Book Reviews

Profits first again

Agrofuels : Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction. By François Houtart. Pluto Press

Whilst fundamentally an investigation into the pros and cons of agrofuels this book is, in large part, a critique of ‘the dominant economic discourse’ which repeatedly overlooks both ecological and social externalities – the negative effects of industrial and agricultural development etc. Throughout the chapters Houtart reveals the links which lay bare the logic of capitalism with example after example of how the profit motive gets in the way of social and environmental concerns; the incompatibility between taking care of the majority’s needs and ensuring the most profitable returns; and which ensure that externalities will continue to be ignored until they impact on profits.

Early on he suggests that the ‘socialist’ countries of the 20th century in Europe and the USSR would have done well to heed Marx’s warning that capitalism destroyed the two sources of its own wealth, nature and labour, implying that, as their model was supposed to be different from the one which dominated world economy, they should have avoided the terrible environmental degradation and social problems of which they, too, were guilty. As those regimes were just a different way of organising capitalism we really shouldn’t be surprised that they performed no better.

Agrofuels are discussed in detail with impeccable references for each aspect. What they are, where they are grown, the main players, world views as to their potential for inclusion in the alternative fuel debate, ecological effects and effects on populations plus their place in the newest form of accumulation, the neo-colonialisation of land acquisition. The main argument throughout is that agrofuels are like any other commodities and that capitalism’s logic requires that the needs of the North subsume the output of the South.

As far as any statistics are concerned the author reveals a catalogue of horrors of ecological devastation and social destruction all in the cause of profit. However, he goes on to expound that agrofuels could have only a minor role to play in a wholly different system anyway and that the information we are being given by the companies producing them is limited, biased, way too optimistic and ignores all externalities. The true story of agrofuels is mostly one of increased emissions of greenhouse gases compared with using fossil fuels, insufficient available land, huge quantities of nitrates creating dead zones around coasts and the forced removal of untold numbers of people.

An interesting discussion regarding externalities is the individualisation of responsibilities as a characteristic of neo-liberal thought and practice. The challenges that people face in getting to work, for instance. The time wasted using public transport or the decision to use personal transport is an individual choice and, therefore, an individual or socialised problem which can’t be taken into account in the financial calculations, can’t be factored into business profit margin calculations and the process of capital accumulation. Similarly migrations towards towns or foreign lands are attributed to personal decisions (unrelated to loss of land or livelihood in the case of monocrops for agrofuels or other purposes) – and the individualisation of the problem thus becomes a mechanism of externality.

The capitalist way forward would be to continue apace growing more crops for the rich world’s fuel, with the knock-on effect of creating more hungry people and a further degraded planet. Insisting that no global solution will be found without challenging the contemporary development model and reiterating that agrofuels are aggravating and exacerbating ecological and social problems, he goes on to state that a new philosophy of the relationship between human beings and nature is required. Use value rather than exchange value; favouring human beings over capital; human needs becoming the motor of the economy; energy becoming a use value aimed at satisfying the real needs of humans and not to serve the accumulation of capital. ‘Such a post-capitalist model, which some call the socialism of the 21st century, stresses values and the qualitative aspects of life, and democracy as a means.’

Pointing out accepted socialist values of true democracy – participation in decision-making, production for need, redistribution of wealth (which for us comes about from common ownership and the abolition of money), with human beings in balance with nature – it’s like a handbook for socialists just needing the final chapter explaining that the fulfilment of the ideas to this point will be brought about not by any reforms of the current system and not by convincing capitalists to be kinder, fairer or more human-centric but by the democratic self- emancipation of the working class.


More tea, vicar?

For All the Tea in China. By Sarah Rose: . Arrow £8.99.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British Empire, via the East India Company, made vast fortunes from selling opium to China and buying tea from China with part of the proceeds (the tea was then re-sold in Britain at much higher prices). All attempts to grow good-quality tea outside China had failed, though it was realised that doing so would lead to even greater profits. The ruling Qing dynasty made sure that the secrets of tea were not exported outside China.

Discovering new plants and crops was an important aspect of the British Empire. Botanists sailed with Captain Cook to Australia. Nathaniel Ward had invented a kind of portable glass house, nowadays known as a terrarium, to keep plants alive without water on long voyages.

In 1848 the East India Company employed Robert Fortune – yes, that really was his name – to travel to China and obtain (i.e. steal) tea plants and seeds, together with knowledge of how to cultivate them, and bring them back to Calcutta and the Himalayas. After many vicissitudes – attempts to transport plants were unsuccessful – Fortune was eventually able to transplant seeds in Ward’s cases. Then in 1851 he persuaded a number of Chinese experts to work in India and give advice on how to plant and irrigate tea and how the Indian workers should cultivate it. As Rose says, all this was pure industrial espionage, ‘the greatest theft of protected trade secrets that the world has ever known’.

The Chinese monopoly on tea was broken, and it would now be spread to Ceylon, Kenya and so on, to the immense profit of those who ran the British Empire. In addition, it increased the demand for sugar, hence the colonisation of the Caribbean, and led to improvements in sailing boats and the development of the tea clipper. And of course it had an enormous impact on daily life in Britain.

Rose’s book is mostly a rather over-dramatised popular history, but also makes some useful points about the consequences of Fortune’s plundering of the secrets of tea and its relation to the spread of empire and the development of capitalism.


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