Richard Smith is a leading writer on the economic imperatives that are driving the global capitalist economic system and the consequences for planet Earth’s ecology and human society. A resident of New York, he will speak next week at public forums in Vancouver, Victoria and Gabriola Island about his research and his forthcoming book, ‘To Save the Human, Turn the World Upside Down’.
His speaking events are organized by organizations including the Vancouver Ecosocialists Group, the Social and Environmental Alliance (Victoria) and Sustainable Gabriola.
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Richard Smith says the person who most shaped his intellectual development was Robert Brenner at University of California in Los Angeles. “I studied with him for years and he supervised my [PhD] dissertation. Brenner is without doubt one of the most brilliant Marxist historians in the world today and I was extremely fortunate to study under him.”
Smith is one of the Marxist writers who have joined other writers on science and ecology in warning that excessive and wasteful production of commodities by modern capitalist society must stop before it’s too late for the Earth. The threat of global warming and resulting environmental and species degradation is increasingly alarming.
In earlier research and writing, Smith examined the development of capitalism in post-Mao China and its effects on that country’s environment. “Growing up in beautiful Seattle I always had a strong appreciation for nature, the outdoors, and so on. But I really got interested in environmental issues back in the 1980s before climate change became a household word, mainly through my research on China’s transition to capitalism, which I was the subject of my dissertation in the History Dept. at UCLA.”
He says the publication in 2005 of Jared Diamond’s acclaimed book, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, became a “perfect point of departure” to carry forward his research. He penned a lengthy review of the book it that was a big hit in the Journal of Ecological Economics where it was published. He wrote in the review:
Diamond takes us on a sobering reality tour of six societies that committed ecological suicide in the hopes that we can learn from their failures in time to save ourselves,” Smith wrote. While praising much of Diamond’s “history lesson,” Smith wrote that Diamond was hobbled by a “reluctance to discard his own pro-market ‘core values.’
In particular, Diamond’s faith in the free market and the potential for reforming the market system before it destroys us is naïve and unfounded. Furthermore, his assumption that societies are ‘free to choose’ to succeed or fail is dubious, since most modern societies are massively constrained by capitalist property relations, capitalist requirements for reproduction, and the lack of popular democratic control over the economy.
“The widespread interest in the review inspired me to get back to work on the book on global capitalism and the environment that I had begun in 1999.”
In the years following, Smith wrote a series of lengthy articles developing his ideas. Recently, three of them were republished on Truthout and drawn to the special attention of readers by its editors.
In ‘Green Capitalism: The god that failed, published in March 2011, Smith grapples with what he argues is the pressing need to vastly reduce global economic production and consumption if we are to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to a level to avoid runaway global warming:
CEOs, workers and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows [in order] to hang onto their jobs today. If they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse. So we’re all on board the [fast train] of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. As our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOs, capitalist economists, politicians and most labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster.
“Corporations aren’t necessarily evil,” he wrote. “They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners.”
This idea of a system ‘doing what it’s supposed to do’ is a recurring theme in his writings. It’s extremely pertinent, albeit jarring, to those of us in Canada looking at industries that are furiously taking the economy and society in an entirely opposite direction from where we should be going. Instead of winding down all but essential fossil fuel extraction and burning, Canada’s capitalist industry and governments are opening up the floodgates.
To a clinical observer, Canada’s and much of the world’s economy would appear to be in the hands of madmen. But Smith writes in his April 2013 article, “Capitalism and the destruction of life on Earth: Six theses on saving the humans”:
We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop overconsuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the Earth, its waters and its atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.
The arguments of Marxists such as Richard Smith sound like a tough pill to swallow. How can human society flourish without the massive production and consumption of “things”?
Smith likes the sentiments of “slow growth” economists that the world’s finite resources can’t sustain all the excess and that we gain little from it for culture or science. But he warns in a 2010 essay, “Beyond growth or beyond capitalism”:
Like it or not… it’s time to abandon the fantasy of a steady-state capitalism, go back to the drawing boards and come up with a real “new macro-economic model,” a practical, workable post-capitalist ecological economy, an economy by the people, for the people that is geared to production for need, not for profit. “Socialism”? “Economic democracy”? Call it what you like. But what other choice do we have? Either we save capitalism or we save ourselves. We can’t save both.
If Richard Smith is feeling pessimistic about humanity’s prospects, he isn’t showing it. He lives in New York, one of the epicenters of the Occupy movement last year that inspired people around the world. He lived through the movement against the war in Vietnam that compelled history’s largest empire to end its terrible war in Vietnam and let that country live in peace. He wrote in last year’s “Six theses” essay:
We may be fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, but the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, against pollution, against overdevelopment, against the siting of chemical plants and power plants, against predatory resource extraction, against the imposition of GMOs, against privatization of remaining common lands, water and public services, against capitalist unemployment and precarité are growing and building momentum. Today we’re riding a swelling wave of near-simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” almost global mass uprising. This global insurrection is still in its infancy, still unsure of its future, but its radical democratic instincts are, I believe, humanity’s last best hope. Let’s make history!
Richard Smith will speak in Vancouver on Monday, March 24, in Victoria on March 26 and on Gabriola Island on March 28. All times are 7 pm. More details are here. His Vancouver talk will be filmed and podcast by the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group on its website. He will be interviewed on Vancouver Cooperative Radio’s Redeye program on Saturday, March 22 at 9:40 am. Tune in live at 100.5 FM or on the internet at www.coopradio.org.