Post-Mortem Earth Day
In Santa Barbara, California Earth Day is an extravaganza unlike most any other. This is in part because the city claims credit for having helped to establish the holiday after the devastating oil spill of 1969 (a disaster that produced a 900 square mile slick of petroleum along the region’s coastline), but also because the city’s self-identified eco-conscious, left-coast community of hybrid car owners, farmers’ market shoppers and Sierra Club members. Official Earth Day events in Santa Barbara include the mayor and many other politicians. The events are sponsored by mainstream businesses, and bring thousands of people out over several different days; students at the nearby UC campus celebrate the weekend before while the city celebrates on the 22nd, and there are dozens of related events in between.
Even though I live in Santa Barbara and am a member of this community, I skipped all of the events this year, as I did last year and the year before that. In fact, I’ve never attended an Earth Day celebration in my life. I’ve always felt – however trite the saying has become – that “everyday is earth day.” So I tend not to participate in big single day advocacy campaigns. This is especially true with the environmental movement, a social movement bifurcated by two radically opposite poles: at one end exist a tiny minority of communities and conscious adherents who really get it; the earth is dying, and we are going with it. At the other end of the movement are a broad alignment of liberals and even an increasing number of conservatives who fundamentally don’t get it; time is up, switching light bulbs and buying a hybrid car, or giving $50 to the Natural Resources Defense Council isn’t remotely an act of ecological consciousness capable of changing our culture and economy in the ways we must if we are to blunt and someday reverse the ecological crisis we are on the cusp of.
Before I return to this critique of the politics of environmentalism it’s necessary to lay out the basics of the ecological crisis and to present an alternative understanding of it, one that differs significantly from the way we normally think about nature.
The crisis is here: humanity has been consuming mineral, petroleum, timber, water, land, air, and marine resources at rates far outstripping the global ecological system’s capacity to reproduce these “resources” for many decades now. I put the word “resources” in quotation marks here to indicate the artificial and problematic definition of this concept. After all, it is in part because of our lexicon of “resources,” our way of understanding the world as a set of inert things there for us to be had, to be extracted and transformed for our sustenance and pleasure, that has helped get us so far into this mess. It is by seeing the world as a field of resources to be had, and by extracting and using them for needs created by a massively unequal and violent social hierarchy that we now find ourselves entering an irreversible phase of disaster and devastation.
The disasters are already upon us. Katrina, the South East Asian Tsunami, desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa, heat waves in the US and Europe, the Bhopal event, Chernobyl, these and other “environmental” and “technological” disasters experienced as volatile events are the opening acts in a world undergoing a rapid climatic and social shift. Combined with the savagely unequal and oppressive conditions that the world’s poor are being forced into – in the slums of the global south and racialized ghettos of the first world – human vulnerability to disaster is becoming an increasingly catastrophic reality. Elites and the privileged consumer classes of the first world are likely to experience the coming of these disasters as mediated spectacles, as images of mudslides, floods, flattened cities and suffering dark-skinned masses on their TV screens. Devastation is creeping about in a less conspicuous way (although it is not really analytically separable from the disasters it helps to structure). The reality of it is best communicated by experience and vision. Simply drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, or Houston to New Orleans. Drive from any major city to another – Lagos to Abidjan, Rio de Janero to Sao Paulo – and take in the scene. From city center to city center the landscape is invariably similar: high rise corporate office buildings, homeless encampments hidden in the cracks of infrastructure, ghettos and industrial districts, and slums giving way to suburban consumer-class housing stretching far into the countryside, then an airport, more slums and shanties… a prison, a factory farm, strip mine, an industrial scale dary or hog farm, military base, another prison, a slaughterhouse, another factory farm, and finally perhaps a “wilderness” scarred from clear cuts, highways and the inevitable press of human expansion. Before long the factory farms, prisons, mines and military bases fill the landscape again before giving way to the suburban tracts of consumer-class homes, until we pass the slums, airport, industrial zones and dive into the downtown canyons of skyscrapers housing the transnational corporations whose “business operations” appeared out our car window along the whole way.
The necessary tendency of capitalism is expansion. Expansion is fundamentally a matter of that ethereal stuff called capital, something you can’t ever really hold down because of its intangible mercurial nature as a human relationship between the master and slave, or entrepreneur and worker if you please. But this same expansion can be seen in the physical landscape and world of material goods. There is always more, covering more land, utilizing more “resources,” filling more landfills, expanding the power and pleasure of those for whom the system works. And through its expansion, capitalism, as the “enemy of nature” as Joel Kovel has called it, tends to homogenize and simplify everything in its path. It is by its very definition impossibly alienated from nature . Murray Bookchin explains that if nature has a nature, it is an unfolding of evolution toward ever more interdependent, complex, and beautiful forms of life. Accordingly, human nature is subject to our conscious reflections upon the world and our own species being, and can therefore be a consciously guided transformation of the ecosystem, other life forms, and ourselves toward this greater interdependence, diversity and cooperative existence. Our culture of capitalist consumerism and militarism has for the past several hundred years produced the opposite outcome. Our interventions into the world, our conscious transformation of the global ecology and variegated ecosystems has produced a brutal simplification of life (again Bookchin’s terminology). By simplification I refer to the extinction of species, the collapse of plant and animal populations and the overall mono-cropping of the landscape through urban development, agriculture, forestry and industrial pollution.
To illustrate the crisis proportions of this, take two examples, one a form of wildlife, the other a domesticated product of human ecology; frogs and food crops. Both frogs and the world’s stock of human bred food crops literally face extinction as a whole. In fact, frogs are so threatened by rapid shifts in global ecology that herpetologist from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, and the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group have created a project called the “Amphibian Ark.” The Ark describes its work in the following terms:
“Addressing the amphibian extinction crisis represents the greatest species conservation challenge in the history of humanity. One third to one half of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction, with probably more than 120 already gone in recent years. This is significantly more than any other group of organisms: by comparison, 12% of bird species and 23% of mammal species are threatened.”
That we must now create a virtual Noah’s Ark for an entire Class of animals should be an indication of the crisis of ecology we have created. The second example is just as shocking, but alludes to the social roots of the ecological crisis in ways that frogs do not. Over the past several millennia humans around the planet have gathered, grown and developed thousands of varieties of crops including wheat, potatoes, corn, barley, various fruits and vegetables, roots and other edible plants. Until very recently the trend was toward the creation of newer and more diverse strains, hybrids, and other creative forms the plant life that sustain us. The reasons for diversification and complexity were clear; diverse strains were suited to different climates and conditions and complexity allowed for specialization into different niches, trade, interdependence but also autonomy of local communities in relation to one another. In effect, we had produced through our human nature the very thing that “mother nature” is about, and we had done it consciously. With the advent of the modern factory farm, the mono-cropping system of agriculture, and the green revolution that has forced the massive input of petrochemicals into fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, heavy machinery and distribution systems, agriculture has become a dangerous simplifying force in the world. Biodiversity is no longer valued. Instead, single copyrighted breeds of grains and vegetables have come to dominate and literally wipe out the previously adapted varieties of local farmers. Biotech manipulation of crop genes is just the latest twist in this quickening march toward on big field of standardized vegetable matter. This is the result of of farming organized around an unsustainable will to power, not around sustenance and ecological development. No single aspect of agricultural policy better proves this point than the issue of subsidies which the US and Europe provide their farmers in order to maintain their nation’s super-dominance of crop export markets, markets that undermine local production in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times writes that, “Scattered around the world in jars, fields, freezers and vaults are tens of thousands of endangered varieties of wheat, yams and 19 other crops that underpin the global food supply. With disturbing regularity, experts say, this agricultural bounty is eroding as war, storms, scant money or bad management, particularly in the world’s poorest places, cause unique seed varieties to deteriorate or disappear.” Just like amphibians, the biodiversity of life created and sustained by (and thus sustaining) human beings is being wiped out. We are to blame.
The extinction of crop diversity gets to the core of the problem. The ecological crisis we are on the front end of is rooted in the exploitation of human beings by other human beings. To again draw from Bookchin, increasingly powerful hierarchies that organize and maintain capitalism (now by far the hegemonic social system in all parts of the planet) are founded in the exploitation of a majority of the planet’s peoples by a minority. The collapse of crop diversity is the result of the imposition of capitalist methods of agriculture on indigenous people’s around the world and various “free trade” agreements that have undermined local production for use. The process has been shaped by many contextual peculiarities, but has generally resulted in the enclosure and privatization of previously communal lands, the importation of new monocrop varieties, the mechanization of farming, and orientation of production for export or distribution through commodity markets. These markets are dominated by speculators concerned with profit maximization and exchange values, not ecological development or use value. This has proceeded through the barrel of a gun when necessary. From the sixteenth century to the early twentieth an enormous program of colonization and settlement eradicated indigenous autonomy and imposed the new economic system. From the mid-twentieth Century to the present the conquest of nature’s diversity as a necessary concomitant of the conquest of humans by other humans continues through neo-colonial discourses including “free trade,” “democracy promotion,” “development,” “foreign aid,” and now the “global war on terror.”
The crisis facing the seed stocks of crops around the world is fundamentally the same crisis facing frogs. And this is by no means limited to these two examples. The ecological crisis is all encompassing. The very foundations of life are being destroyed by our global social system, especially its capitalist economics and militaristic imperialism.
Thirty-seven years ago with the advent of the first Earth Day and the publication of several influential statements such as the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth,” along with the war’s raging in Southeast Asia, militant movement from black, Latino and indigenous groups throughout the US and beyond, the links between the ecological crisis and the social crisis were clear to many observers. Since then a highly developed literature has emerged on capitalism and nature, and possible alternatives spanning anarchist, socialist, feminist and other prespectives. However, the environmental movement has failed to embrace the necessary lessons from any of this, in part because these lessons are unacceptable to the corporations and consumer-classes that have become the main funders of this movement’s non-profit industry. Instead the environmental movement’s critical goals have developed, as most other movement’s have, within small cadres of radical activists who get it. Opposing this real movement are the larger well funded advocacy organizations with full times staffs that as of yet either do not understand the crisis, or for whom like their patrons the allure of power is too seductive, the death instinct too sweet to abandon. Thus, the mainstream environmental movement in the US and other “developed” nations consists of little more than feel good reformist politics targeting high profile issues such as global warming with strategies that propose nothing more than the greening of fundamentally withering-dead system.
Back here in Santa Barbara, the home of Earth Day, this ridiculous disconnect presents itself as the city hosts a large “sustainable” celebration for the holiday – attendees are urged to take the bus and utilize only recyclable goods – all the while a hot-rod enthusiast club parks dozens of gas guzzlers on the city’s main street only blocks away. The contrast is so ironic that few visitors fail to remark about it. The two celebrations couldn’t be more dissimilar, but even within the official earth day celebration the contradictions of mainstream environmentalism are glaring. Santa Barbara is like a microcosm of the world, a city with two classes, the rich and the poor. The rich live in opulent homes poised on hillsides overlooking the ocean and mountains. They hire the city’s poor largely Latino working class population as their gardeners and housekeepers. The city’s rich are elite members of the first world’s consumer class – the minority of the world’s population that consumes the vast majority of its petroleum, timber, minerals, water and produce. Ironically it is the city’s rich who are some of the most adamant about Earth Day. In addition to the holiday the affluent of Santa Barbara support a whole complex of non-profit organizations directed toward environmental advocacy issues. Most of these organizations pursue narrow incremental strategies to effect change. Perhaps it is all they can do? All the while the city’s consumer-class devours a steady stream of luxury cars, imported foods, copious amounts of electricity and water, their lifestyles are some of the most insanely supremacist in the world: they are totally and irrefutable unsustainable in both material and social terms. Their way of life depends wholly upon the subjugation and exploitation of others to produce the artifacts of pleasure and also upon the despoliation of the earth, land and sea – each overpowered, violated, poisoned by the hierarchy.
That a city like Santa Barbara can host an “Earth Day,” and claim credit for the holiday’s founding and spirit, without much cognitive dissonance for self-proclaimed environmentalists is indicative of the state of environmental politics. The city’s position and role in the global social-ecology of economic and militaristic domination has gone totally unrecognized year after year. The absurdity of celebrating the earth in a city inhabited by the top 1% of the world’s population who own the majority of the wealth and use up the majority of its resources at a rate far outstripping the planet’s ability to reproduce does not even appear before the alter of greening. The same applies for the United States as a whole.
The “environment” is still thought of as an “issue,” related primarily to our long-term “quality of life.” It is also thought of as a problem to be tackled by the government, industry and the occasional act of good earthly citizenship such as a beach clean-up. Even with the advent of high profile spokespersons, like Al Gore, who have the minimal courage to point out the more catastrophic implications of ecological change wrought by human activity, there remains such a disconnect between the kind of politics we need, and what we actually have. Thus, while biodiversity collapses and the planet’s average temperature rises, as the climate rapidly transforms on a global scale and the very biological processes and foundations of life are under threat, we are told by our federal government that:
“The nation's air is much cleaner today than it was in 1970 and progress will continue. The trend of annual loss of wetlands has been reversed. Restoration and redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites is accelerating. President Bush is meeting his commitment to reduce the National Park Service maintenance backlog.”
And if this were to be dismissed as Bush administration propaganda (which it is), take the Earth Day statement of one of the largest and most powerful environmental advocacy organizations in the United States, “What are you doing to reduce your carbon emissions?” asks the Sierra Club. “Building an energy-efficient house? Letting the sun dry your clothes? Walking or cycling to work? Taking the bus? Changing a light bulb or two? When it comes to global warming, we're all in it together, and we've all got to be part of the solution.” Good enough, but what about the social roots of the crisis? What about the centrality of war and domination of human by human? This, after all, is the ecological crisis in its most social and therefore practicable form.
In order for radical ecological politics to advance and become a force capable of displacing and dismantling the obfuscating aspects of mainstream environmentalism, a more forceful critique of the causes of the ecological crisis need to be articulated. An active effort must be made to discredit the politics of greening. Ecological activists must stop taking stances devoid of social critiques, whereas social justice and anti-war activists must more fully embrace the ecological core of thier work.
Mainstream environmental celebrations and education has so far helped to serve the publicity needs of corporations more than to reduce the balance of carbon emissions or boost ocean stocks of fish. Although it might be viewed as pragmatic to approach the environment as an issue, and although many concerned individuals activated by an environmental consciousness might actually view the problem as approachable through top-down reforms or technological fixes, the reality is that the crisis is being precipitated by industrial capitalism and militarism which sustains the consumerist lifestyle this politics props up. These two brotherly forces (one of production, the other destruction) exist by the conscious acceptance and promotion by those who rule this world and benefit from the spoils. Without an acknowledgment that we must change our global society from a capitalist empire into a world no longer based on hierarchical exploitation of human life and “natural resources” the environmental politics of the wealthy nations is doomed to futility. Lest this conclusion be read as a call to consciousness for the consumer-classes who now thrive in their artificial and insulated habitats of McMansions, shopping malls, highways and parks, I must add that it’s highly unlikely for the most privileged to wake up and understand what must be done. Even the hybrid car owners who shop at Whole Foods and espouse verbal concern for global warming are mostly unwilling to do what needs to be done. Doing so means purposefully abandoning their position of supremacy and privilege, giving up the weapons or racial, class and citizen privilege. It would mean taking one’s boot off the neck of the world’s majority. Seldom if ever has radical social change come about this way.
It’s very likely that mainstream environmental politics will endure as the feel good rationalizations of those who call the raping of the earth “agriculture,” and “mining,” the murder of forests and oceans “harvest,” and the oppression of their human others “employment.” Progress, after all, would come to a halt! The praxis of radical environmental politics that is guided by an understanding of the crisis in social-ecological terms already exists in the work, livelihoods and social movements of many of the dispossessed and discarded people’s of the world and many indigenous or locally rooted communities. We shouldn’t glorify all of the oppressed as many adopt the values and behavior of the oppressors, but many more are undermining the system and creating alternative social worlds and economic systems that avoid the ecological simplifications and insanity of the empire. More attention to these people’s visions and practices is necessary. Fewer celebrations of Earth Day by those who live in the consumer capitals of the empire would be a nice addition of honesty to this politics.