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Ecosocialism as Holistic Earth Care

Redefining our role as Environmental Agents: An Interview with Joel Kovel


Thomas Good / NLN

Canadian Dimension: There are lots of serious struggles around the world against instances of environmental destruction, privatization of water and other resources, etc. Yet these efforts are almost always isolated, fragmented, one-off events even within national boundaries, let alone the globe. What needs to be done to create resistance movements at a national and global level? Where will the leadership come from?

Joel Kovel: Of key importance is the notion of “environmentalism” itself. The environment is by definition what is outside us rather than something in which we participate and to which we are connected. Environmental thinking conduces to seeing everything in terms of resources and not as an interconnected manifold of ecosystems. Note that this reproduces the economic logic of capitalism itself. At a deep level, capital creates the ecological crisis by monetizing everything in its relentless effort to commodify the world. Isolation and fragmentation is an essential feature of the breakdown of ecosystems; this extends to ways of thinking and seeing for those ecosystems in which we take part. Thus mainstream environmentalism can be said to be part of the problem rather than a move to solve it.

This is why it is essential to emphasize the role of capitalism as the “efficient cause” of the ecological crisis. People are more ready to understand this than appears at first glance; once encouraged, they get the idea readily, and then the whole world opens up for them. The ecological perspective is inherently anti-capitalist, insofar as capital destabilizes ecosystems. This is also a way of saying that we need eco-socialism, not environmentalism! Since ecosocialism focuses on empowering human agency rather than technocratic tinkering around the edges, leadership will come from those activists who directly resist capital’s destabilization of ecosystems through building community: people like Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes.

Making Moves For Change

CD: Beyond pressing for direct caps on polluters through regulation, what actions should ecosocialists be taking to keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole and tar sand in the land?

JK: Ecosocialist activism is a kind of guerrilla warfare against an occupier. Its means may be nonviolent, but it is a struggle to the death – and for life. Capital is as much an invader as any army: it breaks down boundaries, takes over communities as well as bodies like a parasite, insinuates its commodified relations into life-worlds, and introduces alienating institutions and form of reason. All of these points have to be contested.

There is no way that frontal assault can win such a war. We need, rather, to employ multiple campaigns, coordinated in ways that weaken and demoralize the adversary while building zones of ecosocialist production. We might schematically sort these into three categories:

  • at the level of the state or trans-statal organization, like the Copenhagen or G-20 meetings;

  • against the corporation, the bank, etc: for example, suing Chevron in Ecuador; taking on BP in Houston while drawing on radically feminist strategies;

  • at the point of extraction – the “soil,” the “hole” etc. – Niger Delta, West Virginia, Alberta.

Needless to add, there is no fixed plan, and campaigns have to be creatively adaptive. For instance, activists did what they could to directly block mountain-top demolition in West Virginia; but also took some of the debris back to the metropolis and dumped it in the ATM vestibules of Morgan-Chase bank.

Successful people’s war (think, say, of Cuba) takes place throughout a land: in the mountains, the universities, the plantations, the city streets. It always starts small, not through big invasions. Nor can it possibly succeed through any one of these zones, especially the parliamentary. The ultimate source of strength is whatever is closest to popular struggle at the point of life’s resistance to capital. This is where small beginnings can germinate into transformative movements. Mere spontaneity will never work if the points of struggle cannot connect each with the other, and equally important, if they do not become conscious of what it is that they are undertaking and where it can lead them. Here is where the matter of an ecosocialist vision to break out of the traps of fragmentation enters. As this grows, it does so within the struggle for life and against capital, and also connects with international movements, because it is the earth itself that “global capital” has invaded and occupied. In no sense, except the narrowest immediacy, can an ecosocialist movement be restricted within national boundaries. Hopefully, as the international ecosocialist movement matures, it can provide a forum for a conscious planning of such campaigns.

CD: The Dark Mountain Project argues that it’s too late to save industrial civilization and that it is futile to try to reduce its impact by way of green technology, regulation, and renewable energy. Rather, we should be thinking about how we are going to live through its fall and what we can learn from its collapse. What is your take on the Dark Mountain Project?

JK: As capital inexorably destroys its own conditions of production, our so-called civilization is undergoing a process of devolution leading to collapse. Gramsci famously saw this as the time when the old order is dying and the new one cannot yet be born, and he foresaw that under such grim circumstances a great deal of weird behavior would emerge. The Dark Mountain project is one such piece of weirdness, to be classified with survivalists and various militias as different kinds of primitivist reversion. Its class base, however, is not drawn from right-wing backwoods types and the dispossessed, but from intellectuals and artistes seeking fulfillment through romantic rejection of the world. This is an illusion, nor can it go very far.

The Project’s virtue lies in a slogan much favored on its website: “Giving up on Environmentalism.” As I noted, environmentalism is very much part of the problem. But instead of confronting the issue where it is actually located, namely, society and the way it transforms nature, the Project simply evades social relations, or rather, continues existing tendencies to the point of extermination. On the contrary, I see capitalism as a society so hollowed out by processes of alienation as to have become radically de-sociated. So, in its later (i.e., present) stages, capitalism turns into a collection of ego-particles agitated by the forces of the market into desperate and fearful searches for individualized sensation: living in gated communities, traveling about in mutually isolated cars, and plugged into remote forces of mass cultural manipulation. This is both a sign of the ecological crisis and a way it is perpetuated, for individual egos can do nothing to mend our relations with nature.

The only rational way of overcoming the crisis and of restoring society and nature is through the recovery of ways of as-sociation, that is, through forms of “commoning” capable of resisting the inroads of capital and building solidarity with others. Only in society can the human animal fulfill its “nature” and do justice to nature. Organized from below into a new society we can prevail in the struggle for life that marks this epoch. The Dark Mountain Project offers instead, further isolation, further self-centeredness, and further disintegration.

Climate Change is Bad, But Not Our Only Problem

CD: The UN biodiversity report coming out this summer says that the case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more important than the argument for tackling climate change. Do you concur with this importance attached to protecting biodiversity?

JK: Climate change is a menace without parallel in the whole history of humanity. Its spectacular and dramatic character can generate narratives capable of arousing general concern and thus provide a stimulus to build movements of resistance. But climate change is not the sole problem we face, even if this property makes it seem as such. Hopefully, the UN’s forthcoming report about the stupendous die-off now underway can have the salutary effect of disabusing people of this illusion.

I’m not happy with prioritizing either of these massive processes of eco-disintegration, because to do so becomes part of the artificial separation noted above. Better to realize that we are part of one ecosphere suffering from a planetary disease – a kind of cancer produced by Homo sapiens who has blighted nature with the accumulation of capital. Within the myriad disorders set forth, there arise configurations affecting various “tissues” of the planetary body, with innumerable secondary and tertiary interactions, many of them unpredictable and chaotic. Climate change is one such, species loss another. They need to be seen in relation to each other, and to the cancer of which they are symptoms.

As the chief driving factor in species loss is habitat alteration, climate change is most definitely implicated in the great die-off, whether by heat, drought or flooding. But the two threats are not structurally identical, nor can dealing with the one be considered ipso facto adequate for dealing with the other. Consider the laudable goal of diminishing concentrations of atmospheric CO2, for example, Bill McKibben’s “350” campaign to bring greenhouse gas concentrations below the current level of about 390 ppm. Now it’s possible to imagine this being done, though fantastically difficult. But there are two logical strategies toward this end – either lowering carbon emissions and/or augmenting carbon sequestration – and these can have drastically different implications for species loss. Sequestering carbon, say, in the ocean, might alleviate the greenhouse effect – at the cost, however, of worsening the lot of countless creatures through acidification of the seas, which destroys shelled sea-life including the corals that provide the dwelling places for innumerable aquatic species. Similarly, some of the technical fixes now being considered to directly lower temperature, as by injecting SO2 into the atmosphere, are obviously reckless of the integrity of living beings. Just so, are the strategies of biofuel development that require monocropping, thereby sacrificing biodiversity. Thus there can be a real contradiction between dealing with these two threats if they are regarded in isolation.

The rational way, then, to contend with any and all ecological menaces is by developing a vision of sufficient universality that regards them as aspects of a common ecosphere undergoing a common assault. This returns us to the overarching question developed in The Enemy of Nature, of capital accumulation as the “efficient cause” of the ecological crisis. Only within the framewotk of a revolutionary ecosocialist society can we deal with the twinned crises of climate change and species loss – and others as well – within a coherent program centered around the flourishing of life.

Here I would add one aspect of the great extermination now underway: the “un-flourishing of life.” Nothing so indicts Homo sapiens (subspecies: capitalisticus) as the mass murder of species at a rate far greater than anything done over the last 70 million years. The fact that so much of this happens unspectacularly, indeed, silently and with the elimination of life forms that we have never bothered to knowabout, much less appreciate for their intrinsic value, only deepens the indictment. May this realization spur our awakening.

CD: What are the implications of Deepwater Horizon?

JK: In itself, the oil spill (this is being written in the first half of July) is hideous, a concoction of corporate crime and government corruption/incompetence. But without diminishing its significance one bit, we should consider the BP spill not in itself but as part of a larger aggregate of the lesions inflicted on Mother Earth by the capitalist energy barons, not limited to but including:

  • spills elsewhere, for example, the Niger River delta, which dwarf Deepwater Horizon in scale, and have driven life expectancy in the delta down to about 40 years;

  • “dead zones” in the Gulf from Mississippi River run-off of nitrogen generated by ethanol production (as fuel additive) upstream. These are quite comparable in scale to the release of crude petroleum from Deepwater Horizon;

  • studies of large marine mammals throughout the seven seas, including sperm whales, disclose such a burden of toxics, chiefly deriving from petroleum that was “successfully” extracted, as to guarantee the extinction of these great creatures within a century;

  • there are 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico. If you study the frequency of drilling over time, you will see the all-too-familiar “hockey-stick,” or exponential curve as “peak oil” and economic depression drive the oil barons mad.

This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Ecosocialism).


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