Blind Man with a Pistol


Sunset Song

The Scottish government has abandoned its plans to lease up to 25 % of its crown forests to private companies. Perhaps they’ve learned something after all. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the great socialist author of the trilogy A Scots Quair (1932, 1933, 1934) had something to say the last time Scotland tried to mortgage its future for the present.

Chae went round all Kinraddie on his leave that time and found changes enough to open his eyes, maybe he was fell wearied with the front, folk thought, there was nothing on there but their pleitering and fighting. And the first change he saw the first morning, did Chae, lying down on his bed for the pleasure of it and Kirsty at the making of his breakfast. And Chae sat up in his bed to reach for his pipe when he looked from the window and he gave a great roar; and he louped from his bed in his sark so that Kirsty came running and crying What is’t? Is’t a wound?

But she found Chae standing by the window then, cursing himself black in the face he was, and he asked how long had this been going? So Mistress Strachan looked out the way he looked and she saw it was only the long bit wood that ran by the Peesie’s Knapp that vexed him, it was nearly down the whole stretch of it, now. It made a gey difference to the look-out faith! but fine for Kinraddie the woodmen had been, they’d lodged at the Knapp and paid high for their board. But Chae cried out To hell with their board, the bastards, they’re ruining my land, do you hear! And he pulled on his trousers and boots and would fair have run over the park and been at them; but Kirsty caught at his sark and held him back and cried Have you fair gone mad with the killing of Germans?

And he asked her hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that the wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the north-east now, and was fair the end of a living here. And Mistress Strachan answered up that she wasn’t a fool, and they’d be no worse than the other folk, would they? all the woods in Kinraddie were due to come down. Chae shouted What, others? and went out to look; and when he came back he didn’t shout at all, he said he’d often minded of them out there in France, the woods, so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle. Nor more than that would he say, it seemed then to Kirsty that he quietened down, and was quiet and queer all his leave, it was daft to let a bit wood go vex him like that.

But the last night of his leave he climbed to Blawearie and he said there was nothing but the woods and their fate that could draw his eyes. For over by the Mains he’d come on the woodmen, teams and teams of them hard at work on the long bit forest that ran up the high brae, sparing nothing they were but the yews of the Manse. And up above Upperhill they had cut down the larch, and the wood was down that lay back of old Pooty’s.

Folk had told him the trustees had sold it well, they got awful high prices, the trustees did, it was wanted for aeroplanes and such-like things. And over at the office he had found the factor and the creature had peeked at Chae through his horn-rimmed glasses and said that the Government would replant all the trees when the War was won. And Chae had said that would console him a bloody lot, sure, if he’d the chance of living two hundred years and seeing the woods grow up as some shelter for beast and man: but he doubted he’d not last so long. Then the factor said they must all do their bit at a sacrifice, and Chae asked And what sacrifices have you made, tell me, you scrawny wee mucker?…

Early in the year, about May that was, the rain came down and it seemed it never would end, there was nothing to be done out of doors, the rain came down from the north-east across Kinraddie and Chris wasn’t the only one that noted its difference from other years. In Peesie’s Knapp there was Mistress Strachan vexing herself in trying to make out the change; and then she minded what Chae had said would happen when the woods came down, once the place had been sheltered and lithe, it poised now upon the brae in whatever storm might come. The woodmen had all finished by then, they’d left a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army. Looking out on those storms that May Chris could hardly believe that this was the place she and Will had watched from the window that first morning they came to Blawearie.

— Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)


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The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration
17 December 2008, 3:31 pm
Filed under: Ecocapitalism, Ecosocialism | Tags:

Humanity today faces a stark choice: ecosocialism or barbarism.

We need no more proof of the barbarity of capitalism, the parasitical system that exploits humanity and nature alike. Its sole motor is the imperative toward profit and thus the need for constant growth. It wastefully creates unnecessary products, squandering the environment’s limited resources and returning to it only toxins and pollutants. Under capitalism, the only measure of success is how much more is sold every day, every week, every year – involving the creation of vast quantities of products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature, commodities that cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe, demolishing ecosystems, and treating our water, air and soil like sewers for the disposal of industrial waste.

Capitalism’s need for growth exists on every level, from the individual enterprise to the system as a whole. The insatiable hunger of corporations is facilitated by imperialist expansion in search of ever greater access to natural resources, cheap labor and new markets. Capitalism has always been ecologically destructive, but in our lifetimes these assaults on the earth have accelerated. Quantitative change is giving way to qualitative transformation, bringing the world to a tipping point, to the edge of disaster. A growing body of scientific research has identified many ways in which small temperature increases could trigger irreversible, runaway effects – such as rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet or the release of methane buried in permafrost and beneath the ocean – that would make catastrophic climate change inevitable.

[…]

This Ecosocialist Declaration is a call to action. The entrenched ruling classes are powerful, yet the capitalist system reveals itself every day more financially and ideologically bankrupt, unable to overcome the economic, ecological, social, food and other crises it engenders. And the forces of radical opposition are alive and vital. On all levels, local, regional and international, we are fighting to create an alternative system based in social and ecological justice.

Read it. Sign it.

hat-tip to Berlynn at breadnroses



Child’s Play

I just saw Pixar’s WALL*E, a futuristic animated feature in which Earth has been abandoned to landfill and pollution while the human race flies around the galaxy in a commodified stupor, consuming recreation and sustenance in bland, supersized quantities. The movie is fine, as kids’ flicks go. The narrative follows the last remaining trash-bot on Earth, WALL*E, charged with cleaning up the mess the last humans left behind. The only problem is that the environmental catastrophe has proved far too massive to be fixed, and 700 years later, WALL*E is still shoveling landfill into his trash-compactor belly and stacking it miles into the sky. Cue intergalactic arrival of shiny, high-tech loveinterestbot, and subsequent heartwarming tale.

The thing I found shocking about the movie is the conspicuous political polemic underwriting the otherwise standard love story. The film opens sans dialogue, with a fifteen-minute tour of the abandoned Earth, with an unabashedly anti-capitalist message. The mega-corporation “Buy n’ Large” owns everything from food outlets to public transit, and there is no question that hyperconsumerism pushed the human race to this crisis. Moreover, the ruined Earth, despite its sci-fi feel, is not so futuristic that we can’t see the resemblance to our own current predicament. The delightful irony of the accompanying music, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! is scathing:

Put on your Sunday clothes,
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air

The movie never backs down from this political message. The diasporic Earthlings eat their meals from giant cups (roughly the size of ‘large’ movie-theatre soft drinks), their leisure activities are automated and indistinguishable from each other, their bone structures have shrunk over the years due to inactivity, and social taste is dictated by an automated media system to which every citizen is connected, every minute of their lives.

How is it that a kids movie can get away with this? If this kind of overt political message was in a live-action movie, even a satire, it would be dismissed as unimaginative, or worse, as eco-commie agit prop. Not even science fiction could pull it off. An Inconvenient Truth didn’t sport this kind of polemic. If you want to spread a subversive, emancipatory political message in Hollywood, you have to cushion it in all kinds of subterfuge, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Yet somehow, WALL*E can get away with politics that read like they come from the most radical Green Party manifesto (not to be found, of course, in the eco-capitalist Green Party of Canada).

What is it about kids movies that permits this kind of radicalism? I’d like to think that it’s because Disney wants to instill the next generation with an emancipatory politics that will save our skins. I’m sure hoping it’ll happen. But in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, ‘that shit ain’t the truth.’ Instead, it’s the same logic that sees Canada hum and haw about banning incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags while giving tax breaks to Athabasca Tar Sand corporations. Rationally, we know we’re in trouble. Big Trouble. And we’ve got to do something. But Capitalism has so ingrained artificially prescribed desires that we cannot give up. So we shift the things we have to do to realms where it just doesn’t matter.

We relegate these truths that weigh on us to realms of fairy tales, of science fiction. I hope that the message of WALL*E—that, to be prosaic, our hyperconsumerism and disdain for the environment is leading us all to our demise—gains some traction in our children, but the reality is we need it to take hold of ourselves, now. When Disney starts mocking the giant soft drinks its theatres rely on for profit, I don’t get hopeful, I despair. Consumerism—the precise type WALL*E warns us against—has stolen its own criticism from our mouths. And we’re buying it back.



Carbon Taxes and Double Indemnity

Stéphane Dion released his ‘complex and politically risky’ carbon tax plan yesterday. I’ve already written what I think of market-based solutions for the climate crisis, but I’m a big fan of repeating myself. By creating a carbon market, which, effectively, both a carbon tax a cap-and-trade system will implement, we begin to turn our environment into an economical resource. Sure, we kind of do this already, but such a move will make the marketability of our planet much more explicit.

As this year-old article from Wired magazine, who just celebrated fifteen years of pushing their technological and capitalist utopian fantasies, explains: Carbon? Hell, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

People understand the economic value of nature’s goods because we constantly pay for them: seafood, timber, copper, cut flowers, natural gas. But nature also provides services that stabilize spaceship Earth. Insects pollinate crops, wooded hillsides purify water, trees sequester CO2, and wetlands buffer cities against storm surges. How much are those services worth? Who knows. They’ve always been free, or treated as such. Nature has never submitted an invoice.

But they’re not free, of course. We can tell by the enormous price we pay when they decline or disappear. Think Hurricane Katrina, unpollinated crops, and deadly mudslides caused by deforestation. As the new age of environmental awareness dawns, people and governments are starting to put a dollar value on these services. In practice, that means paying to protect the land where services are most concentrated. And whoever owns the land can reap the profits.

Essentially, the carbon market is the first step in turning ‘spaceship Earth’ into a post-industrial economy: from a manufacturing-based environmental economy to service-based one. Things are getting a lot more complicated without any noticeable improvement in lifestyle. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that creating a carbon market will do anything to reduce emissions—in fact, such a strategy actually entrenches pollution in our economy. We can’t eliminate carbon in a decade anymore than we can eliminate the tar sands now: it will cost jobs to hard-working Canadians.

The carbon tax holds up green collateral in an insurance racket with massive risk (and massive profit potential). And here’s what Walter Huff, insurance salesman from James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936) has to say about his business (and if you recognize the picture in my banner, you’ll know I’ll quote from this guy whenever I get the chance):

You think I’m nuts? All right, maybe I am. But you spend fifteen years in the business I’m in, maybe you’ll go nuts yourself. You think it’s a business, don’t you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it’s the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It don’t look like it is, but it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the 00 to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won’t, that’s all. What fools you is that you didn’t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it’s a bet. That don’t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don’t look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts.

The difference between me and the Liberal party, and anyone who views a market-based solution as anything more than a stop-gap measure, is that I don’t think our future is worth the wager. There’s a reason why ‘nature has never submitted an invoice’: because it doesn’t play on our crooked wheel. It doesn’t want in, but we call the bet just the same. The money should never be worth more than the house, but you can’t seem to convince Canadians of that.

Oh, and the thing to remember about James Cain novels? The narrator is already dead.



Carbon Copy

NDP Leader Jack Layton has “shocked” environmentalists by opposing Captain Climate Change Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax environmental platform. Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, accused Layton of “pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices” because of Layton’s claim that rising energy costs would hurt the Canadian poor compelled to heat their homes by Canada’s cold winter climate. Hazell has a point: a decent carbon tax scheme would offset the penalty lower-income families would have to pay with taxes from corporations and upper-income earners. Dion’s plan is allegedly “revenue-neutral.” The problem with the plan is not that it would penalize lower-income families, the problem with carbon tax shifting is that it is utterly useless in combating climate change.

In order for a carbon tax plan to reduce carbon consumption, first, the tax rate needs to be high enough to deter people from using carbon-based fuels and second, alternative fuel sources must be widely available for less money. Gas prices have gone up forty percent over the last four years, and oil prices are predicted to double by 2012. Yet consumption has not slowed; in fact, our fuel consumption levels (and greenhouse gas emissions) are at record levels. Will Dion’s Liberals be willing to match the equivalent in a carbon tax scheme? Unlikely: and they will need to do more than match it.

Where will the alternatively sourced energy come from? Canada is light years behind Europe in alternative energy sources (disgracefully, since, as a Nordic country we should be leading the world on climate change). And the “revenue-neutral” logic means that not a single penny from this carbon tax will go toward new investment in non-carbon alternatives. Since the goal of a carbon tax is to make carbon-based fuels prohibitively expensive, what can we use instead?

Of course, all this is nonsense anyway. In “The Idols of Environmentalism,” an essay that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested slowing climate change, Curtis White pinpoints the reason market-based solutions like carbon trading will never, ever work:

Environmental destruction proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves.

There is something psychopathic about carbon taxes and carbon trading. You may kill this many of my children, we tell our polluters. You may poison this much of my drinking water. But no more. I have to draw the line.

Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty…

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

How can a country that subsidizes the filthiest, most destructive, most obscene project in the entire world, the Alberta oil sands, convince its population that it holds any truck with environmentalism? How can we be made to believe that paying a few million, even a few billion dollars will negate the scorched earth left behind in Athabasca? And yet we Canadians swallow such absurd contradictions when we are unable to make the connection between 500 ducks drowning in oil and the car we drive to work.

This is the message you would expect Canada’s left-leaning party to send: not some weak-kneed gesture to gas prices. The Liberals’ plan is wrong, but for reasons no one in Canada seems prepared to hear.



Selling Environmentalism: Earth Hour

“Turn off the light,”sings Nelly Furtado. It’s Earth Hour. Promoted heavily by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is an action in which the world can “take a stand against climate change” by refusing to use electricity from 8:00 pm to 9:00 today, March 29, 2008. Well, that’s nice.

What’s better are the hundreds of Canadian businesses supporting Earth Hour. From Bell Canada to Cadillac Fairview, Imperial Oil to Starbucks, they’re all getting in on the action. At the end of Earth Hour, do you think Imperial Oil will shut down Syncrude, the consortium that governs its site in the Athabasca tar sands? Will Starbucks stop selling disposable paper cups and start selling fair-trade coffee? Even Google is getting in on the act. Crafty. They can tune in to Earth Hour without actually turning out the lights. Turning off virtually seems to suffice. The message is clear: buy into Earth Hour and you won’t have to do any heavy lifting. Ecology is a commodity and everything is on sale.

When Dubai announced that it would be the first Arab city to participate in Earth Hour, you had to know something was up. The transnational capitalist city par excellence, Dubai, earlier this year, announced it would turn its massive oil wealth into the world’s first zero-carbon, environmentally sustainable city. It’s difficult, however, to view the effort as anything more than a showpiece. Masdar, Arabic for “the source” will house 50 000 people and 1500 businesses in a car-free colony while Dubai, population 2 000 000 and headquarters of countless crude companies around the Middle East, sees its economic growth and massive expansion proceed apace.

Dubai is the emblem of twenty-first-century capitalism, a microcosm of globalization. Deborah Campbell wrote a wonderful article on the phenomenon that is Dubai in the September 2007 issue of The Walrus.

“The Earth Has A New Centre,” announces a massive billboard for a new mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight-lane expressway in Dubai — a city that was, not so long ago, a patch of sand. As a yellow Ferrari driven by a local in a white dishdasha and baseball cap roars up behind my rental car, and Hummers with black-tinted windows pass busloads of labourers who stare out, saucer-eyed, at this strange new planet, I find myself thinking that the billboard refers not only to the Dubai Mall, soon to be the largest in the world, but to Dubai itself.

The world’s largest mall. The world’s tallest hotel. The world’s tallest building. The first underwater hotel. The largest waterfront development. The fastest-growing tourist market. The Earth has a new centre and it is a tiny desert kingdom gone mad.

Behind the spectacular gratuitousness of this capitalist Disneyland, lies the criminally exploited working class the powers this expansion, its savage environmental cost.

There, a familiar sight: a swarm of workers in overalls gather at a new construction project. They earn as little as $4 a day. It’s more than they would get in the factories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, making jeans and shower curtains for Western consumption, but in the lavish light of Dubai it isn’t even a decent tip. I have visited the camps where they live, smelled the open sewage outside their dormitories, know that many of them can’t read the contracts they have signed. They send money home and visit their families once every few years. Past the billboards, past the cranes, if one squints, one can see on the surface of every construction site tiny human forms. Nothing in Dubai could exist without this labour.

This obfuscation, the sleight-of-hand that Dubai enacts when it displays its “commitment” to sustainability while brutally abusing its workforce and the environment is the crime of Earth Hour. For an hour, urban electricity use will decrease by 10%, maybe 15% (if you can bear turning off the Habs-Leafs game during Hockey Night in Canada) while the cities and corporations that pledge “support” for Earth Hour change their corroding practices not one whit.

We’ve turned environmentalism into a brand. Buy it, and you can sport it, and still have a good time at a Nelly Furtado concert. Turn off the light. Save the world.

Hat-tip to Bread and Roses