Ecological awakening in the age of Trump
by Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, Founder and Director of The Climate Mobilization
Ecological awakening in the age of Trump
by Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, Founder and Director of The Climate Mobilization
iPolitics Insights by Ross Belot / November 2, 2017
The 2017 UN climate change conference in Bonn — otherwise known as COP23 — starts Monday. A year ago I said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna would be going there with nothing to brag about. This year, she can at least make small talk about her plans to teach children about climate change.
Meanwhile, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr is pleading with industry to reduce its energy consumption. Those firms that succeed in cutting energy use by 10 per cent or more will be formally recognized as Energy Star Achievers — demonstrating that, between Carr and McKenna, the Trudeau government’s approach to fighting climate change is the same one a middle school teacher would take.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: This government has no strategy to meet Canada’s emissions reduction commitments under the Paris accord, let alone Stephen Harper’s target of a 30 per cent reduction in emissions between 2005 and 2030.
Who says so? Our own National Energy Board. It just released Canada’s Energy Future 2017, a report that shows fossil fuel use peaking by 2019 and then flatlining through 2040. So our plan to transition to a low-carbon economy basically amounts to doing what we’re doing now, based on what the NEB thinks our fuel use will be in future.
The NEB presents some scenarios that Peter Watson, the NEB’s CEO, says show fossil fuel use declining in “a meaningful way.” One scenario involves higher carbon pricing. Let’s take a closer look at that one.
It has to be said that Watson has a pretty peculiar idea of what’s ‘meaningful’ in the face of global warming catastrophe. The NEB’s base case shows a 5 per cent decline in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 over 2005 — not because we’ll be using less energy (we’re going to be using 9 per cent more energy overall from fossil fuels, the NEB forecasts) but because we’ll have switched from ‘dirty’ coal to ‘cleaner’ natural gas by then.
No, his so-called ‘meaningful’ reduction in the NEB’s “high carbon pricing scenario” amounts to a paltry 4 per cent reduction — not terribly useful to a government that has pledged a 30 per cent reduction, to be achieved largely through the use of carbon taxes.
This tells us two things. First, the NEB makes no effort to tell us what we’d have to do to meet our Paris targets, and seems to have no interest in that. Second, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon pricing plan isn’t going to do the job.
That’s disappointing. Also disappointing is the disappearance from this report of the low price scenario which doesn’t support the NEB’s push for more pipelines. The NEB now produces just one price scenario through the 2020s, one that’s high enough to justify significant growth in the oilsands. The evidence they provided previously that did not support pipelines — that has mysteriously vanished from their forecast.
The use of multiple price scenarios as a requirement for assessing pipelines came up in the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s very critical review of Enbridge’s giant Line 3 expansion application. Ironically, the price data that just disappeared from the NEB’s report is exactly what Minnesota expected in an application — and its consultant cited last year’s NEB energy outlook as an example of what should be considered.
Now, it’s possible that the NEB and Watson think it’s far more important to show that marginal reductions in carbon emissions out in the 2030-and-beyond timeframe don’t affect our oilsands production than it is to present scenarios showing no growth in oilsands production due to low prices. But given its ongoing push for pipelines — and Watson’s own biased testimony to a Senate committee a while ago — one might wonder if the low-price scenario disappeared because its data conflicted with the pro-pipeline story. (After all, people like me use those numbers against the NEB — and they really don’t like it.)
Here’s something else we learned from Minnesota’s review of that pipeline application. The same consultants Enbridge used produced the economic basis for the Trans Mountain expansion application — consultants whose approach the Minnesota Department of Commerce described as ”simplistic — and in the case of pipeline capacity, unrealistic.”
The analysis Minnesota has done calls into question our regulator’s approach to pipeline approvals, since logic similar to the content in the Enbridge application has been applied by the NEB for Trans Mountain, resulting in approval.
I don’t know what’s going on with the NEB. The agency has capable people who do excellent work. But somehow, the data are getting misused. A low-price scenario — the one which looks like what we’re most likely to see over the next ten years at least — clearly suggests that oilsands production isn’t going to grow much. That scenario undermines the case for Energy East and knocks down the conspiracy theories about its cancellation: the market outlook — not the Trudeau government’s policies — killed that project. Same goes for Keystone XL’s prospects. Maybe — if the NEB started giving people all the facts — governments, industry and the public could have an informed conversation about the future of Canada’s energy sector. Instead, all we get is yelling and finger-pointing.
Do we need Trans Mountain? What benefits does it offer Canada? Who knows? As long as the NEB keeps spinning a supportive story instead of giving us real information, we can’t evaluate the costs and benefits of pipeline projects. The NEB’s approach appears to be to withhold data that call into question their CEO’s Senate testimony, instead of addressing the real questions.
Is the NEB in the business of professionally assessing pipeline applications? Or is it just another industry cheerleader?
Climate change has been described as one of the biggest problems faced by humankind. Carbon dioxide is is the primary driver of global warming. Prof Joanna Haigh from Imperial College London explains why this gas has played a crucial role in shaping the Earth’s climate.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) has been present in the atmosphere since the Earth condensed from a ball of hot gases following its formation from the explosion of a huge star about five billion years ago.
At that time the atmosphere was mainly composed of nitrogen, CO2 and water vapour, which seeped through cracks in the solid surface. A very similar composition emerges from volcanic eruptions today.
As the planet cooled further some of the water vapour condensed out to form oceans and they dissolved a portion of the CO2 but it was still present in the atmosphere in large amounts.
The first life forms to evolve on Earth were microbes which could survive in this primordial atmosphere but about 2.5 billion years ago, plants developed the ability to photosynthesise, creating glucose and oxygen from CO2 and water in the presence of light from the Sun.
This had a transformative impact on the atmosphere: as life developed, CO2 was consumed so that by around 20 million years ago its concentration was down to below 300 molecules in every one million molecules of air (or 300 parts per million – ppm).
Life on Earth has evolved under these conditions – note that humans did not appear until about 200,000 years ago – and atmospheric CO2 has not exceed that concentration until the industrial revolution brought with it massive emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels: coal and oil.
CO2 plays an important role in climate because it is one of the atmospheric “greenhouse” gases (GHGs) which keep the Earth’s surface about 33 degrees warmer than the -18C temperature it would be at were they not present.
They do this by being fairly transparent to the Sun’s rays, allowing them through to warm the surface, but then absorbing the radiant heat that the surface emits, so trapping it and enhancing the warming. In the present climate the most effective GHGs are water vapour, which is responsible for about two-thirds of the total warming, and CO2 which accounts for about one quarter.
Other gases, including methane, make up the remainder. The atmospheric concentration of water vapour is less than 1% and, with CO2 making up only a few molecules in every ten thousand of air, it may be surprising that they can have such a significant impact on the surface temperature.
They are able to do this, however, because the structure of their molecules makes them especially effective at absorbing heat radiation while the major atmospheric gases, nitrogen and oxygen, are essentially transparent to it.
The greenhouse effect means that as the atmospheric loading of GHGs increases the surface temperature of the Earth warms. The overall increase in global temperature of about 1C over the past 150 years is almost entirely due to the human activities that have increasing amounts of atmospheric GHGs.
Most significantly, the concentration of CO2 has been rising exponentially (at a rate of about 0.17% per year) since the industrial revolution, due mainly to the combustion of fossil fuels but also to large-scale tropical deforestation which depletes the climate system’s capacity for photosynthesis.
In 2015, it passed 400ppm, more than 40% higher than its pre-industrial value of 280ppm and a level that has not existed on Earth for several million years.
While the basic science of how GHGs warm the Earth is very well understood, there are complications. The climate system responds in various ways which both enhance and ameliorate the effects of these gases.
For example, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour (before it condenses out in clouds or rain) and because water vapour is a GHG, this increases the temperature rise. Another example: as the oceans warm they are less able to hold CO2 so release it, again with the result the initial warming is enhanced.
The global temperature record over the past century does not show the same smooth increase presented by CO2 measurements because the climate is influenced by other factors than GHGs, arising from both natural and human sources. Some particles released into the atmosphere by industrial activities reflect sunshine back to space, tending to cool the planet.
Similarly, large volcanic eruptions can eject small particles into the higher atmosphere, where they remain for up to about two years reducing the sunlight reaching the surface, and temporary dips in global temperature have indeed been measured following major volcanic events.
Changes in the energy emitted by the Sun also affect surface temperature, though measurements of the solar output show this effect to be small on human timescales.
Another important consideration in interpreting global temperatures is that the climate is inherently complex. Energy moves between the atmosphere and oceans in natural fluctuations – an example being El Niño events. This means that we cannot expect an immediate direct relationship between any influencing factor and surface temperature.
All these factors complicate the picture. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the global temperature rise over the past century is a result of human-produced GHGs, mainly CO2.
While, until the industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration has not exceeded the 280ppm value that last occurred several million years ago, it has gone through periods when it was considerably lower.
Notably, during the ice ages which have occurred roughly every 100,000 years over at least the past half million, drops in global temperature of perhaps 5C have been accompanied by reductions in CO2 concentration to less than 200ppm.
The ice ages, and associated warmer interglacial periods, are brought about by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun which take place on these long timescales. The cooling in response to a decline in solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface results in a greater uptake of CO2 by the oceans and so further cooling due to a weakened greenhouse effect.
This is an entirely natural phenomenon and it is worth noting that such amplification of temperature fluctuations will occur in response to any initiating factor regardless of its source and including human-produced greenhouse gases.
The effects of increasing CO2 are not limited to an increase in air temperature. As the oceans warm they are expanding so producing a rise in sea level, this being exacerbated by the melting of some of the ice present on land near the poles and in glaciers. The warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour resulting in increased occurrences of heavy rainfall and flooding while changes in weather patterns are intensifying droughts in other regions.
If human emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere continue unabated then the global temperature will continue to rise and the associated weather impacts become ever more severe. The UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015, at which 195 nations unanimously agreed on an aim to restrict the temperature rise to less than 2C, or preferably 1.5C, above the pre-industrial “baseline” was an extraordinary political achievement.
To achieve this, however, will require a complete cessation of global CO2 emissions by the second half of this century and, while the world considers how this might be achieved, the crossing of the 400ppm mark in CO2 concentration has been matched by a global warming of 1C.
Insects have triumphed for hundreds of millions of years in every habitat but the ocean. Their success is unparalleled, which makes their disappearance all the more alarming.
The Guardian by Michael McCarthy /
Thirty-five years ago an American biologist Terry Erwin conducted an experiment to count insect species. Using an insecticide “fog”, he managed to extract all the small living things in the canopies of 19 individuals of one species of tropical tree, Luehea seemannii, in the rainforest of Panama. He recorded about 1,200 separate species, nearly all of them coleoptera (beetles) and many new to science; and he estimated that 163 of these would be found on Luehea seemannii only.
He calculated that as there are about 50,000 species of tropical tree, if that figure of 163 was typical for all the other trees, there would be more than eight million species, just of beetles, in the tropical rainforest canopy; and as beetles make up about 40% of all the arthropods, the grouping that contains the insects and the other creepy-crawlies from spiders to millipedes, the total number of such species in the canopy might be 20 million; and as he estimated the canopy fauna to be separate from, and twice as rich as, the forest floor, for the tropical forest as a whole the number of species might be 30 million.
Yes, 30 million. It was one of those extraordinary calculations, like Edwin Hubble’s of the true size of the universe, which sometimes stop us in our tracks.
Erwin reported that he was shocked by his conclusions and entomologists have argued over them ever since. But about insects, his findings make two things indisputably clear. One is that there are many, many more types than the million or so hitherto described by science, and probably many more than the 10m species sometimes postulated as an uppermost figure; and the second is that this is far and away the most successful group of creatures the Earth has ever seen.
They are multitudinous almost beyond our imagining. They thrive in soil, water, and air; they have triumphed for hundreds of millions of years in every continent bar Antarctica, in every habitat but the ocean. And it is their success – staggering, unparalleled and seemingly endless – which makes all the more alarming the great truth now dawning upon us: insects as a group are in terrible trouble and the remorselessly expanding human enterprise has become too much, even for them.
The astonishing report highlighted in the Guardian, that the biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by three quarters since 1989, threatening an “ecological Armageddon”, is the starkest warning yet; but it is only the latest in a series of studies which in the last five years have finally brought to public attention the real scale of the problem.
Does it matter? Even if bugs make you shudder? Oh yes. Insects are vital plant-pollinators and although most of our grain crops are pollinated by the wind, most of our fruit crops are insect-pollinated, as are the vast majority of our wild plants, from daisies to our most splendid wild flower, the rare and beautiful lady’s slipper orchid.
Furthermore, insects form the base of thousands upon thousands of food chains, and their disappearance is a principal reason why Britain’s farmland birds have more than halved in number since 1970. Some declines have been catastrophic: the grey partridge, whose chicks fed on the insects once abundant in cornfields, and the charming spotted flycatcher, a specialist predator of aerial insects, have both declined by more than 95%, while the red-backed shrike, which feeds on big beetles, became extinct in Britain in the 1990s.
Ecologically, catastrophe is the word for it.
It has taken us a lot of time to understand this for two reasons: one cultural, one scientific. Firstly, we generally do not care for insects (bees and butterflies excepted). Even wildlife lovers are fixed on vertebrates, on creatures of fur and feather and especially the “charismatic megafauna”, and in the population as a whole there is even less sympathy for the fate of the chitin-skeletoned little things that creep and crawl; our default reaction is a shudder. Fewer bugs in the world? Many would cheer.
Secondly, for the overwhelming majority of insect species, there is no monitoring or measurement of numbers taking place. It is a practical impossibility: in the UK alone there are about 24,500 insect species – about 1,800 species of bugs, 4,000 species of beetles, 7,000 species of flies and another 7,000 species of bees, wasps and ants – and most are unknown to all but a few specialists. So their vast and catastrophic decline, at last perceptible, has crept up on us; and when first we began to perceive it, it was not through statistics, but through anecdote.
The earliest anecdotal impression of decline was through what is sometimes termed the windscreen phenomenon (or windshield if you live in the US): time was, especially in the summer, when any long automobile journey would result in a car windscreen that was insect-spattered. But then, not so much. Two years ago I wrote a book focusing on this curious happening, but I gave it a different name: I called it the moth snowstorm, referring to the moths which on summer nights in my childhood might cluster in such numbers that they would pack a speeding car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard.
But the point about the moth snowstorm was this: it had gone. I personally realized it had disappeared, and began writing about it as a journalist, in the year 2000; but it became obvious from talking to people who had also observed it that its disappearance dated further back, probably to about the 1970s and 1980s. And the fact that an entire large-scale phenomenon such as this had simply ceased to exist pointed inescapably to one grim conclusion: though unnoticed by the world at large, a whole giant ecosystem was collapsing. The insect world was falling apart.
Today we know beyond doubt, and with scientific statistics rather than just anecdote, that this is true, and the question immediately arises: what caused it?
It seems indisputable: it is us. It is human activity – more specifically, three generations of industrialised farming with a vast tide of poisons pouring over the land year after year after year, since the end of the second world war. This is the true price of pesticide-based agriculture, which society has for so long blithely accepted.
So what is the future for 21st-century insects? It will be worse still, as we struggle to feed the nine billion people expected to be inhabiting the world by 2050, and the possible 12 billion by 2100, and agriculture intensifies even further to let us do so. You think there will be fewer insecticides sprayed on farmlands around the globe in the years to come? Think again. It is the most uncomfortable of truths, but one which stares us in the face: that even the most successful organisms that have ever existed on earth are now being overwhelmed by the titanic scale of the human enterprise, as indeed, is the whole natural world.
• Michael McCarthy is a writer, naturalist, and author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
One of the great projects of modern-day Canada is reconciliation between the federal government and Indigenous peoples.
It’s important and necessary work. But as a recent breakdown in negotiations between First Nations leaders and Ottawa shows, it is hampered by the lack of a definition of what reconciliation is, and what it will look like if and when it is achieved.
Three members of the executive of the Assembly of First Nations last week sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying they will no longer collaborate with Ottawa on reforming key enviromental-protection laws that they, and the government, believe have been tilted too much in the favour of industry.
The AFN members say they don’t feel like full partners in the process. But their real beef seems to be that Ottawa is moving in a direction that they don’t agree with.
“Our order of priority is environmental sustainability and then the national [economic] interest,” said Chief Isadore Day, one of the signatories to the letter. “The federal government’s order of priority is the national interest and then environmental sustainability.”
This is a reasonable difference to have. It’s also a reasonable difference for two different levels of government to have. But for the current federal government, it is overshadowed by the Liberals’ signature vow to achieve reconciliation – a major part of which is its promise to establish “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Native leaders like those in the AFN believe such a relationship means that Ottawa can’t approve projects that affect Indigenous territory without their “free, prior and informed consent,” a term taken from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Canada, even thought it is an UNDRIP signatory, has balked at giving Indigenous people what amounts to a veto over development. Its stance, which is supported by current Canadian law, is that the government must seek informed consent in good faith, but it can move forward in the national interest if that consent can’t be obtained.
It’s a huge difference of opinion. If one side believes an Indigenous veto over development is necessary for reconciliation, there’s a good chance it won’t ever be achieved. That in turn raises the question of whether there’s a point to talks like the ones that stalled last week.
These are the great mysteries of reconciliation: What does it look like? Can it realistically be achieved? As far as we can tell, no one has a clue.
First Nations leaders have halted their collaboration with Liberal government on developing environmental legislation, arguing Ottawa is failing to make good on its vaunted commitments to work in partnership with Indigenous people.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, three members of the Assembly of First Nations executive committee said they were promised that they would be full partners in crafting the rules under which major mining, oil and gas and pipeline projects would be assessed. They complained they are being left out of key decisions on the proposed legislation. The letter, dated Oct. 16, was provided to The Globe and Mail on Thursday.
“Technical discussions between officials have been largely one-sided and do not encompass the principles of collaboration and transparency that a nation-to-nation relationship must embody,” said the missive signed by three regional chiefs who are co-chairs of the AFN’s Advisory Committee on Climate Action and the Environment.
The Liberal government is in the process of overhauling four pieces of legislation – the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act – which govern how major resource projects are assessed and approved. The laws underwent major revisions under the former Conservative government, with the intent of speeding up regulatory approvals, but the Liberals – as well as many Indigenous leaders and environmental groups – argued the Conservatives tilted the playing field in favour of industry, and gave short shrift to environmental concerns and Indigenous rights.
In an interview, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the Liberal government is failing to give proper weight to environmental considerations and treaty rights as it prepares draft legislation, and is putting a greater emphasis on economic development.
“Our order of priority is environmental sustainability and then the national interest,” said Chief Day, an AFN executive member and one of the signatories to the letter. “The federal government’s order of priority is the national interest and then environmental sustainability.”
In keeping with the government’s policy of reconciliation, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna say Ottawa will partner with Indigenous leaders in developing the new environmental rules, as well as in monitoring their enforcement.
Chief Day said that public commitment is not being met.
“It’s a sad story but we have become strangers to the process,” he said in an interview. “I’m sensing we are in darkening times when it comes to sunny ways of this prime minister and his commitment to nation-to-nation relationship.”
In a statement from their offices, the two ministers insisted the government remains committed to working “in a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.
“Over the past year, the federal government has held more than 200 meetings with Indigenous peoples across the country, to discuss the path forward to restore Canadians’ trust in our environmental assessment and regulatory processes. The Assembly of First Nations has made substantial contributions to move forward the dialogue on improving these processes,” the ministers said in the joint statement.
At a two-day energy summit hosted by his department last week, Mr. Carr ensured Indigenous leaders had prominent roles while pledging that the government’s approach to resource-industry regulation would be guided by aboriginal values of “protection of the land, air and water.”
Behind the scenes, however, the government was facing a barrage of criticism from the AFN committee.
At a meeting in late September, the chiefs told the minister they disagreed with the government on key points, and that it would be wrong to state publicly that two sides were aligned. The minister responded that he was working hard to meet the government’s commitments on Indigenous relations and was “moving too fast for some and not fast enough for others,” according to an internal AFN briefing on the meeting provided to The Globe.
The meeting featured some heated exchanges between the AFN chiefs and Mr. Carr, and prompted the letter to the prime minister. However, in a signal of divisions within the AFN itself, National Chief Perry Bellegarde refused to sign the letter.
In a speech at the United Nations in New York last month, Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged Canada is still operating under a colonial system put in place in the 19th and 20th century that deprived Indigenous people of their rights and left many of them in dire poverty.
He vowed to establish “nation-to-nation” relations based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes rights to self-determination and to assert the need for free, prior and informed consent over developments that impact their traditional territory.
The AFN’s rebuke on what they believed to be “co-development” of environmental legislation illustrates the significant challenges the Liberals face as they look to put those principles in practice.
Rather than insist on the right to free, prior and information consent, the Liberals’ principles for relations with Indigenous people says the government “aims to secure” their consent “when Canada proposes to take actions which impact them and their rights, including their lands, territories and resources.” Mr. Carr said last week that the government must strike a balance among interests when assessing major projects like pipelines and mines.
In their letter to the prime minister, the three regional chiefs argue Ottawa’s commitment to implement the UN declaration “sets a standard that has not yet been met.”
The Liberals are overhauling legislation that was put in place five years ago by the previous Conservative government and was criticized for failing to properly account for Indigenous rights and environmental protection. The current government insist the new rules would reduce the likelihood of approvals being overturned by the courts, but Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the changes do not go far enough in ensuring Indigenous people exercise free, prior and informed consent over project approvals.
MROnline by John Bellamy Foster\ Oct 19, 2017
What the ancient Greeks had to offer to the understanding of today’s ecological predicament, however, extended well beyond such linguistic roots. In Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy, one already finds a powerful intuitive grasp of the twofold estrangement of nature and society brought into being by the development of a commercial money economy, leading to the conflict between a system of wealth that was unlimited in its aspirations—set against a world of natural limitations. From Aristophanes’ Wealth to Aeschylus’s Oresteia to Aristotle’s Politics to Epicurus’s On Nature, and—in Roman times—to Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical critique of unlimited acquisition is a theme that is repeated over and over. For Epicurus, “The wealth demanded by nature is both limited and easily procured; that demanded by idle imaginings stretches on to infinity.” He added: “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”—thus, “unlimited wealth is great poverty.”2
Greek and Roman mythology dramatized the contradiction between the pursuit of unlimited wealth and ecological limits in numerous places, the best known of which is the legend of Midas. But the most poignant of all—as Richard Seaford declared in “The Ancient Greeks and Global Warming,” his presidential address to the British Classical Association in 2009—is the myth of Erysichthon.3 In the version provided by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, King Erysichthon of Thessaly cuts down a massive ancient oak tree in the sacred grove of the goddess Ceres (Demeter) in order to build a banquet hall. In the process he kills those who stood in his way, inviting down upon himself the curse of a dying dryad or tree nymph. Ceres, responding to the pleas of the dead nymph’s sisters, punishes him by calling upon the goddess Famine to enter his body and breathe her essence into him, giving him an insatiable search for wealth and consumption:
Just as the sea receives from round the world
its rivers, and is never satisfied,
no matter from what distant source they flow,
and as a raging fire spurns no fuel,
devouring innumerable logs
and wanting more with every one it gets,
growing more voracious from abundance,
just so the greedy lips of Erysichthon,
even as they took in, were seeking out;
the cause of one feast was the one before,
and all his eating only left him empty.4
Erysichthon seeks to extract everything from nature and the world around him and in the process sells his own daughter in marriage, from which she escapes (by means of shape-shifting), but returning to him only to be resold again—a process that is repeated over and over. Erysichthon’s fate is quite different from that of Midas, who, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is eventually released from his ill-considered wish, granted by the god Bacchus, of turning everything he touches into gold, and who then turns to the worship of the god Pan and nature. In contrast, Erysichthon eventually eats himself as a product of his insatiable desire for more. According to Seaford, the myth of Erysichthon “contains a unique combination of unusual features: the transformation of nature into a product, selling to obtain food, and eating the self. The constant return of the daughter from marriage excludes progeny (the future). The Greeks had a myth for many of our central concerns, and here is one for global warming: exploitation of nature produces pathological insatiability, the unlimited need for a source of income that sacrifices the future, and self-destruction.”5
How is it that ancient Greeks (and Romans) had such a powerful critique of unlimited wealth in a precapitalist economy? Seaford argues, based on his own seminal research in Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, that as the earliest society to introduce a systematic money economy based on coinage, the Greeks generated a concept of unlimited, abstract wealth that tore at the whole fabric of the Greek polis. It was this more than anything else, he indicates, that helped generate the sense of contradiction and estrangement of nature that came to pervade Athenian drama and philosophy.6
It is not until the rise of the generalized commodity economy of capitalism that one discovers as powerful a critique of the alienation of nature and its relation to the pursuit of unlimited wealth in a money economy, and then it is frequently overridden by the notion of the mastery and the domination of nature and the struggle over class and production. Writing of the alienation (the sale) of nature in terms of land, which in classical political economy had stood for nature as a whole, Karl Polanyi stated in The Great Transformation:
What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.… And yet to separate land from man and organize society in such a way as to satisfy the requirements of a real-estate market was a vital part of the utopian concept of a market economy.7
Those opposing the rise of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries tended to split between Romantics, who deplored the destruction of nature, and socialists, who were concerned almost exclusively with the class struggle. However, a number of thinkers whose worldviews can be properly described as dialectical, drew from both traditions, recognizing (albeit in different ways) that the alienation of nature and the alienation of labor were two sides of the same coin, and related to production. Among the most radical and perceptive in this regard were such diverse figures as William Blake, P. B. Shelley, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, John Ruskin, and William Morris.
It is here in the context of the Industrial Revolution that natural science also began to exert a critical influence. Throughout the growth of modernity, the notion of the “domination” or “mastery of nature” was seen as referring to the harnessing of the powers of nature by means of science and technology. Even for Francis Bacon such mastery of nature was seen as only possible by following nature’s laws, with the result that some of his earliest seventeenth-century followers, such as John Evelyn, the author of Fumifugium (a treatise on air pollution) and Sylva (a treatise on deforestation), pioneered in raising issues of conservation and environmental management.8 The eventual triumph of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 encouraged an understanding of the historicity of nature, and ultimately processes of co-evolution.
At the same time, the discovery in the nineteenth century of the concept of metabolism in cell physiology and its spread to other fields, coupled with the rise of thermodynamics, pointed within science to the rise of a more unified organic view of what Blake and many others had metaphorically called the “Web of Life.”9Among the first to see the larger implications of the concept of metabolism was Marx, who defined the labor process as the “social metabolism,” thereby tying the critique of alienation of labor and the alienation of nature under capitalism, to a materialist-scientific worldview.10 Aspects of this developing ecological view are to be found in the work of the zoologist Ray Lankester, Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protégé and Marx’s close friend. But it was not until Arthur G. Tansley, Lankester’s student, introduced the concept of ecosystem in 1935, drawing on sources as diverse as Lucretius in ancient materialism and Marxian conceptions of science, that the critical-dialectical potential of ecology came to the fore. “Ecology,” Tansley argued, “must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity.”11
Tansley’s ecosystem analysis was introduced in part as a critical-materialist response to idealist and racist conceptions of ecology prevalent in his time.12 The emerging ecosystem critique, however, was drowned out by other developments. In the late 1930s and 1940s a general conflagration ensued in the form of the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, faith in the power of science and technology was at its height, and with it the belief in “human exemptionalism.”13Nothing could have been further from the popular mind of the immediate postwar period than the notion of natural limits. Yet it was in this same period, which we now associate with the Great Acceleration and the emergence of the Anthropocene epoch, that ecology began to come into its own, both as an integrative science and as a critical standpoint on the development of capitalist society.14 The first great ecological revolt of the postwar period was the struggle of scientists internationally in the 1950s against aboveground nuclear testing. Hence, it is no accident that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was the eventual result of this scientific revolt, in which figures like Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Barry Commoner played important roles, was finally concluded around the time of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—usually thought of as signaling the rise of the modern ecology movement. Carson applied the new specters of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of radiation (the processes whereby toxins accumulate within organisms and then are magnified at higher levels of the food web) to the way in which this was also manifested by synthetic chemicals in pesticides (which she called “biocides”)—with both the nuclear and biocide threats having emerged out of scientific advances within war industry.15
Of greater long-run significance perhaps than Silent Spring itself was Carson’s 1963 speech, “The Pollution of Our Environment,” in which she introduced the concepts of ecology and ecosystem to the U.S. public.16 Within a decade, ecology took off as both a scientific field and as a social-political movement, each feeding on the other. This was evident in the appearance of a whole issue of Scientific American in 1970, introducing the concept of the biosphere to the wider population, and by the publication in the following year of Commoner’s The Closing Circle—the first in a series of pathbreaking works, which included The Poverty of Power (1976) and Making Peace with the Planet (1990). In this analysis, Commoner brought together the critique of the capitalist ecology and the critique of the capitalist economy. “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick,” he wrote in Making Peace with the Planet, “the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production.”17
As David R. Keller and Frank Golley explain in The Philosophy of Ecology, “ecology is a science of synthesis”—directed at a world of widening ecological rifts. Ecology, they write,
is captivating due to the sheer comprehensiveness of its scope and complexity of its subject matter; ecology addresses everything from the genetics, physiology, and ethology of animals (including humans) to watersheds, the atmosphere, geologic processes, and influences of solar radiation and meteor impacts—in short, the totality of nature…
The word ecology connotes “ecological worldview.” An ecological worldview emphasizes interaction and connectedness. The theme can be developed in several ways:
In short, ecology raises the kinds of complex and interconnected relations and contradictions in the human interface with the web of life that is traditionally associated with a materialist-dialectical worldview.19 It should not be surprising, therefore, that although ecology was for decades viewed exclusively as a specialized scientific pursuit, the concept has now taken on a popular, political meaning related to environmentalism. Yet the science of ecology and the politics of ecology, while different, have come to feed into each other in present-day society, since the science itself points continually to anthropogenic rifts in natural processes and the degradation of ecosystems (and increasingly the Earth system), resulting from human production.
In the Anthropocene, we live in an age where the implications of ecological science are radical—often more radical than mainstream environmentalism itself, which is trapped in the purely incremental, ameliorative social status quo. Figures like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and the late Richard Levins, as well as many others, thus point toward the need for social-system change on a massive scale. For Carson, speaking in terms the ancient Greeks would undoubtedly have understood: “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.”20Marx, observing the emergence of ecological concerns within soil science in his day, called this “an unconscious socialist tendency,” in the sense that it pointed to the need for a shift to a society governed by the associated producers, which would rationally regulate the metabolism of humanity and nature.21
Magdoff and Williams are among the foremost heirs to this broad heritage of ecological thought within science and social criticism. Magdoff is by profession a soil scientist and ecologist. Williams is a science educator. Both have wide backgrounds as well in the critique of capitalist political economy. Magdoff is coauthor of The Great Financial Crisis (2009) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (2011)—both with the present author. Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism (2010).22 Both exemplify the new tradition of ecosocialism, rooted in a natural-scientific understanding of ecology and exploring the evolution, interconnections, limits, and resilience of natural systems. They stress the dangers of a society in which accumulation of profits is based on the exploitation of humanity and the expropriation of nature. It is their ability to bring these various aspects of our present-day reality together in an interconnected, and ultimately hopeful, ecological worldview that constitutes the great value of their book. They seek to transcend two one-sided views: that of ecologists who do not yet recognize that capitalism is the main source of our unprecedented levels of ecological disruption; and that of leftists who have not yet recognized that ecological imperatives are “allies” in the global struggle.23
Today the world is faced with an epochal crisis with two interconnected features. On the one hand, this is a crisis of the overaccumulation of capital, leading to economic stagnation, and the financialization of all aspects of life, manifested in the pervasiveness of debt. This is tied to imperialism and to the widening of human oppression in all its forms—including oppressions of gender, race, and the general devaluation of almost all individuals in today’s global capitalist culture. On the other hand, there is the Anthropocene crisis marked by the continuing acceleration of human impacts on the environment and the crossing of numerous planetary boundaries—the best known of which is climate change, but also including the decline in genetic diversity, ocean acidification, the rifts in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of freshwater resources, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and other ecological rifts. Magdoff and Williams courageously face up to these cumulative contradictions, examining the epochal crisis of our times in its entirety and its relation to capital accumulation, while providing an ecological and socialist exit strategy—one that builds on the strengths of natural science and social science, critical ecology and critical economics.
Creating an Ecological Society, despite its engagement with the most serious problems of our time and its deep realism, is an irrepressibly optimistic work—at a time when most environmental analyses seem to be about simply digging in and awaiting a planetary disaster made inevitable by acquiescence to the existing system. It’s not too late, the authors argue, to address the ecological problems facing us. Time is a factor, of course, but what is required in this situation is a speeding up of the process of social transformation and thereby the creation of new integrative levels of social existence. The movement toward socialism, that is, toward a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality, will have to proceed much faster: by big steps, if not leaps. We can no longer depend—if we ever could—on a process of gradual evolution. Power must be wrested from the 1 percent. The expropriators must be expropriated. Our primarily quantitative society, geared always to more, and enforcing a perpetual deprivation in the population, must give way to an emphasis on qualitative human relations and a more sustainable relation to the environment.
Creating an Ecological Society presents a forward-looking perspective, which derives from three qualities that characterize their analysis: (1) the unification of all the major social-ecological problems, so as to transcend the contradictions of the usual reductionist ways of seeing; (2) a pedagogical approach in which the goal is to map out the social and ecological terrain of struggle for mass popular movements; and (3) the ability to project concrete, meaningful, and practical solutions to problems that are insoluble within the confines of the present system—but only if we are willing to be revolutionary enough to break with the present. Thus oppressions of class, race, and gender are not afterthoughts in an ecological analysis; they are the very nodes of struggle in which an ecosocialist society will be built.
Along the way Magdoff and Williams teach us many things: About Marx’s metabolic rift and the “three rifts” in the soil-nutrient cycle. About the relation of soil to climate change—where they provide a real scientific basis for understanding the importance of the soil’s potential impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. About the growth of epigenetics and its relation to the “triple helix” of gene, organism, and environment, pointing to the breakdown in genetic determinism.24 About how race and gender are tied into environmental injustices. About the construction of healthy cities. All of this is presented in terms as clear as crystal, and crystallized in proposals for revolutionary ecological and social change.
Marx once wrote that humanity “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”25
One cannot read Magdoff and Williams’s book without recognizing that the dire crises associated with our present globalized (and at the same time localized) problems are capable of solution—since the material and human resources for doing so already exist. Never before in human history has the need for change been so great. Yet, it is a struggle, they tell us, that can only be won by “revolution” as a “continuous process”—unceasing radical change.
“After more than two and a half millennia,” Seaford writes, “money remains isolating, unlimited and homogenizing. Unlike us, who either do not see this or take it for granted, the Greeks were struck and sometimes horrified by it. Aristotle maintained that using money to make money is—in contrast to other forms of economic activity—unlimited and unnatural.”26 Marx strongly seconded Aristotle’s critique in this respect.27 And yet today we live in a highly financialized system where we are frequently offered carbon markets as the only solution to global warming—as if accumulation and financialization were the answers to Earth system crisis. For such a capitalist society, in which each expansion is only the basis for the next expansion ad infinitum, everything is turned into a commodity to be sold for the highest profit: the tape by which efficiency is measured. The end prospect of the continuation of capitalist business as usual is thus the fate of Erysichthon:
But when at last his illness had consumed
all that she brought him, and he still craved more,
the wretched man began to tear his limbs
asunder, mangling them in his maw,
and fed his body as he shrank away.28
None of this is foreordained, as in a Greek tragedy. Rather, the challenge before us, Magdoff and Williams declare, is to join the struggle to create an ecological society: a revolutionary transformation of the present.
—October 14, 2016 Eugene, Oregon