The Feasta Review, number 2



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Derek Wall, like Joel Kovel, is an eco-Marxist. He teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College, London, and stood in the 2004 European elections as a Green Party candidate for the South East Constituency. His book, Babylon and Beyond: the economics of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements is to be published in 2005 by Pluto Press.

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Preserving the the planet means scrapping capitalism

The Enemy of Nature

Joel Kovel
Zed Books 2002
ISBN 1 84277 080 2 (hb) £45.00
ISBN 1 84277 081 0 (pb) £15.95

review by Derek Wall

If economic growth has caused the sustainability crisis, why do rich countries still pursue it? Is it required because of the way money is put into circulation, as suggested in the previous review, or is the Left correct to blame the nature of the capitalist system?

In this convincing but testing text, Joel Kovel argues that economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and leads to alienation because it fuels social injustice. It has made us the hungry ghosts of Buddhist mythology by creating a world where the work we do makes us sick and we consume so as to try and salve that alienation. We therefore need to replace capitalism with a new system based on production for use rather than exchange.

To promote the message in The Enemy of Nature, Kovel once stood as a Green Party member for a New York Senate seat and challenged Ralph Nader for the party's presidential nomination. His academic career has included a period as professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He has written numerous books and articles on psychiatry and politics including a seminal study of white racism. Like many other US Green Party members, he has a lengthy pedigree stretching from the 1960s as a New Left and civil rights activist. In the 1980s he produced one of the best-known peace movement texts Against a State of Nuclear Terror. His path to the Green Party began 1988 when his home in the Catskill Mountains was affected by a severe heat wave, which ruined his garden and made him conscious of the greenhouse effect.

Kovel believes that the ecological crisis is already with us and the world is being unpicked eco-stitch by eco-stitch. Since the early 1970s when reports such as The Limits to Growth and Blueprint for Survival were published and Earth Day introduced, the human population has nearly doubled, the population of vehicles more than doubled, paper consumption has quadrupled and fish stocks are in crisis. He vigorously attacks the notion of unlimited economic growth and shows convincingly that growth, far from being an accident, is an essential part of the modern capitalist economy, observing "One way of seeing this is in terms of an economy geared to run on the basis of unceasing accumulation. Thus each unit of capital must, as the saying goes, 'grow or die,' and each capitalist must constantly search to expand markets and profits or lose his position in the hierarchy."

Hostility to multinationals is not enough, he says. Capitalism is not a conspiracy but a process based on commodity exchange. To survive, we exchange commodities to generate the cash to get more commodities, money sticks to our hands and we become dominated by the need to accumulate cash to meet our needs. The 'distortions' of debt, the dislocations of 'free' trade and all the rest are conjured up by the basic atoms and molecules of commodity production.

The Post Office makes a profit if more junk mail is posted and I earn a wage if people buy my books rather than getting them from the library. Doctors thrive on ill health and criminologists only receive a pension if deviant acts continue. The capitalist economy needs waste and destruction to survive. So Kovel urges us to sweep away commodification and directly produce what we need and share. We should construct a pleasurable - even lazy - form of socialism based on the needs of people and the rest of nature. Decommodification of the world leads to the re-enchantment of nature, he says.

Kovel challenges Greens to re-examine the implications of their critique and is critical of types of socialism that ignore the need to sustain nature. He synthesises the more philosophical and radical elements of green politics and Marxism. He examines how ecological ensembles of sustainable production are possible and looks to the communal tradition of religious groups such as the Bruderhof for hope.

While stressing the economic roots of the crisis, he is keen to show how a variety of causes interact with capitalism to drive us towards catastrophe. Alarmed perhaps by his own boldness, Kovel notes

Growing numbers of people are beginning to realize that capitalism is the uncontrollable force driving our ecological crisis only to become frozen in their tracks by the awesome implications of the insight. Perhaps optimism is appropriate. There is a difference between the impossible and the merely difficult. In fact, the very notion of sensual use rather than an economics based on enslaving accountancy values has a seductive charm. I am not one to minimise the importance of strategy and the difficult debates we need to have about moving to a qualitatively different kind of society but nonetheless the implications of sustainability are to be enjoyed.

Let's borrow all we need from libraries, grow our food, build our houses, teach our sons and daughters to cook and enjoy life instead of being imprisoned by unfree labour and boring consumption. Let us read the novels of John Cooper Powys, practice our zazen and live fully in the world!

In short, Kovel argues that ecology demands anti-capitalism. And anti-capitalism suggests, perhaps, a pagan appreciation of our real, material, living world, an appreciation that brings us back to the necessity of struggle.

This is perhaps the best book I have read on green economics in my quarter century of activism. It needs to be read, reread, its message repeated, networked and acted upon. It is beautifully written. The core message is simple but of great importance: our economic system wrecks the environment, thrives on injustice and allows abstract and alien process to control human life. It shows in some detail why we are destroying the world and how we can stop. Above all, it provides a course of practical therapy to get to ecology, justice and liberation.

Continue to Gillies MacBain's reviews of Eco-economy, by Lester R Brown, and The New Economy of Nature, by Gretchen C Daly and Katherine Ellison

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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