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Nov 18, 2014

Political Ecology

As a scientific discipline, ecology is almost exactly a hundred years old. The concept emerged for the first time in 1868 when the German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, in his Natural History of Creation, proposed giving this name to a sub-discipline of zoology—one which would investigate the totality of relationships between an animal species and its inorganic and organic environment. Compared with the present state of ecology, such a proposal suggests a comparatively modest programme. Yet none of the restrictions contained in it proved to be tenable: neither the preference given to animal species over plant species, nor to macroas opposed to micro-organisms. With the discovery of whole ecosystems, the perspective which Haeckel had had in mind became redundant. Instead there emerged the concept of mutual dependence and of a balance between all the inhabitants of an ecosystem, and in the course of this development the range and complexity of the new discipline have grown rapidly. Ecology became as controversial as it is today only when it decided to include a very particular species of animal in its researches—man. While this step brought ecology unheard of publicity it also precipitated it into a crisis about its validity and methodology, the end of which is not yet in sight.
Human ecology is, first of all, a hybrid discipline. In it categories and methods drawn from the natural and social sciences have to be used together without this in any way theoretically resolving the resulting complications. Human ecology tends to suck in more and more new disciplines and to subsume them under its own research aims. This tendency is justified not on scientific grounds but because of the urgency of ecology’s aims. Under the pressure of public debate ecology’s statements in recent years became more and more markedly prognostic. This ‘futurological deformation’ was totally alien to ecology so long as it considered itself to be merely a particular area of biology. It must be clearly understood that this science has now come to lay claim to a total validity—a claim which it cannot make good. The more far-reaching its conclusions, the less reliable it is. Since no one can vouch for the accuracy of the enormous volume of material from every conceivable science on which its hypotheses are constructed, it must—precisely to the degree that it wishes to make global statements—confine itself to working syntheses. One of the best known ecological handbooks—Population, Resources, Environment by Paul and Anne Ehrlich—deploys evidence from the following branches of sciences either implicitly or explicitly: statistics, systems theory, cybernetics, games theory and prediction theory; thermodynamics, biochemistry, biology, oceanography, mineralogy, meterology, genetics; physiology, medicine, epidemology, toxicology; agricultural science, urban studies, demography; technologies of all kinds; theories of society, sociology and economics (the latter admittedly in a most elementary form). The list is not complete. It is hard to describe the methodological confusion that results from the attempt at a synthesis of this sort. If one starts from this theoretical position there can, obviously, be no question of producing a group of people who are competent to deal with it. From now on ecology is marginally relevant to everyone; and this, incidentally, is what makes the statements in this article possible.
The Central Hypothesis
What till recently was a marginal science has within a few years become the centre of bitter controversies. This cannot be explained merely by the snowballing effect of the mass media. It is connected with the central statement made by human ecology—a statement that refers to the future and is therefore at one and the same time prognostic and hypothetical. On the one hand, everyone is affected by the statement, since it relates to the existence of the species; on the other, no one can form a clear and final judgement on it because, in the last resort, it can only be verified or proved wrong in the future. This hypothesis can be formulated as follows: the industrial societies of this earth are producing ecological contradictions, which must in the foreseeable future lead to their collapse.
In contradistinction to other earlier theories of catastrophe this prognosis does not rest on linear, monocausal arguments. On the contrary, it introduces several synergetic factors. A very simplified list of the different strains of causality would look something like this:
1. Industrialization leads to an uncontrolled growth in world population. Simultaneously the material needs of that population increase. Even given an enormous expansion in industrial production, the chances of satisfying human needs deteriorate per capita.
2. The industrial process has up to now been nourished from sources of energy which are not in the main self-renewing: among these are fossil fuels as well as supplies of fissile material like uranium. In a determinable space of time these supplies will be exhausted; their replacement through what are basically new sources of energy (such as atomic fusion) is theoretically conceivable, but not yet practically realizable.
3. The industrial process is also dependent on the employment of mineral raw materials—above all of metals—which are not self-renewing either; their exploitation is advancing so rapidly that the exhaustion of deposits can be foreseen.
4. The water requirements of the industrial process have reached a point where they can no longer be satisfied by the natural circulation of water. As a result, the reserves of water in the ground are being attacked; this must lead to disturbances in the present cycle of evaporation and precipitation and to climatic changes. The only possible solution is the desalination of sea-water; but this is so energy-intensive that it would accelerate the process described in 2 above.
5. A further limiting factor is the production of foodstuffs. Neither the area of land suitable for cultivation nor the yield per acre can be arbitrarily increased. Attempts to increase the productivity of farming lead, beyond a certain point, to new ecological imbalances, e.g. erosion, pollution through poisonous substances, reductions in genetic variability. The production of food from the sea comes up against ecological limits of another kind.
6. A further factor—but only one factor among a number of others—is the notorious ‘pollution’ of the earth. This category is misleading in so far as it presupposes a ‘clean’ world. This has naturally never existed and is moreover ecologically neither conceivable nor desirable. What is actually meant are disequilibriums and dysfunctionings of all kinds in the metabolism between nature and human society occurring as the unintentional side effects of the industrial process. The polycausal linking of these effects is of unimaginable complexity. Poisoning caused by harmful substances—physiological damage from pesticides, radioactive isotopes, detergents, pharmaceutical preparations, food additives, artificial manures, trace quantities of lead and mercury, fluoride, carcinogens, gene mutants, and a vast quantity of other substances are only one facet of the problem. The problem of irreversible waste is only another facet of the same question. The changes in the atmosphere and in the resources of land and water traceable to metabolic causes such as production of smog, changes in climate, irreversible changes to rivers and lakes, oceanographic changes must also be taken into account.
7. Scientific research into yet another factor does not appear to have got beyond the preliminary stages. There are no established critical quantifications of what is called ‘psychic pollution.’ Under this heading come: increasing exposure to excessive noise and other irritants, the psychical effects of overpopulation, as well as other stress factors which are difficult to isolate.
8. A final critical limit is presented by ‘thermal pollution.’ The laws of thermodynamics show that, even in principle, this limit cannot be crossed. Heat is emitted by all processes involving the conversion of energy. The consequences for the global supply of heat have not been made sufficiently clear.
A basic difficulty in the construction—or refutation—of ecological hypotheses is that the processes invoked do not take place serially but in close interdependence. That is also true of all attempts to find solutions to ecological crises. It often, if not always, emerges that measures to control one critical factor lead to another getting out of control. One is dealing with a series of closed circuits, or rather of interference circuits, which are in many ways linked. Any discussion that attempted to deal with the alleged ‘causes’ piecemeal and to disprove them singly would miss the core of the ecological debate and would fall below the level which the debate has meantime reached. [1]
Yet even if there exists a certain, but by no means complete, consensus that the present process of industrialization must lead ceteris paribus to a breakdown, three important questions connected with the prognosis are still open to debate. The first concerns the time-scale involved. Estimations of the point in time at which a galloping deterioration of the ecological situation may be expected differ by a magnitude of several centuries. They range from the end of the 1980s to the 22nd century. In view of the innumerable variables involved in the calculations, such divergencies are not to be wondered at. (For example the critics of the MIT report, The Limits of Growth, have objected to the results given there on the grounds that the mathematical model on which it is based is much too simple and the number of variables too limited.) A second controversial point is closely related to the first; namely that the relative weighting to be given to the individual factors which are blamed for the catastrophe is not made clear. This is a point at issue, for example, in the debate between Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich. While the latter considers population growth to be the ‘critical factor’, the former believes that the decisive factor is modern industrial technology. An exact analysis of the factors involved comes up against immense methodological difficulties. The scientific debate between the two schools therefore remains undecided.
Thirdly, it is obviously not clear what qualifies as an environmental catastrophe. In this connection one can distinguish a number of different perspectives dictated by expectation or fear. There are ecologists who concern themselves only with mounting dangers and the corresponding physiological, climatic, social and political ‘disturbances’; others, like the Swedish ecologist, Gösta Ehrensvärd, contemplate the end of social structures based on industrialization; some prognoses go further—those of what in the United States are called ‘doomsters’ talk of the dying out of the human species or the disappearance from the planet of a whole series of species—primates, mammals and vertebrates. The tone in which the respective ecological hypotheses are presented ranges correspondingly from the mildest reformist warnings to deepest resignation. What is decisive for the differences between them is naturally the question of how far the process of ecological destruction and uncontrolled exploitation is to be regarded as irreversible. In the literature, the answer to this question is made to depend on the one hand on an analysis of the factors involved; on the other, on temporal parameters. The uncertainty which is admitted to prevail on these two points means that there is no prospect of a firm answer. Authors like Ehrensvärd, who start from the premiss that the end of industrial societies is at hand, and are already busy with preparations for a post-industrial society—one which, it should be added, contains a number of idyllic traits—are still in the minority. Most ecologists imply that they consider that the damage done so far is reversible, if only by tacking on to their analyses proposals to avert the catastrophe of which they are the prophets. These proposals will need to be critically examined.
The Ecological ‘Movement’
Ecology’s hypotheses about the future of industrialization have been disseminated, at least in industrialized capitalist countries, through the mass media. The debate on the subject has itself to some extent acquired a mass character, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries. It has led to the rise of a wide, although loosely organized, movement whose political potential is hard to estimate. At the same time the problem under discussion is peculiarly ill-defined. Even the statements of the ecologists themselves alternate between the construction of theories and broad statements of Weltanschauung, between precise research and totalizing theories linked to the philosophy of history. The thinking of the ecological groups therefore gives the impression of being at once obscure and confused. The very fact that it is disseminated by the mass media means that the debate generally loses a great deal of its stringency and content. Subordinate questions such as that of recycling refuse or ‘pollution’ are treated in isolation; hypotheses are presented as certain spectacular cases of poisoning are sensationally exploited: isolated results of research are given absolute validity and so on. Processing through the sewage system of industrialized publicity has therefore, to some extent, led to further pollution of a cluster of problems which from the start cannot be presented in a ‘pure’ way. This lack of clarity is propagated in the groups which are at present actively occupied with the subject of ecology, or rather with its disjecta membra, with what is left of it. The most powerful of these groups is that of the technocrats who, at all levels of the state apparatus and also of industry, are busy finding the speediest solutions to particular problems—‘quick technological fixes’—and implementing them. This they do whenever there is a considerable potential for economic or political conflict—and only then. These people consider themselves to be entirely pragmatic—that is to say, they are servants of the ruling class at present in power—and cannot be assumed to have a proper awareness of the problem. They can be included in the ecological movement only in so far as they belong—as will be demonstrated—to its manipulators and in so far as they benefit from it. The political motives and interests in these cases are either obvious—as with the Club of Rome, a consortium of top managers and bureaucrats—or can easily and unequivocally be established.
What is less unequivocal is the political character of a second form of ecological awareness and the practice that corresponds to it. Here it is a matter of smaller groups of ‘concerned and responsible citizens’, as they say in the United States. The expression points, as does its German parallel, ‘citizen’s initiative’, to the class background of those involved in it. They are overwhelmingly members of the middle class, and of the new petty bourgeoisie. Their activities have generally modest goals. They are concerned with preserving open spaces or trees. Classes of school-children are encouraged to clean up litter on beaches or recreation grounds. A boycott of non-decaying packaging is organized, etc. The harmless impression made by projects of this kind can easily blind us to the reserves of militancy which they conceal. There only needs to be a tiny alteration in the definition of goals and these groups spontaneously begin to increase in size and power. They are then able to prevent the carrying through of large-scale projects like the siting of an airport or an oil refinery, to force high-tension cables to be laid underground or a motorway to be diverted. But even achievements of this magnitude only represent the limits of their effectiveness for a time. If the hypotheses of the ecologists should come even partially true, the ecological action groups will become a force of the first order in domestic politics and one that can no longer be ignored. On the one hand, they express powerful and legitimate needs of those who engage in these activities; on the other hand, they set their sights on immediate targets, which are not understood politically, and incline to a kind of indulgence in social illusion. This makes them ideal fodder for demagogues and interested third parties. But the limited nature of their initiatives should not conceal the fact that there lies within them the seed of a possible mass movement.
Finally, there is that part of the ecological movement which considers itself to be its hard core but which, in fact, plays a rather marginal role. These are the ‘eco-freaks’. These groups, which have mostly split off from the American protest movement, are engaged in a kind of systematic flight from the cities and from civilization. They live in rural communes, grow their own food, and seek a ‘natural way of life’, which may be regarded as the simulation of pre- or post-industrial conditions. They look for salvation in detailed, precisely stipulated dietary habits—eating ‘earth food’—and agricultural methods. Their class background corresponds to that of the hippies of the 1960s—of reduced middle class origin, enriched by elements from peripheral groups. Ideologically they incline towards obscurantism and sectarianism.
On the whole one can say that in the ecological movement—or perhaps one should say movements—the scientific aspects, which derive predominantly from biology, have merged in an extremely confused alliance with a whole series of political motivations and interests, which are partly manifest, partly concealed. At a deeper level one can identify a great number of socio-psychological needs, which are usually aroused without those concerned being able to see through them. These include: hopes of conversion and redemption, delight in the collapse of things, feelings of guilt and resignation, escapism and hostility to civilization.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that the European Left holds aloof from the ecological movement. It is true that it has incorporated certain topics from the environmental debate in the repertory of its anti-capitalist agitation; but it maintains a sceptical attitude to the basic hypothesis underlying ecology and avoids entering into alliances with groups which are entirely oriented towards ecological questions. The Left has instead seen its task to be to face the problem in terms of an ideological critique. It therefore functions chiefly as an instrument of clarification, as a tribunal which attempts to dispel the innumerable mystifications which dominate ecological thinking and have encouraged it. The most important elements in this process of clarification, which is absolutely necessary, are listed and discussed below.
The Class Character of the Current Ecological Debate
The social neutrality to which the ecological debate lays claim, having recourse as it does so to strategies derived from the evidence of the natural sciences, is a fiction. A simple piece of historical reflection shows just how far this class neutrality goes. Industrialization made whole towns and areas of the countryside uninhabitable as long as a hundred and fifty years ago. The environmental conditions at places of work, that is to say in the English factories and pits, were—as innumerable documents demonstrate—dangerous to life. There was an infernal noise; the air people breathed was polluted with explosive and poisonous gases as well as with carcinogenous matter and particles which were highly contaminated with bacteria. The smell was unimaginable. In the labour process contagious poisons of all kinds were used. The diet was bad. Food was adulterated. Safety measures were non-existent or were ignored. The overcrowding in the working-class quarters was notorious. The situation over drinking water and drainage was terrifying. There was in general no organized method for disposing of refuse. ‘. . . . when cholera prevailed in that district [Tranent, in Scotland] some of the patients suffered very much indeed from want of water, and so great was the privation, that on that calamitous occasion people went into the ploughed fields and gathered rain water which collected in depressions in the ground, and actually in the prints made by horses’ feet. Tranent was formerly well-supplied with water of excellent quality by a spring above the village, which flows through a sand-bed. The water flows into Tranent at its head . . . and is received into about ten wells, distributed throughout the village. The people supply themselves at these wells when they contain water. When the supply is small, the water pours in a very small stream only. . . . I have seen women fighting for water. The wells are sometimes frequented throughout the whole night. It was generally believed by the population that this stoppage of the water was owing to its stream being diverted into a coal-pit which was sunk in the sand-bed above Tranent.’ [2]
These conditions, which are substantiated by innumerable other sources from the 19th century, would undoubtedly have presented a ‘neutral observer’ with food for ecological reflection. But there were no such observers. It occurred to no one to draw pessimistic conclusions about the future of industrialization from these facts. The ecological movement has only come into being since the districts which the bourgeoise inhabit and their living conditions have been exposed to those environmental burdens that industrialization brings with it. What fills their prophets with terror is not so much ecological decline, which has been present since time immemorial, as its universalization. To isolate oneself from this process becomes increasingly difficult. It deploys a dialectic which in the last resort turns against its own beneficiaries. Pleasure trips and expensive packaging, for example, are by no means phenomena which have emerged only in the last decades; they are part of the traditional consumption of the ruling classes. They have become problematic, however, in the shape of tourism and the litter of consumerism; that is, only since the labouring masses have shared them. Quantitative increase tips over into a new quality—that of destruction. What was previously privilege now appears as nightmare and capitalist industry proceeds to take tardy, if still comparatively mild, revenge on those who up to now had only derived benefit from it. The real capitalist class, which is decreasing in numbers, can admittedly still avoid these consequences. It can buy its own private beaches and employ lackeys of all kinds. But for both the old and the new petty bourgeoisie such expenditure is unthinkable. The cost of a private ‘environment’ which makes it possible to escape to some extent from the consequences of industrialization is already astronomical and will rise more sharply in future.
It is after all easy to understand that the working class cares little about general environmental problems and is only prepared to take part in campaigns where it is a question of directly improving their working and living conditions. In so far as it can be considered a source of ideology, ecology is a matter that concerns the middle class. If avowed representatives of monopoly capitalism have recently become its spokesmen—as in the Club of Rome—that is because of reasons which have little to do with the living conditions of the ruling class. These reasons require analysis.
The Interests of the Eco-Industrial Complex
That the capitalist mode of production has catastrophic consequences is a commonplace of Marxism, which also not infrequently crops up in the arguments of the ecological movement. Certainly the fight for a ‘clean’ environment always contains anti-capitalist elements. Nevertheless Fascism in Germany and Italy have demonstrated how easily such elements can be turned round and become tools in the service of the interests of capital. [3] It is therefore not surprising that ecological protest, at least in Western Europe, almost always ends up with an appeal to the state. Under present political conditions this means that it appeals to reformism and to technocratic rationality. This appeal is then answered by government programmes which promise an ‘improvement in the quality of life’, without of course indicating whose life is going to be made more beautiful, in what way and at whose expense. The state only ‘goes into action when the earning powers of the entrepreneur are threatened. Today the environmental crisis presents a massive threat to these interests. On the one hand it threatens the material basis of production—air, earth and water—while on the other hand it threatens man, the productive factor, whose usefulness is being reduced by frequent physical and psychical illnesses.’ [4] To these have to be added the danger of uncontrollable riots over ecological questions as the conditions in the environment progressively deteriorate.
On the question of state intervention and ‘environmental protection from above’, the Left’s ideological critique displays a remarkable lack of historical reflection. Here too it is certainly not a question of new phenomena. The negative effects of environmental damage on the earning power of industry, the struggle over the off-loading of liability, over laws relating to the environment and over the range of state control can be traced back without much difficulty to the early period of English industrialization; a remarkable lack of variation in the attitude of the interests involved emerges from such a study. The previously quoted report on the water supply and the drainage problems in a Scottish mining village is taken from an official report of the year 1842—one which incidentally was also quoted by Engels in his book on The Condition of the English Working Class. The chairman of the commission of inquiry was a certain Sir Edwin Chadwick, a typical predecessor of the modern ecological technocrats. Chadwick was a follower of the utilitarian political philosopher and lawyer, Jeremy Bentham, of whom Marx said: ‘If I had the courage of my friend H. Heine, I would call Mr. Jeremiah a genius at bourgeois stupidity.’ [5]James Ridgeway, one of the few American ecologists capable of intervening in the present environmental discussion with political arguments, has dealt thoroughly with Chadwick’s role. [6]Then as now the rhetoric of the ecological reformers served to cloak quite concrete connections between a variety of interests. The technological means with which this ‘reform from above’ operates have also altered less than one might think. [7]
But an historical perspective fails in its object if it is used to reduce modern problems to the level of past ones. Ridgeway does not always avoid this danger: he tends to restrict himself to traditional ecological questions like water pollution and the supply of energy. Without meaning to do so he thereby reduces the extent of the threatened catastrophe. It is true that there were environmental crises before this and that the mechanisms of reformist managements set up to deal with the crises can look back on a long history. What has to be kept in mind, however, is that the ecological risks have not only increased quantitatively but have taken on a new quality.
In line with the changes which have taken place in the economic basis, this also holds true for environmental pollution and state intervention. In its present form monopoly capitalism is inclined, as is well known, to solve its demand problems by extravagant expenditure at the cost of the public exchequer. The most obvious examples of this are unproductive investment in armaments and in space exploration. Industrial protection of the environment emerges as a new growth area the costs of which can either be off-loaded on to prices, or are directly made a social charge through the budget in the form of subsidies, tax concessions, and direct measures by the public authorities, while the profits accrue to the monopolies. ‘According to the calculations of the American Council of Environmental Quality at least a million dollars is pocketed in the course of the elimination of three million dollars worth of damage to the environment.’ [8]
Thus the recognition of the problems attendant on industrial growth serves to promote a new growth industry. The rapidly expanding eco-industrial complex makes profits in two ways: on the straightforward market, where consumer goods for private consumption are produced with increasing pollution, and in another where that same pollution has to be contained by control techniques financed by the public. This process at the same time increases the concentration of capital in the hands of a few international concerns, since the smaller industrial plants are not in the position to provide their own finance for the development of systems designed to protect the environment.
For these reasons the monopolies attempt to acquire influence over the ecological movement. The MIT study commissioned by the Club of Rome is by no means the only initiative of this kind. The monopolies are also represented in all state and private commissions on the protection of the environment. Their influence on legislation is decisive, and there are numerous indications that even apparently spontaneous ecological campaigns have been promoted by large firms and government departments. There emerges a policy of ‘alliances from above’, whose demagogic motives are obvious. [9]
By no means all ecological movements based on private initiative put themselves at the service of the interests of capital with such servility. That is demonstrated by the fact that their emergence has often led to confrontations with the police. The danger of being used is, however, always present. It must also be remembered that the interests of capital contain their own contradictions. Ecological controversies often mirror the clash of interests of different groups of entrepreneurs without their initiators always being clear as to the stakes involved in the campaigns. A long process of clarification will be necessary before the ecological movement has reached that minimum degree of political consciousness which it would require finally to understand who its enemy is and whose interests it has to defend. [10]
Demography and Imperialism
Warnings about the consequences of uncontrolled population growth—the so-called population explosion—also contain ideological motives and behind the demands to contain it are concealed political interests which do not reveal themselves openly. The neo-Malthusian arguments which authors like Ehrlich and Taylor have been at pains to popularize found expression at a particular moment in time and in a quite particular political context. They originate almost exclusively from North American sources and can be dated to the late 1950s and early 1960s—a time, that is to say, when the Liberation movements in the Third World began to become a central problem for the leading imperialist power. (On the other hand the rate of increase in population had begun to rise much earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s.)
That this is no mere coincidence was first recognized and expressed by the Cubans. ‘At that time (1962) the Population Council in New York, supported by the Population Reference Bureau Inc. in Washington, launched an extensive publicity campaign for neo-Malthusianism with massive financial help from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, which contributed millions of dollars. The campaign pursued a double goal, which may even be attained: the ruling classes of Latin America were to be persuaded by means of skilful propaganda based on the findings of the FAOand work done by numerous, even progressive scientists, that a demographic increase of 2·5 per cent in Latin America would lead to a catastrophe of incalculable dimensions. The following excerpts from the report of the Rockefeller Foundation for 1965 are typical of this literature made in the USA: “The pessimistic prediction that humanity is soon likely to be stifled by its own growth increasingly confronts all attempts to bring about an improvement in living standards. . . . It is clear that mankind will double in numbers in the lifetime of two generations unless the present growth tendency is brought under control. The results will be catastrophic for innumerable millions of individuals.” The Population Reference Bureau expresses itself even more unequivocally: “The future of the world will be decided in the Latin American continent, in Asia and Africa, because in these developing territories the highest demographic rates of growth have been registered. Either the birth rates must be lowered or the death rate must rise again if the growth is to be brought under control. . . . The biologists, sociologists and economists of the Bureau have forecast the moment when Malthus’ theory will return like a ghost and haunt the nations of the earth.” (P.R.B. press statement of October 1966.)’ The Cuban report also quotes Lyndon B. Johnson’s remark to the effect that ‘five dollars put into birth control is more useful in Latin America than a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.’ [11] It adds: ‘A comment on this cynical statement seems to us to be superfluous.’
Indeed not much intelligence is needed to discover behind the benevolent pose of the Americans both strong political motivation and the irrational fears which are responsible for the massive attempt by official and private groups in the USA to export birth control to the countries of the Third World. The imperialist nations see the time coming when they will be only a small minority when compared to the rest of the world and their governments fear that population pressures will become a source of political and, in the last analysis, military power. Admittedly fears of another kind can be detected underneath the rational calculations: symptoms of a certain panic, the precursors of which are easily recognizable in history. One has only to think of the hysterical slogans of the heyday of imperialism—‘the Yellow Peril’—and of the period of German Fascism—‘the Red Hordes’. The ‘politics’ of population have never been free of irrational and racist traits; they always contain demagogic elements and are always prone to arouse atavistic feelings. This is admittedly true not only for the imperialist side. Even the Cuban source does not stop at the extremely enlightening comment that has been quoted but continues as follows: ‘Fidel Castro has spoken on the question many times. We recall his words now: “In certain countries they are saying that only birth control provides a solution to the problem. Only capitalists, the exploiters, can speak like that; for no one who is conscious of what man can achieve with the help of technology and science will wish to set a limit to the number of human beings who can live on the earth . . . That is the deep conviction of all revolutionaries. What characterized Malthus in his time and the neo-Malthusians in our time is their pessimism, their lack of trust in the future destiny of man. That alone is the reason why revolutionaries can never be Malthusians. We shall never be too numerous however many of us there are, if only we all together place our efforts and our intelligence at the service of mankind, a mankind which will be freed from the exploitation of man by man.”’ [12] In such phrases not only does the well-known tendency of the Cuban revolution to voluntarism find expression together with a rhetoric of affirmation; but there is also the tendency to answer the irrational fears of the imperialist oppressor with equally irrational hopes. A materialist analysis of concrete needs, possibilities and limits, cannot be replaced by figures of speech. The Chinese leadership recognized that long ago and has therefore repeatedly modified its earlier population policy, which was very similar to the Cuban one in its premises. As far as the neo-Malthusians in the USA are concerned, a violent conflict has been raging for several years over their theses and their motivation.
The Problem of Global Projection
A central ideological theme of the ecological debate as it is at present conducted—it is perhaps at its very heart—is the metaphor of ‘spaceship earth’. This concept belongs above all to the repertory of the American ecological movement. Debates which are scientifically orientated tend to use a formulation which sounds more sober but, as far as content goes, comes to the same thing: they consider the planet as a closed and global eco-system.
The degree of ‘false consciousness’ contained in these concepts is obvious. It links up with platitudes, which are considered to be ‘idealistic’ but to which even that word is misapplied: ‘The good of the community takes precedence over the good of the individual,’ ‘We are all in the same boat,’ and so on. The ideological purpose of such hasty global projections is clear. The aim is to deny once and for all that little difference between first class and steerage, between the bridge and the engine room. One of the oldest ways of giving legitimacy to class domination and exploitation is resurrected in the new garb of ecology. Forrester and Meadows, the authors of theMIT report, for instance, ‘by planning their lines of development from the start on a world scale, and always referring to the space-ship earth—and who would not be taken in by such global brotherliness?—avoid the need to analyse the distribution of costs and profits, to define their structural limitations and with them the wide variation between the chances of bringing human misery to an end. For while some can afford to plan for growth and still draw profits from the elimination and prevention of the damage they do, others certainly cannot. Thus, under accelerated state capitalism, the industrial countries of the northern territories of the world can maintain capital accumulation by diverting it to anti-pollution measures, to the recycling of basic raw materials, to processes involving intensive instead of extensive growth. This is denied to the developing countries which are compelled to exploit to the utmost their sources of raw materials and, because of their structural dependence, are urged to continue intensive exploitation of their own resources. (It is worth quoting in this connection the remark of a Brazilian Minister of Economics to the effect that his country could not have enough pollution of the environment if that was the cost of giving its population sufficient work and bread.) [13]
The contradictions which the ecological ideologies attempt to suppress in their global rhetoric emerge all the more sharply the more one takes their prognoses and demands at their face value. What would be the concrete effect, for instance, of a limitation of the consumption of energy over the whole of ‘space-ship earth’ such as is demanded in almost all ecological programmes? ‘Stabilization of the use of energy—certainly, but at what level? If the average per capita consumption of a United States citizen is to serve as a measure, then a future world society stabilized at this level would make an annual demand on the available reserves of energy of roughly 350 × 1012 kilowatt hours. The world production of energy would then be almost seven times as great as at present and the thermal, atmospheric and radioactive pollution would increase to such a degree that the consequences would be unforeseeable; at the same time the available reserves of fossil fuel would disappear. If one chooses the present world average instead of the energy standard of the United States today as a measure of a future “stable” control of energy, then the exploitation of the available source of energy and the thermal, chemical and radioactive effects in the environment would settle at a level only slightly higher than at present and one which would be tolerable in the long run. The real question would then be, however, how the available energy should be distributed globally. In arithmetical terms the solution would look something like this. The developing countries would have to have three times as much energy at their disposal as they do today; the socialist countries could by and large maintain their present level of consumption; but the highly industrialized countries of Europe and the USA would have to reduce their consumption enormously and enter upon a period ofcontraction.’ [14]
It must be clear that redistributions of such magnitude could be put through only by force: this is bound to hold good not only in international but also in national terms. Admittedly the captains of industry, gathered together in the Club of Rome, appear to have another view of conditions on board the ship in which we are supposed to be sitting. They are clearly not plagued by doubts as to their own competence and qualities of leadership. On the contrary they assert that ‘Very few people are thinking about the future from a global point of view.’ [15] This minority leaves no doubt that they are determined to adjust their view of the world to suit their own interests. The scarcer the resources the more one has to take this view in distributing them; but the more one adopts this view of the world the fewer people can be considered for this high office.
An ecologist who finds himself confronted by objections of this kind will generally attempt to counter them by changing the terms of the argument. He will explain that his immediate task is to deal with a condition that exists in fact; this is a task that takes precedence over future distribution problems which it is not his task to solve. On a factual level, however, it is impossible not to treat the problem on a global scale; indeed it is inevitable. The pollution of the oceans or of the atmosphere, the spread of radioactive isotopes, the consequences of man-made changes in climate—all these are actually, and not merely in a ideological sense, world-wide and global phenomena and can be understood only as such.
While that is true, it does not help much. So long as ecology considered itself to be a branch of biology it was always conscious of the dialectical connection between the whole and the part; far from wishing ‘merely’ to investigate life on earth it saw itself as a science of interdependence and attempted to investigate the relations between individual species, the ecological sub-system in which they live and the larger systems. With the expansion of its research aims, its claims to hegemony and the consequent methodological syncretism, human ecology has forfeited that ability to differentiate which characterized its founders. Its tendency to hasty global projection is in the last analysis a surrender in the face of the size and complexity of the problem which it has thrown up. The reason for this failure is not difficult to determine. An ecologist researching the conditions of life in a lake has solid methodological ground to stand on; ecological arguments begin to become shaky only when the ecologist involves his own species in them. Escape into global projection is then the simplest way out. For in the case of man, the mediation between the whole and the part, between subsystem and global system, cannot be explained by the tools of biology. This mediation is social, and its explication requires an elaborated social theory and at the very least some basic assumptions about the historical process. Neither the one nor the other is available to present-day ecologists. That is why their hypotheses, in spite of their factual core, are so easily overcome by ideology.
Environmental Apocalypse as an Ideological Pawn
The concept of a critique of ideology is not clearly defined—nor is the object it studies. It is not only that ‘false consciousness’ proliferates in extraordinary and exotic luxuriance given the present conditions under which opinions are manufactured, but it is also as consistent as a jellyfish and capable of protean feats of adaptability. So far we have examined the most widely diffused components of environmental ideology chiefly with regard to the interests which they at once conceal and promote. This would have to be distinguished from an evaluation in terms of an ideological critique which sees the ecological debate as a symptom that yields conclusions about the state of the society which produces it. So that nothing may be omitted, interpretations of this kind will now be briefly surveyed, although it is doubtful whether that will bring to light any new perspectives.
From this point of view, the preoccupation with ecological crisis appears as a phenomenon belonging entirely to the superstructure—namely an expression of the decadence of bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie can conceive of its own imminent collapse only as the end of the world. In so far as it sees any salvation at all, it sees it only in the past. Anything of that past that still exists must be preserved, must be conserved. In earlier phases of bourgeois society this longing for earlier cultural conditions was concentrated on ‘values’ which either did obtain previously or were believed to have done so. With the progressive liquidation of this ‘inheritance’, e.g. religion, the search for the roots of things, which is now thought to reside in what is left of ‘nature’, becomes radicalized. In its period of decadence the bourgeoisie therefore proclaims itself to be the protector of something which it itself destroyed. It flees from the world which, so long as it was a revolutionary class, it created in its own image, and wishes to conserve something that no longer exists. Like the apprentice sorcerer it would like to get rid of the industrialization to which it owes its own power. But since the journey into the past is not possible, it is projected into the future: a return to barbarism, which is depicted as a pre-industrial idyll. The imminent catastrophe is conjured up with a mixture of trembling and pleasure and awaited with both terror and longing. Just as, in German society between the Wars, Klages and Spengler sounded the apocalyptic note, so in the Anglo-Saxon lands today the ecological Cassandras find a role as preachers calling a class which no longer believes in its own future to repentance. Only the scale of the prophecies has changed. While Klages and Spengler contemplated the decline of Europe, today the whole planet must pay for our hubris. Whereas in those days a barbarian civilization was to win terrible victories over a precious culture, today civilization is both victim and executioner. What will remain, according to the prophecies, is not an inner but a physical desert. And so on. However illuminating such exegeses may occasionally sound, they cannot advance beyond a point of view that is little more than that of the history of ideas. Besides they do not carry much conviction in view of the fact that the dominant monopolies of the capitalist world show no signs of becoming aware of their presumed decadence. Just as German industry in the 1920s did not allow itself to be diverted from its expansion, so IBM and General Motors show little inclination to take the MIT Report seriously. Theories of decline are a poor substitute for materialist analyses. If one explores their historical roots it usually emerges—as in the case of Lukács, that they are nourished by that very idealism which they claim to criticize.
The Critique of Ideology as an Ideology
The attempt to summarize the left’s arguments has shown that the main intervention in the environmental controversy has been through the critique of ideology. This kind of approach is not completely pointless, and there is no position other than Marxism from which such a critical examination of the material would be possible. But an ideological critique is only useful when it remains conscious of its own limitations: it is in no position to handle the object of its researches by itself. As such it remains merely the interpretation of an interpretation of real conditions, and is therefore unable to reach the heart of the problem. Its characteristic gesture of ‘unmasking’ can turn into a smug ritual, if attention remains fixed on the mask instead of on what is revealed beneath it. The fact that we name the interests which lie behind current demographic theories will not conjure the needs of a rapidly growing population out of existence. An examination of the advertising campaigns of the enterprises involved does not increase the energy reserves of the earth by a single ton. And the amount of foreign matter in the air is not in any way reduced if we draw attention to the earlier history of pollution in the working-class quarters of Victorian England. A critique of ideology which is tempted to go beyond its effective limits itself becomes an ideology.
The left in West Germany has so far been scarcely conscious of this danger, or at least has not thought about it adequately, although it is by no means new in historical terms. Even Marxist thinking is not immune to ideological deformations, and Marxist theory too can become a false consciousness if, instead of being used for the methodical investigation of reality through theory and practice, it is misused as a defence against that very reality. Marxism as a defensive mechanism, as a talisman against the demands of reality, as a collection of exorcisms—these are tendencies which we all have reason to take note of and to combat. The issue of ecology offers but one example. Those who wish to deprive Marxism of its critical, subversive power and turn it into an affirmative doctrine, generally dig in behind a series of stereotyped statements which, in their abstraction, are as irrefutable as they are devoid of results. One example is the claim which is proclaimed in the pages of every other picture magazine, irrespective of whether it is discussing syphilis, an earthquake or a plague of locusts, that ‘Capitalism is to blame!’
It is naturally splendid that anticapitalist sentiments are so widespread, that even glossy magazines cannot avoid them altogether. But it is quite another question how far an analysis deserves to be called Marxist, which a priori attributes every conceivable problem to capitalism, and what the political effect of this is. Its commonplace nature renders it harmless. Capitalism, so frequently denounced, becomes a kind of social ether, omnipresent and intangible, a quasi-natural cause of ruin and destruction, the exorcising of which can have a positively neutralizing effect. Since the concrete problem in hand—psychosis, lack of nursery schools, dying rivers, air crashes—can, without precise analysis of the exact causes, be referred to the total situation, the impression is given that any specific intervention here and now is pointless. In the same way, reference to the need for revolution become an empty formula, the ideological husk of passivity.
The same holds true for the thesis that ecological catastrophe is unavoidable within the capitalist system. The pre-requisite for all solutions to the environmental crisis is then the introduction of socialism. No particular skill is involved in deducing this answer from the premisses of Marxist theory. The question, however, is whether it adds up to more than an abstract statement which has nothing to do with political praxis and which allows whoever utters it to neglect the examination of his concrete situation.
The ideological packaging of such statements is dispelled at once however, if one asks what exactly they mean. The mere question of what is meant by ‘capitalism’ brings to light the most crass contradictions. The comfortable structure of the commonplace falls apart. What is left is a heap of unresolved problems. If one understands by capitalism a system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, then it follows that the ecological problem, like all the other evils of which ‘capitalism’ is guilty, will be solved by nationalization of the means of production. It follows that in the Soviet Union there can be no environmental problems. Anyone who asserts the contrary must be prepared to be insulted if he produces a bundle of quotations from Pravda and Izvestia about the polluted air of the Don Basin or the filthy Volga as evidence. Such a comparison of systems is forbidden—at least by Marxists like Gerhard Kade: ‘For all those who are embarrassed by the question of the relationship between bourgeois capitalist methods of production and the destruction of the environment, a well-proven argument can be produced from that box of tricks where diversionary social and political tactics are kept. Scientists talk of comparing the two systems: standard common-place minds immediately think of the filthy Volga, the polluted air of the Don Basin or of that around Leuna. A whole tradition lies behind this. There is no social or political issue, from party conferences to reports on the state of the nation, where the diversionary effectiveness of such comparisons between systems has not already proved its worth. Whatever emerges from the increasing number of inquiries into environmental pollution in the socialist countries is dressed up scientifically and becomes a useful weapon in a situation where demands for replacement of the system begin to threaten those who have an interest in upholding present conditions. “Go to East Germany if you don’t like it here” or “Throw Dutschke over the Wall” are the socially aggressive forms adopted by that diversionary manoeuvre.’ [16]
Critique of ideology as ideology: the position which lays the blame on ‘capitalism’ is defended here at the cost of its credibility. Moreover the fact that, in the socialist countries destruction of the environment has also reached perilous proportions is not even disputed, merely ignored. Anyone who is not prepared to go along with this type of scientific thinking is guilty of drawing analogies between the systems and is denounced as an anticommunist, a sort of ecological Springer. The danger that such a denatured form of Marxism will establish a hold on the masses is admittedly slight. The relationship of the German working class to its own reality is not so remote as to exclude the possibility of a comparative examination. In the face of such narrowness, one must ‘bear in mind that capitalism as an historical form and as a system of production cannot be identified with the existence of a class of owners. It is an all-embracing social mode of production arising from a particular type of accumulation and reproduction which has produced a network of relationships between human beings more complicated than any in the history of man. This system of production cannot simply be done away with by dispossessing private capitalists, even when this expropriation makes it possible in practice to render that part of surplus value available for other purposes which is not used for accumulation. The socialist revolution cannot be understood merely as a transfer of ownership leading to a more just distribution of wealth while other relationships remain alienated and reified. On the contrary, it must lead to totally revolutionized relationships between men and between men and things—that is to say, it must revolutionize the whole social production of their lives. It will either aim to transcend the proletariat’s situation, of alienation, of the division between work and its profit, the end of commodity fetishism or it will not be the socialist revolution.’ [17]
Only such a view of capitalism, i.e. as a mode of production and not as a mere property relationship, allows the ecological problem to be dealt with in Marxist terms. In this connection the categories of use value and exchange value are of decisive importance. The disturbance of the material interchange between man and nature is then revealed as the strict consequence of capitalist commodity production. [18] This is a conclusion which makes the ideological ban on thought unnecessary and explains why ecological problems survive in the socialist countries too. After all, the contradiction between use value and exchange value is not superseded any more than wage labour and commodity production. ‘Socialist society has remained a transitional society in a very precise meaning of the word—a social form in which the capitalist mode of production, compounded with new elements, continues to exist and exercises a decisive pressure on the political sphere, on relations between human beings and on the relationship between rulers and ruled.’ [19] No less decisive is the pressure which the persistence of the capitalist mode of production exercises on the relationship between man and nature—a pressure which, on very similar lines to industrial production in the west, also leads to the destruction of the environment in the countries where the capitalist class has been expropriated.
The consequences of this position are extremely grave. It is true that it is possible in this manner to derive the catastrophic ecological situation from the capitalist mode of production; but the more fundamental the categories, the more universal the result. The argument is irrefutable in an abstract sense but it remains politically impotent. The statement that ‘capitalism is to blame’ is correct in principle, but threatens to dwindle into an abstract negation of the existing order of things. Marxism is not a theory that exists in order to produce eternal verities; it is no good Marxists being right ‘in principle’, when that means the end of the world.
Perhaps one has to remember that Marx represented historical materialism. From that it follows that the time factor cannot be eliminated from his theories. The delay in the coming of revolution in the over-developed capitalist lands is therefore not a matter of theoretical indifference. But that it was delayed does not in any way falsify the theory; for Marx certainly regarded the proletarian revolution as a necessary but not an automatic and inevitable consequence of capitalist development. He always maintained that there are alternatives in history and that the alternative facing the highly industrialized societies were long ago expressed in the formula: socialism or barbarism. In the face of the emerging ecological catastrophe this statement takes on a new meaning. The fight against the capitalist mode of production has become a race with time which mankind is in danger of losing. The tenacity with which that mode of production still asserts itself fifty years after the expropriation of the capitalist class in the Soviet Union indicates the kind of time dimensions we are discussing. It is an open question how far the destruction which it has wrought here on earth and continues to wreak is still reversible.
In this situation one must be relentless in critically examining certain elements in the Marxist tradition. First of all, one must examine to what extent one is dealing with original elements of Marxist thought or with later deformations of theory. Compared with the range of such questions the ‘preservation of the classics’ seems a trifling matter. Catastrophes cannot be combated by quotations.
To begin with one must examine critically the concept of material progress which plays a decisive part in the Marxist tradition. It appears in any case to be redundant in that it is linked to the technical optimism of the 19th century. The revolutions of the 20th century have throughout led to victory in industrially under-developed countries and thereby falsified the idea that the socialist revolution was tied to a certain degree of ‘ripeness’ and to ‘the development of the productive forces’, or was actually the outcome of a kind of natural necessity. On the contrary it has been demonstrated that ‘the development of the productive forces’ is not a linear process to which political hopes can be attached.
‘Until a few years ago most Marxists accepted the traditional view that the development of the productive forces was by its nature positive. They were persuaded that capitalism, in the course of its development, would provide a material base which would be taken over by a socialist society—one on which socialism could be constructed. The view was widely diffused that socialism would be more easily developed the higher the development of the productive forces. Productive forces like technology, science, human capabilities and knowledge, and a surplus of reified labour would considerably facilitate the transition to socialism.
‘These ideas were somewhat mechanistically based on the Marxist thesis of the sharpening of the contradictions between the productive forces on the one hand and the relationships of production on the other. But one can no longer assume that the productive forces are largely independent of the relationship of production and spontaneously clash with them. On the contrary, the developments of the last two decades lead one to the conclusion that the productive forces were formed by the capitalist productive relationships and so deeply stamped by them that any attempt to alter the productive relationships must fail if the nature of the productive forces—and not merely the way they are used—is not changed.’ [20]
Beyond a certain point therefore, these productive forces reveal another aspect which till now was always concealed, and reveal themselves to be destructive forces, not only in the particular sense of arms manufacture and in-built obsolescence, but in a far wider sense. The industrial process, in so far as it depends on these deformed productive forces, threatens its very existence and the existence of human society. This development is damaging not only to the present but the future as well and with it, at least as far as our ‘Western’ societies are concerned, to the utopian side of communism. If nature has been damaged to a certain, admittedly not easily determinable, degree and that damage is irreversible, then the idea of a free Society begins to lose its meaning. It seems completely absurd to speak in a short-term perspective, as Marcuse has done, of a ‘society of super abundance’ or of the abolition of want. The ‘wealth’ of the over-developed consumer societies of the west, in so far as it is not a mere mirage for the bulk of the population, is the result of a wave of plunder and pillage unparalleled in history; its victims are, on the one hand, the peoples of the Third World and, on the other, the men and women of the future. It is therefore a kind of wealth which produces unimaginable want.
The social and political thinking of the ecologists is marred by blindness and naïveté. If such a statement needs to be proven, the review of their thinking that follows will do so. Yet they have one advantage over the utopian thinking of the left in the west, namely the realization that any possible future belongs to the realm of necessity not that of freedom and that every political theory and practice—including that of socialists—is confronted not with the problem of abundance, but with that of survival.
What Ecology Proposes
Most scientists who handle environmental problems are not visible to the general public. They are highly specialized experts, exclusively concerned with their carefully defined research fields. Their influence is usually that of advisers. When doing basic research they tend to be paid from public funds; those who have a closer relationship with industry are predominantly experts whose results have immediate application. Most non-specialists, however, aim to achieve direct influence on the public. It is they who write alarmist articles which are published in magazines such as Scientific American or Science. They appear on television, organize congresses, and write the bestsellers that form the picture of ecological destruction which most of us have. Their ideas as to what should be done are reflected in the reforms promised by parties and governments. They are in this sense representative of something. What they say in public cannot decide how valid their utterances are as scientific statements; yet it is worth while analysing their proposals, for they indicate where the lines of scientific extrapolation and dominant ‘bourgeois’ ideology intersect.
The Americans Paul and Anne Ehrlich are among the founders of human ecology, and are still among its most influential spokesmen. In their handbook on ecology they summarize their proposals under the heading ‘A Positive Programme’, excerpts from which are extremely revealing.
‘2. Political pressure must be applied immediately to induce the United States government to assume its responsibility to halt the growth of the American population. Once growth is halted, the government should undertake to regulate the birthrate so that the population is reduced to an optimum size and maintained there. It is essential that a grass-roots political movement be generated to convince our legislators and the executive branch of the government that they must act rapidly. The programme should be based on what politicians understand best—votes. Presidents, Congressmen, Senators, and other elected officials who do not deal effectively with the crisis must be defeated at the polls and more intelligent and responsible candidates elected.
‘3. A massive campaign must be launched to restore a quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system (especially patterns of consumption) into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation. . . . Marxists claim that capitalism is intrinsically expansionist and wasteful, and that it automatically produces a monied ruling class. Can our economists prove them wrong?. . .
‘5. It is unfortunate that at the time of the greatest crisis the United States and the world has ever faced, many Americans, especially the young, have given up hope that the government can be modernized and changed in direction through the functioning of the elective process. Their despair may have some foundation, but a partial attempt to institute a “new politics” very nearly succeeded in 1968. In addition many members of Congress and other government leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are very much aware of the problems outlined in this book and are determined to do something about them. Others are joining their ranks as the dangers before us daily become more apparent. These people need public support in order to be effective. The world cannot, in its present critical state, be saved by merely tearing down old institutions, even if rational plans existed for constructing better ones from the ruins. We simply do not have the time. Either we will succeed by bending old institutions or we will succumb to disaster. Considering the potential rewards and consequences we see no choice but to make an effort to modernize the system. It may be necessary to organize a new political party with an ecological outlook and national and international orientation to provide an alternative to the present parties with their local and parochial interests. The environmental issue may well provide the basis for this.
‘6. Perhaps the major necessary ingredient that has been missing from a solution to the problems of both the United States and the rest of the world is a goal, a vision of the kind of Spaceship Earth that ought to be and the kind of crew that should man her. . . .’ [21]
This is not the only case of a serious scientist presenting the public with a programme of this kind. On the contrary. Page upon page could be used to document similar ideas. They can be seen as a consensus of what modern ecology has to offer in the way of suggestions for social action. A collection of similar statements would only repeat itself; and we will therefore confine ourselves to one further piece of evidence The following quotation is from a book by the Swede Gösta Ehrensvärd, a leading biochemist, in which he attempts a comprehensive diagnosis of the ecological situation. His therapeutic ideas are summarized as follows. ‘We are not compelled to pursue population growth, the consumption of energy, and unlimited exploitation of resources, to the point where famine and world-wide suffering will be the results. We are not compelled to watch developments and do nothing and to pursue our activities shortsightedly without developing a long-term view.’ The catastrophe can be avoided, he says, ‘if we take certain measures now on a global scale. These measures could stabilize the situation for the next few centuries and allow us to bring about, with as little friction as possible, the transition from today’s hectically growing industrialized economy to the agricultural economy of the future. The following components of a crash programme are intended to gain time for the necessary global restructuring of society on this earth.
1. Immediate introduction of world-wide rationing of all fossil fuels, above all of fluid resources of energy. Limitation of energy production to the 1970 level. Drastic restrictions on all traffic, in so far as it is propelled by fluid fuels, and is not needed for farming, forestry and the long-distance transport of raw materials.
2. Immediate total rationing of electricity.
3. Immediate cessation of the production of purely luxury goods and other products not essential for survival, including every kind of armament.
4. Immediate food rationing in all industrial countries. Limitation of all food imports from the developing countries to a minimum. The main effort in terms of development policies throughout the world to be directed towards agriculture and forestry.
5. Immediate imposition of the duty to collect and re-cycle all discarded metal objects, and in particular to collect all scrap.
6. Top priority to be given to research on the development of energy from atomic fusion as well as to biological research in the fields, of genetics, applied ecology and wood chemistry.
7. Creation of an international Centre to supervise and carry through action around the six points listed above. This Centre to have the duty to keep the inhabitants of this earth constantly informed through the mass media of the level of energy and mineral reserves, the progress of research, and the demograph situation’. [22]
A Critique of the Ecological Crash Programme
In their appeals to a world whose imminent decline they prophesy, the spokesmen of human ecology have developed a missionary style. They often employ the most dramatic strokes to paint a future so black that after reading their works one wonders how people can persist in giving birth to children, or in drawing up pension schemes. Yet at the conclusion of their sermons, in which the inevitability of the End—of industrialization, of civilization, of man, of life on this planet—is convincingly described if not proved, another way forward is presented. The ecologists end up by appealing to the rationality of their readers; if everyone would grasp what is at stake, then—apparently—everything would not be lost. These sudden about-turns smack of conversion rhetoric. The horror of the predicted catastrophe contrasts sharply with the mildness of the admonition with which we are allowed to escape. This contrast is so obvious and so central, that both sides of the argument undermine each other. At least one of them fails to convince. Either the final exhortation, which addresses us in mild terms, or the analysis which is intended to alarm us. It is impossible not to feel that those warnings and threats, which present us with the consequences of our actions, are intended precisely to soften us up for the conversion which the anxious preacher wishes to obtain from us in the end; conversely the confident final resolution should prevent us from taking too literally the dark picture they have painted, and from sinking into resignation. Every parish priest is aware of this noble form of verbal excess; and everyone listening can easily see through it. The result is (at best) a pleasurable frisson. Herein may lie the total inefficacy of widely distributed publications maintaining that the hour will soon come not only for man himself, but for his whole species. They are as ineffective as a Sunday sermon.
In its closest details, both the form and content of the Ehrlichs’ argument are marked by the consciousness (or rather the unconsciousness) of the WASP, the white Protestant middle-class North American. This is especially obvious in the authors’ social and political ideas: they are just as unwilling to consider any radical interference with the political system of the United States as they are willing to contemplate the other immense changes which they spell out. The US system is introduced into their calculations as a constant factor: it is introduced not as it is, but as it appears to the white member of the middle class, that is to say in a form which has been transformed out of recognition by ideology. Class contradictions and class interests are completely denied: the parliamentary mechanism of the vote is unquestionably considered to be an effective method, by means of which all conceivable conflicts can be resolved. It is merely a question of finding the right candidate and conducting the right campaigns, of writing letters and launching a few modest citizens’ activities. At the most extreme, a new parliament will have to be set up. Imperialism does not exist. World peace will be reached through disarmament. The political process is posed in highly personalized terms: politics is the business of the politicians who are expected to carry the ‘responsibility’. Similarly, economics is the business of the economists, whose task is to ‘draw up’ a suitable economic system—this, at least, one has the right to ask of them. ‘Marxism’ appears only once, as a scarecrow to drive recalcitrant readers into the author’s arms. All that this crude picture of political idiocy lacks are lofty ideas: the authors are not averse to make good the lack. What is needed is a ‘vision’, since only relatively ‘idealistic programmes’ still offer the possibility of salvation. Since the need is so great, there will be no lack of offers, and the academic advertising agency promptly comes up with the concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’, in which the armaments industry and public relations join hands. The depoliticization of the ecological question is now complete. Its social components and consequences have been entirely eliminated.
Concrete demands can now cheerfully be made. There is no danger that they may be implemented with disagreeable consequences. A brake on population increase, de-development of the economy, draconian rationing, can now be presented as measures which, since they are offered in a spirit of enlightened, moral commonsense, and are carried out in a peaceful, liberal manner, harm no interests or privileges, and demand no changes in the social and economic system. Ehrensvärd presents the same demands in more trenchant, apparently radical terms—those of the coolly calculating scientist. Like the Ehrlichs, his arguments are so unpolitical as to be grotesque. Yet his sense of reality is strong enough for him to demand privileges for himself and his work—that is to say, the highest priority for the undisturbed continuation of his research. One particular social interest, if a very restricted one, thereby finds expression: his own.
‘Many of the suggestions’, say the Ehrlichs, ‘will seem “unrealistic”, and indeed this is how we view them’. [23] The fact that not even the authors take their own ‘crash programme’ seriously at least makes it clear that we are not dealing with madmen. They reason why they seek refuge in absurdity is that their competence as scientists is limited precisely to the theoretical radius of the old ecology, that is to say, to a subordinate discipline of biology. They have extended their researches to human society, but they have not increased their knowledge in any way. It has escaped them that human existence remains incomprehensible if one totally disregards its social determinants; that this lack is damaging to all scientific utterances on our present and future; and that the range of these utterances is reduced whenever these scientists abandon the methodology of their particular discipline. It is restricted to the narrow horizons of their own class. The latter, which they erroneously regard as the silent majority is, in fact, a privileged and very vocal minority.
Conclusions: Hypotheses concerning a Hypothesis
There is a great temptation to leave matters there and to interpret the forecast of a great ecological crisis as a manoeuvre intended to divert people from acute political controversy. There are even said to be parts of the left which consider it a luxury to trouble themselves with problems of the future. To do that would be a declaration of bankruptcy; socialist thinking has from the beginning been oriented not towards the past but towards the future. Herein lay one of its real chances of success. For while the bourgeoisie is intent on the short-term interests of the accumulation of capital, there is no reason for the left to exclude long-term aims and perspectives. As far as the competence of the ecologists is concerned, it would be a mistake to conclude that, because of their boundless ignorance on social matters, their statements are absolutely unfounded. Their methodological ineptitude certainly decreases the validity of their overall prognoses; but individual lines of argument, which they found predominantly on the causality of the natural sciences, are still useable. To demonstrate that they have not been thought through in the area of social causes and effects is not to refute them.
‘The ideologies of the ruling class do not reproduce mere falsifications. Even in their instrumental form they still contain experiences which are real in so far as they are never optimistic. They promise the twilight of the gods, global catastrophe and a last judgment; but these announcements are not seen to be connected with the identification and shortterm satisfactions which form part of their content.’ [24]
All this applies admirably to the central ‘ecological hypothesis’ according to which if the present process of industrialization continues naturally it will in the foreseeable future have catastrophic results. The central core of this hypothesis can neither be proved nor refuted by political discussion. What it says is of such importance, however, that what one is faced with is a calculation like Pascal’s wager. So long as the hypothesis is not unequivocally refuted, it will be heuristically necessary to base any thinking about the future on what it has to say. Only if one behaves ‘as if’ the ecological hypothesis was valid, can one test it its social validity—a task which has scarcely been attempted up to now and of which ecology itself is clearly incapable. The following reflections are merely some first steps along this path. They are, in other words, hypotheses based on other hypotheses.
A general social definition of the ecological problem would have to start from the mode of production. Everywhere where the capitalistic mode of production obtains totally or predominantly—that is to say, where the products of human labour take the form of commodities—increasing social want is created alongside increasing social wealth. This want assumes different forms in the course of historical development. In the phase of primitive accumulation it expresses itself in direct impoverishment caused by extensive exploitation, extension of working hours, lowering of real wages. In the cyclical crises, the wealth that has been produced by labour is simply destroyed—grain is thrown into the sea and so on. With the growth of the productive powers the destructive energies of the system also increase. Further want is generated by world wars and armaments production. In a later phase of capitalistic development this destructive potential acquires a new quality. It threatens all the natural bases of human life. This has the result that want appears to be a socially produced natural force. This return of general shortages forms the core of the ‘ecological crisis’. It is not, however, a relapse into conditions and circumstances from the historical past, because the want does not in any sense abolish the prevailing wealth. Both are present at one and the same time; the contradiction between them becomes ever sharper and takes on increasingly insane forms.
So long as the capitalist mode of production obtains—that is to say not merely the capitalist property relationships—the trend can at best be reversed in detail but not in its totality. The crisis will naturally set in motion many processes of adaptation and learning. Technological attempts to level out its symptoms in the sense of achieving a homeostasis have already gone beyond the experimental stage. The more critical the situation becomes the more desperate will be the attempts undertaken in this direction. They will include: abolition of the car, construction of means of mass transport, erection of plants for the filtration and desalination of sea-water, the opening up of new sources of energy, synthetic production of raw materials, the development of more intensive agricultural techniques and so on. But each of these steps will cause new critical problems; these are stop-gap techniques, which do not touch the roots of the problem. The political consequences are clear enough. The costs of living accommodation and space for recreation, of clean air and water, of energy and raw materials will increase explosively as will the cost of recycling scarce resources. The ‘invisible’ social costs of capitalist commodity production are rising immeasurably and are being passed on in prices and taxes to the dependent masses to such a degree that any equalization through controlling wages is no longer possible. There is no question, needless to say, of a ‘just’ distribution of shortages within the framework of western class society: the rationing of want is carried out through prices, if necessary through grey or black markets, by means of corruption and the sale of privileges. The subjective value of privileged class positions increases enormously. The physiological and psychic consequences of the environmental crisis, the lowered expectation of life, the direct threat from local catastrophes can lead to a situation where class can determine the life or death of an individual by deciding such factors as the availability of means of escape, second houses, or advanced medical treatment.
The speed with which these possibilities will enter the consciousness of the masses cannot be predicted. It will depend on the point in time at which the creeping nature of the ecological crisis becomes apparent in spectacular individual cases. Even dramatic phenomena such as have principally appeared in Japan—the radioactive poisoning of fishermen, illnesses caused by mercury and cadmium—have not yet led to a more powerful mobilization of the masses because the consequences of the contamination have become apparent only months or years later. But once, at any point in the chain of events, many people are killed, the indifference with which the prognoses of the ecologists are met today will turn into panic reaction and even into ecological rebellions.
There will of course be organizational initiatives and political consequences at an even earlier stage. The ecological movement in the United States, with its tendency to flee from the towns and industry, is an indication of what will come, as are the citizen’s campaigns which are spreading apace. The limitations which beset most of these groups are not fortuitous; their activity is usually aimed at removing a particular problem. There is no other alternative, for they can only crystallize round particular interests. A typical campaign will, for example, attempt to prevent the siting of an oil-refinery in a particular district. That does not lead, if the agitation is successful, to the project being cancelled or to a revision of the policy on energy; the refinery is merely built where the resistance of those affected is less strongly expressed. In no case does the campaign lead to a reduction of energy consumption. An appeal on these grounds would have no sense. It would fall back on the abstract, empty formulae which make up the ‘crash programmes’ of the ecologists.
The knot of the ecological crisis cannot be cut with a paper-knife. The crisis is inseparable from the conditions of existence systematically determined by the mode of production. That is why moral appeals to the people of the ‘rich’ lands to lower their standard of living are totally absurd. They are not only useless but cynical. To ask the individual wage-earner to differentiate between his ‘real’ and his ‘artificial’ needs is to mistake his real situation. Both are so closely connected that they constitute a relationship which is subjectively and objectively indivisible. Hunger for commodities, in all its blindness, is a product of the production of commodities, which could only be suppressed by force. We must reckon with the likelihood that bourgeois policy will systematically exploit the resulting mystifications—increasingly so, as the ecological crisis takes on more threatening forms. To achieve this, it only needs demagogically to take up the proposals of the ecologists and give them political circulation. The appeal to the common good, which demands sacrifice and obedience, will be taken up by these movements together with a reactionary populism, determined to defend capitalism with anticapitalist phrases.
In reality, capitalism’s policy on the environment, raw materials, energy, and population, will put an end to the last liberal illusions. That policy cannot even be conceived without increasing repression and regimentation. Fascism has already demonstrated its capabilities as a saviour in extreme crisis situations and as the administrator of poverty. In an atmosphere of panic and uncontrollable emotions—that is to say, in the event of an ecological catastrophe which is directly perceptible on a mass scale—the ruling class will not hesitate to have recourse to such solutions. The ability of the masses to see the connection between the mode of production and the crisis in such a situation and to react offensively cannot be assumed. It depends on the degree of politicization and organization achieved by then. But it would be facile to count on such a development. It is more probable that what has been called ‘internal imperialism’ will increase. What Negt and Kluge have observed in another connection is also relevant to the contradiction between social wealth and social poverty, which is apparent in the ecological crisis: ‘Colonialization of the consciousness or civil war are the extreme forms in which these contradictions find public expression. What precedes this collision, or is a consequence of it, is the division of individuals or of social groups into qualities which are organized against each other.’ [25]
In this situation, external imperialism will also regress to historically earlier forms—but with an enormously increased destructive potential. If the ‘peaceful’ methods of modern exploitation fail, and the formula for coexistence under pressure of scarcity snaps, then presumably there will be new predations, competitive wars, wars over raw materials. The strategic importance of the Third World, above all of those lands which export oil and non-ferrous metals, will increase and with it their consciousness that the metropolitan lands depend on them. The ‘siege’ of the metropolises by the village—a concept which appeared premature in the 1950s—will acquire quite new topicality. It has already been unmistakably heralded by the policy of a number of oil-producing countries. Imperialism will do everything to incite the population of the industrialized countries against such apparent external enemies whose policy will be presented as a direct threat to their standard of living, and to their very survival, in order to win their assent to military operations.
Talk in global terms about ‘Spaceship Earth’ tells us almost nothing about real perspectives and the chances of survival. There are certainly ecological factors whose effect is global; among these are macro-climatic changes, pollution by radioactive elements and poisons in the atmosphere and oceans. As the example of China shows, it is not these overall factors which are decisive, but the social variables. The destruction of mankind cannot be considered a purely natural process. But it will not be averted by the preachings of scientists, who only reveal their own helplessness and blindness the moment they overstep the narrow limits of their own special areas of competence. ‘The human essence of nature first exists only for social man; for only here does nature exist as the foundation of his own human existence. Only here has what is to him hisnatural existence become his human existence, and nature become man for him. Thus society is the unity of being of man with nature—the true resurrection of nature—the naturalism of man and the humanism of nature both brought to fulfilment.’ [26]
If ecology’s hypotheses are valid, then capitalist societies have probably thrown away the chance of realizing Marx’s project for the reconciliation of man and nature. The productive forces which bourgeois society has unleashed have been caught up with and overtaken by the destructive powers released at the same time. The highly industrialized countries of the west will not be alone in paying the price for the revolution that never happened. The fight against want is an inheritance they leave to all mankind, even in those areas where mankind survives the catastrophe. Socialism, which was once a promise of liberation, has become a question of survival. If the ecological equilibrium is broken, then the rule of freedom will be further off than ever.
This article is reprinted, with minor modifications, from Kursbuch 33. The translation is by Stuart Hood.

[1] Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, by Murray Brookchin, New York 1970, p. 11. Brookchin argues that to ask an ecologist exactly when the ecological catastrophe will occur is like asking a psychiatrist to predict exactly when psychological pressure will so affect a neurotic that communication with him will be impossible.
[2] An Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, Report from the Poor Law Commissioners to the Home Department, London, 1842, p. 68. Quoted in The Politics of Ecology, by James Ridgeway, New York 1971.
[3] Examples of this are not lacking in the ecology movement. In France there is an organization for environmental protection which has an extremely right-wing orientation. The president of these ‘Eco-fascists’ is none other than General Massu, the man responsible for the French use of torture in the Algerian war.
[4] Profitschmutz und Umweltschmutz, in Rote Reihe, Heidelberg 1973, vol. 1, p. 5.
[5] Capital, vol. 1, Moscow 1961, p. 510 n.
[6] Ridgeway, op. cit. pp. 22–5 sees Chadwick as an archetypical utilitarian bureaucrat, whose function was to secure the interests of capital by achieving peace and order among the poor. Better sanitation would produce a healthier and longer-living working force. Sanitary housing would raise workers’ morale, and so on.
[7] Ridgeway, op. cit., p. 15f., shows that over 150 years ago the Benthamites had evolved a theory of protecting the environment to promote production. As he also points out, the measures taken in the advanced capitalist USA in the late 1960s fail to reach the standards of water and air cleanliness proposed by the utilitarians.
[8] Der Spiegel, 8 January 1973, p. 38.
[9] Ridgeway, op. cit., pp. 207–11, analyses the ‘eco-industrial complex’, i.e. the growing role played by business in promoting ecological campaigns, such as Earth Day, and the liaison between business, politicians, local government and ‘citizen campaigns’.
[10] For illustration of the ‘eco-industrial complex’ in West Germany see Profitschmutz, p. 14, and the pamphlet Ohne uns kein Umweltschutz.
[11] ‘Primera Conferencia de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de América Latina’, in América Latina: Demografía, Población indígena y Salud, vol. 2, Havana 1968, pp. 15f.
[12] Ibid. pp. 55–7.
[13] Claus Koch, ‘Mystifikationen der “Wachstumskrise”. Zum Bericht des Club of Rome’, Merkur, vol. 297, January 1973, p. 82.
[14] Giorgio Nebbia in his preface to La Morte Ecologica, Bari 1972, pp. XVf.
[15] The Limits of Growth, Report of the Club of Rome on the State of Mankind, London 1972, p. 13.
[16] Kapitalismus und ‘Umweltkatastrophe’, by Gerhard Kade, duplicated manuscript, 1973.
[17] ‘Die sozialistischen Länder: Ein Dilemma des westeuropäishcen Linken’, by Rossana Rossanda,Kursbuch 30, 1973, p. 26.
[18] Cf. ‘Marx und die Oekologie’ in Kursbuch 33, 1973, pp. 175–87.
[19] Rossana Rossanda, op. cit., p. 30.
[20] André Gorz, ‘Technique, Techniciens et Lutte de Classes’ Les Temps Modernes, August–September 1971, vol. 301–2. p. 141.
[21] Anne H. and Paul R. Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, San Francisco 1970, pp. 322–4.
[22] Före-efter. En diagnos, by Gösta Ehrensvärd, Stockholm 1971, pp. 105–7.
[23] Ehrlich, op. cit., p. 322.
[24] Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung. Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit, Frankfurt 1972, p. 243.
[25] Ibid., pp. 283f.
[26] Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, by Karl Marx (ed. D. Struik), London 1970, p. 137.

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