The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Green Gone Wrong - A Book That Gets It Right!

“This is a long process,” says Lely Khairnur, director of a social justice and sustainability organization in Indonesia, “It’s not fighting against one company, we are fighting a system.” This quote succinctly represents the essence of Heather Rogers’ Green Gone Wrong. Her book is a percussive blow to the “green capitalism” ideologues and consumer-oriented conceptions of environmental sustainability. The criticisms, and possible alternatives, she raises in her work are purposefully astonishing and suggestive of the radically broad structural changes that must be forced upon the ruling class if we wish to maintain Earth as a habitable and sustainable home for our species. Her scathing critique of the consumer-based approach to sustainability and the market-based approach to regulating the environment are presented within a framework which attempts to articulate the need for a systemic overhaul, not piecemeal reforms or slightly more expansive regulatory powers. She claims that our “toxic emissions” as individuals are not ours alone, but instead they are “linked to a larger socioeconomic system that actually depends on pollution to maintain its well-being.” She is correct in this assertion, and her criticism of the new ideological currents within the environmental movement are much needed breath of fresh air in a highly irrational and anti-human system.

Her first target is the highly marketed “organic” and “fair trade” labels that have recently flooded grocery stores and large chains all over the United States. Many within the progressive movement look to these as an alternative to the highly-processed, chemically tainted, and mono-cropped agricultural practices of big businesses. She dismantles the notion that these labels are really helping regular people (say peasants in Paraguay or truly organic farmers in the U.S.) and are more about projecting an image which helps sell commodities and promote the idea these problems can be fixed simply through market mechanisms. It is, in other words, an attempt by the dominant ideological elites to legitimize capitalism in a world where the population is becoming more and more critical of its environmental track record. To be certain, such desires on behalf of consumers who truly wish to help by buying organic and fair trade products is a progressive step within the framework we are operating in. And, while it is true that not all organic and fair trade sellers bend the rules and corrupt the process, it is apparent the entire certification system and regulation system are systemically flawed.

In the US, for example, monopolization and regulations that actually support large agribusiness has forced many small farmers out of business and made many others rely on outside income (wives working full time jobs as wage workers) to simply support the farm. The average small farm in the US, according to a USDA economic research study, earns 85-95% of its income from "off-farm sources." On top of that, most organic farms are simply "visually inspected," meaning that if an inspector comes out at all, they do not have to run any chemical tests or fertilizer tests.

Similarly, international organic standards are meant to mean a host of things, including crop rotation to protect the soil and non-chemical use, etc. However, with crops like sugar cane most small farmers in, say, Paraguay, cannot afford to take the chance (or hire the labor) to rotate crops every year and perennial crops like sugarcane remain in the same spot for years and years. And manure used to fertilize the ground, for instance, often comes from "non-organic" sources where they pump the animals with hormones and even lace the food with arsenic to increase growth. This manure is used in certified "organic" crops that we consumers eat. All the while, large agribusiness, who is quickly taking over the "organic" niche in the US market, is benefiting from the increased sale prices they can charge and cutting costs. In other words, consumers and small farmers are getting screwed.

Thus, organic certification in third world countries mean almost nothing. Since poor farmers cannot afford certification (it costs a lot, and the time involved in documenting their credentials takes away from valuable labor time, which they are very, very limited in) they are often bunched together under one large manufacturer. There certification, then, is often under the name of a large corporation, meaning they can only sell their organic crops through this producer, because it maintains the right to the seal. They can sell their crops for conventional prices but they get massively screwed if they choose to do so. Furthermore, any attempt at independent selling and they are cut off from their organic certification. Fair trade does essentially the same thing, and they are relegated to selling to a big producer. Basically, these labels are serving to confine small farmers and forcing them to subjugate themselves to large agribusiness, who control the market. And, since they are "group certified," there is no independent regulation. Regulators are hired by the large company who are certified, and they only have to "randomly select" farmers once in awhile to be checked. In many parts of Latin America, where the infrastructure for regulation barely exists, organic and fair trade mean almost nothing.

It is not just organic and fair trade products that are so distorted within the capitalist framework. Greener technology in, say, architecture are simply non-existent or barely existent in the U.S. for working class consumers because of the insanely high price, despite having the appropriate technology. Public transportation was decimated by the large oil and auto companies and, unsurprisingly, the state literally sanctioned this destruction by giving them little more than a slap on the wrist, a $5,000 fine, for literally dismantling public rail in most U.S. cities. Even greener and environmentally friendly cars are withheld because corporations function around the profit motive and gas-guzzlers are far more profitable than compact and eco-friendly automobiles. Carbon offsetting is more about the “bottom line” than actually offsetting carbon emissions. Even poor peasants in India are forced to chop down and sell wood to biomass energy plants to simply make enough cash to survive. Solar energy is haphazardly installed without the adequate support or voltage to make it functional due to price constraints. The horror tales concerning market solutions to our planet’s environmental problems are innumerable.

The moral of the story, then, is that capitalism as a socioeconomic system cannot, and will not, provide an Earth on which sustainability is a likely outcome or, even, a possibility. The market fundamentally distorts potential for environmentally sustainable technology to become the norm. Likewise, the inherent tendency towards expansion and production are also significant limitations to what the market can to do negate environmental damage. Roger’s provides an absolutely essential critique of the purported market “solutions” that many within and outside of the mainstream environmental movement are currently advocating. She provides 12 pages at the end of her book titled “Notes on the Possible,” in which she advocates cultivating biodiversity by looking backwards to the farming techniques of the past, developing an agroecology with the ability to feed the six billion people on the planet, accommodate small farmers, enforce stricter regulations, and subsidize technology that fosters environmental sustainability. Her call for huge government intervention to save our Earth from destruction is a welcome one, and money could easily be redirected from imperialistic wars and the wealthiest sectors of society to fund alternative technology and its implementation on a mass-scale. This is something that requires economic and political power that only the national and international agencies can harness. It cannot be done piecemeal by individual consumers, one at a time, or forward-looking businesses.

Rogers’ argues that a “more comprehensive regulation of industry and a major rethinking of our political and economic structures” are the key to a new ecology. She is correct. Her contribution to this dialogue is essential, and will help combat the market proponents who so eagerly defend the status quo or small reforms. However, we must also take her argument a bit further. She gives us an idea of how government policies and farming practices can be changed to support our environment, but she does not provide us with the vehicle through which we make those changes. They will not come through our leader’s benevolence, as gifts handed down to us. Indeed, as Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without demand, it never has, and it never will.” Time still remains to save our planet and ourselves, but this cannot be done without marshalling our forces and constructing edifices that facilitate the growth of social movements. Broad-reaching, radical social movements are what can provide Douglass’s demand and force qualitative changes in our infrastructure, workplaces, economy, and environment. I highly recommend that this book be read alongside John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and Chris William’s Ecology and Socialism.

It is apparent that throughout the world there is a serious augmentation of environmentally-aware people and ideas. The multi-faceted and piecemeal solutions put forth by market ideologues focus primarily upon individual lifestyle choices, but it is evident that the scale of the crisis we face requires a far more radical approach. Heather Rogers does well to further the discourse that needs to occur, but we need to push her, and others, to adopt an even broader and more radical approach to ecology. In other words, we need a socialist ecology, one that emphasis production for human and environmental need and not profit. We need an ecology, as George Orwell so brilliantly surmised, that goes beyond the “change of spirit” and instead focuses on the “change in structure.” Capitalism as an economic system needs to be replaced by a system where the vast majority democratically decide how to produce, distribute, and use Earth’s resources in a sustainable and liberating manner. Rogers' Green Gone Wrong is a powerful addition to this vision. 
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