In two Monthly Review special issues, “Education Under Fire: The U.S. Corporate Attack on Students, Teachers, and Schools” (July-August 2011) and “Public School Teachers Fighting Back” (June 2013), we sounded an alarm regarding the rapid restructuring and privatization of U.S. K–12 public schools. In terms of the scale of nationwide restructuring, the corporate takeover of education is unprecedented in modern U.S. history. The closest comparison we can come up with is the destruction of the street car systems across the United States and the building of the interstate highway system—in which freeways went right through cities for the first time, often in the face of neighborhood and community resistance. With respect to K–12 education, unimaginable amounts of private funds have gone into pressuring and corrupting government at every level, while the control mechanisms of the new educational system are increasingly left in private, not public, hands. The Common Core Standards and related high-stakes tests are at the center of this new system, and are the product of private corporate groups outside the direct reach of government.
Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and ’40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of “ecocide,” symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution. On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world’s most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests.
Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen poetry books, most recently The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2010 (Knopf, 2011). Her most recent novel is Sex Wars (Harper Perennial, 2005) and she has just published her first collection of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc. (PM Press, 2014).
From its earliest years, Monthly Review has been distinguished among socialist publications by the degree to which it has incorporated environmental views into its fundamental perspective. Paul Sweezy’s 1950 article, “An Economic Program for America”…listed conservation of natural resources and the elimination of destructive waste as two of the primary goals in the development of socialism. He called for the socialization, long-term planning, and conservation of “coal…oil and natural gas and all the other fuels which provide the lifeblood of modern industrial society.” Scott Nearing’s monthly column “World Events,” written for MR from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, regularly examined environmental, along with political-economic, developments. Nearing was a socialist economist and environmentalist.… With the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, Nearing explored its wider ecological implications, contending that civilization had entered the “phase of suicidal destructivity…. Without doubt man has built a pyramid of potential destructivity…. Man is a destroyer as well as a builder. He has exterminated entire species…. He has destroyed forests and opened the soil to erosion. He has engaged in fratricidal wars that have wiped out one civilization after another and presently threaten to end western civilization” (Nearing, “World Events,” Monthly Review, November 1962).
From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits.… With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.
Last summer, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked to comment on the furor surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He responded with the assertion that humans have been genetically modifying organisms for millennia, giving us food crops such as seedless watermelons or corn. This process, he stated, is little different from genetic engineering.… Tyson’s first mistake lies in his equation of artificial selection and genetic modification, reflecting common misunderstandings of both the sources of genetic variation and the distinction between the latter and mechanisms of evolutionary change. Tyson’s second mistake is his failure to see the bigger picture. The dynamic of capital accumulation is fundamentally at odds with ecosystem dynamics. And technology, in our society, is the handmaiden of capital accumulation. This article will elaborate on these distinctions and discuss some of the basic biological processes underlying GMOs and their potential risks, especially risks of dispersal. It will then examine how capitalism molds the technology and accentuates the risks.
Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything [argues that the source of the looming crisis from climate change] is not the planet, which operates according to natural laws, but rather the economic and social system in which we live, which treats natural limits as mere barriers to surmount. It is now doing so on a planetary scale, destroying in the process the earth as a place of human habitation.… In the age of climate change, Klein argues, a system based on ever-expanding capital accumulation and exponential economic growth is no longer compatible with human well-being and progress—or even with human survival over the long run.… In this way Klein…signals that she has now, in William Morris’s famous metaphor, crossed “the river of fire” to become a critic of capital as a system.… [This] has led to a host of liberal attacks on This Changes Everything, often couched as criticisms emanating from the left. These establishment criticisms of her work, we will demonstrate, are disingenuous, having little to do with serious confrontation with her analysis. Rather, their primary purpose is to rein in her ideas, bringing them into conformity with received opinion. If that should prove impossible, the next step is to exclude her ideas from the conversation.
Pete Seeger is an environmental advocate who understands the transforming power of immersion in nature. However, his desire to restore his cherished Hudson River posed a monumental challenge in the 1960s. The Hudson River, once so majestic that it inspired the Hudson River School painters, had become a sewer for the communities and commercial industries that populated its shoreline. Seeger’s approach to reversing the degradation of the Hudson River involved a unique form of advocacy and organizing. He envisioned healing the Hudson through immersion. His approach involved bringing people back to the river aboard a 106-foot replica of a Hudson River sloop (a single-masted sailboat), one that resembled the boats that traversed the Hudson in centuries past. By 1969, with Seeger as the driving force behind its creation, the sloop Clearwater was constructed and launched. It still sails today and serves as an inspiring symbol of citizen activism on behalf of the natural environment.
On February 25, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the public comment period for the environmental assessment of the AquAdvantage Salmon. Their review of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.” Numerous fishermen, consumer safety advocates, public health officials, ecologists, and risk assessment experts submitted comments that directly challenged this finding. Despite the opposition, it is very likely that the FDA’s approval of this genetically engineered salmon and precedent-setting regulatory process is imminent.… The aquaculture industry and corporate investors are championing this recent development in food biotechnology. They propose that this “invention” will yield ecological benefits, such as preserving wild salmon, while enhancing efficiency.… Unfortunately, the discussion of fisheries and oceans is constrained by ideological justifications that prevent a comprehensive assessment.… [The alternative approach presented here focuses on] how the logic of capital has shaped production and commodification processes. It also highlights how the most recent case of biotechnology in relation to salmon serves the needs of capital by increasing control of biological and ecological systems in order to better conform to economic dictates. The genetic modification of salmon is part of a biological speedup, whereby natural processes are transformed to achieve faster rates of return in the food marketplace.
Every book more than a few years old needs to be seen within the historical context in which it was written—works of social science most of all. Re-reading Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature today, nearly a decade and a half after its first publication, reminds me of how different in some respects the historical context was then, at the end of the twentieth century, from what we face today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.… A decade and a half ago the contribution of Marx and Marxism to the understanding of ecology was seen in almost entirely negative terms, even by many self-styled ecosocialists. Today Marx’s understanding of the ecological problem is being studied in universities worldwide and is inspiring ecological actions around the globe.… These changes are of course connected. As the environmental problems engendered by capitalist society have worsened, the necessary movements of ecological defense have radicalized and spread across the face of the planet.
On September 20, 2014, while corporate and government officials arrived in New York City for the UN Climate Summit, organizers and activists from around the world participated in a peoples’ summit called the NYC Climate Convergence (organized by the Global Climate Convergence and System Change Not Climate Change). The NYC Climate Convergence featured as the lead keynote speaker Naomi Klein, who presented the analysis of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Her concluding chapter, significantly, is entitled “Leap Years: Just Enough Time for the Impossible.” Monthly Review readers will be interested that Klein observes in her book: “Karl Marx… recognized capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with the ‘natural laws of life itself’”. Later she refers to “global capitalism’s voracious metabolism”.
China is facing many serious environmental issues, including pollution in the air, groundwater, and soil. These problems have increased since China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy—and in spite of the Chinese government’s 2007 proposal to build an “ecological civilization,” and writing “ecological civilization” into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constitution in 2012. Take air pollution as an example; not long ago, cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai witnessed record-breaking smog. Concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) reached more than forty times recommended safety levels. In China, up to half a million die each year because of air pollution, according to Chen Zhu, the former health minister of China.… What caused these serious environmental problems? A prevailing explanation is that China “lacks the rule of law”—especially environmental law.… Besides the legal issue, there are three factors responsible for China’s severe ecological crisis: (1) seriously underestimating the power of interest groups and the harmful consequence of capital; (2) the worship of growth or development; (3) an anthropocentric worldview.