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Analysis Ecological Justice Environmental Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Immigration Social Justice

Mass Migration, Land Back and a Sustainable Earth

| Steve Clark |

At long last, our world seems to have accepted the reality of climate change and the devastation it portends. But, we still have a long way to go in assessing, much less implementing, an effective global response. 

Inevitably, the struggle for programmatic clarity unfolds against the backdrop of long-entrenched corporate domination of the key entities – the IMF and most of today’s nation-states — that might do something about it.  These cautious and self-interested perspectives controlled the agenda at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glascow. Outside the conference, however, more thoughtful voices are beginning to be heard.

“US immigration policy is harsh and xenophobic, but it’s also rear-looking and stupid,” says (I paraphrase) Parag Khanna, author of Move: The Forces Uprooting Us

Khanna was interviewed November 20 on the MMT-themed Macro ‘n Cheese podcast by regular host Steve Grumbine.

In world system geographer Khanna’s mind, climate change will impose adaptations on civilization that, unfortunately, the recent COP26 conference barely mentioned. Anticipating the conference’s stance, he says, it will focus on mitigations to “virtue signal” that “we can do this, world.”

That’s what it did, but that’s not good enough, says Khanna. Instead, he is laser-focused on one imposing, yet well-ignored adaptation: mass migration. Already unfolding and irreversible – just like climate change, itself – mass migration can be ignored only at civilization’s peril. 

This is because, as climate change deepens and imposes its will, a great swath of the places where people live today will become increasingly uninhabitable.  This devastation of ancient, previously-productive habitats distresses the Global South and indigenous people far more than the “modern” societies of the Global North. According to Khanna, mitigation efforts must, of course, be deployed, but they won’t be adequate to prevent the impending catastrophe in the South. Independent of our will and efforts, our warming earth is going to make life for humans in equatorial regions difficult and sparse. Adapting to that reality, mass migration from South to North is vital, but unfortunately, excruciatingly difficult. 

While tragic in so many ways, this inevitable migration, Khanna avers, is also a “silver bullet.” For people of the Global South, it provides a place to go to sustain families and build new lives. And for nations in the North that are already at or near zero population growth, migration provides the younger workforce that these aging societies can’t do without. 

In Khanna’s prophecy, mass migration serves both North and South and helps get humanity to the other side of its ecological nightmare. In stark contrast, the indigenous radicals behind The Red Deal say mass migration (social displacement) is just the latest and greatest catastrophe imposed on Nature and native people by capitalism and settler colonialism. “Land Back!” is their demand. They insist on full indigenous control of natural resource management everywhere because, without such strategic (anti-capitalist, anti-colonial) oversight and guidance, human life – indeed, all life – is in jeopardy.

To indigenous people, the earth – just like the water, animals, plants and other people – is a “relative” and, like all relatives, must be treated with care, justice and opportunity. Relative-care is the only way to save our planet from the destruction of capitalist exploitation. Thus, indigenous people look forward to managing the earth’s fragile, climate-ravaged, equatorial regions, and they will endure whatever hardship is necessary to restore their wounded relative — the earth. But for this, indigenous people expect nothing less than the decisive voice in civilization’s long-range, natural resource management agenda (aka, the Green New Deal) as well as all the resources necessary to mitigate and abate the crisis wherever it exists or emerges. In the meantime, indigenous people expect the right to emigrate and to be welcomed wherever they choose (or are forced) to go.

Today’s ill-conceived US immigration policy erects walls against the very workforce the nation needs for its own survival. Biden-Harris take note. A good policy would encourage immigration and a path to citizenship. Khanna cites Canada and Kazakhstan as nations that have sound immigration and citizenship programs and stand to prosper as people and production move north through the 21st century. After traveling extensively in Russia (where global warming is creating vast regions of newly arable land), he also reports rising interest in the Russian hinterland for a more welcoming immigration policy. The US, meanwhile, stands to lose substantially if it does not ease its anti-immigrant policies and correct its white-supremacist fringe.

Khanna acknowledges but doesn’t much concern himself with the injustice that, “once again,” hits the Global South far worse than the North. In his brief allowance that mitigations (as well as adaptations) must be deployed, Khanna expresses solidarity with those seeking redress of imperialism’s unjust equatorial legacy, yet he stresses the inevitability and redeeming worth of mass migration and, accordingly, urges an “incremental evolution” in anti-imperialist demands. He does not so much as mention “indigenous rights” or “indigenous authority,” apparently presuming that existing means of natural resource management and allocation can be adequately reformed within the framework of evolving but on-going capitalism and nation-state authority. He also never mentions socialism or any transformational vision of mainstream production and exchange.

His omission of indigenous impacts and other class dynamics is hardly unexpected given the white, settler, colonial blind spots of Western imperialism and the academics within. It is a major, ideological shortcoming but should not disqualify Khanna’s factual point that – depending on various geographic factors (resources, borders, infrastructure and people) – climate change is already having uneven and divergent impacts that will make life easier and more sustainable in northern regions than in southern. Sound public policy will ground itself in this reality.

Khanna also anticipates sharpening competition between the US and China because both are competing for younger workers, yet both are rather xenophobic. He says that China, with a younger domestic workforce, was ascendant as the (post-Soviet) global economy took shape in recent decades – and was more nimble with state finances than the West. But, going forward (post-pandemic), it will endure strong competition as all economies seek to add (restore) local production and commercial circulation against the pandemic-made-apparent danger of over-reliance on global supply chains. Diversification and localization are the now the rising trend. China’s share of global trade is bound to shrink. He notes that Cuba and Viet Nam (among others) evidence sound practice in endogenous self-sufficiency. In contrast, he lists Norway and other Scandinavian countries that, despite their welcoming social perspective, cast a heavy global footprint due to their national reliance on oil revenue.

The divergence in viewpoint between Khanna and the Red Nation reveals the depth that the present climate change discourse must still fathom. It’s a deep and wide chasm, but with only a decade or less to figure it out, a much intensified debate and a re-tooled strategy is indispensable. Who is going to lead us to salvation… the corporate sector with its financial and technological “fixes” or indigenous people at the head of a popular, global movement? Time is short; we need to get this right, and we need to do it soon. 

The podcast is titled: Mapping the Future of Humanity with Parag Khanna. It runs 1 hr 7 min.

The Red Deal, Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth (2020) is an ebook by the Red Nation, a revolutionary collective of native people.

This essay was published concurrently in GlobalTalk.

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Analysis Ecological Justice Economic Justice Environmental Justice Financial Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Organizing

Watch: Forum on the Climate Crisis

On Sunday, December 12th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum exploring the climate crisis and what it means for today’s left.

Moderated by our very own José Z. Calderón, the discussion was led by Voices for New Democracy friends Bob Eng and Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus, starting with a presentation highlighting the scope of the climate crisis and the path toward a decarbonized world. The discussion touched on important and challenging issues raised by the specter of climate change: the disruption of extreme weather events, demobilization due to “climate grief,” a new era of geopolitics driven by demand for clean energy commodities like lithium, and the threat of exploitative business models driving the global energy transition. Conversation with the audience also raised important questions about how the left should orient itself politically amid these headwinds: whether we must embrace the movement for “degrowth,” prioritize indigenous liberation and anti-colonialism in our efforts (as advocated in The Red Deal), and how to engage with more mainstream labor-climate proposals like the Green New Deal.

Given the scope of the climate crisis, our presenters believe that climate politics represents the political terrain of the 21st century. But big questions remain about how the left can rise to the moment, and we need your analysis.

With that in mind, we encourage our readers to write to us to share their thoughts and analysis around these questions. If you’re interested in responding to any points raised by this discussion, please email voicesfornewdemocracy@gmail.com.

Watch the full conversation below.

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Analysis Ecological Justice Economic Justice Environmental Justice Financial Justice

Capitalism, Ecology, and the Green New Deal

| Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus |

The world’s climate is changing, and it’s surprising — and disappointing — how little our responses have changed since we first recognized the problem decades ago. Since the 1970s, the world has been well aware of climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and many have recognized how our political economy lies at the heart of the problem. Marxist thinkers in particular, like Paul Mattick, were quick to describe the irreconcilable contradiction between our extractive and growth-oriented economic systems and the carrying capacity of our natural ecosystems. But despite these prescient warnings, the world today is still clinging to the same economic systems and largely failing to resolve these tensions. In the face of the accelerating crisis, it’s worth reflecting on the clear trajectory that thinkers like Mattick identified, and what it means for our options in the present moment. 

In 1976, Mattick published his analysis of the problem in “Capitalism and Ecology,” just four years after scientist John Sawyer published the study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect in 1972. Sawyer’s study summarized the scientific consensus at the time around the Earth’s pressing climate concerns: the anthropogenic attribution of the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, their widespread distribution and their exponential rise throughout the modern era. By the mid-70s, even the Club of Rome recognized the impending ecological crisis in The Limits to Growth. In short, everyone was beginning to recognize the issue: too many of us are using too many resources, too quickly, in too many places. 

The fundamental problem is that we have not been able to reconcile science with the social imperatives of our economic system. The reality is, our system cannot decouple economic growth from environmental impact.

As Mattick writes, Marx recognized that “the exhaustion of the earth’s wealth and relative overpopulation were the direct result of production for profit” (a point that has been explored in great detail by a new generation of eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster). And science bears this out. Our world has only become more productive, populated, and globalized since the Industrial Revolution, and this has correlated closely with rising levels of energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions every year. As our economic activity increases, we cannot avoid using more raw materials to keep the system moving and maintain profit margins.

Ultimately, it is capitalist social relations that drive this ecological crisis. “Social phenomena are ecological phenomena,” Mattick writes. To keep profit rates high (the motor driving the entire system), companies simply have no choice but to keep expanding and growing, and that always requires the use of raw materials — and as global capitalism expands (and demand grows as populations increase and more workers are brought out of the subsistence economy into the wage labor system), that rate of raw material consumption can only increase. 

But this does not mean that the solution is to roll back our productive forces and institute new limits on personal consumption. For millions of exploited workers, a vision of the future defined by less is a very hard sell. In fact, if we take this approach, we risk undermining our own efforts to build economic justice. The Yellow Vests movement in France was sparked by a new tax on gasoline, as were protests in Ecuador against the elimination of a fossil fuel subsidy. The logic behind the proposals used an ecological rationale: wealthy people use far more oil, so limiting their excesses is sensible and, at first glance, progressive. The problem comes from the ways that such approaches are regressive at the margins. While lower income people do use far less oil than the wealthy, they rely heavily on subsidies and cheap fuel simply to be able to go about their days. The problem is that these approaches impose ecological austerity whose burden is felt most strongly by the working class, and offer little benefit to them in return. 

Besides, the promise of communism was the progressive advance of productive forces to improve overall human well-being. Rather than advance a dialectic, rolling back production and consumption would only turn back the tide of history to earlier modes of production. Fundamentally, we cannot resolve this crisis simply by turning back the clock. 

We must remember that humanity does not live separately from the natural world (even though we tend to conceive of ourselves this way); we rely on it to reproduce our societies every day. So the way forward must be with a recognition that the two are inextricably linked. It is our social reality that drives our ecological condition, and trying to treat the ecological condition without addressing the roots of our social relations will only lead to these kinds of regressive solutions. 

As Mattick summarizes, “[T]he problem is not so much the miserliness of nature as a social class system of institutions and power relationships that stands in the way of increasing production and productivity.” Rather, “it is landed property, the tenant-farming system, usurious loan capital, the plantation economy, and the parasitical state bureaucracy that hinder any progressive development by maintaining the existing social structure.” Likewise, “the increasing discrepancy between industrial and agricultural production has less to do with population growth and decreasing fertility of the soil than with the one-sided over-emphasis on industrial expansion, or capital’s expansion, demanded by capitalist competition” at the expense of agricultural output (let alone any embrace of polyculture or regenerative agriculture). 

The task, then, is to overcome the key issue we identified before: the link between economic activity and environmental impact. But to do so, Mattick writes, we must treat social liberation as the prerequisite to ecological transformation:

“What is necessary, today and tomorrow, is to end the human misery due to the capitalist relations of production, as the starting-point for a rationally planned mode of society in accordance with natural conditions—one based not on further privations but on a higher standard of living for everyone, on which the diminution of population growth depends, and which would make possible the further development of society’s productive forces.”

In other words, development itself is not the problem, but rather the way that it has taken place under conditions of competitive struggle, where environmental costs are externalized without frameworks for accountability. And critically, this competitive struggle is not dictated by our actual access to raw materials, but rather by a capitalist mode of production that perpetuates artificial scarcity to maintain competitive growth rates. With that in mind, the way forward is to continue developing productive forces progressively (and in ways that actually offer quality of life improvements for workers), but to do so under a new framework that is rationally planned, actually serves human need, and meaningfully takes ecological limits into account. 

Fortunately, one policy proposal has begun to synthesize these insights and, despite some gray areas, has managed to get buy-in across the political spectrum: the Green New Deal (GND). The GND represents a revolutionary shift in how we conceive of environmental policy by tying it inextricably to labor and industrial policy. This comes with both the benefits and risks of being a placeholder for a holistic social transition (onto which many different actors can project distinct visions). But it still shifts consciousness of the issue, and must be developed, not abandoned. 

The GND recognizes that, given the existential threat climate change poses to human society, the federal government (in coordination down to the local level) must lead a deliberate and expansive national mobilization to restructure our physical realities, as well as social and economic systems, and build a new, sustainable way of life in the country. It overcomes the binary between environmentalism and class struggle by placing workers and marginalized communities at the center of this transition, promising that high-paying union jobs will enact the program and build our carbon-neutral systems, with an emphasis on serving frontline communities and undoing the damage that the capitalist mode of production has already inflicted on working people through environmental racism and pollution. Furthermore, the GND is distinct in its national approach to the issue, which actually recognizes the sheer scale of what will need to be done to meet our climate goals. 

Ultimately, we must also challenge the idea that all forms of growth are equal. Much (if not most) of our productive activity is wasteful, and we should cut back on resource-intensive activities (which largely don’t benefit the public, anyway) and instead organize our economies around lower-impact, more human-centered labor like care work. Mattick writes that much of our wasteful economic activity “could be transformed into productive labor—’productive’ not in the sense of profitable but in the sense of creative of use-value [emphasis mine] —while shortening labor time.” We would still have to work and promote development in our communities to deliver improved quality of life and overall social prosperity, but we can approach it in a rational way that operates within ecological boundaries. This also implies new social, political, and economic relations that can build a more egalitarian society. 

This represents a more radical vision of what the Green New Deal can offer by reconceptualizing the goals of our economic and social systems. To truly operate within planetary limits, it’s not possible for individual consumption to remain at current levels. But at the same time, we must be able to offer a better future for the masses if we have any political hope of advancing a sustainable system.

The notion of public luxury could be the key to resolving this tension. In some ways, it’s common sense: collective problems require collective solutions, and collective cooperation makes for a smaller impact for each individual (hence the old saying “many hands make for light work”). Our social relations fundamentally define how we use energy and resources, so to be as sustainable as possible it only makes sense that we must embrace collective and cooperative frameworks to maximize efficiencies. And if we do so appropriately, we can truly speak of luxuries for the public: well-connected rapid transit systems, higher-quality housing, more green spaces and public parks, more resources devoted to healthcare and other care work, more free time, shorter hours, well-funded public amenities, etc.  

Systems driven by social competition produce destructive cycles for the individuals within them, and will reproduce similar forms of destruction on an ecological level. It is only through cooperation, coordination, and a commitment to collective well-being that we can deliver a sustainable and flourishing future. Whatever it’s called, such a system would represent a historic and revolutionary departure from the capitalist mode of production, and would likely have to approximate a form of communism. If that is the case, then true communism may be our only hope for a sustainable future on Earth. 

Still, we can’t be utopian in our outlook; there are limits to what can be done, both politically and ecologically. Any transition from our system will require massive amounts of lithium and likely more resource-intensive development to build the infrastructure for a sustainable society; this is sure to unleash new struggles over control of resources and raw materials and could meet justifiable resistance from frontline communities. And there are sure to be significant challenges in shifting our mode of production: as we restructure our way of life, new fractures are certain to emerge and new struggles will have to arise over the form that this takes. It will be a difficult line to walk, but the left must develop a vision that advances economic and political justice as a prerequisite to ecological transformation, and sustainably develops clean productive forces that don’t rely on moonshot technologies like carbon removal. Now more than ever, we must challenge the underlying logic and the basis on which our system operates, and we must remain committed to this radical vision for a different society.