Notes on the Ecological Dimension


(A talk by Mitchel Cohen at the "Another World is Necessary" conference on July 24, 2006 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, sponsored by the Center for Global Justice.)

There is a kind of environmentalist who argues that police clubs must be made from organic, non-rainforest wood, that police use soy-based ink to take our fingerprints when we are arrested, that they use recycled paper for all tickets and citations, and that their bullets be made from recycled metal. We on this panel are not that kind of environmentalist. Nor are we the kind that argues for U.S. imperialism by asking: "How did our oil get under their sands."

Radical environmentalists point to the devastation the earth is facing, and philosophers, including many leftists, examine only the finger.

A specter is haunting the planet — the specter of biological devastation and ecological catastrophe. The ecosystems sustaining life are being ravaged. Many familiar organisms — butterflies, frogs, bees, whole species — are in sudden danger of being wiped out, and mechanisms for propagation — even seeds! — are coming under the private ownership and control of a few very large agro-chemical corporations which seek to alter their genetic complement and reproductive capacities in order to further their control over land and the world’s food supply.

All the good things that human beings have achieved, and all the beauty of the world around us — the once magnificent old growth forests, pristine drinking water, healthy soils, seas teeming with fish, indeed, the sanctity of life itself as manifest in our genetic codes — are being grabbed, privatized and pillaged by corporate, technological and political powers and legitimized by new laws in a shameless orgy of material profit.

In the last 40 years, fully one-half of the world’s forests have been chopped down. Forests prevent floods, maintain soil health, help defuse hurricanes, and serve as habitats for millions of species. The enormous cut-down that has taken place — and under Clinton and Gore more trees were cut down in the U.S. than under any other administration in recent history — is a main contributor to global warming.

With this reality in mind, I offer five proposals for leftists.

1. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels explained that the internal dynamic of capitalism propels it to nestle everywhere, batter down all the "Chinese Walls" that try to keep it out, colonizing those geographic areas and prior forms of production.

Today, with the globalization of capital, capitalism is colonizing not only other countries’ economic and political systems and the natural world "out there" — but it is now colonizing the "nature within."

We need to understand that the privatization of the biological cell, of natural genetic sequences, is the mechanism through which this new and fundamental form of colonization is taking place.

Thus, leftists must fight to:

a) ban all genetic engineering of agriculture, plants, pesticides, and foods — as essential to anti-colonial movements.

b) Abolish the private patenting of genetic sequences and seeds — so-called "intellectual property rights."

c) Take private profit out of research and development of health-related drugs.

d) And, in the meantime, require all bio-engineered products and those derived from them to be clearly labeled.

2. We need to challenge the capitalist-manufactured consensus underlying what we mean by Progress and the Good Life and reject the notion that the "good life" is based on the mass production and accumulation of commodities. Two hundred years ago, in 1811, the Luddites — like the Iroquois and other American Indian communities — offered a different measure of progress, one not defined by efficiency or acceptance of exploitation, neither of Nature nor Labor. They opposed not machines per se, but "machinery hurtful to Commonality." Because of the radical direct action nature of their critique — in England, hammers in hand; in France, "sabots" (wooden shoes) into the gears (and hence the term "sabotage") — it was necessary for the emerging industrial system based on Grow Or Die (God!) to physically crush the Luddites and other opponents of mass-factory production, and distort and then obliterate memory of their example from history texts. So in that sense, I am proud to be a Luddite, an Iroquois, a Saboteur — a Zapatista!

3. We actionists in the industrial world need to train ourselves to see "holistically". This is not something that will come about on its own within the capitalist or patriarchal frameworks — nor in the kind of socialist framework based on industrial development.

Take this item, about a malaria outbreak in Borneo in the 1950s. The World Health Organization (WHO) sprayed DDT to kill mosquitoes. But the DDT also killed parasitic wasps which were controlling thatch-eating caterpillars. As a result, the thatched roofs of many homes fell down, and the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were in turn eaten by cats. The cats perished from the poisoning, which led to the multiplication of rats, and then outbreaks of sylvatic plague and typhus. To put an end to this destructive chain of events, WHO had to parachute 145,000 live cats into the area to control the rats.

That sequence is exemplary of Western pragmatism. The left, like the rest of society, is steeped in the same linear thinking. It finds a problem and then looks for the magic bullet approach for addressing it. Instead, Leftists need to practice holistic thinking. What does this mean?

To begin with, holistic thinking attempts to look at entire ecosystems, at totalities as the starting point, and at how the Whole informs interactions of the "parts" within it. One important effect of that type of approach is the minimization of unintended consequences. (There is much more to holistic thinking, but I will leave them for the discussion period.)

4. We need to stop fetishizing science and technology. Science and Technology are not "neutral forces"; they are dripping from their very "soul" with the ideology and social relations of the system in which they formed — and which we, as leftists, buy into, too often falling for the "Technological Imperative" — technologizing one’s way out of a problem.

And so, U.S. communist parties endorsed nuclear power plants; they endorsed fluoridation of drinking water (a means for the burgeoning aluminum industry to get rid of its waste products in the 1940s and 50s); they endorsed mass vaccination of children for diseases that children SHOULD get so long as they have access to healthy food, clean water and adequate sanitation — diseases such as chicken pox, measles, mumps, etc.; the communist parties also endorsed mass spraying of pesticides and over-application of antibiotics; they continue to endorse the torture of animals by cosmetic companies like Gillette, under the guise of "scientific research"; and they even uphold genetic engineering — as a technological means for ending world hunger! — instead of examining the real causes of hunger to begin with.

Why are there 3 times as many episiotomies performed on women in the U.S. than in Europe, per capita? Is it that women in the U.S. don’t know how to give birth properly? In Cuba, women squat in a sort-of rocking chair with the bottom removed and rock the baby out, with much lower need for C-sections. Similarly with hysterectomies, which in the U.S. are performed at a rate that is at least double that of other industrialized countries. WHY AREN’T THESE AND SIMILAR ISSUES BEING RAISED BY THE LEFT, which demands at best Universal Health coverage, but does not address the content of what that coverage should consist of? Indeed, the choice we face is between the Capitalist system vs. the Immune system. The left needs to stand on the side of the Immune system.

Leftists have long thought that we could just take over Science and Technology and use them for the good of all. Marx and Engels, among others, warned against that sort of thinking when it comes to taking over the State; the same is true of science and technology. One cannot just take over these frameworks and wield them for one’s own purpose, for technology itself is an ensemble of social relations, and every finished product is a crystallization of the history of the exploitation and organization of production that went into making it.

5. We need to actively search for the ecological dimension to social justice issues and raise them as part of that fight.

Bob Dylan sang: "I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours." For many years the left acted similarly, with organizations making alliances that led to raising each others’ issues and concatenating them into strings of seemingly unrelated programmatic points. But the globalization of capital has changed all that. EVERY issue now has an ecological dimension that is fundamental to it. It is our job, as revolutionaries, to search for that green dimension and unpeel it, reveal it, and organize around it — again, as a fundamental component of every fight that we enter. I call this framework "Deep Marxism."

For example, there is currently being organized an international boycott of CocaCola (www.killercoke.org), called to protest Coke’s murder of indigenous working class organizers in Colombia. Green activists have brought to that struggle Coke’s support for the mass-herbicide poisoning of the entire countryside with Monsanto’s RoundUp — the same deadly organophosphate that they are spraying to kill weeds in New York City, and on corn here in Mexico. Monsanto has patented a procedure for genetically modifying what they call "RoundUp Ready" corn so that it is resistant to the mass-spraying of ONLY Round-Up. As a consequence, corporate farms pour thousands of tons of Round-Up onto the crops, killing every living organism — weeds, butterflies, frogs, earthworms, bees — except the corn itself. And then we eat it, saturated with poisons.

Greens additionally point out that Coke is also one of the world’s leading buyers of genetically engineered corn syrup, which now permeates almost every processed food, and which is responsible in large part for the epidemic of overweight children now plaguing the United States, with the consequent health conditions that ensue.

That is an example of actively looking for the ecological dimension of a particular issue. We can, and must, teach ourselves and practice doing the same with every issue — even those that seem to have no ecological connections whatsoever. Bringing out the ecological dimension to what are in general perceived solely as social justice issues gives us the opportunity to reveal the deeper connections, allowing us to take actions that strike more deeply into the system itself.

Mitchel Cohen Brooklyn Greens / Green Party

Mitchel Cohen 2652 Cropsey Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11214 (718) 449-0037 [email protected]

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