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Capitalism, Socialism, Forestry


It’s not often that essays are published that combine socialism with forest policy, so I may be legally obligated to comment on this Jacobin essay by a British Columbia firefighter on capitalism and the destructive forest fires of the West, as well of course as the socialist prescription that will fix the problem. However, this piece follows a fairly formulaic problem with leftist writing, which is correctly diagnosing the problem (capitalism is a deeply destructive force on the natural world) but hopelessly bungling the socialist solution in a combination of projecting your own beliefs as what “the people” want while romanticizing what a successful socialism might look like and not even knowing the history of socialist approaches to forests.

The writer, using a rather silly pseudonym reminiscent of people writing into IWW newspapers in 1915, correctly notes how capitalism has raised havoc in the forests.

But the Industrial Revolution, the key to the Anthropocene, did not itself create the increasingly unstable climate conditions we are currently living in. Why the Industrial Revolution was ushered in in Britain, not in any other country — China, for instance, with its high level of technological advancement — is a question that bedevils certain speculative historians.

The answer lies with Britain’s advanced early modern capitalist economy, in which private property relations provided more propitious conditions for innovation within a competitive industrial economy. As Marx analyses in Capital, these conditions allowed early industrialists to rapidly increase the rate of exploitation, both of labour and of nature. In many ways, the Industrial Revolution serves as a stand-in for the real driver of the Anthropocene — capitalism.

Today, the same deeply entrenched private property regime puts people and the planet under extreme pressures on a global scale, with the gluttons all the while running their gluts dry. Many youth and workers have at least some awareness of the problem: the worst climate offenders are not those who drive petrol-powered cars to work and microwave their lunches, but megalithic resource and energy companies, oil multinationals and their ilk. “Anthropocene” is at best a misnomer, at worst, a dishonest and deceptive assessment. Dishonest, because not all humans contribute evenly to climate crisis. Theorists like Jason Moore and Donna Haraway, who instead refer to the current geological era as the “Capitalocene,” should help orient our revolutionary agitation.

In BC, over twenty-five evacuation orders have displaced over seven thousand, with forty-two evacuation alerts impacting nearly twenty-five thousand people. Globally, there were 24.2 million new displacements created by disasters in 2016, up nearly five million from the previous year. Habitats, human and otherwise, are being lost to more extreme droughts and floods.

And mass displacement is not strictly a human problem, either. Some migratory birds are experiencing reduced breeding populations due to global warming, especially the over eighty-five species that breed in the global Arctic. Bird populations are expected to shift poleward or toward higher elevations as temperatures increase, disrupting entire ecoregions. In Yellowstone National Park, loss of Whitebark Pine due to Mountain Pine Beetle has dragged down the local grizzly population, with the cones of Whitebarks normally a reliable fatty food source for grizzlies. Black bear sightings have increased across some Canadian cities, as drought and wildfire drives more wildlife species into urban areas. Rapidly changing global climate throws habitats — human and otherwise — into upheaval and disorder.

And global warming is only one vector of capitalist displacement: add this to the 40.3 million people living in internal displacement as a result of violence and conflict at the end of 2016, and the many millions of refugees fleeing countries war-torn countries like Syria and Libya and Somalia and South Sudan, to name a few. Capitalism is changing the face of the planet by reorganizing the masses living on it. And this threatens to push us even deeper into unsustainable extremes and crisis.

That’s all fine and there’s plenty more to be said about it. The interests of established petrocapital corporations do all they can to make sure that nothing at all is done to mitigate climate change or put us on a green energy future. The timber industry has destroyed forests around the world and created the conditions for these fires. This is not particularly controversial, or it shouldn’t be. The problem with this essay is when it starts talking about the socialist response. That’s not because he doesn’t do the inevitable liberal blog comment of, “Well, the Soviets were bad for the environment too!” which is such a tired and obvious statement and one that is absolutely unhelpful in dealing with these issues today. And that’s not because we don’t need a socialist response to forestry and climate change. We absolutely do. The problem is that the suggested response here is full of the hazy smoke of Wobbly nostalgia and the assumption that what “the people” want in fact reflects my own personal political positions, the most pernicious plague of leftist writing.

Unless ownership and control is held by the working class and for the working class, the government functions as a private owner in any capitalist firm. Keeping this in check is that its stakeholders are ostensibly the voting public. But this can bend or break in the face of the international pressures of global capitalism. There is hope that the recently elected NDP-Green coalition government in BC will take strong action in support of sustainable forestry in the softwood lumber portfolio of renegotiations with Trump over NAFTA. But the agenda will be set by the federal Liberals, whose tone echoes BC’s former provincial Liberals with their staunchly corporate focus.

Increased understanding of forestry ecology and the value of wildlife trees has led to a greater focus on ecosystem sustainability in BC since the 1990s. Modern forestry management represents a progressive shift away from the militarized postwar approach to industrial logging. Partly advances in forestry science and partly progressive social democratic reforms have helped soften the aggressive environmental impact of forestry in BC.

But it could go further. A radically democratic approach would mean nationalizing the forest industry and putting it under direct workers’ management. Fulfilling this goal would require workers in the natural resource sector to start organizing themselves.

The question I ask is why we would assume that control of the forests by working class people would lead to more ecologically sustainable forestry? I mean, I grew around loggers and timber mill workers and I have to say that I don’t see a lot of evidence for this point. In fact, I see none at all. This is pure romanticization of what “workers” want. What most workers want is more money. They want work. And they want a good living. That’s pretty basic. But they also don’t necessarily want worker control. Actual worker control over the means of production means a lot of time and energy making decisions. Most workers aren’t going to want to spend the time doing this. As I have said before, an empowered worker does not necessarily mean “a worker who holds my socialist positions and wants worker control over the means of production.” It can mean that, sure. But it can also mean “I want to watch TV or go to my kid’s soccer game.” In fact, it’s going to be the latter for a lot more workers than the former. Let’s say you had your revolution and it was a syndicalist movement that gave control over the forests to the workers. What’s going to happen is that a small group of these people are going to have the time and patience to make these decisions. And instead of democratic control over the forests, you have the creation of a new political class.

This sort of leftist fallacy is especially common among those who look to the IWW as the model instead of state socialist models or technocratic socialist models, about which I discuss briefly. Of course, this writer is in love with IWW-type socialism.

Natural disasters should magnify the human cost of the natural resource economy, and the political demand of mending the planet should begin with the demand to transform the global political and economic system, centered in resource extraction industries. Since the mid-twentieth century, lumber worker and industrial resource unions have lost their militancy. Long gone are the days of the Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union (LWIU), a strongly militant US-Canadian timber union and affiliate of the IWW. Millwrights and fallers and wildland firefighters today should be engaged in agitation. Militant students, youth, and workers should make it their effort to discuss with workers how capitalism is threatening life on earth by degrading our environment, and what can be done about it. An ideal summer job for some, many wildland firefighters are also university students. Progressives on university campuses should endeavor to extend their hands towards those employed in natural resource industries by nurturing these channels.

What’s sad to me is that this individual doesn’t seem to know the first thing about a whole tradition of socialism in the American and Canadian forests. Seeing the IWW as the touchstone is a big problem because syndicalist models of revolution are totally unworkable, as they were a century ago, and serve more for writers to talk a bunch of rhetoric about agitation (see the rest of the paragraph) instead of engaging in the analysis of what socialist forestry would look like.

The reality is that any form of successful forestry and successful socialism is going to be largely technocratic in nature. That’s not something a lot of people in the 21st century left want to admit because they have a romanticized view of worker democracy. That doesn’t meant there can’t or shouldn’t be worker input in these decisions. But in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a very real debate in the forestry profession over whether socialized forestry was the future. In the United States, it was led by people such as Bob Marshall and even supported by an aging Gifford Pinchot. It had strong sympathies at the very top of the U.S. Forest Service, including USFS chief Ferdinand Silcox. These were all people heavily influenced by the New Deal and by a century of grotesque private forest exploitation, who wanted to stabilize the communities who relied on the forest for survival. The forest companies hated these people and so did many in the nation’s forestry schools. They were eventually defeated, in part because both Marshall and Silcox died young and in part because of World War II.

In both Canada and the United States, this was reflected by workers themselves, in particular the International Woodworkers of America. I wrote the book on this union and its forestry policy in the United States, but there’s a whole other side of this union in Canada that I did not explore and there it was even more radical, with a very strong communist influence. Someone should write that book, as well as a book on socialist forestry management ideas in Canada during the mid-twentieth century. The IWA hired a professional forester with a strong leftist background to try and create an alternative forestry program to empower workers to control the forests. But this was going to be a technocratic forestry. The forest program would go through the union office and professional foresters managing the forests from the left and for the people, not through some sort of unworkable workers’ councils. And in any future socialist nation we create, we need to value experts, not romanticize putting power in the hands of “the people,” which are not the figment of your projection about your own beliefs, but rather are the racist uncle at Thanksgiving and people who think The Big Bang Theory is hilarious and won’t miss an episode.

The ultimate goals of the writer are noble aims that deserve not only our support but hard-headed thinking about how to get there. I also realize that a great part of Jacobin’s success is not defining socialism. Right now, that can mean anything. It’s a great strategy for building a nascent movement and for building a readership. It avoids the sectarianism that has always plagued the left. That’s great. At some point though, there has to be more serious conversations about what leftist ideas and governance should look like. If we are going to take the impact of capitalism on the forests seriously, we need to ground that in the actual history of socialism in those forests, where socialist ideas have come from and where they have gone. And most importantly, we have to favor hard analysis of how to make socialism actually work. That means to never, ever, ever assume that “the people” are going to make the choices you want them to make.

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