Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 4, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Today the temperature is forecasted not to go above 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12.7 degrees Celsius) in New York City. For the entire month of December and now into January, the coldest month of the year, there has not been a single day beneath freezing to my knowledge.

Those conditions obviously reflect the subject of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” that I viewed last night. Despite my political opposition to Gore and despite my qualms about the documentary’s refusal to follow through on its implications, I can recommend it as a very good introduction to the problems of global warming. It is also a fascinating document on the divided psychology of a ruling class politician as he tries to cope with a threat to the capitalist system, but without allowing himself to break from that system. As the 21st century wends its way toward certain disaster, more and more such politicians will be challenged to respond to grave threats to the environment. To Gore’s credit, he has stepped out in front. It will of course be up to the class that has nothing to lose to go all the way.

The film is basically a recording of one of Gore’s lectures to a college audience interspersed with personal reflections about how he became an environmentalist and film footage of the consequences of global warming (melting glaciers, disappearing snow, drought, hurricanes, etc.) While Gore can come across as an insufferably pedantic slow-talker at times, he does manage to maintain a lively pace and a refreshing candor as well as poke fun of himself from time to time.

As might be expected, the film is laden with facts that are integrated into Gore’s Powerpoint-type presentation. From the film’s website, we can some of the kinds of points that are made:

  • The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years.
  • Malaria has spread to higher altitudes in places like the Colombian Andes, 7,000 feet above sea level.
  • The flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland has more than doubled over the past decade.
  • At least 279 species of plants and animals are already responding to global warming, moving closer to the poles.

We learn that when Gore was a student at Harvard, he was strongly influenced by Professor Roger Revelle. Revelle was the founding chair of the first Committee on Climate Change and the Ocean (CCCO). In a 1957 article, Revelle and Hans Suess asserted that the oceans would absorb man-made carbon dioxide at a much slower rate than previously predicted. This was one of the first attempts to come to grips with the “greenhouse effect.” Needless to say, this is not the kind of intellectual background that George W. Bush had, even though he was privileged to have an Ivy education as well.

Gore’s patrician background lent itself to more of a ‘noblesse oblige’ posture than found in the Bush family. His father was a Senator as well, who raised tobacco on his Tennessee farm. After his daughter, a life-long smoker, died of lung cancer, he resolved to stop growing the crop. This leads Gore to think a bit more deeply about the problems of “denial” when it comes to a deadly threat whose tentacles grow out of the bedrock of American industry. If the tobacco industry fought for so many years with the aid of “scientific” experts to deny a connection between lung cancer and smoking, imagine how much resistance will be mounted against any attempts to curtail greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, this is simply beyond the intellectual and political reach of Al Gore. The thrust of his campaign is directed not against the capitalist class but against the individual consumer whose choices must begin to reflect a more enlightened approach. His website includes “10 simple tips” that include planting a tree since “a single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.” As dedicated as I am to ecology, I am not exactly sure how I can follow through on this. I suspect that I would be hauled off in handcuffs if I tried to dig a hole in Central Park for a new sapling. I am also sure that there is not enough room in my apartment for a proper tree. Maybe an avocado plant, but that’s about it.

Gore does recommend that we support the efforts of Conservation International, a group that is dedicated to saving the rainforest, but I sincerely wonder how much help such a group can be when it remains so profitable to hack away at trees in Brazil, Borneo and elsewhere. I also wonder how dedicated such a group can be when it includes Rob Walton from Walmart and Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, on the board. Both of these firms are associated with rampant exploitation of the environment in the pursuit of profit. It is akin, as Malcom X once put it, to putting the wolf in charge of protecting the henhouse.

One can certainly understand why Walmart would lend its shitty name to such an enterprise. They need all the help they can get when it comes to public relations. Yesterday the NY Times reported:

As a way to cut energy use, it could not be simpler. Unscrew a light bulb that uses a lot of electricity and replace it with one that uses much less.

While it sounds like a promising idea, it turns out that the long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them.

But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes. And its ambitions extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart’s appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States.

“The environment,” Mr. Scott said, “is begging for the Wal-Mart business model.”

As it turns out, this is “simple tip” number one on Al Gore’s list: “Replacing one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb will save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.”

However, this is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the major causes of greenhouse gases, which are inextricably linked to the capitalist mode of production that relies heavily on the burning of fossil fuels. We would have about as much success in chance of curtailing such practices as King Canute had in turning back the ocean’s waves. Capitalism operates on the basis of private profit, not human need. If there is profit to be made in selling a hundred million SUV’s in China, General Motors or Toyota would be happy to see polar bears extinct or Bangladesh submerged under 100 feet of water if that’s what it takes.

For an analysis of why the advanced capitalist countries have been so reluctant to come to grips with global warming, despite the warnings of one of its most powerful politicians, we have to turn to John Bellamy Foster, a Marxist who has written about the contradictions of capitalism and the environment for over a decade now. In an October 2001 Monthly Review article aptly titled “Ecology Against Capitalism“, he points out:

As economic growth occurs in carbon–based capitalist economies the demand for fossil fuels rises as well. Mere increased energy efficiency–as opposed to the actual development of alternative forms of energy–is unable to do much to arrest this process in the face of increasing demand. Insofar as increased efficiency reduces unit energy costs, it tends to lead to increased demand. High demand for fossil fuel use is also encouraged by the high profits to be obtained from this, inducing capital to structure the energy economy around fossil fuels (a reality that is now deeply entrenched). In the United States the Bush administration’s push for coal–fired power plants in response to the California energy crisis, plus its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, played a part in the doubling of U.S. coal prices in just six months (New York Times Magazine, July 22, 2001, pp. 31–34).

The degree to which a carbon–based economy is endemic to advanced capitalism can be seen in the failure of the Clinton administration to keep carbon dioxide emissions from steadily rising; in Japan’s growing emissions over the 1990s despite the stagnation of its economy; and in the European Union’s inability to prevent most of its member states from increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. It is also evident in the Bush administration’s National Energy Policy: Report of the National Policy Development Group (headed by Vice President Dick Cheney) for 2001, which was meant to justify the administration’s call for 1,300 additional power plants to meet projected energy needs. This national energy policy advocated by the Bush administration includes only a very brief reference (six paragraphs in the middle of a lengthy report) to global warming.

In light of a series of articles I have been writing about “Does Socialism Have a Future,” I am reminded in light of Gore’s documentary and Foster’s penetrating analysis that in many ways the real question has been and will always be “Does Capitalism Have a Future.”


  1. Louis quotes the article by Foster. I haven’t read it for a while but I’d like to question the section above where Foster says: “Mere increased energy efficiency–as opposed to the actual development of alternative forms of energy–is unable to do much to arrest this process in the face of increasing demand. Insofar as increased efficiency reduces unit energy costs, it tends to lead to increased demand.”

    I don’t disagree with this, but wonder whether increasing demand is actually the real problem. This is the fundamental nature of capitalism that is anti-ecological. What if instead of developing cleaner SUVs we stopped building cars altogether? A bus/train/tram industry could partly replace it, and the vast savings on the huge resources that go into the auto-industrial complex (road/auto parts/oil/war/insurance/etc) would have a big impact onenergy usage levels, I suspect more than the reductions that would be achieved by getting cars off the road.

    Oh and by the way I have an avocado “plant” as Louis calls it in my front yard. It’s 8 or 10 metres tall. How high are your ceilings, Louis?

    Comment by Ben Courtice — January 4, 2007 @ 8:03 pm

  2. Louis:

    Your statement that: “As the 21st century century wends its way toward certain disaster … .” brings to my mind specters of marxian crisis theory. Now you cite or quote John Bellamy Foster editor of Monthly Review and his eco-marxist perspective. One of his mentors was James O’Connor, the last great marxian crisis theorist, whose later works evolved into an eco-marxist perspective that inspired and informed Foster’s thinking. But Foster is not a crisis theorist. O’Coor’s two great canonical texts are The Fiscal Crisis of the State and Accumulation Crisis. The only other marxist crisis theorist that is close to O’connor is Immanuel Wallerstein whose Dynmaics of Global Crisis (co-authored with Amin, Arrighi and Gunder Frank in the early 1980s). The main problem with Wallerstein is that he constantly put back the prospects of the capitalist crisis into a long wave far future that discouraged au courant revolutionary anti-systemic activity. The same held true with for another great marxist crisis theorist, Ernest Mandel who in Late Capitalism and The Second Slump, in the the 1970s, argued that capitalism was in crisis, yes, but not on its death bed, not at the end of its rope. The main difference between Mandel and Wallerstein was that Mandel remained a revolutionary to the end, while Wallerstein remained an ivory tower leftist.

    But the greatest of the marxist crisis theorists whose work still resonates today is Jurgen Habermas whose classical marxian work Legitimation Crisis shoul be read today. I offer a couple of quotes to illustrate:

    “The rapid growth processes of advanced-capitalist societies have confronted world society with problems that cannot be regarded as crisis phenomenon specific to the system … . I am thinking here of disturbances to ecological balance, violation of the consistency requirements of the personality system (alienation), and potentially explosive strains on international relations. With growing complexity, the system of world society shifts its boundaries so far into the environment that it runs up against limits of outer as well as inner nature. Ecological balance designates an absolute limit to growth.” (p. 41)

    “… one absolute limitation on growth can be stated … : namely the limit of the environment’s ability to absorb heat from energy consumption. If economic growth is necessarily coupled to increasing consumption of energy, and if all natural energy that is transformed into economically useful energy is ultimately released as heat … then the increasing consumption of energy must result, in the long run, in a rise in global temperature.” (p. 42)

    Now remember that Habermas wrote this in 1973 (also that he titled his work in German as Legitimation Problems of Late Capitalism) echoing Mandel’s slightly earlier work Late Capitalism. Habermas’s analysis of what he calls legitimation deficits or shortfalls in the political realm are very relevant today.

    Comment by George Mori — January 4, 2007 @ 10:43 pm

  3. Gore does everything in this documentary but place blame on the greedy capitalist system and never mentions that Americans consume a large portion of the world’s natural resources while people in the Third World are oppressed.

    Comment by Doug — January 5, 2007 @ 1:02 am

  4. Haven’t seen the Gore film – beasically I don’t think I need to. As well the sight of a capitalist politician doing the equivalent in consciousness raising of “The cat sat on the mat” would be too painful a reminder of the gap between me and the majority of normal people.

    Interesting that you should mention New York’s weather; here in Brisbane we have had the coolest Xmas period that I can recall. Scary.

    Also we are in the middle of a terrible drought. Your point about the tobacco companies and their strategies for denial is very well taken though. We are indeed seeing the same thing with the environment.


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — January 5, 2007 @ 11:56 pm

  5. Jonathan Weiner, who currently teaches science writing at the Columbia J-school wrote a good book about the science of global warming, “The Next One Hundred Years.” He won a pulitzer prize for non fiction for another of his books on evolution. Even discounting James Lovelock’s Gaia theory(which may or may not turn out to have truth) its a compelling read and not too hard for a non scientist like myself.

    For the politics of global warming, I recommend Ross Gelbspan. He has written two good books, the second a follow up to the first. To give an example how far behind the curve the U.S. is globally, the Conservative Party(Tory) in Britain has supported the Kyoto Treaty. Basically the major obstacles are the Oil, Coal, Petro-Chemical industries & their financial backers.

    Comment by m.c. — January 6, 2007 @ 6:03 pm

  6. “but I sincerely wonder how much help such a group can be when it remains so profitable to hack away at trees in Brazil, Borneo and elsewhere”

    WRT to Borneo (or Indonesia more generally) there is a serious irony that I learned about thru’ one of George Monbiot’s columns, viz., that the Indonesians are busy tearing up rain forest, threatening the last remaining habitat of the Orangutan, amongst other critters, in order to create plantations to produce palm oil for bio-desiel fuel. Definitely one of those “be careful what you wish for” phenomena.

    Comment by Paul Lyon — January 8, 2007 @ 5:58 am

  7. As soon as ecology becomes “profitable” for big business, big bad polluting companies will be the first to promote it. Big business see humanity mostly in terms of dollars and sense not flesh and blood. Any threat Global warming poses to big buisiness is seen through the prism of their account books. Bottom line. Some ecology advocates embrace this, and have become prophets of the profitability of environmentalism. Its a brilliant strategy because it’s a win-win dynamic. In Gore’s case, he’s simply taking his Nobel Peace Prise-winning message on the road (and gatherinmg disciples along the way,) doing globally and individually, what he clearly hoped to do Presidentially: leave a lasting and meaningful legacy. My prayer is that he doesn’t get assasinated. For some reason, our history as a race shows we love to murder off our best messengers.

    Comment by Alex Colvin — March 25, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

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