Highly recommended reading: COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital

Coronavirus image

The COVID-19 outbreak offers us an opportunity to understand how global capital wreaks havoc with human health and the biosphere. Click on this image to read an inspiring analysis of the present situation, its causes, ramifications and remedies.

I direct readers of my blog to an excellent (and thoroughly referenced) article on Monthly Review: ‘COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital‘.

It offers a comprehensive analysis of how the COVID-19 outbreak (and the inept handling thereof) is linked to the depredations of global capital and therefore to many other global issues, such as hugely destructive agroindustry (including factory farming) and the scapegoating of indigenous peoples.

It is not all doom and gloom, as demonstrated by these inspiring paragraphs (I have put some key sentences in bold):

To avoid the worst outcomes here on out, disalienation offers the next great human transition: abandoning settler ideologies, reintroducing humanity back into Earth’s cycles of regeneration, and rediscovering our sense of individuation in multitudes beyond capital and the state. However, economism, the belief that all causes are economic alone, will not be liberation enough. Global capitalism is a many-headed hydra, appropriating, internalizing, and ordering multiple layers of social relation. Capitalism operates across complex and interlinked terrains of race, class, and gender in the course of actualizing regional value regimes place to place.

At the risk of accepting the precepts of what historian Donna Haraway dismissed as salvation history—“can we defuse the bomb in time?”—disalienation must dismantle these multifold hierarchies of oppression and the locale-specific ways they interact with accumulation. Along the way, we must navigate out of capital’s expansive reappropriations across productive, social, and symbolic materialisms. That is, out of what sums up to a totalitarianism. Capitalism commodifies everything—Mars exploration here, sleep there, lithium lagoons, ventilator repair, even sustainability itself, and on and on, these many permutations are found well beyond the factory and farm. All the ways nearly everyone everywhere is subjected to the market, which during a time like this is increasingly anthropomorphized by politicians, could not be clearer.

In short, a successful intervention keeping any one of the many pathogens queuing up across the agroeconomic circuit from killing a billion people must walk through the door of a global clash with capital and its local representatives, however much any individual foot soldier of the bourgeoisie, Glen among them, attempts to mitigate the damage. As our group describes in some of our latest work, agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing.

Should, however, greater humanity win such a generational conflict, we can replug ourselves back into a planetary metabolism that, however differently expressed place to place, reconnects our ecologies and our economies. Such ideals are more than matters of the utopian. In doing so, we converge on immediate solutions. We protect the forest complexity that keeps deadly pathogens from lining up hosts for a straight shot onto the world’s travel network. We reintroduce the livestock and crop diversities, and reintegrate animal and crop farming at scales that keep pathogens from ramping up in virulence and geographic extent. We allow our food animals to reproduce onsite, restarting the natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time. Big picture, we stop treating nature and community, so full of all we need to survive, as just another competitor to be run off by the market.

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My response to devastating Batoka Gorge Dam scheme on Zambezi

UPDATE – 26 APRIL 2020: Deadline Extended

Good news! The deadline for commentary, which was to have been 30 April, has been extended (due to COVID-19):

COVID-19 Update
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Zambezi River Authority (the Authority) and ERM have postponed all public disclosure meetings scheduled to take place between 17 and 22 April 2020. This decision is in response to government-mandated travel restrictions, stay at home orders, and bans on gatherings, which have been imposed in southern African countries.

Given the current level of global uncertainty associated with COVID-19, the Authority and ERM are unable to determine at the present time when these meetings may be reasonably rescheduled. The Authority and ERM will provide adequate notification of rearranged dates, once these have been established.

Please note that the review and comment period for the draft ESIAs will remain open until such time that the Authority and ERM are able to hold the ESIA disclosure meetings, or until further notice is given by the Authority and ERM. Your input remains key in the updating and finalisation of the ESIA studies and stakeholders are encouraged to continue reviewing the draft ESIAs and to submit questions and comments to ERM: batokagorgehes@erm.com

Please respond, even if it you only write a single sentence. I think a good point to make is that a unique place like Batoka Gorge should not be viewed merely as a commercial asset of interest only to local ‘stakeholders’ (in reality we know that this, in any case, does not really mean the actual local people; it means the vested financial interests of the rich and powerful) but as an irreplaceable site of incalculable intrinsic value for the entire planet. We surely all have a stake in such places, as do our children’s children’s children…!

My Initial Response

I trust my response below to this Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) speaks for itself!

To whom it may concern

Preliminary Comments on ESIA for Batoka Gorge Dam

My relationship to this project is that of a concerned global citizen who grew up in Zimbabwe, has a degree in ecology and who is employed by an environmental charity which, though based in the UK, does some work in Southern Africa.

The ESIA documents consist to a large extent of ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’. There are many fine words on mitigation options and strategies but there is no guarantee that any of these will be followed once the dam is a fait accompli. Given the outstanding ecological merits of the site (see, for example, https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/batoka-gorge-dam-zambezi-river-8291), this is a cause for grave concern. In some cases these ‘mitigation options and strategies’ are downright risible. For example, in the document titled ‘Review of ESIA against the WCD and IHA Guidelines & background on the World Commission on Dams & International Hydropower Association’s Sustainability Guidelines & Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol’ in the section on ‘Rare and endangered species’ the following are listed:

  • Plans to manage this issue need to be developed prior to construction and options for mitigation identified and assessed.
  • Habitats of critical importance should be identified (within a wider regional context) and impacts to these avoided or minimised as much as possible during the design phase.
  • Targeted management plans need to be developed for species of conservation significance. Translocations or habitat rehabilitation may be options, along with identification of suitable habitat for ‘reserve’ management

As the habitat for several species (rare raptors at least) is being completely eliminated at the site, these words ring hollow. Suitable alternative habitats will already be occupied, meaning that populations will simply be significantly reduced. Without detailed knowledge of the interaction between sub-populations, population genetics, and the threats facing other populations it is impossible to be sure that some species will not be critically threatened.

With climate change an ever-growing threat, it is understandable that sustainable electricity generation should be a priority. However, large hydro-power projects have a notoriously bad track record as far as social and environmental impacts are concerned, as well as with regard to corruption. My comments above relate to the first two points. Here are just a few references on the last one:

Unless there is complete transparency with regard to the beneficiaries of this massively expensive project, I believe it is reasonable to fear that it will be riddled with corruption, and that any financial benefits will simply enrich an already wealthy few (who will siphon the money into tax havens), increasing inequality. In general, I would argue that sustainable solutions to power should put control in the hands of local communities and, in places like Southern Africa, solar power offers enormous promise.  In the document titled ‘Proposed Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme (Zambia and Zimbabwe) on the Zambezi River;. VOLUME I – Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the Project Area of Inundation, Staff Villages and Quarries’ it would seem that solar power is dismissed with these words:

This indicates that solar is presently an undesirable technology from an investment efficiency perspective when compared to other technologies. Development of solar PV can therefore for now only be supported by strong renewable energy polices rather than technology competitiveness. This is consistent with the  ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES MANAGEMENT BGHES ESIA REPORT 6-4 penetration of solar technology in other electricity markets (ZETDC, 2015). Where solar PV has penetrated the market significantly, high electricity tariffs reflect the cost of energy.

This ignores the fact that the cost of photovoltaics is falling rapidly. See, for example:

I am confident that the economics of these has changed drastically since the report was commissioned, and I urge the authorities to review these figures and project how they will continue to change in the coming years. The glib dismissal of solar power is a major flaw in the ESIA (and raises suspicions re vested interests/corruption).

The wording would also seem to suggest that power schemes should be judged primarily from the perspective of large-scale investment opportunities. At a time of massive biodiversity loss, coupled with climate change and growing inequality, should this be the main criterion? Solar power should, in my opinion, largely be diffuse, small-scale and locally owned, even down to the level of individual households. Grand large-scale schemes are wide open to wastage, delays, corruption, etc., to say nothing of losses in long-distance transmission, infrastructure failures, etc.

Another major point, related to the dismissal of solar, is the unpredictability of rainfall in this era of climate change. According to International Rivers (https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/batoka-gorge-dam-zambezi-river-8291):

Harrison & Whittington (2002) carried out some climate modeling on the proposed Zambezi dams and found that the Batoka Gorge Dam is likely to lose 6-22% production due to declining rainfall as a result of a warming climate in the basin. In his 2012 report on the hydrological risks of planned Zambezi dams (Batoka included), Beilfuss reported that these dams are unlikely to deliver the expected services over their lifetime.

It follows that any assumptions regarding the dam’s future operation and generating capacity can only be considered to be wildly speculative. By contrast, solar energy is far more reliable.

Thank you in advance for considering these preliminary comments.

Your faithfully

Robert Eric Swanepoel, PhD, MSc (Ecology), BVSc, MRCVS

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There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil. Cut it out of your diet, yes, but there’s more to be done.

Update 2 (afternoon, 4 April 2020): the fundamental issue is the way the debate is framed!

Since posting the previous update, there has been a storm of commentary on Twitter. In fairness to those who support SPO, I am posting many of their tweets below. I am happy to acknowledge that the issue is not totally clear.

A few specific comments, however:

  • I am pleased that Orangutan Land Trust rejected funding from one of their donors on ethical grounds. That is certainly encouraging.
  • David Attenborough is not necessarily the font of all wisdom. (I take issue, for example, with his apparent belief that human population is in itself a major problem.)
  • Repeating the statement that a palm oil boycott could increase deforestation doesn’t add anything to the debate – I already covered that. The answer is surely to reform the whole agro-industrial system, not to tinker round the edges of this demonstrably catastrophic monstrosity?
  • Yes, sadly, many organisations which have spent years working on this issue, could be wrong. I repeat: the answer is surely to reform the whole agro-industrial system, not to tinker round the edges of this demonstrably catastrophic monstrosity? Large corporations are heavily invested in the present global capitalist system, not necessarily the most agile and innovative of entities, and certainly not immune to groupthink.

In conclusion, I reject the very way the debate is framed: ‘sustainable’ palm oil or non-sustainable palm oil (or something equally bad or worse), in a fundamentally unreformed globalised agroindustrial monoculture- and commodity-based food system dominated by large corporations, which have no compunction in wielding their economic power to maintain the status quo.

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Update 1 (morning, 4 April 2020)

My views disputed

Since posting the original article below, I have exchanged views with several people/organisations who strongly dispute my contention that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, such as the Orangutan Land Trust, and I have been referred to:

One can certainly understand people’s reasons for wishing to believe that there is such a thing as truly sustainable palm oil – it would wonderful for the biosphere, for one thing – and I have no doubt there are many good people involved and that some, or even most, of the work they do is irreproachable and praiseworthy. However, there are also reasons for scepticism when examining the views/organisations mentioned above.

Orangutan Land Trust has good reason not to examine gift horse’s mouth?

With regard to the Orangutan Land Trust, one can see immediately that most of their ‘Corporate Sustainability Partners’ (arguably an Orwellian title for those who pay them for greenwashing services?) are corporations with significant financial interests in ‘sustainable’ palm oil. This means that the undoubtedly good people of the Orangutan Land Trust also have a very good incentive to believe that ‘sustainable’ palm oil is a real thing, and not to look the gift horse in the mouth too closely. This would simply be human nature: their consciences would sanction such blindness for the (undisputed) good of their main cause.

Dr Eleanor Slade: agroindustrial commodity monocultures the only alternative?

Let’s give Dr Slade the benefit of the doubt and assume that all her work and the institutions with which she is associated are free of funding from those with vested interests in SPO, and that she is therefore motivated only by the truth.

Her main argument boils down to TINA: There Is No sustainable Alternative to Sustainable Palm Oil. In other words, if palm oil consumption as a whole is reduced, any substitute could have a far worse impact on the biosphere.

Firstly, this is hypothetical: she is not stating that it definitely would happen. Secondly, it is an extremely pessimistic and narrow prediction, all the more surprising as she points to one of the potential major contributors to a solution in her own article:

‘Indeed, soybean farming is already responsible for more than double the deforestation of palm oil. In the context of other food sources, livestock and beef production has led to more than five times the amount of deforestation, compared to palm oil.’

I agree. We need massive reform of the whole commodity, monoculture-based, agroindustrial food system, an element of which must be that we stop growing crops like soya (UK word for ‘soy’) just to feed to livestock. We need to greatly reduce our consumption of meat. We need to move towards far more productive methodologies with far lower inputs, such as permaculture, agroecology and conservation agriculture. We need to cut large corporations out of the food system, research and revive indigenous peoples’ knowledge and practices, and foster urban growing. (Anyone who doubts the need for changes such as these could start by reading this.)

Is this feasible? I would argue that this is the real TINA, and that the massive global mobilisation in response to COVID-19 demonstrates that it is, indeed. Stop chatting about tampering at the edges of our hugely destructive food system. Call for it to be radically overhauled!

Footnote on Dr Slade’s article

Dr Slade also states: ‘Despite this, many large retailers and leading brands (including Nestlé, Unilever and Palmolive) and supermarkets (such as Morrison’s, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in the UK) are already using certified palm oil in their products, but cannot heavily promote this due to the persistent negativity toward any type of palm oil.’

What hard evidence does she/they have for this? The ingredients are listed on products’ labels. I suspect that most consumers still don’t know or care, alas.

…And why do many products contain palm oil, when they can be made perfectly well with no oil at all (e.g. bread)?

Palm Oil Innovation Group: alleged massive flouter of indigenous peoples’ rights has major involvement; right-wing promoter of neoliberalism backs another

With regard to the Palm Oil Innovation Group, what jumps out immediately is the involvement of WWF, a supposed conservation organisation notorious for consorting with Monsanto (now part of Bayer). This Guardian article mentions their effective greenwashing of Monsanto and others, and states explicitly:

‘Huismann argues that by setting up “round tables” of industrialists on strategic commodities such as palm oil, timber, sugar, soy, biofuels and cocoa, WWF International has become a political power that is too close to industry and in danger of becoming reliant on corporate money.

‘”WWF is a willing service provider to the giants of the food and energy sectors, supplying industry with a green, progressive image … On the one hand it protects the forest; on the other it helps corporations lay claim to land not previously in their grasp. WWF helps sell the idea of voluntary resettlement to indigenous peoples,” says Huismann.’

For more information on WWF allegedly flouting the rights of indigenous peoples and committing other horrific acts scroll down this page.

One might be encouraged to see the Forest Peoples Programme as a POIG partner (cuddly name, right?). However, their sponsors include the right-wing Ford Foundation, notorious for its funding of the expansion of neoliberal ideology, which is surely the major issue at the root of agroindustry’s destruction of the biosphere? I would be far more reassured to see Survival International at the table (the vast majority of its funding comes from small individual donors in over a hundred countries).

Greenpeace? Hardly a ringing endorsement!

Reading what’s on the Greenpeace website now, and viewing the video on it, it comes across to me as a desperate attempt to raise awareness of the serious harm wreaked by the palm oil business and encourage people to boycott the palm oil that is clearly not sustainable in order to force big companies to change.

Reading between the lines, a reluctant Greenpeace has been persuaded to support SPO as the only credible alternative, but Greenpeace is merely hopeful that it is/will be so, and is doing its best to make it so. (I trust/hope Greenpeace is not receiving any funding from those with vested interests in palm oil.)

It is interesting that the Greenpeace webpage I linked below (‘Sustainable Palm Oil? No, not really!’) is extant. Perhaps not everyone in Greenpeace supports SPO, even now?

Original Blog Article: There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil. Cut it out of your diet, yes, but there’s more to be done.

There’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil. The palm oil industry is a major contributor to the destruction of rainforests, biodiversity loss and the climate catastrophe. This is a point made in Werner Boote’s powerful film, The Green Lie. (Here’s information on the film on his own website.)

And yet palm oil is in most processed foods and a variety of other products, but you have to read the small print in order to discover this. By all means do so, and avoid palm oil consumption as far as you can, but given that it is used so widely (it’s not easy finding palm oil-free biscuits and even bread in many UK supermarkets) I think we should do more. Here are some ideas:

Screenshot from Iceland's website, This UK food retailer arguably leads the way on palm oil.

Screenshot from Iceland’s website, This UK food retailer arguably leads the way on palm oil. Click on the image to read more.

  • petition/campaign for national government to tax/phase out palm oil (theoretically leaving the EU could open the way for stricter UK environmental policies, though a trade deal with the USA is likely to move the country in the opposite direction)
  • petition/campaign for national/local government to use public procurement to reduce the use of palm oil (see remark above re Brexit)
  • petition/campaign for national/local government to insist on much clearer labelling of products containing palm oil
  • petition/campaign for supermarkets to avoid palm oil and/or label palm oil-containing products more clearly (the Iceland chain is a leader in this regard)

Should we implement some or all of these, or do you have other suggestions?

Finally, expect a vigorous response from the advocates of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but take what they say with a pinch of salt – they have vast sums of money riding on this. See the Independent article mentioned above!

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Two simple ideas for combating climate change

A climate catastrophe is unfolding. Do you really need to sit there with your engine idling? Most people would switch their engines off. Please do the same. Thank you!

How about we carry a card like this to show to errant motorists? Just one idea…

These ideas won’t save the biosphere, but they might make some difference…

Several times a day I am distressed to see drivers sitting in their stationary, fossil fuel-powered vehicles, with the engines idling. It’s one thing to do this while waiting for a traffic light to change. It’s another altogether to pull over and eat a meal or swipe your smartphone for ten minutes while your engine is uselessly converting derivatives of ancient plant material into greenhouse gas. Every week I see multiple private motorists and several people in company vehicles blithely doing this.

I have often been abused for reprimanding people dropping litter, and as a cyclist I have been yelled at by unrepentant motorists for pointing out the dangers of them occupying the cycle boxes at junctions (for example). I am reluctant to subject myself to further stress or risk (probably futile) by confronting negligent climate change-accelerators. But there are other options. I have had two ideas:

(1) Those of us who care about the biosphere could carry a laminated card (A4?) with the following polite ‘social norms‘ message on it:

A climate catastrophe is unfolding.
Do you really need to sit there with your engine idling?
Most people would switch their engines off.
Please do the same.

Thank you!

We could then display this whenever we see such ecocidal activity. It would be less confrontational and risky than directly confronting the miscreants, and it would spread the message widely, helping to build a supportive community of responsible global citizens.

(2) When identifiable corporate vehicles are involved one could note the time, place and licence plate number and post the details on a name-and-shame site (and/or let the organisations know about their drivers’ behaviour).

Perhaps councils or even national government could help, assuming they are serious about combating climate change.

What do you think of these ideas?

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Do Rich People Deserve to Be Rich?

Please read this excellent essay which brings together many important and disturbing facts about inequality but concludes on an optimistic note.

Forgot About Keynes

One of our abiding modern myths, as Russell Brand and George Monbiot explained in a recent episode of the Trews is: “that if you’re rich, you deserve to be rich and that story means that if you’re not rich, you don’t deserve to be rich and that means everything’s the way that it should be and nothing should change.”

This is what Melvin Lerner described as the just-world hypothesis. We have an in-built bias which makes us view the world as fundamentally just and the basic reason it exists is to make us feel more secure in ourselves as we go about our daily lives. What this means however, is that we are prone to errors in judgement such as what Monbiot refers to as the self-attribution fallacy and what psychologists often refer to as the fundamental attribution error. In essence, we not only overestimate the extent to which our successes are down to ourselves alone – we…

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Second time right, Mariella: two point one nine lies a day, NOT two point nineteen!

Mariella Frostrup presents Radio 4 programme on children lying

Two point one nine lies a day, or two point nineteen?

I am writing this as I listen to a BBC Radio 4 programme on children lying, presented by Mariella Frostrup. I was infuriated to hear her say that ‘people tell on average two point nineteen lies a day’ and relieved when she repeated this statement later, saying ‘two point one nine’.

I was taught in school that digits after the decimal point (well, I shall not lie, ‘decimal comma’ it was in what was then called Rhodesia in the 1970s) should be stated as individual numbers. This makes sense. Consider Ms Frostrup’s ‘2.19 lies/day’. What if this were written as ‘2.190’? This would imply a greater degree of precision, but it would not connote a larger number, though ‘two point one hundred and ninety’ sounds as if it should be a larger number than ‘two point one nine’.  Please, it is ‘two point one nine’, or ‘two point one nine zero’ if you know the figure is accurate to three decimal places.

Thanks to Ms Frostrup for finally giving me the kick I needed to take action on this issue, which has been annoying me for decades. Please, teachers and broadcasters, take note.

 

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Letter by over 100 left-wing Jews supporting Chris Williamson removed by Guardian. Read it still here:

It’s so important that people realise that the picture painted by the mass media (including the so-called liberal media) of the Labour anti-Semitism issue is false. I am re-blogging this excellent piece by Tom Pride, but please also see what I have written on this elsewhere on this blog (this, for example).

Pride's Purge

The Guardian newspaper has removed a letter from over 100 prominent left-wing Jews – including Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and the actor Ed Asner – in support of Labour MP Chris Williamson against accusations of antisemitism:

This is apparently after a complaint from the anti-Corbyn and rather more right-wing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

This is simply censorship of Jewish voices on the left.

Therefore, in the name of openness and balance, here is the letter and the signatories reproduced in full. Please share:

Guardian Letter 9th July 2019

Jewish Statement: Reinstate Chris Williamson

We the undersigned, all Jews, are writing in support of Chris Williamson and to register our dismay at the recent letter organised by Tom Watson, and signed by parliamentary Labour party and House of Lords members, calling for his suspension.

Chris Williamson did not say that the party had been “too apologetic about…

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