I’m always in search of a good challenge. And so, periodically, force myself out of my comfort zone in an effort to stretch my own understanding of human thinking and behavior and the myriad reasons for our differences. Occasionally, feeling daring, I’ll visit sites like Daily Kos to read different political perspectives. This weekend I happened upon a post by Bob Simpson, a retired history teacher from Chicago, entitled Of Nightmares and Watersheds. His nightmare goes something like this.
The nightmare that comes to me while I sleep always begins the same way. I am standing next to Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Maryland, near where Northwest Branch creek crosses this highway.
But instead of the small filtration station that once served the modest-sized dam a couple of hundred yards upstream, there is massive hi-rise development everywhere: acres of uber-modern condos and swanky shops cover the ground where I once pried off samples of translucent mica from the soft sandstone in the forest above the creek.
In the nightmare, the stream valley on both sides of the highway, once crowded with ancient trees, has been denuded and the resulting silt has turned the once clear waters a sluggish brown. The boulders and small waterfalls downstream are still there, but bake in the sun instead of being protected by the cool shade of an Eastern forest.
Admittedly, I don’t share his nightmare, but I do share his concern regarding the wellbeing of our nation’s waters and the aesthetics of human existence. He offered a thoughtful and insightful reflection on the plight of our urban rivers, including the Anacostia, which has been plagued for years, ravaged by raw sewage, ever-growing amount of floating trash and neglect, and contaminated stormwater.
I found myself largely in agreement with Bob, who claims to be a socialist, until the very end of his post, when he quoted Karl Marx.
But as social critic Karl Marx wrote,”… all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
I believe in neither gods nor goddesses. But the next time I visit Northwest Branch, my own personal shrine to water, I will offer a silent prayer.
May we please make water sacred again?
Being respectful of our fundamental differences on political views and dismissing any notion of converting him to capitalism, I penned Bob a note and told him how I appreciated his post and, despite our political disagreements, believed he and I probably shared a lot more in common than not, when it comes to environmental issues. But I took exception to his point about socialism having the answer to our environmental problems, particularly given its abysmal record on the environment. And, while conceding that capitalism was not perfect, argued that capitalistic societies were far better at environmental stewardship, based largely on private property and the creation of wealth needed to protect the environment. Bob responded:
…in its understanding of the environment and it might surprise people to know that Marx was aware of the environmental destruction wrought by the capitalism of his time.
The record of 20th century state socialism was abysmal as a small elite ravaged the planet much like their capitalist counterparts.
However I seriously question the ability of global capitalism to to [sic] prevent the continued destruction of the biosphere because it still depends upon the worst kind of primitive resource and labor extraction in its energy, agricultural and manufacturing policies.
It is a global system and much of the worst destruction by global corporations (including ones based in the USA) takes place in the Global South and in areas where indigenous people reside, as in Canada today.
Capitalist countries that developed more enlightened environmental policies tend to be those ones with strong socialist and social democratic traditions, ones that were able though protest and governmental action to curb capitalism’s worst impulses, at least within their own boundaries.
Even here in the USA, where socialists are not numerous, they have played an active role in the environmental movement, especially in the more radical wing. Some of the greatest advances in the US environmental movement came during the Progressive, New Deal and 1960’s periods when socialist ideas were were [sic] at their strongest.
Our public lands are at their heart, a very socialist concept and must be constantly defended by eco-activists from capitalist exploitation.
It is my opinion that some kind of socialism could emerge out of the global environmental train wreck that 21st century capitalism seems to be headed for. But that is speculation as no one can predict the future with any degree of accuracy.
I do know the 21st socialist movement has studied the failures of socialism in the past so that hopefully a future socialism would be a much improved democratic version.
Capitalism will survive much longer if it would honestly examine its many failures as well, both past and present.
Too much to respond to electronically, but I felt compelled to respond to Bob’s point about public lands, and I countered that the federal government’s mismanagement of our national forests and BLM lands, although not a basis to privatize them, was hardly a ringing endorsement of socialism’s solutions. We all know the story of the tragedy of the commons.
Tracy Mehan recently offered thoughtful perspective in his two-post series in Who Owns the Environment, and argues that “the proper ordering of private property in relation to the use of the earth’s goods requires statesmanship and the exercise of judgment. It is not necessarily something that happens spontaneously or is self-organizing.” “The single most compelling argument for maintaining property rights as a bulwark against both encroachments on personal liberty and despoliation of the environment ” according to Tracy, “is the dark legacy of the Soviet Union which left in its wake maybe the world’s most polluted landscapes.” Jonathan Adler too, citing the work of historian and professor of political economy, Gar Alperovitz, offered interesting perspective in Capitalism and Sustainability.
It’s not about curbing “capitalism’s worst impulses,” as Bob contends, but rather prudent regulation of unchecked human greed and avarice. And while Bob and I may never agree on his perceived virtues of socialism or the best means for protecting the environment, we do share common ground involving our desire to make things better for our children and their future.