The fact that the question – can we promote ecological sustainability through buying better things? – is taken seriously points to the absurdity of so much environmental discourse. We need to be clear: An industrial economy, no matter how green it declares itself, is inherently unsustainable. It is based on the use of nonrenewable resources and the hyperexploitation of renewable resources. In short, it’s based on drawdown. It’s a bit late in the murder of the planet to have to be saying this to environmentalists.
There has never been a sustainable civilization, and industrial civilization has been especially disastrous. Industrial civilization is also inherently unjust, as it is based on the importation of resources – a less kind word is theft – from colonies to the center of empire. In order for these resources to be stolen, Indigenous People must be driven from the land and forced into the global cash economy. The fact that people of good heart can ignore this reveals the degree to which they have internalized the logic of capitalism.
Let me put this another way. Would “buying better things” have stopped the Nazis? Would it have stopped apartheid? Would it have stopped slavery in the US? Of course not. In the latter two cases it was tried and it failed. Why? Because it completely ignored the role of power in causing injustice.
Before you blanch at my comparison of capitalism to the Nazis, look at this from the perspective of the 200 species driven extinct today, the 200 species driven extinct tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, in a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Look at this from the perspective of the millions of children killed each year as a result of so-called debt repayment from the colonies to the center of empire. Look at this from the perspective of Indigenous humans forced off their lands. “Buying good stuff” does absolutely nothing to address these problems.
The concept of “buying good things” is a false story that personal choices can lead to social change. That isn’t how social change works. I keep thinking of the line by Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.” Buying from the poor is nice, but it does nothing to address their impoverishment.
The fundamental precept of markets is that sellers try to maximize and buyers try to minimize prices. It’s all well and good to talk about Green EcoMarts for fair trade, recycled, and salvaged goods. But there are reasons Walmart and Home Depot are able to drive local stores out of business. Economies of scale guarantee that Walmart will be able to undercut small businesses. The local computer store owner in my town had to find work as a prison guard because Walmart can sell computers cheaper than he can buy them wholesale. The only way I can support the local store is if I have the extra money to burn. The same is true for fair trade tea, coffee, t-shirts, what have you. Capitalism guarantees that fair trade will remain a luxury niche that can never affect large-scale social change.
The global economy is essentially a command economy, one based on force. Let’s pretend that some community is able to establish a green economy that is 100 percent sustainable. Let’s presume further that the people in this community are content with their lifestyle, and don’t want it to change. Let’s give them a name. Let’s call them “Tolowa” or “Yurok” or “Dakota.” Or let’s say they are the Kayopo, living on the Xingu River. And now let’s say that those in power decide they want the landbase on which (or rather with whom) this community lives. What happens next? Does anyone really believe that those in power won’t destroy the community and steal the resources? This genocide isn’t a thing of the past: The Kayopo are being driven from their land right now, to make way for the Belo Monte dam.
Kevin Danaher asks, “If two of us go into a low-income part of the world, and you have the best critique of capitalism ever uttered, and I am offering green jobs at decent pay, who will get more allies?” This question is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it accepts industrial global capitalism and the wage economy as givens. Second, and more disturbing, it ignores the fact that sustainability is not determined by who has the most friends. Sustainability is determined by what is physically possible. Something is sustainable if it helps the planet become more viable. Whether someone is your friend is irrelevant.
Why don’t we ask instead: “If we go into a low-income part of the world, and I have the best critique of capitalism ever uttered, and I provide tangible solidarity with people’s organized efforts to take back their land, and you are offering green jobs at decent pay, who will get more friends?” The answer will be: Those who are providing tangible solidarity. This is not theoretical. Adivasis – Indigenous Peoples in India – are joining the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in droves, not because the Adivasis are Maoist, but because the Maoists are resisting.
Danaher also states, “People need jobs and income, not radical rhetoric from us privileged intellectuals.” Well, actually, no – they don’t need jobs and income. What they need is food, clothing, and shelter. What they need is access to land. With access to land, they need neither jobs nor income. This is not radical rhetoric from privileged intellectuals. This is what Indigenous Peoples have been saying ever since the dominant culture began dispossessing them.
Years ago I asked a member of the Tupacamaristas what they wanted for the people of Peru. I was told: “We want to be able to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.” There was no mention of green jobs.
What people in the colonies want is not to get jobs servicing the global elite. What they want is to be left alone, and what they want from those of us who profess to be revolutionaries is for us to force the empires to withdraw from their territory. We need not perpetuate the old White Man’s Burden of using our privilege to lift up our less fortunate brothers and sisters into something approximating our own lives. Here is the new morally and ecologically responsible and real burden of being a white man: to undo the damage done by the dominant culture and to destroy the ability of the rich to steal from the poor in the first place.
Originally published in Earth Island JournalFiled in Essays