“Comrades, we need to change”: report from the Ecosocialism: Fracking, Climate and Revolution conference
This conference was held under the auspices of Socialist Resistance (SR) and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and was a model of revolutionary cooperation on the ground. It consisted of opening and closing plenaries, with two sessions of four simultaneous workshops either side of (a rather late) lunch. There was a good variety of speakers on offer from the two sponsoring organisations, obviously, but also from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Disinvestment Campaign, the Green Party, Left Unity, Biofuel Watch, the Front de Gauche, Grandparents’ Climate Action, PCS, Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, Frack-Off Manchester, Fuel Poverty Action, Green Left and the Campaign against Climate Change. John McDonnell MP also spoke. It is notable that no one from the International Socialist Network was invited to speak (although I was invited to chair a workshop) and that we were not seriously considered to co-host the conference, despite our longstanding friendly relations with SR. I am sure that this is because we are not considered to have a serious enough commitment to the protection of the environment and especially opposition to climate change. SR have ecosocialism at the heart of their politics and, by the evidence of this conference, there are a large number of rs21 comrades who are passionately committed to this idea, even if they may not use the word ‘ecosocialism’. As catastrophic climate change is the most important issue that the world (and therefore the left) faces in the next 50 years we need to get our act together.
The first speaker in the opening plenary was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party. She is a very impressive speaker and is definitely on the radical socialist wing of her party. She began by affirming that climate change is the most pressing item on the agenda for any progressive party, but for the most part emphasised her party’s social agenda, saying that our immediate demands should be the implementation of the living wage for all, the renationalisation of the railways and utilities and the defence of the NHS from privatisation. She went on to outline what should be the next steps, firstly the idea of a basic income, which people would get whether in work or not.The first and one of the most important effects of this would be ‘freedom from fear’; working people would not wake up every morning and feel that their jobs (and therefore their homes and the living standards of themselves, their partners and their children) were under threat, leading to a great improvement in the mental health of the nation. It would change wage differentials, as unpopular jobs would not be filled unless they were well paid; she used the example that this might lead to sewer cleaners being paid more than bankers, for example! And it would lead to a big impact upon working hours as people might not choose to work long and anti-social hours if they got a basic income anyway. Which leads us on to her final social point, the gradual progress towards the 21-hour working week (as posited by the New Economics Foundation), which would solve unemployment at a stroke. All these things would lead to a new kind of society that would use less energy, would lead us to want fewer useless consumer goods (because our wants for self-fulfilment would be satisfied in other ways). At the moment we in Britain consume such that, if it were replicated worldwide, we would need three planets to provide the resources (as for the US, don’t ask).Her message was: ‘Be radical, think big!’ A case of the Green talking ‘red’ here, definitely.
Alan Thornett was the next speaker and he did not disappoint, despite having woken up that morning with a problem with his voice. I have been an admirer of him since my schooldays, and I’m now 61! He said that he was pleased that the two organisations were collaborating on such an important issue and that he thought that the event title was very ambitious. His contribution (which was in lieu of Daniel Tanuro, author of Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work, who had to pull out due to family commitments), focused on the question of where ecology stands in the struggle for socialist revolution.
He started off by saying that the science on climate change is now so conclusive that even the BBC probably won’t have Nigel Lawson on any more! But this is no time for levity, we need to look at what’s happening. We are approaching the ‘climate cliff’; this is 2°C in average warming over the entire world, which will have bad consequences in itself; any more than that, say to 4°Cand all bets are off. There are tipping points, such as the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which may take up to a thousand years, but could happen in the next century. This will lead to a rise in sea level of somewhere up to nine metres. It’s going to happen unless something drastic is done. Then there is extreme weather, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this year; you can’t blame any single weather event on the warming of the planet, but these things are statistically going to get more common. Ten years ago a tropical storm (‘Vince’) crossed the Atlantic and made landfall in Europe for the first time ever, in Spain. In 2003 a hurricane called Catriona (no relation to Katrina) formed in the Southern Atlantic, again for the first time ever. We are undergoing what certain biologists call ‘the Sixth Extinction’ (the fifth was the dinosaurs), with half of all the species on the planet under threat. As Alan said, the earth doesn’t belong to us, we’re just stewards, here to hand it on to our descendants; who would want a world without birds or bees (assuming that one without the latter would be able to feed itself without these essential pollinators)?
Where then, asked Alan, does this leave the Marxist tradition? Well, we didn’t have a very good 20th century, to say the least. Marxists have tended to see, in a Stalinist way, nature as an externality, a free good to be exploited, rather than to see ourselves as part of it which Marx did in some of his early works, The German Ideology, and in Volume 3 of Capital. We on the left have always tended to describe our relation to nature in ‘productivist’ language.Alan gave an example of when he worked in Cowley making cars; he said that the union was proud of the exemplary working conditions and wages and that they even had a certain measure of workers’ control. However, they never questioned the anti-social and environmentally destructive nature of the product that rolled off the end of the line. He now thinks that they should have done.
SR considers ‘ecosocialism’ a fundamental part of its political identity and that ecological issues should always be central to any analysis of society. We, as socialists, look forward to a revolution which will fundamentally alter the social relations of society; we don’t want to inherit a desert after all. Lots of the damage is being done now and will be long-lasting; we will still find it difficult to defend the planet after a socialist revolution.
Next came Michaela from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.She and her fellow students were concerned about climate change and wanted their university to disinvest in fossil fuel shares. She pointed out that in order to not fall over the ‘climate cliff’ of 2 degrees we need to leave 80% of currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Instead of this Oxford University has now a contract with Shell to investigate new ways of extracting them, including Arctic drilling and fracking. The campaign has been targeting JCRs to get them to pass motions against this stupidity and so far has done this in 25 (about a third). They also have links with the Oxfordshire Fossil-free Campaign, which is a broadly-based movement.
After a short break we divided up into workshops on: Marxism and Ecology; Zero Growth and Productivism; Food Sovereignty and Land Grabs and, the one I chaired, The Ruling Class and Climate Change. I made sure that I introduced myself as a member of the International Socialist Network (of Bradford and Leeds branch, by the way!) I found it difficult to take notes during this meeting and thus will have to rely on my impressions of it, as I chaired.The two speakers, Amy Gilligan made the fairly standard points that despite paying lip service to the need to address climate change, they find it practically impossible to put in place any effective measures to stop it.In the recent Queen’s speech almost all the measures were environmentally unfriendly and the only sop was the levy on plastic bags! Obama acknowledges the reality of the problem, but is shackled by big business and the free market ideology, which prevents him from actually doing anything about it.
The discussion was wide-ranging, taking in almost all the various opinions except outright denial. Various comrades argued against the debilitating effect of ‘catastrophism’ for example. Jonathan Neale explained that this could be overplayed, that this isn’t the end of the world. Most people would survive, it was just that the world they survived in would be a significantly worse place, with worse politics as the ruling class took measures to ensure that they wouldn’t be more disadvantaged than necessary when the rest of the world woke up to who was responsible. It would be the worst catastrophe since the Black Death, he said, but this time it wasn’t an ‘act of God’, we’d know who to blame. Jonny Jones argued that we shouldn’t just eschew technological fixes, it might be that we’d have to try them and in this he was joined by Amy Gilligan. Phil Ward was against this, both solar panels and wind turbines relied on rare elements and we didn’t know if there were enough of these in the world and what the effect would be on the communities living near where they would be mined. He was much more pessimistic than Jonathan Neale in that he thought many more would die and there would be just a few living in Northern climes in what used to be tundra areas.
Gareth Dale (rs21) and the economist Özlem Onaran (Socialist Resistance) led a session on ‘Zero growth and productivism’. Gareth, in a wide-ranging introduction, emphasised the newness of the very idea of ‘growth’ which, applied to a nation or economy, only began tentatively to be explored in 17th century England before being systematically developed by Adam Smith and the Physiocrats in the 18th. Even then it was a theory for the ruling class, a capitalist understanding of the meaning of capitalism, until the 1920’s – Marx and Engels were ambiguous and critical. It was the twin failures of social democracy and Bolshevism, unable to offer a decisive transformation away for capitalism, that led the left into fetishising growth as the only means to improve working class conditions.
Özlem then explored the ways in which growth had become both unsustainable and largely unrelated to most people’s living standards and how zero growth, an essential target, could be managed only with large-scale redistribution of wealth and income: globally from North to South; nationally from rich to poor and within the working class as well – and how Left Unity’s economic policy, which she had helped produce, was designed with this in mind. Green ‘New Deals’ she emphasised would not be enough. While slightly enlarged in discussion I felt that this short meeting could only introduce an issue with vast implications about the nature of capitalist growth and for the aims of socialist change.
The second session in the afternoon consisted of another four workshops. Richard went to Fracking.
The session on fracking, introduced by Eva Barker and Stephen Hall brought out, I thought, how unevenly this new but vital struggle had developed, with most of the London left yet to grasp its importance. So Eva had to explain just what fracking was – a menu of extreme energy techniques – and why it had to be opposed – which probably wouldn’t be necessary at a socialist conference in the North West. She emphasised the need to unite disparate wings of the movement and keep them united – particularly the direct actions camps and local residents. Stephen emphasised the urgent need for systematic political, as well as direct, action and suggested taking the issue into the unions – with the BFAWU the first to come out in opposition to fracking – mass mobilisations in opposition to the proposed legislation legalising fracking underground, regardless of opposition from landowners and residents of the land above.
I added a little on the threat of underground coal gasification – burning coal seams in situ – in coastal areas and the ways in which fracking raised large and general political issues to do with democracy, the powers of the state, and the control exerted by capital. Other points to come up included police behaviour at Barton Moss and Balcombe and attempts by fascist groups to infiltrate the movement.
I went to the session on Climate Crisis: revolution and alternatives. The two speakers here were Sylvain Savier (Front de Gauche) and Nancy Lindisfarne (Grandparents’ Climate Action and rs21).This was an intriguing discussion, both speakers emphasising the centrality of ecology to socialism. Sylvain said that the only way to tackle the linked economic and ecological crises was to shift to ecosocialism as capitalism uses more resources in eight months than can be renewed in a year, which he described as ‘death by corporation’.He pointed out that there is no clear separation between the state and the market: neoliberalism actually means more state intervention, it is just that it is concentrated in surveillance and discipline rather than welfare, something that Bourdieu recognised a couple of decades ago. Neoliberal newspeak talks of liberty while we are policed and our only ecosystem is wantonly laid waste; there is a need for a concerted campaign of counter-propaganda.Front de Gauche are calling for an end to the Fifth Republic and a ‘citizens’ revolution’ to rewrite the constitution and strip the president of his monarchical powers. Sylvain argued that need new forms of democracy, and that we should emphasise the ‘commons’ as against the market, but all our forms of commons are under attack.
Nancy spoke of ‘intergenerational justice’. The group she belongs to takes inspiration from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Justice Campaign and the American group, the Gray Panthers. The phrase ‘intergenerational justice’ comes from the ex NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity. She was adamant that revolution was the only answer, that our current weak form of ‘democracy’ was incapable of saving the planet. The meeting generally agreed.The problem that the Front de Gauche had, said Sylvain, was that the Communist Party seemed not very interested in ecosocialism, which he found surprising. Given the record of official CPs here, right up to the Chinese CP now, some of us were not so shocked.
The final plenary was particularly good. It started off with Fiona Brookes, the national coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change talking about the crucial UN conference on climate in Paris next year. She said that this was our last chance, we couldn’t afford another Kyoto or Copenhagen and that, if there was no satisfactory agreement that the time for demonstrations and protest was past, we had to fight. We had to bring major cities around Europe to a halt by involving students and trade unions, there was no alternative. She was followed by Claire Walton of Fuel Poverty Action, who also linked austerity and climate and also advocated direct action.
The day was summed up by Jonathan Neale of rs21, a long time climate activist and for a number of years the secretary of the Campaign against Climate Change. He re-iterated what he’d said in the meeting I chaired and, indeed, what he says in his excellent article in the latest issue of Socialist Resistance, entitled ‘Climate Change and Socialists’. If the climate crisis starts affecting the ruling class they won’t suddenly say, ‘Hey guys, you know what, we were wrong’. They will bring out the iron fist to ensure that their rule continues, but they will justify this by using extreme green rhetoric: in effect we will have ‘green fascism’, not in the sense that we have it now, with a few romantic thugs tagging along to the anti-fracking movement, but in the sense that we will have an authoritarian state violently enforcing policies that protect the ruling class in an extreme situation. We need to act before we get there. Jonathan pointed out that socialists have had a dismal record over the environment and that Greens have had to point out all the problems. The trouble is that they have come up with environmentalist solutions, which are based upon morality or the market, and in neither case will they work. We have ignored the problems, but it is only socialists who have the answers. Trouble is, we can’t just turn up and tell people that, having been missing before. We need to earn our respect in campaigning against the kind of society that is inexorably leading us towards catastrophic climate change during which a billion people might die. Only if we are the best fighters will people listen to our solutions.
This was a great conference with an extremely high intellectual content. It was also very competently organised, after a very small initial hitch. I’m sorry we in the IS Network weren’t asked to be involved, but I know why that is, I think. We are very good on certain issues, feminism in particular, which is not surprising given the reasons that we split from the SWP, and we should be very proud of that. We are also not behind the game when it comes to anti-fascist work and rank and file trade unionism. Where we are woeful is on the environment and especially climate change (which should be the major thing the left concentrates on, not to the exclusion of other important issues, but it should always be in our sights). SR complained that the agenda for the ‘regroupment’ conference was too full, but they also critically noted that the environment was conspicuous by its absence.
SR are committed ecosocialists and they see in rs21 a group that takes that agenda seriously. They look at us and don’t see such partners. Comrades, we need to change.
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Anti-fracking in Cheshire West
The Dee estuary area was one of the first areas to be approved by the coalition government for extreme energy extraction – coal bed methane, fracking and underground coal gasification or just fracking in the usual shorthand. There had been national actions against fracking at Balcombe and at Barton Moss, with a few local people involved in the latter but there was little local organisation at the beginning of 2014 – just a couple of small Facebook groups.
Cheshire West Left Unity decided to try and kickstart things so we called a public meeting in Chester – our first – in January. Twenty eight people attended, including the local press and, although the speaker didn’t turn up and we had done little enough preparation, the meeting pretty much ran itself so expert and committed were the audience. Within a few weeks we had a plethora of Facebook groups with hundreds of members (now thousands), organising meetings across the affected areas – largely rural areas except for one Chester suburb.
Just in time. In March exploratory drilling was started in Farndon, a village south of Chester – the anti-fracking campaign responded with a couple of mass protests and the beginning of a protection camp. The drilling company – Dart Energy – soon went away that time, having completed their exploratory drilling but it was a useful test run for local organisation – and we knew what the rigs looked like. We now have a permanent encampment at Upton, on the fringe of Chester and their anticipated next site.
Meanwhile the campaign had spread. In Wrexham comrades were just in time to protest at a council planning meeting considering the first exploratory fracking application. Over 50 attended at short notice and, to everyone’s astonishment, the Labour planing committee voted 19 to 2 to refuse the application, against officers’ advice. Wrexham is a town with memories of methane, and its effects, scarred deep into its psyche following the Gresford disaster of 1934.
In Wirral meanwhile the major concern is the threat of underground coal gasification underneath the entire Dee estuary. One would have thought the idea of setting fire to underground coal seams to produce gas was fairly obviously dodgy and indeed the experience in the few places it has been tried (like Stalin’s Russia) has been uniformly disastrous. That hasn’t stopped the laughably named Department of Energy and Climate Change issuing Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) for the entire Dee estuary and a string of others shown on the map below.
All of which raises the question of the politics of fracking. We can assume that national government, under either the coalition or Labour, is completely under the thumb of the energy industry. That is why they are now holding another fake consultation on a proposals to stop landowners refusing permission for fracking under their land – even private property rights must bow to big capital.
Local councils are more open to influence, as the Wrexham experience shows – but they are ultimately powerless. The Wrexham decision is being appealed by iEnergy and the appeal will win. Planning officers in local authorities invariably advise for accepting fracking applications as a result. This obviously raises certain issues as to the extent of our democracy.
As will in due course the role of the police. At Barton Moss and Balcombe the police operated aggressively, resulting in a string of largely failed prosecutions. Round here they are being suspiciously friendly as yet, while of course gathering information all the time.
Our side meanwhile has a largely, and loosely, anarchoid feel to it. Left Unity and socialist activists like myself have had no significant problems being part of the movement, provided we aren’t seeking to dominate; and there are plenty of arguments to be made – and listened to if you are in good faith – about other political issues. So we have members our protection camp being attacked for being on benefit. Or we have the local, Tory, council leader claiming, ludicrously, to be concerned about fuel poverty while doing nothing about deepening actual poverty.
We can make links to trades unions with similar ease – one of the initial activists around here, apart from Left Unity members, was a PCS activist, and the Upton anti-fracking group had a substantial presence at our May Day rally. And we can initiate actions, as I did here. There are occasional problems – one local activist, a good one and a Socialist Appeal member, supports fracking on the economic development grounds – but not many.
But of course we’ve hardly started yet. The state and the industry will play a long game if need be, harnessing fears about energy shortages, buying off some opposition and repressing the rest. In Cheshire West the council is trying to position itself at the forefront of fracking development – they had more representatives at a recent industry conference than any other council. They aren’t going to give up. There are anti-fracking groups springing up everywhere. Get involved.
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Debating rising population and the environment: meeting report
Socialist Resistance (SR), in a spirit of comradely discussion, invited IS Network members to their meeting on the environment and having an interest in such matters I went along to observe and contribute. The discussion was around two papers that had been circulated in advance: one by Alan Thornett and one by Phil Ward. It was a small meeting, with six members of SR and myself. Roland Rance was in the chair, Alan Thornett, Phil Ward and Terry Conway were the main contributors, and there were two other members present, Dave and Tony.
It soon became apparent that I had parachuted into the middle of an ongoing debate. They had been arguing about this within SR for a couple of years at least. Roland introduced the discussion by informing us that it was a matter of some debate within SR and the wider Fourth International (FI). SR’s ‘Ecology Commission’ has been discussing it and lots of the relevant articles are on the FI’s ‘International Viewpoint’ website (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org) and SR’s website (http://socialistresistance.org). It is for this reason that I am not going to present the discussion in the order that it transpired on the day. Phil Ward actually presented his article first, but I’m going to start with Alan and Terry’s contribution, because it was Alan who started the controversy with his review of Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book Too Many People? a couple of years ago in Socialist Resistance (http://socialistresistance.org/3013/too-many-people-a-review).
There were two questions to be addressed in the meeting: is rising population a threat to the planet, and what is the socialist solution to this?
My personal viewpoint was the former question was addressed more adequately than the latter.
Alan started his contribution by reiterating the title of his circulated article: ‘Population and the Environment: time for a rethink’. He said that this was a difficult subject for the left to engage with, because of the spectre of Thomas Malthus, which always haunts discussion of demography. Malthus’s view was that population growth would always accelerate way beyond the plodding increase of food supply. His analysis in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/malthus/) was powerful enough to change the law of the land in 1834! He argued that the only way to prevent catastrophe (the Malthusian checks of ‘war, starvation and disease’) was to prevent the poor and indigent from breeding, which led to the New Poor Law with its mainstays of ‘less eligibility’ and the ‘workhouse test’. The same philosophy is behind Iain Duncan’s Smith’s tenure at the DWP today: the poor shall not be ‘rewarded’ for being poor, life must be harder for them than the poorest in work and people with large families shall be especially punished (welfare caps, cuts in housing benefit, etc.).
Actually, in the last instance Malthus was right! A finite planet cannot provide for an indefinitely growing demand on its resources but, to borrow a phrase from the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, ‘the lonely hour of the last instance never comes’ – but we must leave this for Phil’s contribution and my own small intervention. Malthus of course greatly underestimated the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet, because he didn’t take into account new agricultural techniques, improvements in medicine, surgical and clinical techniques and facilities, etc.
Alan acknowledged the fact that socialists are always shivering due to old Tom’s ghost, before going on to say that since he left school the population of the planet had grown almost fourfold. It now stood at well over 7 million and even this level was not sustainable without severe damage to ecosystems. The Earth’s population seems to increase by 80 million souls per year whatever happens, which is equivalent to a country the size of Germany appearing annually to share the world’s produce. According to Alan, it shows no sign of decreasing. The last UN estimate in 2012 (the UN publishes a new estimate every two years) was revised upwards. Because of this, Alan says, it is impossible to assess in advance what the population will be in 50 years’ time, let alone by the end of the century. The received view of the Marxist left (and also leftish academics such as Danny Dorling) is that population will level off before the end of the century and then start to fall and that the main problem is distribution of food and other resources.
Alan says that Phil and other Marxist theorists tend to ignore the problem because it seems to play into the hands of the right. Perhaps we could distribute food etc. rather better, but that in itself would cause ecological problems because of the energy usage and carbon emissions due to transport. Perhaps the world could feed 10 million if we used intensive factory farming methods, but this would cause great animal suffering and destroy ecosystems in the process. We are living through the ‘sixth extinction’, the only one that has been caused by a single species: human beings. We should be protecting biodiversity because we are a part of it and living in harmony with nature, because we are a part of it. This is not ‘hippy dippy shit’ (I paraphrase here!), but is in Marx!
We need to take all this seriously, because even if we had a revolution now a socialist society would still have to deal with the ecological emergencies created by capitalism. Because of population growth (of course allied with other issues, in particular climate change) there will be tipping points such as struggles over water in the Middle East and in the Sahel. Alan went on to say that most population growth was among people with low carbon footprints, but that this may change as they become more affluent, as we hope they do.
Phil Ward had actually started the discussion, but I decided to reverse the order of the contributions in order to better reflect the debate within SR, as I said. He also started with the title of his circulated paper: ‘Is Rising Population a Problem for the Planet?’ Phil said that he doesn’t see the question in those terms. The boundaries are not entirely those set by nature, but depend upon human activity, so that population growth is not an absolute but a relative problem. Phil thought that phrasing the problem in this way can align us with the right, as Alan had acknowledged, but denied that this had to be the case. I personally do not think that Phil’s assertion here is helpful; we and the right might ask the same questions, but have different answers.
Phil looked at the projections for the future based upon the UN figures. The UN estimates for the rise in population say that we will reach 11 billion by 2100, but it will peak before then and will be falling. Of that rise of 4 billion, 3 billion will be in Africa whose population will quadruple by the end of the century. Phil reckons this is nonsense; for example, the idea that Nigeria will reach a billion by then is completely unsustainable. Phil thinks it is ridiculous to think about how we are going to manage a planet of 10 or 11 billion people, as we aren’t going to get there; other factors will kick in well before then. The problem is not population but capitalism, which externalises environmental factors and doesn’t count them in the costs of production and distribution. The problem is capitalism’s obsession with growth.
As John Bellamy Foster, an editor of Monthly Review and the author of Marx’s Ecology, has argued, most growth is waste: check out what’s in your bin at the end of the week and check out what goes into landfill. If we take waste into account a socialist society can manage to sustain the current level of population and, indeed, a much bigger one, but we will have ecological disasters to deal with that we inherited from capitalism. We need to eat far less meat, which is a very wasteful use of agricultural land, and we need to move to clean energy, while recognising that the latter is not energy-neutral given the materials from which clean energy technology is manufactured. The post-capitalist world will be difficult and complicated, but at least the former rich, along with the rest of us, will pay their share.
For the most part, I agreed with Phil, which seemed to surprise the rest of the meeting, none of whom did. I mentioned the bourgeois ‘demographic transition theory’ (DTT), which has a graph at its heart. In traditional societies the birth rate is high and the death rate is high, so the graph flat-lines along the bottom, with a low and stable population. As the agricultural and industrial revolutions kick in then the death rate falls, but the birth rate remains high due to demand for labour; the graph becomes a very steep slope. As mechanisation increases, along with a decline in infant mortality, then fewer children are born and the graph begins to level out and, quite often, to fall. The DTT describes what goes on without giving a Marxist analysis of these phenomena.
In over half of the countries in the world the number of children born per woman is below replacement rate (which is about 2.1, because of infant deaths). This includes most of the countries with the highest population: China is about 1.8 (and the effects of the one-child programme, which favoured male births, won’t kick in for another 10-15 years); India is going the same way, as is Brazil. Most of the developed world is well below replacement: Japan being well below 1 and almost all of western Europe below 2. Britain has recently had a rise, but it is still below 2, and its population would be falling disastrously but for immigration. Sub-Saharan Africa is bucking the trend, but given other eco-disasters waiting to happen will not in the end.
To use Marxian language that has been forgotten or ignored, there is a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature. We do not recognise that we are a part of nature; we see nature as a free ‘good’ to be exploited without cost. We are alienated from nature, which is what Marx said when he suggested we should abolish the distinction between country and town. Most of this is elaborated in Capital Volume III.
So, I agree with Phil, the current situation is not sustainable; probably (all other things being equal, which they aren’t going to be), the population would stabilise and then fall. The problem is that there will be issues in the meantime, mainly to do with climate change: water wars and desertification will lead to mass movements of people.
I thought the next part of the discussion, about what a socialist response should be, was far less impressive, which was probably inevitable. It’s always easier to identify a problem than identify solutions. Alan and Terry suggested that the main solution would be a socialist society (with which Phil obviously concurred) and that women around the world should be given full control over their own fertility. Alan suggested that this was a feminist solution and that the left, to their shame, had pretty much ignored feminism, and Terry agreed, but suggesting that the FI had a better record than most, given their central involvement in the early 1980s in the National Abortion Campaign.
Phil agreed that giving women access to free contraception and abortion would be a good thing in itself, but that it couldn’t solve what his antagonists considered to be the main problem. If there are 135 million people born every year and 55 million die, then there will be a net increase of the world’s population of the order of 80 million, the population of Germany. Somehow, somebody has worked out that of the people born about 35 million are not planned or ‘wanted’. So, if you give women complete control over their fertility then the world population will still grow by 45 million people a year. Phil thinks we need a better and more integrated Marxist analysis of the situation and campaigns to solve the problems of the environment we already have. If we don’t do this in 20 years then there’s no point worrying about 2100. I agree.
This was a fantastic discussion between passionate people who were incredibly well read on the subject that they were discussing. It grew rather heated at times, but that was an indication of how passionately they were engaged in the subject. I felt privileged to be a part of it and I look forward to other such discussions and to the time when the IS Network manages to match it. In my years in the SWP I never had a meeting like this, and almost never as a postgraduate at university.
Brian Collier (Bradford/Leeds IS Network branch)