prices but rather on innovation and research-intensive products in environmentally-friendly technologies and the “green economy”.

      3. Eco-social market economy in the community:

      An essential focus area!

      Regional development, planning schemes, short links, environmentally-friendly mobility, reinforcement of regional economic cycles.

      4. Eco-social market economy in state, country and EU:

      These are the traditional levels for designing the correct political framework for sustainable economies.

      5. Global economic market economy:

      Reform by UNO, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank by integrating effective ecological, social and democratic standards.

      Clear regulations for financial markets; global financial transaction tax, prevention of tax evasion and destructive speculation; balance between rich and poor.

      Creative policy or company dictatorship?

      Policy must regain its creative force in a globalised economy!

      This can only happen if we work together!

      If states and governments play off against each other, it will end in disaster.

      So the crucial question is: “Who decides the rules of the game?

      Josef Riegler

    • Georg

      We need a Marshall Plan for Africa