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«Envisioning Ecological Revolution The goal of ecological revolution, as I shall present it here, has as its ini- tial premise that we are in the ...»

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Envisioning Ecological Revolution

The goal of ecological revolution, as I shall present it here, has as its ini-

tial premise that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis of

such enormity that the web of life of the entire planet is threatened and

with it the future of civilization.

This is no longer a very controversial proposition. To be sure, there

are different perceptions about the extent of the challenge that this raises.

At one extreme, there are those who believe that since these are human problems arising from human causes they are easily solvable. All we need is ingenuity and the will to act. At the other extreme, there are those who believe that the world ecology is deteriorating on a scale and with a rapid- ity beyond our means to control, giving rise to the gloomiest forebodings.

Although often seen as polar opposites, these views nonetheless share a common basis. As Paul Sweezy observed, they each reflect “the belief that if present trends continue to operate, it is only a matter of time until the human species irredeemably fouls its own nest.”1


The more we learn about current environmental trends, the more the unsustainability of our present course is brought home to us. Among the

warning signs:


• There is now a virtual certainty that the critical threshold of a 2° C (3.6° F) increase in average world temperature above the prein- dustrial level will soon be crossed due to the buildup of green- house gases in the atmosphere. Scientists believe that climate change at this level will have portentous implications for the world’s ecosystems. The question is no longer whether significant climate change will occur but how great it will be.2

• There are growing worries in the scientific community that the estimates of the rate of global warming provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in its worst case scenario projected increases in average global temperature of up to 5.8° C (10.4° F) by 2100, may prove to be too low. For example, results from the world’s largest climate modeling experiment, based in Oxford University in Britain, indi- cate that global warming could increase almost twice as fast as the IPCC has estimated.3

• Experiments at the International Rice Institute and elsewhere have led scientists to conclude that with each 1°C (1.8°F) increase in temperature, rice, wheat, and corn yields could drop 10 percent.

• It is now increasingly believed that the world is approaching peak crude oil production. The world economy is, therefore, con- fronting more constrained oil supplies,despite a rapidly increasing demand. All of this points to a growing world energy crisis and mounting resource wars.4

–  –  –

• Two thirds of the world’s major fish stocks are currently being fished at or above their capacity. Over the last half-century 90 percent of large predatory fish in the world’s oceans have been eliminated.6

• The species extinction rate is the highest in sixty-five million years with the prospect of cascading extinctions, as the last remnants of intact ecosystems are removed. Already the extinction rate is in some cases (as in the case of bird species) one hundred times the “benchmark” or “natural” rate. Scientists have pinpointed twenty-five hot spots on land that account for 44 percent of all vascular plant species and 35 percent of all species in four vertebrate groups, while taking up only 1.4 percent of the world’s land surface. All of these hot spots are now threatened with rapid annihilation due to human causes. According to Stephen Pimm and Clinton Jenkins, writing in Scientific American: “Substantial tracts of intact wilderness remain: humid tropical forests such as the Amazon and Congo, drier woodlands of Africa, and coniferous forests of Canada and Russia. If deforestation in these wilderness forests continues at current rates, the combined extinction rate in them and in the hot [spots around the world] will soon be 1,000 times higher than the benchmark one in a million.”7

• According to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, the world economy exceeded the earth’s regenerative capacity in 1980 and by 1999 had gone beyond it by as much as 20 percent. This means, according to the study’s authors, that “it would require 1.2 earths, or one earth for 1.2 years, to regenerate what humanity used in 1999.”8

• The question of the ecological collapse of past civilizations from Easter Island to the Mayans is now increasingly seen as extending to today’s world capitalist system. This view, long held by environmentalists, has been popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse.9 256 THE ECOLOGICAL REVOLUTION These and other warning bells indicate that the present human relation to the environment is no longer supportable. The most developed capitalist countries have the largest per capita ecological footprints, demonstrating that the entire course of world capitalist development at present represents a dead end.

The main response of the ruling capitalist class, when confronted with the growing environmental challenge, is to fiddle while Rome burns.

To the extent that it has a strategy, it is to rely on revolutionizing the forces of production, i.e., on technical change, while keeping the existing system of social relations intact. It was Karl Marx who first pointed in The Communist Manifesto to “the constant revolutionizing of production” as a distinguishing feature of capitalist society. Today’s vested interests are counting on this built-in process of revolutionary technological change coupled with the proverbial magic of the market to solve the environmental problem when and where this becomes necessary.

In stark contrast, many environmentalists now believe that technological revolution alone will be insufficient to solve the problem and that a more far-reaching social revolution aimed at transforming the present mode of production is required.


Historically, addressing this question of the ecological transformation of society means that we need to ascertain: (1) where the world capitalist system is heading at present; (2) the extent to which it can alter its course by technological or other means in response to today’s converging ecological and social crises; and (3) the historical alternatives to the existing system. The most ambitious attempt thus far to carry out such a broad assessment has come from the Global Scenario Group, a project launched in 1995 by the Stockholm Environmental Institute to examine the transition to global sustainability. The Global Scenario Group has issued three reports—Branch Points (1997), Bending the Curve (1998), and their culminating study, Great Transition (2002). In what follows, I will focus on the last of these reports, the Great Transition.10


As its name suggests, the Global Scenario Group employs alternative scenarios to explore possible paths that society caught in a crisis of ecological sustainability might take. Their culminating report presents three classes of scenarios: Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions. Each of these contains two variants. Conventional Worlds consists of Market Forces and Policy Reform. Barbarization manifests itself in the forms of Breakdown and Fortress World. Great Transitions is broken down into Eco-communalism and the New Sustainability Paradigm. Each scenario is associated with different thinkers: Market Forces with Adam Smith; Policy Reform with John Maynard Keynes and the authors of the 1987 Brundtland Commission report; Breakdown with Thomas Malthus; Fortress World with Thomas Hobbes; Eco-communalism with William Morris, Mahatma Gandhi, and E. F. Schumacher; and the New Sustainability Paradigm with John Stuart Mill.11 Within the Conventional Worlds scenarios, Market Forces stands for naked capitalism or neoliberalism. It represents, in the words of the Great Transition report, “the firestorm of capitalist expansion.”12 Market Forces is an unfettered capitalist world order geared to the accumulation of capital and rapid economic growth without regard to social or ecological costs. The principal problem raised by this scenario is its rapacious relation to humanity and the earth.

The drive to amass capital that is central to a Market Forces regime is best captured by Marx’s general formula of capital (though not referred to in the Great Transition report itself). In a society of simple commodity production (an


conception referring to pre-capitalist economic formations in which money and the market play a subsidiary role), the circuit of commodities and money exists in a form, C–M–C, in which distinct commodities or use-values constitute the end points of the economic process. A commodity (C) embodying a definite use-value is sold for money (M) which is used to purchase a different commodity (C). Each such circuit is completed with the consumption of a use-value.

In the case of capitalism, or generalized commodity production, however, the circuit of money and commodities begins and ends with money, or M–C–M. Moreover, since money is merely a quantitative relationship such an exchange would have no meaning if the same amount of money was acquired at the end of the process as exchanged in the beginning, so 258 THE ECOLOGICAL REVOLUTION the general formula for capital, in reality, takes the form of M–C–M´, where M´ equals M + m or surplus-value. What stands out, when contrasted with simple commodity production, is that there is no real end to the process, since the object is not final use but the accumulation of surplus-value or capital. M–C–M´ in one year, therefore, results in the m being reinvested, leading to M–C–M´´ in the next year and M–C–M´´´ the year after that, ad infinitum. In other words, capital by its nature is self-expanding value.13 The motor force behind this drive to accumulation is competition.

The competitive struggle ensures that each capital or firm must grow and, hence, must reinvest its “earnings” in order to survive.

Such a system tends toward exponential growth punctuated by crises or temporary interruptions in the accumulation process. The pressures placed on the natural environment are immense and will lessen only with the weakening and cessation of capitalism itself. During the last half-century the world economy has grown more than seven-fold while the biosphere’s capacity to support such expansion has, if anything, diminished due to human ecological depredations.14 The main assumption of those who advocate a Market Forces solution to the environmental problem is that it will lead to increasing efficiency in the consumption of environmental inputs by means of technological revolution and continual market adjustments. Use of energy, water, and other natural resources will decrease per unit of economic output. This is often referred to as “dematerialization.” However, the central implication of this argument is false. Dematerialization, to the extent that it can be said to exist, has been shown to be a much weaker tendency than M–C–M´. As the Global Transition report puts it, “The ‘growth effect’ outpaces the ‘efficiency effect.’” 15 This can be understood concretely in terms of what has been called the Jevons Paradox, named after William Stanley Jevons, who published The Coal Question in 1865. Jevons, one of the founders of neoclassical economics, explained that improvements in steam engines that decreased the use of coal per unit of output also served to increase the scale of production as more and bigger factories were built. Hence, increased efficiency in the use of coal had the paradoxical effect of expanding aggregate coal consumption.16


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