Phillips is a brilliant writer and an incisive scientific thinker with impeccable credentials in the science press. He's also an unapologetic Marxist. In this book — which is one of the most entertaining and furious reads about politics and climate you're likely to read — he rails against the "austerity ecology" movement that calls for more labor-intensive processes, an end to the drive to increase material production, and a "simpler" life that often contains demands for authoritarian, technocratic rule, massive depopulation, and a return to medieval drudgery.
It wasn't always thus. The left — especially Marxist left — has a long history of glorifying technological progress and proposing it as the solution to humanity's woes. Rather than blaming the machine for pollution, Marxists blame capitalism for being a system that demands that firms pollute to whatever extent they can, right up the point where the fines outweigh the savings.
As far back as Engels, Marxists refused to countenance the idea of limits to human growth. While Malthus was (incorrectly) predicting that humanity would exhaust its food stores any day now and plunge into barbarism, Engels wrote, in Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy:
Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population.
But how can a finite planet sustain infinite growth? Through improvements in material processes. We use a lot less to make things today than we ever have, thanks to science — and capitalism. The less labor and material used in a process, the less it costs to make and the more profit there is. But growth under market conditions also requires pollution/extraction/waste/overproduction:
The firm not be able to pay for new materials or labour or the upkeep of its machines and will go out of business. This is why capitalists, left to their own devices, have no choice but to pollute or extract or pump out CO2 or catch fish at a rate that is heedless of what remains of our store of resources. It is not that they are evil or greedy. If one capitalist says to herself “To hell with the profits! The planet is more important!” then she will quickly be beaten by a rival who is not so scrupulous. To keep going, they will have to give up on such high-minded thoughts. And this is true regardless of size, whether a globe-rogering, $11-bajillion-market-cap, Taibbian vampire-squid investment bank or a mom-and-pop corner shop that sells nothing but thimbles of rosewater-scented whimsy and hand-sewn felt puppets of characters from Wes Anderson films. If right next door, a big-box chain-store Whimsy-Mart opens up with vats of all-you-can-eat cut-price Owen Wilson dolls and that small business doesn’t toughen up, then they’re fucked.
Companies can only abstain from harmful conduct when the market is regulated — no longer "free" — and they are required to do or not do certain things that the state has banned. If all companies are required to follow the rules, then following them won't mean being undercut by a competitor. But regulation can't solve the problem, because it's always fighting a rear-guard action:
…[H]owever much we want to regulate capitalism, there will always be some new commodity or market inadvertently ‘polluting’ that has yet to be regulated. So the regulator is always playing catch-up. Further, capital’s need for self-valorisation tends to strain at the leash of regulatory restraint, as there is always some jurisdiction where this regulation does not exist. Which means that there is a force in the economy constantly pushing toward pollution that we are forever trying to push back against, a beast we cannot tame or cage. This is why social democracy goes further toward preventing pollution than less regulated forms of capitalism, but cannot absolutely prevent the problem.
The answer, Phillips argues, is a democratically planned economy — a socialist solution. Not the "green lefty" answer, which requires "de-growth," but growth that is guided by democratic, not market, forces:
• The capitalist says: There may or may not be resource limits, but don’t worry about them! Innovation will come along in time! Full steam ahead!
• The green lefty says: Innovation can’t save us! There’s an upper limit to what humans can have / an upper limit on the number of humans. Slam on the brakes!
• The socialist says: Through rational, democratic planning, let’s make sure that the innovation arrives so that we can move forward without inadvertently overproducing. And move forward we must, in order to continue to expand human flourishing. So long as we do that, there are in principle no limits. Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!
"Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!" There's something gloriously anarcho-steampunk about that, right in line with Magpie Killjoy's Steampunk Magazine motto: "Love the machine, hate the factory."
Phillips believes that the green left's anti-consumerist/pastoral view is more aesthetic than political: they don't want to stop consuming, they just want to stop consuming things that poor people like, and limit their consumption to labor-intensive items that are priced out of reach of most of the world. Material abundance is the end of want and immiseration, and it's what progressive activists have demanded for their brothers and sisters since ancient times.
In the wake of the Black Friday sales after US Thanksgiving that in recent years have begun to take place in other countries as well, or Boxing Day sales the day after Christmas in Commonwealth countries, where people line up (or queue) before dawn in the freezing November weather outside the local MegaMart for ridiculously cut-price deals on everything, I’ve begun to notice a welter of Facebook status updates, tweets and ‘news’ articles sneering at videos of the trampling, stampeding chaos and images of people coming to blows over 40-inch plasma TVs, lap-tops or tumble dryers.
A survey of the incomes of those racing through the aisles to get to that hundred-dollar stereo that normally sells for $400 should give the smug tut-tutters pause though. This is one of the few times of the year that people can even hope to afford such ‘luxuries’, the Christmas presents their kids are asking for, or just an appliance that works. In a democratically controlled economy, we may collectively decide on different production priorities, but surely we would still organise the production of items that bring people joy. Why shouldn’t people have these things that bring them pleasure? Is the pleasure derived from a box-fresh pair of Nike running shoes or a Sony PlayStation 4 inferior to the pleasure the subscribers of Real Simple magazine derive from their $2000 coffee table made from recycled traffic signs? Likewise, why is the £59 hand-carved walnut locomotive from a Stoke Newington toy shop any less consumerist than the free plastic Elsa doll from Disney’s Frozen accompanying a Subway Fresh Fit Kids Meal?
Anti-consumption politics almost always seem to be about somebody else’s wrong, less spiritually rewarding purchases. It is perhaps the pinnacle of conspicuous consumption. At the very least, no one should mistake this lip-pursed bien-pensant middle-class scolding for speaking truth to power.
The left once campaigned for better conditions for the workers who make things, now it is preoccupied with buying less of what's made, but "An anti-consumerist model of campaigning simply and ineffectively replaces that of a trade unionist model." Sure, the stuff is made by terribly exploited workers. That needs to stop. But rather than campaigning for a retreat from the comforts of technology, let's campaign for their provision to all who want them: "Inequality should not be replaced by an equality of poverty, but an equality of abundance."
Rather than campaign against Walmart, lets use its supply-chain management to liberate its goods from exploitation!
Yes, Virginia, while Walmart, the third largest employer in the world, operates within the free market competing against other shops, internally, the multinational firm is the very model of planning, as are all firms. Highly hierarchical and, yes, dictatorial, but planned with brilliant efficiency by humans nonetheless. As American Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson has scandalously suggested, strip out the exploitation of its workers and the lack of democracy, and the stunning logistical wonder that is Walmart actually becomes an example of planning that socialists should study with keen scrutiny. Walmart is, Jameson asserts cheekily but with sincere admiration, “the shape of a utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia.
The only way to create a sustainable future is to soak the left in technological expertise, not to turn our back on it. We need to figure out how to make a lot more with a lot less, more efficiently and effectively than ever before. We have to stop pretending that organic food — which uses more pesticides and requires more land than high-tech farming — is better. We have to stop pretending that "GMO" is a meaningful category. We need to figure out how to give people the wealth and comfort and the access to contraception and knowledge that lets them have fewer kids — not insist that the technologies that feed the kids they have today be banned because they originate with terrible companies. The problem is the companies, not the technology (Edison was a colossal asshole, but I still use battery power and lightbulbs all the time).
The left has done this before, with enormous success, in the area of AIDS activism:
But I also know the tremendous advances that evidence-based medicine has achieved over the last 200 years as a result of the germ theory of disease, sanitation, antibiotics, vaccines, pharmacology, lab technology and genetics. As Ben Goldacre, the doctor and health campaigner who manages to be simultaneously Britain’s most trenchant critic of Big Pharma and of medical frauds such as homeopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture and ‘nutritionists’, puts it: “Repeat after me: pharma being shit does not mean magic beans cure cancer.” The socialist left, with its historic commitment to reason and science, has to separate itself from the distractions of the crunchy left.
We could do far worse in this regard than learning from the AIDS campaigners of the late 80s and early 90s in organisations like ACT-UP and the Treatment Action Group. They described and continue to describe themselves as “science-based treatment activists.” While engaging in multiple high-profile acts of militant civil disobedience against the pharma giants and both Republican and Democrat politicians, they also soberly, rigorously plunged deeply into the science of their condition, and were willing to change tack upon the advent of new evidence, as happened when early demands of expanded access or “drugs into bodies,” as was the slogan of the time, proved to be insufficiently nuanced. Despite most of the activists lacking any formal medical training, the extent of their evidence-focussed self-education and the quality of their reports and recommendations were such that clinicians began to recognise them as their equals in an understanding of the disease. And through this combination of a grounding in science and militant activism, ACT-UP and TAG changed the course of an epidemic, forcing governments to care about a plague killing queers, drug users and minorities.
Agrarianism isn't intrinsically leftwing. There's something inescapably Tory about the idea of a world as a Richard Scarry village where everyone is a small shopkeeper in a shire. It's the same force than animates xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment (and there's plenty of people in the green left who also militate against immigration, for the same reason). Small is beautiful only after you get rid of 80% of the world — otherwise, we need dense, intense, technological living. The more of that we get, the more of the countryside we can be left for wildlife.
We are not in a lifeboat. Lifeboat politics are awfully convenient for thugs who would rather force you to do what they say than convince you. The Earth is imperiled, and it can't be saved by telling the world's majority that they will never enjoy the comfort that the minority of us enjoyed for the past century: "It is important for those who quite rightly care deeply about the threat to humanity represented by myriad ecological problems to inoculate themselves against such thinking, to foreswear anti-modernism and the lifeboat politics of limits to growth."
In the past century, certain leftists pretended that Stalinism's horrors were the price we had to pay for socialist rule. Today, the austere greens tell us that hairshirts, de-growth, and radical population reduction are the unfortunate and inevitable consequence of undoing capitalism's excesses. Neither is right. Dinosaurs walked the earth for ten million years; we've only been here for a couple hundred thousand years. The idea that we'll just stop now, stop progressing and improving on the things we developed, become "steady state" creatures, for the next 9 million years and change is a terrible one. Let's not swear off our futures.
Some people love living in the countryside, genuinely prefer it. But a mass-scale back-to-the-land experiment would be a disaster: "a wistful, sentimental appreciation of nature and lamentation of a lost Eden arises from a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of rural life and ever-present menace that is the wilderness. It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturalist—or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine—any day."
A sustainable world is one in which we do things better. The better we do them — the more material abundance we harness — the more free we will be, both from want and coercion:
As a result of our audacity, our ultimate resource, each of the limits imposed upon us by nature that we have breached—from fire that allowed us to expend less food energy intake on digestion and permitted more energy to be given over to our expanding brain, through electric lighting that allows us to stay up after dark, to the technologies of the bicycle, the washing machine, the pill, abortion, and fertility treatments that have chipped away at patriarchy—has required a growing consumption of energy. All of these natural limits were imposed as arbitrarily as the rules and dictates of any illegitimate government. For this reason, one would think that the most defiant possible demand of anarchism—the political philosophy that challenges not just the power of the state, but all illegitimate authority—would be for the ever greater degrees of freedom delivered by the liberatory power of more energy. Indeed the entirety of the left, not just anarchists, in recognition of this potential for liberation, used to argue not against energy expenditure or technology, but that these advances be shared by everyone, rather than just the elite few.
Energy is freedom. Growth is freedom.
Austerity Ecology marries incisive science writing, radical politics, and blazing prose. It's an important book about climate, and an even more important book about the politics of doing something about the climate.
Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff
[Leigh Phillips/Zero Books]