Worldwatch 1997 Report

The Worldwatch Institute just came out with the 1998 edition of the "State of the World: a Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society." The Institute is a mainstream environmentalist organization that gets funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and Pew Charitable Trust. The executive director is Lester R. Brown, who has held posts at the UN and the Department of Agriculture.

The best way to describe the report is as an expert, high-level briefing on capitalism's ecological contradictions. It proposes solutions that fall squarely within the capitalist system. For those of us who believe that these contradictions can only be resolved through a socialist transformation, the information is particularly valuable. Proof that the ruling class wanted the straight poop from the Worldwatch Institute researchers can be found in the radical credentials of a few of them, including Michael Klare, a frequent contributor to the Nation magazine and Phyllis Bennis, Pacifica's UN reporter and an ex-leader of a defunct Maoist group called Line of March.

I found two items of particular interest. One deals with declining fish stocks. The other deals with water pollution produced by the modern capital-intensive livestock industry. Although the report does not come out and say it, the only conclusion one can draw is that these problems are rooted in the anarchy of the capitalist mode of production itself.

The report states that according to the Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO), a UN agency, the present capacity of the world's fishing fleets is 200% of the world's available fisheries. Over the past 50 years, technological breakthroughs in the fishing industry have far exceeded nature's ability to reproduce itself. The biggest change has been the introduction of sonar, a wartime innovation. Many of the first new fishing trawlers were actually converted WWII submarine hunters.

In the early 1950s, new ships were built from the ground up that could catch 500 tons of fish a day. Huge trawl nets brought the catch on the deck and dumped it into onboard processing and freezing facilities. In the past, ships had to return to port quickly before the fish spoiled. Now equipped with freezers they could spend months at sea, sweeping up vast quantities of fish. They roamed the planet in search of profits. In 1970 the tonnage of all fishing boats was 13,616. In 1992 it was 25,994, a 91% increase. Capital simply flowed to the profitable fishing industry with little regard to the long-term consequences.

One of the consequences of the industrial trawling model is that large-scale production techniques generate huge amounts of waste. The nets draw unwanted species that are simply discarded. The FAO estimates that discarded fish total 27 million tons each year, about 1/3 of the total catch. This includes sea mammals, seabirds and turtles. While Greenpeace activists fight for the life of the unfortunate porpoise, many other species are disappearing without fanfare. The loss is serious since all of these species interact with each other in the marine ecosystem and make natural reproduction possible.

A similar sort of contradiction occurs in the livestock industry where technological breakthroughs accelerate production but at huge and possibly fatal costs to the environment. The Worldwatch Institute identifies fertilizer and cheap transportation as the main culprits.

Cheap transportation makes it possible to separate the ranch and the feed supply from each other across huge distances, even overseas. This means that while it can be profitable to locate a cattle ranch, poultry or hog farm near large metropolitan markets, the organic waste the animals produce is not easily recyclable. Most of these animals are not raised on the open range, but in huge buildings where excreta flows from the pens into drains that lead to rivers or underground water supplies.

In Europe, for example, the livestock industry purchases feed from Brazil, Thailand or the USA. But the industry has outgrown the capacity of nearby lands to absorb the manure. The Netherlands was home to a 40 million ton mountain of cowshit earlier in the decade. Coupled with heavy fertilizer use, the end result has been a serious pollution problem.

The same problem exists in the US, especially in North Carolina. Farmers in the Corn Belt produce grain for chickens and hogs in the eastern seaboard state, but the waste product is not recycled. It is dumped in the state's rivers and lakes. The EPA estimates that 25% of all water pollution in the USA comes from such sources. In North Carolina, over 6 major spills from farms into public waters were reported in 1995. In one case, 95,000 cubic meters of waste was involved, enough to fill more than 60 Olympic sized swimming pools.

To keep up with the demand for livestock feed, single-crop farmers in the Midwest turn to intensive, industrial farming that makes heavy use of inorganic fertilizers. These substances leak into rivers, lakes and bays with disastrous results to fish and other wildlife. The report states that "So extensive is the agricultural pollution of the Mississippi River--the main drainage conduit for the US Corn Belt--that a 'dead zone' the size of New Jersey forms each year in the Gulf of Mexico, the river's terminus." The increased vegetation that the fertilizer produces has killed vast stocks of shrimp and other valuable fish.

Can the capitalist system resolve these problems? This is a theoretical question that has challenged a wide variety of thinkers. David Harvey's new book "Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference" argues that it can. He scolds Michael Perelman, John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists for having a na´ve belief that we are headed for catastrophe. Capitalism, he told a NY audience that I was part of, is extraordinarily "resilient." In the 19th century, there were also great fears that the planet was doomed because of resource depletion. We must be Marxists, not Malthusians, said David Harvey.

The only problem with this sort of remonstrance is that leaves the Marx-Malthus debate on the same terms that existed one hundred years ago. Is it Malthusian to be concerned about the 200% ratio between industrial capacity and available fish stocks? Also, the answer to Malthus, as most of us know, has been greater agricultural productivity. But at a certain point, the traditional methods of guaranteeing such productivity entail steep environmental costs.

Is it doom-mongering to speak in terms of "The End of Nature," as Bill McKibben does? Should Marxism prevent itself from thinking in apocalyptic terms? In the Junius Pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

"Shamed, dishonored, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics--as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity--so it appears in all its hideous nakedness."

A couple of months ago, I posted a 3-part NY Times article that reported that more Asians die each year from air pollution than died during the Vietnam war. It's odd how inured we are to these kinds of reports, but how ready we are to march against war in Iraq. Is this because we have some sort of deeply ingrained belief that industrial society entails these sorts of assaults on life and health? Is breast cancer the price that women in Long Island have to pay for a life of suburban ease?

Today I received e-mail from two friends who were despairing about the apathy that prevails in American society. Leaving aside the splendid spontaneous protest in Ohio State University, I am encouraged by one recent event. Television superstar Oprah Winfrey was found not guilty of defaming the beef industry when she told her television audience that she would not eat hamburger after hearing about the dangers of Mad Cow Disease. Beef industry stocks plummeted by 10% after the show was aired.

Oprah Winfrey reaches the masses, not us. Her concerns should be the same as ours, however. If the Worldwatch Institute report is to be believed, the contradictions of a system based on private profit will create more and more threats to our health in years to come. The conception of radical politics that many of us have inherited comes from the 1930s. We are always thinking in terms of sit-down strikes by auto workers in overalls. One of the reasons that we examine the East Asia economic crisis with such intensity is that we have expectations--even hopes--that a financial meltdown will lead to a new 1930s. No doubt this hope is held most passionately by David Harvey, who told a NY audience that the "primary contradiction" of worker versus boss at the point of production is what counts most.

The problem is that the class struggle does not appear in a predictable form. What moves people into opposition against the system is not some Marxist pamphlets or depression-era novels by John Steinbeck. The contradictions might be felt in an entirely different manner. They may involve health and quality of life, instead of wages and working conditions. We have to be on the alert for these developments, or else face irrelevancy. With all the problems facing Marxism since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would make sense to not squander opportunities when they arise. Our class enemy is infinitely more aggressive and opportunistic after all.

Louis Proyect