Friday, July 11, 2014

Pathfinders: What’s Going on With the Rainforest? (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month the BBC broadcast a documentary called ‘I bought a rainforest’, in which a good-hearted but slightly buffoonish wildlife cameraman embarks on a one-man crusade to save a small corner of Peruvian rainforest by buying it and pitching camp. As might be expected, the cameraman’s schoolboy quest to ride to the Amazon’s rescue like the Great White Colonial Hope is foiled at every turn. His ‘rainforest’ turns out to be pre-logged scrubland. Nevertheless he puts up ‘Protected Area’ signs which are promptly ignored. He can’t patrol the land and neither can the scarce rangers. He has a logging squatter he can’t get rid of. He has armed cocaine-growing neighbours he is terrified of. He visits the local indigenous tribe and despairs that they are forced to log their own land. He visits a gold miner working 16 hour days in toxic conditions for mere pennies. He accompanies loggers who can’t get work any other way. He wails that ‘the west doesn’t need mahogany’ and that one tree supports more biodiversity than the whole of Western Europe. Finally he comes to the miserable conclusion that if he was one of these people, he’d be a logger too.
The overall environmental message of this generally insightful and sympathetic documentary is that the Amazon is doomed and so are we. Recent reports add to the gloom, with Brazil’s environment minister citing a 28 percent increase in deforestation last year (e.g. Al Jazeera, 15 November 2013).
What the reports often don’t say is that this is an anomalous ‘uptick’ after the lowest rate of deforestation on record. Deforestation has seen a 70 percent decline since 2004. Despite five decades of clearance over 80 percent of the Amazon is still intact. So is the rainforest doomed or not?
Unhelpfully, the media confuses matters with its preference for bad news over good, and its cavalier use of different metrics to make things look worse. For example, a report about gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon ( cites an annual clearance of 15,180 acres of forest since 2008, twice previous estimates. The reason it is twice previous estimates is that in 2008 there was a global credit crunch and the price of gold went through the roof, sparking a Peruvian gold rush which, as happened before in the 1980s, will peter out as the price of gold crashes.  But 15,180 acres is just over 61 square kilometres. At that rate of clearance and assuming no grow-back (which is impossible), it would take 13,000 years to clear the Peruvian Amazon, and 88,000 years to clear the whole rainforest. The only reason to use acreage as a metric is that it gives a big fat number.
Bucking the trend, the science press likes to emphasise good news over bad, promoting the image of science as a positive force in society. So we get ‘Deforestation Success Stories’ from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which cites a 50 percent increase in protected areas, good progress towards a halt to agricultural clearance by 2020 and towards net zero deforestation by means of compensating regrowth elsewhere ( and New Scientist, 14 June). UCS wants to motivate us, not demoralise us: ‘There are enough examples of success, some very rapid and far-reaching, to encourage continuing the global effort—and indeed, stepping it up’ (
As most people already know, the overwhelming cause of Amazon deforestation is beef ranching (65-70 percent – an area the size of France). 5 - 10 percent is ‘Big Ag’, mainly soya for biofuels and animal feed (including dog food), 20 – 25 percent is subsistence farming by locals. Logging is around 2 – 3 percent, while all others including mining, fires, roads, settlements and dams account for just 1 – 2 percent.
So what happened in 2004-5 to cause such a massive drop in clearance rates? First, studies estimating that deforestation caused 17 – 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions provoked a raft of control measures, which included punitive Forest Code laws by Brazil outlawing logging and imposing restrictions on beef and soya producers, who responded by making better use of existing cleared land. Second, the Brazilian real strengthened against the dollar, weakening Brazilian beef exports, and world soybean prices also fell by more than 25 percent. The 2008 financial crash further reduced profitability and consequent deforestation. As profits went down, more trees stayed up.
With last year’s 28 percent increase in clearance, the signs are that this has turned around. Soy is once again up and the real is down. Cattle and soya farming intensification is starting to hit a wall, while the Forest Code has been revised (i.e. revoked). This has outraged environmentalists, but the truth is that none of the control programmes were working. Most are voluntary, or rely on threats rather than incentives. The UN REDD+ scheme to compensate rainforest countries for preserving primary forest has been ‘gamed’ by dodgy companies and ‘carbon cowboys’ and none of the money has gone to the indigenous tribes it was aimed at. In short, the fate of the rainforest is inextricably bound up with the fortunes of international capitalism. As the world economy once again shifts into boom mode, the gears will once again start shifting on the Amazon tractors, trucks and bulldozers.
But statistics can only tell you so much. The BBC documentary instead focussed on the human drama, and it’s here that you see the real bind that capitalism puts people in.
Nothing brings home the reality of Amazonian poverty like seeing a child, brain-damaged from an industrial machine, smiling vacantly while her mother weeps and her father explains with admirable dignity why he’s obliged to continue defying the rich cameraman’s wishes.  Nothing brings home the human cost of gold mining like seeing a young boy standing for an hour in a bucket of mercury solution, as if he’s treading grapes. Nothing confounds the moral mind like the religious logger who loves the forest, and the plea ‘what will you pay me NOT to cut this tree down?’ And nothing so eloquently and poignantly captures the impotence of western liberal thinking like the cameraman agonising over how to choose between trees and people.
For socialists the problem is not trees versus people, but trees and people versus capitalism. The cameraman doesn’t understand this, not because it’s a hidden problem but because conversely it’s too enormous to comprehend. It’s the forest that he can’t see for the trees.
We never claim that socialism would have no problems. But by sharing the world democratically, without leaders and without buying and selling property, an entire class of ‘commodification’ problems would certainly vanish. The Amazon is the world’s greatest ‘tragedy of the commons’, where land of value to everyone is ruined by the exploitation of private ownership and trade relations. Take it into common ownership and custodianship, and our most important carbon sink and biodiversity hothouse laboratory can certainly be rescued, and indeed made to thrive.

A Problematic Friend (1977)

Book Review from the March 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel by Robert Barltrop. Pluto Press, £4.50 hardback (illustrated).

Anyone undertaking a biography of Jack London is assuming a task that appears larger than life. More like a legend than a man and the image of the adventure stories that in part made him famous, London has an appeal that few stories can match.

Inevitably such a man is full of contradictions and to some extent these are left unexplained: London's desire to be accepted by the society members he despised; his racial hatred of the Japanese yet his ability to call Japanese revolutionaries his "brothers"; his extreme generosity and yet his overwhelming desire for money, and other inconsistencies. But Robert Barltrop does manage a reasonably rounded whole. Dealing with London's life in chronological order, he starts with a poor and rough beginning, wild adventures, his yearnings to write and his urge to consume literature, his early disappointments, and the almost fairy-tale rise to popular prominence. His political development until this stage is also carefully documented, and we see the conversion of the protester into an allegedly Socialist propagandist.

Alongside this are developed the personal characteristics which were to destroy him: above all the feelings that whatever he did had to be done better than anyone else, including drinking. The success years are catalogued with much sympathetic detail; in particular the visit to London and the writing of The People of the Abyss. This extraordinary description of the people living in slums at the turn of the century ("I am made sick by this human hellhole called the East End") is described as the only truly sincere book he wrote. His divorce and instant remarriage caused a scandal which affected his book sales as the press turned on him. With a truly remarkable strength of will London battled on, writing, indulging in extravagant schemes, madly building boats and houses and travelling with his second wife. The rather pathetic decline is then explained: the burning down of an engine that had been ready to take on the world, and the ultimate futile death, probably by suicide.

Writing poured out of London as drink poured into him, excessively. A great merit of this book is making the criticism of London's literary output readable in itself and illustrative of the intellectual progress of the man. Against such a vivid background there is little danger that the more "academic" parts of the book are going to turn boring. The writer gives telling criticisms of London's writings and politics. He gives a very full analysis of The Iron Heel, London's most successful (in terms of continuing sales) political story. Rejecting the usual viewpoint—including Trotsky's—that the book predicts the rise of fascism, he claims that by the time London wrote it he had virtually rejected Socialist ideas. Depressed at finding that the revolution was not coming as quickly as expected, he confirmed his ultimate fallacy, the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race and the crude representation of the theories of Darwin.

Barltrop suggests that London never really got to grips with the essentials of Marxian economics, and describes The Iron Heel as London's argument why Socialism could not come about in the foreseeable future. Despite his lectures on Socialism, donations for the cause, etc., London was "without understanding of how society works; the virile combative imagery was the guise of smatterings". The writer concludes that The Iron Heel was not far from being an anti-Socialist work. One might make the same condemnation of London himself.

Despite praise for a most unusual literary figure, London's lack of understanding condemns him to the category of those who have chased the rainbow of illusion and helped others to indulge in the same fruitless escapade. London was a man with a passion against much of what was (and is) wrong in society. Yet his failures illustrate that it is not sufficient merely to be a very angry young man; knowledge of both cause and solution is required. Despite London's ability to study nineteen hours a day, he chose easy paths and skimped understanding. He always found studying "easy", but the techniques he had used for passing exams and beating the bourgeois whom he despised (hasty cramming and superficial answers) are totally inappropriate for comprehension of Capital and its conclusions.

The writer's summary of London life is: "Its various aspects are of a personality whose strengths and weaknesses alike were invited to over-expression by the hurly-burly of the time. It is possible to regard them all and still feel affection as for a problematic friend." When the Workers' Socialist Party (forerunner of our companion party the WSP of America) was formed and wrote to London just before his death with a copy of their manifesto, his reply (according to Barltrop his last political statement) was that he wished them well but could not involve himself. Therein lies the consummating summary of all those who spend their lives in the bitterness of opposition to capitalism but have failed to take the necessary steps to understand the cause of their fury. The political actions of such people, like those of Jack London, are doomed to impotence.

The biography — which makes several mentions of SPGB members — is an excellent illustration of that fundamental lesson. As Marx wrote of Proudhon (in a letter to P. V. Annenkov in 1846): "a man who has not understood the present state of society may be expected to understand still less the movement which is tending to overthrow it, and the literary expression of this revolutionary movement."
Ronnie Warrington

Stereotypes in print (1986)

From the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Women's role is no longer to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Simpler, more effective birth control has meant that women are freed from the risks and hardships of frequent childbirth. Nevertheless most continue to play a role that is subservient to men, both at home and at work. The female sexual stereotype persists in defining women as the weaker sex - gentle, caring, emotional and unassertive. Traditionally women are admired for being pretty, caring and retiring. The traditional role of men, in contrast, is the authority figure in the family, responsible for providing food and shelter. Men are supposed to be physically strong, aggressive, unhampered by gentleness and emotion.

Biological differences are real enough - women are built to bear children, men to father children and these biological differences dominate relations between the sexes, confining women and men within sexual stereotypes. Women and men respond to their environment and to their biological role in life; therefore many women today "enjoy" a dual role as homemaker and worker resulting in them having to try to balance the responsibilities of work and home, fitting work in around shopping, cooking and cleaning.

In what little time is left over from these activities women may choose to relax by reading some of the bewildering array of homemaking magazines available to them but for which there is no equivalent for men. Men's magazines consist of periodicals on hobbies, sport and women as sex objects. Nothing on running a home, how to make the housekeeping go further, how to get a cleaner wash or how to make up to look attractive to the opposite sex. In magazines designed for the male interest women appear only as decoration, reinforcing their subservient position in society at large. Media images portray women simultaneously as sex objects, as independent (but still sexually attractive), as career women, as doting mothers obsessed with food and clean laundry.

The format of women's magazines can be explained by the fact that each is competing for sales, therefore each must appeal to the broadest section of the female population by including something for everyone. What does a typical women's weekly contain? A mixture of articles on homemaking, health, fashion, competitions, special features and possibly politics interspersed with a lot of advertisements and a horoscope column.

Competitions include an opportunity to "Win A Man" from a computer dating agency by listing his personal attributes in order of importance. Should he be tall, handsome, professional, educated? Another offers a prize of a cleaning person for six months if "you can tell us in no more than 35 witty words  . . . " For those women who have already found the man of their dreams and want to hold onto him a little longer there is a chance to win a set of pots and pans by answering four simple questions.

Lavishly illustrated recipe pages inform women that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach but in case they're too liberal with the cholestorol, the insurance companies reassure women that for a small payment they won't be left penniless in widowhood. "Romance" features highly - recipes for romance, romantic lighting for the home - but one can't be overweight and attractive to the opposite sex so articles on health include numerous fad diets and exercises to keep bums and other bumps in shape.

Fashion articles demonstrate how to dress and make up to look "sexy" and there is a proliferation of homemaking articles guaranteed to make readers perfect wives. Scattered throughout the magazines are adverts for food - some of them ambiguous - "What are you giving your old man tonight?" Not, not a dose of sexual subservience, but a packet of frozen hamburgers. For those who can't manage the housekeeping. there are plenty of ads for mail order catalogues, all of them offering a wide selection of goods to be paid for on the Never-Never.

Tampon manufacturers battle to sell their products using all sorts of technical diagrams and jargon - but disguise the possibility of toxic shock syndrome in very small print. 

The "Politics" column (if there is one) will most likely deal with some of the less attractive aspects of being female in capitalist society - for example one column bemoans the lack of screening facilities for early detection of breast and cervical cancer although, apart from criticising government underfunding of these health services, there is little political comment.

The ideas put across in these magazines occupy women's minds with trivia but at the same time subtly reinforce the dominant values of capitalist society, of privacy, family and home. Even those magazines which claim to appeal to the "liberated" woman concede only that she has an equal place in the job market - liberated in so far as she may not depend on a man to dole out the housekeeping. She is free to go out and obtain it for herself by selling her mental and physical energies to an employer for a wage or salary.

True liberation from traditional roles will only come through a partnership of men and women united in their desire for socialism. How might socialism change women's position? For a start, they will be on an equal footing with men. Neither will be obliged to sell their labour power to a capitalist class in order to survive. In addition women will be freed from their role in life. HUman beings will share all the tasks necessary to run society equally and in partnership with one another and we won't need glossy magazines to tell us how to do it.
Cathy Gillespie

Action Replay: Play the Game (2014)

The Action Replay column from the July 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Premier League, Formula One and Wimbledon are a tiny tip of a very large iceberg in terms of sporting participation. Most of those who play of an evening or a weekend are amateurs of varying degrees of ability, taking part for fun, for exercise, for bonding with their mates. Many kids play or run or jump or swim, not so that they can win but so they can enjoy themselves, usually as part of a team.
Back in April the MCC and the cricket charity Chance to Shine released the results of a survey they had commissioned, of 8-to-16-year-olds and their parents. The headline finding was that nearly two-thirds of the children said they would not be bothered if the competitive element was removed from school sport. At the same time, almost one parent in four said they would be less interested in their offspring’s sporting activity if there was no competition involved.
Wasim Khan, the head of the charity concerned, said, ‘It is worrying to see that so many children would be relieved to see competition removed from sport … We want to teach children the importance of playing sport competitively and fairly, and for them to see the benefits that it can bring to their lives.’
In another comment on these findings, Steve Bull, described as a performance psychologist, argued: ‘Competitive sport is a great way of preparing young people for the “real world” in which things will not always go their way. Learning how to deal with adversity, bounce back from disappointment and accept that luck isn’t always on your side are important lessons for children to absorb before they step out in to the world of work’ (Observer, 27 April).
So there you have it: school sport can prepare you for the knocks you are likely to meet later in life, as competitive capitalism throws its worst at you. Don’t complain or resist too much, just toughen up and realise that things won’t always go your way.
The Duke of Wellington famously said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, though apparently he was referring to how he learned to survive in fistfights rather than his prowess at cricket. But your schooldays don’t just fill your heads with religious or patriotic nonsense, they also exploit sport to help you learn how to cope with losing.
Paul Bennett