Robert Meeropol





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"Robby & Elli" 1968


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Robby speaking at the re-launch of the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund in Toronto

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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

The Environment Trumps the Economy – Part One

September 11, 2014

Tags: Basic Environmental Principles

Since the turn of the year I have been facilitating two global warming/climate change study groups. At the beginning of our wrap-up session later this month, each participant will have five minutes to articulate a synthesis of our reading and discussion and propose a plan of action. I look forward to this challenge, but extracting the essence of eight books and drawing conclusions about this enormous issue has left me wrestling with a dilemma.

On one hand, I believe there are two basic principles that address the root causes of the problem and focus our attention on what needs to happen to save most life on our planet. On the other hand, I fear that many people will reject these principles as an impossible path to sustainability.

First, what are the root causes of our environmental mess? As Fred Magdoff wrote in the most recent issue of Monthly Review, “It is as though there is a flat tire with perhaps a thousand holes and people are working on the best way to patch this hole or that one. No one there seems to consider that the problem might be the tire itself….” Historically, our species’ impact on the planet grew steadily, but relatively slowly, until the invention of capitalism several hundred years ago started quickening the pace. Since the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, our global footprint has mushroomed, and in the last 50 years it has consumed the world. While we might have come to this crossroads eventually if we’d maintained our pre-capitalist rate, we face human induced global warming, massive resource depletion and mass extinction today, because of the interaction between capitalism and industrial production.

The developed world produces too much, consumes too much, and its economic system demands that we continue on this “more and more” course. The underdeveloped world has a much smaller carbon footprint, but its natural resources are being vacuumed up by the richer nations. Finally, there are now so many people on the planet that even if we were to spread the earth’s bounty more equally, humanity would still take up more ecological space than is sustainable.

To address the root causes AND overturn their effects as we take baby steps in the right direction, I’m considering including two simple underlying principles in my five-minute presentation.

1. The needs of the environment trump the needs of the economy; in other words, capitalism has to go.

The majority of American “greens” take our current economic system as a given. Some focus on increased efficiency, a green new deal, or technologic magic bullets. Others posit no-growth capitalism (an oxymoron). Even those who agree that capitalism is incompatible with sustainability can’t imagine overturning it. They hope to buy some time by reigning in its worst excesses. They argue basic change is not politically feasible, but since the science is telling us that our survival is impossible if we don’t change, this principle states that we have no choice but to try.

2. The needs of the biosphere trump the needs of humanity.

This one may be even tougher to swallow. Even those who espouse an ecologically sustainable socialist distribution of resources place human beings at the center of the ecosystem. But the earth’s awesome web of animals, plants and minerals has evolved in complex interaction for over two billion years. I doubt our species can manage this web “humanely” (a problematic term in this context?) as long as the ultimate aim of such management is to meet human needs rather than the requirements of the entire biosphere. If we fail to understand that people are not the pinnacle of evolution on earth, we will eventually revert to exploiting it in an unsustainable manner. In long run – if we are lucky enough to get there – this may prove our greatest challenge because it runs counter to powerful biological urges, but it is essential to creating long-term sustainability.

I hope I’ve been clear enough about why these principles are both necessary and problematic. What do you think?

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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