Against frugality

It is just too easy to blame industrialism and economic development as such for the problem of global warming. This reactionary stance is irresponsibly spread by organisations and individuals of various political leanings and has often leaked into the ranks of left-wing or progressive organisations, especially by means of the jargon of the anti-globalisation movement. Among several anti-globalisation theoreticians, the Gospel of Zero Growth or even negative growth has become quite fashionable.

Basically, they propose to stop the development of the productive forces and possibly also to destroy some of them - incidentally, we would note that this is what capitalism usually does through wars in order to limit the overproduction of capital.

This insane idea has been criticised several times by the Marxist tendency. In a brilliant article titled "Sustainable de-growth": a reactionary utopia, comrade Jérôme Métellus explained:

«[...] pollution and other risks connected to the energy industry depend, not on "growth", but on the basic mechanisms of capitalism. As a consequence, they will not disappear as long as this system itself is not overturned. Only rational and democratic planning of the economy and energy resources will allow for a reconciliation between the development of the productive apparatus and the ecological equilibrium of the planet. [...] Far from reducing production, a socialist organisation of society will result in the liberation of productive forces from the fetters of a capitalism in full decline.»

Jérôme clearly demonstrates in his article that the theoretical grandfather of all those theories against economic growth and development is the petty-bourgeois utopian Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, accused by Marx of dreaming of rolling back the wheel of history.

De-growth gurus like Professor Serge Latouche are always favourably cited by reformist leaders like Fausto Bertinotti (ex-leader and hijacker of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party). Unfortunately, what sounds very smart and "post-modern" in the clean and aseptic halls of La Sorbonne, has a very poor taste in a "Third-World" slum, where economic growth is a vital need, or even in a working-class neighbourhood in the Parisian banlieues where survival for the proletarians depends on capitalism "continuously revolutionising itself" (in the words of the Communist Manifesto).

This little problem is of course recognised by the proponents of stagnation or de-growth, who are all very wise and intelligent men and women, and it is replied to with a score of subtle variants of the anti-growth theories, some of them limiting the need to stop the economy only to physical goods (but energy and physical inputs are consumed in the production of any good, physical or immaterial), some others implying different de-growth patterns for advanced and underdeveloped countries.

In the last analysis, this is just Malthusianism or a revival of the unscientific and discredited "findings" of the Club of Rome in 1972 (The Limits to Growth) when this group of academics and incompetent economists proclaimed the non-sustainability of unlimited economic growth in the face of limited resources, predicting an early end to world economic growth because an intrinsic ceiling would be reached. All these theories do not address the real point, which is what kind of economic development we need and how this depends on production relations and their legal mirror image - property relations. What is unsustainable is the profit-driven economy (growing, stagnating or receding), not mass production and consumption in itself.

The productivity of labour can compensate for the limitedness of resources, as happened, for instance, with food. The following graph shows the constant growth of food production per capita in the last half century:

The cause of hunger

Hunger has clearly a different explanation than Rev. Malthus thought.

A sense of proportion is also needed when we have this kind of discussion. Accelerated development of the productive forces in the last few centuries had a profound progressive content and for the first time in history made poverty and exploitation unnecessary. Of course, capitalist development in itself does not abolish poverty and exploitation (this task belongs to the international socialist revolution), and in relative terms it could be argued that capitalism actually intensifies them.

Ecological sensitiveness, forest conservation (implemented for the first time by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution), care for animal welfare, understanding and accounting of the effect of our action on the planet... all these steps forward in human interaction with nature are only possible as a by-product of economic, social and scientific advancement.

Neglect of human impact on nature has been around for the whole history of civilisation. Only primitive communist societies, like those in prehistoric times, as well as North American natives or some tribal African communities, display a certain respect for the environment. Nevertheless, also in that case it is mostly of a ritual and symbolic character, for example, ceremonies to thank the spirits of wild animals for providing meat or to apologise to them for the need to hunt game.

It is debatable whether industrialism actually extended the scope of human destruction of nature to a qualitatively higher level, like some moralistic environmentalists want us to believe. Of course, the growth of the world population on a planet dominated by capitalism has multiplied the potential for "human-caused" damage to the environment, but that would only be a partial view of things. Inefficient and ecologically unsound and non-sustainable practices also existed in the past. If more than 6,600 million of us all lived like our ancestors did, there is no guarantee that our "ecological footprint" would be much smaller - but our life expectancy certainly would.

An example is the extinction of natural species. This is not a recent phenomenon at all. On the contrary, what are new are the recognition of the problem and the concept of biodiversity.

Human societies caused the extinction of hundreds of species long before the industrial age, just by hunting, farming and transforming the natural habitats in many ways. Elephant birds are an example. These gigantic 3-metre tall birds lived in Madagascar and were completely wiped out by the actions of the island's human population before contact with the Europeans was established.

More to the point: urban human societies have always used non-renewable raw materials in a way that harms the environment. Also oil was used, to make tar for lighting and insulation, although the consumption of fossil fuel was clearly much lower than it is today. Wood was collected and burned in a way that implied the destruction of forests and the release of significant amounts of CO2. That was no problem for the atmosphere because of the tiny world population, but it did have nasty hydro-geological side effects at times.

Also today, underdeveloped societies are not an ecological model, quite the opposite. It's been calculated that in the so-called "Third World" two billion people cook in primitive ways or using inefficient stoves, resulting in huge consumption of wood and therefore significant carbon-dioxide emissions (though they are still giving only a small contribution in comparison with industrial activities). According to Mr Vijay Modi, an engineer at Columbia University, a Third World family of five could easily save one ton of wood every year just by using newer (and more expensive) stoves (10 Fixes for the Planet, by Anne Underwood, Newsweek, ibid.). We have already mentioned the huge impoverished population of the Niger Delta: the irrational and inefficient usage of fuel there makes the Delta the highest single contributor to greenhouse gases in the world.

Frugal, traditional life styles are clearly not a way out.

(Extract from a much longer article on Marxism and global warming published on In Defence of Marxism.)

AGW

C'è una contraddizione dell'argomentazione di Brian J. Baker: come può esse arricchirsi rallentando coscientemente lo sviluppo economico? Your response to my article.

In English and I apologise for my lack of Italian.

That is not a contradiction. Look at David Camerons father in law who skims £1000 per day just for owning the land on which wind farms are rooted. Who pays for this? Not the working class in your book. It is estimated that working people are now paying 10% more this year than is economically necessary. And with that 600,000 in Germany have had their electricity cut off because they cannot pay. Added to that is the fact that 25 times the number of people die from the cold and the lack of affordable heating that die of heat exhaustion due to "global warming".

As an example from Spiegel Online, 28 March 2013:-

"Complaining about the weather has reached epidemic proportions in northern Germany this “spring.” And with good reason. With Easter just around the corner, meteorologists are telling us this could end up being the coldest March in Berlin and its surroundings since records began in the 1880s"

Well that was predicted by the models and so they invested heavily in wind farms which do not work in a cold static weather systems. And who paid? Well according to you not the working class.

Alan Woods asked me to write the article because I was so critical of the green trap sprang for socialists. I did not deny global warming as you wrote but I did deny the serious nature of the issue.

I have known all the Marxists in the IMT to Militant and you have made the most massive mistake of your lives by linking yourselves with the ideology of Greenpeace. You should have opposed it as a middle class manifestation of impotence. But by linking yourselves to this movement you have diluted the message of socialism.

I knew all these comrades but you have split and split until the message is diluted in like manner.

If you would like a serious debate instead of the flippant way, with no right of reply, that my articles received then I would join you willingly in the fray. Socialism deserves so much better!

Marxism and cold

Hi Brian!

Thank you for commenting, and no need to apologise for using English. I know I was a bit harsh, but you gave us the opportunity to discuss the issue better. Your article defending the idea that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) was overrated by a bourgeois scheme needed to be replied to, but I can see where your concerns come from. Nevertheless, you are being misled if you believe that we have adopted any petty-bourgeois green ideology, and my articles proves that. Particularly, the fragment I have quoted here is 100% against the idea of (forcible) frugality that always comes attached to such positions.

As you can see in my whole reply, the arguments underrating the relevance of AGW are basically the result of unscientific studies funded by oil and mining multinationals and currently they are cornered, with only a fistful of right-wing politicians in a few countries still supporting AGW denial.

To your argument about "David Cameron's father-in-law" profiting from wind farms: so what? Capitalists always profit from anything they do, this is no stronger an argument against wind farms than the profit of yogurt producers is an argument against yogurt. There are many big companies based on other energy sources who are losing money because of wind farms, namely the big oil companies, but this is not an argument either. "It is estimated that working people are now paying 10% more this year than is economically necessary": I hope you see the weakness of this argument. What does it mean "economically necessary"? We could as well say that because of salaries too much above subsistence, the consumers are paying for many commodities a lot more than "economically necessary". For example, cotton is much more expensive than "economically necessary" since slavery was abolished in Southern USA.

The point is precisely that the bourgeoisie is reluctant to spend more than is strictly "economically necessary", because they do not mind producing in a way that is incompatible with environmental constraints. But we do mind. They have been forced to take it into consideration half-heartedly because the game was starting to be too dangerous for their own survival.

About the high costs of electricity and the problems of working people with cold: first of all, this is not fundamentally due to "green" policies. The main reason for the rise in heating prices is the rise in the cost of fossil fuel, i.e. oil. This has very little to do with green taxation (however, in my article I opposed "carbon tax" and the likes) and much to do with the exhaustion of oil reserves and the modified balance of power between Western imperialism and countries like Venezuela and Iran.

But in any case, are Socialists to defend the idea that, in order to keep prices down, we should defend the private companies by allowing them to cut their costs? This would be like Frank Owen in "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" siding with "Free Trade and Cheap Food" against "Tariff Reform and Work for All"... If the price of energy for working-class families is on the rise, the solution for us is subsidising working-class families, providing them with free heating and high-insulation housing, imposing price control and nationalisation on energy utilities etc. In no circumstance should we side with the oil multinationals by saying that such problems originate from limitation on the invisible hand of free market!

About the complaints about "this being the coldest spring", well, this is anecdotal and not scientific. January 2013 was the second warmest January in 35 years on a world scale. The first place was taken by January 2010. However, as explained many times, the climate is not the weather: the Global Warming as a long-term worldwide trend can and will cause local short-term effects that can go in the opposite direction, in general it's producing extreme weather conditions that come in different shapes in distinct areas of the planet. In Italy, for example, it's apparently increasing snow in unusual periods of the year.

We are as critical as you are about the "green trap", and a large part of my article dealt precisely with that. But, unlike you, we try to take into account both "traps", including the one set up by the big polluters in which you now appear to have fallen.

In solidarity.

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