lørdag 21. mai 2011

Svar på Ross Wolfes marxistiske kritikk av miljøbevegelsen

Jeg har på oppfordring kommentert Ross Wolfe's artikkel-lange blogg-post "Man and Nature, Part IV: A Marxist Critique of the 'Green' Environmental Movement". Bloggen hans heter The charnel-house: Historico-philosophical notes. Kommentaren min er gjengitt i sin helhet her (med en håndfull trykkfeil på plass, som i originalen).

In accordance with the title and slogan of my academic blog, "Utopian Realism", I pride myself of acknowledging the importance of being empirically informed about past and current ecological and social developments globally, and to the extent possible to have an informed view of possible future societies. I am generally aligned with deep ecology in Arne Næss' sense, and further somewhat aligned with anarchism - and Gandhism. Plus I am a vegetarian with a preference for organic produce of milk and egg. So should I feel attacked? Yes and no. My response will predominantly have the form of reference to empirical reality. Ideology carried out in isolation from empirical reality is always irrelevant, if not outright dangerous.

You write that small-scale organic farming is "an elitist phenomenon not only in the smug sense of ethical virtue that comes with buying organic or local, but also in a very real, economic sense". There is something to your points as to pricing of products from organic farming. Yes, organic farming is labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive (relatively speaking). However, I do not regard that a weakness of organic farming. Industrialized agriculture is characterized in economic terms by being capital-intensive. Now, the price of labour varies significantly (extremely) globally, and this is particularly visible and manifest within global agriculture. The price of machinery and such, on the other hand, is in comparison approximately equal globally (though local varietions in labour costs and taxes etc. spill over to some extent on local costs of machinery as well). Does this make organic farming potentially more of a rich-country phenomenon? Not necessarily (that depends on your exact definition of organic farming). Fair trade initiatives at their best could in principle allow for more labour-intensive agriculture than what is the norm locally in poorer countries as well (note that the very poorest countries have much less machinery in use in their agriculture today, which in part explains their low productivity (yields) in mainstream terms). Use of more machinery is always presented as cost-effective and as increasing productivity. The ways in which labour is priced - valued, though, can change the whole picture.

You diss the greens' preference for family farming. This is not only an ‘organic’ longing, however, but quite widespread in many declining rural societies. As a matter of fact, of course, a major transition is going on globally from small-scale family farming to industrialized agriculture with little labour and high productivity bought by way of capital investment. Whereas many of these family farms were initially subsistence farms (in a society where most poeple were farmwers), we are now about to leave a transitional phase where there have been a lot of family farms operating on market terms in a society where they have been a declining minority. This declining trend reflects increases in productivity and capital-intensity. In Norway - to use an example I am well informed about - there are very few family farms left (only approximately one out of ten farms are run by husband and wife who have no other occupation), and the number is rapidly declining. Even more telling is the fact that a majority of Norwegian farmers have more income from other jobs or activities than they do from their farming activity. It is thus not only the traditional family farm that is threatened, but equally important the farming profession as a full-time occupation. Now we can always discuss whether or not this is a social problem. I'd argue that it is.

And not only is it a social problem from a human point of view. It is further a social problem from the point of view of many farm animals. The declining number of farmers is not only mirrored in increased productivity and capital-intensity. These trends are both reflected in a steadily increasing ration of livestock per farmer. Engendering animal equivalents of mass societies, this is surely a social problem in its own right, and a characteristic feature of industrial agriculture. My claim is that we can legitimately talk about "ecological alienation" in many of these cases (think about chicken - some of which perversely advertised as 'free-range' - that share a floor with thousands of others and never see daylight).

Yet another parallel to declinging farmer numbers, increasing productivity and increasing ratios livestock/farmer is the increasing ratio of land per farmer which we see occuring in Western farming (in other parts of the world, the situation is quite another - namely, societies under demographic pressure (with rapidly increasing populations) and in lack of arable land often have to deal with the problem of having smaller and smaller pieces of land for the poor rurals. Here, what used to be a somewhat sustainable model of ‘subsistence-farming’ is in danger of being transformed to a specifically modern kind of poverty and misery).

You write: "To generalize the practice of local farming and small shops would mean a regression to a quasi-feudal state of existence, with massive urban depopulation and the death of probably 95% of the Earth’s people." Not necessarily so. "Local farming" and "small shops" can come in so many variations, so we cannot generalize this way. A local society I happen to know which is full of small shops is that of Suruí in the municipality of Magé in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. I much enjoyed getting to know where everything was to be found - an exercise which took months, since it implied getting to know the whole neigbourhood, where many had small shops and bars and workshops etc., some of which with regular opening hours, others open whenever a customer knocked. I cannot see how the West's supermarket-model is necessarily representative of a higher level of civilization, nor how it should be taken to be superior in social terms. There is no de-urbanization involved, and much less any mass-death.

You write: “The Malthusian theory of a limit-point to the growth of population was materially disproven by the industrial revolution taking place before his very eyes.” While there is something to that as to his concrete theory, the industrial revolution proved nothing at all with regard to how many people the Earth can sustain. In particular, it did not at all prove that there are no limits whatsoever to how many the Earth can sustain. This remains a question of in part empirical nature. It is both conceivable

1) that the Earth can sustain a bigger human population that it does today, and

2) that the Earth can in the long turn only sustain a somewhat smaller human population than today BUT AT THE COST OF ITS MEDIUM-TERM CARRYING CAPACITY.

In other words, it is also conceivable that even maintaining today’s human population level will over time weaken the Earth’s carrying potential with regard to us. Besides, there are ethical issues concerning how big share of this planet’s land and resources we are to reserve for ourselves, and how much we let be available for other creatures (not counting our ‘affiliated species’ in agriculture, which are basically tools for our own ends).

While your claim that making local farming the only norm would mean the death of 95% is wildly exaggerated and as such erronous, it is true that organic and non-intensive farming is as a rule more land- and labour-intensive alike. This must pose a paradox to any well-informed green. One implication is that if all of today's agricultural produce was made organic, we would likely need to cultivate even more land (and one third of the Earth's total land mass is already in use for human food production, pastures etc. included). In that sense there is even a potential conflict between organic farming and food security for a growing human population (which will grow at least for another 30-40 years).

We must recall, however, that very much of today's land use in agriculture is tied to meat consumption. So here vegetarianism and organic farming are allies: The more vegetarians there are (or, to modify, the lower the meat consumption), the more organic farming do we have room for. On a utopian planet where everyone were vegetarians, we would have room for global, fully organic farming, PLUS we would be able to leave more land for wildlife. This ultimate combination is indeed possible. A global organic diet with a high share of meat is much less realistic, and would be much less environmentally friendly.

Let me also mention "The vegetarian's (or vegan's) paradox", which I have described in http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/sss/tonnessen311.pdf: "vegetarians, and especially radical ones, such as vegans, might face some paradoxes. For example: In a world of vegans — with no animal products consumed nor produced — what would be the fate of domesticated animals? ... In a vegan world, we would be left with two alternatives: Either we could keep them in zoos or as a sort of pets, or we would have to let them go extinct. What the vegan should ask herself is: Is an animal that depends on human beings for its pure existence really better off not existing?" A vegetarian's response to this paradix is telling of his or her values. It is fully possible to reply that domesticated animals are better off not existing, but if that is a vegetarian's position, it reveals that his/her dietary preference is NOT put into effect for the sake of the animals the vegetarian does not eat. Perhaps for the sake of wildlife, or for a kind of ethical purity?

I will not say much about Arne Næss and his view on population, but let me mention that I think his view on population control was not very fruitful (and I am saying this as a former student of demography). Nevertheless I share his vision of a human population that is in the long term substantially smaller than today's population. By long term we are talking about a transitional phase with pretty even decline in world population lasting for 300-1000 years (anything quicker would be inhumane, if we are talking about a deline on the scale of minus 90%). Næss himself underlined the importance of thinking about this only in a long-term perspective. He claimed to be reformistic on the short term, but revolutionary in the long term, and in the case of his view on population I think that is quite accurate (he used to talk about 100 kids being born this year, 99 the next, 98 the third...). One could argue in favor of such a development even without bringing in the intrinsic value of nature and other creatures. A somewhat lower world population in the long term would arguably increase the chance that future societies will be able to offer their citizens lives in abundance rather than misery.

As my idea about a transitional phase of 300-1000 years with regard to demography illustrates, I believe in developing and preparing something worthy of the name "a new civilization". My ideology of utopian realism presupposes that we can talk about three historical phases in this context:

1) Our age (the modern age, if you like)

2) A transitional phase - era of adjustment

3) A truly sustainable society

Following the deep ecology of Arne Næss, I believe that this desired development would entail profound changes in philosophy, science, economy, and ideology. Though much change would occur in our generation, my perspective implies that the change that can occur in our lifetimes would only mark the beginning of this new path in the development of humanity. We could initiate revolutionary change, and prepare revolutionary change, but not complete it.

You write: "What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature." A dangerous and simplified choice, I think - though, if we take it seriously, you seem to be winning as we speak. This maxime further reminds me of Heidegger's talk in "The fundamental concepts of metaphysics" about the human need for making itself at home in the world - by, I would argue, making the whole planet Earth its home, qua humanized. This is a valid perspective on human alienation. But it is a poor real-life solution of our existential problem (especially since we never will feel fully at home no matter how much we make the Earth "our own").

You write that your vision would entail "both the transformation of man and nature." “The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage." Abundance of what? On a even further "humanized" planet, there would surely not be much abundance in wildlife. Is not that a kind of abundance that can enrich our lives as well? And as I have argued above, future economic abundance in future societies is more likely if we know to limit ourselves and to leave room for other creatures as well.

"It is a vision of unlimited human freedom," you write, "not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle.” Unlimited in what sense? On what planet? You seem in your concluding marxist vision to be neglecting empirical reality and our embeddedness in nature and on this concrete planet.

Keynes wrote in the wake of the Great Depression about humankind's age-old fight to overcome poverty - the problem of Man. His article was called ”Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”. We can rightfully ask whether the "utopian" future society he sketched therein, a society where Man's problem would have been solved, has to a large extent been achieved. There are still poor people on this planet (and addressing that remains a core political task), but today a vast majority globally do not live in material misery. The global growth of the last 80 years has surpassed Keynes expectations. At what point will we realize that past utopias of a "society of abundance" has largely been achieved?

PS: For an evaluation of different scenarios about global economic growth up to the year of 2300, see my journal article "The future of growth", http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/19644/.

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