The snail on the (slippery) slope By William Bowles

29 December 2005

earthafrI’m not too keen on doing end of the year summations but it strikes me that 2005 has surely been a watershed year for the entire planet. No doubt there are many of us who feel very pessimistic about the situation what with a recognition at long last, that the insane economic policies of an out-of-control capitalism threatens our very survival as a species.

It’s over 120 years ago that K Marx’s sidekick and benefactor, Frederick Engels wrote the following:

“…we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it”.
Frederick Engels, from the introduction to ‘The Dialectics of Nature’, 1883.

Of course, the fact that life goes on doesn’t give us much comfort in the here and now and as I see the BBC and the corporate media exhorting the masses to go out and spend, spend, spend lest the entire insane capitalist enterprise falter and collapse, and as it seems that 2005 was the warmest one since we started keeping records, I might be excused for feeling somewhat pessimistic about the future, at least for life as we know it.

But I am, as many readers remind me, essentially an optimistic fellow, but I do have to remind myself occasionally of Buckminster Fuller’s comment that as long the human race is still around, it must regarded as a success.

Back in a previous age (or at least that how it seems), two Soviet-era writers, the Strugatsky brothers (Boris and Arkady) wrote a superb novel called Snail on the Slope that concerned (though a somewhat disguised), future Soviet Union that had colonised an alien planet somewhere. The planet was covered in one big forest that was essentially a single organism. The Authorities were determined to ‘conquer’ the Forest even if it meant chopping the entire thing down. The problem was that the Forest fought back, reducing the colonisers to living in heavily defended enclaves with the Forest closing in all sides no matter what kinds of technology they brought to bear on a recalcitrant Nature. The Authorities realised that either they abandoned the planet or destroyed the entire Forest and of course, the idea of being defeated by Nature was simply not in their vocabulary. Ring any bells?

A couple of the scientists recognised what was going on and tried to persuade the Authorities that trying to defeat the Forest was a pointless exercise but of course their pleas fell on deaf ears and they ended up being expelled (exiled) from the enclaves and ended up taking their chances living in the Forest.

The idea that Nature is something that has to be subdued or conquered is very much a Victorian concept and intimately bound up with the rise of industrial capitalism and the idea that technology can be used to club the planet into submission. Marx, whilst very much a product of his times, did have some comprehension of the idea that subduing Nature was not the solution but unfortunately, spent very little time investigating the relationship between us and the planet. By the time the Russian Revolution came along, aside from a few isolated voices, the idea that socialism required a harmonious relationship with Nature all but disappeared aside that is, from paying lip service to the notion.

And of course, we cannot lose sight of the fact that socialist development was based upon the idea that the application of science (scientific socialism) could produce solutions to all of our problems, especially poverty and under-development and that Nature was an endless source of wealth and above all, free.

Up to a point, the point being basic necessities, the application of science does solve basic problems, given the requisite political and economic framework. The problem for socialists has been that the struggle between capitalism and socialism has been set in the context of two competing social systems, with the agenda and importantly the goals, set by capitalism.

Could socialism out-produce capitalism? Could it offer the ‘good life’ as determined by capitalism? Clearly not, the idea of a society living in harmony with Nature and one which has no choice but to continually expand production regardless of the cost, both to humanity and to Nature are mutually exclusive.

Yet the socialism produced by the competition between the two systems has had essentially the same effect on the environment, a novel twist on mutually assured destruction.

The problem keeps coming back to the issue of an economy based on the endless production of consumer goods regardless of the cost, a cost that until now, no system, whether socialist or capitalist has bothered to factor in.

There is however, what appears to be a paradox involved here, for I reject utterly the idea that we can run out of resources or as the neo-Malthusians would have us believe, there are too many of us for our planet to support, this is merely an argument to justify the few living off the many, the many being of course, poor.

It should be apparent the problem is far more complex than the simplistic argument advanced by the Greens, for all the talk of recycling, turning off the lights and so on, avoids the essential issue of the nature of the economics of capitalism. We need only look at the arguments of those who defend capitalism, for they want continued expansion or as they put it, an increasing GDP whilst at the same time, curbing the production of greenhouse gases. They talk of ‘competition’, ‘free trade’, ‘globalisation’, ‘market forces’, an entire etymology that masks the essential nature of an economic system that must continually expand or collapse.

Is it possible to reconcile the apparent conflict between development and the crisis we confront or is it simply too late? Increasingly it seems that even if we cut greenhouse gases by factors many times higher than that proposed by the Kyoto agreement, the complex system we call the climate has reached the point where no matter what we do, we are on the slippery slope down which the greed of capitalism has driven us.

I contend that the developed world is all too aware of this fact; that we have passed the point of no return, that no matter what we do, the climate is now so destabilised that there is nothing we can do to alter it. The forces involved are so immense, their interactions so complex, that it may well take thousands of years to reach a new homeostasis. The history of our planet shows that the complex system we call Gaia will arrive at some new balance of forces but whether or not there’s a place for the human race is simply not an issue that concerns Nature. Gaia is not a conscious process, it has but one objective, to preserve Life, regardless of the forms it takes.

This may seem a very pessimistic view of our situation but let’s consider the facts. The developed world has the wealth and knowledge to take steps now to minimise the coming devastation but it can only do it if it decides to abandon capitalism and build a new economy based upon modesty and fundamental human values, namely cooperation not competition. A system based first and foremost on satisfying humanity’s basic needs: food security, health, housing and education.

What are the chances of this happening? Judging by the reaction so far, not good. Instead, driven by those who control Western economies, their response is one of a desperate grab for resources that will maintain our current system of uninterrupted expansion. They call it ‘energy security’ or they talk of the competition from countries like China and India, who having been forced into taking the same route as the developed world, now pose a threat to our continued existence as the privileged minority.

The issue therefore is not one of depleted resources or of too many people but of how we use the resources we have. Clearly, the Western economies are pinning their hopes on surviving the coming catastrophe basically intact but in order to do this, they will have to literally sacrifice the bulk of the planet’s population who can barely survive under the current situation.

Does this sound outlandish, far-fetched? I think not. History bears me out, capitalism exterminated hundreds of millions of people in the Americas, Africa and Asia without batting an eyelid, all in the name of progress or civilisation. The US and Britain are directly responsible for the deaths of at least one million people in Iraq through the use of sanctions, our euphemism for starving the Iraqi people into submission, so it should come as no surprise to us that these same countries will have no compunction in allowing the poor of the planet to perish as long as sufficient numbers of the privileged survive intact.

The arrogance is staggering, mind-boggling and scary. One example of this arrogance was demonstrated recently in a BBC TV Newsnight segment devoted to the issue, titled ‘End of the Age of Oil’ (19/12/05). Six ‘experts’ pontificated on the twin issues of ‘energy security’ and climate change. The assumption throughout the entire segment was that we in the West have some kind of God-given right to resources that are found around the world, especially of course, in the Middle East.

Moreover, that the level of energy consumption in the West was a ‘done deal’ (all those SUVs and suburban sprawl and electrically-powered air-fresheners). If anyone was going to have tighten any belts it wouldn’t be ‘US’ but ‘them’.

The moderator, Jeremy Paxman (who else) put it thus when he was challenged by one of the panel on the issue of China and its energy demands when she pointed out that per kapita energy consumption of the Chinese is a fraction of the US’s, to which Paxman responded “But there’s an awful lot of them [Chinese]”. She appeared to be stunned by Paxman’s comment and said nothing but of course, explicit in Paxman’s response, loyal apologist for empire that he is, is that there are just too many of ‘them’. As I keep on pointing out, the racism of the Paxman’s of the world is part and parcel of an entire system of oppression and exploitation. Nothing has changed one iota in 500 hundred years.

So the snails, even as they slip and slide toward oblivion, are determined to hang on to their ill-gotten gains no matter what the cost, unless of course, we the citizens of empire wake up and kick the bastards out. Our future lies not with these parasites but with our brethren in Iraq. Okay, no more trips up the M-25 to spend, spend, spend, in any case, we are all living on stolen time and the sooner we wake up to this reality, the better are the chances of our survival. Have a happeee!


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