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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Conundrum

As many of you know I’ve become increasingly concerned with the global ecological crisis and how we can combat this overarching problem. This alarm has led me to facilitate two activist-oriented study groups; we’re reading books together and discussing strategies. The first four books have addressed different aspects of the problem: temperature, climate, sea level, population, resource depletion and war. Now we’re focusing on possible solutions, and so far we’ve looked at green capitalism and green Marxist-socialism.

Green capitalists Mark Hertsgaard and James Speth write that although it will be incredibly difficult given the distribution of political and military power in our capitalist-dominated world, it is possible that we can achieve a sustainable relationship with the biosphere by making major reforms to existing capitalism. They argue that this can be accomplished if the people elect leaders, at all levels of government, who will regulate business activity to ensure its sustainability. Green Marxists John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, say that capitalism’s basis (profit, exchange and growth) makes it necessary to move beyond our current economic system in order to save civilization.

Both courses of action require mass movements to produce the necessary major adjustments to, or total transformation of, capitalism. Furthermore, these movements must flower very soon, before the worst symptoms of ecological collapse become apparent to most people, because of the thirty-to-fifty-year lag-time in the cause and effect of gathering climate chaos.

While it is hard to believe that even reformed capitalism could become green enough to stave off a collapse of our biosphere, it seems equally unlikely that capitalism can be overthrown in time to avoid that collapse. And finally, there is no guarantee that a post-capitalist world economy will solve the problem.

So that’s the conundrum: what we have time to do probably won’t work, and we don’t have time to do what might. I refuse, however, to act as if the situation is hopeless. Even with these conditions, we can adopt strategies that are either consistent with both positions or at least not inconsistent with either. Since mass involvement is essential to both, one possible course of action is to organize for changes that foster activist engagement and encourage sustainability within the capitalist system, but which also encourage anti-capitalist mass movement building.

How does Bill McKibben’s organization’s (350.org) campaign to get institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies stack up against this standard? Getting tens, even hundreds of thousands, involved in attacking the villainy of some of the world’s most powerful corporate entities promotes a more-sustainable capitalism, and could plant anti-capitalist seeds. That’s good, but is it enough? Don’t we also need to ask how the institutions are going to reinvest the funds generated by their sale of fossil fuel company stock? For instance, if they reinvest in Fiji Water the money will support the manufacture of millions of plastic water bottles made from petroleum products and promote the enormous carbon footprint of shipping water half-way around the world. Perhaps they shouldn’t reinvest the money at all, but instead use it to build community rather than generate increased economic activity and the excess energy associated with it.

There is much more to say about whether we can avoid the approaching ecological catastrophes within the capitalist system, or whether the capitalist system itself is their primary driver. And the next book on our list takes an anarchist position arguing that we must make an even more basic transformation. I pose the problem above as a start, and ask you to weigh in on how best to climb out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into.
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