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March 2021 (Volume 72, Number 2)

Monthly Review Volume 72, Number 2 (March 2021)

In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping astonished the world by unexpectedly declaring that China would peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and reach zero net carbon emissions (carbon neutrality) before 2060. Given that China’s carbon emissions, currently making up 28 percent of the world total, exceed those of the United States and the European Union combined, this was big news for anyone concerned with the environmental future of humanity. This was particularly the case since China is well known for reaching its environmental targets ahead of time (Barbara Finamore, “What China’s Plan for Net-Zero Emissions by 2060 Means for the Climate,” Guardian, October 5, 2020; “Climate Change: How China Can Achieve Its Pledge of Zero Emissions,” Financial Times, November 2, 2020).

However, some skepticism in this area is warranted. Local governments and industry executives will continue to try to find ways to bypass the national environmental agenda. China remains the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter (though it is only forty-seventh in emissions per capita, while the United States is the first among those countries with significant population). China’s air in urban areas and its inland waters remain severely polluted.

Still, in the historically brief period of a decade, Beijing has engineered a major shift in trends. China has achieved world-record reductions in air pollution, while also rapidly improving the water quality of its lakes and rivers (Michael Marshall, “China’s Cuts to Air Pollution May Have Saved 150,000 Lives Each Year,” New Scientist, October 22, 2020; Ting Ma et al., “China’s Improving Inland Surface Water Quality Since 2003,” Science Advances 6, no. 1 [2020]). The country has made the creation of an “ecological civilization” a top priority, incorporating it into its Constitution, while officially acknowledging that this will require some slowing of economic growth. It is now the world leader in the development and implementation of solar and wind energy. It currently has one out of every three of the world’s solar panels and wind turbines, nearly half of all the electric passenger vehicles, 98 percent of the electric buses, and 99 percent of all electric two wheelers. After growing 10 percent per year on average from 2002 to 2012, China’s coal consumption leveled off for a few years (though it was to rise again later as a result of its stimulus in response to the Global Financial Crisis). According to Climate Action Tracker, “it is possible that China’s [carbon] emissions already peaked in 2019,” though this may turn out to be too optimistic. Yet, China is on track to reach its 2030 goal, which requires a 60 to 65 percent drop in carbon intensity compared to 2005 (Climate Action Tracker, “China: Country Summary,” December 2020 update; “China’s Xi Targets Steeper Cut in Carbon Intensity by 2030,” Reuters, December 12, 2020).

China also backed off from plans for the full industrialization of rural agriculture in response to resistance from the Rural Reconstruction Movement and others, preserving an essential element of an environmental future (John Cobb interviewed by Andre Vltchek, China and Ecological Civilization [Badak Merah, 2019], 22). Xi’s “Beautiful China” initiative has expanded China’s environmental goals to take into account aesthetic elements and the “harmonious coexistence between man and nature” (“CPC Incorporates ‘Beautiful China’ into Two-Stage Development Plan,” China Daily, October 18, 2017). China’s Fourteenth Five-Year Plan, to be released in March 2021, will give much higher priority to the environment, accelerating these trends and establishing new environmental requirements, particularly with respect to coal consumption and carbon emissions.

These developments have resulted in accolades from hard-pressed environmentalists and scientists who see in Xi’s China a possible ray of hope in the current planetary emergency. For example, Barbara Finamore, senior strategic director for Asia of the National Resource Defense Council, wrote an important book entitled Will China Save the Planet? (Polity, 2018). Other key works include John Cobb’s China and Ecological Civilization, as well as Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro’s China Goes Green (Polity, 2020). Leading climatologists such as James Hansen and Michael E. Mann have increasingly turned to China as the last best hope for humanity with respect to controlling climate change (James Hansen, “China and the Barbarians: Part I,” 2010; James Hansen, “Wanning Workshop + Beijing Chart + Year-End Comments,” December 29, 2015; Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump, Dire Predictions [D. K. Publishing, 2015]).

Nevertheless, over the last year, a number of Western ecosocialists have turned to condemning China’s ecological trajectory. By far the most important work in this respect is Richard Smith’s China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse (Pluto, 2020). Smith is a founding member of System Change Not Climate Change and an MR author. In China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, Smith pulls out all the stops in criticizing China on the environment. China is characterized, he says, by “blind denialism” with respect to the environment and is the chief force destroying the planet. Its “Stalinist-capitalist” system is “suicidal” and inherently more destructive of the Earth System than what he calls “normal capitalism.” China is presented as an “Environmental Rogue State” and the Chinese Communist Party is destined for “the dustbin of history.” Smith claims to utilize a “Marxist mode of production theorization,” but instead relies on out-of-date statistics, the charge that the current Chinese leadership is characterized by “sociopathic behavior,” and the notion that China is unique in the extent of its accumulation drive. Under “normal capitalism,” as in the West, we are told, environmental limits are imposed in part by the drive for profits. If profits decline, so does economic expansion and ecological destruction. In the case of China’s “iron-fisted dictatorship,” in contrast, it is the accumulation of wealth at the top that is the real driver of economic expansion, not mere profitability (apparently the Western ruling class under “normal capitalism” is not driven by a desire to accumulate wealth under all circumstances!), making China much more dangerous to the world environment (Smith, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, vi–vii, xii–xiii, 87–91, 183-–94).

Shortly after publishing his book, Smith published an article in Foreign Policy, the leading U.S. neoliberal-imperialist journal, which in the last few years has taken on the role as perhaps the foremost organ for the promotion of the New Cold War on China. Here he argued that China’s environmental depredations can be traced to the fact that “the Communist Party runs a totalitarian police state that ruthlessly suppresses all resistance to the party agenda,” leading to the “eco-suicidal ambitions of their rulers” (Richard Smith, “The Chinese Communist Party Is an Environmental Catastrophe,” Foreign Policy, July 27, 2020). More recently, he has claimed that China’s activation of new coal-fired plants, in its attempt to recover quickly from the COVID-19 crisis, reflects the duplicity of its environmental plans (Richard Smith, “Climate Arsonist Xi Jinping,” System Change Not Climate Change, November 22, 2020). Some of Smith’s ecosocialist concerns of course make sense. A high growth economy attempting to reduce carbon emissions and other types of environmental damage simply through ecological modernization is going to run into enormous obstacles. Nevertheless, while the West talks about a Green New Deal but fails to implement it anywhere, China’s current drive to create an ecological civilization appears, at the very least, to be a Green New Deal on stilts.

Smith is not the only ecosocialist to argue that China is the world’s arsonist. He has found a strong supporter in the noted ecosocialist journalist and essayist Gabriel Levy. In two articles (“China: Xi Jinping’s Coal Stokes the Climate Fire,” The Ecologist, January 22, 2021; “China and the ‘Left’: What Planet Are These People On?,” People and Nature, January 15, 2021), Levy promotes Smith’s book and attacks MR editor John Bellamy Foster for his comments on China and the environment, criticizing Foster to promote Smith’s and his own views. Thus, Levy censures Foster for saying (in “On Fire This Time,” Monthly Review, November 2019) that China “is one of the most polluted and resource-hungry countries in the world, while its carbon emissions are so massive as to themselves constitute a global-scale problem. Nevertheless, China has done more than any other country thus far to develop alternative-energy technologies geared to the creation of what is officially referred to as an ecological civilization.” Apparently, such a comment by Foster is insufficiently critical of China, though the facts themselves as presented are not questioned.

Levy goes on to condemn Foster for observing, in another article, “The Earth System Crisis and Industrial Civilization” (International Critical Thought, December 2017), that China is the site of “the massive promotion of wind and solar technology.” In that article, Foster wrote: “China stands today paradoxically at a kind of turning point of its own, which will have an enormous impact on the world as a whole: it is known worldwide for some of the most serious forms of environmental damage on earth, while at the same time no country seems to be accelerating so rapidly into the new world of alternative energy.” Quoting a truncated version of this sentence in which he removed the whole question of a possible “turning point” in China’s relation to the environment, Levy charged Foster, on the basis of this sentence, with providing a “hollow” perspective that downplayed China’s actual world-scale environmental damage—ignoring that this had been referred to in the sentence itself. With respect to still another article by Foster (originally written in June 2015 for China’s People’s Daily, the English-language version of which was published in the China Daily on June 11 and posted on the following day on MR Online under the title “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China”), Levy chastises him for writing that “there is no doubt that the Chinese leadership has made significant steps toward a more sustainable development.” Levy fails to mention, however, that Foster went on in the following paragraph to say—in an article intended for a general Chinese readership—that a continuing 7 percent economic growth rate, the mechanization of farms in rural areas, the undermining of the social ownership of land, and hyper-urbanization—all then part of Chinese planning—were inconsistent with the building of an ecological civilization. Foster also referred there to China’s weak enforcement of its environmental laws. (This paragraph was removed from the People’s Daily article by the Chinese editors, but it was retained in the China Daily and MR Online version.)

Indeed, Foster’s various statements, quoted above and criticized by Levy, focus on basic facts recognized by all close observers of China’s environmental conditions. To acknowledge some of China’s remarkable ecological accomplishments is not thereby to set aside the very serious problems it faces in this respect, particularly in freeing itself from its dependence on coal. Moreover, there are valid questions about how far it is possible to go with an ecological modernization strategy, even in a postrevolutionary society like China, one which is neither entirely capitalist nor entirely socialist. Such strategies can only be effective in the end as part of a wider ecological revolution that alters the mode of production itself. As Lau Kin Chi, writing in “A Subaltern Perspective on China’s Ecological Crisis” (Monthly Review, October 2018) has explained, there are huge struggles taking place with respect to the environment in China. Nevertheless, despite all of the inevitable contradictions, China stands out in the present planetary emergency in having a leadership that has advanced an ambitious vision of ecological civilization with the strong support of the Chinese population, incorporating this directly into its five-year plans. Paraphrasing C. Wright Mills on Cuba (Listen, Yankee!), we do not worry about China’s struggle to create an ecological civilization. We worry with it.

Leith Mullings, distinguished professor emerita at the City University of New York, former president of the American Anthropological Association, and MR and Monthly Review Press author, died on December 13, 2020, age 75. Mullings was the author of the chapter on “Mapping Gender in African-American Political Strategies,” in The Socialist Feminist Project, edited by Nancy Holmstrom (Monthly Review Press, 2002). Her essay was excerpted and adapted in the September 2019 issue of Monthly Review celebrating Margaret Benston and the fiftieth anniversary of social reproduction theory. Mullings’s no-less famous husband, historian Manning Marable, was also a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Much of Mullings’s landmark work focused on studies in the former colonial states of Africa, which led to her first book, Therapy, Ideology and Social Change: Mental Healing in Urban Ghana (1984). However, her work increasingly dealt with the African diaspora. She is most famous in Black feminist studies for her introduction of the Sojourner Syndrome, focusing on the higher rates of morbidity and mortality experienced by Black women in relation to most whites. She named this syndrome after the nineteenth-century radical abolitionist Sojourner Truth. In a 2002 article for Voices, a publication of the Association of Feminist Anthropology, she described how she and others were working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address racial disparities in health, writing: “In many ways, Sojourner Truth personifies the resistance to the interlocking oppressions of race, class and gender that has defined black women’s existence for generations” (Leith Mullings, “The Sojourner Syndrome: Race, Class, and Gender in Health and Illness,” Voices 6, no. 1 [2002]: 34). Mullings’s analysis is of the first importance today, as the racial disparities in morbidity and mortality in relation to COVID-19 have brought the Sojourner Syndrome to the fore as never before.

Melvin Leiman—emeritus professor in the Department of Economics at State University of New York at Binghamton, and the author of The Political Economy of Racism, as well as numerous articles on political economy—died on November 14, 2020, of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 93. Leiman was a proud and committed Marxist theoretician and activist from the civil rights movement until the last days of his life. He had been an MR reader since the first issue in 1949. In 1983, Monthly Review published his article “The Worst of Times, The Best of Times,” which can be found in our archives, available to all subscribers: Sadly, we have lost a great comrade.

2021, Volume 72, Issue 10 (March 2021)
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