21 January 2003

Why Ecosocialism?
(a different ecosocialist manifesto)
by Samuel Day Fassbinder

Futurology is, to be sure, an inexact science. But its subject matter, we can rest assured, will remain the same for some time. Speculation about the wonders of technology will continue to amaze the human race. Poverty and warfare will continue to represent challenges to the human spirit. But lastly, and most importantly, the human race will be confronted by the accelerating phenomenon of “natural limits,” by the limited capacity of the natural environment to be despoiled by human industry. Wilderness disappears, to be replaced by cultivated farmland. Farmland disappears, to be replaced by suburban development, which becomes city. The process, as it currently stands, cannot last forever -- the Earth cannot become one big city, nor will its environment support human life forever if it is made into one big farm or suburban tract. This is so because human industry, in the form in which it exists today, pays no heed to ecological sustainability. It is therefore liable to collapse.

Ecological sustainability is the ability of an ecology to recycle itself. In a healthy ecology, plants and animals are born, live, and die, and their lives and deaths provide the breeding-ground for new life. Human industry, as it exists today, continues to grow without any consideration for ecological sustainability, thus spreading across the earth like a cancer. It devours the Earth without regard for anything but its own growth process, which is what a cancer does. Meanwhile human industry turns the Earth into something that is much less the basis for human industry than it was before industry transformed it. The explanation for why this is so is quite simple: human industry treats the world as a resource base, to be converted into consumer products, which then become garbage. The problem is that human industrial garbage is not transformed into a resource base fast enough for the industrial processes, which devour the Earth’s resource bases much too fast for any natural or human-prompted recycling to “keep up.” Humanity has been shielded from the effects of this problem for thousands of years -- but the vast acceleration of human industry in the past two centuries has caused an ecological problem which will come back to punish humanity, and thus the legacy of past and present industry will haunt the future.

Furthermore, human industry pollutes, and the result of this pollution is the destruction of the ecology. The burning of fossil fuels pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which disrupts the world’s climate patterns through a phenomenon called “global warming.” Global warming disrupts habitats around the world, making it much harder for many plants and animals to survive. But global warming is only the most recently-discovered human disruption of the environment -- people have been driving species of plant and animal into extinction since humanity itself appeared as a natural species, mostly through hunting but also through the destruction of animal and plant habitats through the cultivation of wilderness, and the urbanization of farmland.

The neo-Malthusians, present-day followers of the philosopher Thomas Malthus, do not think humanity will survive its own domination of the planet. Their pessimism about humanity is most easily explained through reference to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin’s book, once famous for describing the natural environment as a place of eternal competition that favors “the survival of the fittest,” is really about a theory of niches, about why certain plants and animals do well in certain places. A niche, it must be said, is a position within the ecology that supports all life. And the ecology, by definition, provides plants and animals with habitats, places to live. The niche is more than a habitat -- it’s also a relationship to the necessities of life such as food, water, safety, etc. Neo-Malthusian thinking considers humanity in its “niche,” i.e. the varied ways in which people survive on the planet, in deducing what they think is humanity’s fate.

At the beginning of The Origin of Species, Darwin explains that each species of plant or animal must be fit to survive in its niche -- thus the popular slogan “the survival of the fittest.” If a species of animal is to survive from generation to generation, individual animals must be able to grow up and reproduce before dying, otherwise there will be no new species-members to carry on. Darwin also explains, however, that species of plant or animal (mostly of animal, in this case) which are too successful at survival will destroy their niches as well. If there are too many of a certain species, that species will eat up all of its food source, thus creating a shortage of food. Afterward there will be a dieoff, because the population of animals will then starve to death, having “eaten up” its place in the food chain.

Neo-Malthusians think this is going to happen to the human race. We are too successful as a species of animal, they believe, and thus someday we will pay for our success with a spectacular die-off. The cause of this die-off, however, will be different than for (other) animals: if humanity dies off, it will do so not because of some brute relationship we have to the food chain (although some believe this too), but because human industry, the product of human intelligence, will destroy or consume the ecology, to the point where industry is itself impossible to pursue. Ecological collapse, then industrial collapse, then dieoff, is what they predict.

Against the pessimistic neo-Malthusians who think that portions of humanity are doomed because humanity has despoiled the planet in the abovementioned manner, the cornucopian philosophy of Julian Simon (The Ultimate Resource II) suggests that human ingenuity will find a way to resolve any problems the human race will encounter in terms of resource shortages. Simon’s philosophy invokes a “principle of substitutability,” that if one resource starts to run out, we humans will be able to substitute the use of another resource. Thus, for the cornucopians, human ingenuity will always outrun resource shortage.

Neither of these opposing philosophies, in pure form, offers a genuine assurance that the future of humanity will not be characterized by catastrophic dieoffs or civilization-threatening natural disasters. Simon (and the cornucopians) ignores the possibility that energy (namely the fossil-fuel energy we extract from crude oil and natural gas) may not have any natural substitute that will meet human needs in the same way we use it today. Simon also ignores the possibility that the “greenhouse effect” aided by the burning of fossil fuels might bring disasters to the Earth’s ecology that will be beyond the ability of human ingenuity to repair. Thus the idea that “human ingenuity” will save the human race from environmental disaster comes with its own blind spot -- it fails to recognize the possibility of failure.

The neo-Malthusians, for their part, offer a vision of gloom and doom punctuated by complaints about “overpopulation” and “catastrophic resource shortage” followed by “dieoff.” They predict massive disaster as a result of human environmental abuse -- and indeed it is true that human industry has brought catastrophic consequences to the natural environment of the planet Earth. But the neo-Malthusians themselves have no faith in human ingenuity as a resource that will allow humanity to overcome the ecological crisis they predict. So their predictions of disaster have all the air of inevitability to them. There is nothing to be done with such pessimism. Human ingenuity, therefore, must come to the rescue of the human race, and save it from the predictions of the neo-Malthusians. But how? We cannot (as the cornucopians do) rest assured that, no matter how badly human industry turns the natural environment into a vast waste dump, “human ingenuity” will descend from the skies like Superman to save the day. It won’t.

The problem with human ingenuity, then, is that it has limitations. The main limitation, it is argued here, is that human ingenuity has been developed historically in only one direction. Human ingenuity, arguably, has devoted itself throughout recent history to the pursuance of the various “industrial revolutions,” to making better mousetraps and more efficient computers, for the sake of industry. Human ingenuity has become mere technical ingenuity, thus adapting to the "instrumental reason" that the critical theorists complained about. Industry has so far been concerned mostly with exploitation, with taking resources away from the natural world in order to turn a profit for businesses (or to increase the prestige and power of governments). Industry today is only marginally concerned with ecological harmony, and in this way mostly concerning the recycling of resources. Recycling, however, is only part of a solution to the problem of ecological sustainability. The main reason for why this is so is that recycling uses energy. The human race is almost entirely dependent for its energy needs upon non-renewable energy sources. When these sources are all used up, when all the oil and natural gas are pumped out of the ground, when all of the coal is mined, that’s it -- there will be no more. Recycling, then, does what the other industries do -- it uses up the planet. What’s needed, then, is a mode of human ingenuity beyond recycling. What we’ll need is ecological ingenuity. People will have to invent things that allow human industry to proceed without using up the planet.

This is different from cornucopianism. Cornucopianism assumed that human industry could proceed normally -- exploiting the planet indefinitely without conflict with “natural limits.” Ecological ingenuity presumes that human industry will have to be replaced with sustainable human industry, which will be a different creature altogether than what we are used to today.

Certain regions of scientific inquiry will need to be expanded in order to measure the possilities for ecological ingenuity. A good place to start would be agroecology. Agroecology is the science of ecology as applied to agricultural environments. Agroecology thus acts as a support for sustainable agriculture, because agroecologists are trained to measure whether or not particular forms of agriculture are sustainable, using resources which are themselves sustainable. They are potentially empowered to answer the question of whether a plot of land can be farmed indefinitely without causing steady losses in soil fertility, catastrophic invasions of harmful “pest” species, catastrophic drought, or other causes of crop failure. In the past, external inputs such as imported water, pesticides, and fertilizers might have seemed expedient because exploitation seemed “normal,” but such a trend will not be able to go on indefinitely -- it won’t be sustainable. In the future, then, we will need to know whether we can grow crops to feed ourselves without using up the planet, and this will be the subject-matter of human ingenuity, requiring the invention and use of new forms of agriculture.

The other sciences and technologies will have to remodel themselves upon agroecology (and sustainable agriculture) in the same way, looking for ways of satisfying human needs without using up the planet -- in all of the ways in which people need things. Retooling human industry on an ecological basis will not be the easy feat that a cornucopian thinker would imagine it to be. It will instead be a massive undertaking, where we can conceive of human industry running up against “natural limits” in every area that fails the test of sustainability. All of the resources of today’s society will have to be redirected, away from their present-day purposes, toward creating a sustainable human world-society. The alternative, of course, is a society that is unsustainable, that will shrivel away when it has exhausted its resource base.

Ecological thinkers who only have “thought small” about sustainability have not imagined, so far, the necessary extent of this future undertaking. A windmill here, a sustainable garden there, will be nothing but small islands of hope to be swallowed up by a sea of human despair unless whole economic systems are reconfigured. Societies based on the “old plan,” of heedless exploitation of the environment, will seek to use sustainable technologies for exploitative purposes, or burden them down with refugees from environmental destruction, unless the benefits of the “new plan” are extended to all, either initially (upon the declaration of a “new plan”) or eventually. A sustainable society cannot remain only partly sustainable -- sustainability is all-or-nothing, either the “new plan” is built to last or it becomes something that is.

Today, human industry produces profit for its owners, and that is its socially-declared “purpose.” Using up the planet is the easiest way of producing this profit -- a business takes what resources it can get, as cheaply as possible, in order to make the products which constitute “doing business,” and the costs of using up the planet are not figured into the market prices. There is a theory, embraced by many in the Green Party, called “true cost pricing,” that suggests that the government can force industries to pay the costs of their using-up of the planet. This is a well-meaning theory, but in real life there is no way any government agency can force industries to pay the ecological costs incurred by industry’s using-up of the planet. In capitalist business today, ecological damages are too high, and profit margins too low, for industries to even begin to pay the government the “true cost” of the ecological harm they’ve done. Taxes upon environmentally-damaging business can therefore be only a minor improvement over the system of taxation that is currently to be found in the United States and many other industrialized countries. Consider this dilemma: if the “true cost pricing” taxes are to be kept low, such taxes will only raise the cost of the consumer items the “bad” businesses produce, while leaving everything else about the economy the same. If such taxes are to be made so high that they drive “bad” businesses out of business, then (barring additional economic measures) no economic base will be had to retool the world’s industry for sustainability, and the taxes will destroy an old economy without themselves creating a new one. It is the reinvention of this economic base in light of this necessary retooling, and not merely the taxing-away of “bad” business, that will require us to think about “ecosocialism.”

Creating a society that doesn’t use up the planet will have to be the ultimate goal of this retooling, and to do that, people will have to stop using up each other as well. Ending the unsustainable exploitation of the natural world means either 1) ending servitude as a lasting condition of human existence, for all, or 2) ending hope for those who must serve the new society (or be marginalized by its industry) without participating in its benefits. The “old plan,” the capitalist society we live under today, allows people to avoid “being exploited without hope” by enticing all with the possibility of advancement, in anticipation of a society where “progress” means increased wealth for all, or, as it is called in macroeconomics, “growth.” But a sustainable society cannot be based on “growth,” because “growth” means using up nature. It must therefore offer satisfaction to all, or risk the permanent dissatisfaction of some, which would itself be socially unsustainable. Sure, the coming sustainable society may initially exploit working people in order to attain a sustainable society, but it will not be allowed to do so indefinitely, for to do so risks a reversion to unsustainable practices.

A future, sustainable, society will adopt many of the meritorious aspects of local self-sufficiency. Local self-sufficiency in food, for instance, will be regarded as a good thing, because it will be viewed as a good thing to reduce the energy costs in transporting food. But local self-sufficiency will never be the permanent goal of a sustainable society. Sometimes locally self-sufficient societies fail, and in a nascent globally sustainable society, they must not be allowed to fail alone, else the integrity of the whole project would suffer greatly, inciting unsustainable social disorder. Local communities experience droughts, famines, plagues, natural disasters, even social upheavals -- and we can expect more of this to happen as the greenhouse effect worsens, for the greenhouse effect promotes an increase in extreme weather conditions. A sustainable society will therefore have to produce surplus wealth for emergency conditions, some of which will take significant amounts of time to undo. The AIDS crisis in Africa, for instance, is severe, yet deep, and will require the sustained efforts of the world to overcome.

The initial situation of communities adopting the “new plan” will also be vastly unequal, thus obligating them to institute a program of coordinated sharing of unevenly-distributed resources, a Marshall Plan for the world (in the old language). The propagation of solar power machines such as photovoltaic panels, for instance, or domestic hot water heaters, would be of great benefit to much of humanity, but in the current economy it requires judicious use of the world’s shrinking oil reserves to spread access to such solar power devices. In many ways, the new sustainable society will have to “piggyback” upon its unsustainable use of resources (most particularly, oil, but perhaps in other ways as well) in order to create a society that no longer uses them. Oil, specifically, is only found in great quantities in a few places scattered throughout the world, the vast majority of them in the Persian Gulf area. Its wise use will mean, definitely, popular control over it, which will mean a renegotiation of the terms whereby it is distributed to the world.

I want to make it clear, here, that when I refer to coordinated sharing, I am not talking about “trade.” Trade requires that the exchanging parties each have something to exchange -- and if you don’t have something to exchange, you can’t play the game. Trade also requires that the game be played under unfair conditions -- oil, to use my example, could be absurdly cheap, meriting its producers nothing, or it could be absurdly expensive, allowing its producers global domination, and both conditions would be unfair (and thus socially unsustainable). Here I am using the words coordinated sharing because I want to insist that every community be granted the right to participate in the wealth of the globe (insofar as it is necessary) without necessarily having to have something to exchange. Such a program of coordinated sharing could be handled by a syndicate, in keeping with an anarcho-syndicalist vision of the world, but every community would have to be included in membership in such a syndicate, if the syndicate itself were not to become the basis for elite world domination.

None of this activity, it must be added, will require the centralization of global power. In fact, given the sustainable society’s need for localized innovation (e.g. agroecology, which must innovate in vastly different ways for each region it studies), it would be better off with a global coordination of action than with any centralized plan. Indeed, if one wanted to create some sort of global program in the new society, one would need to be able to communicate across regions with the people to be affected before deciding to do anything at all.

Thus we may eventually adopt an ecosocialist society. If we do so, I believe we will do it in the light of the pressures placed upon the global society of today to become sustainable. Such pressures, I maintain, will furthermore require us to install a regime of coordinated, semi-localized, freethinking democratic communism that will have as its ultimate goal the (at least partial) satisfaction of everyone.