Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2021

8 Billion Angels; The Land of Azaba

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

In his review of “Seaspiracy”, a Netflix documentary about the threat commercial fishing poses to the survival of ocean life, Joshua Frank refers to the role of population growth:

Not surprisingly, as the human population exploded over the past 100 years, industrialized fishing increased right along with it. In many communities around the world, fish still provide essential nutrients. In the U.S. and Europe, eating fish may be a luxury, but for many of the world’s impoverished nations, fish are a necessity. Tabrizi does not even attempt to face this fact, perhaps because it’s overly complex, or perhaps because it creeps into neo-Malthusianism territory, which has haunted the environmental movement for decades. Either way, any important analysis of the over-fishing of our world’s oceans, as uncomfortable as it may be, must broach the topic.

When I first began writing about ecological limits on Internet mailing lists, the charge of neo-Malthusianism was raised against me especially by James Heartfield, a member of the self-described Marxist collective led by Frank Furedi. Furedi gave up on Marxism in the early 2000s and his followers went along with a libertarian turn that convinced the Koch brothers to fund Spiked Online, the new voice of these ex-Marxists.

While raising the problem of population growth has prompted the charge of being “Malthusian”, there is little support for this amalgam in his writings according to Giorgos Kallis, the author of “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care”. In his discussion of Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Kallis corrects the record:

Despite his reputation, Malthus opposed “artificial modes of checking population…for their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to growth.” Also, unlike Paul Erlich, who famously bet Julian Simon that resources like metal would grow scarcer, Malthus claimed that “for commodities, the raw materials are in great plenty.” He added that “a demand for these will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.”

Generally, the critics of Malthusianism, a made up term having little to do with his actual beliefs, the focus is on food since that is the most immediate requirement for human survival. Pointing to the chemical-dependent Green Revolution, they claim that it made worries about overpopulation unwarranted. While I had my own objections to the Green Revolution based on its deleterious impact on biodiversity, I posed the question to Heartfield on whether there were enough tuna in the sea to satisfy an ever-growing population. You can add chemical fertilizer to the soil but no amount of chemicals could spur an explosion of tuna schools to keep up with 10 billion people, the number projected by the end of the 21st century.

These questions are taken up in a crucial new documentary titled “8 Billion Angels” in which director Terry Spahr confronts overpopulation without mincing words on the film’s website: “All of our efforts, up until now, have amounted to stop-gap measures that distract us from the fact that we add 80 million more people every year to the earth, who together consume more resources faster than the world can replenish, and emit more waste than the earth can naturally absorb.”

Up until recently, overpopulation was generally identified with the Club of Rome and other think-tanks funded by Nelson Rockefeller and other “liberal” politicians and capitalists who thought that China, India and other such “backward” countries could provide a better life for their people if they controlled population growth. A leading Chinese scientist named Song Jian was so persuaded by these reactionary ideas that he convinced the government to adopt and strictly enforce a one-child only law that caused enormous suffering as pointed out in the documentary “One-Child Nation” that I reviewed in 2019.

“8 Billion Angels” is adamantly opposed both to such forced measures as well as the sense of complacency that allows the ruling class to accept a status quo that threatens a Sixth Extinction not only threatening marine life as depicted in “Seaspiracy” but just about every form of life on the planet. Both homo sapiens and our animal co-dwellers on this planet rely on biodiversity but a dubious economic and demographic growth under capitalism (unlike “Planet of the Humans, the economic system is only implicit in the film) is undermining biodiversity at a frightening speed.

If the film refrains from directly referring to the system eco-socialists target, there is a clear orientation to radical alternatives, even if they operate within the confines of private property. A segment filmed in India offers up a society that seems bent on destroying itself. The Ganges River is an open sewer for exactly the same reasons the Thames was in the days of Karl Marx. The much-heralded Green Revolution created class inequalities in the countryside that forced impoverished farmers to flock into Delhi just like the peasants who came to London after losing their farms under the Enclosure Acts. Without proper infrastructure support, the river became vulnerable to both corporate polluters and poor people finding no other way of disposing of their waste.

If Delhi and the Ganges are the fate we must avoid, the director points to Kerala as a possibility for a better future not only for Indians but the entire planet. In the early 19th century, education for both boys and girls became mandatory, largely through efforts of missionaries to promote mass education, one of the few good things they ever carried out. In the 20th century, these reforms were deepened by both the Congress Party and the Communist Party that in 1957 was the first such party to win an electoral contest. The CP encouraged equality between men and women and made contraception easily available. This combination made it possible for women to be happy with smaller families, unlike China where repression governed. The film makes the eminently logical point that the solution to the stranglehold population growth has on our future revolves around persuading humanity to reduce family growth in exchange for enjoying a higher standard of living, including a beautiful world where the loss of biodiversity is no longer threatened.

While this was an urgently needed film, it fails to come to terms with the nature of the economic system that is for unconstrained growth, not only in terms of commodity production, but in the consumer market for the commodities. Just by coincidence, today’s NY Times reported on the slowest decade of population growth in the USA since the 1930s. This is not a good sign for those who live by the values of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Times quotes Ronald Lee, a demographer who said  “This is a big deal. If it stays lower like this, it means the end of American exceptionalism in this regard.” Guess what American exceptionalism means. The right to have five kids and a car for each one.

The film website has a Screening Toolkit & Discussion Guide that is very much worth reading. But the section on the “Financial System” needs a lot of work. It states:

Under any existing financial system it is very difficult to personally reduce one’s consumption. If you choose to stop driving a car, you consume fewer of the resources needed to build and operate it. Without car payments, insurance and gas costs the average American can save approximately $6000 in savings a year. What happens to these savings? It typically gets shifted to other economic or consumptive activities such as taking a vacation by airplane, renting a larger apartment, turning your heat up in the winter or your A/C down in the summer, or just buying more stuff.

These worries are based on the idea that personal choices drive the economic system rather than a 500-year old economic system that is based on the need to generate profits on an ever-expanding basis. It is not the family unit that is the problem. Instead, it is the ability of the bourgeoisie to extract surplus value from workers that limits us from the kind of transformation the filmmakers hope for. If the competition between blocs of capital and nation-states became superseded in the same way feudalism was superseded 500 years ago, the possibilities are endless. For the first time in human history, we will be able to create a world in which every living thing can fulfill its destiny in a real-world version of the Garden of Eden. If not, we will surely perish.

You can find a virtual screening for “8 Billion Angels” here.

While not exactly a Garden of Eden, the biodiversity experiment in Azaba, Spain comes damned close. This village on Spain’s western border is home to an experiment that tries to reverse the long-term despoliation of the land produced by commercial ranching. Nestled among dozens of such ranches, the Campanarios de Azaba Biologica Reserve tries to replicate the rich variety of animals, trees and plants that thrived there about a thousand years ago. About the closest analogy to such a project was the Blackfoot Indian rancher I visited in Montana about 20 years ago, where bison were allowed to roam freely within his property. There was a fence surrounding the land but only meant to keep the animals from wandering onto a road where they might be struck by a car. Additionally, the native grasses of the high plains were allowed to grow once again, the natural food for the bison and that were wall-adapted to the windy and arid conditions.

In Azaba, this approach is taken as well but on a grander scale. Deer were reintroduced into the reserve in order to attract predators like the lynxes and the wolves that kept them from overpopulating the land. Trees once native to the region were also grown in order to attract the birds that disappeared once the land was denuded in order to allow pigs to become a crash crop. Once a natural balance was established, Azaba even attracted buzzards that hadn’t been seen in many years. A dead deer was irresistible to nature’s garbage disposal unit. Regular visits to the reserve by local ranchers has resulted in a rethinking of how they interact with nature. It is obvious that they are Spain’s version of regenerative agriculture.

The documentary was directed by Greta Schiller, best known for “Before Stonewall”. Showing a natural affinity for a film about restoring natural balance, Philip Glass supplied the music. In 1982, he wrote the film score for a documentary titled “Koyaanisqatsi”, which means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language. In the film, three Hopi prophecies are sung by a choral ensemble:

  • If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
  • Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
  • A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

The “qatsi” trilogy that Glass supplied music for are augurs of our doom. “The Land of Azaba” is a prophesy of a better world but one that is only possible through political struggle.

The film is now available as VOD at Kino Now

1 Comment »

  1. Seaspiracy is a must-see. View it critically by all means, but don’t ignore it.

    Comment by Bernard Sufrin — April 29, 2021 @ 4:57 pm

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