on December 9, 2020 by Nikolaus Gietinger in Global South, Climate Crisis
[This article published on Dec 9, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Capitalist Dilemmas - Disposable Times.]
If you follow relevant headlines, South America is currently experiencing a right backlash. Bolsonaro is whistling at the Amazon, basic services are falling apart in Venezuela and Chile is experiencing the biggest protests in years. What is less the fault of individual parties turns out to be a general problem of former colonies: dependence on the export of raw materials. Maristella Svampa has written a book worth reading.
The 90s were truly not a success story for South America. The crisis reached its peak in the financial crisis at the turn of the century. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, a lot has happened. Many progressive parties came to government and used the abundant raw materials for export. The proceeds were used to expand the welfare state and wage policy. The result was impressive in terms of social policy. For example, poverty rates in Latin America fell at the beginning of the century.
However, this strategy had a catch: the focus on the export of little or no processed products led to a reduction in domestic industry, Maristella Svampa calls this "early deindustrialization". Some countries are currently almost exclusively dependent on one (Ecuador, Venezuela (oil), Peru, Chile (mining), Bolivia (gas)) and some on various raw materials (Brazil).
With the collapse of commodity prices at the beginning of the 10s, the time had come. The concentration on primary goods could not allow a significant increase in productivity, the industrially developed countries now benefited from the low prices, while the commodity countries lost out. The relationship between commodity-exporting and commodity-importing economies was described as early as 1817 by David Ricardo as a "comparative cost advantage." Ricardo, however, saw this as a laudable mechanism for the equilibrium of the market.
With the low prices, according to Svampa, a phase of increasingly intensive exploitation of raw materials began, she calls this neo-extractivism:
Contemporary neo-extractivism can be characterized as a development model based on the super-exploitation of increasingly scarce, largely non-renewable natural goods, as well as on the extension of the limits of use to areas that were previously considered unproductive from a capital policy point of view. It is characterized by the export orientation of raw materials on a large scale, including hydrocarbons (gas and oil), metals and minerals (including copper, gold, silver, tin, bauxite, zinc), as well as products associated with the new agricultural paradigm (soybeans, oil palms, sugar cane). The neo-extractivism defined in this way thus refers to more than just the activities traditionally regarded as extractive. These include open pit mining, the expansion of the oil and energy boundary, the construction of large dams and other infrastructure projects. The limits of raw material exploitation – including highways, ports, bi-oceanic corridors – up to the expansion of various forms of monocultures or monoproduction through the generalization of the agricultural business model, overfishing or forest monocultures.
Neo-extractivism is also characterized by its gigantism. For example, the energy sector, which until 2014 included large parts of the South American Development Plan, is being massively promoted. Above all, hydropower plants are supported, which are by no means as environmentally friendly as the term hydropower suggests. The Brazilian and Bolivian rainforests are particularly affected. This results in a wide variety of refugee movements, as the soil becomes increasingly barren due to hydroelectric power plants. In addition, a transoceanic canal through Nicaragua is planned, which will connect the two oceans next to the already existing Panama Canal. Here, too, experts warn of the consequences for the environment. Last but not least, more and more alternative mining methods are being used in South America, such as fracking. Svampa refers to them as extreme energies.
Where a lot of money can be made, it does not take long until organized crime is also involved. Svampa reports on all sorts of mafia-like structures, including human trafficking and prostitution, which occur together with the mining of rare earths and metals.
The overexploitation of nature did not remain without resistance. However, these were ignored by both the left and the right due to the hopelessness of the capitalist form of wealth. The exploitation of nature is necessary to preserve the social policies with which governments legitimize themselves. As a result, critical movements were suppressed and criminalized. According to Global Witness, over 80% of all murders of environmental activists between 2002 and 2013 took place in Latin America alone.
The South American development model shows a central one-way street of capitalism. Abstract wealth, in the form of money, can only be maintained by destroying nature to the last remnant. This raises the question: prosperity or the environment?
The South American dream of becoming independent of the world market through raw materials did not come true. Economic dependence has shifted from the US to China. To give just one example, 84% of exports from South America to China are primary goods, while 64% of Chinese exports to South America are commercial industrial products. This goes hand in hand with a South American credit dependency on Chinese banks.
Svampa makes it clear how capitalist democracies are dependent on the abstract wealth of capitalism and have little to no room for maneuver and instead – regardless of the concrete political orientation – run after economic interests. It is not surprising that the Marxist movements have also been fully absorbed in the productivity paradigm.
The book gives an uncomplicated overview of the different phases of the Latin American development model and the various forms of protest. The author exemplifies that this economic model has no future and should be repealed as soon as possible.
However, it fails to give a substantial definition of capitalism and therefore also falls into the myth of the "Anthropocene". It is not the concrete "people" who are driving climate change, but the abstract rule of the capitalist economy. At the end of the book, she opposes a social democratic Green New Deal, but she can only offer the same solutions. Also worthy of criticism is her short-term flirtation with a romantic view of nature of the indigenous population. It should not be looked backwards, but forwards.
In the context of the electric car hype, the book comes in just right, as South America stores the largest lithium reserves in the world. The e-car hype could be in danger if the Latin American population resists the exploitation of the earth. But even for this, e-car guru Elon Musk has a simple and extremely "innovative" solution: the good old coup. Everything for climate protection!
"Maybe we should change the system itself"
by Justus Cider in Climate Crisis
[This article published on Dec 25, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, "Maybe we should change the system itself" - Disposable Times.]
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the German government's climate package on 20 September 2019, she referred to a central characteristic of politics. This characteristic "also distinguishes politics from science and from impatient young people." What is this distinguishing feature? "Politics is what is possible," said Angela Merkel.
So it seems that, in the Chancellor's view, there are things that would be good to implement – but their implementation does not seem possible against the background of the world as it is right now. The idea is not new and is repeatedly expressed by politicians. Greta Thunberg has already addressed the resulting consequence in a speech at the United Nations in Katowice, Poland: "And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself."
So things are obvious: serious steps are needed to keep the planet habitable for generations to come. Within the prevailing conditions, these cannot be implemented. So we have to change the situation. But what distinguishes these conditions? What is "the system"?
Thunberg hinted at a central aspect some time ago during a speech in New York. In view of the suffering of humans, the collapse of ecosystems and an emerging extinction of species, it is scandalous to talk all the time only about monetary and economic issues, but not about ecologically necessary measures: "and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth."
If it targets money and economic growth as central pillars of the current debate on the climate crisis, then it is certainly right. At the same time, however, it suggests overlooking a central aspect of capitalist modernity: capitalism is actually characterized by the fact that things are only feasible if they can also be financed. And it is actually programmed for growth and destruction, without which the program code could be changed so easily – as long as we do not turn off the program. Of course, this does not speak against a necessary ecological change of direction – but only against capitalism and its functional mechanisms.
Floods on the Upper Vistula in 2010 Wikimedia
Natural Disaster Capitalism: Why There Are Floods So Often
by Justus Cider in Climate Crisis
[This article published on 3/9/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Natural Disaster Capitalism: Why Floods Are So Often - Disposable Times.]
We live in a time marked by an inflation of the events of the century. These events are happening to us at an ever faster pace. When we are once again confronted with a flood, e.B. people like to speak of a flood of the century, when the consequences of the forces of nature hit social coexistence particularly hard. However, it is hard to overlook the fact that these events are now occurring at a much faster pace than our grandparents were used to.
On the one hand, there is a shift in the times (and temporal sequences) of these events, but also an increase in their intensity. A good overview of the state of research and various studies on these relationships can be found here.
Already in the emergence of these natural disasters it is clear that they do not simply rush at us from a threatening and hostile nature (in the truest sense of the word). Rather, they are themselves dependent on the interventions that human societies make in their living environment. And these usually present themselves as capitalist nature management:the world is transformed into a resource for the economic activity of profit maximization.
Through the specific forms of this nature management, the cultural landscapes are redesigned in a way that makes them more effective. However, only for the goals of economic profitability brought to it by capitalist valorization. At the same time, however, this also makes them more vulnerable. This is also reflected in relation to "flood protection"
Far too little is said about the human interventions in nature that ensure that these forces of nature increasingly become natural disasters. Unfortunately, in the past, for a variety of reasons, we have massively intervened in the very ecosystems that could mitigate the consequences of too much water, and we still do so today. The weather events intensified by climate change are therefore now hitting all the harder because nature is losing its protective function more and more.
A prime example of a protective ecosystem in our latitudes are the floodplains. Floodplains are the natural floodplains along rivers. To a certain extent, floodplains as well as forests can absorb excess water from heavy rain or tidal waves and slowly release it again at a later date. Every flood brings with it new, often very fertile soil. The alternation of high and low water levels creates a rich mosaic of different habitats in the floodplains and structures the landscape in a variety of ways.
When the principle of all-round effectiveness is unleashed on these diverse and species-rich habitats, they will be restructured in ways that have overridden their traditional functions. The ever-increasing economic activities of capitalist commodity production also take over the rivers and "use them as transport routes, use their water and benefit from their fertile surroundings." The "requirements of shipping and agriculture" destroy original functions of the floodplain landscapes, as we can learn from Frauke Fischer and Hilke Oberhansberg:
This had far-reaching consequences for the floodplain landscape. The floodplain condition report of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) [...] shows that only about a third of the former floodplain areas can be flooded by rivers during major flood events. On the Rhine, Elbe, Danube and Oder, only 10 to 20 percent of the former floodplains remain on many sections due to the construction of flood protection dikes. [...]
In addition to the fact that important floodplains are missing due to the loss of floodplains, the straightening of rivers also leads to them flowing faster. Thus, tidal waves, which can no longer be stopped by the absence of floodplains, also move forward with even more force. When such tidal waves arrive from different inlets at the same time, we are increasingly dealing with what we once called the "flood of the century".
Now, a classic answer of technocratic nature management to the question of how to deal with the consequences it has created is quite simply: more of the same. So just build higher dams and control nature even better. Has worked great up to this point. But as usual, the limits of this approach are narrow:
By the way, the attempt to prevent flooding by building higher dams only shifts the problem downstream, where all the larger masses of water arrive.
Even if it were nice and some might wish for it: Large-scale technical projects will not save us
The term rebound comes from basketball and refers to the ball that bounces back from the board. Pixabay
The Greed for More – The Rebound Effect
by Justus Cider in Climate Crisis
[This article published on 5/18/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, The Greed for More - The Rebound Effect - Disposable Times.]
Already at the beginning of the capitalist era there is a phenomenon that characterizes him to this day and is therefore still much discussed. In order to help the still delicate plants of commodity management to expand, precious metals were needed, which could and should then take on the function of the general medium of exchange. And so the capacities for mining silver in Europe were significantly increased: The so-called silver boom took place.
At that time, 100,000 workers were employed in mining and metal mining in Central Europe and countless others in supporting industries. The consequences for the environment were not long in coming and were devastating. Georgius Agricola, the founder of modern geology, reports:
Forests and groves are blown away; because countless woods are needed for the buildings and the equipment as well as to melt the ores. By laying down the forests and groves, however, the birds and other animals are exterminated, many of which serve people as fine and pleasant food. The ores are washed; but through this washing, because it poisons the streams and rivers, the fishermen are either driven out of them or killed.
Zit. n.: Jason W. Moore: Devaluation, p. 99
We see that the spreading capitalist domination of nature destroyed the human foundations of life in the early modern period. At the same time, the new colonial territories in Latin America were also used for the production of noble metals. Widely known is the example of Potosi, a city located in today's Bolivia. It was located right next to a large mountain rich in silver deposits. Which is why it is still known today as Cerro Rico.
Just as the silver was removed from the mountain, the forests were removed from the earth's surface. This is because the wood was needed to melt the mined silver ore in wood-fired furnaces. Finally, in order to increase production, another process for silver extraction was developed: the amalgamation of mercury.
And so Viceroy Toledo introduced a new, fuel-saving technology in silver extraction at the border: the amalgamation of mercury. [...] Although mercury amalgamation is a 'cold' process as opposed to melting, the rate of deforestation increased. Although less fuel was needed per pound of silver, fuel consumption increased dramatically due to the enormous increase in production – by 600 percent between 1575 and 1590. The small smelting furnaces and the mercury amalgamation in silver extraction were together so voracious that in 1590 they had to be brought in from a distance of 500 kilometers. At the beginning of the 16th century, it was hard to imagine that there had once been forests in the mountains of Potosí – let alone a vibrant indigenous civilization."
Jason W. Moore: Devaluation, p. 113
The consumption of nature, here in the form of forests, increased over time. Why? Because production has been steadily expanded to meet the growing demand for precious metals. Even a technical innovation that reduced the consumption of resources per silver bar produced could not stop the trend. The consumption of nature increased steadily as a result of the necessary increase in production.
What is saved is spent elsewhere
Even today we know this mechanism, it is only understood completely differently. It is discussed as a so-called "rebound effect" (from the English rebound = bounce back or down, just like in basketball). This means that the savings from technical improvement will be compensated for by increased consumption. The classic example is the "direct rebound effect". It comes into play when the engines of the cars become more and more efficient, but the cars 1. more and more, 2. get bigger and bigger and then 3. cover ever longer distances. Another example is the "indirect rebound effect". This is when people have more money to consume other environmentally harmful goods (such as a second TV or a holiday trip) because of the money saved (because they now use green electricity and which is subsidized). So far, so clear.
However, the debate about the rebound effect has a decisive weakness: the core problem of accumulation theory remains completely ignored there. Instead, the logically subordinate question of consumption is at the center and must serve as an explanation. The rebound effect is usually understood as the result of the "repercussions" of "cost savings" on "purchasing behavior and the use of products". [...]
In this interpretation, the real connection is turned upside down insofar as the dynamics of the capitalist movement for the end in itself do not originate from consumption, but from production, which is subject to the dictates of the endless accumulation of capital.
Ernst Lohoff: Wie Sand am Meer (in: Shutdown, p. 112)
At first glance, the idea of rolling up the problem in terms of consumption seems very familiar to us. This is because it is the core theorem of neoliberalism. And it has been contaminating our school books, talk shows and feuilleton for decades.
Ernst Lohoff explains how the counterproductive consequences of technical innovations can be grasped much more aptly in another way:
What operates as a direct rebound effect is primarily a corporate strategy. If goods become cheaper, then this is usually due to an increase in productivity, which reduces the amount of work per individual goods and thus also the proportion of value represented in them. However, since this effect collides with the compulsion to constantly increase the mass of value, every company strives to compensate for it. This can be done in two ways, either the companies try to compensate for the decreasing value of the individual goods by increasing the number of units sold, or the products are designed more elaborately (larger televisions are just as much an example of this as the arms race for passenger cars). ..