Nature and Progress

I am grateful for Max Ajl’s spirited reply to my “Two Hurricanes” piece. However, some of Ajl’s arguments are in competition with each other, which makes it difficult to respond.

In an attempt to dismiss my concern that the social pessimism of environmentalism produces apathy rather than action, Ajl asks “does any mass movement proceed by trying to mobilize the majority?” But later Ajl insists that any serious environmental politics “means mass politics.” Ajl wants mass politics without the masses.

Ajl also believes that small-scale self-sufficient production communities “would be an almost unimaginable improvement for the lives of the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants” and thinks that “ecological problems are not resolvable through endless technofixes” but then wants “coast-to-coast high-speed railroad network along with arterial and capillary branches tied into municipal mass-transportation systems” and “massive government-propelled programs to build alternative energy systems.” That sounds like a massive, industrial project to create an even more integrated national economy.

Ajl wants to red-wash his green economy with a tokenistic nod to the “rage” of capitalist sectors at the prospect of full employment. But the red paint quickly runs off the faintly authoritarian edifice of his green social engineering project, which is mainly focused on “population re-distributions” and emissions reductions. He might not like technology but his thinking about politics is technological.

Ajl dismisses as “not a ‘live’ political struggle” the redistributive project of extending the “means of power generation for everyone in the global South,” but I doubt there is anything more “live” about the project of “emptying out the metastatic suburban spaces and . . . their conversion into carbon dioxide absorbing greenbelts.” The technocratic, public health metaphor of “metastatic” suburban spaces oozes contempt not just for the places but for the people who live there. No wonder he can’t find anything living in his own projects. One suspects that behind the desire for a mass politics without the masses — an attempt to turn politics into technique — is that social pessimism so characteristic of much environmental thinking.

But the above are mostly examples of mere contradictions. More bothersome are the ways in which Ajl reproduces many of the problems with environmental thinking that I identified in my original article.

For instance, I observed that environmentalists often unwittingly rationalize market failures by dressing up responses to these failures as acts of anti-capitalist resistance. In his discussion of Hurricane Mitch, Ajl celebrates the agro-ecological response to the devastation because it requires “low levels of re-skilling and even lower levels of capital expenditure — it reduces poor farmers’ need for unaffordable capital-intense inputs which tend to involve emissions.” That Nicaraguan farmers live at the margins of the global economy, with little access to capital, and minimal political influence, is here turned into a virtue. There are many heroic responses to catastrophe, but make no mistake, Ajl wants to turn a survival strategy into a permanent state of existence. What a terrible example of rationalizing poverty.

Ajl doesn’t like that I failed to mention Hurricane Katrina, but that was only because I thought everyone already knew that that particular human disaster was a tale of corruption, poverty and racism. Everyone except Ajl, for whom it appears to be a parable of the way “industrialization taketh away.”

His evidence is “the breakdown of the levee system,” but for that breakdown to support his anti-industrial analysis he has to wave away all the social reasons for why the levee system was not maintained, why the evacuation system was so poor, why emergency relief was so inefficient, why those who suffered were disproportionately poor and black, and why the vulnerable houses were so badly made, and so on. Katrina was no natural disaster, it was a social disaster, produced by decades of social neglect, poverty, and racism. Katrina is evidence of our need to transform society, not withdraw from the attempt to tame nature.

Instead of attacking these radical inequalities of political and economic power, Ajl blames industry. He seems to take Katrina as a kind of parable of the hopelessness of trying to control nature. Not only does this shove aside the social dimension, but it implies that human efforts to control our world are bound to have worse unintended effects than those intended. If that is what we do to nature, imagine similar attempts at social transformation? No wonder Ajl thinks the majority won’t be with him — they have good reasons to be suspicious of him.

There is one place where I almost agree with Ajl. Any major social transformation will require hard work and collective sacrifice in the name of a very different, more egalitarian and liberated future. But the future he wants is one of permanent, not temporary, sacrifice.

He leaves little doubt that by “revamping global North consumption patterns” he means a degree of austerity not even the sado-monetarist central bankers of Europe would dare propose: radical reduction of consumption, smaller scale production, less control of nature. That is not a future of equal freedom. Ajl’s vision is a society that adds immense new constraints to those that nature already imposes on us. Why not instead one where machines do the hard work for us, and where we can enjoy the productivity and creativity of people all over the world?

It’s true: to get there would require changing our mode of production radically. There’s no technical fix to the irrationality of capitalism, but let’s remember at least that it’s the limits and irrationalities of capitalism, not industry, that we’re talking about.