Accueil > Activités > Conférence européenne - Bruxelles - 31 mai 2011

10 theses considering the question : “How to face the ecological challenge in the current context ?”

dimanche 12 juin 2011

Par Elma Altvater

1. The current context is determined by the manifold crisis of labour, money, food, energy and of the climate. It is a systemic crisis and the different dimensions of it are interconnected. It is a crisis of the capitalist social formation which always and necessarily includes a relation of human beings to nature. Therefore the capitalist crisis extends also to the ecology, i.e. to the mode of dealing with nature.

The different dimensions of the crisis have a different reach. The climate crisis is a global crisis although caused mostly by rich countries with a high degree of fossil energy-consumption. The food crisis particularly hits poor countries and poor strata in rich countries. It is partly caused by the greenhouse effect which has its origin in the rich world, but the negative impacts are felt in poor societies. The financial crisis also is a global crisis although today mostly affecting countries with highly developed, innovative and therefore speculative financial markets and actors operating on them. Labour also is concerned everywhere in the world, however labour markets are different in different countries so that the rate of unemployment and the degree of precariousness or informalisation of labour is differing. It is thus obvious that the environmental crisis has repercussions on the distribution of income and wealth and of power.

2. One problem is that knowledge about the intertwined relations between nature, the economy, society and culture by principle is uncertain and incomplete. Only a holistic endeavour of integrating environmental aspects into discourses of economic policy enables a coherent understanding of environmental problems and can give advice for the elaboration of adequate political responses to the challenges of the ongoing ecological crisis. This is especially important for the European Left. It must politically approach the many dimensions of the systemic crisis with an integrated socio-ecological approach, i.e. it must search for solutions of the social and economic as well as of the environmental crisis. These solutions cannot be isolated from each other, they are a single, however complex policy package.

3. The centrepiece of traditional approaches is economic growth. This is necessary under capitalist conditions, because economic growth is the quantitative expression of the accumulation of capital. However, unlimited growth is impossible in the long run because of limited resources and sinks, because of “planetary boundaries”, because of “peak everything”. Growth today is more challenged than ever before in modern history after the fossil-industrial revolution of the late 18th century. “Décroissance”, “post-growth”, “zero-growth”, “de-carbonisation” have become target marks of social and political movements. In Germany a study commission of the Bundestag is debating alternative measures of growth and welfare, Sarkozy has mandated a commission headed by Fitousi, Stiglitz and Sen to find alternative pathways of capitalist development without, however, leaving the capitalist acre. Even the commission of the EU is questioning whether it is wise to follow the measure of GNP and whether it is not more meaningful to set up other more complex and qualitative indicators.

These debates are important, but he Left always has to add the question : what are the consequences of alternative measures for economic and social structures, political hegemony, the working of the market mechanism, the distribution of monetary and non-monetary income in the EU and in the world (between the global North and the global South), the use of natural resources and the “metabolic impact” (UNEP) on nature.

4. The state and trajectory of social and particularly ecological developments and metabolic impacts are insecure. This is the reason for the introduction of the precautionary principle into environmental regulations. The Rio Declaration from 1992 stipulates that, where there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In the Lisbon-strategy of 2000 the EU adopted the principle as a “full-fledged and general principle of international law.” However, in practice the precautionary principle is not always the frame of reference of political decisions.

But it must be and remain an important guideline of European environmental policy. This is a lesson which must be learned from the disaster of Fukushima. It demonstrates that nuclear power is no clean, no secure and cheap alternative to fossil energy, i.e. to coal, oil and gas. It must be given up as soon as possible. For, nuclear energy is as short as fossil fuel. Moreover, the extraction of uranium Is dangerous for human health and it is responsible for the pollution and contamination of large areas of land and of water. Nuclear hazards during normal operation of nuclear power plants occur too often, and hazardous incidents like the earthquake and the following tsunami in Fukushima have consequences for millions of peoples because of the liberated radiation which is contaminating large areas of land and of the Pacific Ocean. It is extremely alarming that there is nowhere in Europe or in the world for thousands of years an ultimate storage for nuclear waste. So, there must be a near deadline for the use of nuclear power. Its further use is irresponsible and therefore the projection of the IEA to construct 32 new nuclear power plants per year until 2050 in order to fulfil the GHG reduction targets is a recipe for disaster. It violates the precautionary principle. And it can be extremely harmful for populations.

It is well known that there are different, even contradictory positions with regard to the use of nuclear power in European countries. The choice of the energy system follows not only technical and economic considerations. Also specific cultural traditions matter, even in the seemingly homogeneous EU. The Left has to develop a coherent position. The dual use character of nuclear power must be taken into consideration. Without nuclear power plants in the long run there is no possibility to produce nuclear material to feed the bomb.

5. The manifold crisis reaches from the local place to the global space. It also is affecting the working and living conditions of an innumerable number of peoples. The potentials of fossil energy have moulded the patterns of mobility, of urbanisation, of rural areas, of daily life. However, fossil energy is more and more running short, as quite recently the UNEP Report on “Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts form Economic Growth” clearly confirmed (22), following many other analyses on Peakoil. The substitution of “non-conventional” oil and gas for conventional fossil energy is no solution. First, it is contrary to the precautionary principle, because the extraction is dangerous (a sad example : deepwater horizon). Secondly the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is low, sometimes even negative so that the extraction is ecologically irrational although it might be economically rational, depending on the source of energy inputs and the relative prices. Thirdly the CO2-emissions from the combustion of non conventional oil are much higher than those from conventional oil.

6. The former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is not known as a far-sighted man, but he was completely right when in Gleneagles 2005 describing climate change as “probably long-term the single most important issue we face as a global community”. That has been said before the outbreak of the financial crisis, but it is true still today. Therefore it is necessary in Europe to look for alternative, i.e. renewable, solar energies. They exist, and the commission acknowledges with the “20:20:20”-Strategy that it can work : 20% less fossil-energy combustion, 20% less CO2-emission until 2020. However the political class is looking for technological and market-solutions to the environmental challenges. In the dominant understanding nature is conceived as capital comparable to human capital or social capital etc.. Therefore nature can be and must be valorisised, natural assets must be protected as property rights. Allowances to pollute the atmosphere become assets which can be securitised and then be traded on special exchanges. This is the case with regard to emissions trade which is the corner stone of European climate policy. Today it is obvious that it cannot work. Empirical evidence shows it, as well as theoretical considerations. Climate policy with market mechanisms is a failure. It opens the door to schemes of fraud and grand corruption. This is the case with emissions trade as well as with joint implementation or the clean development mechanism or REDD, i.e. with the so called “Kyoto-mechanisms”.

Technological solutions for the climate crisis, such as an increase in energy efficiency, are welcome but not sufficient. Some solutions - also favoured by the EU - are very doubtful, such as CCS. It is an illusion to only substitute renewable for fossil energy, to technically reduce GHG-emissions without changing the whole energy system, i.e. the complex of production, distribution, temporary storage, transformation of energy and decreasing the use of energy in order to balance supply and demand.

This exercise is much more complicated in the case of solar energy than with fossil fuel. The reason is simple : Fossil fuels can be used for the fulfilment of the capitalist logics of accumulation : spatial extension, acceleration in time, flexible use. Solar energy however requests adjustments of the forms of energy consumption, too, in a direction which is not simply compatible with the requirements of capitalist accumulation. New forms of property have to be established. Big energy suppliers either disappear or must be transformed into collective property. The question of private and public, communal, cooperative property comes back in and must be addressed by the Left. So traditional questions come back again, when modern challenges are addressed.

7. Is the use of agrofuels a solution to the energy- and climate crisis ? Obviously it is not, although the Commission is favouring biofuels as a means to mitigate the impact of ghg-emissions. The production of agrofuels as well as the off-shore- and on-shore huge windparks or projects like Desertec remain in the hands of big firms. The “energy-sovereignty” stays in the disposition of big firms not in the hands of the people. Moreover, there are many ecological arguments against agrofuels : from monoculture, the intensive use of herbizides, fungizides, fertilizers etc., which are an assault on biodiversity, up to monopolistic distribution chains. Agroenergy-production is more important in Africa, Asia, Latin America than in the EU. But many of the promoters of this business are based in the EU. Therefore the problem of competition on land is important for the environmental and agricultural policy of the EU as a whole and for the single member countries. The alternative “food or fuel” is set on the agenda and the Left has to give a convincing answer on this ugly alternative.

8. The Green Parties in Europe are convinced that there is a window of opportunity out of the manifold crisis, and that is “green growth” or a “new green deal”. Of course, it is better to invest into schools and renewable energy projects than into motorways and big coal-based power stations. It is not bad, that “climate change package enhances growth and jobs” – as the EU-commission writes, although it is an opportunistic statement. So long as growth and thus accumulation of capital is the logic of development it inevitably leads to a strengthening of the power of capital. The green new deal therefore will end up in an unconditional capitulation before capital.

Therefore it is important to think differently with regard to the experiences of the 1930s. Only three arguments shall be mentioned here : (1) The chances for a “new deal”, a social consensus are less developed in an individualised and financialised capitalism today than 80 years ago at the beginning of the fordist era. (2) a Keynesian economic intervention is nearly impossible because of the much greater openness of the economies today than 80 years ago. (3) The financialisation has created a new reality of speculation which must be stopped on the global level ; but a global institution or regulatory framework does not exist. Neoliberal ideologies are still dominant and they neither take nature nor political and social interventions into the holy market mechanism into their considerations. The endeavours of the Left to create an alternative framework of thinking and of political intervention until now were not successful, and therefore the question is :

9. Do we need another conception of nature than in the tradition of the last 200 years ? Yes, we need. And we can refer to experiences in our history and to examples from Latin America and elsewhere. In Europe there always was a double, so to say dialectical history, of documented, quasi official history and of a hidden, contradictory history of resistance to capital. Therefore E.P. Thompson called it the “moral economy” ; Oskar Negt and Alexander luge in the 1970s published a book entitled “Geschichte und Eigensinn”, i.e. “history and stubbornness”. The stubborn moral economy followed not the profit principle but moral imperatives. It includes the movements of cooperatives etc.. Today many ecological projects belong to the “moral economy”.

10. We only can realise it by challenging the power of capital. It is not possible to protect labour and the earth against exploitation without enhancing democracy. The economic logic and the individual interests follow the logic of profit making. It is not a mechanism which neutrally works in order to create the best solution out of many possibilities, but a mechanism of splitting the society up into rich and poor, powerful and powerless, and of destroying the nature.

Therefore it is necessary to stop this mechanism. European regulations can be useful, but up to now they were not very helpful. Therefore it is so important to work together : on the European level in the European institutions, on the national level, and in social movements for the protection of nature.

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