New Internationalist

Reasons To Be Fearful

Issue 307

Reasons to be fearful
Tom Athanasiou is plagued by dark visions – is there a spindoctor in the house?

When I started my book Divided Planet*, way back in 1991, I interviewed Greens of many shades and asked them if they were privately more pessimistic than they let on in public. The results were pretty startling. Lots of them were genuinely frightened – enough so as to choose not to have kids. This testimony, it seems to me, points to a Green movement far more pessimistic than today’s vogue for upbeat spindoctoring would indicate.

This would locate me right in the mainstream of Green thought – for I really do believe that we must soon make a turn towards a more just and environmental society, or face instead a downward spiral of social disintegration. Such a view is a political problem. There’s a good reason why big-picture optimism is the traditional stance of the Left radical – after all, how can we hope to rally the masses for a long and bitter fight for a better world if we ourselves don’t see it shining on the horizon?

It’s a good question, but it must remain subsidiary to realism. And what does realism tell us? We stand at the end of a long and bloody century – one marked particularly by the war against the Red movement – with nature groaning beneath our feet. New paths must be pioneered, but it’s unclear who will take them. We’re witnessing the emergence of a terrifying new kind of class society, and for just this reason we can’t imagine a solution to the crisis of development. Ecological crisis only acts to raise the stakes. Despite increasing instability, however, there are few signs of a legitimation-crisis for capitalism as a whole.

Terrifying class divisions grow deeper in Mumbai, India.
PAUL SMITH / PANOS PICTURES

I could be wrong, especially about the last bit. I freely admit that the prospect of a global capitalist crisis erupting within the current framework scares the shit out of me, so I may just be frightening myself into intellectual timidity. Meanwhile, take a moment to note the strange unanimity of the voices telling us that realism in fact points to a relatively unproblematic ‘greening of the market’. New-paradigm economists think that better indicators, greener taxes and perhaps a new generation will make the difference. Techno-optimists imagine a ‘natural capitalism’, green and humane, straining against the cage. We even suffer a few labor activists who think the World Trade Organization will soon take due account of social and environmental standards.

My own guess, for what it’s worth, is that capitalism-as-we-know-it can theoretically morph itself into sustainability, but that it very well may not: that the utopia of consumerism is too deeply ingrained; that the bombs are too powerful and too easy to make.

Of course I could be wrong, again. No natural law requires that the global military budget continue to consume almost a trillion dollars a year. The Earth Summit treaties could be fleshed out into the basis of a global New Deal. The South could be freed from its burden of debt and escape the crushing poverty that is the immediate – if not ultimate – cause of so much devastation. The land and seas and even the beasts could be protected.

It doesn’t look good, though. Little has happened to encourage honest optimism. Even dropping fertility rates are almost as much bad news as good. It’s planetary TV, condoms and fear, as much as ‘security’ and respect for women, that are slowing population growth. Remember, then, that back in Stockholm and Rio it was widely agreed that the prospects for sustainable development turned on using environmental treaties as the framework for a major North-to-South transfer of wealth. Of this there is no sign at all.

History will judge the Greens by whether they stand with the poor. The problem is that the specific goal of a Left-ecological program is unclear. We know what we’re against, but we don’t really know what we’re for – or what it means, ultimately, to ‘stand with the poor’. Maybe it’s enough to stand for solidarity and compassion and the defence of traditional communities. But maybe it’s not. Maybe we also need a plan – or, at the very least, a coherent vision – for achieving some baseline of universal justice.

What we do know is that the class division of human society is a keystone problem. Indeed, the crucial thing to remember about ‘development’ is that it’s the Utopia of the élites, the Jerusalem in which economic polarization ceases to threaten the social order. The 57-or-so-million children who will be born in the North during the 1990s will consume and pollute more than the 911-or-so-million children born during the same period in the South – a fact of such crushing significance that you’d think all just-minded people would rise up to demand some measure of equality. Instead it’s ‘development’, over and over again.

It is no longer controversial to claim that the division between rich and poor countries is dangerous; this is the very problem ‘development’ claims to address. The real difficulty comes when we get to the deeper split, the one that divides not rich and poor countries but rich and poor people. Here we get to a really tough question. Must the wound of class be healed before we can hope for sustainability? I believe that it must, at least to a substantial degree.

I lack proof, and I am not particularly comfortable with the consequences of my view – that, for example, the current round of greenhouse negotiations is doomed to failure. So I’ve decided to focus on the crux and just keep insisting that there’s no honest hope – not without a deep appreciation of the links between ecological limits and the politics of justice. And I’m trying to imagine how such links might come to be visible, even outside the green-lifestyle enclave.

It isn’t easy. Take food. I happen to be a rabid anti-Malthusian, and yet simultaneously fear that big food scarcities are on the horizon. It’s not that ‘we’ are poised to exceed the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. Rather, population will double, there’ll be more rich people, and the rich eat too much, particularly too much meat. The problem of food is, in other words, the problem of the good life.

What’s actually going to happen? A global food squeeze, for one thing – and if anything is certain it’s that this won’t be nice. On the other hand, what’s new? This is just the sort of ‘scarcity’ the market is ‘good’ at handling. Right? Like scarcities of beach-homes, expensive medical treatments or atmospheric carbon sinks, any real shortage of food would be ‘managed’ by the price mechanism. Right?

I don’t think so. But then, why listen to me? I think that when China enters the global market in earnest things are going to get more strained; that eventually, and maybe even soon, we’ll find economic nationalism is the growth sector; that there are a whole lot more guns around than we would wish for.

I just can’t resist my darker visions. I know that the Left always underestimates capitalism’s adaptability, yet here I am, making the same mistake. I genuinely fear a crisis (I have a family) and thus want, against my own better judgement, to see the system bend rather than break – yet even this doesn’t help.

But I can still end on an upbeat note. If the problem is historical then it must have a political solution. And it may well be that ‘globalization’ is setting that solution into play. For capital has certainly freed its wilder aspects. In so doing, it is producing ‘impossible’ conditions and in them there is opportunity.

Whether a justice-heavy redefinition of sustainable development will be the outcome – well, that’s something on which reasonable people can reasonably disagree. In any case, Left environmentalism points to a solution to the riddle of history that’s a whole lot more attractive than ‘eco-siege neo-feudalist capitalism’ – or whatever else we want to call the place we’re currently heading.

Tom Athanasiou has been active in environmental politics for many years and is the author of *Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor (Little, Brown and Company, New York, 1996). He lives in San Francisco. e-mail: toma@igc.apc.org

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