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Speaker at GVSU says Capitalism is the root of our ecological crisis

April 25, 2011

On Friday, the GVSU student group Students Advocating Freedom & Equality, the student socialist group and the LGBT Resource Center co-hosted author/educator Chris Williams on campus for an Earth Day lecture. Williams is the author of a recent Haymarket book entitled Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.

 The theme of Williams’ presentation was building a new mass movement for environmental justice. Chris pointed out that we are at a critical point in our history because of environmental crisis we are faced with particularly with the issue of Global Warming.

Williams also mentioned the Japanese nuclear catastrophe as the most recent manifestation of our unsustainable energy policies, a catastrophe in which we still don’t know what the long-term effects of will be. The 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is also just days away and we still have not learned from that catastrophe. The fact that we still think we can deal with nuclear radiation, which will be with us for hundreds of thousands of years, reflects our lack of vision on energy issues, according to Williams. The lack of vision was summed up nicely is a recent Onion headline which read, “Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens.”

According to Williams, most research shows that nuclear power and nuclear energy is not sustainable and has only survived because of the massive subsidies under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Williams also stated that the data shows that renewable energy would be more than adequate to meet our existing energy needs, with a combination of wind, solar and other renewable sources. So the issue is not a technological question, rather it is a social question.

Williams said that what needs to take place is a massive systemic change of not only our energy production, but city planning, transportation systems and future housing construction. The US government could subsidize the construction of low energy housing if it diverted from subsidizing the nuclear, oil and coal industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

According to Williams the root of the problem is Capitalism. First, the purpose of the system is perpetual growth, which means that the use of natural resources is exponential. Secondly, the purpose of Capitalism is to make a profit. Products are just a means of making money, not really to provide necessary goods. This also takes into account of the value of what is produced. As an example he juxtaposes HIV medication production, which provides people with the opportunity to be healthy as opposed to weapons production, which is primarily about making a profit and contributing to more suffering.

The third aspect of Capitalism is the fact that it is only concerned with immediate outcomes and profits as opposed to long-term consequences. Williams went on to say that if you don’t think that Capitalism is the root of the current ecological crisis the solutions will always fail. One of those “solutions” is that technology will save us. A second failure of thinking is to increase the market itself. Williams gives the example of Cap and Trade, where businesses will actually make money off of polluting. The third notion is that we need to change our personal life styles and not the system.

He talks about the concentration of wealth and ecological destruction and says that a radical redistribution of wealth could make the planet more sustainable. For example, the amount of money spent on marketing annually in the US is $1 trillion dollars, which is more than we spend on education from 1st grade through graduate school.

Williams said that in order to build a new movement we need to have some immediate small victories, such as stopping nuclear production, ending mountaintop coal removal and stopping the process of fracking.

He also says we need to wed labor struggles and environmental justice. However, the ultimate challenge is to dismantle Capitalism. We need to learn from the democratic struggles in the Middle East and how it has not only transform the political environment there, but inspired political movements here.

Williams also said that Capitalism is always trying to convince us that you can solve problems like environmental destruction by buying the right products and altering your personal lifestyle. Green Capitalism, according to Williams is just an extension of traditional capitalism and convinces us that the “right” kind of consumerism is all we need to do to save the planet.

The presenter’s analysis was in sharp contrast to the comments a staff person from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), who stated at a forum on Wednesday, “Today’s top environmental problems are a result of the aggregated accumulation of the behaviors of many.  There are fewer and fewer specific villains (I.E. point source polluters…major polluters egregiously dumping their wastes in our natural world).  Certainly, there are still examples of this and it still happens, but today’s largest environmental problems can be traced to the behaviors and decisions of individuals and the society we have created.”

Lifestyle activism is not really a solution, according to Williams, even though he said it was important for all of us to try to act responsibly, but ultimately we have to change systems if we want to seriously address the current ecological crisis and that means dismantling Capitalism.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    May 2, 2011 3:53 pm

    The thought of socialism makes me physically ill.

    Sorry I don’t want to be like everyone else, I want to be me.

  2. May 2, 2011 4:00 pm

    Jay, this is just another one of your reactionary, overly simplistic responses that has nothing to do with the article. Why bother posting if you aren’t going to write something of substance?

  3. slayme permalink
    May 21, 2011 3:44 pm

    Jay – you should educate yourself as to what socialism truly is before you speak. I feel certain you have been mislead by the talking heads on TV telling you socialism is bad. Do some research – find out for yourself. There is nothing in true socialism that would stop YOU from being YOU. So silly.

  4. s.channing permalink
    May 25, 2011 1:29 pm

    What a compassionate discussion this has turned out to be!

    Maybe an explanation of what socialism is and isn’t would be a more appropriate response? Perhaps Jay is mistaken and their comment is “simplistic,” but perhaps they also don’t know where to look in light of the anti-socialist hysteria that has plagued US society for over a century.

  5. Jeremy Meyer permalink
    June 13, 2011 8:35 pm

    Agreed. A respectful discussion is what we need here. While a huge number of us agree that capitalism itself – and the consciousness of separation, competition vs cooperation, and survival of the fittest is the root cause of our economic, political, and environmental crises, the logical next question is “What do we replace it with?”

    The word “socialism” means many different things to different people, and is often connected to totalitarian regimes like Russia and China or bloated bureacratic nightmares like India. The solution is to think out of those boxes.

    For example, if we can all agree that we need an economy that supports public (community) ownership rather than private (individual or corporate) ownership of resources and assets, that is a start. That means that the costs AND benefits of our economy would be shared equitably – not equally, but equitably, as in according to individual contribution. If we can agree that everyone has a basic right to survival with dignity, and the opportunity to work for more than that, there’s another bit of common ground. Then, if we can openly explore competition versus cooperation as a basis for a sustainable economy, we can take another step.

    Participatory Economics, or Parecon, is one example. The key is not getting stuck on the model, but working from an evolving perspective of who we are and what our relationship is to each other, the environment, and all living things. How can we make our world work for everyone? Currently, it only works well for a small percentage…

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