IV Online magazine : IV449 - June 2012
Chris Williams is a longtime
environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to
Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010). He is professor of
physics and chemistry at Pace University and chair of the science department
at Packer Collegiate Institute and is a regular contributor to the
International Socialist Review. Alternative Radio's David Baramian
interviewed Williams in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 20, 2012, after
giving a presentation that Barsamian described as "stunning." Williams' talk
and his conversation with Barsamian can be viewed at
things that you discuss is the inherent nature of capitalism and its drive
for profits, privileging profits over people. What would you suggest as an
alternative? You've mentioned socialism. What do you mean by socialism? And
hasn't socialism been tried in the Soviet Union and other places and shown
to be a failure?
I think it's been tried once, and it did fail,
ultimately. But capitalism has failed many times, and we keep trying that.
It's worth giving socialism another chance. I haven't got time to go into
all of the details, but the Soviet Union failed for very specific reasons.
In my book I talk about some of the earliest time periods of the Soviet
Union, in the 1920s, when it had a very different attitude towards ecology.
It was one of the first places that you could take a degree in ecology, in
1924. There were huge areas of the Soviet Union set aside as ecological
areas, where you couldn't even do tourism or anything; it was purely for
research, to see how they could rejuvenate damaged areas of the land. All
that was reversed with the ultimate triumph of the bureaucracy, represented
by Stalin. So that failed for very specific reasons. But I don't equate
socialism with state control. If there's no democracy, if the people aren't
making the economic and political decisions, then I don't see how you could
call that socialism. So if you think about China or Cuba or North Korea or
any of these other countries that call themselves socialist, I would argue
that they aren't. You've just got one giant corporation called the state
that runs everything. Socialism is about real democracy of the people--in
communities and workplaces; production for need, not profit, based on
cooperation rather than competition.
In your book you talk about some
of the attitudes toward nature. You quote Francis Bacon, for example. I
think there is a theological aspect to the attack on nature, with people
like Winthrop and his "city on the hill." And to achieve that "city on the
hill," it was necessary to exploit nature, which was given to us as bounty
by God. Otherwise it wouldn't have been given to humankind.
Inhofe has a similar opinion to that.
The Oklahoma Republican.
He doesn't believe that climate change is real because God has already
told him that it's not true. I think that there was a radical change. If you
look at the way in which the Earth was viewed, some of the language of which
we still retain in terms of the "veins of ore" and so on, the Earth was seen
as a living thing in feudal times and before that, because people were much
more connected to the land. Capitalism if it wants to make money, has to
make machines. That means it has to understand nature. Therefore, you get
Bacon and others completely changing the conception. Nature is now not
something that we live with and on, but something that needs to be
investigated and defiled in many ways. And generations before the emergence
of capitalism, people would have seen that as a defilement. That actually
was celebrated in very overtly sexually language, by Bacon in particular, as
I mention in the book. And I think that rather than a conception of nature
in which we need to dominate and control it for our own ends toward the
profit motive, we need to see ourselves as co-evolving, as something equal.
The OECD recently came out with a very shocking report. The Organization
of Economic Cooperation and Development, the major economies, came out and
said that we may be heading toward a world that is three degrees to six
degrees warmer than anything we've seen for hundreds of thousands, millions
of years. Most scientists will tell you that two degrees is the maximum that
we should be going up to. So they lay all this out--by 2050 we're going to
be three to six degrees higher, which would mean the sea levels would be
heading toward 300 feet higher--and at the end of it they just say, the
effect on GDP will just be a 14 percent reduction. So there are going to be
no icecaps--that's literally what they say--there are going to be no
icecaps, there are going to be deserts across large areas of the world, but
there's only going to be a 14 percent reduction in GDP worldwide. In other
words, there's this idea from economists and apologists for the system that
we are essentially independent of nature. We can survive without air or
water or a planet, and things can roll along as they always have. Clearly,
we need to change that radically and think about not just where we're going
tomorrow and making money from that, but a much longer-term, future
generational thing, which Marx talks about.
And the impact on the
most vulnerable. A couple of years ago I was in Nepal. At a place called
Kala Patthar, in the Himalayas, the Nepali cabinet met to dramatize the fact
that the glaciers are melting. And around the same time in the Maldives, the
cabinet met underwater to have a meeting to demonstrate their concern about
rising levels of the oceans, which will inundate and wipe out the Maldives
islands. Again, the vulnerability of people in the so-called developing
world is acute. But some here may be insulated from that while we are busy
driving fuel-efficient cars and recycling and doing the right thing,
Well, maybe, unless you look at Texas or
the wildfires that were all over New Mexico last year, or the unprecedented
floods in the Midwest. I think that on the one hand, we are certainly
somewhat more insulated, but that doesn't mean to say--I mean, people are
already in a desperate situation in many areas of the world and are feeling
the effects of climate change already. There are already climate refugees,
and there are wars because of the instability that climate change is
bringing about in various areas of the world.
Part of this is also
about the idea that we can save nature by setting aside little areas called
national parks to protect it. Yet how is that going to work if the climate
is completely different? How are the animals that feed on other animals or
plants going to survive when those things are moving north or south or up
mountains? Will the birds be able to migrate and change? Clearly, the whole
idea that we can save nature in certain individual locations goes out the
window with climate. So we have to rethink the whole climate in a
sustainable and rational manner.
I would be depressed about all this
stuff if it was the case that we don't have the answers. We actually do have
the answers. It's not a technical problem. It's much more about how do we
take power from the people who currently have it and put it in our hands so
that we can actually start implementing some of the answers that we know
It was Eduardo Galeano who said, "We have to save
pessimism for better times." A bit more about Marx--he's been dead for 150
years--and his relevance today. What is it about his analysis that you find
urgent and vital and applicable to the problems that society is facing
I think what's important about going back to Marx is not just
the specific things that he talks about, because obviously we can't backdate
our concerns to him, and climate change was not on his horizon. But one of
the things that he and his collaborator, Engels, were most concerned with
was depletion of the soil. In Britain, the fertility of the soil was
dropping and there was great concern over what to do. Artificial fertilizer
hadn't been invented. They had already raided the Napoleonic battlefields,
digging up the corpses of people who died in their wars to take back as
natural fertilizer for the fields of England. They had to go further away to
go and start wars in South America over guano--there were the Guano Wars of
the 1800s that Marx wrote about--in order to get that fertilizer back to
England. So Marx and Engels were very much involved with an ecological
question. He was also a great admirer of Darwin.
But beyond that, I
would say what's most compelling right now is their analysis of not just
capitalism but the methodology which they used. Because so often we're
taught in schools that history is not connected; it's a series of
disconnected events. That's one of the things that makes history boring. You
think that something caused the First World War, and it wasn't connected to
the Second World War. You learn about famous people. There's no relationship
to what's going on now or your life. In contrast, what Marx and Engels did,
their methodology of historical materialism, was to say that everything is
interconnected and everything affects everything else. That's a deeply
Furthermore, when he talked about the
"metabolic rift," the word "metabolism" had only been recently invented, but
it means an exchange of materials in and out of a single cell or an
organism. What was revolutionary about the way he used it in the phrase
"metabolic rift" is he applied it to the whole biosphere. That is an
enormously powerful tool and way of thinking about energy in and energy out,
waste, far ahead of his time, and I think is useful today.
extraordinary depth of the economic collapse, with its attendant millions of
homes being lost, millions of people thrown out of work, pensions lost,
etc., do you see now a kind of Gramscian possibility for an opening for
socialism? Do you think there's more space now to even talk about a word
that has been viewed so pejoratively in recent decades in the United States?
I THINK there's enormous potential. When Barack Obama was first running for
election, he was accused of being a socialist.
That's the "Change you
can believe in" president?
That's right, the change that didn't come.
But when he was running, he was accused of being a socialist because the
right wing thought that this would be a negative. It became the number one
word Googled, because people were, like, "Well, I like Obama. They're
calling him a socialist. I don't like them. Maybe I'm a socialist, too. Let
me go find out about it." I think that is significant.
I also think
that the economic crisis of 2008 coinciding with the ecological crisis is
raising questions in young people's minds and others' that maybe there is a
connection between those two things, maybe one caused the other, and so are
open to the idea that there are new possibilities. I'm sure you saw the Pew
poll that said young people in particular were more disposed to socialism
than they were to capitalism because they know what capitalism is like, and
who wants that in this day and age? So I think that is something that has
woken people up.
I also think that there was a huge change last year
with the revolutions in the Middle East. It has just completely changed
people's reference point for what is possible. We've had thirty years of
defeats. It's been a terrible time since Reagan and Thatcher and the birth
of neoliberalism. I grew up in the 1980s, a terrible decade. Very bad
fashion; pretty bad music, too, unfortunately, with a few exceptions. But
now things are very hopeful again. And people said, "The Middle East, what's
going to happen there? A bastion of reaction. Nobody is interested in
democracy." Then millions of people on the streets fighting for democracy.
I went to Madison, Wisconsin, as part of my
union to see what was going on there last spring during the uprising and the
occupation. It was amazing. Another area of the world, the Midwest, where we
are told people are conservative, and that they don't follow politics.
People in the Midwest, there in Madison, were learning Arabic so that they
could write their signs in Arabic and show their solidarity with the people
in Egypt and Tunisia. It was amazing to be in a town so full of pro-union
And then, of course, more recently, something I've been
involved in, Occupy Wall Street. Phenomenal. It completely changed the
narrative in this country. We haven't won any practical victories yet, but
we've won an enormous ideological victory. We're not talking about the debt
ceiling debate or any other nonsense. We're talking about the rich, the 1%,
and the 99%, everybody else, and why we need to get rid of them so that we
can run things. That's fantastically exciting.
Indeed, the lexicon
has changed. You mentioned the Middle East, a focus first of British and
French imperialism, and then their successor, the United States, ever since
1945, having to do with a certain product that is known to be there under
its sands. It might be a three-letter word.
God works in mysterious
It's actually a four-letter word in practice, but it's three in
actual spelling. Talk about US imperial policy dealing with energy issues
and its relation to ecology.
It's an enormously overlooked piece of
the puzzle. There are a lot of great writers who write stuff on
environmental issues and ecological questions, and this question of
imperialism is so often either overlooked entirely or barely given any kind
of detailed analysis. I think that's a real mistake. Because part of the big
reason why the international negotiations go nowhere is because not only is
there competition between individual corporations for power and prestige and
profit, but there's also, similarly, competition, economic and political,
That competition then leads and sparks warfare.
Warfare is just as integral a part of capitalism as competition. So if
you're not talking about the economic and political competition that goes on
between states and their desire to control resources and the geopolitical
"great game," as it used to be called, then you're not providing a full
analysis for people.
That's one of the major reasons why they cannot
get any kind of agreement on climate change. They have a hard time getting
agreement on even things that they care about, like trade; but the things
they don't care about, like climate change, that is not even part of their
frame of reference, they have even more problems with. If I regulate my
economy more than you, then I suffer an economic disadvantage. You now can
go places and do things and produce cheaper and more profitably than I can,
and I'm at an economic disadvantage. That kind of dynamic prevents them from
coming up with a rational plan. They'd rather nuke each other over a
disputed oil field than come up with an internationally coordinated plan to
plant some trees.
What are your views on what is called sustainable
As Paul Hawken, who is
actually an advocate of this, said, it's a contradiction in terms. Actually,
he said it about green capitalism, sorry. You cannot have a sustainable
capitalism, because every year every capitalist entity has to grow larger
for reasons that I mentioned earlier. There is this constant dynamic of
growth that if they're not growing, then they die. We see the economy today.
What's the conversation about? We need to go back to growth. Every nation on
the planet needs to have 2 percent or 3 percent growth. Otherwise what
happens? We fall into a tailspin of unemployment, layoffs, cuts to social
spending--obviously not the military budget--but everything else. So without
that growth the system starts falling apart. Capitalism is literally a
system that is based on the maxim "grow or die." So the idea that in any way
that could be sustainable or that they could somehow care about the
resources that they put in or the waste that goes out is an impossibility, I
would argue. They don't even see resources as anything but a free lunch:
they take something free from the environment and then they put it back in
as waste. They don't pay for that stuff.
I infer from that, then,
that you are perhaps skeptical of tinkering around the edges, cosmetic
changes such as recycling.
You could put me in the skeptics camp. I'm
not against recycling, but I think it's important to recognize that it's the
first thing that we're told to do. And there's a reason for that. Because it
takes it away from the product itself and says the product is okay, it's
fine. The problem is with you as a consumer and an individual. You are the
problem because you don't put it in the right receptacle. This evades the
whole question of why was that thing made in the first place and why was it
made of plastic. There's nothing wrong with plastic. For example, people
often talk about plastic water bottles, which is a $100 billion-a-year
industry. Plastic is an amazing material. It lasts virtually forever. So why
would you make disposable things out of plastic? It should be illegal.
Really, it should be illegal.
Yes but these are panaceas that are
being served up. If you do these things, if you drive the right car, things
will be hunky-dory.
Absolutely. I think the idea is very much
ideological--that we feel good about recycling, that we take the spotlight
away from the production and we focus on consumption, and if we do that,
then everything will be okay. However, if you look at waste, only 2.5
percent of all waste is domestic, that is, what all of us produce. So even
if we could magically get rid of all of that, that would still leave the
97.5 percent of industrial and agricultural waste. It would be irrelevant,
in other words. Apart from the fact that plastic cannot be really
effectively recycled in the first place, which is why even if you put it in
the recycle bin, 95 percent of it never is. So that would be the last thing
that you should do, not the first thing. The first thing should be to look
at the production process, and then match things to their function. Then we
can go from there and talk about, at the end, if we really can't do
anything, if we can't reuse it again, or maybe we should never have made it
in the first place--that's a radical idea-- we should then think about how
could we best recycle it.
You can expand that to any kind of argument
about this tinkering around the edges and the focus on that. Every time
capitalism messes something up, it doesn't try and correct that problem, it
just tries to sell you something else. So the food system has become so
toxic now that they invented another subset of the food system called
organic food. What was wrong with the first stuff ? What did you do to that
to make it so bad that we have to go and pay more money, if we can afford
it, to get organic food? You can replicate that on any number of levels. The
food crises, the various food scandals. People may remember swine flu a
couple of years ago, where they've concentrated the animals in such
horrendous situations, totally unhealthy, that they're diseased, they're
incubators for disease. So during the outbreak, what did they do? Did they
think, "You know what, we really need to regulate these corporations so they
treat these animals more humanely?" No. They just said, "No, we'll sell them
sanitary masks, and then that will be fine." So they just are constantly
figuring out new ways. So if we accept that paradigm, that there's something
else that we should buy, then we've already fallen into their trap.
During the Bush period, it was easy to kind of explain what was going on.
These were people with close ties to the oil and gas industry. Yet, as you
point out, Obama has followed basically the same template and has expanded
and increased drilling permits, and has opened up the Arctic.
very easy to blame George W. Bush. In some ways Obama has got away with more
than Bush could have got away with in his wildest dreams. Certainly on civil
liberties, I think you could say that Obama has been worse than George W.
Bush. And I think there's an argument to be made on ecological issues that
the same is true. If you think about the worst environmental disaster in US
history, in 2010, the Gulf oil spill. Obama had supermajorities in both
houses of Congress and a massive amount of public support at that time. He
could have done anything, but he didn't. In fact, he left the clean-up to
the criminal who carried it out in the first place, BP. So this is clearly
not about changing Democrats for Republicans.
I also think it's
important to remember, all of the best environmental laws that we've got on
the books--the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, etc.�came about under the
presidency of a right-wing Republican egomaniac called Richard Nixon, who
had already caused colossal environmental devastation, not to mention mass
murder, in Southeast Asia. Why did he decide that now was the time to
protect the water and the air? Because there was a massive movement on the
streets that demanded it. So that's really the answer. I don't think it's
about the politicians; it's about what we do on the streets and how
organized we get.
The gravity of the multiple ecological crises
demands collective and global action--not one-off, one country doing this or
that. How do we get there, to collective action?
all-important question. We've had some examples I mentioned in the Middle
East. Also, recently the massive protests in Germany against nuclear power
completely changed another right-wing government, Angela Merkel's, who is
the premier and who is pro-nuclear. Yet now Germany has already shut nine of
their nuclear reactors, they're shutting down the rest within ten years, and
there is a plan in place to reduce their carbon emissions by 30 percent by
2020, and then by 80 percent by 2050. That's not because they suddenly
became a green government. It's because they were forced to become a green
government. I think those kinds of things resonate around the world. The
same is true in Italy, in Switzerland, which are also shutting down their
nuclear power stations, and hopefully Japan will be the next country.
But I think it's also significant that the countries that are resisting
the most in terms of that kind of change are also the countries that have
nuclear weapons. Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Japan don't have nuclear
weapons. So the movements there have more latitude. I think it would be
extremely difficult in this country for the government ideologically to
justify keeping nuclear weapons, which they want, but abandoning nuclear
power. I think that the campaign here has to be much more powerful.
How do we get to that? I think it's the same as any other movement. I think
of Occupy Wall Street; we haven't been fighting for a long time and finally
we are. That's exciting. It's finally become a two-sided battle. And we need
to catch up with our organization. That is the next challenge as we move
forward. Where do we go from here? Because we really are in the belly of the
imperial beast. I think it's a question of organization more than anything
A lot of people may think or have the idea that they don't need
to get involved with politics or political organization. I joined my first
political organization when I was fifteen, which was the ANC, the African
National Congress, in Britain. That's where the government in exile was. As
a fifteen-year-old, I couldn't understand why Black people couldn't have a
vote in their own country. It just didn't make sense. So I started finding
out more about it. I got involved. Then I joined CND, Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament. All of these things eventually made me realize that they're
coming from the same source, the economic system. So I became a socialist.
Around the time of resistance at Greenham Common, the big US military
base in Britain.
Yes the movement in the early 1980s was started by
about thirty-five women from South Wales who went to Greenham Common, where
they had just started putting nuclear weapons in this US base. They could
launch nuclear weapons from Britain without the consent of the British
government. So people were, like, "What the hell is this?" So, just as the
sit-down strikes in Greensboro, North Carolina, started with four people,
the movement against the Greenham Common base started with thirty-five. One
woman was killed during the occupation by a military truck that ran her
over, Karen Davis. But it evolved within a few months into an occupation of
30,000, predominantly women, where they ringed the base and shut it down so
that they couldn't get trucks in or out. This sparked an international
movement, in Germany in particular, to do the same thing. That occupation
went on for nineteen years, which is inspiring.
I was in Japan in December and January of this year. One of the meetings
that I went to, that was run by predominantly women, showed the documentary
of the occupation from Greenham Common. Women a generation away and on the
other side of the world were inspired by this message and taking heart from
it as they went to campaign. So the working class, the people, have a long
Do you have some concrete suggestions for people, some things
they can do?
It's not about buying green stuff. It's about getting
involved in politics. It's the only thing we have. They have all the money,
they have all the guns, but there's not very many of them. We are always
more--many, many more. What we need to do is get organized and show our
power, because we're the people who make all the stuff. If we don't go to
work, nothing happens. So if you're not involved in some political
organization, you should think about joining one, whatever is your
particular issue. I was first involved in an antiracist struggle, that led
me to an antinuclear power and nuclear weapons struggle, that I kind of
generalized from. So whatever is your issue, I would urge you to get
involved and join an organization and think about how the issues are
connected. I believe, as a socialist, it's the economic system that we need
to get rid of, the whole thing. If you don't find an organization around
here in Santa Fe that you like, start your own. Get some of your friends
involved. I think that is the key thing. Because ultimately, as far as I'm
concerned, if we don't get rid of this system--and we haven't got much time
left--but fortunately, as I said, we've got some inspiration from 2011 that
is very, very exciting and points a way forward. But if we don't get rid of
the system and implement something else based on cooperation, real
democracy, and a long-term perspective, then we face a very diminished
future within many of our lifetimes. I've been an activist since I was
fifteen, and I think it's the only life worth living.
said, "Ye are many, they are few."