Why is environmentalism attacked?

Image: Magali Guimarães


Environmentalism is treated as the enemy of society and especially of prosperity

The public debate, if you can call it that, reached schizophrenic pitches when it was recently suggested that environmentalists and their proposals were behind this summer's wave of fires in Europe. But this statement is the high point (perhaps not the highest point, but I'll keep quiet) in a long and increasingly intense dynamic of communication in which environmentalism is treated as the enemy of society and, especially, of prosperity. We can see this as incidental madness, or as irrational speeches used as a smoke bomb. They also seek to place environmentalism outside (and opposed) to good people, small businessmen, savers, the middle classes...

I will try to use Jason W. Moore's ideas to try to give more depth to what is happening. Without wanting to subscribe to all the theses of your book Capitalism in the fabric of life, whose lights and shadows have already been discussed by others, I will borrow some of your ideas to present mine.


Hypotheses to understand the attacks

According to the proposals contained in Jason W.Moore's book, capitalism, understood as a determined way of organizing “nature in society” and “society in nature”, implements two basic mechanisms for capital accumulation (which is really its essence). One of them is the capitalization of processes and wealth, optimizing the (exploitation of) market value that each hour of human work in the production of goods can generate, through political and cultural changes and production organization techniques linked to scientific developments. and technological.

The other is the appropriation of unpaid wealth (labour/energy), both in slave or semi-slave labor and in unpaid work that reproduces the workforce, or goods and processes generated by ecosystems that have no market value or that are undervalued. . For Jason W. Moore, “each act of exploitation (of commodified labor power) depends on an even greater act of appropriation (of unpaid labor/energy). Salaried workers are exploited; everything else is subject to appropriation”. In his words, capitalism, as a way of organizing human and non-human nature, survives and grows because it does not pay most of the bills.

Following this scheme (albeit in a simplified form), the different crises of accumulation of capitalism were overcome through two basic mechanisms, which normally combine. The first is to reorganize production processes to optimize the productivity of paid work, combining political power, science and technology (for example, the Fordist organization of the assembly line, or the use of machinery and synthetic fertilizers in agriculture). The second is to expand the frontiers of appropriation of labor/energy, introducing new sources of resources (for example, the mining of Potosí, the export of African slaves to the American colonies, or the deforestation of the Amazon to supply our giant farms with cereals). whose production/reproduction costs are not assumed.

As we know, capitalism needs the permanent growth of the current market value and the rate of profit of those who invest the capital. Capitalist accumulation crises are related to historical moments in which capitalization and/or appropriation become difficult. In those moments when it is not possible to expand the frontiers (not only physical) of capitalism, the growth of the profit rate is maintained by means of the expansion of the part of work/energy that is not paid, through salaried work already incorporated in the market and of the transfer of wealth from the working classes to capital, sound familiar to you? A good example is the neoliberal offensive of social and labor cuts that we have suffered since the oil crisis of the 70s, in successive phases. The justification for this offensive was masterfully summed up by Margaret Thatcher in the sentence: “Theres no alternatives – TINA”.


Appropriated by capitalism

When, through social and labor struggles, working conditions and social rights improve, or when, through environmental struggles, capital owners are forced to mitigate the impacts of extractive activities or bear recovery costs, the rate profit is reduced. When the tasks of reproduction of the workforce, mostly carried out by women, begin to be remunerated, the workforce becomes more expensive. When the productivity of resource extraction techniques is reduced, either because resources become less available (quality and affordable oil runs out), or because the prices of some production factors increase (the wage gap between men and women decreases), the rate of profit also decreases.

In cases where it is not possible to expand the energy/work capitalization frontier, economic adjustment offensives are launched (for example, degrading working conditions and social protection, or reducing environmental regulation), expanding the border inward. Jason W. Moore cites here the proposal of the ecofeminist María Mies, which summarizes the human and non-human natures that capital takes on work/energy (without assuming the costs) in “women, nature and colonies”. It seems that the present moment is another good example of an accumulation crisis, in which capital's ability to appropriate resources and thus feed capitalization processes is increasingly limited – for example, by the worsening access to mineral resources, climate change or global pandemics. This generates tensions, to the point of triggering wars in Europe, among other symptoms. It is with these wickers that capital weaves its basket to squeeze “women, nature and colonies” a little more.


“Enemies of Prosperity”

We can establish a direct relationship between the three elements synthesized by María Mies and the social subjects that are currently pointed out in the social and political debate as enemies of prosperity: the feminist movement, the migrant population and the anti-racist movement, and the environmental movement. From this perspective, we can understand the invectives that attack feminism, those that blame environmentalism for the fires, or those that indicate that migrants steal our jobs and parasitize our social protection. They establish a clear boundary between the “we” of these working classes and small landowners – who are afraid of overlapping crises – and that of sectors that support the ecosocial transition.

This moving frontier makes it easy to over-exploit irregular work, justify various forms of violence, or launch campaigns of insubordination to certain environmental laws, even if it is (at the moment) lip service. These messages are definitely justifying a new neoliberal offensive in which the frontier of appropriation moves inwards, dismantling social and environmental protections that could prevent even more serious crises.

Attacking these social subjects weakens their positions and arguments in the public debate, and justifies the necessary adjustments to restore and expand profit rates. It is enough to see how some sectors of big capital are multiplying their profits in this scenario of multiple crisis, and, on their side, are pressing to undermine social and environmental regulation. They're scared, so they double the bet. All justified by Covid-19 or the war in Ukraine, in the style of the most refined “shock doctrine”. We can see this at the state level, at the European level and also in other territories. From this perspective, “occurrences” such as the one that links environmentalists and fires acquire another meaning.


Environmentalism as an enemy

As far as I am concerned, and without wanting to minimize the importance of the other two social subjects mentioned, I will focus here on environmentalism. In recent decades, although advances in environmental regulation are clearly insufficient in view of the multiple ecological crises we are suffering today, much progress has been made and important social legitimacy has been gained on issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and contamination of the water masses.

Environmentalism is making it difficult for capitalism to raise the rate of profit by pushing for regulations that increase the production costs of at least three of what Jason W. Moore calls “the four cheaps” needed to make the accumulation of wealth in a few hands work: resources. minerals, energy and food. Capitalism needs them cheap to support its model of organizing nature. Social environmentalism has been able, in turn, to incorporate into its discourse and practice the conditions for the reproduction of the other “cheap”: the workforce.

Touting environmentalism as anti-social, as the enemy of well-being and prosperity, is a key element in justifying a renaissance in nuclear energy or more aggressive mining, or the giant farms and cereal crops they need. This is necessary to distort the (more than timid) objectives presented in the European green pact, or to stick in the public debate that the priority of digitization in the Post-Covid Reconstruction Plans (and in the European funds that finance them) is a substitute for greater ecological sustainability, while ensuring the restoration of GDP growth. Attacking environmentalism is neutralizing its criticisms and justifying this new neoliberal offensive.


Environmentalism and the agricultural sector

The need for cheap food for capitalist accumulation serves to deepen the picture of this scenario. For a long time, certain social sectors have built a clear and profound opposition between environmentalism and the agricultural sector, and in environmentalism itself we have to assume part of the responsibility. After centuries of rural exodus (to provide cheap labor for industry) and decades of desegregation (to supply cities with cheap food, reducing labor costs), the agricultural sector is in a deep crisis with a sustained drop in income, with lower prices at source and rising costs. In the current crisis, final food prices are multiplying, while the prices charged at origin are reduced.

Despite this evidence, the frustration and bitterness of the agricultural sector, which knows it is a strategic sector and at the same time feels used, mistreated and insulted, is being channeled from a hegemonic voice that attacks environmentalism and claims its right to produce with harmful models for people and the environment. Even if these intensive models spell the ruin of family farming. AND this is happening in many other countries. The family farming sector is adopting the discourses and interests of those who appropriate the social wealth generated by their work: input and technology companies, large landowners, large agroindustry and large distribution chains.

Another area of ​​this process is attacks on sustainable agriculture, which take at least two forms: direct attack and co-option. In the first case, policies to promote agroecology and organic agriculture are believed to be responsible for world hunger. In the second, agroecology is presented as a set of fully compatible farming techniques with transgenic seeds, pesticides or highly mechanized management models dependent on digital technology and fossil fuels. In both cases, organic agriculture, which is legally recognized (although European regulation, for example, is clearly insufficient and increasingly favorable to industrial models), is attacked in order to divert policies and funds from promoting sustainable agriculture to more intensive, technified and dependent agricultural models, which end up increasing the profit rate for the owners of capital.

All this is justified by misleading questions. The question is not whether agroecology can feed the world, but how to feed the world without destroying rural employment, causing climate change, losing biodiversity, or depleting fresh water and mineral resources.


Beyond the war between the poor

I believe that the attacks on environmentalism, the feminist movement, migrant communities and the anti-racist movement show a clear agenda for ecosocial transition here and now. It is necessary to strengthen the alliances between these social movements, and build discourses and integrated proposals that allow to curb the current neoliberal offensive supported by the multiple crisis. But it is also necessary to use discourses and practices capable of connecting to the needs of those who suffer most from the crisis, to try to convert fear into social power and political proposals. And to generate consensus that contains the steps backwards in environmental and social policies, which, as we know, will make the impacts of the multiple crisis even harder and more uneven.

Specifically in the agricultural sector, which manages 80% of the territory and consumes at least 70% of the fresh water in the states, I believe that we must seek to reverse the confrontation and establish alliances. An important window of opportunity was missed with the publication, last May, of the 2020 Agrarian Census. This study by the INE [National Institute of Statistics of Spain], updated every ten years, shows the disappearance of 7,6% of agricultural enterprises, a sharp increase in their average surface, a decrease of 7,7% in employment and a change important for business models, disconnected from the rural territory.

These data show a significant disregard for family farming (which is still the majority in the sector), while a more capital-intensive and more destructive model is imposed. The growing agricultural model, which is supported by a greater proportion of public funds, restores the profit rates of the large agri-food operators. But it destroys jobs and rural economies, degrades ecosystems, generates climate change, promotes an unhealthy and unsustainable diet model, and generates low-quality food with low added value. I believe that this can be the basis for a common agenda with family farming, although, of course, it is not easy to approximate positions.

Reflection on the adjustments provoked by the current multiple crisis also leads me to reflections of another kind. What is at stake in this offensive (as in the previous ones) is the control of the means of life and the means of production. The reversal of the dynamics of land, water or energy concentration, and the maintenance of public (and, in this case, common) access to the means of life and production, is one of the great issues at stake. The development of alternative – non-commodified – ways of managing livelihoods and production will also be a fundamental task. Today we don't know how to do it, and we will have to learn to do it. But, more and more, there are more people expelled from the markets and in need of alternatives, and building the means to satisfy these needs – many of them material – is probably the best way to build strong and broad social processes.

In any case, what we cannot allow ourselves is to think that these attacks are just invectives aimed at social minorities. These are messages that fit perfectly and support a new far-reaching neoliberal offensive in the communicative sphere. They make it easier for crises to lead to a new cycle of accumulation based on the reappropriation of work and resources, whose invoice they don't want to pay. In this offensive, there are broad social sectors that will be very harmed and that, although today they seem to be represented in opposition to environmentalist and social justice approaches, they are far from being homogeneous.

Many of the particular needs and motivations of people and entities represented in these sectors can be taken up by social environmentalism. The task of connecting environmentalism to the discomforts and needs of these broad population groups is undoubtedly monumental, but deeply necessary.

*Daniel López Garcia is a researcher atInstitute of Economy, Geography and Demography (Spain).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the newspaper's blog El Salto Diario.


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