Friday April 25th, 2014, 12:20 am (EDT)

Environment/Science

Environment & Science

Plastic Plague

Charles Moore with Cassandra Phillips, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 358 pages, $16, paperback.

Four decades ago, when most greens were blaming pollution on population growth and personal consumption, socialist-environmentalist Barry Commoner showed that neither could account for the radical increase in pollutants since the end of the Second World War. In The Closing Circle, he argued that “the chief reason for the environmental crisisis the sweeping transformation of productive technology since World War II.” In particular, he pointed to dramatic increases in the production and use of materials not found in nature, such as synthetics that do not degrade and therefore become permanent blights on the earth.… Bottles and bags—together with blister packs, polystyrene tubs, foam peanuts, bubble wrap, styrofoam trays, candy wrappers, and a multitude of other forms of packaging—now account for a third of the plastic produced each year worldwide. It is a bizarre and extremely irrational process: producing products that are designed to be thrown away but are made from materials that never die. The second of Barry Commoner’s famous Four Laws of Ecology is: everything must go somewhere.… In his remarkable book Plastic Ocean, Charles Moore (with Cassandra Phillips) reports on the part of the “unstoppable avalanche of nonessentials” that ends up in the oceans, where it chokes and poisons fish, mammals, and birds, and endangers human life.… | more |

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 9 (February 2014)

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 9 (February 2014)

» Notes from the Editors

A comparison of the present state of the natural sciences with that of the social (or human) sciences cannot but give rise to a disquieting sense of the relative poverty of the latter. Although natural scientists are raising the alarm with regard to the planetary environmental emergency and are demanding social solutions, social scientists have largely failed to take up the challenge. To be sure, there has been a vast upsurge in recent years of social-scientific discussions of climate change. But most of this work has remained confined within the narrow boundaries of mainstream social science, relying on such amorphous, dehistoricized concepts as human behavior, organizations, institutions, government, economic growth, industrialization, modernization, the market, energy efficiency, public opinion, and the like—variables that can be treated in purely technical, “non-normative” terms, divorced from historical context, social relations, and social agency.… Conspicuously missing from conventional social science is any serious consideration of the actual social system in which we live and which clearly constitutes the root of the problem: namely, capitalism. Also excluded are such fundamental issues as accumulation, class (including its gendered and racialized forms), the state, the cultural apparatus, imperialism, monopolistic corporations, economic stagnation, financialization, Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift—and indeed all the other major historical realities of our time.… | more |

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 6 (November 2013)

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 6 (November 2013)

» Notes from the Editors

There is a pressing need for a coherent left strategy on climate change and in relation to the planetary environmental threat in general.… We therefore read with considerable interest Christian Parenti’s article, “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent. Parenti’s main thesis is that since the time with which to address the climate change problem is so short, “it is this society and these [existing capitalist] institutions that must cut emissions. That means, in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of total economic re-organization.”… [Parenti] insists that capitalism has been successful in the past in addressing “specific environmental crises” and that this will also likely be the case with respect to climate change.… Perhaps the best way to explain…[why we believe Parenti's overall argument is wrong] is to counterpose what we think would be a more appropriate statement on the nature of a revolutionary strategy. It would read as follows: Anyone who thinks that it is conceivable to counter climate change (and the planetary environmental crisis as a whole) without opposing and in part superseding the logic of capital accumulation is in denial of the very clear findings of climate science and critical social science—which point to the immediacy and unprecedented scale of the present epochal crisis and thus the need for truly revolutionary social change.… | more |

Twenty-First-Century Land Grabs

Accumulation by Agricultural Dispossession

Land grabs—whether initiated by multinational corporations and private investment firms emanating from the capitalist core, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, or state entities such as China and India—are now in the news constantly. For example, in July 2013 the Colombian ambassador to the United States resigned over his participation in a legally questionable effort to help the U.S. corporation Cargill use shell companies to amass 130,000 acres of land. This land was supposed to be used for agricultural production, but there is also land being grabbed for other purposes—such as mining or to construct roads, buildings, and dams. In human terms, land grabs mean real people and families are dispossessed. When people lose access to their land, they also lose their means to obtain food, their communities, and their cultures.… | more |

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 5 (October 2013)

Monthly Review Volume 65, Number 5 (October 2013)

» Notes from the Editors

A sign of the crass economic culture of our times is the recent release by Hasbro of the game “Monopoly Empire” based on the well-known “Monopoly” game, first mass produced in 1935 by Parker Bothers, now a Hasbro subsidiary. The new version can be played in thirty minutes and is designed to take the friction out of the game while glorifying the modern corporate system. Players collect iconic brands of corporations such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Samsung, which they add to billboard “towers” in a race to the top. Players no longer leave the game due to bankruptcy. The goal is simply to build the biggest monopoly brand empire.… | more |

The Epochal Crisis

It is an indication of the sheer enormity of the historical challenge confronting humanity in our time that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, sometimes now called the Second Great Depression, is overshadowed by the larger threat of planetary catastrophe, raising the question of the long-term survival of innumerable species—including our own. An urgent necessity for the world today is therefore to develop an understanding of the interconnections between the deepening impasse of the capitalist economy and the rapidly accelerating ecological threat—itself a by-product of capitalist development.… | more |

The Fossil Fuels War

Only a few years ago governments, corporations, and energy analysts were fixated on the problem of “the end of cheap oil” or “peak oil,” pointing to growing shortages of conventional crude oil due to the depletion of known reserves. The International Energy Agency’s 2010 report devoted a whole section to peak oil. Some climate scientists saw the peaking of conventional crude oil as a silver-lining opportunity to stabilize the climate—provided that countries did not turn to dirtier forms of energy such as coal and “unconventional fossil fuels.”… Today all of this has changed radically with the advent of what some are calling a new energy revolution based on the production of unconventional fossil fuels. The emergence in North America—but increasingly elsewhere as well—of what is now termed the “Unconventionals Era” has meant that suddenly the world is awash in new and prospective fossil-fuel supplies.… | more |

The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’

Between October 2010 and April 2012, over 250,000 people, including 133,000 children under five, died of hunger caused by drought in Somalia. Millions more survived only because they received food aid. Scientists at the UK Met Centre have shown that human-induced climate change made this catastrophe much worse than it would otherwise have been.… This is only the beginning: the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report says that without coordinated global action to avert environmental disasters, especially global warming, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050. Untold numbers of children will die, killed by climate change.… If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.… And yet some do. Increasingly, activists who warn that the world faces unprecedented environmental danger are accused of catastrophism—of raising alarms that do more harm than good. That accusation, a standard feature of right-wing attacks on the environmental movement, has recently been advanced by some left-wing critics as well. While they are undoubtedly sincere, their critique of so-called environmental catastrophism does not stand up to scrutiny.… | more |

The Political Economy of Decollectivization in China

Decollectivization of China’s rural economy in the early 1980s was one of the most significant aspects of the country’s transition to a capitalist economy. Deng Xiaoping praised it as an “innovation,” and its significance to the overall capitalist-oriented “reform” process surely cannot be overstated. The Chinese government has repeatedly referred to the supposed economic benefits of decollectivization as having “greatly increased the incentives to millions of peasants.” Nevertheless, the political-economic implications of decollectivization have always been highly ambiguous, and questionable at best. Individual or small groups of peasants were frequently portrayed in mainstream accounts as political stars for initiating the process, but this served to obscure the deep resistance to decollectivization in many locales. Moreover, the deeper causes and consequences of the agrarian reform are downplayed in most writings, leaving the impression that the rural reform was in the main politically neutral.… | more |

What they call acts of god

Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen poetry books, most recently The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2010 from Knopf. Her most recent novel is Sex Wars (Harper Perennial) and PM Press has republished Vida and Dance the Eagle to Sleep with new introductions.… | more |

The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in South Korea

On October 10, 2012, the Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize at a ceremony held in New York City. This prize is an alternative to the World Food Prize founded by the late Norman Borlaug, “the father of the Green Revolution.” While the World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through technology, the Food Sovereignty Prize champions solutions coming from those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system.… In order to understand how the KWPA won this prestigious award—even though South Korea’s agriculture contributes only around 2 percent of the nation’s total GDP, while the nation’s market economy is ranked fourteenth among 188 countries—the changes in South Korea’s agriculture under the modern agri-food system need to be examined.… | more |

Listen to Your Gut

When confronted with any big decision in life, I hear my mom’s voice telling me to listen to my gut. This has worked for personal adventures ranging from backpacking to parenting, even though at times it can be hard to quiet the social noise that prevents us from “hearing” what our instincts have to say. In Greed to Green, Charles Derber explores a new twist on the familiar “listen to your gut” adage by framing climate change inaction as the collective problem of not having a gut feeling about this planetary threat. Rather, he explains that we as a society have cordoned off knowledge of climate change as an intellectual concept, and have not allowed it to migrate to the realm of the gut truth.… | more |

Examining the Bases of Power, Inequality, and Human Variation

Review of Agustín Fuentes, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 274 pages, $27.50, hardback.

James Hansen and the Climate-Change Exit Strategy

The world at present is fast approaching a climate cliff. Science tells us that an increase in global average temperature of 2°C (3.6° F) constitutes the planetary tipping point with respect to climate change, leading to irreversible changes beyond human control. A 2°C rise is sufficient to melt a significant portion of the world’s ice due to feedbacks that will hasten the melting. It will thus set the course to an ice-free world. Sea level will rise. Numerous islands will be threatened along with coastal regions throughout the globe. Extreme weather events (droughts, storms, floods) will be far more common. The paleoclimatic record shows that an increase in global average temperature of several degrees means that 50 percent or more of all species—plants and animals—will be driven to extinction. Global food crops will be negatively affected.… | more |

Monthly Review Volume 64, Number 8 (January 2013)

Monthly Review Volume 64, Number 8 (January 2013)

» Notes from the Editors

As Fred Magdoff notes in his article in this issue, the Royal Society of London—one of the world’s oldest (founded in 1660) and most respected scientific bodies—declared in its 2012 report, People and the Planet, that the environmental threat to the planet as a place of human habitation is now so serious that it is necessary for humanity to “develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth.” In other words, a radical break with capitalism’s laws of motion is called for.… Behind this startling conclusion on the part of the Royal Society lies a nascent revolt of climate scientists against the dominance of capitalist economics in determining climate-change policy.… | more |

Global Resource Depletion

Is Population the Problem?

Within the current system, there are steps that can and should be taken to lessen the environmental problems associated with the limits of growth: the depletion of resource taps and the overflowing of waste sinks, both of which threaten the future of humanity.… [H]owever, …attempts to trace these problems, and particularly the problem of depletion natural resources, to population growth are generally misdirected. The economic causes of depletion are the issues that must be vigorously addressed (though population growth remains a secondary factor). The starting point for any meaningful attempt actually to solve these problems must begin with the mode of production and its unending quest for ever-higher amounts of capital accumulation regardless of social and environmental costs—with the negative results that a portion of society becomes fabulously rich while others remain poor and the environment is degraded at a planetary level.… | more |

Monthly Review Volume 64, Number 7 (December 2012)

Monthly Review Volume 64, Number 7 (December 2012)

» Notes from the Editors

As we write these notes at the beginning of November climate change is once again in the headlines in the United States and around the world. This is because of the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy, not only on islands in the Caribbean, but also on the northeastern United States and particularly New York and New Jersey, with the impact of the storm dramatized by the damage to New York City. Coincidentally almost twenty-five years ago it was a heat wave experienced in New York, coinciding with climatologist James Hansen’s famous testimony to Congress, that first made global warming a public issue, and increasingly an international one with the formation that year of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Whether Hurricane Sandy’s destruction in New York and New Jersey will lead to a similar elevation of climate change as a public issue this time around remains to be seen.… | more |

The Planetary Emergency

Capitalism today is caught in a seemingly endless crisis, with economic stagnation and upheaval circling the globe. But while the world has been fixated on the economic problem, global environmental conditions have been rapidly worsening, confronting humanity with its ultimate crisis: one of long-term survival. The common source of both of these crises resides in the process of capital accumulation. Likewise the common solution is to be sought in a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large,” going beyond the regime of capital.… It is still possible for humanity to avert what economist Robert Heilbroner once called “ecological Armageddon.” The means for the creation of a just and sustainable world currently exist, and are to be found lying hidden in the growing gap between what could be achieved with the resources already available to us, and what the prevailing social order allows us to accomplish. It is this latent potential for a quite different human metabolism with nature that offers the master-key to a workable ecological exit strategy.… | more |

Harmony and Ecological Civilization

Beyond the Capitalist Alienation of Nature

When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.… | more |

The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists

In 2003 Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two prominent environmental lobbyists, founded the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank dedicated to modernizing what they call “liberal-progressive- green politics.” Its focus is on winning support from mainstream businesses, politicians, and consumers with an attractive message: by developing the right technologies and policy tools, tackling climate change and increasing wealth can go hand-in-hand…. In practice, the approach they have adopted to boost the influence of their message…is to characterize all opinion within the environmental movement that is redder or greener than theirs as marginal, unrealistic, immature, or elitist…. Their position is essentially the same as that of the New Democrat and New Labour camps regarding the environment; and their tactics of triangulation are precisely those pursued by the New Democrats and New Labour since the early 1990s.… | more |